What Is Dramatic Irony? | Definition & Examples

Rhetoric updated on  December 6, 2023 5 min read
Dramatic irony is a literary device in which the audience knows something that the characters in a work of fiction do not. As a result of their limited knowledge, the characters often make flawed decisions and face the consequences.

Dramatic irony is used to create suspense as the audience is unsure when and how the character will find out what is actually happening.

Dramatic irony example
Suppose you are watching a horror movie and you know the killer is hiding in the bedroom closet. The protagonist enters the room unaware of what is lurking in the dark. This is an example of dramatic irony: you have a piece of crucial information that one of the characters doesn’t have.

Because dramatic irony helps to create tension and build up the audience’s anticipation, it is a storytelling device used in many genres, such as horror, comedy, and drama. If you want to explore creative writing, use QuillBot's paraphrasing tool!

What is dramatic irony?

Dramatic irony is a type of irony that occurs when the audience is privy to information that at least one character in the story is not. Because this information is important for the plot, the character is forced to speak or act in ignorance and eventually face the consequences. In contrast, the audience knows where the story is headed and waits for the truth to be revealed.

In literature, dramatic irony is a common trope used in both comedy and drama. Writers use dramatic irony to engage the audience. In drama, the contrast between what the characters know and what the audience knows can be used to create suspense or evoke sympathy or anxiety (e.g., because the audience feels helpless watching tragic events unfold). In comedy, this discrepancy can lead to funny misunderstandings.

How does dramatic irony work?

Dramatic irony typically involves three stages:


At this stage, the audience is presented with information that a character in the story is unaware of. This places the audience a step ahead and sets the stage for the contrast between what the audience knows and what the character knows.

Dramatic irony example: Preparation
In William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the audience knows that the main character has been influenced by the witches, and that he has ambitions to steal the throne from the legitimate king of Scotland. However, Kind Duncan himself is not aware of Macbeth’s plans to kill him. This sets the stage for the unfolding tragedy.


Suspension refers to the length of time until the character learns the truth. During this time, the gap in awareness between the audience and the character increases.

The audience can clearly see the impending misunderstandings and consequences that the character remains oblivious to. Gradually, the tension builds up. The longer the dramatic irony is drawn out, the higher the suspense for the audience.

Dramatic irony example: Suspension
In Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, Oedipus is determined to uncover the cause of the plague in the city of Thebes and the truth about his own parentage. However, the audience knows that Oedipus is in fact the cause of the plague, because he killed his father and married his mother. The tension builds up as the narrative progresses, and Oedipus gets closer to discovering the shocking truth.


At this final stage, the characters discover the truth and face the consequences of their actions. Depending on the genre, the audience can feel relief, amusement, or a sense of tragedy. Here, dramatic tension is released.

Dramatic irony example: Resolution
The film The Truman Show is built on dramatic irony: the audience knows that Truman is the protagonist of a reality TV show, but Truman does not know. The resolution comes when Truman discovers the truth and decides to leave the fake town where he had lived all his life.

Dramatic irony vs situational irony

Dramatic irony and situational irony are similar in that they both involve an unexpected turn of events. However, they are not exactly the same.

With dramatic irony, the real meaning of actions, words, or situations is readily understood by the audience but remains hidden from one or more of the characters in the story. When the truth is finally revealed, it is unexpected for the character, but not for the audience. For example, in Shakespeare’s Othello, the audience knows in advance that Desdemona has been faithful all along, but the titular character discovers this much later in the play.

In contrast, situational irony occurs when the result of an action is the opposite of what was expected. With situational irony, the unexpected reality is revealed to the audience and character simultaneously. For example, in Aesop’s fable The Tortoise and the Hare, the reader, just like the hare, does not expect the tortoise to win the race.

Dramatic irony examples

Dramatic irony is used as a plot device in literature to emphasize recurring themes in a story.

Dramatic irony in literature
In Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Quasimodo believes Esmeralda is in danger, especially from the Roma who have taken refuge in the Court of Miracles. The dramatic irony lies in the fact that the reader knows that the Roma are not a threat to Esmeralda. On the contrary, they want to help her.

However, Quasimodo, driven by his protective instincts and his limited understanding of the situation, sees them as potential enemies. This dramatic irony creates tension and highlights the theme of “appearance versus reality,” which is central to the story.

In theater, dramatic irony helps to keep the audience engaged.

Dramatic irony in Romeo and Juliet
“Ah, dear Juliet, / Why art thou yet so fair? Shall I believe / That unsubstantial death is amorous, / And that the lean abhorred monster keeps / Thee here in dark to be his paramour? / For fear of that, I still will stay with thee, / And never from this palace of dim night / Depart again.”

These lines from Act 5, scene III, are rife with dramatic irony. Romeo stands before Juliet’s lifeless body, thinking she is dead. However, the audience is aware that Juliet has taken a sleeping potion to fake her death. Romeo’s remarks about how beautiful and untouched by death Juliet seems heightens the dramatic irony and intensifies the emotional impact of the scene.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, rhetorical devices, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.

Common mistakes

Commonly confused words


Whoa or woah

Advisor vs adviser


Theirs or their's

Accept vs except


Ours or our's

Affect vs effect

Verbal irony

Forty or fourty

Among vs between


Sence or sense

Anymore vs any more


Frequently asked questions about dramatic irony

What is the difference between dramatic and verbal irony?

Dramatic irony and verbal irony are both forms of irony, but they have distinct goals and functions.

Dramatic irony is a literary device used in novels, plays, and films. It occurs when the audience possesses information that a character in a story is unaware of. It is a literary technique used to add suspense as the audience eagerly waits for the truth to be revealed.

Verbal irony, on the other hand, is not only used in literature, but in everyday conversation too. It occurs when the literal meaning of a word or phrase is different from its real meaning. Verbal irony is used to make a point, to express sarcasm, or to create humor.

In other words, dramatic irony involves a contrast between what the audience knows and what the characters within the story know, whereas verbal irony involves a contrast between what is said and what is meant.

What is tragic irony?

Tragic irony is a variation of dramatic irony

With tragic irony, the audience possesses information that one of the characters does not, but also the character’s ignorance has fatal or tragic consequences. Sometimes, the audience will know about the tragic outcome from the beginning of the story. For example, in ancient Greek drama, the audience was already familiar with the plot because it was often based on well-known myths.

What is an example of dramatic irony in Macbeth?

An example of dramatic irony in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is King Duncan’s praise of Macbeth for his loyalty and recent successes in battle. 

In Act 1, King Duncan arrives at Macbeth’s castle and expresses his gratitude toward Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The audience knows that Macbeth and his wife are plotting to kill the king, but Duncan himself is unaware of their treacherous plan. This discrepancy between Duncan’s praise and the audience’s knowledge of the murder plot creates dramatic irony.



Kassiani has an academic background in Communication, Bioeconomy and Circular Economy. As a former journalist she enjoys turning complex information into easily accessible articles to help others.

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