Dramatic irony

Another way in which Shakespeare leads the audience to think about what they are watching is the use of dramatic irony – that is, where a character makes a remark, the full import of which he or she does not realise at the time, and indeed which the audience may not realise is significant until much later in the play.

Examples of obvious dramatic irony


At the end of the discussion between Escalus and Angelo early in Act II sc i, Angelo, clearly implying that he feels he will never give in to temptation, remarks:

When I that censure him do so offend,
Let mine own judgement pattern out my death,
And nothing come in partial.

Of course, he does ‘so offend', and in Act V sc i it is Isabella's appeals for mercy, spurred on by Mariana's love, which ‘come in partial' and save him.


Lucio's remarks about Angelo's character in Act I sc iv also turn out to be full of dramatic irony; Lucio describes him as:

A man whose blood
Is very snow-broth; one who never feels
The wanton stings and motions of the sense;
But doth rebate and blunt his natural edge
With profits of the mind, study and fast.

However, later in the play the audience sees the irony in these comments, since Angelo does indeed experience ‘the wanton stings and motions of the sense', feeling lust for Isabella the first time he sees her.

Dramatic irony is also evident in Lucio's exchanges with the Duke (in Act III sc ii and Act IV sc iii) since Lucio has no idea that the man he is slandering is the very man he is talking to. In this case the audience is fully aware of the situation throughout; it is only Lucio who does not realise the significance of his remarks.

Subtle irony

Some dramatic irony may not at first be evident to the audience. An example is when characters such as Isabella and the Provost greet Angelo with the words ‘Save your honour'. At first these words seem to be a conventional greeting, meaning ‘May God look after your lordship', but as the play progresses the audience realises that Angelo's honour is fragile, and that he is not the virtuous man that he appears to be.

It is only by the end of the play that all instances of dramatic irony can be fully comprehended by the audience.

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