Twelfth Night

by

William Shakespeare

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Twelfth Night can help.

Twelfth Night: Dramatic Irony 4 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 4
Explanation and Analysis—Myself Would Be His Wife:

 At the end of Act 1, Scene 4, Viola comments on the irony of her situation: as Cesario, she is tasked with wooing Olivia on Orsino's behalf, but as Viola, she desires Orsino for herself:

Viola: Yet a barful strife!

Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.

Later in the play, Viola's clandestine love for Orsino leads to a particularly poignant moment of dramatic irony. In Act 2, Scene 4, Orsino deduces that Cesario is in love, but he fails to realize that he himself is the object of that love:

Orsino: My life upon ’t, young though thou art, thine eye

Hath stayed upon some favor that it loves.

Hath it not, boy?

Viola: A little, by your favor.

Orsino: What kind of woman is ’t?

Viola: Of your complexion.

Orsino: She is not worth thee, then. What years, i’ faith?

Viola: About your years, my lord.

Orsino: Too old, by heaven.

Oblivious to the fact that this imaginary woman bears a strong resemblance to him, Orsino dismisses her as too old and plain for an attractive young man like Cesario. Ironically, if Orsino were aware of Cesario's true identity, he would likely approve of her attraction to him, since, as he argues later in the scene, he is of the belief that women should end up with older men.

Explanation and Analysis—The Maiden's Organ:

In Act 1, Scene 4, Orsino expresses his belief that Cesario's youth and feminine nature will make him more successful at wooing Olivia:

Orsino: She will attend it better in thy youth

Than in a nuncio’s of more grave aspect.

Viola: I think not so, my lord.

Orsino: Dear lad, believe it;

For they shall yet belie thy happy years

That say thou art a man. Diana’s lip

Is not more smooth and rubious, thy small pipe

Is as the maiden’s organ, shrill and sound,

And all is semblative a woman's part.

I know thy constellation is right apt

For this affair.

This scene is an example of dramatic irony because the audience knows that "Cesario" is actually Viola—he does not merely resemble a woman, he is in fact a woman in disguise. The scene would have been especially funny for an Elizabethan audience, since Viola would have been played by a young male actor, heightening the homoerotic tension between the two characters.

Orsino's confidence in Cesario's ability to woo Olivia is also ironic. Cesario's youth and femininity do make a positive impression on Olivia, but she ends up falling in love with the servant, not the master. In other words, Cesario is too successful.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 2, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Viola and Sebastian:

The fact that neither Viola nor Sebastian know that the other sibling is alive, while the audience knows that both have survived the shipwreck and are in Illyria, leads to numerous moments of dramatic irony.

In Act 2, Scene 1, Sebastian comments to Antonio that he and his sister look very much alike:

Sebastian: A lady, sir, though it was said she much

resembled me, was yet of many accounted beautiful.

This comment, along with the fact that, in most productions, the actor playing Sebastian is costumed the same as the actor playing Viola, instantly signals to the audience that these two characters will be mistaken for one another.

Instances of dramatic irony occur numerous times thereafter. In Act 3, Scene 4, Viola does not recognize Antonio, which leads Antonio to believe that Sebastian has betrayed him. Antonio's despair is made more poignant by the fact that the audience knows that Sebastian has committed no such betrayal.

When Andrew, Toby, and Fabian attack Sebastian in Act 4, Scene 1, believing him to be Cesario, the ensuing fight is all the more funny because the audience knows the assailants have picked the wrong target. In the same scene, Sebastian's confusion when Olivia professes her love for him is funny precisely because the audience knows that she has mistaken him for his disguised twin.

This case of mistaken identity is also responsible for the tension that builds throughout the beginning of Act 5, Scene 1. First, the audience listens with pity and frustration to Antonio's impassioned speech in his own defense, knowing that, since Sebastian is not present, it will fall on deaf ears. The audience knows that Antonio is speaking the truth, but Orsino, who is not privy to the same information as the audience, dismisses him:

Orsino: But for thee, fellow: fellow, thy words are madness.

Three months this youth hath tended upon me

Later in the same scene, both Orsino and Olivia come to believe that Cesario has betrayed them, and there is a frightening moment when Orsino even threatens to kill Cesario. The audience, who knows that Viola has remained faithful, cannot help but sympathize with her plight.

This dramatic irony, and the building tension it creates, makes the eventual revelation of the truth all the more satisfying. Although Antonio does not receive a "happy ending" in the general sense of the phrase, Sebastian's arrival proves that he is telling the truth and reassures him that the man he loves did not actually betray him. And Orsino's genuine anguish when he believes that his trusted Cesario has married Olivia makes his declaration of love for Viola, which otherwise seems quite sudden, much more believable.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 2, scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Yellow Stockings:

All the scenes of Twelfth Night involving the prank that Maria pulls on Malvolio (the entirety of Act 2, Scene 5, the first part of Act 3, Scene 4, and all of Act 4, Scene 2) can be characterized as extended moments of dramatic irony.

In Act 2, Scene 3, the audience receives a full description of the scheme that Maria has devised to humiliate Malvolio:

Maria: I will drop in his way some obscure epistles of

love, wherein by the color of his beard, the shape of

his leg, the manner of his gait, the expressure of his

eye, forehead, and complexion, he shall find himself

most feelingly personated.

As a result of Maria's detailed description, nothing that occurs in Act 2, Scene 5 comes as a surprise to the audience members, who are fully expecting Malvolio to come across the forged letter and be convinced that Olivia is in love with him. Since the audience knows full well that the letter was written by Maria, Malvolio's reaction to it is all the more hilarious. The dramatic irony is heightened by the fact that, while the audience can see Toby, Andrew, and Fabian hiding on stage and overhear their comments, Malvolio is oblivious to their presence.

The dramatic irony in Act 3, Scene 4 is particularly complex, as different characters all have differing levels of knowledge, and this dramatic irony magnifies the scene's humor. While the audience is in on Maria's prank, Olivia has no knowledge of the forged letter, which results in her being totally baffled by Malvolio's behavior. Malvolio, by contrast, does not know that the letter was forged and is acting on the assumption that Olivia wrote it. As a result, we get exchanges like this one, where the humor entirely relies on the characters' lack of knowledge:

Malvolio: “Remember who commended thy yellow

stockings—”

Olivia: Thy yellow stockings?

Malvolio: “And wished to see thee cross-gartered.”

Olivia: Cross-gartered?

Finally, in Act 4, Scene 2, while the audience can clearly see that Feste is impersonating the character of Sir Topas, Malvolio can only hear his voice and therefore believes them to be two different people. Feste's disguise, which, as Maria points out, Malvolio cannot see, is more for the benefit of the audience:

Maria: Thou mightst have done this without thy beard

and gown. He sees thee not.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 2, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Myself Would Be His Wife:

 At the end of Act 1, Scene 4, Viola comments on the irony of her situation: as Cesario, she is tasked with wooing Olivia on Orsino's behalf, but as Viola, she desires Orsino for herself:

Viola: Yet a barful strife!

Whoe’er I woo, myself would be his wife.

Later in the play, Viola's clandestine love for Orsino leads to a particularly poignant moment of dramatic irony. In Act 2, Scene 4, Orsino deduces that Cesario is in love, but he fails to realize that he himself is the object of that love:

Orsino: My life upon ’t, young though thou art, thine eye

Hath stayed upon some favor that it loves.

Hath it not, boy?

Viola: A little, by your favor.

Orsino: What kind of woman is ’t?

Viola: Of your complexion.

Orsino: She is not worth thee, then. What years, i’ faith?

Viola: About your years, my lord.

Orsino: Too old, by heaven.

Oblivious to the fact that this imaginary woman bears a strong resemblance to him, Orsino dismisses her as too old and plain for an attractive young man like Cesario. Ironically, if Orsino were aware of Cesario's true identity, he would likely approve of her attraction to him, since, as he argues later in the scene, he is of the belief that women should end up with older men.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 3, scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—Yellow Stockings:

All the scenes of Twelfth Night involving the prank that Maria pulls on Malvolio (the entirety of Act 2, Scene 5, the first part of Act 3, Scene 4, and all of Act 4, Scene 2) can be characterized as extended moments of dramatic irony.

In Act 2, Scene 3, the audience receives a full description of the scheme that Maria has devised to humiliate Malvolio:

Maria: I will drop in his way some obscure epistles of

love, wherein by the color of his beard, the shape of

his leg, the manner of his gait, the expressure of his

eye, forehead, and complexion, he shall find himself

most feelingly personated.

As a result of Maria's detailed description, nothing that occurs in Act 2, Scene 5 comes as a surprise to the audience members, who are fully expecting Malvolio to come across the forged letter and be convinced that Olivia is in love with him. Since the audience knows full well that the letter was written by Maria, Malvolio's reaction to it is all the more hilarious. The dramatic irony is heightened by the fact that, while the audience can see Toby, Andrew, and Fabian hiding on stage and overhear their comments, Malvolio is oblivious to their presence.

The dramatic irony in Act 3, Scene 4 is particularly complex, as different characters all have differing levels of knowledge, and this dramatic irony magnifies the scene's humor. While the audience is in on Maria's prank, Olivia has no knowledge of the forged letter, which results in her being totally baffled by Malvolio's behavior. Malvolio, by contrast, does not know that the letter was forged and is acting on the assumption that Olivia wrote it. As a result, we get exchanges like this one, where the humor entirely relies on the characters' lack of knowledge:

Malvolio: “Remember who commended thy yellow

stockings—”

Olivia: Thy yellow stockings?

Malvolio: “And wished to see thee cross-gartered.”

Olivia: Cross-gartered?

Finally, in Act 4, Scene 2, while the audience can clearly see that Feste is impersonating the character of Sir Topas, Malvolio can only hear his voice and therefore believes them to be two different people. Feste's disguise, which, as Maria points out, Malvolio cannot see, is more for the benefit of the audience:

Maria: Thou mightst have done this without thy beard

and gown. He sees thee not.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 4, scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Yellow Stockings:

All the scenes of Twelfth Night involving the prank that Maria pulls on Malvolio (the entirety of Act 2, Scene 5, the first part of Act 3, Scene 4, and all of Act 4, Scene 2) can be characterized as extended moments of dramatic irony.

In Act 2, Scene 3, the audience receives a full description of the scheme that Maria has devised to humiliate Malvolio:

Maria: I will drop in his way some obscure epistles of

love, wherein by the color of his beard, the shape of

his leg, the manner of his gait, the expressure of his

eye, forehead, and complexion, he shall find himself

most feelingly personated.

As a result of Maria's detailed description, nothing that occurs in Act 2, Scene 5 comes as a surprise to the audience members, who are fully expecting Malvolio to come across the forged letter and be convinced that Olivia is in love with him. Since the audience knows full well that the letter was written by Maria, Malvolio's reaction to it is all the more hilarious. The dramatic irony is heightened by the fact that, while the audience can see Toby, Andrew, and Fabian hiding on stage and overhear their comments, Malvolio is oblivious to their presence.

The dramatic irony in Act 3, Scene 4 is particularly complex, as different characters all have differing levels of knowledge, and this dramatic irony magnifies the scene's humor. While the audience is in on Maria's prank, Olivia has no knowledge of the forged letter, which results in her being totally baffled by Malvolio's behavior. Malvolio, by contrast, does not know that the letter was forged and is acting on the assumption that Olivia wrote it. As a result, we get exchanges like this one, where the humor entirely relies on the characters' lack of knowledge:

Malvolio: “Remember who commended thy yellow

stockings—”

Olivia: Thy yellow stockings?

Malvolio: “And wished to see thee cross-gartered.”

Olivia: Cross-gartered?

Finally, in Act 4, Scene 2, while the audience can clearly see that Feste is impersonating the character of Sir Topas, Malvolio can only hear his voice and therefore believes them to be two different people. Feste's disguise, which, as Maria points out, Malvolio cannot see, is more for the benefit of the audience:

Maria: Thou mightst have done this without thy beard

and gown. He sees thee not.

Unlock with LitCharts A+
Act 5, scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Viola and Sebastian:

The fact that neither Viola nor Sebastian know that the other sibling is alive, while the audience knows that both have survived the shipwreck and are in Illyria, leads to numerous moments of dramatic irony.

In Act 2, Scene 1, Sebastian comments to Antonio that he and his sister look very much alike:

Sebastian: A lady, sir, though it was said she much

resembled me, was yet of many accounted beautiful.

This comment, along with the fact that, in most productions, the actor playing Sebastian is costumed the same as the actor playing Viola, instantly signals to the audience that these two characters will be mistaken for one another.

Instances of dramatic irony occur numerous times thereafter. In Act 3, Scene 4, Viola does not recognize Antonio, which leads Antonio to believe that Sebastian has betrayed him. Antonio's despair is made more poignant by the fact that the audience knows that Sebastian has committed no such betrayal.

When Andrew, Toby, and Fabian attack Sebastian in Act 4, Scene 1, believing him to be Cesario, the ensuing fight is all the more funny because the audience knows the assailants have picked the wrong target. In the same scene, Sebastian's confusion when Olivia professes her love for him is funny precisely because the audience knows that she has mistaken him for his disguised twin.

This case of mistaken identity is also responsible for the tension that builds throughout the beginning of Act 5, Scene 1. First, the audience listens with pity and frustration to Antonio's impassioned speech in his own defense, knowing that, since Sebastian is not present, it will fall on deaf ears. The audience knows that Antonio is speaking the truth, but Orsino, who is not privy to the same information as the audience, dismisses him:

Orsino: But for thee, fellow: fellow, thy words are madness.

Three months this youth hath tended upon me

Later in the same scene, both Orsino and Olivia come to believe that Cesario has betrayed them, and there is a frightening moment when Orsino even threatens to kill Cesario. The audience, who knows that Viola has remained faithful, cannot help but sympathize with her plight.

This dramatic irony, and the building tension it creates, makes the eventual revelation of the truth all the more satisfying. Although Antonio does not receive a "happy ending" in the general sense of the phrase, Sebastian's arrival proves that he is telling the truth and reassures him that the man he loves did not actually betray him. And Orsino's genuine anguish when he believes that his trusted Cesario has married Olivia makes his declaration of love for Viola, which otherwise seems quite sudden, much more believable.

Unlock with LitCharts A+