A Midsummer Night's Dream


William Shakespeare

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A Midsummer Night's Dream: Dramatic Irony 3 key examples

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Definition of Dramatic Irony
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a character's understanding of a given situation, and that of the... read full definition
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a character's understanding of a given... read full definition
Dramatic irony is a plot device often used in theater, literature, film, and television to highlight the difference between a... read full definition
Act 2, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—The Mistake:

In Act 2, Scene 2, Robin has been instructed by Oberon to place the nectar on Demetrius’s eyes, thereby making him fall in love with Helena. Oberon’s intentions are good when he makes this request, as he hopes to create a reciprocal and loving relationship. But the error that Robin makes in executing this request ends up creating dramatic irony, since the audience knows how he has erred and thus understands why there is so much confusion amongst the concerned parties. When Robin stumbles across Lysander and Hermia and moves to put the nectar on Lysander’s eyes, he says: 

Night and silence! Who is here? 
Weeds of Athens he doth wear. 
This is he my master said 
Despisèd the Athenian maid.
And here the maiden, sleeping sound 
On the dank and dirty ground. 
Pretty soul, she durst not lie 
Near this lack-love, this kill courtesy.—
Churl, upon thy eyes I throw 
All the power this charm doth owe.

The audience knows that Robin has stumbled upon the wrong pair of Athenians. When they watch Robin put the love potion on Lysander’s eyes, they understand that he is making a mistake before he does. They are put in the position of anticipating the consequences of his actions—rage from Oberon and a storm of confusion for the lovers—before these consequences play out. This instance of dramatic irony adds to the atmosphere of confusion and anticipation.

Because the lovers are deathly serious, the consequences of Robin’s behavior significantly impact their wellbeing and their belief in love. The audience can sense the nature of the mix-ups that follow Robin’s initial mistake, and they are forced to watch them take their course, as witnesses and carriers of information that the lovers themselves don't know.

Act 3, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—The Ass's Head:

In Act 3, Scene 1, Robin transforms Bottom’s head into that of an ass while he is separated from his fellow players. When he returns, his friends are horrified by his transformation, but Bottom, who cannot see himself, believes that they are making fun of him. He creates dramatic irony by speculating about their intentions in front of the audience, which has witnessed his transformation and understands its source. Bottom makes an unknowing pun, further accentuating his ignorance. He says: 

I see their knavery. This is to make an ass of 
me, to fright me, if they could. But I will not stir 
from this place, do what they can.

The audience has seen his transformation and therefore understands why his friends have responded the way they have to his appearance. The dramatic irony in this scene creates a sense of pity for Bottom, who is suffering from Robin’s magical manipulation. His inability to understand what has happened is made more comical by how obvious it is to everyone around him. Even his friends’ attempts to explain that something has changed don’t clue him into the fact that there is another force at play. Therefore, the audience is included in the joke at Bottom’s expense: they understand why he has been transformed, and they must watch him as he attempts—in his ignorance—to make sense of his situation. This instance of dramatic irony is therefore intended to have comedic effect, as the audience watches a helpless character’s unfortunate circumstances grow more and more absurd. 

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Act 3, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Confusion and Spite:

In Act 3, Scene 2, the consequences of Robin’s mistakes have led the lovers into great conflict. The audience has seen the source of the dramatic change Lysander and Demetrius’s behavior, but the lovers themselves are mystified and hurt by the switch up. The dramatic irony created by the magical interference in their affections prevails throughout their scenes of conflict. When Hermia shows up, hurt that Lysander left her behind while she was sleeping, Helena reaches her limit. She says: 

Lo, she is one of this confederacy! 
Now I perceive they have conjoined all three 
To fashion this false sport in spite of me.

Helena believes that Lysander and Demetrius are mocking her by pretending to be in love with her. She goes on to accuse Hermia of setting Lysander and Demetrius on her, despite their friendship, and she expresses the depth of her hurt and confusion. Helena feels baited, and she decides that the other three are in on it together. The dramatic irony created by Robin’s liberal application of the love potion thrives on the lovers’ seriousness. Both the depth of their loving relationships and the manipulation that shifts their affection makes for these extreme scenes of drama between the four of them. The audience is helpless, as they understand that the lovers are being manipulated. The extended dramatic irony makes the hardship of love seem blinding and inescapable, as the characters suffer for each other senselessly. Their conflict is due to a simple misunderstanding, and yet the consequences are extreme.

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