Dramatic irony is a relationship of contrast between a character's limited understanding of his or her situation in some particular moment of the unfolding action and what the audience, at the same instant, understands the character's situation actually to be.
It is thus the result of a special sort of discrepancy in perspective, and hence is "moment-bound." There is on the one hand how things appear from a point of view that emerges within the action at a given moment, and which is constrained by the limitations of an individual's history up to that moment. (In fiction, this will be the picture held by some character -- say, the protagonist of a drama.) There is on the other hand a synoptic point of view that takes in the whole of an interpersonal history, part of which is unknown to that individual at the particular moment in question. For dramatic irony to emerge, some consciousness (in fiction, this will be the audience's) must be simultaneously aware of both perspectives.
Of course, dramatic irony as such is not necessarily tragic. In comedy, for example, the change in circumstances dramatic irony portends can be for the better. A classic example is the climactic scene in Molière's Tartuffe, in which the villain Tartuffe, responding to the pretended invitation of his patron's wife, carries on contemptuously (and accurately) about the Orgon's gullibility, unaware that the latter is hiding beneath the table on which he's trying to seduce the lady.
But some of the most famous and powerful uses of dramatic irony are associated with tragedy, where it serves to emphasize how limited human understanding can be even when it is most plausible, and how painful can be the costs of the misunderstandings, in some sense inevitable, that result.
Some pointers to instances of dramatic irony in Sophocles' Oedipus the King.
The term "dramatic" as incorporated in the term dramatic irony has nothing to do with "dramatic" in the sense of "sensational" or even "emphatic" or "obvious" — as when the newscasters breathlessly announce some "dramatic events" in Athens or wherever. Dramatic irony, whether on stage or in a poem or story, can perfectly be quite unassuming or subtle. It need only be interesting. (Some of the kinds of interest that can attach to it are discussed later on in this article.)
Some but not all cases of dramatic irony involve unconscious hypocrisy.
In unconscious hypocrisy the speaker intends to be understood as meaning what his utterance would ordinarily be understood to mean, but is unaware that the situation is at odds with this meaning. (In conscious hypocrisy, benign or malign, the speaker is aware that the situation is at odds with what he gives himself out to mean. That is, he intends to deceive the hearer.)
A classic instance of dramatic irony that involves no hypocrisy takes place in the scene in which Oedipus reproaches his brother-in-law Creon, whom he mistakenly but plausibly believes to have conspired to bring him under suspicion of having killed the former king of Thebes in order to have him expelled from the city so as to be able to take over the kingship in his stead. He tells Creon that a man is a fool if he thinks that he can sin against his kinfolk and escape the wrath of the gods. We note that the warning is phrased as a universal: it applies to any person. Oedipus is unaware that he himself has slain his own father (the very same king, no less) and committed incest with his mother. The audience, however, in the moment it hears Oedipus make this declaration, knows (1) the facts about Oedipus' parricide and incest, (2) the fact that Oedipus is unaware of these, (3) the fact that these transgressions will eventually be revealed before all Thebes, (4) the fact that Oedipus will suffer terribly at this revelation, and (4) the fact that the divine order (in virtue of the various prophecies and circumstances of their fulfillment) is firmly implicated both in the commission and the discovery (hence "punishment") of these crimes. It is this discrepancy between what Oedipus understands his words to apply to and what the audience understands their scope actually to be that constitutes the effect the dramatic irony.
At the same time, it would be grotesquely stretching the concept of "unconscious hypocrisy" to say that Oedipus is guilty of that at this moment.
- One reason is that even at this moment we know that Oedipus is the kind of person who, if it were demonstrated to him that he has "sinned against kin" in the ways described, would immediately recognize (as he eventually does) that the principle applies to him. That is, he may be mistaken about the facts, but he is not committed to a double standard.
- Another reason is that, under the circumstances in which he happens to have arrived in the situation in which the audience knows him to be, Oedipus here can in no way said to be self-deceived.
- An effect of this is that Oedipus retains his ethical dignity, and presumably for the original audience as well as for us -- in spite of the fact that they (unlike we) are in agreement with him that intention not to commit the prophesied abominations does not absolve him from the pollution of having done so nevertheless.
A classice instance of dramatic irony that definitely does involve unconscious hypocrisy is what Torvald Helmer unwittingly reveals about his character in the climactic scene of A Doll's House, in his reaction to Krogstad's first letter, informing him that his wife Nora has forged a promissory note in her (now dead) father's name in order to provide collateral for a loan. There are in fact several respects in which he shows himself to be an unconscious hypocrite.
The dramatic irony here strikes us as involving unconscious hypocrisy.
- Unlike Oedipus, Helmer's conception of his own identity commits him to a double standard.
- And we are conscious not only that, if he were challenged, he would go to some lengths to deny this ethically disquieting fact, but that he is even at this moment engaged in deceiving himself about the sort of person he is, on the principles he invokes in condemning his wife.
- Hence, the fact that Helmer never realizes how unfair he is does not absolve him, for us. In our eyes, he has forfeited the dignity he lays claim to.
Contrast verbal irony and situational irony.
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