Dramatic irony

What is dramatic irony?

One aspect of the dramatist's structuring of his material, which also adds to
the significance of particular moments, is the use of dramatic irony. This term
refers to a situation:

  • Where a character's words or actions have greater significance than the character understands at the time
  • Where words they say have a deeper meaning than they realise at the time
  • The audience may realise this immediately – or may only realise it later in the play.
    In this way the dramatist can make the audience more aware of thematic links, or of connections between different parts of the plot.

Dramatic irony in The Winter's Tale

An example of dramatic irony where neither the speaker nor the audience is, at the time, aware of the words' import is when Paulina, in Act II scene iii, is trying to persuade Leontes to accept his baby.

  • She cries,
Jove send her / A better guiding spirit!'

Neither Paulina nor the audience knows at this time that Perdita will indeed be saved by the guiding hand of the gods, specifically Apollo, whose Oracle proves Hermione's innocence

  • It is only when we find that the baby has been left in Bohemia, and that the child has grown up to be loved by its Prince, Florizel, that we realise the full significance of Paulina's prayer, and the fact that it has been answered, reminding us of the power of the gods in the play. (See: The higher powers.)

Another example of dramatic irony – this time where the audience is ‘in the know', though the speaker is not - is when the Old Shepherd, betrothing Florizel to Perdita, comments:

‘I give my daughter to him, and will make her portion equal his'.
  • This statement is doubly ironic, since the Old Shepherd has no idea that ‘Doricles' is really Prince Florizel, and that only a princess could have a ‘portion' to ‘equal his'
  • However, neither does he realise that Perdita is a princess, and that, in the near future when the bundle he takes to Sicilia reveals her identity, he will indeed ‘make her portion equal his'.
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