The Tragedy of Knowing
Dramatic irony is often employed in tragedies to engage the audience into what is taking place. By having knowledge of something that is occurring, the audience is able to witness a character’s error of action which other characters are unaware aware of. In turn, the knowledge gives the audience foresight of the particular character’s fate. It is the foresight induces the audiences tragic feeling’s of sorrow and grief.
In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet“
Dramatic irony is used in Hamlet to aspects of dishonesty and mischief, while incorporating tragedy. The ironic situations often take place when Hamlet is finally in pursuit of action.
In Act 3, Scene 4, Hamlet is asked by his mother, Gertrude, to reveal what was making him act like he was crazy. Hamlet believes that Gertrude is truly having a heart to heart with him and really desires to put Hamlet’s troubles to ease. However, what Hamlet does not know is that Gertrude allows Polonius to hide being the arras to overhear their conversation for King Claudius. As the audience, we are aware that Polonius is in the room with Gertrude and Hamlet, but Hamlet is unaware of his presence. By arguing to Gertrude over her marriage to his uncle Claudius, Hamlet’s emotions of hate towards Claudius were beginning to boil and it was as if Hamlet would commit to anything under impulse. At this point, Hamlet is in complete control over Gertrude, using physical force to pressure her to admit her guilt. While still listening from being the arras, Polonius, believing that the Queen could be in danger, calls out for help. Tragically, as an audience, we know that Hamlet will act on impulse by confusing Polonius for Claudius. Although Hamlet is unknown of the identity of the man hiding being the arras, he assumes it is Claudius and acts irrationally, killing Polonius. Even immediately after the incident, it is revealed that Hamlet was not sure that he had killed Claudius when he says “Is it the king?” (Act 3, Scene 4, Line 32). It is tragic that the dramatic irony of this scene made is predictable for the audience to determine Polonius’ fate. In this case, Polonius suffers for his mischief.
Dramatic irony also comes in play is in Act 5 Scene 2, when Gertrude is mistakenly murdered. King Claudius, pretending to be alongside Hamlet, presents a cup of what appears to be an alcoholic beverage to Hamlet for his excellent in fencing against Laertes. However, the cup is poisoned with the intoxicants acquired by Laertes. The audience is well aware of the King’s plot to dispose of Hamlet if Laertes fails to do so himself. Luckily, Hamlet does not drink the deadly concoction saying that “I’ll play this bout first. Set it by awhile.” (Act 5, Scene 2, Line 292). Consequently, Gertrude, also presuming the cup is filled with alcohol, takes a drink for Hamlet because she is proud of him and “carouses to thy fortune” (Act 5, Scene 2, Line 299). With the purpose of the poison for Hamlet, King Claudius warns “Gertrude, do not drink.” (Act 5, Scene 2, Line 301). Because she does not see a reason why she should not celebrate her son’s skills in fencing, the Queen takes a drink. Queen Gertrude’s gesture to Hamlet only led her to her fate. It was all because of the King’s dishonest measures that leaves the audience knowing that she will inevitably fall to her tragic death without the ability to be saved. Futhermore, the King is aware that he has unintentionally poisoned her, yet, he does not speak up. Instead, King Claudius makes the excuse that “She swoons to see them bleed.” (Act 5, Scene 2, Line 323) when Gertrude collapses shortly after she takes the drink. The audience feels sorrow for her death caused by another individual’s dishonesty. Hence, the death of Queen Gertrude was a tragic death displayed through dramatic irony.
A situation taking place aside the main plot of the play is the movement of Fortinbras. It is ironic that the audience knows that Fortinbras and his army is not attacking Polack, but invading Denmark to restore honor and a piece of land taken from Norway back when King Hamlet was in power. Claudius, is blind-sided by this and has granted Fortinbras easy entry into Denmark, thinking that it is a direct passage for them to attack Polack. This situation is another example of how dramatic irony is used through dishonesty. Fortinbras and his army arrive at the castle in Act 5, Scene 2, to find King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Prince Hamlet, and Laertes dead in front of the throne. He notices that there are no longer any successors to the throne, and therefore he “claim my vantage doth invite me.” (Act 5, Scene 2, Line 412). This is tragic because we are used to having the protagonist succeed with his endeavours. Here, we want Hamlet to succeed by killing Claudius and taking his rightful place to the throne. But as the course of incidents played out, Hamlet was slashed by the poisoned-tipped sword of Laertes and was not able to become King. It is tragic that things do not turn out as expected, leaving Fortinbras able to exploit the opportunity to crown himself as the King of Denmark.
The dramatic irony in Hamlet is used to emphasize the how mischief and dishonesty can lead to tragic occurrences. This can be seen through the deaths of Polonius and Queen Gertrude, as well as the rise of Fortinbras, as the new King of Denmark.