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Dramatic irony, a literary device by which the audience’s or reader’s understanding of events or individuals in a work surpasses that of its characters. Dramatic irony is a form of irony that is expressed through a work’s structure: an audience’s awareness of the situation in which a work’s characters exist differs substantially from that of the characters’, and the words and actions of the characters, therefore, take on a different—often contradictory—meaning for the audience than they have for the work’s characters. Dramatic irony is most often associated with the theatre, but examples of it can be found across the literary and performing arts.

Dramatic Irony Example

There are three main uses of Dramatic Irony (quite apart from the unintentional result of making things more spoilerproof):

  • To create tension: Hank has left a Time Bomb under a restaurant table that will go off late that evening. The audience saw him leave it there, but none of the characters have noticed. Bob and Joe are dining at that table that very evening. If they finish early they will live, but if they take a dessert it could be their last one ever. This ramps up the suspense because the audience must wait to find out if Bob and Joe will die in the explosion or not.
  • To make the audience cringe on the character’s behalf: Alice did really well in the audition for the school play, clearly outclassing her Alpha Bitch rival. But unknown to her, the Alpha Bitch’s mother is in charge of casting. Alice runs up to her nemesis to gloat… Meanwhile, the viewers are cringing uncomfortably, because they know that the Alpha Bitch is about to laugh in Alice’s face and get the part that Alice deserved.
  • For comedy: Popular in farces, especially those involving twins where no-one can remember who’s who or in comedies where someone’s cross-dressing. For example, Bob’s girlfriend has just dumped him. He complains about the fickleness of women to his new best friend Adrian, remarking that they, as men, are much more sensible and that he can rely more on Adrian than he can any woman. Bob is unaware that Adrian is really Alice in disguise. The audience, on the other hand, knows Adrian’s real identity, and so Bob’s comment seems ironic.

Dramatic irony is frequently contrasted with verbal irony. The former is embedded in a work’s structure, whereas the latter typically operates at the level of words and sentences that are understood by audiences or readers to carry meanings different from the words themselves when interpreted literally. (Sarcasm can be considered a form of verbal irony.) Dramatic irony is also sometimes equated with tragic irony, situational irony, or structural irony; all those terms are also sometimes understood to exist within a hierarchy that establishes narrow differences of meaning among themselves.

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