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Types of Irony

Updated on April 3, 2013
Shakespeare frequently employed irony in his work.
Shakespeare frequently employed irony in his work. | Source

Irony can be one of the most difficult literary terms to accurately define and locate in written work, but it is nevertheless an extremely important technique, not only revealing an immense amount regarding characters and plot, but also forcing the reader to deeply consider the situation that is being explored by the author. Unlike sarcasm, which is understood by all, and therefore creates a single audience, irony drives a wedge between the characters and the readers/audience, dividing them into two categories: those who understand the proceedings and those who have misunderstood. In other words, it creates a double audience, separating the deceived from the undeceived. Who falls into each group depends on the category of irony that has been utilised, of which there are three primary types:

  • Dramatic Irony: This occurs when the speaker himself is deceived about the implications of his actions/words, voicing a truth that he doesn’t recognise, whilst the readers/audience are aware of that truth. This type of irony is extremely prominent in the play of Oedipus, as the eponymous character remains unaware of his past and its consequences, driving the plot towards an inevitable climax of which the audience has been painfully aware the whole time.

  • Verbal Irony/Rhetorical irony: When both the speaker and the readers/audience remain undeceived. The speaker will say something that his/her actions or tone, for example, belie, revealing the words to be markedly different from the meaning behind them, and therefore from their actual intentions. Such irony occurs within the following lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, ‘Yet Brutus says he was ambitious;/And Brutus is an honourable man,’ as Antony is actually expressing Brutus’ lack of honour.

  • Situational Irony: This is when a situation occurs, but the opposite expectation results. Therefore a tension is achieved between our expectations and the actual outcome of an event. Situational irony could be said to occur in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where the witches' predictions of Macbeth’s future come about in unexpectedly brutal ways.

Irony is a difficult concept to understand, rendered no simpler by the various forms in which it manifests itself. Despite its difficulty, however, it is an extremely important literary technique, and the time should therefore be taken to understand its function within literature.

For information on more literary techniques click here.


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