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Dramatic Irony in Macbeth


William Shakespeare effectively uses dramatic irony to intrigue the reader and deepen the impact of the consequences Macbeth ultimately faces. Dramatic Irony Definition: Dramatic Irony is a literary term that defines a situation in the play where the reader knows more than the character does. Thesis: Throughout the play Macbeth, the reader is given the advantage of knowing more things than the characters in the play through the literary device, dramatic irony.

This results in suspense and heightens the flaws of the characters.

Dramatic Irony In Macbeth

Macbeth by William Shakespeare
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Background Knowledge

Point #1- Witches lie to Macbeth: Quote: “All hail Macbeth, hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor”! – Second Witch (Act 1 Scene 3). This is ironic because Macbeth does not actually know that King Duncan has already made him the Thane of Cawdor. This is meaningful due to the fact that it makes Macbeth trust the witches. It relates to villainous nature because the witches have their evil schemes all planned out beforehand. This is significant because Macbeth needs to be the Thane of Cawdor so that he can have the King sleep in his castle to fulfill their prophecy.

Point #2- Macbeth wears a mask: Quote: “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face. He was a gentleman on who, I built an absolute trust. ” – King Duncan (Act 1 Scene 4). The irony in this extract is made obvious when King Duncan, a noble and truthful king, trusts the Thane of Cawdor, and immediately after he says this- Macbeth enters. Shakespeare presents dramatic irony to the audience when Macbeth enters the room.

Duncan is talking about trust and this is ironic because Macbeth will ultimately kill King Duncan. Macbeth’s duplicity is displayed when Duncan greets Macbeth by saying “O worthiest cousin” to which he responds “the service and loyalty I owe in doing it pays itself.

Point #3- Macbeth wishing Banquo safety on his journey: Quote: “This castle hath a pleasant seat; the air nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses. ”- King Duncan (Act 1 Scene 6). This section highlights the incredible Irony of the situation.

King Duncan has been invited into Macbeth’s home, to dine and enjoy himself. He expects to have a great time and is ridiculously thankful, yet what makes this ironic is the fact that the hostess that he is praising is conspiring to kill him he will be murdered that night. This represents the duplicitous nature of Macbeth, as the outward nobility of his character is contrasted greatly to his true spirit.

Point #4- Macbeth planning to kill Banquo: Quote: “I wish your horses swift, and sure foot- and so I do commend you to their backs. Farewell. Let every man be master of his time till seven at night- To make society the sweeter welcome, we will keep yourself till supper-time alone- While then, god be with you”- Macbeth. (Act 3 Scene 1). The irony is shown because we (the readers) know that Macbeth is plotting the murder of Banquo due to the witches’ prophecy. This is meaningful because we are learning more about Macbeth’s character and it develops tension for the reader keeping them interested. This relates to the plays dramatic irony as it shows how he is trying to be friendly to Banquo; meanwhile, he is trying to murder King Duncan.

Dramatic Irony highlights character development.

Point #5- Macbeth and Lady Macbeth switch roles: Quote: “Naught’s had, all’s spent, where our desire is got without content. ‘Tis safer to be that which we destroy than be destruction dwell in doubtful of joy. ” – Lady Macbeth (Act 3 Scene2). Dramatic irony is present because just prior to this scene, Macbeth has convinced murderers to kill Banquo to prevent him from getting his way. Although, Lady Macbeth speaks to how she would rather be killed than be the killer.

The irony is that Lady Macbeth, the original killer of Duncan (person who convinced Macbeth) now hates killing, but Macbeth, the originally feeble one now loves it. It relates to evil genius by highlighting that Macbeth will not let anyone, not even his best friend, stop him in his insatiable quest of power. Shakespeare has done this to position the audience to further hate Macbeth.

Point #6- Witches fool Macbeth for the second time: Quote: “Macbeth shall never vanquished be, until Great Birnham wood to high Dunsinian Hill shall come against him. ”- Witches (Act 4 Scene 1).

The witches are stating that Macbeth will always be king, until the day that the trees of Great Birnham wood march up to Dunsinian Hill, and that day will almost certainly never come true. This is very much ironic due to the fact that Macduff was able to kill Macbeth because he did not have a natural “woman born” birth. The witches have made a very ironic prophecy.

Point #7- Lady Macduff lies to her son: Quote: “Son: Was my father a traitor, Mother, Lady Macduff: Ay, that he was, Son: What is a traitor, Lady Macduff: Why one that swears and lies”. Act 4 Scene 2). This scene is between Lady Macduff and her son when Macduff has “run off” to England. This scene displays dramatic irony because while Lady Macduff is telling her son that his father is a traitor and liar, Macduff is gone to England to save the horrors that Scotland is now facing because of the evil King Macbeth. It is also dramatic tension as the audience knows that this is leading up to the hazards of living in the kingdom. The scene foreshadows the knowledge that something bad will happen.

Point #8- Ross sugar coats the news to Macduff: Quote: “Macduff: How does my wife? Ross: Well, too. ” (Act 4, Scene 3). This is an instance of dramatic irony because not only do we (the readers) know that Ross is lying about Macduff’s family but we also know that Macduff’s family has been murdered. This quotation is significant to the understanding of Macbeth’s character. Evidently, Macbeth is willing to go to any extent to keep his position as king and abuses his power in the massacre of many innocent people.


Clift, Rebecca. (1999). Irony in conversation. Language in Society. 28. 10.1017/S0047404599004029. This article proposes the adoption of Goffman’s concept of to characterize irony across its forms; the suggestion that this framing is achieved by a shift of footing reveals links between verbal irony and other forms of talk. Examination of irony in conversation shows how the shift of footing allows for detachment, enabling the ironist to make evaluations in response to perceived transgressions with reference to common assumptions.

Questions and Answers

Q: I am trying to look for dramatic irony in acts 1 and 2 from Macbeth. 

A: Dramatic irony is, simply put, when the audience knows something the characters in a book or play do not know. (You knew that already) 

So foul and fair a day I have not seen.
How far is ’t called to Forres?—What are these
So withered and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th’ inhabitants o’ th’ Earth,
And yet are on ’t?—Live you? Or are you aught
That man may question? You seem to understand me,
By each at once her choppy finger laying
Upon her skinny lips. You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so.

This is an example of Dramatic Irony because the audience knows the witches are plotting to put a curse on Macbeth, but Macbeth and Duncan do not know this.


Q: Examples of dramatic irony that revals character in act one, scene 4.

A: In Act 1 Scene 4, King Duncan praises Macbeth:

DUNCAN … Only I have left to say,
More is thy due than more than all can pay.

And Macbeth responds:

MACBETH The service and the loyalty I owe,
In doing it, pays itself. Your highness’ part
Is to receive our duties; and our duties
Are to your throne and state children and servants,
Which do but what they should, by doing every thing
Safe toward your love and honour.

Basically, Macbeth tells Duncan that it’s his honour and duty to look after Duncan and his family with service and loyalty. Macbeth portrays himself to the king as devoted to Duncan’s service, and not intending anything treacherous against the king.

But Duncan then names his eldest son as his heir to the throne, which puts a barrier in the way of Macbeth’s ambitions to the Scottish throne. Macbeth hints at his ambitions as being dark:

MACBETH: The Prince of Cumberland! that is a step
On which I must fall down, or else o’erleap,
For in my way it lies. Stars, hide your fires;
Let not light see my black and deep desires:
The eye wink at the hand; yet let that be,
Which the eye fears, when it is done, to see.

Yet even after Macbeth reveals that he has such dark ambitions after the kingship, King Duncan praises him after he leaves the scene.

DUNCAN True, worthy Banquo; he is full so valiant,
And in his commendations I am fed;
It is a banquet to me. Let’s after him,
Whose care is gone before to bid us welcome:
It is a peerless kinsman.

The contrast between Macbeth’s revelation of his true intentions, and Duncan’s high opinion of him, makes for a strong dramatic irony at the close of the scene.


Essay Keywords: Macbeth Introduction, Dramatic irony, impact of the consequences Macbeth, play Macbeth, Dramatic Irony Definition.

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