Dramatic Irony is a literary device commonly used by playwrights in their plays. It occurs when the audience understands the implication and significance of a specific situation on stage, whereas the characters are unaware of the gravity of the meanings underlying that situation.
Characterized as one of the hallmarks of Shakespearean tragedies, dramatic irony is used to build and sustain audience’s interest thereby keeping them actively engaged in the play. Some of its examples in “Romeo and Juliet” are given below with analysis.
Dramatic Irony in Romeo and Juliet
pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life… (Prologue 6)
The aforementioned verse, taken from the prologue, highlights the first instance of dramatic irony in the play. In this line, the chorus asserts that the play about is going to revolve around two lovers who commit suicide.
The irony resides in the fact that this tragic end is revealed to the audience but not to the characters involved in it. Thus, from the outset, the audience becomes aware that Romeo and Juliet’s love is destined to fail whereas the main characters remain oblivious to this fact.
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth, with their death, bury their parents’ strife. (Prologue 7-8)
The above revelation is made by the chorus in the prologue of the play. Referring to the deaths of the two passionate lovers, the chorus emphasizes that the legacy of rivalry between the Capulets and Montagues will only end after the tragic deaths of their children, Romeo and Juliet.
The irony is inherent in the fact that the unfortunate deaths of two lovers will bring about a peaceful resolution to an otherwise long-standing conflict between their families. The irony is further intensified by the fact that while the audience is aware of it, the two rival families remain obstinately unaware of the consequences of their animosity.
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss. (I.v. 105-107)
These heartfelt lines are uttered by a love-struck Romeo who regards himself as an ardent pilgrim and Juliet as his scared shrine. As a self-professed and devoted pilgrim, Romeo pleads that he be allowed to kiss his holy shrine. The ironic fact about the entire wooing incident is that at this stage Romeo is not aware that Juliet is the daughter of the Capulets, his family’s archrivals. Thus, he unknowingly falls in love with his nemesis.
Alack, there lies more peril in thine eye
Than twenty of their swords! Look thou but sweet,
And I am proof against their enmity. (II. ii. 76-78)
These lines are uttered by Romeo to Juliet in the renowned balcony scene. In these particular verses, Romeo is trying to reassure Juliet that she needs not worry about her family issuing threats to him. Moreover, Romeo tries to convince Juliet that her sweet and loving gaze will protect him from all dangers.
Romeo is confident that their love will win against all odds. Yet, the audience is aware that Juliet’s fears are not unfounded. In fact, nothing can protect the young lovers from their doomed romance.
Alas poor Romeo! he is already dead;
stabbed with a white wench’s black eye;
shot through the ear with a love-song; (II. iv. 14-16)
The aforementioned remarks are made by Mercutio while he is conversing with Benvolio. The conversation revolves around Romeo’s love-stricken state. The irony resides in the fact that whereas both Mercutio and Benvolio assume that Romeo is craving for Rosaline, the audience is aware that reality is contrary to their perception, and that Juliet is the newfound center of Romeo’s love and affection.
Ah, well-a-day! he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead!
We are undone, lady, we are undone!
Alack the day! he’s gone, he’s kill’d, he’s dead! (III. ii. 42-44)
Juliet’s nurse delivers the aforementioned disturbing news in relation to Tybalt’s death. The nurse only used the pronoun “he” to describe who died. Juliet thought that the nurse was referring to Romeo. She thought that he has been killed. This has made her become engulfed in sadness. As opposed to Juliet, the audience is aware that Romeo is still alive which exacerbates the dramatic irony underlying the situation.
Where I have learn’d me to repent the sin
Of disobedient opposition
To you and your behests, and am enjoin’d
By holy Laurence to fall prostrate here,
And beg your pardon… (IV.ii. 18-22)
Juliet makes the above-mentioned earnest remarks in an effort to give her father the impression that she is a dutiful daughter who harbors no intention to contest her parents’ wishes. Although Juliet’s feigned earnestness convinces her father that she has happily conceded to marry Paris, the reality is that she is only pretending to be an obedient, respectful daughter.
The audience is aware that Juliet has already made a prior plan with the Friar to drink the sleeping potion and has no intention of marrying Paris. This contrast between Capulet’s naiveté and the actual truth known by the audience, contributes to the dramatic irony and tension of the scene.
If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep,
My dreams presage some joyful news at hand. (V. i. 1-2)
Uttered by Romeo, the aforementioned verse is replete with manifold layers of dramatic irony. The first instance of irony resides in the fact that although Romeo anticipates joyful news, moments later Balthasar ushers in and delivers the news of Juliet’s death.
This terrible news leads Romeo to commit suicide. Romeo does not know the ultimate reason why Juliet has committed suicide. He did not know what drove Juliet in order to do this act. Out of his love, he decided to follow and commit suicide too.
I could not send it,- here it is again, –
Nor get a messenger to bring it thee,
So fearful were they of infection. (V. ii. 14-16)
Friar John made these remarks in response to Friar Laurence’s inquiry about the letter supposedly dispatched to Romeo. Romeo is supposed to be informed of Juliet’s plan to take the sleeping potion to escape her marriage. However, the above revelation by Friar John highlights that plague outbreak made him unable to deliver the letter to Romeo.
The irony is inherent in the fact that due to this failure to deliver the letter, Romeo stays unaware of the fact that Juliet is alive — a fact that would have otherwise saved his life.
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… (V. iii. 101-107)
Romeo uttered these lines when he saw Juliet lying in the tomb. The dramatic irony implicit in the aforementioned verses evokes sympathy in the audience. Overwhelmed by his love for Juliet, Romeo makes a pledge to join his beloved in the dim night of death. The fact that Juliet appears beautiful and utterly untouched by death highlights the dramatic irony underlying this tragic scene, since Juliet is actually sound asleep and not dead.