Dramatic Irony



William Shakespeare

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Cymbeline: 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 3, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—The Road to Execution:

In a moment of grim comedy punctuated by dramatic irony, Imogen unknowingly foreshadows later events in the play. When Pisanio attempts to moderate her excitement about Posthumus's apparent return to Britain and suggests that they could travel no more than 20 miles in a day, Imogen responds impatiently: 

Why, one that rode to's execution, man, 
Could never go so slow: I have heard of riding wagers, 
Where horses have been nimbler than the sands 
That run i' the clock's behalf. 

Imogen argues that Pisanio is underestimating how quickly they can travel to Milford Haven, where Posthumus has asked her to meet him clandestinely. An individual being driven “to’s execution,” she argues, would still go faster than 20 miles a day. Imogen’s morbid joke relies upon the assumption that someone being driven to their execution would likely want to move as slowly as possible in the hopes of gaining time and delaying their death.

However, Imogen does not understand just how well this example applies to her own situation. Posthumus’s letter was part of a murder plot, as Posthumus has arranged for Imogen to be killed on the way to her destination. Her offhand comment about execution, then, foreshadows her later discovery that her husband intends to murder her as punishment for what he falsely believes to be her infidelity to him. 

Explanation and Analysis—Blessèd Milford:

In a scene saturated with dramatic irony, Imogen excitedly reads the letter she has received from Posthumus: 

Hear’st thou, Pisanio? 
He is at Milford Haven. Read, and tell me 
How far ’tis thither. If one of mean affairs 
May plod it in a week, why may not I 
Glide thither in a day? Then, true Pisanio, 
Who long’st like me to see thy lord, who long’st— 
O, let me bate—but not like me, yet long’st 
But in a fainter kind—O, not like me, 
For mine’s beyond beyond—say, and speak thick— 
Love’s counselor should fill the bores of hearing 
To th’ smothering of the sense—how far it is 
To this same blessèd Milford.

Imogen is thrilled to read that her husband has returned to England and plans to meet her in a Welsh town named Milford Haven, famed for its safe harbor. She implores Pisanio to read the letter and to tell her how quickly they might get to Milford Haven. If someone conducting ordinary business can get there in a week, she reasons, then she might be able to get there in a single day due to her love for Posthumus. In her state of excitement, she trips over her words, stating that Pisanio must be as excited as her, then correcting herself and suggesting that she must be far more excited than him, and then politely acknowledging that his excitement must still be very great, even if it is not as great as hers.

Her joy in this scene and her impatience to get to “blessèd Milford” as quickly as she can are undercut with dramatic irony. In the previous scene, the audience has learned that the letter is part of a dark plot to kill Imogen, organized by none other than Posthumus himself. This gap in knowledge between the audience and Imogen heightens the tension of this scene. The unsuspecting Imogen, the audience understands, is excitedly rushing to her own death. 

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Act 3, Scene 6
Explanation and Analysis—Were You a Woman:

Following Pisanio’s advice, a distraught Imogen disguises herself as a young man, hoping to gain employment with the Roman ambassador Lucius in order to gain information about Posthumus, who has returned to Britain with the invading Roman army. In a scene suffused with dramatic irony, she unknowingly meets Guiderius and Arviragus, her long-lost brothers: 

Were you a woman, youth, 
I should woo hard but be your groom in honesty, 
Ay, bid for you as I do buy. 

I’ll make ’t my comfort 
He is a man. I’ll love him as my brother.—
And such a welcome as I’d give to him 
After long absence, such is yours. Most welcome. 
Be sprightly, for you fall ’mongst friends. 

’Mongst friends? If brothers— ( aside ) 
Would it had been so, that they 
Had been my father’s sons! Then had my prize 
Been less, and so more equal ballasting To thee, Posthumus.

The two young men and Imogen, who is dressed as a young man, take an instant liking to each other and develop a fast but close bond. The audience, however, knows that these three young people are actually siblings, a fact that renders the scene deeply ironic. Guiderius quickly grows fond of the disguised Imogen, noting that, if she were “a woman” then he would attempt to “woo her” into marriage, not realizing that Imogen is in fact a young woman, but also an unacceptable object for his attraction. Arviragus, operating in a similar state of ignorance, declares that he loves Imogen as “a man,” and will treat him as a “brother” who has simply returned after a long “absence.” Imogen returns their warm feelings, wishing that they truly were her brothers so that she would not be in line for the throne and therefore free to marry Posthumus. Shakespeare derives a good deal of humor in this scene from the characters’ ignorance of their status as siblings. 

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