Macbeth

by

William Shakespeare

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Macbeth: Dramatic Irony 3 key examples

Read our modern English translation.
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 1, scene 7
Explanation and Analysis—Duncan's Murder:

The discovery of Duncan's murder in Act 2, Scene 3 is an extended moment of dramatic irony. The audience is aware that Duncan is dead, but Macduff and Lennox are oblivious, an ignorance that Macbeth maintains by making comments that imply the king is still alive.

Lennox: Goes the king hence today?

Macbeth: He does. He did appoint so.

The audience knows that Macbeth is responsible for the murder, but when Macduff announces that Duncan is dead, Macbeth feigns surprise:

Macbeth and Lennox: What's the matter?

Macduff: Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple and stole thence
The life o’ th’ building.

Macbeth: What is 't you say? The life?

When Lady Macbeth arrives on the scene, Macduff initially refuses to tell her what has happened, fearing that the news will devastate her feminine sensibilities:

Macduff: O gentle lady,
’Tis not for you to hear what I can speak.
The repetition in a woman’s ear
Would murder as it fell.

This concern is highly ironic, since Lady Macbeth was the one who planned and assisted with the killing of Duncan. In Act 1, Scene 7, she even questioned her husband's manhood when he proved reluctant to carry out the crime:

Lady Macbeth: Who dares receive it other,
As we shall make our griefs and clamor roar
Upon his death?

In the same scene, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plan how they will pretend to react to news of Duncan's death with grief and horror:

Lady Macbeth: Who dares receive it other,
As we shall make our griefs and clamor roar
Upon his death?

As a result, in Act 2, Scene 3, the audience sees through Lady Macbeth's swooning and Macbeth's explanation for killing Duncan's guards:

Macbeth: O, yet I do repent me of my fury,
That I did kill them.

Macduff: Wherefore did you so?

Macbeth: Who can be wise, amazed, temp’rate, and furious,
Loyal, and neutral, in a moment? No man.
Th’ expedition of my violent love
Outrun the pauser, reason. [...]

In this passage, Macbeth tries to suggest that he flew into a "violent" passion that overtook his ability to see "reason." So although the other thanes believe him when he claims to have murdered the guards out of a sense of rage and loyalty, the audience knows that he did it to conceal evidence of his own crime—creating yet another instance of dramatic irony.

Act 2, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Duncan's Murder:

The discovery of Duncan's murder in Act 2, Scene 3 is an extended moment of dramatic irony. The audience is aware that Duncan is dead, but Macduff and Lennox are oblivious, an ignorance that Macbeth maintains by making comments that imply the king is still alive.

Lennox: Goes the king hence today?

Macbeth: He does. He did appoint so.

The audience knows that Macbeth is responsible for the murder, but when Macduff announces that Duncan is dead, Macbeth feigns surprise:

Macbeth and Lennox: What's the matter?

Macduff: Confusion now hath made his masterpiece.
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord’s anointed temple and stole thence
The life o’ th’ building.

Macbeth: What is 't you say? The life?

When Lady Macbeth arrives on the scene, Macduff initially refuses to tell her what has happened, fearing that the news will devastate her feminine sensibilities:

Macduff: O gentle lady,
’Tis not for you to hear what I can speak.
The repetition in a woman’s ear
Would murder as it fell.

This concern is highly ironic, since Lady Macbeth was the one who planned and assisted with the killing of Duncan. In Act 1, Scene 7, she even questioned her husband's manhood when he proved reluctant to carry out the crime:

Lady Macbeth: Who dares receive it other,
As we shall make our griefs and clamor roar
Upon his death?

In the same scene, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth plan how they will pretend to react to news of Duncan's death with grief and horror:

Lady Macbeth: Who dares receive it other,
As we shall make our griefs and clamor roar
Upon his death?

As a result, in Act 2, Scene 3, the audience sees through Lady Macbeth's swooning and Macbeth's explanation for killing Duncan's guards:

Macbeth: O, yet I do repent me of my fury,
That I did kill them.

Macduff: Wherefore did you so?

Macbeth: Who can be wise, amazed, temp’rate, and furious,
Loyal, and neutral, in a moment? No man.
Th’ expedition of my violent love
Outrun the pauser, reason. [...]

In this passage, Macbeth tries to suggest that he flew into a "violent" passion that overtook his ability to see "reason." So although the other thanes believe him when he claims to have murdered the guards out of a sense of rage and loyalty, the audience knows that he did it to conceal evidence of his own crime—creating yet another instance of dramatic irony.

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Act 3, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Banquo's Ghost:

In Act 3, Scene 4, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth host a banquet for their various lords. As the guests are arriving, Macbeth learns that his plot to murder Banquo has been successful. The resulting scene is therefore filled with dramatic irony—since none of the thanes are aware that Banquo is dead, they speak about him as if he were still alive and fail to find it strange when Macbeth continues to remark on his absence: 

Macbeth: Here had we now our country’s honor roofed,
Were the graced person of our Banquo present,
Who may I rather challenge for unkindness
Than pity for mischance.

Ross: His absence, sir,
Lays blame upon his promise. Please ’t your
    Highness
To grace us with your royal company?

The above exchange is especially ironic because Macbeth, who ordered Banquo's murder, falsely expresses his hope that no tragic accident has befallen him. Ross, oblivious to Banquo's fate, reassures Macbeth that he is merely being rude.

The appearance of Banquo's ghost in Macbeth's seat is another instance of dramatic irony, since only Macbeth and the audience are able to see the specter. The lords, meanwhile, continue to insist that the seat is empty.

Macbeth: The table's full.

Lennox: Here is a place reserved, sir.

Macbeth: Where?

Lennox: Here, my good lord. What is 't moves your highness?

Macbeth: Which of you have done this?

Lords: What, my good lord?

Lady Macbeth, who is also unable to see the ghost, scolds her husband for what she views as irrational and foolish behavior:

Lady Macbeth: This is the very painting of your fear.
This is the air-drawn dagger which you said
Led you to Duncan. O, these flaws and starts,
Impostors to true fear, would well become
A woman’s story at a winter’s fire,
Authorized by her grandam. Shame itself!
Why do you make such faces? When all’s done,
You look but on a stool.

Lady Macbeth thinks that the ghost, like the bloody dagger Macbeth saw earlier, is merely an illusion, but the audience knows that the two visions are different—they never saw the dagger, but they do see Banquo's ghost.

The thanes accept the explanation that Macbeth's behavior is due to his "strange infirmity," and the banquet continues. Macbeth, however, continues to make unprompted comments about Banquo:

Macbeth: I drink to th’ general joy o’ th’ whole table
And to our dear friend Banquo, whom we miss.
Would he were here!

In this passage, Macbeth is expressing his regret at having killed Banquo, since he now finds himself haunted by the man's ghost. But the thanes, who are ignorant of Banquo's death and Macbeth's involvement, think that Macbeth is merely disappointed about Banquo's absence.

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Act 4, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Macduff's Family:

In Act 4, Scene 2 of Macbeth, assassins surprise Macduff's castle at Fife and slaughter his wife and children. Although the arrival of the murderers comes as a horrific surprise to Lady Macduff, the audience has just overheard Macbeth's plan to invade Fife and already knows the fate that will befall Macduff's family. 

The murder of a defenseless woman and her child is an inherently tragic affair, but Shakespeare's use of dramatic irony makes this scene particularly heartbreaking. Lady Macduff quickly establishes herself as a pragmatic and headstrong individual, traits that associate her with comedic heroines like Much Ado About Nothing's Beatrice or The Merchant of Venice's Portia. But Macbeth is not a comedy, and even as the audience gets to know Lady Macduff and listens to the affectionate and rather funny conversation she has with her son, they are keenly aware that she is about to die.

This dramatic irony carries over into Act 4, Scene 3, in which Macduff attempts to convince Malcolm to return to Scotland and overthrow Macbeth. Malcolm suspects that Macduff is actually working for Macbeth, since he sees no other explanation for why Macduff would flee to England without bringing his wife and children: 

Malcolm: Why in that rawness left you wife and child,
Those precious motives, those strong knots of love, 
Without leave-taking?

The fact that Macbeth has just had Macduff's family murdered makes this suspicion ironic. While Malcolm views Macduff's abandonment of his wife and children as a possible indication of treachery, the audience knows that Macduff's loyalty to his country has just come at the expense of his family.

When Ross arrives, the audience immediately knows what he has come to announce. When Macduff discovered Duncan's murder earlier in the play, he responded with intense grief and horror, and the audience expects a similar reaction from him now. But Ross balks at the prospect of revealing what has happened:

Macduff: How does my wife?

Ross: Why, well.

Macduff: And all my children?

Ross: Well too.

Macduff: The tyrant has not battered at their peace?

Ross: No, they were well at peace when I did leave 'em.

The audience understands that, when Ross says that Macduff's wife and children are "well at peace," he means that they are dead, but this double meaning is lost on Macduff. Ross continues to drag out the dramatic irony, despite Macduff's request that he speak plainly:

Ross: I have words
That would be howled out in the desert air,
Where hearing should not latch them.

Macduff: What concern
    they—
The general cause, or is it a fee-grief
Due to some single breast?

Ross: No mind that's honest
But in it shares some woe, though the main part
Pertains to you alone.

Macduff: If it be mine,
Keep it from me. Quickly let me have it.

Ross: Let not your ears despise my tongue forever,
Which shall possess them with the heaviest sound
That ever yet they heard.

Macduff: Hum! I guess at it.

The dramatic irony is heightened because, since Macduff has taken Ross's earlier comment about his wife and children being "well at peace" to mean that they are alive and well, the news of their murder comes as a complete shock. Although it seems as though Ross is attempting to break the news to Macduff as gently as possible, his reluctance to speak plainly makes his final revelation all the more devastating.

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