The Winter's Tale


William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale: Dramatic Irony 6 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
Dramatic Irony
Explanation and Analysis—Father and Daughter:

Act 5, Scene 1 features the long-awaited reunion of Leontes with his daughter Perdita, who is accompanied by Florizell. However, since both Florizell and Perdita are in disguise and Leontes does not know that Florizell's bride-to-be is his own daughter,  this creates dramatic irony that generates humor as well as increases the suspense of the scene. For example, when Leontes expresses his longing for children like Florizell and Perdita, wondering, "What might I have been / Might I a son and daughter now have looked on, / Such goodly things as you?", the audience knows that Florizell may soon be his son-in-law and Perdita is his daughter, but Leontes does not. This use of dramatic irony increases the audience's anticipation for the reunion of father with daughter.

The dramatic irony of this scene also becomes a source of comedy. When Florizell declares that his father gives precious gifts like "trifles,"  Leontes accidentally flirts with his own daughter: "Would he do so, I'd beg your precious mistress, / Which he counts but a trifle." To comedic effect, Paulina chides Leontes for admiring women who are too young for him, saying that his "eye hath too much youth in ’t." This contributes to the humorous and lighthearted mood of these latter Acts of the play.

Dramatic Irony
Explanation and Analysis—Leontes's Dreams:

While on trial in Act 3, Scene 2, Hermione declares that Leontes has conjured false accusations against her, as if dreaming them up: "My life stands in the level of your dreams." Leontes's response—"Your actions are my dreams"—is a source of dramatic irony: his intended meaning is that Hermione has enacted in reality what he has dreamed, that is, adultery. However, the audience knows that an alternative meaning of his response is true: Hermione's purported adultery is a mere figment of his imagination. Hermione never committed adultery, and Leontes has indeed "dream[ed]" her actions.

Leontes continues, "You had a bastard by Polixenes, / And I but dreamed it." This is an example of verbal and dramatic irony all at once: Leontes intends his remark to be sarcastic and means the opposite of his words (an instance of verbal irony), but the audience knows that Leontes has inadvertently said the truth—that he has conjured Hermione's infidelity out of thin air (an instance of dramatic irony). This double irony, in which Leontes's use of verbal irony becomes an instance of dramatic irony, highlights how deeply entrenched Leontes's belief in Hermione's infidelity has become.

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Dramatic Irony
Explanation and Analysis—Acting and Disguises:

In Acts 4 and 5, multiple characters disguise themselves: Camillo and Polixenes to spy on Florizell and Perdita at the shepherd's cottage, Autolycus as a nobleman to swindle the Shepherd and his son, and Perdita and Florizell to travel to Sicily. A generic convention of the Shakespearean comedy, this use of disguises generates dramatic irony, thus contributing to both the suspense and the humorous tone of the last two Acts. Moreover, by creating mishaps around mistaken identities and obstructing the characters' access to the truth, the use of disguises highlights the unreliability of perception that provoked Leontes's downfall: once convinced of Hermione's unfaithfulness, no amount of evidence could persuade him to see the truth. 

The play also breaks the fourth wall by pointing to its own nature as a work of art. In fact, Perdita's language explicitly compares her use of disguise in her travels to Sicily to acting in a play: "I see the play so lies / That I must bear a part." Later, in Act 5, Scene 1, Leontes makes explicit reference to "this stage / Where we offenders now appear." By calling attention to the play's own nature as a form of artifice and and suggesting that plays, disguises, and acting enable the reunification of the family unit, Shakespeare illuminates the potentially redemptive power of art.

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Dramatic Irony
Explanation and Analysis—A Father in Disguise:

In Act 4, Scene 4, Polixenes and Camillo conceal their identities to visit Florizell and Perdita at the Shepherd's home. This is an example of dramatic irony because the audience knows their identities while the characters do not. In fact, oblivious to his father's disguise, Florizell reveals his plan to marry Perdita even without Polixenes's permission. 

Without removing his disguise, Polixenes attempts to persuade Florizell to tell his father, warning him that to withhold this information would be to fail to fulfill his filial duties: "You offer him, if this be so, a wrong / Something unfilial." Although he repeatedly tells Florizell, "Let him know ’t," Florizell continues to resist, declaring that "He shall not." This use of dramatic irony, escalated by Florizell's repeated refusal to do as his father demands, creates suspense for the audience during the scene because they are aware that Florizell has unwittingly doomed his own marriage. It becomes clear that, in going ahead with his plan to marry Perdita without telling Polixenes, Florizell is in the act of doing "something unfilial" at this very moment, though Florizell himself, oblivious to Polixenes' presence, does not know it.

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Act 1, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Nothing and Noting:

Leontes's repeated characterization of the adulterous behavior he claims to have perceived—but has largely imagined—between his wife and Polixenes as "nothing" is an example of dramatic irony. When Camillo attempts to refute Leontes's claims of Hermione's infidelity in Act 1, Scene 2, Leontes demands: 

Is whispering nothing? 
Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?   
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career 
Of laughter with a sigh?—a note infallible 
Of breaking honesty. Horsing foot on foot? Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift? Hours minutes? Noon midnight? And all eyes Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only, 
That would unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?
Why, then the world and all that’s in ’t is nothing, The covering sky is nothing, Bohemia nothing, 
My wife is nothing, nor nothing have these nothings, 
If this be nothing. 

Here, Leontes hyperbolically asserts that Hermione's apparent infidelity is so irrefutable that if it isn't true, then neither is the world or anything in it. However, the audience has been exposed to the same interactions between Hermione and Polixenes that Leontes has interpreted as conclusive proof of romantic intimacy and knows that they are mere signs of friendship. As a result, Leontes's claim is an example of dramatic irony. The play's use of dramatic irony here thus highlights the fact that what Leontes claims to "note" is, in fact, nothing; his unfounded belief in his wife's infidelity has contaminated his perception and left him unable to see the truth.

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Act 4, Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Autolycus's Deception:

In Act 4, Scene 3, Autolycus pretends to have been beaten and robbed so that he himself might rob the Shepherd's son. The dramatic irony here derives from the fact that the audience knows that Autolycus is scheming to commit a robbery because they are privy to his aside earlier in the scene—"If the springe hold, the cock’s / mine"—whereas the Shepherd's son is oblivious. The comedy of this encounter heightens when the Shepherd's son, unaware of Autolycus's machinations, offers him money, to which Autolycus responds, "Offer me no money, I pray you; that kills my heart." This is ironic not only because Autolycus is refusing money from the Shepherd's son despite intending to steal from him, but also because Autolycus is being offered a simpler and legal means of achieving his original goal—and is foolishly refusing it.

Moreover, when Autolycus describes his apparent attacker to the Shepherd's son, the audience realizes that he is describing himself:

I know this man well. He hath been since an ape-bearer, then a process-server, a bailiff. Then he compassed a motion of the Prodigal Son, and married a tinker’s wife within a mile where my land and living lies, and, having flown over many knavish professions, he settled only in rogue. Some call him Autolycus. 

Autolycus's declaration that he knows his attacker well is deeply ironic because he himself is the attacker. In this way, the dramatic irony of this scene contributes to the comedic tone of Act 4.

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