Literature Revealed: Dramatic Irony

by Madeleine Rex

“You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world! This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have—arm yourselves!”

This year, in AP Literature and Composition, I’ve been assigned a remarkably difficult weekly task. I must turn in two analyses of literary terms within literature we are reading for class, explaining the context, affect, and relation to the story as a whole. Because these are taking up the time I would otherwise spend blogging, I figure I can post them here in case anyone finds them remotely interesting. Personally, I love this assignment. It’s ridiculously tedious and never-ending, but the critical thinking involved is so much fun.

Most of my terms are from William Shakepeare’s Hamlet and E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View. I shall post two a week (like my assignment). They’re not too long, I promise! To prove it to you, I’ll post one today.

P.S. I’m making this picture of David Tennant the picture related to “Literature Revealed” because he is awesome.
P.S.S. WARNING: SPOILERS

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Dramatic Irony: The contrast between what a character is privy to or understands in a particular situation and the understanding and knowledge of the audience.

Example:
“At such time I’ll loose my daughter to him.
Be you and I behind arras then.
Mark the encounter. If he love her not,
And be not from his reason fall’n thereon,
Let me be no assistant for a state,
But keep a farm and carters”
(II.ii. 160-164).

Function: Hamlet is a story laced with deception. Most characters seem clever and conniving, often working against each other for a certain purpose, whether it be discovering truth, personal gain, or, in Hamlet’s case, vengeance. In the passage above, King Claudius’s right-hand man, Polonius, is sharing with Claudius a plan aimed to determine Hamlet’s state of mind and the cause thereof. Polonius believes Hamlet has been driven mad by love for Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia. In order to confirm this, he hatches this plan to arrange a “coincidental” meeting between the two of them, while he and the King observe from behind drapes (“arras”). Little does Polonius know that Hamlet planned his “insanity.” In Act One, Scene Five, Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus,

“Here as ever before, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd some’er I bear myself
(As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on),
That you, at such times, seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumbered thus, or this head-shake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As “Well, we know,” or “We could, if we would,”
Or “If we list to speak,” or “There be, and if they might”
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me – this do I swear,
So grace and mercy at your most need help you”
(I.vi. 168-179).

This passage clues the reader in, warning them that they will likely find Hamlet much changed, acting irrationally with “an antic disposition” (insane look), and that it is immensely important no one is told it is a ruse. He proceeds to make both Horatio and Marcellus swear they will tell no one. Hamlet desires the King to believe he has gone mad, with the hope that the King will let his guard down and pay no attention to him. Then Hamlet might strike unexpectedly and avenge his father’s death. This plan of Hamlet’s is set in motion the moment he acts insane before Ophelia, knowing Polonius’s character and that he is very aware of what goes on in his children’s lives. Hamlet trusts Ophelia will tell her father of their encounter (which she does, in Act Two, Scene One), and that Polonius, as second-in-command, will report to the King. This Polonius does in the example quoted above. The dramatic irony stems from the fact the reader is aware of Hamlet’s scheme and that Polonius is unwittingly following it exactly. In line 164, Polonius goes so far as to swear he is right, and that if he is not, he is not the King’s right-hand man, but a farmer with a horse-drawn wagon. Considering Polonius’s character, there is probably little he cares for or identifies with more than his position in the Danish court (a position obviously quite influential due to the power of monarchy in the 1600’s), so this expression of certainty is incredibly serious. He has no idea his actions are precisely what Hamlet predicted they would be. Another domino falls in Hamlet’s plotted chain of events, and, inevitably, they will continue to fall until the fateful scene is enacted by the players, and Hamlet can catch the King by surprise.

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