Dramatic Irony

The Faerie Queene


Edmund Spenser

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The Faerie Queene: Dramatic Irony 3 key examples

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
Book I: Canto II
Explanation and Analysis—Gealous Fire :

Spenser employs dramatic irony in a pivotal scene in Book I in which Redcross is separated from Una due to the deceptions of the villainous wizard Archimago. Earlier, Archimago conjured a spirit disguised as Una who attempted unsuccessfully to seduce Redcross. Later, Archimago sets up another illusion in which Una appears to have gone to bed with another knight, horrifying and enraging Redcross. The narrator states that: 

All in amaze he suddenly vpstart 
With sword in hand, and with the old man went; 
Who soone him brought into a secret part, 
Where that false couple were full closely ment 
In wanton lust and lewd embracement: 
Which when he saw, he burnt with gealous fire, 
The eye of reason was with rage yblent, 
And would haue slaine them in his furious ire, 
But hardly was restrained of that aged sire.

Redcross is too angry to think clearly, as “the eye of reason” was blinded with “rage.” Unlike the reader, he is still unaware of Archimago’s villainous nature and falls for the illusion completely. The narrator even states that Redcross “would have slaine them” if Archimago, “that aged sire,” had not “restrained” him. At this point, Redcross believes that Archimago is a wise and kindly man who has kept him from acting out rashly. The reader, however, understands that Archimago has manipulated Redcross, fueling his anger and driving a wedge between the knight and the innocent Una. This is one of the many errors that Redcross makes in his long journey toward becoming an ideal knight. 

Book II: Canto I
Explanation and Analysis—Ne Would She Speake:

In a scene suffused with dramatic irony, Duessa attempts to deceive Guyon into attacking the Redcross Knight. Describing her false attempt to portray herself as an innocent victim of Redcross, the narrator states: 

Which when she heard, as in despightfull wise, 
She wilfully her sorrow did augment, 
And offred hope of comfort did despise:
Her golden lockes most cruelly she rent,
And scratcht her face with ghastly dreriment,
Ne would she speake, ne see, ne yet be seene,
But hid her visage, and her head downe bent, 
Either for grieuous shame, or for great teene,
As if her hart with sorrow had transfixed beene.

By this point in the story, the reader is familiar with Duessa’s tricks and, like Redcross himself, no longer falls for her deceptions. Guyon, however, has had no experience with the tricky duo of Archimago and Duessa, and he watches sympathetically as she begins her highly theatrical performance. Spenser writes that she rips at her “golden lockes” and “scratcht her face” as if mad with despair. She rejects Guyon’s attempts to comfort her while in fact encouraging his behavior. She even pretends that she is too ashamed to “speake” or “be seene” as a result of Redcross’s abuse.

Having read Book I, the audience is fully aware that her refusal to speak is really an attempt to manipulate the chivalrous Guyon and demand his attention. Though Duessa is able to trick Guyon for a short period, the Redcross Knight is quickly able to establish the truth and put an end to Duessa’s schemes. 

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Book III: Canto I
Explanation and Analysis—Malecasta and Britomart :

Spenser employs dramatic irony during Britomart’s stay in the house of Malecasta. Though the reader knows that Britomart is a female knight, her knight’s armor has concealed her body and Malecasta has falsely assumed that Britomart is a male. In a deeply ironic scene, the “Lady of Delight” attempts to court Britomart: 

Whom when the Lady saw so faire a wight, 
All ignoraunt of her contrary sex, 
(For she her weend a fresh and lusty knight)
She greatly gan enamoured to wex, 
And with vaine thoughts her falsed fancy vex: 
Her fickle hart concerned hasty fire, 
Like sparkes of fire, which fall in sclender flex, 
That shortly brent into extreme desire,
And ransackt all her veines with passion entire.

Malecasta is “ignouraunt” of the “contrary sex” of Britomart, whom she believes to be a “fresh and lusty knight.” Britomart is not only, as Spenser acknowledges, a female knight, but also the Knight of Chastity, leading her to butt heads repeatedly with the "wanton" Malecasta. In a simile, Spenser further describes Malecasta’s growing attraction to Britomart, which “like sparkes of fire” has set  “hasty fire” to her “fickle hart,” a fire which has spread through her “veines” and consumed her entirely. Malecasta’s subsequent attempts to seduce the female knight present the first of many challenges to the Knight of Chastity throughout Book III. 

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