Dramatic irony happens when the reader has more information on what is taking place or what may develop in the story before the character or the characters. The reader may know that the character is depending on untrustworthy people, even his enemies, or that he is taking step towards a wrong solution, but the main character or the other characters inside the story may not be privy to those the facts.
Most writers consider dramatic irony as the most powerful means to keep readers’ interest on the story by creating a contrast between the character’s present situation and the action that will unfold.
As a literary tool, dramatic irony not only puts the reader in a superior position, but also, it encourages his curiosity, his hopes, and his fears concerning when and if the character will find out the truth inside the events or situations in the story. Sometimes, the dramatic irony of the truth may be hidden in the backstories of the characters; at other times, it may surface from a misunderstanding between the characters. Then, it may lurk inside a deception that the reader knows of but the main character doesn’t.
A less effective dramatic irony also happens when the character knows something the reader does not. Even if this scheme creates curiosity as to why a certain character is behaving in an odd way, if pushed too far and not handled with skill, it may tire the reader easily.
During the times of antiquity, dramatic irony appeared in Greek and Roman literature in stage plays when the chorus or a narrator talked to the audience and informed the people about the facts that the characters in the play did not know of. Maybe because of this, dramatic irony is also called tragic irony, although dramatic irony is not necessarily tragic.
In modern times, this style of informing the reader is accomplished on stage by a character talking “aside” or by a narrator as in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” or by the master of ceremonies as in the movie “Cabaret.”
The most used example of dramatic irony is from early Greece in Sophocles’s play Oedipus Rex. Oedipus does not know that he is the one who killed his own father unknowingly and committed incest with his own mother. When Oedipus tells his brother-in-law–Creon–that a man is a fool if he thinks that he can sin against his family and escape the wrath of the gods, the audience understands the range and the effect of Oedipus’ words better than Oedipus himself.
Dramatic irony plays a significant part in the success of many of Shakespeare’s plays. For example: in Merchant of Venice, the audience knows that Lancelot is deceiving his father; in Tempest, Miranda does not know that Gonzalo is on the island, but Prospero and the audience do; in Macbeth, Duncan is unaware of Macbeth’s plans but the audience knows; in Othello, the audience is on to Iago’s deception, but Othello is not; and in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Two Gentlemen of Verona misunderstandings among the characters are obvious to the audience, but not to the characters.
George Orwell uses dramatic irony in Animal Farm through the difference of what the animals are aware of and what the readers recognize. The reader knows that the pigs have used the money from the sale of Boxer to the horse slaughterer to buy whiskey.
In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, readers already know that Elizabeth doesn’t care for Darcy. Then Darcy, too, finds out that fact when Elizabeth rejects his proposal. When Emma–in Emma by Jane Austen, again–plays with the lives of people around her, the readers are privy to her intentions but the characters in the novel are not.
In most historical stories, because the readers know the historical facts, they may be ahead of the characters living inside the stories. One such heart-rending journal belongs to Anne Frank.
With his first-rate thrillers, Dean Koontz, also, creates great suspense and holds his readers spellbound by staging and overlapping sensational events that the readers understand beforehand but the characters do not.
In the TV series, Smallville featuring Superman episodes, the teenager Clark Kent is unaware of his background and what Lex Luthor will mean to him in the future while the viewers are already familiar with these facts.
The active involvement and expectations of the readers and audiences always heighten the intensity and propel a forward motion in any story. Thus, the tool of dramatic irony should not be neglected by a writer who wants to keep his readers on their toes.