Dramatic Irony In Hamlet

  • Category: English
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Dramatic Irony in Shakespeare's Hamlet

A special kind of suspenseful expectation "“ the audience foresees the oncoming disaster or triumph, yet the character does not.


The character says something that anticipates the actual outcome, but not in the way they intend.


The character acts in a way grossly inappropriate to the situation.

Dramatic Irony in Shakespeare's other works:
A major example of dramatic irony in Macbeth is when Lennox asks Macbeth whether the king is to leave Macbeth's castle for home. Lennox inquires, "Goes the king hence today?" (II. iii. l.53) and Macbeth replies, "He does: he did appoint so." (II. iii. 54). It is obvious to the audience that Macbeth is lying through his teeth; the audience is fully aware that he planned to murder King Duncan that night. But if one takes Macbeth's reply literally, as Macbeth intends Lennox will, Duncan did "plan" to leave the castle the next day, and thus there is not a lie to be found in this aspect of Macbeth's words.

The most striking example of dramatic irony in Romeo and Juliet is almost at the end of the play, when Romeo kills himself in the tomb, thinking that Juliet is dead. The audience knows that Juliet isn't dead at all "“ but in fact that she's going to wake up at any minute.

Notes on Shakespeare's use of Dramatic Irony in Hamlet:
Unlike other Shakespearean plays, there is not a lot of dramatic irony in Hamlet, where the audience is overtly aware of the character's situation and the character is not, until the very last scene when the audience is aware of the poisoned swords and Hamlet is not. Up to that point the audience experiences the play mostly from the perspective of Hamlet himself. Hamlet's soliloquies are significant because not only do they explore the most dominant themes of the play, but also because they allow the audience to understand Hamlet on an intimate level "“ we know exactly what Hamlet knows about himself and perceives about others. Shakespeare uses the soliloquies to portray Hamlet's own confusion, despair and deception of others.

Examples from Hamlet:

1) "Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats/Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables." (I. ii. 179-180)

*** This quote is in reference to the fact that the marriage between Claudius and Gertrude occurred too quickly. In fact, the wedding was held so quickly to save money by serving the food left over from King Hamlet's funeral. ***

2) Hamlet: "My father! "“methinks, I see my father."
Horatio: "O, where, my lord?"
Hamlet: "In my mind's eye, Horatio."
Horatio: "I saw him once; he was a goodly king." (I. ii. 183-186)

*** This occurs prior to Hamlet seeing the ghost. However, at this point, Horatio had already been witness to the ghost of Hamlet's father, unbeknownst to young Hamlet. "I saw him once" takes on a double meaning; to Hamlet, Horatio is referring to the period of time in which King Hamlet was still alive and to the audience is may be understood that Horatio is also referring to his sighting of King Hamlet's ghost. ***

3) "My liege, and madam, to expostulate/What majesty should be, what duty is/Why day is day, night, night, and time is time/Were nothing to waste night, day, and time/Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit/And the tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes/I will be brief. Your noble son is mad." (II. ii. 86-92)

*** Polonius speaks of Hamlet as mad in this quote due to Hamlet's flamboyant outward actions, yet in this speech, Polonius reveals his own insanity. Polonius starts of his speech in a manner that suggests he is speaking too fast to make much sense. On top of that, he spews line after line of nonsensical and repetitive speech before concluding that his message to Gertrude is to be brief. ***

4) "I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is/southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw" (II. ii. 376-377)

*** In this quote, Hamlet says that his madness depends on the direction of the wind, basically implying that his madness is something he can control. In fact, it is believed that Hamlet consciously feigns madness to manipulate those around him. This quote is an interesting, and perhaps less obvious example of dramatic irony. At this point in the play, the audience has begun to mistrust Hamlet's assessments of himself, believing rather that Hamlet is so mad, that he is able to easily convince himself he is in control of his madness. In other words, in this twist in dramatic irony, the audience knows something about Hamlet that he is unable to know about himself. ***

5) Claudius' prayer "“III. iii. 38-73
Hamlet's soliloquy "“ III. iii. 74-97
Claudius: "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:/Words without thoughts
never to heaven go." III. iii. 98-99

*** In this portion of the play, Claudius is in the prayer position trying to pray to God for repentance. However, during his unaccompanied contemplation Claudius realizes that he is still enjoying the fruits of his evil actions and thus, is unable to repent. Claudius' last quote during the prayer reveals that he understands that as long as the gains he has made from the murder continue to bring him material pleasure, he cannot ask for forgiveness, nor would it be granted. Shortly before Claudius' last realization, Hamlet finds Claudius at prayer. But, Hamlet fails to exact revenge right then and there, reasoning that a man killed in the midst of prayer will go to heaven. Since Claudius deserves to go to Hell, and since it seems absurd to send him to heaven instead while the ghost lies in purgatory, Hamlet yields the occasion, never realizing that Claudius wasn't really praying at all. ***
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