Teach Figurative Language with Flocabulary
Check out the lyrics and more.
Articulating a simple irony definition can be daunting. It’s a large concept, but irony can be broken down into three central categories. We’ll define each of these three main types of irony, and provide examples from plays, short stories, essays and poems.
Definition: There are three types of irony: verbal, situational and dramatic.
Verbal irony occurs when a speaker’s intention is the opposite of what he or she is saying. For example, a character stepping out into a hurricane and saying, “What nice weather we’re having!”
Situational irony occurs when the actual result of a situation is totally different from what you’d expect the result to be. Sitcoms often use situational irony. For example, a family spends a lot of time and money planning an elaborate surprise birthday party for their mother to show her how much they care. But it turns out, her birthday is next month, and none of them knew the correct date. She ends up fuming that no one cares enough to remember her birthday.
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows a key piece of information that a character in a play, movie or novel does not. This is the type of irony that makes us yell, “DON’T GO IN THERE!!” during a scary movie. Dramatic irony is huge in Shakespeare’s tragedies, most famously in Othello and Romeo and Juliet, both of which we’ll examine later.
Why Writers Use It: Irony inverts our expectations. It can create the unexpected twist at the end of a joke or a story that gets us laughing — or crying. Verbal irony tends to be funny; situational irony can be funny or tragic; and dramatic irony is often tragic.
Irony in Shakespeare and Literature
Dramatic Irony in Othello
Othello is one of the most heartrending tragedies ever written, and Shakespeare’s use of dramatic irony is one of the reasons the play is so powerful to read and watch.
We know that the handkerchief used as proof of Desdemona’s infidelity was, in fact, stolen by Emilia at Iago’s behest. Desdemona was framed by Iago, and we know she is innocent. But we are powerless to stop Othello; he has resolved to murder his wife.
Iago, whom Othello considers a friend, has been plotting Othello’s demise for the duration of the play. Othello does not know that Iago is the one pulling the strings, but we do. We know he is the one who convinces Roderigo to kill Cassio, even as we watch him pretend to help Cassio after he is wounded. Only we see Iago kill Roderigo before he can reveal the truth. In this way, we are complicit with Iago’s misdeeds. We are the only witnesses, and yet we can do nothing.
Dramatic Irony in Romeo and Juliet
In the final act of this archetypal love story, Shakespeare employs dramatic irony to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
Friar Laurence sends a messenger to tell Romeo about Juliet’s plan to drug herself into deathlike coma. We watch in horror as the messenger fails to deliver this vital piece of information. And though we know that Juliet is not really dead, we see Romeo poison himself because he cannot live without her.
Verbal Irony in A Modest Proposal
Johnathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal is a classic example of verbal irony. He begins seemingly in earnest, discussing the sad state of destitute children:
[…] whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.
Seems reasonable enough. But things take a very ironic turn:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee or a ragout.
Is Swift sincerely proposing that we eat children? No, but he has indeed inverted our expectations and written a wonderfully ironic essay.
Situational irony in The Gift of the Magi
In this short story by O. Henry, a wife sells her hair to buy her husband a watch chain, and her husband sells his watch to buy her combs for her hair. Both have made sacrifices in order to buy gifts for one another, but in the end, the gifts are useless. The real gift is how much they are willing to give up to show their love for one another.
Situational irony in “Messy Room” by Shel Silverstein
Whosever room this is should be ashamed!
His underwear is hanging on the lamp.
His raincoat is there in the overstuffed chair,
And the chair is becoming quite mucky and damp.
His workbook is wedged in the window,
His sweater’s been thrown on the floor.
His scarf and one ski are beneath the TV,
And his pants have been carelessly hung on the door.
His books are all jammed in the closet,
His vest has been left in the hall.
A lizard named Ed is asleep in his bed,
And his smelly old sock has been stuck to the wall.
Whosever room this is should be ashamed!
Donald or Robert or Willie or–
Huh? You say it’s mine? Oh, dear,
I knew it looked familiar!
The speaker criticizes the room’s owner at length, only to discover that the room is his own.
Check Out the Previous Literary Terms in the Series
Share your best examples of irony in the comments!
In a general sense, irony is a rhetorical device that is characterized by incongruity in the real situation and what is expected. The deliberate use of irony, especially in literary works and speeches, is used to emphasize a point. It is a language that in some of its forms understates facts, denies the contrary of the truth, or states the opposite of the truth. In all it’s forms, it elicits a similar effect to the audience. There are many types of irony used as literary devices, but we shall focus only on three: verbal, dramatic and situational irony.
Verbal Irony Examples
When there is an incongruity between what is stated and what is. Generally, one of the two elements is an antithesis to the other, creating an ironic contradiction. Here are some examples of verbal irony:
- A man looked out of the window to see the storm intensify. He turned to his friend and said “wonderful weather we’re having!”
- Simple phrases, usually in the form of similes, with obvious incongruities ie: clear as mud, smooth as sandpaper, friendly as a coiled rattlesnake
- In literature, Mark Antony’s speech following the assassination of Cesar is an excellent classic example. Mark Antony praises the assassin Brutus as an ambitious and honorable man while at the same time condemning him.
- Exclaiming “oh great” after failing an exam
- As pleasant as a tooth canal
- As sunny as a winter day in Alaska
- This steal is a tender as a leather shoe
- The weather is as cool as a summer day in the Midwest
- In the Scarlett Letter, Dimmesdale’s confession and discussion of his congregation that was meant to get him to be shunned only led to the people to so the opposite
Verbal irony involves speakers’ intentional contradictory propositions in his or her word choice.
Dramatic Irony Examples
Dramatic irony is much seen in plays and movies as a powerful plot device that directly involves the audience and spectators. Usually in the case, the audience have more knowledge than the protagonist, which allows them to see ironic situations more clearly.
Examples of dramatic irony:
- In Shakespeare’s Oedipus Rex, the audience are aware that Oedipus’s journey to find the murderer will be fruitless because he himself is the murderer
- In King Lear, the audience knows from the beginning that Lear’s loyal daughter is Cordelia, but Lear does not see this
- In the Truman show, the audience know that the show for what it is, a show. However, Truman only learns this as the show progresses
- In Romeo and Juliet, the former thinks Juliet is dead, buy the audience know that she only took a sleeping potion
- In Othello, audiences know that Iago is plotting the downfall of Othello while Othello himself is unaware.
- In Star Wars, the audience know that Darth Vader is Luke’s father, but Luke does not know until episode V
- In Breaking Bad, Schraeder is looking for a crystal meth producer who happens to be his brother in law. However, only the audience knows this fact, not Schrader
- In horror movies, the audience is aware that there is a killer in the house, but the character does not and they proceed to enter
- In Hamlet, people know that Hamlet is not really mad and that he knows the full truth about his father’s murder.
- In Toy Story, human characters are not aware that the toys speak and move while the audience is aware
Dramatic irony generally has great impact on the audience in terms of being engaged with the performance. By allowing them in on a secret or allowing them to have more knowledge than the characters, the irony keeps them anticipating.
Situational Irony Examples
This happens as a result of disparity between intention and results. As an ironic outcome happens as a result happens to be contrary to the intention. It is also called event irony an the outcome is sometimes humorous.
Examples of situational irony:
- A marriage counselor filed for divorce
- A teacher failed a test
- Gunpowder was discovers in the process of looking for the elixir for immortality
- In The Gift of Magi by O. Henry, the wife cuts her hair to sell it in order to have the money to buy her husband a pocket watch chain. The husband then sells the watch to buy her a hair accessory.
- Fahrenheit 451 is in the top 100 banned books in the US
- An anti technology website
- A fire station burns down
- A traffic cop got his license suspended due to unpaid tickets
- A pilot with a fear of heights
- A couple seeking divorce rediscover their love for each other run the process of filing for divorce
- In Oedipus Rex, Oedipus’s father only fulfills the prophecy of him being killed by his own son after trying to avoid it and sending him away
- Robbery at a police station
- A post on Facebook about how useless it now is
- Being thirsty in the sea
- A fertility counselor struggles to get pregnant
- A hungry cook
- A shoemaker without shoes
Sometimes humorous, this type of irony is a useful literary device that can be used in everyday conversations.
Irony is a powerful tool in literature and writing. When used correctly, it has the power to connect to the audience on a whole other level that could not have been otherwise established. Verbal irony is a contradiction between the current situation and what the speaker explicitly expresses. The contradiction has the power to emphasize on the seriousness of the situation. In dramatic irony, the audience are given the upper hand in having a bit more information about the characters. In this case, they know a critical piece if fact that the character does not. Situational irony is one which entails a discrepancy between the character’s intentions and the outcome. The two usually contradict each other to create a humorous effect.
In literary works, and so abundantly in Shakespeare’s literature, the use of irony is used to create a powerful impact on the message. It creates an exceptional uniqueness in speech and literature when used by creating a sort of a puzzle in the reader and the audience’s mind. It has the same effect on speeches as well by driving the intended point home by employing he device’s contrasting nature. Above is an insight with this respect.