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dramatic irony

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Definition:

An occasion in a play, film, or other work in which a character's words or actions convey a meaning unperceived by the character but understood by the audience.

See also:


Examples and Observations:

  • "Simply put, dramatic irony is when a person makes a harmless remark, and someone else who hears it knows something that makes the remark have a different, and usually unpleasant, meaning. For instance, if you were in a restaurant and said out loud, 'I can't wait to eat the veal marsala I ordered,' and there were people around who knew that the veal marsala was poisoned and that you would die as soon as you took a bite, your situation would be one of dramatic irony."
    (Lemony Snicket, The Reptile Room. HarperCollins, 1999)


  • "Etymologically, irony comes from the Greek word for dissembling, and the ancient Greeks used it in reference to that abiding preoccupation of theirs, the gap between appearance and reality, or between truth and belief. What interested them most was dramatic irony, which is what occurs when the reader or the audience knows something that a character doesn't (Oedipus was the favorite example); far from being funny, this was for the Greeks the stuff of tragedy."
    (Charles McGrath, "No Kidding: Does Irony Illuminate Or Corrupt?" The New York Times, Aug. 5, 2000)


  • "Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows more than one or several of the characters onscreen, a condition which pushes audience attention into the future because it creates anticipation about what is going to happen when the truth comes out. That anticipation is known as ironic tension, and it is bracketed by a scene of revelation (the moment the audience is given information of which a character is unaware) and recognition (the moment when the character discovers what the audience has already known . . .). Dramatic irony comes in two flavors--suspense, which can be used to inspire fear in the audience, and comic, in which a misunderstanding is 'milked' to produce laughter. . . .

    "In There's Something About Mary (1998), [when] Ted thinks he's been arrested for picking up a hitchhiker while the audience knows he's being questioned by police about a murder, otherwise innocuous lines he delivers, such as 'I've done it several times before' and 'It's no big deal,' generate laughter."
    (Paul Gulino, Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach. Continuum, 2004)


  • Alfred Hitchcock on Dramatic Irony
    "Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, 'Boom!' There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the audience knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: 'You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb beneath you and it’s about to explode!'"
    (Alfred Hitchcock, quoted by Francois Trauffaut in Hitchcock, rev. ed. Simon & Schuster, 1985)
Also Known As: tragic irony
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