Notes on Dramatic Irony in Hamlet

Dramatic Irony is a form of irony which is a literary device. Shakespeare employs it in his works masterfully. It happens when the audience knows more than the events and the world of the play more than those characters in that play. It involves the whole structure of the work.

In the play Hamlet, a few major characters’ awareness of their situation is critically different from that of the reader. Therefore, their actions go in contradiction to what the readers may be anticipating. It turns the whole work very engaging for the readers. It enhances their emotional participation in the play.

In the very first Act of the play, the ghost of Hamlet’s father reveals to him that his death was not due to what everyone might be thinking of rather it was the betrayal of Claudius who poured poison into his ear when he was asleep.

Now, this knowledge isn’t known to all major characters Hamlet interact with but his friends, and the audience and himself. Here the dramatic irony is the clash of Hamlet’s actions aware of that knowledge with the actions of for example Gertrude, Polonius, Laertes and Claudius himself who doesn’t know in the beginning that Hamlet already knows the truth of his crimes.

Hamlet jostles across all these and it results in his delay from taking revenge for his father’s death. In the third Act of the play, Polonius admits his crime when he says, “my offence is rank, it smells to heaven; It hath the primal eldest curse upon’t, a brother’s murder.”

It is the knowledge known to the only audience but Claudius doesn’t know that Hamlet knows it about him and Hamlet knows that Claudius doesn’t know that it has already been revealed to him. It is a situation where multi-layered dramatic irony is working.

Hence, we see that Claudius feels like he can’t pray because of the graveness of his crime and Hamlet thinks of not killing him while he is praying because it may send him to heaven which he doesn’t want. In the same Act, Hamlet visits his mother Gertrude, the queen.

Only the audience and the queen know that Polonius who was talking to her earlier is hiding behind the tapestry. When Hamlet successfully unnerves Gertrude, it threatens her composure, it reveals her true character and she shouts for help and Hamlet sensing someone behind the tapestry, mistakes it for Claudius and stabs Polonius and he dies.

The whole engaging power of this scene is due to this dramatic irony which helps contrasting out the coming tragedy in the plot. In the last Act of the play, Claudius pursues Laertes successfully into a fencing match and convinces Hamlet to take part in it too.

Here, both of them plot against him by dipping Laertes’ sword into poison so that Hamlet dies in the match and as a backup plan Claudius has poisoned the wine kept on the table which will kill Hamlet nevertheless but the dramatic irony is that Hamlet and Gertrude are unaware of it.

Dramatically, their sword gets exchanged, both of them die and before the queen sips from the wine unknowingly and dies. The truth about Claudius is revealed. Laertes makes it up with Hamlet but the whole scene is so engaging because certain characters’ knowledge isn’t known to certain other characters.

It makes it just like life where we can only know the motive behind our own actions and hardly that of others. Hamlet’s plot employs Dramatic Irony that brilliantly.