What Is Irony? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Irony definition.

Irony  (EYE-run-ee) is a literary device in which a word or event means something different—and often contradictory—to its actual meaning. At its most fundamental, irony is a difference between reality and something’s appearance or expectation, creating a natural tension when presented in the  context  of a story. In recent years, irony has taken on an additional meaning, referring to a situation or joke that is subversive in nature; the fact that the term has come to mean something different than what it actually does is, in itself, ironic.

The history of the word points to its somewhat deceptive nature. It comes from the Ancient Greek  eiron , meaning a stock character in early theatrical productions who feigns ignorance to fool someone else.

what is the literary device irony

Types of Irony

When someone uses irony, it is typically in one of the three ways: verbal, situational, or dramatic.

Verbal Irony

In this form of irony, the speaker says something that differs from—and is usually in opposition with—the real meaning of the word(s) they’ve used. Take, for example, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story  “The Cask of Amontillado.”  As Montresor encloses Fortunato into the catacombs’ walls, he mocks Fortunato’s plea—”For the love of God, Montresor!”—by replying, “Yes, for the love of God!” Poe uses this to underscore how Montresor’s actions are anything but loving or humane—thus, far from God.

Situational Irony

This occurs when there is a difference between the intention of a specific situation and its result. The result is often unexpected or contrary to a person’s goal. The entire  plot  of L. Frank Baum’s  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz  hinges on situational irony. Dorothy and her friends spend the story trying to reach the Wizard so Dorothy can find a way back home, but in the end, the Wizard informs her that she had the power and knowledge to return home all along.

Dramatic Irony

Here, there is a disparity in how a character understands a situation and how the audience understands it. In Henrik Ibsen’s play  A Doll’s House , the married Nora excitedly anticipates the day when she’ll be able to repay Krogstad, who illegally lent her money. She imagines a future “free from care,” but the audience understands that, because Nora must continue to lie to her husband about the loan, she will never be free.

Not all irony adheres perfectly to one of these definitions. In some cases, irony is simply irony, where something’s appearance on the surface is substantially different from the truth.

Irony vs. Coincidence

Irony is often confused with coincidence. Though there is some overlap between the two terms, they are not the same thing. Coincidence describes two or more unlikely activities that share unexplainable similarities. It is often confused with situational irony. For example, finding out a friend you made in adulthood went to your high school is a coincidence, not an ironic event. Additionally, coincidence isn’t classifiable by type.

Irony, on the other hand, has a much starker and more substantial disparity between intention and result, with the result often the direct opposite of the intention. For example, the fact that the word  lisp  is ironic, considering it refers to an inability to properly pronounce  s  sounds but itself contains an  s .

The Functions of Irony

How an author uses irony depends on their intentions and the story or scene’s larger  context . In much of literature, irony highlights a larger point the author is making—often a commentary on the inherent difficulties and messiness of human existence.

With verbal irony, a writer can demonstrate a character’s intelligence, wit, or snark—or, as in the case of “ The Cask of Amontillado ,” a character’s unmitigated evil. It is primarily used in dialogue and rarely offers up any insight into the plot or meaning of a story.

With dramatic irony, a writer illustrates that knowledge is always a work in progress. It reiterates that people rarely have all the answers in life and can easily be wrong when they don’t have the right information. By giving readers knowledge the characters do not have, dramatic irony keeps readers engaged in the story; they want to see if and when the characters learn this information.

Finally, situational irony is a statement on how random and unpredictable life can be. It showcases how things can change in the blink of an eye and in bigger ways than one ever anticipated. It also points out how humans are at the mercy of unexplained forces, be they spiritual, rational, or matters of pure chance.

Irony as a Function of Sarcasm and Satire

Satire and  sarcasm  often utilize irony to amplify the point made by the speaker.

Sarcasm is a rancorous or stinging expression that disparages or taunts its subject. Thus, it usually possesses a certain amount of irony. Because inflection conveys sarcasm more clearly, saying a sarcastic remark out loud helps make the true meaning known. If someone says “Boy, the weather sure is beautiful today” when it is dark and storming, they’re making a sarcastic remark. This statement is also an example of verbal irony because the speaker is saying something in direct opposition to reality. But an expression doesn’t necessarily need to be verbal to communicate its sarcastic nature. If the previous example appeared in a written work, the application of italics would emphasize to the reader that the speaker’s use of the word  beautiful  is suspect. To further clarify, the remark would closely precede or follow a description of the day’s unappealing weather.

Satire is an entire work that critiques the behavior of specific individuals, institutions, or societies through outsized humor. Satire normally possesses both irony and sarcasm to further underscore the illogicality or ridiculousness of the targeted subject. Satire has a long history in literature and popular culture. The first known satirical work, “The Satire of the Trades,” dates back to the second millennium BCE. It discusses a variety of trades in an exaggerated, negative light, while presenting the trade of writer as one of great honor and nobility.  Shakespeare  famously satirized the cultural and societal norms of his time in many of his plays. In 21st-century pop culture,  The Colbert Report  was a political satire show, in which host Stephen Colbert played an over-the-top conservative political commentator. By embodying the characteristics—including vocal qualities—and beliefs of a stereotypical pundit, Colbert skewered political norms through abundant use of verbal irony. This is also an example of situational irony, as the audience knew Colbert, in reality, disagreed with the kind of ideas he was espousing.

Uses of Irony in Popular Culture

Popular culture has countless examples of irony.

One of the most predominant, contemporary references, Alanis Morissette’s hit song “Ironic” generated much controversy and debate around what, exactly, constitutes irony. In the song, Morissette sings about a variety of unfortunate situations, like rainy weather on the day of a wedding, finding a fly floating in a class of wine, and a death row inmate being pardoned minutes after they were killed. Morissette follows these lines with the question, “Isn’t it ironic?” In reality, none of these situations is ironic, at least not according to the traditional meaning of the word. These situations are coincidental, frustrating, or plain bad luck, but they aren’t ironic. The intended meaning of these examples is not disparate from their actual meanings. For instance, another line claims that having “ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife” is ironic. This would only be ironic, if, say, the person being addressed made knives for a living. Morissette herself has acknowledged the debate and asserted that the song itself is ironic because none of the things she sings about are ironic at all.

Pixar/Disney’s movie  Monsters, Inc.  is an example of situational irony. In the world of this movie, monsters go into the human realm to scare children and harvest their screams. But, when a little girl enters the monster world, it’s revealed that the monsters are actually terrified of children. There are also moments of dramatic irony. As protagonist Sully and Mike try to hide the girl’s presence, she instigates many mishaps that amuse the audience because they know she’s there but other characters have no idea.

In the iconic television show  Breaking Bad , DEA agent Hank Schrader hunts for the elusive drug kingpin known as Heisenberg. But what Hank doesn’t know is that Heisenberg is really Walter White, Hank’s brother-in-law. This is a perfect example of dramatic irony because the viewers are aware of Walter’s secret identity from the moment he adopts it.

Examples of Irony in Literature

1. Jonathan Swift,  “A Modest Proposal”

Swift’s 1729 essay is a satire rich in verbal ironies. Under the guise of a serious adviser, Swift suggests a way that poor Irish communities can improve their lot in life: selling their children to rich people. He even goes a step further with his advice:

I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.

Obviously, Swift does not intend for anyone to sell or eat children. He uses verbal ironies to illuminate class divisions, specifically many Britons’ attitudes toward the Irish and the way the wealthy disregard the needs of the poor.

2. William Shakespeare,  Titus Andronicus

This epic Shakespeare tragedy is brutal, bloody, farcical, and dramatically ironic. It concerns the savage revenge exacted by General Titus on those who wronged him. His plans for revenge involve Tamora, Queen of the Goths, who is exacting her own vengeance for the wrongs she feels her sons have suffered. The audience knows from the outset what these characters previously endured and thus understand the true motivations of Titus and Tamora.

In perhaps the most famous scene, and likely one of literature’s most wicked dramatic ironies, Titus slays Tamora’s two cherished sons, grinds them up, and bakes them into a pie. He then serves the pie to Tamora and all the guests attending a feast at his house. After revealing the truth, Titus kills Tamora—then the emperor’s son, Saturninus, kills Titus, then Titus’s son Lucius kills Saturninus and so on.

3. O. Henry,  “The Gift of the Magi”

In this short story, a young married couple is strapped for money and tries to come up with acceptable Christmas gifts to exchange. Della, the wife, sells her hair to get the money to buy her husband Jim a watchband. Jim, however, sells his watch to buy Della a set of combs. This is a poignant instance of situational irony, the meaning of which O. Henry accentuates by writing that, although “[e]ach sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other,” they were truly “the wise ones.” That final phrase compares the couple to the biblical Magi who brought gifts to baby Jesus, whose birthday anecdotally falls on Christmas Day.

4. Margaret Atwood,  The Handmaid’s Tale

Atwood’s dystopian novel takes place in a not-too-distant America. Now known as Gilead, it is an isolated and insular country run by a theocratic government. Since an epidemic left many women infertile, the government enslaves those still able to conceive and assigns them as handmaids to carry children for rich and powerful men. If a handmaid and a Commander conceive, the handmaid must give the child over to the care of the Commander and his wife. Then, the handmaid is reassigned to another “post.”

A primary character in the story is Serena Joy, a Commander’s wife. In one of the book’s many ironic instances, it is revealed that Serena, in her pre-Gilead days, was a fierce advocate for a more conservative society. Though she now has the society she fought for, women—even Commanders’ wives—have few rights. Thus, she ironically suffers from the very reforms she spearheaded.

Further Resources on Irony

The Writer  has  an article  about writing and understanding irony in fiction.

Penlighten ‘s detailed  list of irony examples  includes works mainly from classic literature.

Publishing Crawl  offers  five ways to incorporate dramatic irony into your writing .

Harvard Library has an in-depth breakdown of  the evolution of irony in postmodern literature .

TV Tropes  is  a comprehensive resource for irony  in everything from literature and anime to television and movies.

Related Terms

what is the literary device irony


What is irony? Well, it’s like rain on your wedding day. It’s a free ride, when you’ve already paid. ’90s radio is helpful here.

Okay; but what is irony? It can often be easier to point to specific ironies than to find a definition of irony itself that hits home.

Irony involves contradiction of our perceived reality.

At root, irony involves contradiction of our perceived reality. This powerful literary device is often misunderstood or misused, but when wielded correctly, it can reveal deeper truths by highlighting the many strange contradictions and juxtapositions woven through life.

This article examines the different types of irony in literature, including dramatic irony, situational irony, verbal irony, and others. Along the way, we look at different irony examples in literature, and end on tips for using this device in your own writing.

But first, let’s further clarify what this tricky writing technique means. What is irony in literature?

Irony Definition: What is Irony in Literature?

What does ironic mean? Seinfeld

Irony occurs when a moment of dialogue or plot contradicts what the audience expects from a character or story. In other words, irony in literature happens when the opposite of what you’d expect actually occurs.

Irony is a moment in which the opposite of what’s expected actually occurs, a contrast between “what seems to be” and “what is.”

To put it another way: irony is a contrast between “what seems to be” and “what is.”

For example, let’s say you’re having an awful day. You got stuck in traffic, your head hurt, it was storming all afternoon, the deli messed up your lunch order, and your son’s school called to say he got in a fight. Finally, you get home and check your email, and see a message from the dream job you just interviewed for. You’re expecting the worst, because it’s been such a crappy day, and—you got the job.

As a literary technique, this device primarily accomplishes two goals. First, it allows you to juxtapose contradictory ideas in your writing. By diverging from what the reader or character expects, an ironic plot or dialogue exchange allows opposing ideas to sit side-by-side, creating a fertile space for interpretation and creative inquiry.

Second, irony in literature emulates real life. We’ve all had days like the one described above, where everything seems awful and suddenly the best news reaches us (or vice versa). The real world follows no logical trajectory, and we find ourselves surrounded by competing ideas and realities. Irony makes talking about these contradictions possible.

Irony vs. Sarcasm

Because both irony and sarcasm come across as wry statements about certain situations, people often confuse the two terms. However, sarcasm has a much narrower use.

Sarcasm only occurs in dialogue: you can speak something with sarcasm, but an event cannot be sarcastic. Additionally, sarcasm is usually intended to be mean or point at the folly of a certain person. By speaking wryly or ironically about another person’s faults, an individual’s use of sarcasm will often be insulting or derogatory, even if both parties understand that the sarcasm is simple banter. (Sarcasm comes from the Greek for “cutting flesh.”)

For example, let’s say someone you know just came to a very obvious or delayed realization. You might say to them “nice thinking, Einstein,” obviously implying that their intelligence is on the other side of the bell curve.

So, the difference between irony vs. sarcasm is that sarcasm is a verbal insult that points towards someone’s flaws ironically, whereas irony encompasses contradictory ideas, statements, and events. As such, sarcasm is sometimes a form of irony, but only partially falls under a much broader umbrella.

Irony vs. Satire

Satire is another term that’s often confused with irony and sarcasm. Satire, like sarcasm, is a form of expression; but, satire is also a literary genre with its own complex history.

Satire is the art of mocking human follies. Often, satire has the goal of critiquing or correcting those follies. A good piece of satire will hold a mirror up against the reader, against politicians, or against society at large. By recognizing, perhaps, our own logical fallacies or erroneous ways of living, satire hopes to help people live more honest, moral lives (as defined by the satirist).

Irony is certainly an element of good satire. We all act in contradictory or hypocritical ways. Irony in satire helps the satirist illuminate those contradictions. But, the two are fundamentally different: irony notices contradictions, whereas satire wields this and other devices to mock human follies.

Learn more about satire (and how to write it!) here:

Satire Definition: How to Write Satire

Different Types of Irony in Literature

There are, primarily, three different types of irony in literature: dramatic, situational, and verbal irony. Each form has its own usage in literature, and there are also many sub-types of irony that fall under each of these categories.

For now, let’s define each type and look at specific irony examples in literature.

Dramatic Irony Definition

Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the story’s characters do not. As such, fictional characters make erroneous decisions and face certain avoidable consequences. If only they had known what the audience knows!

Dramatic irony definition: when the audience knows something that the story’s characters do not, resulting in poor decision making or ironic consequences.

You will most likely find dramatic irony examples in plays, screenplays, and other forms of theater. Shakespeare employs this device often, as do playwrights like Henrik Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, and the filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock. Nonetheless, fiction writers also employ dramatic irony, particularly when the story involves multiple narrative points of view .

Dramatic Irony Examples in Literature

Shakespeare was truly a master of dramatic irony, as he employed the device to entertain, captivate, and frustrate his audience.

In Romeo & Juliet , Juliet is apparently dead, having taken a strong sleeping potion, and is laid in the Capulet crypt. The message was supposed to be conveyed to Romeo that, upon her waking, the two would run off together. But, this message never arrives, so when Romeo hears of Juliet’s death and goes to her tomb to mourn, he kills himself with poison. The audience knows that Juliet is just asleep, making Romeo’s death a particularly tragic example of dramatic irony.

A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket is also laden with dramatic irony examples. In The Reptile Room , the narrator addresses this directly:

Of course, this is a series written towards children, so the direct translation of what dramatic irony means might seem a bit juvenile for adult fiction writers. Nonetheless, this excerpt defines the precise feeling that dramatic irony can bestow upon the reader, illustrating it through the contrast of Uncle Monty’s dialogue against the impending doom the Baudelaires face.

(Note: this is not an example of verbal irony, because Uncle Monty’s dialogue is not intentionally contradicting what he means. More on this later in the article.)

Situational Irony Definition

Also known as irony of fate, of events, or of circumstance, situational irony describes plot events with unexpected or contradictory outcomes.

Situational irony definition: plot events with unexpected or contradictory outcomes.

Let’s say, for example, your local fire department burns down. Or the new moisturizer you bought actually wrinkles your skin. Or, heaven forbid, you finish working on your manuscript, click “save” for the final time, and your laptop completely shuts down. All of these possibilities point towards the unpredictability of the future—as do the below situational irony examples in literature.

Situational Irony Examples in Literature

Situational irony happens when a certain event or reaction is expected, and an entirely contradictory one occurs.

For example, in the story “ The Gift of the Magi ” by O. Henry, two young lovers have no money to spare, but are trying to find each other the perfect Christmas gift. The girl, Della, has beautiful hair, which she cuts and sells to buy Jim a fob chain for his watch. Jim, in turn, sells his watch to buy Della some combs for her hair. As a result, each lover’s gift turns out to be useless, since each has sold their most prized possession to show their love to each other.

The narrator summarizes this beautiful moment of situational irony thus:

Of course, ironic situations occur all the time in real life, so there are many situational irony examples in nonfiction. This excerpt comes from the essay “ My Mother’s Eyes ” by Henriette Lazaridis:

Certainly, the speaker would not expect to see herself resembled in her mother’s gaunt, dying face, but that’s exactly what happens. This moment of situational irony encourages the reader to examine the relationship between death, family, and heritage.

Verbal Irony Definition

Verbal irony refers to the use of dialogue where one thing is spoken, but a contrasting meaning is intended. The key word here is intentional: verbal irony is not merely lying or speaking a faux pas, it’s an intentional use of contrasting language to describe something in particular.

Verbal irony definition: An instance of dialogue where one thing is spoken, but a contrasting meaning is intended.

We do this all the time in conversational English. For example, you might walk into a storm and say “wonderful weather we’re having!” Or, if someone is wearing a jacket you love, you might say “that’s hideous!”

We’ve already contrasted irony vs. sarcasm, so as you may have inferred, verbal irony can sometimes be a form of sarcasm. (For example, telling someone with an ugly shirt “nice shirt!”) That said, verbal irony is not always sarcasm, so remember that sarcasm is intentionally used to insult someone’s folly.

Verbal Irony Examples in Literature

Because verbal irony is always spoken, you will almost always see this device utilized in dialogue. (The only time it isn’t used in dialogue is when a narrator, usually first person, speaks to the audience ironically.)

In George Bernard Shaws’ Pygmalian , Professor Higgins’ housekeeper has just told the professor not to swear. To this he replies:

You and I might not think “what the devil” counts as swearing, but it’s certainly ironic for Professor Higgins to invoke the devil after claiming he never swears.

Many more verbal irony examples come to us, again, from Shakespeare. In Othello , the character Iago—a complex antagonist who feigns loyalty to Othello but seeks his demise—proclaims “My lord, you know I love you.” The audience knows that Iago hates Othello, but Othello himself does not know this, making this bit of dialogue particularly ironic.

In a different Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar , Caesar describes Brutus (his later-betrayer) as an “honorable man.” At this point, the audience knows that Brutus plans to join the conspiracy to kill Caesar.

With verbal irony, sometimes the dialogue is understood as ironic by the other characters, and sometimes only by the audience. Either way, an attentive reader will recognize when a character means the opposite of what they say, or when their intentions simply do not align with their speech.

Irony in Poetry

Most of the irony examples in this article have come from fiction. But, poets certainly make use of this literary device as well, though often much more subtly.

Irony occurs in poetry when the poet wants to illuminate contradictions or awkward juxtapositions. T. S. Eliot gives us a great example in “ The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock .” The speaker describes a beautiful evening as “a patient etherized on a table.” It’s a rather dramatic metaphor , incongruous with the beauty of the evening itself. Eliot’s poem is, among other things, a lament of modernity, which he believes is corrupting all the beauty in the world. By using a modern medical procedure to describe the natural world, Eliot’s hyperbolic metaphor imparts a subtle, yet vicious, irony about the modern day.

Of course, irony can operate in poetry in much more obvious ways. Here’s an example from Louise Glück, “ Telemachus’ Detachment “:

When I was a child looking at my parents’ lives, you know what I thought? I thought heartbreaking. Now I think heartbreaking, but also insane. Also very funny.

Telemachus is, in Greek mythology, the son of Odysseus and Penelope. This short poem is a commentary on that wild myth (The Odyssey). It is also deeply relatable to any child wondering at their parents’ insane ways of living. It is a poem whose central device is irony, and it uses this device to draw a connection between myth and reality, which are much more similar to one another than they seem.

Venn Diagram

The below Venn diagram compares and contracts the different types of irony in literature.

Other Types of Irony in Literature

You may have heard of some other types of irony, such as socratic, historical, or cosmic irony. These forms are technically subcategories of the above 3, but it is useful to make these distinctions, especially as they relate to particular genres of literature.

Cosmic irony in literature: an instance where a character’s outcome in the story is outside of their control. For example, in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles , the titular Tess is a mostly-innocent protagonist to whom one thing after another goes wrong. Despite her innocence, a malevolent series of misfortunes forces her to murder someone, resulting in her imprisonment and execution. The narrator then writes that “Justice was done, and the President of the Immortals, in Aeschylean phrase, had ended his sport with Tess.” In other words, Tess is the plaything of fate, and the justice bestowed upon her is extremely ironic, given she is the victim of poor circumstance. This is a subcategory of situational irony (although the narrator’s use of the word Justice is, indeed, verbal irony).

Historical irony in literature: a situation that, in hindsight, was deeply ironic. There are countless examples of this in the real world. For example, gunpowder was invented by Chinese alchemists searching for the elixir of life—if anything, they created an elixir of death. Or, the introduction of the Kudzu vine in the United States was intended to prevent soil erosion, particularly after the dust bowl in the 1930s. Kudzu became an invasive species, choking plants of resources instead of preserving the ecosystem. This form of situational irony occurs countless times in history, showing up whenever a person’s or government’s decision backfires tremendously.

Socratic irony in literature:  the use of verbal irony as part of the Socratic method. The teacher will either pretend to be dumb, or pretend that the student is wise, to draw out the flaws in a student’s argument. While you don’t see this often in literature, it’s a possible rhetorical strategy for teachers, lawyers, and even comedians.

Using Irony in Your Own Writing

The discrepancy between “what seems to be” and “what is” can prove particularly useful for writers. Irony helps writers delay the reveal of crucial information, challenge the reader’s worldview, and juxtapose contradictory ideas and themes. As such, this literary device can pull together your stories and plays, so long as you wield it effectively and with discretion.

Here are some possibilities for your writing:

Building tension

When the audience knows something that the characters don’t, we can only watch in horror as those characters make ill-informed decisions.

Playing with fate

Why do bad things happen to good people? A commentary on fate—or, at the very least, the seeming randomness of the universe—often goes hand-in-hand with this literary device.

Stringing the plot forward

If every character made perfect decisions, there would be no plot. Irony helps throw characters into challenging, even preventable situations, forcing the story to reckon with that character’s imperfections.

Generating conflict

For many stories, conflict is the engine that drives the plot forward. When a character’s actions and words don’t match, or when the world’s treatment of a character is opposite that character’s moral purity, a good story ensues.

Challenging the reader

What does it mean for society when a fire department burns down, a lung doctor smokes cigarettes, or a government causes chaos by trying to instill democracy? These themes are aided and expounded by the use of irony in literature.

Entertaining exchanges

Whether the narrator speaks wryly to the audience, or two characters have witty banter, verbal irony certainly makes a text more entertaining.


What does it mean to love the person you hate? Can justice be served to the most unjust of human beings? The juxtaposition of contradictory themes allows us to examine the world with nuance, discretion, and creativity.

Making fiction true-to-life

We all find ourselves from time to time in the midst of ironic situations. Including irony in your stories isn’t just a clever literary device, it’s an attempt at making your stories as believable as possible.

Master the Different Types of Irony at Writers.com

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Excellent explanation of terms that are easy to confuse

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Literary Devices

Irony is contradiction between what is said or done and what is actually meant or expected. It is often used to create a humorous, dramatic, or sarcastic effect, or to highlight a discrepancy between appearance and reality. Irony can take many forms, including verbal irony, situational irony, and dramatic irony. Verbal irony involves saying something that is the opposite of what is meant, while situational irony occurs when events turn out differently than expected.

Examples of irony:

“Oedipus Rex” by Sophocles – Oedipus tries to avoid his fate of killing his father and marrying his mother, but his actions actually lead him to fulfill the prophecy, creating situational irony.

“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson – Dr. Jekyll tries to separate his good and evil selves through a potion, but ultimately becomes trapped as Mr. Hyde, creating situational irony.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot – The title character muses about how he should have been “a pair of ragged claws” and is unable to connect with the world around him, creating dramatic irony.

“The Tragedy of Julius Caesar” by William Shakespeare – The conspirators kill Caesar to save Rome from tyranny, but their actions ultimately lead to civil war and the downfall of the Roman Republic, creating situational irony.

“Animal Farm” by George Orwell – The animals overthrow their human oppressors to create a society of equality and freedom, but end up creating a new oppressive regime ruled by the pigs, creating situational irony.

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a example of irony can be how some one betrayed you and they say you betrayed them

Is Loud silence irony


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  • Literary Terms
  • Definition & Examples
  • When & How to Use Irony

I. What is Irony?

Irony (pronounced ‘eye-run-ee’) is when there are two contradicting meanings of the same situation, event, image, sentence, phrase, or story.  In many cases, this refers to the difference between expectations and reality.

For example, if you go sight-seeing anywhere in the world today, you will see crowds of people who are so busy taking cell-phone pictures of themselves in front of the sight that they don’t actually look at what they came to see with their own eyes.  This is ironic, specifically, situational irony . This one situation has two opposing meanings that contradict expectations: (1) going to see a sight and prove that you were there (2) not enjoying the thing you went to see.

Irony is often used for critical or humorous effect in literature, music, art, and film (or a lesson).  In conversation, people often use verbal irony to express humor, affection, or emotion, by saying the opposite of what they mean to somebody who is expected to recognize the irony.  “I hate you” can mean “I love you”—but only if the person you’re saying it to already knows that! This definition is, of course, related to the first one (as we expect people’s words to reflect their meaning) and in most cases, it can be considered a form of sarcasm.

II. Examples of Irony

A popular visual representation of irony shows a seagull sitting on top of a “no seagulls” sign. The meaning of the sign is that seagulls are not allowed in the area.  The seagull sitting on the sign not only contradicts it, but calls attention to the absurdity of trying to dictate where seagulls may or may not go, which makes us laugh.

Another example is a staircase leading up to a fitness center, with an escalator running alongside it. All the gym patrons are using the escalator and no one is on the stairs. Given that this is a fitness center, we’d expect that everyone should be dedicated to health and exercise, and so they would use the free exercise offered by the stairs. But instead, they flock to the comfort of the escalator, in spite of the fact that they’ve come all this way just to exercise. Once again, our expectations are violated and the result is irony and humor.

Aleister Crowley, a famous English mystic of the early twentieth century, who taught that a person could do anything if they mastered their own mind, died of heroin addiction. This is ironic because the way he died completely contradicts what he taught.

III. The Importance of Irony

The most common purpose of irony is to create humor and/or point out the absurdity of life. As in the all of the examples above, life has a way of contradicting our expectations, often in painful ways. Irony generally makes us laugh, even when the circumstances are tragic, such as in Aleister Crowley’s failure to beat his addiction. We laugh not because the situations were tragic, but because they violate our expectations.  The contrast between people’s expectations and the reality of the situations is not only funny, but also meaningful because it calls our attention to how wrong human beings can be.  Irony is best when it points us towards deeper meanings of a situation.

IV. Examples of Irony in Literature

In O. Henry’s famous short story The Gift of the Magi , a husband sells his prized watch so that he can buy combs as a gift for his wife. Meanwhile, the wife sells her beautiful hair so she can buy a watch-chain for her husband. The characters ’ actions contradict each other’s expectations and their efforts to give each other gifts make the gifts useless.

Edgar Allen Poe’s The Cask of Amantillado is full of verbal and situational irony, including the name of the main character. He’s called Fortunato (Italian for “fortunate”), in spite of the fact that he’s extremely unlucky throughout the story.

Water, water everywhere, nor any a drop to drink.

This line from Samuel Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” describes the dark irony of a sailor dying of thirst on his boat while he is surrounded by water.

V. Examples of Irony in Pop Culture

Alannis Morisette’s popular song “Ironic” contains such lyrics as:

Rain on your wedding day A free ride when you’ve already paid Good advice that you just didn’t take

These are not examples of irony . They’re just unfortunate coincidences. However, the fact that her song is called “Ironic” and yet has such unironic lyrics is itself ironic. The title contradicts the lyrics of the song. It isn’t, so your expectations are violated.

In Disney’s Aladdin , Aladdin wishes for riches and power so that he can earn the right to marry Princess Jasmine. Thanks to the genie’s magic, he gets all the wealth he could ask for and parades through the streets as a prince. But, ironically, this makes him unattractive to the princess and he finds himself further away from his goal than he was as a poor beggar. In this case, it’s the contrast between Aladdin’s expectations and results which are ironic.

Related terms

Sarcasm is a kind of verbal irony that has a biting or critical tone, although it can be used to express affection between friends It is one of the most common forms of irony in fiction and in real life. We’ve all heard people use verbal irony to mock, insult, or poke fun at someone or something. For example, here’s a famous sarcastic line from The Princess Bride :

Truly, you have a dizzying intellect.

In the scene, Wesley is insulting the intelligence of Vizzini the Sicilian using verbal irony (the word “truly” makes it even more ironic, since Wesley is reassuring Vizzini of the truth of an untrue statement). The line is both ironic and mean, and therefore it’s sarcastic . One needs to be a little careful with sarcasm, since you can easily hurt people’s feelings or make them angry.

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What is Irony? | Definition & Examples

"what is irony": a guide for english students and teachers.

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What is Irony? - Transcription (English and Spanish Subtitles Available in the Video. Click HERE for the Spanish transcript)

By Raymond Malewitz , Oregon State University Associate Professor of American Literature

As we transition from childhood into adulthood, we begin to realize that things, people, and events are often not what they appear to be.  At times, this realization can be funny, but it can also be disturbing or confusing.  Children often recoil at this murky confusion, preferring a simple world in which what you see is what you get.  Adults, on the other hand, often LOVE this confusion-- so much so that we often tell ourselves stories just to conjure up this state.  Whether we run from it or savor it, make no mistake: “irony” is a dominant feature of our lives.

In simplest terms, irony occurs in literature AND in life whenever a person says something or does something that departs from what they (or we) expect them to say or do. Just as there are countless ways of misunderstanding the world [sorry kids], there are many different kinds of irony.  The three most common kinds you’ll find in literature classrooms are verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony .

Verbal irony occurs whenever a speaker or narrator tells us something that differs from what they mean, what they intend, or what the situation requires.  Many popular internet memes capitalize upon this difference, as in this example.


Irony image of dog "This is Fine." Meme

Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado” offers a more complex example of verbal irony.  In the story, a man named Montresor lures another man named Fortunato into the catacombs beneath his house by appearing to ask him for advice on a recent wine purchase.  In reality, he means to murder him.  Brutally.  By walling him up in those catacombs [spoiler alert]!

As the two men travel deeper underground, Fortunato has a coughing fit.  Montresor appears to comfort him in the following richly ironic exchange:

“Come,” I said with decision, “we will go back; your health is precious.  You are rich, respected, admired, beloved; you are happy, as I once was.  You are a man to be missed.  For me it is no matter.  We will go back; you will be ill, and I cannot be responsible…”

            “Enough,” [Fortunato] said, “the cough is a mere nothing; it will not kill me.  I shall not die of a cough.”

            “True—true,” I replied.”


Image of Poe's Cask of Amontillado I

If we only paid attention to the appearance of Montresor’s words, we would think he was genuinely concerned with poor Fortunato’s health as he hacks up a lung.  We would also think that Montresor was trying to be nice to Fortunato by agreeing with him that he won’t die of a cough.  But knowing Montresor’s true intentions, which he reveals at the start of the story, we are able to understand the verbal irony that colors these assurances.  Fortunato won’t die of a cough, Montresor knows, but he will definitely die.

This scene is also a great example of dramatic irony .  Dramatic irony occurs whenever a character in a story is deprived of an important piece of information that governs the plot that surrounds them.  Fortunato, in this case, believes that Montresor is a friendly schlub with a terrible wine palette and a curious habit of storing his wine near the dead bodies of his ancestors. The pleasure of reading the story stems in part from knowing what he doesn’t—that he’s walking into Montresor’s trap.  We delight, in other words, in the ironic difference between our complex way of understanding of the world and Fortunato’s simple worldview.

Finally, the story also includes, arguably, a great example of situational irony .  As its name suggests, situational irony occurs when characters’ intentions are foiled, when people do certain things to bring about an intended result, but in fact produce the opposite result.  At the start of the story, Montresor tells his readers that his project will succeed only if he “makes himself felt as such to him who has done the wrong.” 


Image of Poe's Cask of Amontillado II

In other words, Fortunato must not only know that he has been tricked but also why he was tricked and why he must die.  If this is Montresor’s intention, however, he goes about it in a rather strange way, offering Fortunato countless sips of wine on their trip into the catacombs that gets his antagonist pretty drunk.  By the end of the story, Montresor has certainly got away with the crime, but it’s far from certain that Fortunato (or even Montresor) knows why he is given such a terrible death.

So why does Montresor insist on telling us that his story is a success?  One reason might be that he is anxious about the situational irony that envelopes his story and wants to cover the reality of that irony with a simple appearance of triumph.  He’s gotten away with it, and Fortunato knows why he must die.  If readers push back against this desired outcome, testing it against Fortunato’s confusion at being chained to a wall and bricked into place, they travel further than even Montresor is willing to go into the murky catacombs of irony.

Further Resources for Teachers:

Kate Chopin's story "The Story of an Hour" offers students many opportunities to discuss different kinds of irony. These ideas are indirectly discussed in our "What is Imagery?" video.  Many other literary terms can be used for ironic effect, including Understatement , Free Indirect Discourse , Dramatic Monologue , and Unreliable Narrator . Yiyun Li's short story "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" is another story suitable for this kind of analysis.

Writing Prompt #1: Identify examples of verbal irony, dramatic irony, and situational irony in Chopin's or Li's story. When you have made these determinations, explain how they operate together to convey meaning in the story.

Writing Prompt #2: See the prompt in our " What is a Sonnet? " video.

Interested in more video lessons? View the full series:

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Definition of Irony

Irony is a figure of speech in which words are used in such a way that their intended meaning is different from the actual meaning of the words. It may also be a situation that ends up in quite a different way than what is generally anticipated. In simple words, it is a difference between appearance and reality.

Types of Irony

On the grounds of the above definition, we distinguish two basic types of irony: (1) verbal irony , and (2) situational irony . Verbal irony involves what one does not mean. For example, when in response to a foolish idea, we say, “What a great idea!” This is verbal irony . Situational irony occurs when, for instance, a man is chuckling at the misfortune of another, even when the same misfortune is, unbeknownst to him, befalling him.

Difference Between Dramatic Irony and Situational Irony

Dramatic irony is frequently employed by writers in their works. In situational irony , both the characters and the audience are fully unaware of the implications of the real situation. In dramatic irony , the characters are oblivious of the situation, but the audience is not. For example, in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet , we know well before the characters that they are going to die. In real life circumstances, irony may be comical, bitter, or sometimes unbearably offensive.

Common Examples of Irony

Let us analyze some interesting examples from our daily life:

  • I posted a video on YouTube about how boring and useless YouTube is.
  • The name of Britain’s biggest dog was “Tiny.”
  • You laugh at a person who slipped stepping on a banana peel, and the next thing you know, you’ve slipped too.
  • The butter is as soft as a slab of marble.
  • “Oh great! Now you have broken my new camera.”

Short Examples of Verbal Irony

  • The doctor is as kind hearted as a wolf.
  • He took a much-needed vacation, backpacking in the mountains. Unfortunately, he came back dead tired.
  • His friend’s hand was as soft as a rock.
  • The desert was as cool as a bed of burning coals.
  • The student was given ‘excellent’ on getting zero in the exam.
  • The roasted chicken was as tender as a leather boot.
  • He was in such a harried state that he drove the entire way at 20 miles per hour.
  • He enjoyed his job about as much as a root canal.
  • My friend’s kids get along like cats and dogs.
  • Their new boss was as civilized as a shark.
  • The new manager is as friendly as a rattlesnake.
  • The weather was as balmy as a winter day in Siberia.
  • A vehicle was parked right in front of the no-parking sign.
  • The CEO of a big tobacco company said he did not smoke.
  • The fear of long words is called “Hippopotomonstrosesquippedalio phobia.”

Irony Examples in Literature

Example #1: romeo and juliet (by william shakespeare).

We come across the following lines in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet , Act I, Scene V:

“Go ask his name: if he be married. My grave is like to be my wedding bed.”

Juliet commands her nurse to find out who Romeo was, and says if he were married, then her wedding bed would be her grave. It is a verbal irony because the audience knows that she is going to die on her wedding bed.

Example #2: Julius Caesar (By William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare employs this verbal irony in Julius Caesar , Act I, Scene II:

CASSIUS: ” ‘Tis true this god did shake.”

Cassius, despite knowing the mortal flaws of Caesar, calls him “this god”.

Example #3: Oedipus Rex (By Sophocles)

In the Greek drama Oedipus Rex , written by Sophocles:

“Upon the murderer I invoke this curse – whether he is one man and all unknown, Or one of many – may he wear out his life in misery to miserable doom!”

The above lines are an illustration of verbal and dramatic irony . It was predicted that a man guilty of killing his father and marrying his own mother brought A curse on the city and its people. In the above-mentioned lines, Oedipus curses the man who is the cause of the curse. He is ignorant of the fact that he himself is that man, and thus he is cursing himself. The audience , on the other hand, knows the situation.

Example #4: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (By Samuel Coleridge)

Irony examples are not only found in stage plays, but in poems too. In his poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner , Coleridge wrote:

“Water, water, everywhere, And all the boards did shrink; Water, water, everywhere, Nor any drop to drink.”

In the above-stated lines, the ship – blown by the south wind – is stranded in the uncharted sea. Ironically, there is water everywhere, but they do not have a single drop of drinkable water.

Example #5: The Gift of the Magi (By W.H. Auden)

This is an example of situational irony , in which the wife sells her most prized possession – her hair – to get her husband a Christmas present; and the husband sells his most dear possession – the gold watch – to get his wife a Christmas present. By the end, it is revealed that neither has the utility of the present bought by the other, as both sell their best things to give the other one a gift. Combs, the gift for the wife, is useless because she has sold her hair. The gold watch chain, the gift for the husband, is useless because he has sold the watch to get the combs. The situation becomes ironic for such an incident.

Example #6: Othello (By William Shakespeare)

There are many examples of verbal irony , in which the speaker means the opposite of what he says, in Othello by Shakespeare, as given below:

OTHELLO: “O, thou art wise! ‘Tis certain” (IV.I.87), “Honest Iago . . . ” (V.II.88), (II.III.179) & (I.III.319), “I know, Iago, Thy honesty and love doth mince this matter” (II.III.251-52).

These few lines tell us how Othello uses irony to talk about Iago.

IAGO: “My lord, you know I love you.” (III.III.136)

This shows that Iago only uses this phrase superficially, with quite the opposite meaning.

Example #7: The Tell-Tale Heart (By Edgar Allan Poe)

In the short story The Tell-Tale Heart , by Edgar Allan Poe, there are many instances of irony as given below:

  • The murderer poses that he is a wise and intelligent person, who takes each step very carefully to kill the victim. However, the way the old’s man eye prompts him to murder the victim is very ironic. He behaves absolutely insanely throughout the story.
  • Another instance of irony in the same story is that the killer himself confesses his crime without being asked by the police. The police are there just to investigate the shriek some neighbor has reported. However, their delayed stay makes the killer very nervous, and he confesses his crime of murder in their presence. He even tells where he has buried the dead body.

Function of Irony

Like all other figures of speech, irony brings about some added meanings to a situation. Ironical statements and situations in literature develop readers’ interest. It makes a work of literature more intriguing, and forces the readers to use their imaginations to comprehend the underlying meanings of the texts. Moreover, real life is full of ironical expressions and situations. Therefore, the use of irony brings a work of literature to the life.

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3 Types of Irony: Tell Them Apart With Confidence (+ Examples)

Irony is when the opposite of what is expected happens. In writing, there are three types of irony — verbal, situational, and dramatic.

  • Verbal irony is when a person says one thing but means the opposite;
  • Situational irony is when the opposite of what is expected happens; and
  • Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that characters do not.

The term “irony” comes from the Greek word eironeia , meaning "feigned ignorance," and storytellers of all stripes like to use the different forms of irony as a rhetorical or literary device to create suspense, humor, or as the central conceit in a plot.

To help you make heads or tails of this technique, this article will dig into the three common types of irony.

uJ8V0ueoNr4 Video Thumb

1. Verbal irony

Verbal irony is where the intended meaning of a statement is the opposite of what is actually said. People and literary characters alike use it to express amusement, emphasize a point, or to voice frustration or anger. In literature, verbal irony can create suspense, tension, or a comic effect. 

Verbal irony is actually the type of irony most used in everyday conversation, and can take the form of sarcasm — which is almost always used to denigrate someone or something. Regardless, the two are not the same thing, though many people conflate the concepts. 

To illustrate, here are a few common phrases that perfectly exemplify how verbal irony works — many of them similes comparing two entirely unlike things:

  • "Clear as mud."
  • "Friendly as a rattlesnake."
  • "About as much fun as a root canal."

Understating and overstating

Broadly speaking, verbal irony works by either understating or overstating the gravity of the situation. 

An ironic understatement creates contrast by undermining the impact of something, though the thing itself will be rather substantial or severe. For example, in The Catcher in the Rye , Holden Caulfield casually says, "I have to have this operation. It isn't very serious. I have this tiny little tumor on the brain." Of course, Holden is lying here, which is why he can be so cavalier — and the nonchalant way he downplays something as serious as a brain tumor is ironic.

On the other hand, an ironic overstatement makes something minor sound like a much bigger deal to emphasize a quality it lacks. For example, say you win $5 in a lottery where the grand prize is $100 million. A friend asks you if you won anything, and you say, "Yeah, total jackpot" — that's an ironic overstatement.

💡 Note: Don’t confuse ironic overstatements with hyperbole , the rhetorical device of exaggeration. If a character says "I'm so tired, I could sleep for a million years,” and they are genuinely tired, that isn’t ironic — just exaggerated.

Highlighting a fallacy

Verbal irony is often used for satirical purposes, exaggerating or underplaying descriptions to reveal a deeper truth. Viewed through a lens of overstatement or understatement, the reader can see how flawed the original concept might be.

Verbal irony can be found in the very first lines of Romeo and Juliet (a play riddled with irony).

Two households, both alike in dignity, In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, From ancient grudge break to new mutiny, Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Though the first line may sound respectful, we can see by the end of this verse that Shakespeare doesn’t actually mean to say that both households are alike in their great dignity. Instead, these lines imply the total opposite — that both households are equally un dignified. This irony also serves another purpose: notifying first-time readers that not all that glitters is gold. While both families might technically be considered nobility, their shared inability to act nobly toward one another ultimately leads to a bitter end for our tragic heroes .

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Providing insight into characters

Irony | Claude Rains and Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca

Dialogue is an incredible tool for revealing what a character is like as how they choose to say something can speak volumes about who they are. Very often, people who use verbal irony tend to be highly self-aware.

For example, in Casablanca, the corrupt (yet charming) police captain Louis Renault follows instructions from German officials to order a raid on Rick's nightclub under the pretext of closing an illegal gambling den. "I'm shocked — shocked! — to find that gambling is going on in here!" Renault exclaims while thanking Rick’s croupier for bringing him his winnings. This knowing overstatement of 'shocked' reveals a lot about his cheerfully cynical worldview.

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Creating a comic effect

Of course, verbal irony can also be used for a simple comic result. Whether it's to highlight a witty character, lighten tension during a dark or difficult scene, or just to make people laugh, verbal irony can provide a much-needed moment of humorous relief. As you might expect, verbal irony is a common joke component.

For example, in Notting Hill , when love interests Anna and Will first meet at his bookshop , he confronts a man who’s trying to steal a book, and very politely threatens to call the police. When he returns to the till to help Anna, she hands over the book she’d like to buy and says “I was gonna steal one, but now I’ve changed my mind.” Obviously, the statement isn’t true — she’s using verbal irony to make light of the situation, diffusing awkwardness and showing her friendly inclination.

2. Situational irony

In literature, situational irony is a literary or plot device occurring when there is a discrepancy between what is expected to happen and what actually happens. You can use it to create suspense, humor, and surprise in your writing.

Scene from Alanis Morissette's Ironic music video, where she drives a car.

You can think of it as “the irony of events” to distinguish from the other types of irony, but it is not the same as coincidence or bad luck (apologies to Alanis Morrisette ). If you buy a new car and then accidentally drive it into a tree, that is coincidental and unlucky, but not ironic. However, if a professional stunt driver crashes into a tree on their way home from receiving a "best driver" award, that is situationally ironic. 

Within the context of a story, why might a writer use situational irony?

Creating a good ol’ fashioned twist

Authors can draw strong reactions from their readers by presenting them with carefully executed twists and turns. A  plot twist is all the more delicious when it's the polar opposite of what you'd typically expect. Storylines based on or containing situational irony inherently possess an element of surprise, so they're common in the comedy, thriller , crime, and mystery genres.

eRZTeY8PjCQ Video Thumb

In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest , for example, Jack proposes to Gwendolen under his fake name of Ernest, hoping to share the truth about his name once he’s been accepted. His plan is quickly thwarted when she accepts him because of his name, telling him that her “ideal has always been to love some one of the name of Ernest.” When he asks her what he thinks of “Jack” as a name, she declares that “The only really safe name is Ernest” — so his plan to reveal the truth is suddenly turned on its head, and he resolves to get christened as soon as possible. 

Emphasizing a theme or moral lesson

Steering readers to an unexpected destination in a story can also emphasize a theme or moral lesson — often reminding readers that an expected outcome is not always guaranteed. And because situational irony can urge readers to think twice about their own assumptions, authors often deploy it in fables or morality tales.

In Aesop's 'The Tortoise and the Hare,' for example, the unexpected outcome teaches us that slow and steady wins the race . Or perhaps the real moral is that you shouldn't be complacent and take naps during races.

Situational irony creates a contrast between appearances and underlying truths. When done properly, this can significantly alter a reader's interaction with, expectations of, and insight into a story. But irony must be used with care: without the help of intonation and body language, it requires people to read between the lines to understand its intentions; a reader who doesn’t see the irony will take these words at face value.

3. Dramatic irony

Dramatic irony occurs when the reader or viewer knows something that the characters in the story do not. This can create a sense of unease or anticipation as the audience waits to see how the characters will react to the situation they are in. 

So, to what effect can dramatic irony be used in a story?

Building fear and suspense

When readers or viewers know more than the characters do, they’re often left on pins and needles, waiting for the other shoe to drop or for an inevitable plot point to appear. Will the character discover the secret we already know? What will happen when they find out the truth? What if they find out the truth too late? Subconsciously, all of these questions run through their minds as the story unfolds, contributing to page-turning suspense.

Still from the Hobbit movie, showing Bilbo holding up the ring thoughtfully.

The Hobbit contains a perfect example of dramatic irony — when Bilbo happens upon the ring while lost on a mountain, he puts it in his pocket and soon afterward encounters Gollum.

At this point, readers understand the significance of the ring and its importance to Gollum. However, Gollum does not yet realize he has lost the ring, and Bilbo doesn’t yet know who the ring belongs to. For this reason, the scene where Bilbo and Gollum engage in a game of riddles becomes more stressful for the audience who understands what’s at stake. 

📚 For some truly impressive suspense-building, check out this list of the 50 best suspense books of all time .

Eliciting sympathy for a character

If a character is happy but we know that tragedy lies ahead, we can’t help but sympathize with them. If the reader or audience is already "rooting for" the characters, they will hold on to the hope that things will turn out okay for them. And whatever the end result is — pain or relief —  the reader is likely to feel it twofold.

Still from 10 Things I Hate About You, showing Patrick and Kat pointing to the camera.

The audience knew all along! (image: Touchstone Pictures)

In the modern-day Shakespeare adaptation Ten Things I Hate About You , for example, bad-boy transfer student Patrick is paid by his classmate to woo the cold and aloof Kat. The audience knows that Kat will eventually discover the truth. The deception will wound her, and Patrick will (justifiably) lose her trust. This dramatic irony gives the scenes where they fall in love a bittersweet edge, making us sympathize with both characters. 

In fact, many romance tropes rely on dramatic irony, like the hate-to-love trope — just on account of the characters existing in a romance novel, readers know they're going to end up together. This results in that “slow burn” anticipation where readers are dying to see the characters confess their feelings, but have to live with their impatience as the romance slowly runs its course.

Setting up comical misunderstandings

A lot of comedy comes out of misunderstandings — where a character believes something that the audience knows not to be true, or doesn’t yet know something important. The dramatic irony turns into comedic tension as the character obliviously digs themselves (or other characters) into a deeper hole.

To give you an example of how this works: in a season one episode of Friends , Joey tried to win back his ex-girlfriend Angela by arranging a double date. Hebrings Monica but tells her that Angela’s new boyfriend, Bob, is actually her brother — making it seem as though Bob is Monica’s date. This misunderstanding turns to hilarious confusion as Monica is creeped out by how 'close' Bob and Angela seem to be.

Want more examples and in-depth explanation of any of these types of irony? We’ve spent some time breaking them down even further in the next posts in this guide — starting with verbal irony .

3 responses

Katharine Trauger says:

08/08/2017 – 05:39

I once received a birthday card telling me that irony is the opposite of wrinkly. But I do have a question: I believe, as you related to Hitchcock and I think about his works, that he used irony extensively, even more than one instance in a piece. It's a lot to remember and I've certainly not examined his works to verify that. However, I wonder if, although his works were beyond successful and loved by many, just how much irony is acceptable in today's writing. I agree it is a great device, but can it be overdone? Also, I am writing a piece which has what I believe an ironic ending. Is that a bad place to put a huge departure from the expected? I think O'Henry did that a lot, like when the man sells his watch to buy combs for his wife, and she sells her hair to buy a chain for his watch... But today, how much is too much and will readers come back for more?

↪️ Jim Morrison replied:

20/06/2018 – 21:42

While irony can be overused, it is not a bad thing to use irony - even to end a book. "Story" by Robert McKee discusses irony as an ending and explains how to use it and when to use it. As to your question about how much irony is accepted in today's society, I would say that it is more acceptable than before. With today's writing - particularly in theater - irony is a heavily used element. Thor: Ragnarok, for example, is dripping with ironic situations. Satire, the personal wheelhouse of Vonnegut and Heller, is not only a highbrow version of sarcasm, it is also heavy on the irony. So I say, personally, be as ironic as you want, just, as mentioned in the blog, be careful you don't overuse it to the point that the use of irony becomes ironic (i.e. you lose the audience). Cheers and happy writing.

Naughty Autie says:

30/05/2019 – 15:37

There is a blog which does not allow comments, yet it's called 'The Conversation'. Funny, I always thought that a conversation always took place between multiple people.

Comments are currently closed.

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What Is Irony? Definition and 5 Different Types of Irony to Engage Readers

what is the literary device irony

by Fija Callaghan

Most of us are familiar with irony in our day to day lives—for instance, if you buy a brand new car only to have it break down on its very first ride (situational irony). Or if someone tells you they love your new dress, when what they actually mean is that it flatters absolutely no one and wasn’t even fashionable in their grandparent’s time (verbal irony).

Ironic understatement and ironic overstatement make their way into our conversations all the time, but how do you take those rascally twists of fate and use them to create a powerful story?

There are countless examples of irony in almost all storytelling, from short stories and novels to stage plays, film, poetry, and even sales marketing. Its distinctive subversion of expectation keeps readers excited and engaged, hanging on to your story until the very last page.

What is irony?

Irony is a literary and rhetorical device in which a reader’s expectation is sharply contrasted against what’s really happening. This might be when someone says the opposite of what they mean, or when a situation concludes the opposite of how one would expect. There are five types of irony: Tragic, Comic, Situational, Verbal, and Socratic.

The word irony comes from the Latin ironia , which means “feigned ignorance.” This can be a contradiction between what someone says and what they mean, between what a character expects and what they go on to experience, or what the reader expects and what actually happens in the plot. In all cases there’s a twist that keeps your story fresh and unpredictable.

By using different kinds of irony—and we’ll look at the five types of irony in literature down below—you can manage the reader’s expectations to create suspense and surprise in your story.

The term irony refers to moments that are in conflict with the reader’s expectations.

What’s not irony?

The words irony and ironic get thrown around a fair bit, when sometimes what someone’s really referring to is coincidence or plain bad luck. So what constitutes irony? It’s not rain on your wedding day, or or a free ride when you’ve already paid. Irony occurs when an action or event is the opposite of its literal meaning or expected outcome.

For example, if the wedding was between a woman who wrote a book called Why You Don’t Need No Man and a man who held a TEDtalk called “Marriage As the Antithesis of Evolution,” their wedding (rainy or not) would be ironic—because it’s the opposite of what we would expect.

Another perfect example of irony would be if you listened a song called “Ironic,” and discovered it wasn’t about irony after all.

Why does irony matter in writing?

Irony is something we all experience, sometimes without even recognizing it. Using irony as a literary technique in your writing can encourage readers to look at your story in a brand new way, making them question what they thought they knew about the characters, theme, and message that your story is trying to communicate.

Subverting the expectations of both your readers and the characters who populate your story world is one of the best ways to convey a bold new idea.

Aesop used this idea very effectively in his moralistic children’s tales, like “The Tortoise and the Hare.” The two title characters are set up to race each other to the finish line, and it seems inevitable that the hare will beat the tortoise easily. By subverting our expectations, and leading the story to an unexpected outcome, the author encourages the reader to think about what the story means and why it took the turn that it did.

The 5 types of irony

While all irony functions on the basis of undermining expectations, this can be done in different ways. Let’s look at the different types of irony in literature and how you can make them work in your own writing.

1. Tragic irony

Tragic irony is the first of two types of dramatic irony—both types always show the reader more than it shows its characters. In tragic dramatic irony, the author lets the reader in on the downfall waiting for the protagonist before the character knows it themselves.

This is a very common and effective literary device in many classic tragedies; Shakespeare was a big fan of using tragic irony in many of his plays. One famous example comes at the end of Romeo and Juliet , when poor Romeo believes that his girlfriend is dead. The audience understands that Juliet, having taken a sleeping potion, is only faking.

Carrying this knowledge with them as they watch the lovers hurtle towards their inevitable, heartbreaking conclusion makes this story even more powerful.

Another example of tragic irony is in the famous fairy tale “Red Riding Hood,” when our red-capped heroine goes to meet her grandmother, oblivious of any danger. The reader knows that the “grandmother” is actually a vicious, hungry wolf waiting to devour the girl, red hood and all. Much like curling up with a classic horror movie, the reader can only watch as the protagonist comes closer and closer to her doom.

This type of irony makes the story powerful, heartbreaking, and deliciously cathartic.

2. Comic irony

Comic irony uses the same structure as dramatic irony, only in this case it’s used to make readers laugh. Just like with tragic irony, this type of irony depends on allowing the reader to know more than the protagonist.

For example, a newly single man might spend hours getting ready for a blind date only to discover that he’s been set up with his former girlfriend. If the reader knows that both parties are unaware of what’s waiting for them, it makes for an even more satisfying conclusion when the two unwitting former lovers finally meet.

TV sitcoms love to use comedic irony. In this medium, the audience will often watch as the show’s characters stumble through the plot making the wrong choices. For example, in the TV series Friends , one pivotal episode shows a main character accepting a sudden marriage proposal from another—even though the audience knows the proposal was made unintentionally.

By letting the audience in on the secret, it gives the show an endearing slapstick quality and makes the viewer feel like they’re a part of the story.

3. Situational irony

Situational irony is when a story shows us the opposite of what we expect. This might be something like an American character ordering “shop local” buttons from a factory in China, or someone loudly championing the ethics of a vegan diet while wearing a leather jacket.

When most people think about ironic situations in real life, they’re probably thinking of situational irony—sometimes called cosmic irony. It’s also one of the building blocks of the twist ending, which we’ll look at in more detail below.

The author O. Henry was a master of using situational irony. In his short story “ The Ransom of Red Chief ,” two desperate men decide to get rich quick by kidnapping a child and holding him for ransom. However, the child in question turns out to be a horrendous burden and, after some negotiating, the men end up paying the parents to take him off their hands. This ironic twist is a complete reversal from the expectation that was set up at the beginning.

When we can look back on situational irony from the past, it’s sometimes called historical irony; we can retrospectively understand that an effort to accomplish one thing actually accomplished its opposite.

4. Verbal irony

Verbal irony is what we recognize most in our lives as sarcasm. It means saying the opposite of your intended meaning or what you intend the reader to understand, usually by either understatement or overstatement. This can be used for both tragic and comic effect.

For example, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar , Mark Anthony performs a funeral speech honoring the character Brutus. He repeatedly calls him “noble” and “an honorable man,” even though Brutus was actually involved in the death of the man for which the funeral is being held. Mark Anthony’s ironic overstatement makes the audience aware that he actually holds the opposite regard for the villain, though he is sharing his inflammatory opinion in a tactful, politically safe way.

Verbal irony works because it contrasts what we think we know. In life, this is sometimes called sarcasm.

Verbal irony is particularly common in older and historical fiction in which societal constraints limited what people were able to say to each other. For example, a woman might say that it was dangerous for her to walk home all alone in the twilight, when what she really meant is that she was open to having some company.

In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice , the two younger girls wail that they’ve hurt their ankles, hoping to elicit some sympathy from the strong arms of the men. You can use this kind of rhetorical device to enhance your character development.

5. Socratic irony

Socratic irony is actually a little bit like dramatic irony, except that it happens between two characters rather than between the characters and the reader. This type of irony happens when one character knows something that the other characters don’t.

It’s a manipulative technique that a character uses in order to achieve a goal—to get information, to gain a confession, or to catch someone in a lie. For example, police officers and lawyers will often use this technique to trip someone up: They’ll pretend they don’t know something and ask questions in order to trick someone into saying something they didn’t intend.

Usually Socratic irony is used in a sly and manipulative way, but not always; a teacher might use the Socratic irony technique to make a child realize they know more about a subject than they thought they did, by asking them leading questions or to clarify certain points. Like verbal irony, Socratic irony involves a character saying something they don’t really mean in order to gain something from another character.

Is irony the same as a plot twist?

The “plot twist” is a stylistic way of using situational irony. In the O. Henry example we looked at above, the author sets up a simple expectation at the start of the story: the men will trade in the child for hard cash and walk away happy. Alas, life so rarely goes according to plan. By the time we reach the story’s conclusion, our expectation of the story has been completely twisted around in a fun, satisfying way.

Not all situational irony is a plot twist, though. A plot twist usually comes either at the end or at the midpoint of your story. Situational irony can happen at any time as major plot points, or as small, surprising moments that help us learn something about our characters or the world we live in.

You’ll often see plot twists being compared to dramatic irony, because they have a lot in common. Both rely on hidden information and the gradual unfurling of secrets. The difference is that with a plot twist, the reader is taken by surprise and given the new information right along with the characters. With dramatic irony, the reader is in on the trick and they get to watch the characters being taken off guard.

In literary terms, a plot twist is a way of using situational irony to surprise and delight the reader.

Both dramatic irony and plot twists can be used quite effectively in writing. It’s up to you as the writer to decide how close you want your readers and your characters to be, and how much you want them to experience together.

How to use irony in your own writing

One of the great advantages of irony is that it forces us to look at things in a new way. This is essential when it comes to communicating theme to your reader.

In literature, theme is the underlying story that’s being told—a true story, a very real message or idea about the world we live in, the way we behave within it, or how we can make it a better place. In order to get that message across to our readers, we need to give them a new way to engage with that story. The innate subversion of expectations in irony is a wonderful way to do this.

For example, the classic fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” uses irony very effectively to communicate its theme: don’t judge a person by their appearance.

Based on our preconceptions of this classic type of fairy tale, we would go in expecting the handsome young soldier to be the hero and the beastly monster to be the adversary. We might also expect the beautiful girl to be helpless and weak-spirited, waiting for her father to come in and save her. In this story, however, it’s the girl who saves her foolish father, the handsome soldier who shows himself to be the true monster, and the beast who becomes a hero to fight for those he cares about.

Not only do these subversions make for a powerful and engaging story, they do something very important for our readers: they make them ask themselves why they had these preconceptions in the first place. Why do we expect the handsome soldier to be noble and kind? Why do we expect the worst from the man with the beastly face before even giving him the chance to speak?

It’s these honest, sometimes uncomfortable questions, more than anything else, that make the theme real for your reader.

When looking for ways to weave theme throughout your story, consider what preconceived ideas your reader might be coming into the story with that might stand in the way of what you’re trying to say. Then see if you can find ways to make those ideas stand on their head. This will make the theme of your story more convincing, resonant, and powerful.

The one mistake to never make when using irony in your story

I’m going to tell you one of life’s great truths, which might be a bit difficult for some people to wrap their heads around. Embrace it, and you’ll leave your readers feeling a lot happier and more satisfied at the end of your story. Here it is:

You don’t need to be the smartest person in the room.

Have you ever been faced with a plot twist in a story and thought, “but that doesn’t make any sense”? Or realized that a surprising new piece of information rendered the events of the plot , or the effective slow build of characterization, absolutely meaningless?

These moments happen because the author became so enamored with the idea of pulling a fast one on the reader, revealing their cleverly assembled sleight-of-hand with the flourish of a theater curtain, that they forget the most important thing: the story .

When using irony in your work, the biggest mistake you can make is to look at it like a shiny, isolated hat trick. Nothing in your story is isolated; every moment fits together as a thread in a cohesive tapestry.

Remember that even if an ironic turn is unexpected, it needs to make sense within the world of your story. This means within the time and place you’ve created—for instance, you wouldn’t create an ironic twist in a medieval fantasy by suddenly having a character whip out a cellphone—but also within the world of your characters.

Irony can—and should—be unexpected, but it should never be irrational.

For example, if it turns out your frail damsel in distress is actually a powerful sorceress intent on destroying the hero, that’s not something you can just drop into your story unannounced like a grenade (no matter how tempting it might be). You need to begin laying down story seeds for that moment right from the beginning. You want your reader to be able to go back and say “ ohhh , I see what they did there. It all makes sense now.”

Irony—in particular the “twist ending”—can be fun, surprising, and unexpected, but it also needs to be a natural progression of the world you’ve created.

Irony is a literary device that reveals new dimension

To understand irony, we need to understand expectation in our audience or readers. When you’re able to manipulate these expectations, you engage your audience in surprising ways and maybe even teach them something new.

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what is the literary device irony

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Dramatic Irony

Definition of dramatic irony.

Dramatic irony is an important stylistic device that is commonly found in plays, movies, theaters, and sometimes in poetry. Storytellers use this irony as a useful plot device for creating situations in which the audience knows more about the situations, the causes of conflicts , and their resolutions before the leading characters or actors. That is why readers observe that the speech of actors takes on unusual meanings.

For instance, the audience knows that a character is going to be murdered, or will make a decision to commit suicide; however, one particular character or others may not be aware of these facts. Hence, the words and actions of the characters would suggest a different meaning to the audience from what they indicate to the characters and the story . Thus, it creates intense suspense and humor . This speech device also emphasizes, embellishes, and conveys emotions and moods more effectively.

Difference Between Dramatic Irony, Situational Irony, and Verbal Irony

Whereas dramatic irony is the irony of words in which the readers and the audiences have a full understanding of the event while the characters are oblivious of it, situational irony is something happening unexpectedly as it was not envisaged before. Therefore, both are different. However, verbal irony is not dramatic as dramatic irony happens in plays and with the character himself, while verbal irony could happen with the character speaking it having full consciousness. This is the main difference between dramatic irony and verbal irony that character is unconscious in the first instance and conscious in the second.

Dramatic Irony vs. Irony

The simple irony could happen in anything; it could be a situational irony or even verbal irony. However, dramatic irony occurs only with a character speaks about what he does not know that has already happened, or that he is completely unaware of it when the audiences are fully aware of the situation. It could be verbal irony or a type of irony but it happens with a character having oblivious of the real situation.

Cosmic Irony

Cosmic irony is a type of irony in which supernatural forces are involved with human beings left to see the situation getting out of their control. It is also called chance in Thomas Hardy . The higher power involved in such a situation could be gods, goddesses, fate, supernatural forces, or cosmic working of the universe having no human involvement, or the power to get involved. This is also called the irony of fate as it happens in Oedipus Rex with Oedipus unknowingly marrying his mother and murdering his father.

Historical Irony

This type of iron occurs when history is something else but has been stated as something else. It is also a type of irony in which a character has to adopt a stance in the past not to do something but has to do it due to the circumstances. This is called historical irony due to the inverse repetition of the same historical moment.

Socratic Irony

This type of irony is feigning ignorance in which a character is fully aware of the situation but feigns that they are totally ignorant. Such characters question innocently and elicit required information through responses given by others. Playing dumb is also a type of Socratic irony. It is adopted in response to the reticence of some people who would not normally concede such information.

Creating Dramatic Irony

  • Think of your characters, their situations, and their conflicts.
  • Decide where to make characters disclose or hide main information from other characters.
  • Place a character in a situation where he should state what he is unaware of.
  • If you have read Hamlet , think about him and Claudius and the situation in which such characters are placed.
  • Create a conversation between characters to show their ignorance of the situation or information that they are disclosing.

Examples of Dramatic Irony from Literature

Example #1: macbeth by william shakespeare.

“There’s no art To find the mind’s construction in the face: He was a gentleman on whom I built An absolute trust.”

This is one of the best examples of dramatic irony. In this case, Duncan says that he trusts Macbeth , not knowing about the prophecy of witches that Macbeth is going to be the king, and that he would kill him. The audience, on the other hand, knows about the prophecy. This demonstrates dramatic irony.

Example #2: There’s Something About Mary by Jonathan Richman

“I’ve done it several times before.” “It’s no big deal.”

Jonathan Richman’s comedy movie, There’s Something About Mary , contains several instances of dramatic irony. For instance, when Ted thinks that the police have arrested him for picking up a hitchhiker, the audience knows that the police are actually interrogating him about a murder. Therefore, when Ted delivers these seemingly-innocuous lines, it is comedic to the audience.

Example #3: Othello by William Shakespeare

“ Othello : I think thou dost. And for I know thou ‘rt full of love and honesty And weigh’st thy words before thou giv’st them breath…”

This is another very good example of dramatic irony when Iago manipulates Othello, and Othello puts his faith in Iago as an honest man. However, Iago is plotting against him without his knowledge. Again, the audience knows that Iago is deceiving, but Othello does not.

Example #4: Oedipus Rex by Sophocles

“If someone knows the killer is a stranger, from some other state, let him not stay mute… I pray, too, that, if he should become an honoured guest in my own home and with my knowledge, I may suffer all those things I’ve just called down upon the killers.”

Oedipus Rex presents one of the best examples of the dramatic irony of all time. In the play , Oedipus seeks to expose the murderer of King Laius to solve a riddle ; nonetheless, he himself is the murderer. Here, he declares that the murderer, who has killed Laius, might also kill him, not realizing the fact that he himself is the murderer.

Example #5: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

“To be able to be free from care, quite free from care; to be able to play and romp with the children; to be able to keep the house beautifully and have everything just as Torvald likes it!”

Nora is delightedly looking forward to those moments when she would be able to pay off her debts to Krogstad. This reflects that she would be free. However, her speech shows the use of dramatic irony when the readers know that her freedom is, in fact, bondage, which she comes to realize by the end of the story.

Function of Dramatic Irony

Many writers use dramatic irony as an effective tool to sustain and excite the readers’ interest. Since this form of irony creates a contrast between the situation of the characters and the episodes that unfold, it generates curiosity. By allowing the audience to know important facts ahead of the leading characters, dramatic irony puts the audience and readers above the characters, and also encourages them to anticipate, hope, and fear the moment when a character would learn the truth behind events and situations of the story.

More often, this irony occurs in tragedies , where readers are led to sympathize with leading characters Thus, this irony emphasizes the fatality of an incomplete understanding of honest and innocent people and demonstrates the painful consequences of misunderstandings.

Synonyms of Dramatic Irony

Like several other literary devices , Dramatic Irony doesn’t have direct meanings. However, some words could be close synonyms for it such as sardonicism, dryness, causticity, sharpness, acerbity, sarcasm , trenchancy, satire , derision, ridicule, sneering, and wryness. Some others could be mockery, sarkiness, and backhandedness.

Related posts:

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  • Verbal Irony
  • 10 Examples of Irony in Shakespeare
  • 15 Irony Examples in Disney Movies
  • 11 Examples of Irony in Children’s Literature
  • 12 Thought Provoking Examples of Irony in History
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  • 10 Dramatic Uses of Apostrophe by Edgar Allan Poe
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what is the literary device irony

William Shakespeare

Everything you need for every book you read..

In Act 1, Scene 2, Hamlet and Claudius have an interaction that reveals the rising  tension between them. The new king has made a speech to his subjects about the joy and sadness he feels in equal measure, having recently lost his brother but gained the throne and his brother’s widow. Claudius’s desire to move on from his brother’s death, as the audience will eventually discover, is motivated by his guilt over murdering for personal gain. He advises the assembled party to move into an atmosphere of celebration instead. As an extension of this attitude, he then criticizes Hamlet specifically for being overly mournful. Claudius says: "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Hamlet, in his response, makes a pun about the weather, saying: 

“Not so, my lord; I am too much in the sun.” Cite this Quote

Hamlet’s response uses verbal irony to push back against Claudius. His retort functions on multiple levels. Firstly, he seems to imply that the sunny disposition of those around him so soon after the death of his father is chafing at him. Hamlet is arguing that no one has seemed to mourn his father properly, and their cheeriness beats down on him as if he's standing in the blazing hot sun. His mother has remarried quickly, and the wedding has invoked a cheerful disposition in the subjects around him. More importantly, though, his response also seems to reject the idea that he is now Claudius’s "son." Hamlet uses the homophone "sun" to ironically comment on the fact that the King has called him "son" too frequently. This double response pushes back against Claudius’s initial comment and makes the tension between these two men clear even before the real source of animosity is revealed.

Appearance vs. Reality Theme Icon

In Hamlet , instances of dramatic irony often come about as a result of Hamlet's tendency to only share certain motivations with the audience (and not with the other characters). For example, in Act 2, Scene 1, Ophelia and her father have a conversation about what they think is a change in Hamlet’s behavior. Ophelia has just had a frightening experience with Hamlet, and she is concerned that he has fallen mad or ill. In response, her father says: 

This is the very ecstasy of love Whose violent property fordoes itself  And leads the will to desperate undertakings Cite this Quote

Polonius and Ophelia both conclude that Hamlet is behaving strangely because he has fallen madly in love with Ophelia. Because Polonius had previously encouraged Ophelia to spurn Hamlet’s advances, they see his behavior as evidence that he has become more invested. However, the audience has knowledge that Polonius and Ophelia don’t, and their understanding of Hamlet’s behavior creates tension in the scene.

Earlier in the play, Hamlet vows to start acting crazy, and the audience therefore understands that the source of his anger and confusion is the news that his father was murdered. His attempts to conceal his knowledge from the other characters in the play create dramatic irony, when the audience understands things about Hamlet’s behavior that other characters cannot. The dramatic irony is important to this scene because it fosters an environment in which dangerous misunderstandings can take place. Most of the dramatic irony in Hamlet stems from his decisions to conceal his real mental state from those around him. That lack of clarity also affects the audience and makes it difficult to determine what is actually motivating Hamlet.

A good example of the play's use of dramatic irony comes in Act 3, Scene 4, which is a significant turning point in the play. Driven by the escalation of tension, Hamlet arrives to confront his mother. Shortly into their conversation, when she begins to feel threatened, the Queen calls for help, and Hamlet realizes that someone is standing behind the curtain. The audience knows that Polonius is behind the curtain, but Hamlet doesn't, and without knowing  who stands there, he kills him. The queen reacts with horror:

Queen: ​​O me, what hast thou done?  Hamlet: Nay, I know not. Is it the King?  Queen: O, what a rash and bloody deed is this! Cite this Quote

In this scene, dramatic irony is created by the fact that the Queen and the audience know that Polonius is behind the curtain, but Hamlet doesn’t know the identity of the "rat." Therefore, the audience realizes that Polonius is dead before Hamlet does. This is an important moment in the play because Hamlet’s action is the first decisive thing he has done in an effort to avenge his father and himself. Once he discovers that he has killed Polonius, his sense of right and wrong becomes further clouded. Immediately after, he is visited by the ghost, and Elsinore slips further into madness.

Hamlet’s last soliloquy takes place in Act 4, Scene 4. Like his previous moments of pause, Hamlet uses the privacy of an empty stage to reflect on his behavior. By this point in the play, he has begun to understand a frustrating pattern in his behavior: he is paralyzed by his fear of making a decision, and he agonizes over what to do until any action seems impossible. In his soliloquy in Act 4, Scene 4, he addresses this pattern directly. He says: 

Now whether it be Bestial oblivion or some craven scruple Of thinking too precisely on th’ event (A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom And ever three parts coward), I do not know Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do," [...] Cite this Quote

Hamlet is spurring himself toward revenge, and in doing so, he is very critical of himself. He calls himself a coward, and bemoans his tendency to overthink. Having access to his mental state at this moment in the play allows the audience to contextualize his future actions. This is his last soliloquy and therefore the last moment the audience sees him express his true thoughts. This is therefore the end of his solo reflection, and his conclusion is to head further into the violence and chaos that are present in the play’s conclusion. The irony inherent in this scene—that Hamlet has begun a monologue about his frustrating tendency to talk instead of act—makes his situation seem even more helpless. He is unable to change his nature, and spends this last moment before the audience cursing himself for it.

Action and Inaction Theme Icon

In Act 5, Scene 2, there is a violent altercation between Laertes and Hamlet. The final events of the play take place as the other characters gather to spectate, and these moments contain dramatic irony.

As is the case with many of the scenes in which groups of characters are present, the question of what information is known by whom becomes very relevant. In this case, the secrets kept have deadly consequences. Ultimately, it is a scene of great violence, and nearly everyone present dies. But before the characters gather, the audience watches as the King poisons the cup with the intention of killing Hamlet. What's more, Laertes has already vowed to enhance his odds in the duel by poisoning the tip of his sword, saying "I'll touch my point / With his contagion, that if I gall him slightly / It may be death." Because of this information, the play's final scene is rife with dramatic irony, as the audience knows important details that not all of the characters are aware of.

This use of dramatic irony makes the audience feel powerless as they watch the various characters unknowingly stumble into their own deaths. The senselessness of the violence is exacerbated by the fact that the audience can anticipate it. This is at its most extreme when the Queen accidentally poisons herself: 

Queen: He’s fat and scant of breath.—Here, Hamlet, take my napkin; rub thy  brows. The Queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet. Cite this Quote

Hamlet: Good madam.

King: Gertrude, do not drink. 

Queen: I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me.

The audience and the King know that the Queen’s death is imminent even before the Queen herself knows it. This instance of dramatic irony thus ratchets up the sense of suspense and anticipation, as the audience helplessly watches the Queen walk into a trap. 

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Literary Devices

Literary devices, terms, and elements, dramatic irony, definition of dramatic irony.

Dramatic irony occurs in a piece of literature when the audience knows something that some characters in the narrative do not. The spectator of a play, or reader of a novel or poem, thus has information that at least some of the characters are unaware of, which affects the way the audience member reacts to the plot. For example, the reader might be aware that a certain trap has been set and feels suspense when an unknowing character is about to walk right into this trap. The tension of the piece therefore depends on the contrast between what the audience and characters know.

Note that in a case of dramatic irony it might be just one character “in the dark,” or indeed all of the characters might be unaware of what is to come. Sometimes an author might use foreshadowing so that he or she reveals the dramatic irony in a situation, such as with the phrases, “Little did I know then” or “If only I’d known.”

The word irony comes from the Greek word εἰρωνεία ( eirōneía ), which means “dissimulation or feigned ignorance.” The definition of dramatic irony developed to distinguish it from other forms of irony, such as situational irony and verbal irony . In each form of irony there is a difference between what seems to be true and what is actually true.

Difference Between Dramatic Irony, Situational Irony, and Verbal Irony

Though there are many different definitions of irony, the three main types of irony are dramatic, situational, and verbal. We will take a quick look at how they are distinguished from each other:

  • Dramatic : The audience knows something the characters do not. There is a special form of dramatic irony called tragic irony in which the audience knows the character is making a mistake as the character is doing something.
  • Situational : A difference between what is expected to happen in a certain situation and what actually occurs.
  • Verbal : A speaker says something that is opposite to the truth or how the speaker really feels. Note that of the three main types of irony, verbal irony is the only one that is done intentionally by a character.

Common Examples of Dramatic Irony

Examples of dramatic irony abound in movies, television, and popular fairy tales. Here are just a few examples:

  • The Truman Show : A man named Truman has been filmed for his entire life, as a kind of proto-reality television series. He only begins to become aware of this fact in adulthood, and thus there is dramatic irony both within the movie as other characters are aware of something Truman is not, and also for the film-going audience.
  • Titanic : At some point before the ship hits the fateful iceberg, a character in James Cameron’s film remarks, “It’s so beautiful, I could just die.” This is dramatic irony because the audience goes into the movie knowing that the ship will ultimately sink.
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarves : We know that Snow White’s stepmother is evil and has poisoned an apple with which to kill her. Thus, when Snow White’s stepmother disguises herself and gives Snow White the apple we try vainly to warn Snow White, knowing what will happen when she bites into the apple.
  • Friends : Just after Rachel gives birth to her daughter Emma, she accepts what she thinks is a proposal from Joey. Joey has actually found the ring in Ross’s pocket, who never intended to propose in the first place. Therefore, there are multiple humorous instances of dramatic irony in which the audience members are the only ones who have all the information until it is all finally sorted out.

Significance of Dramatic Irony in Literature

Authors have used examples of dramatic irony in their works of literature for many centuries. The Greek playwrights in particular were noted for their use of tragic irony, especially in Sophocles’s play Oedipus the King . William Shakespeare also used numerous dramatic irony examples in his plays, either for tragic effect (assumptions leading to murders or suicides) or comedic effect (cross-dressing and false identity). Indeed, dramatic irony can be used for many different purposes. Authors may want to increase suspense or tension to terrify the reader or make them feel the full weight of the tragedy that is about to occur. On the other hand, there can be much humor in dramatic irony if a character believes something to be true which isn’t, such as in the Friends example above.

Examples of Dramatic Irony in Literature

OEDIPUS: And on the murderer this curse I lay (On him and all the partners in his guilt):– Wretch, may he pine in utter wretchedness! And for myself, if with my privity He gain admittance to my hearth, I pray The curse I laid on others fall on me. See that ye give effect to all my hest, For my sake and the god’s and for our land, A desert blasted by the wrath of heaven.

( Oedipus the King by Sophocles)

Sophocles’s play Oedipus the King (also known as Oedipus Rex ) includes many examples of dramatic irony, as well as situational irony. The biggest example of dramatic irony is in this short speech from Oedipus, in which he curses the murderer of his father. This is dramatic irony because Oedipus does not realize who his father is; he is, in fact, his father’s murderer. Thus, Oedipus has actually cursed himself. The audience knows his parentage, but Oedipus is woefully unaware. This is one of the earliest examples of tragic irony.

GRATIANO (giving PORTIA BASSANIO’s ring): Fair sir, you are well o’erta’en. My Lord Bassanio upon more advice Hath sent you here this ring, and doth entreat Your company at dinner. PORTIA: That cannot be. His ring I do accept most thankfully. And so I pray you tell him.

( The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare)

Portia is perhaps the cleverest character in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice . She gives Bassanio a ring to represent their love and tells him not to lose it or give it away under any circumstances. Later, Portia dresses up as a lawyer and argues a case favorably for Bassanio’s friend Antonio. As payment, Portia (still in disguise) asks Bassanio for the ring. Bassanio gives it up. This is an example of dramatic irony because Portia knows what’s going on but Bassanio doesn’t; Portia later accuses him of not loving her enough.

Out of spite, the human beings pretended not to believe that it was Snowball who had destroyed the windmill: they said that it had fallen down because the walls were too thin. The animals knew that this was not the case.

( Animal Farm by George Orwell)

George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm is akin to one long example of dramatic irony. The animals on the farm are unaware of the the pig Napoleon’s true motives. Therefore, when he runs another pig named Snowball off the farm he continues to blame everything that goes wrong on Snowball. The reader knows that Napoleon is behind all the problems on the farm, yet the farm animals remain stubbornly ignorant of this fact.

Test Your Knowledge of Dramatic Irony

1. Which of the following statements is the best dramatic irony definition? A. Someone intentionally says something that is the opposite of the truth. B. The audience knows something that a character doesn’t. C. The opposite of what is expected to happen happens.

2. Which of the following situations is an example of dramatic irony? A. Romeo kills himself thinking Juliet is dead, though the audience knows she has just taken a sleeping potion to feign death. B. Oedipus blinds himself, but that leads to deeper wisdom even though he has lost his sense of sight. C. Belle refuses Gaston’s marriage proposal in Beauty and the Beast, saying “I just don’t deserve you!”

3. Consider the following exchange between Othello and manipulative Iago from Shakespeare’s Othello:

IAGO: And did you see the handkerchief? OTHELLO: Was that mine? IAGO: Yours by this hand. And to see how he prizes the foolish woman your wife! She gave it him, and he hath given it his whore.

Why is this a dramatic irony example? A. The handkerchief was not actually Othello’s handkerchief. B. Desdemona was indeed cheating on Othello, just as Iago alleges. C. Iago conspired to give Desdemona’s handkerchief to Cassio and uses this as evidence that Desdemona is cheating on Othello with Cassio. The audience knows the truth, but Othello is blind to it and acts under false assumptions.


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