The Winter's Tale


William Shakespeare

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The Winter's Tale: Verbal Irony 3 key examples

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Definition of Verbal Irony
Verbal irony occurs when the literal meaning of what someone says is different from—and often opposite to—what they actually mean. When there's a hurricane raging outside and someone remarks "what... read full definition
Verbal irony occurs when the literal meaning of what someone says is different from—and often opposite to—what they actually mean. When there's a hurricane raging... read full definition
Verbal irony occurs when the literal meaning of what someone says is different from—and often opposite to—what they actually mean... read full definition
Verbal 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.

Verbal Irony
Explanation and Analysis—Verbal Irony:

In Act 3, Scene 2, Paulina describes Leontes's earlier crimes as trivial despite how unjust they were. Knowing that speaking truth to Leontes will only make his delusions more intractable, she rehabilitates the power of her language by speaking only through negation—that is, by interweaving truths with her characterization of each of Leontes's past actions as trivial. Through this use of verbal irony, Paulina impresses upon Leontes the abhorrence of what he has done.

Indeed, even as Paulina characterizes each of his past actions as "nothing," she declares that his betrayal of Polixenes revealed him to be "a fool, inconstant / And damnable ingrateful," while commanding Camillo to murder Hermione ruined Camillo's honor. She adds that bringing about the death of his baby daughter was so unforgivable that even "a devil / Would have shed water out of fire ere done ’t," and causing his son's death from a broken heart revealed Leontes to be a "gross and foolish" father.

This ironic trivialization of Leontes's other crimes amplifies her final denunciation of the fact that he engineered Hermione's death: "But the last—O lords, / When I have said, cry woe!—the Queen, the Queen, / The sweet’st, dear’st creature’s dead, and vengeance for ’t / Not dropped down yet." In this way, Paulina's use of verbal irony allows her to bypass the impenetrable wall of Leontes's delusions and emphasize the abhorrence of his actions. 

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Act 3, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Negation:

Through the motif of negation, "The Winter's Tale" illuminates how irrational human beliefs can be even in the face of clear evidence, as well as the female characters' lack of control over their own sexual reputations. Once Leontes falls prey to his unfounded belief that Hermione and Polixenes are having an affair, Hermione and Paulina find that their words can no longer persuade him to see the truth. In fact, Leontes asserts in Act 1, Scene 2 that a woman's word is always false: "Women say so, / That will say anything." As a result, the more Hermione claims that she is innocent, the more intractable Leontes's delusions become. 

Instead, both Hermione and Paulina recuperate the power of their language by speaking only through negation. For example, when Hermione testifies in her own defense in Act 3, Scene 2, she declares:

Since what I am to say must be but that 
Which contradicts my accusation, and 
The testimony on my part no other 
But what comes from myself, it shall scarce boot me 
To say “Not guilty"

Here, Hermione observes that it would be pointless for her to declare herself "Not guilty" because that would contract Leontes's accusation against her, of which he is firmly convinced. However, by saying that she will not affirm her innocence, she ultimately does. After Hermione's death, Paulina uses a similar technique in Act 3, Scene 3 to force Leontes to confront his own wrongdoing: 

I’ll speak of her no more, nor of your children. I’ll not remember you of my own lord, 
Who is lost too. Take your patience to you, 
And I’ll say nothing. 

By saying that she will not speak of Leontes's wife or children—indeed, that she will "say nothing"—Paulina manages to do exactly the opposite. In the world of the play, women's word may be acknowledged only when couched in negations, rather than spoken openly. 

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