Updated December 15, 2020

Dramatic Irony in Twelfth Nigh

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Dramatic Irony in Twelfth Nigh essay
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One of Shakespeare’s most prevalent literary devices is dramatic irony and it is more than abundant in Twelfth Night. In brief, dramatic irony is when the audience knows something the characters do not. Shakespeare uses dramatic irony to present his views on love and friendship.

In this essay, I will create a focal point on the first part of the question, “Given that the audience knows what is going to happen” and look at the effect of dramatic irony on the privileged position it gives the audience, on its use as a humorous technique and as a device to create suspense.

Privileged Position of the Audience

Dramatic irony is used in Twelfth Night in the form of deception, confusion and mistaken identity. The use of dramatic irony keeps the audience on the inside, endowing them with a great position of knowing the hidden truth . Orsino believes that Olivia will pay more attention to Cesario and be able to relate to him better because he is young and has feminine features. The Duke does not realise that Cesario looks this way because she is actually a woman.

The resulting effect of dramatic irony is that of satisfaction and enjoyment; the audience enjoys being in on the secret. They are placed in a position of power, they relate to the character and they are brought into the story, whilst keeping this sense of superiority over the characters. The audience feels privileged as they understand the true meaning of the words and actions on the stage whilst the characters are oblivious.

Comedy and Dramatic Irony

There is irony in the behaviour of the characters as they are not capable of grasping the reality of truth. It produces a humorous effect as the characters’ ignorance becomes ridiculous, making the play more interesting and entertaining for the audience. This creates the most important element of a comedy… comedy.

Maria writes a love letter pretending to be Olivia to Malvolio to get revenge. The letter demands that he is cross-gartered and wears yellow socks so that Olivia knows he has gotten the letter, two things that in reality Olivia hates. Olivia thinks he is mad and he is caged. This is a key example of dramatic irony forming comedy. It also creates a setting for a great deal of irony where the characters make comments that take on a double meaning.

Suspense and Dramatic Irony

Even further dramatic irony is used to create suspense, the audience knows that something will happen. To relate to what Alfred Hitchcock said there is a strong difference in between surprise and suspense and when combined together they create the highlight of the story. Suspense is what is expected, however we are left to wonder how it will play out. And so the viewers of the play are left to think and anticipate.After all, whatever the reason is for using it, dramatic irony creates an increase in the audience’s tension and concern, and a kind of unity between the audience and the characters.


In short, dramatic irony is what brings the majority of a play’s richness and value, the actors are not in a position to experience this rich phenomenon, and so the play is far less fun/exciting/interesting for them. If we focus on a more fundamental point, a play is made to be seen to be appreciated and watched, so the actors cannot feel this either. It is the responsibility for the actors to maintain the comedy and suspense night after night for the audience, even though of course the actors know exactly how the play is going to unfold.

Dramatic Irony in Twelfth Nigh essay

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