Definition and Examples of Dramatic Irony

Dramatic Irony and Its Role in Creating Tension in Story Plots

Dramatic irony, also known as tragic irony, is an occasion in a play, film, or other work in which a character's words or actions convey a meaning unperceived by the character but understood by the audience. Nineteenth-century critic Connop Thirlwall is often credited with developing the modern notion of dramatic irony, although the concept is ancient and Thirwall himself never used the term. 

Examples and Observations

  • Dramatic irony is profoundly visible in works of tragedy; in fact, dramatic irony is sometimes equated with tragic irony. For example, in Sophocles' "Oedipus Rex," the audience clearly detects long before he does that Oedipus' acts are tragic mistakes. In theater, dramatic irony refers to a situation in which the audience has knowledge denied to one or more of the characters on stage. In the above example of dramatic irony, the audience is aware that a character's actions or words will ​bring about his downfall long before the character realizes it.
  • In "A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Bad Beginning and the Reptile Room," Lemony Snicket says, "Simply put, dramatic irony is when a person makes a harmless remark, and someone else who hears it knows something that makes the remark have a different, and usually unpleasant, meaning. For instance, if you were in a restaurant and said out loud, 'I can't wait to eat the veal marsala I ordered,' and there were people around who knew that the veal marsala was poisoned and that you would die as soon as you took a bite, your situation would be one of dramatic irony."
  • The function of dramatic irony is to sustain the reader's interest, pique curiosity, and create a contrast between the situation of the characters and the episode that ultimately unfolds. This leads to the audience waiting in fear, anticipation, and hope, waiting for the moment when the character learns the truth behind the events of the story. Readers end up sympathizing with the main characters, hence the irony.
  • In Francois Trauffaut's "Hitchcock," Alfred Hitchcock is quoted as saying, "Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!'"

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