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In a school book it is written

Dramatic Irony or Irony of situation: It involves a situation in a play or story in which the audience knows the reality which the speaker or character is ignorant of.

Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth and Hamlet abound in scenes which provide good examples of dramatic irony.

As far as my reading of Macbeth is concerned, I couldn’t find anything like “which the audience knows the reality which the character is ignorant of”. The scene where Macbeth hallucinates and sees Banquo sitting at the feast could be called “which the audience knows the reality ….” but it isn’t that ironical (because for me something is ironical if it involves the opposite of what is being said or expected) and Lady Macbeth and others quite aware of reality. Can someone please explain what the book’s author had in mind when he made such a statement that Macbeth was a good example of dramatic irony?

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3 Answers 3

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Three examples of dramatic irony in Macbeth.

  1. In act I scene VI, Duncan visits Macbeth’s castle at Inverness and shows no signs of apprehension.

    Duncan. This castle hath a pleasant seat. The air
    Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself
    Unto our gentle senses.

    But the audience knows that Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are planning to murder Duncan.

  2. In act II scene III, Macduff arrives at the castle and asks Macbeth to take him to the king.

    Macduff. Is the King stirring, worthy thane?

    Macbeth. Not yet.

    Macduff. He did command me to call timely on him.
    I have almost slipp’d the hour.

    But the audience knows that Macbeth has already murdered Duncan.

  3. In act II scene IV, Macduff tells Ross that Duncan was killed by his own servants on the orders of Malcolm and Donalbain.

    Ross. Is’t known who did this more than bloody deed?

    Macduff. Those that Macbeth hath slain.

    Ross. Alas, the day!
    What good could they pretend?

    Macduff. They were suborn’d.
    Malcolm and Donalbain, the King’s two sons,
    Are stol’n away and fled; which puts upon them
    Suspicion of the deed.

    But the audience knows that none of this is true.

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The other one I'm going to add is not a major one but it's before the banquet scene. Lady Macbeth scolds Macbeth for not being able to move on from their crimes.

"what's done is done."

We, as the audience, already know Macbeth has already taken action to kill Banquo. Macbeth decides to hide his plans from her. This also shows a change in their relationship.

"Be innocent of the knowledge, dearest chuck."

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  • Could you give an exact act/line citation?
    – bobble
    Oct 9, 2021 at 1:54
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There are more instances of dramatic irony in Macbeth than those listed in the two previous answers. Below is a list of examples that have not yet been mentioned.

Act 1, scene 3: "a greater honour"

After Macbeth and Banquo have met the weyard sisters, Angus and Ross brings news from king Duncan. Ross says,

And, for an earnest of a greater honour,
He bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor

Ross's words "greater honour" probably refer to Duncan's "hyperbolic promises" (G. K. Hunter, page 143). Unlike the audience, Ross does not know that Macbeth has heard he will become king and that his words will make Macbeth think of the third prophecy.

Act 1, scene 4: "O worthiest cousin!"

There's no art
To find the mind's construction in the face:
He was a gentleman on whom I built
An absolute trust.

Enter MACBETH, BANQUO, ROSS, and ANGUS

O worthiest cousin!

The first four lines of this speech by Duncan are about the previous thane of Cawdor, who had rebelled against him. The last line is spoken to Macbeth, the new thane of Cawdor, who has been promised kingship. Within a single speech, Duncan moves from condemning the previous thane of Cawdor to trusting the new one. This is dramatic irony unless the audience thinks that Macbeth will simply wait for Duncan's natural death (and possibly the death of Duncan's sons).

Act 1, scene 4: the establishment of primogeniture

Later in the same scene, Duncan says,

We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter The Prince of Cumberland

These words are usually interpreted as establishing primogeniture in Scotland. Under the system of tanistry, which also existed in Scotland, Macbeth may have been a potential successor. The transistion from tanistry to primogeniture in Scotland started under the House of Dunkeld, of which Duncan I was the first king. More importantly, even for spectators unaware of tanistry, Duncan unwittingly puts an obstacle on Macbeth's path to the Scottish throne.

Act 2, scene 4: Malcolm and Donalbain's flight

By the same logic that made Macbeth kill Duncan, he would also need to kill Malcolm, the designated heir, in order to become king. By fleeing from Scotland, Malcolm and Donalbain unwittingly help Macbeth achieve his goal.

Act 3, scene 4: "Were the graced person of our Banquo present"

During the banquet scene, Macbeth says about Banquo:

Here had we now our country's honour roof'd,
Were the graced person of our Banquo present;
Who may I rather challenge for unkindness
Than pity for mischance!

Macbeth is unaware that Banquo has walked in behind his back and is sitting in his place.

Another instance of dramatic irony follows immediately: Ross talks about Banquo's absence without knowing Macbeth has had him killed. Much of the rest of the scene relies on this, since only Macbeth and the audience are aware of Banquo's ghost.

Act 3, scene 6: "Banquo ... / Whom ... Fleance kill'd"

The same fallacious logic that led Macduff to conclude that Malcolm and Donalbain were behind Duncan's death (see Gareth Rees's answer) is applied to Fleance: he has fled so he is suspected of killing his own father. The audience knows that he fled to save his own life, just like Duncan's sons had done.

Verbal echoes

The play's first scenes contain a number of verbal echoes—characters who repeat words they don't know have been spoken by others before—which may also be interpreted as dramatic irony in a looser sense.

  1. Macbeth's words "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (Act 1, scene 3) echo the weyard sisters' words "Fair is foul, and foul is fair" (end of Act 1, scene 1).
  2. Ross's words "hail, most worthy thane!" (Act 1, scene 3) to some extent echo the weyard sisters' "All hail, Macbeth! hail to thee, thane of Glamis" and other uses of the word "hail" by them in the same scene.

References

  • Shakespeare: Macbeth. Edited by G. K. Hunter. The New Penguin Shakespeare. Penguin, 1967.

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