Last updated on December 3rd, 2023 at 02:30 am
What is dramatic irony?
In almost every generic, (recycled dribble) scary movie you can think of, you have your psycho killer that’s about to pounce on his prey, but the characters in the story are left in the dark, literally and figuratively. That feeling of suspense, of being on the edge of your seat in anticipation of what’s about the happen next, is the effect of a literary technique known as dramatic irony.
The feeling of wanting to break through the TV screen (or page of a book) to let a character know something that’s about to happen, is exactly what dramatic irony is designed to evoke in its audience. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows information about the story which the characters within the story themselves do not.
This literary device adds layers of complexity to narratives, leaving audiences on the edge of their seats and vulnerable to a breadth of emotions. Used effectively, dramatic irony can have a profound impact on the audience’s engagement in a story, and can weave in layers of suspense and tension that few other literary techniques are able to accomplish in the same way.
At its core, dramatic irony occurs when the audience possesses knowledge that is unknown to the characters within the story. This gap between what the characters understand compared to the audience can create a deep sense of tension, anticipation, or feelings of inevitable dread. Unlike other forms of irony, such as verbal or situational irony, dramatic irony relies on the audience’s awareness of a narrative relative to that of the character’s within the story.
How does dramatic irony differ from verbal or situational irony?
Verbal irony occurs when the literal words of what someone says differs sharply from their intended meaning. Common figures of speech like sarcasm, understatement or overstatement are all types of verbal irony. An example would be to say “the weather today is fantastic!“, when it’s actually gloomy and rainy outside. Chances are, the statement is meant to mean the exact opposite of what is literally being said.
Situational irony is similar to dramatic irony, but the key difference between them is that with situational irony, the reader learns of the events unfolding along with the characters themselves. With dramatic irony, the audience knows about key elements of the plot which the characters themselves do not.
Examples of dramatic irony in literature & media
1. Romeo and Juliet
Can you mention ‘dramatic irony’ without also crediting its most famous example in English literature? The plot of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare shows dramatic irony in a tragic form in its iconic final act.
The audience knows that Juliet is not truly dead, but only appears dead from the elixir she drank. Romeo, believing that she is actually dead, acts on this information and kills himself too. As the audience, we know that the deaths would be preventable had Romeo been aware of the facts of the situation. However, it’s because of our awareness of this critical information that holds our attention to seeing how the rest of the story unfolds.
2. The Truman Show (1998), directed by Peter Weir.
Truman, the main character, is unaware that his entire life is a televised reality show being broadcast to the public. His whole life is staged, and he’s the only one who doesn’t know it. The audience, on the other hand, is aware of this information, creating a sense of suspense and anticipation as Truman begins to question the reality around him.
Again, because we know Truman’s reality is manufactured; moreover, because we also know that Truman himself doesn’t know this about his own life, we are all the more invested in learning what happens as the narrative unfolds. Our level of interest and engagement in the story is dramatically heightened by this gap in knowledge, because we want to see whether the character’s in the story learn the truth (and what will happen when they do).
3. Oedipus Rex
Oedipus Rex is an Athenian tragic play by Sophocles, and it is riddled with examples of dramatic irony. There are several instances throughout the play where the audience knows more than the characters themselves. Oedipus makes an oath to set out to find Laios’ killer; while, unbeknownst to Oedipus himself, he is the killer that he sets out to find. Had he known that he was indeed the one who killed Laios, he probably wouldn’t have pledged to find the person that killed him.
The entire plot of the TV series Dexter relies heavily on the concept of dramatic irony to work. The lead character, Dexter, is a forensic analyst that specializes in blood-spatter analysis. On his spare time, he is also a sociopathic serial killer that targets other criminals/serial killers. Dexter uses his employment in the forensics unit as a way to cover for his illicit activities on his off-time, but of course none of his co-workers are aware of his “other” side.
This double-life that Dexter leads, which the audience is aware of, but none of the other characters know about creates intense suspense and anticipation while watching the series unfold. It’s an excellent example of how dramatic irony is used to sustain a plot and build tension/suspense throughout its events.
The plot of the animated Disney film Frozen uses dramatic irony to propel the plot forward. The movie follows the leading character Queen Elsa, who’s able to turn things into ice just by touching it. Because Elsa is worried about the harm she’ll cause, she hides away in her room, leaving her sister Anna alone and confused.
Of course, the audience knows about Elsa’s condition, but because those around Elsa do not know her circumstance completely, this creates a sense of tension and suspense as the story unfolds.
Origins of Dramatic Irony
The roots of dramatic irony can be traced back to ancient Greek theatre, where playwrights like Sophocles and Euripides employed the device to heighten the emotional impact of their tragedies. The term itself finds its origin in the Greek word “eironeia,” meaning dissimulation or feigned ignorance. As the tradition of theatre evolved, dramatic irony continued to flourish, finding a home in the works of Shakespeare, Molière, and countless other playwrights.
Components of Dramatic Irony
- Audience Knowledge: At the heart of dramatic irony is the audience’s possession of information that the characters lack. This awareness can take various forms, from knowledge about a character’s true intentions to insights into the unfolding plot twists.
- Character Ignorance: The characters involved are unwitting participants in the dramatic irony. Their lack of awareness regarding key information sets the stage for the tension to unfold. Often, their actions are guided by incomplete or inaccurate understanding, leading to consequences that the audience can foresee.
- Narrative Tension: The inherent tension arising from the audience’s privileged knowledge creates a captivating atmosphere. Viewers or readers become invested in the unfolding drama, eagerly anticipating the moment when the characters’ ignorance clashes with the revealed truth.