In a dark movie theater, you’re at the edge of your seat as the screen shows a scene where a ruthless killer is slowly creeping up on their victim.
You shout out at the screen RUN AWAY!
But you’re helpless because the victim seems naively unaware.
Dramatic irony examples like the above evoke intense emotions that intuitively engross an audience.
Whether you’re a student who loves creative writing, a professional in literature, film, TV or stage, or just a reader who’s curious about this literary technique, you need to understand dramatic irony.
So let’s explore the true meaning of dramatic irony and identify famous examples in literature, stage, film, and TV.
What is Dramatic Irony?
Dramatic irony is a literary device that lets the audience or the reader in on the secret before the character becomes aware of it.
Eventually, your character becomes conscious of the truth.
But the story along the way creates an uncomfortable, humorous, sometimes terrifying dialogue that hooks your audience — compelling them with the NEED to know how the story unfolds.
Let’s dive into the following dramatic irony examples in action!
Dramatic Irony Examples in Literature: The Unforgettable Classics
1. Romeo and Juliet
In William Shakespeare’s famous play, the audience knows that Juliet is asleep but at the same time, her suitor Romeo believes her to be dead. This sets off a chain of events that results in the leading characters to end their lives.
Only the audience knows of their actual plans, which makes for a genuinely agonizing story to experience as it comes to its tragic end.
In another classic Shakespeare play, the audience knows MacBeth plots to kill King Duncan. But King Duncan is oblivious to MacBeth’s plans as he devotes his loyalty to MacBeth, saying, “He was a gentleman on whom I built an absolute trust.”
MacBeth, destined to be king as prophesied by the witches, must kill King Duncan — putting the audience in a precarious state, wondering how King Duncan will meet his demise.
Again, Shakespeare creates a classic play where the titled character Othello is led to believe by Lago that his wife has cheated on him. Unbeknownst to Othello, the audience knows that Lago is plotting to kill him.
Othello’s trust in this traitor creates a nail-biting drama that ultimately has Othello taking his own life.
4. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
In this Brothers Grimm fairy tale, Snow White is offered an apple by an old woman disguised as the Queen who wants to kill her. Unfortunately, Snow White does not know this and takes a bite from the drugged apple — falling seemingly to her death.
What unfolds is a story with audiences at the edge of their seats as the tables turn and the Queen, not Snow White, meets her untimely death and is forced to dance in hot iron shoes.
5. Oedipus Rex
In this Greek tragedy by Sophocles, Oedipus (or King Oedipus/Oedipus the King), the main character, is the murderer he seeks. The audience, aware that Oedipus is the killer of King Laius, is then taken on a journey that leads Oedipus back to himself and his ultimate demise.
The story follows the ironic musings of Oedipus, thinking at one point that the murderer of King Laius might also kill him.
6. The Hunchback of Notre Dame
In Victor Hugo’s classic tale, Quasimodo (the Hunchback of Norte Dame) assumes that gypsies were harming his beloved Esmerelda — while the audience knows they were acting as Esmerelda’s savior.
Stricken with grief, Quasimodo takes the life of Frollo, responsible for Esmerelda’s hanging, and eventually passes from starvation — as he cannot live without his beloved Esmerelda.
Dramatic Irony Examples in Film & TV: Anxiety on Steroids
This 1960 classic suspense thriller by Alfred Hitchcock takes place in the infamous shower scene. The main character Marion Crane steals money from her boss. While on the run, she encounters bad weather and decides to spend the night at the Bates Hotel — deciding to return the money the next day.
Unfortunately, the audience knows this will be the last shower she takes as the owner Norman Bates, a schizophrenic psychopath, lurks in the shadows to take her life.
Jaws, the original horror movie directed by Steven Spielberg in 1975, depicts shark attacks on innocent beachgoers at a summer resort town.
The dramatic irony in this movie takes you to what’s happening below the water, clueing you into the shark’s next snack before the victims are aware of their demise — causing a terrifying frenzy of emotions that has the audience screaming at the movie, “Get out of the water!”
3. Three’s Company
In this classic 1977 sitcom that aired for 8 seasons, Jack Tripper, the main character, is platonically shacking up with Chrissy and Janet. To pull off this lifestyle with the suspicious landlord Stanley Roper, the three tenants convince him that Jack’s gay.
The dramatic irony takes shape around a comedic story with twists and turns trying to keep the truth from Stanley — while involving romantic tension that can’t help but unfold between the three characters.
4. The Truman Show
In this 1998 psychological satire, Truman Burbank, a kind-hearted insurance salesman, has been unwittingly living in a 24/7 reality show for 3+ decades since birth. His every move is captured by the manipulative television producer Christof. Every aspect of Truman’s life is fake as his life unfolds in an elaborate movie studio with an imposter neighborhood.
The Truman Show entices the audience to root for Truman to discover the truth, even if it’s the most painful thing he’ll have to confront.
5. The Lion King
In this Disney movie, Simba, the lion prince and heir to his father, King Mufasa, finds himself in a situation where his loyalties align with his uncle Scar. However, unknown to Simba, Scar is manipulating him to kill his father and mother to take over the throne.
The audience, in on the secret, feels deeply for Simba as he grieves his father’s passing as he thinks he is the one to blame for his death even though it’s Scar’s doing all along.
Frozen is a Disney movie that follows the character of Queen Elsa, whose magical powers could turn things into ice and cause permanent winter to befall in her kingdom. As the audience discovers, Elsa hides this fact from her sister Anna because she fears hurting her — causing Elsa to go into hiding.
The audience is captivated by the story as Anna tries to reconcile their relationship where she’s completely unaware of her sister’s secret.
7. The Silence of the Lambs
This movie follows FBI agent-in-training Clarice Starling as she tries to get into the mind of serial murderer Buffalo Bill — by interviewing an already imprisoned murderer, cannibal, and psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter.
The pivotal scene comes at the movie’s end, where Buffalo Bill is stalking Clarice. It shows how the murderer observes Clarice in a dark room, watching her every move through night vision goggles. The helpless audience cringes as she tries to confront this cannibalistic murderer in the dark.
8. The Godfather
In this 1972 gangster film, the character Michael Corleone devises a plan to kill Sollozzo and McCluskey without their knowledge. At a restaurant where all three are frisked to ensure no one is carrying weapons, the scene follows Michael into the bathroom to retrieve a gun hidden in the back of a toilet.
The raw emotion portrayed as Michael returns to the dinner table with the concealed gun allows the audience to feel the ensuing adrenaline building up just seconds before he opens fire on both Sollozzo and McCluskey, killing them both.
What Are the Effects of Dramatic Irony?
The dramatic irony in this gut-busting funny movie “There’s Something About Mary” pivots to a scene where Ted is picked up by the police to be interrogated for murder, all while thinking he’s being busted for picking up a hitchhiker. The joke is on Ted as the audience is fully aware of Ted’s intent — lending itself to a hilarious scene.
As you may recall, another clever use of dramatic irony comes in suspense movies like The Silence of the Lambs, where the audience knows where the killer is while Clarice tries desperately to find her bearings in the dark.
The 3 Stages of Dramatic Irony Dissected
Follow the next three stages to spice up your writing with dramatic irony.
First, you’ll want to examine your characters in depth to understand their situations and conflicts. Next, decide who becomes aware of the plot and who will be oblivious.
Put your character in a story that renders them clueless about a situation. Then be sure to highlight their ignorance of what’s going on by action, speech, or dialogue (either internal or external) to show the audience you’re in on the secret.
Lastly, you’ll want to create a resolution of the conflict — whether expected or totally out of the blue. Allowing your character in on the secret and creating a solution, whether wanted or not, is the recipe to generate dramatic irony.
Other Types of Irony That You’ve Never Heard Of
1. Situational Irony
Situational irony creates conflict between what’s expected to happen and what unfolds.
The tragic ending of Romeo and Juliet overlaps dramatic irony with situational irony. While the audience knows the secret that both Romeo and Juliet carry, they are thrown for a loop by their double suicide.
2. Historical Irony
Historical Irony is a subset of situational irony, using history to define the expected from the unexpected.
It helps storytellers bring reflections from the past to infuse into the present, creating a repetition that doesn’t allow the character to deviate from his fate.
While the character may be oblivious to the happenings of the future (dramatic irony), historical irony sets the stage to repeat the past.
3. Verbal Irony
When a speaker says the opposite of what they mean, it’s considered verbal irony.
For example, you can greet a person who’s had a horrible day by asking them how they’re doing, and they reply to you by saying I’m just fine.
Verbal irony differs from dramatic irony because the character is fully aware of the truth but chooses to hide it.
4. Tragic Irony
With tragic irony, things don’t typically work out in the end.
In the movie Psycho, the audience feels resolved when Marion decides to return the money she stole from her boss — only to be met with her dreadful death in a shower the night before. This scene overlaps tragic irony with dramatic irony.
5. Cosmic Irony
Cosmic irony involves supernatural powers that render characters helpless or out of control — including gods, goddesses, fate, supernatural forces, or the cosmic workings of the universe.
Also known as the irony of fate, this example unfolds in the story of Oedipus, who, unbeknownst to him, marries his mother and kills his father — creating a coinciding model of dramatic mixed with cosmic irony.
6. Socratic Irony
Socratic irony has the character playing dumb. The character knows what’s happening but would rather not divulge information to intensify the story and manipulate it.
Socratic irony differs from dramatic irony, where the character in this story sometimes fools both characters and the audience.
Never Forget These Dramatic Irony Examples Again!
Are you starting to become an expert that spots dramatic irony from the get-go?
Do you recall the scary music playing as the shark in “Jaws” rushes through the water to eat its next meal?
Or, the scene in “Meet the Parents” where Gaylord Focker pretends to know what his future father-in-law’s circle of trust means?
Remember you’re letting your audience or the reader in on a secret that other characters may be clueless about — investing them emotionally within the story.
With your dramatic irony antennae up, have fun understanding and pointing out this captivating storytelling device in action.