Professor Timo Airaksinen
We can distinguish between three versions of dramatic irony based on doxastic asymmetry, meaning differences, and missed ironies on stage. The first one is simple but problematic: it cannot explicate irony in dramatic irony. Why call it irony? Yet, many authors utilize this notion as if it were a perfectly obvious case. I point out its problems and show why the much narrower idea based on missed irony is more interesting and works better. The meaning-based notion collapses either into the doxastic or irony-based notion, depending on the context. I start from Peter Golding's views. I utilize Kafka's novels, Euripides' Bacchants, Sophocles Ajax, Machiavelli, and some Biblical narratives. I discuss the problem of ironic alienation and the Brechtian V-effect and compare them with the thesis that dramatic irony makes the dramatic characters feel sympathetic. Normally, irony entails alienation and, perhaps, criticism, too.
Keywords: Irony, Situational Irony, Divine Irony, Secondary Irony, Golding, Brecht, Machiavelli, Sophocles, Jesus, Alienation, Sympathy
Definitions of Dramatic Irony
Peter Goldie provides the following key example of dramatic irony:
In Shakespeare's King Lear, there is scene that involves very powerful use of dramatic irony. Gloucester, who has recently been cruelly blinded, wants to die. He asks Edgar to take him to the "very brim" of the cliffs of Dover, "to a cliff whose high and pending head / Looks fearfully in the confined deep" (Act IV, Scene i). Edgar misleads him into thinking that he has done just that. [...] The audience knows that what Gloucester does no know: that, contrary to what he thinks, he is not on the edge of the cliff of Dover, and thus not able with one step to cast himself over the edge to a certain death. This is dramatic irony.
Compare this with Goldie's second example of dramatic irony: "[I]n Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, the audience knows that Oedipus killed his father at the crossroads, but Oedipus thinks he killed a stranger." (26-27). Macmillan Dictionary agrees: "a situation in which an audience knows more about what is happening in a play or film than the characters do." Britannica adds to this: "the words and actions of the characters [...] take on a different-often contradictory-meaning for the audience than they have for the work's characters." Richard Nordquist mentions the idea of different meanings and the knowledge gap. Dictionary.com: Dramatic irony entails "irony that is inherent in speeches or a situation of a drama and is understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters in the play." (My italics throughout.)
We find three different definitions: dramatic irony is based on a (1) knowledge gap, (2) different meanings, or (3) missed irony. However, the concept is usually used without first analyzing it, as if it were a simple, transparent, and self-evident linguistic trope, which, alas, it is not. I will defend the third meaning of dramatic irony against the first one.
Irony always emerges via, or because of, reading and interpreting a social situation in a special, not fully literal manner. One may find different ironies in various types of situations, for example ironies that I call primary and secondary. The secondary irony of the example from King Lear follows from the fact that, as the audience must realize, Edgar could not possibly mislead Gloucester in the situation described in the play. Think of yourself on the high ledge over the ocean and the special sensory offerings, the sound and echo of seabirds and waves, the sweet smell of sea salt and rotten seaweed, and that special ocean wind. The scene may work on stage but at the same time it fails to be convincing. You find too much theater there, which itself is an ironic idea. This case may illustrate dramatic irony; yet its artificiality is open to a secondary ironic treatment: the scene works more like a dark comedy. Clumsy and missed irony is ironic in the secondary situational sense.
The function of dramatic irony is to sustain the reader's interest, pique curiosity, and create a contrast between the situation of the characters and the episode that ultimately unfolds. This leads to the audience waiting in fear, anticipation, and hope, waiting for the moment when the character learns the truth behind the events of the story.
I cannot understand his conclusion. How can any ironic treatment of a narrative context create the direct opposite, or empathy, sympathy, and engagement, or S-effect, of the Brechtian idea of alienation and estrangement effect, or V-effect (Verfremdungseffekt)? Nordquist writes, "Readers end up sympathizing with the main characters, hence the irony." I cannot follow his reasoning. Irony entails alienation and a V-effect, but dramatic irony creates an S-effect, which is the opposite of alienation; why call dramatic irony "irony," if this is the case? I do not think the case of dramatic irony refutes the idea that irony presupposes and creates alienation and estrangement. S-effect and V-effect are mutually incomparable, but irony loves the V-effect. Without the V-effect playing with ironic thought is hardly worthwhile.
The creation of an S-effect shows that the audience cannot see dramatic irony as irony; if they did, they would experience a V-effect: if you experience irony, which is not automatic or necessary of course, you experience no S-effect. An ironic speech act states and plays with a falsehood and thus looks prima a facie like a lie; this alienates the audience from the ironic target because now they must start thinking about it from various new perspectives, as if from outside. But when you listen to an ironic speaker you may come to empathize with the target cum victim; you may pity him, which indeed entails the opposite of alienation. Therefore, in some cases, dramatic irony leads to an S-effect, yet if it fails to alienate is not irony.
Irony is accompanied with sarcastic smile, not pity. Irony has its main V-effect and, perhaps, a reactive secondary S-effect. Situational irony may bring about the feeling of vicarious shame, which indicates an S-effect. A nasty sarcasm - sarcasm is always verbal - may bring about well-founded empathy towards the victim, but this based on reaction formation: the inherently alienating effect backfires. Anyone in the audience who wants to save the hero on stage from a threatening but hidden trap by standing up and shouting "Stop, don't enter - she has an ax," acts under the influence of the secondary S-effect and misses any irony in the situation. One may indeed miss irony; many people are blind to it and deeply dislike exploiting it. Irony is not for all, and certainly not for anyone all the time.
Is dramatic irony a sui generis term? Is it used in the Pickwickian sense? "Irony" refers to a situation where a person states something that is false without lying. She says something she does not believe or what is not true (verbal irony), or a situation is not what it appears to be, namely a healthy normal case (situational irony), and thus dramatic irony should be somehow analogous to these two foundational cases. Now the dramatic characters and their audience fail to share a viewpoint and a gap emerges between them. However, I fail to see how such a gap alone would constitute irony, especially if irony now exhibits no V-effect. If I know the meaning of word "entelechy" in Aristotelian metaphysics and you do not, what is so ironic about that? In what follows, I try to explain what makes dramatic irony irony.
The Requirement of Asymmetric Knowledge
How does the audience come to know more than the characters do? When a play is performed the first time its audience is still naïvely ignorant about the logic and meaning of the unfolding events on stage (suppose the author has allowed no spoilers). Next time the audience experiences the drama, they know because they can learn unlike the characters. Perhaps this is ironic too, namely, the characters never learn. Can one write a play where they learn? A professional actress once told me, "Acting is the art of repetition," which entails a negative answer. Nevertheless, I do not see why such a play could not work where the dramatic characters learn from one performance to other. In this case, the audience would have solid motive to come and see a series of performances.
In ancient tragedies the chorus tells the story of the dramatic characters and may predict their fate and reveal their destiny, so that the audience comes to know. But notice, this creates the Brechtian, alienating V-effect. The chorus offers an externalized perspective and thus does not allow the audience to approach the characters as if they were real-life persons who deserve our sympathy. Think of a chorus who alienates the audience from the characters by showing them as what they are: mere masks on stage. At the same time the chorus is supposed to provide the audience information they need to feel the S-effect created by dramatic irony - this sounds prima facie inconsistent, which it is not: we have two psychological processes at work here.
Suppose I read the script beforehand and then I go and see the play. In this case I, like some type of lugubrious divinity, possess complete knowledge of the future events before they unfold on stage. Does this mean I must now watch the whole play ironically? If I do, I will lose the enjoyment that is based on the naïve view that permits my immersion into the events as they unfold on stage. Perhaps I do not want to adopt the ironic standpoint, although now I can.
Popular dramatic conventions create situations that may not be dramatically ironic in any standard sense, although they may look meta-ironic. This is evident from popular culture, such as Hollywood films and the opera. Conventions indeed offer the audience a chance to ironize their experiences. Classic Westerns are so conventional that today they may look ridiculous - and people love them for that. A good example is Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952): The bad men arrive in town, but as scary as they may look, the audience immediate knows they have no chance. The contrast between their looks and predictable fate is ridiculous - it is pure comedy. The good guy will win the ensuing gun battle. What the audience does not know is how they will die, and thus the viewing is maximally stress-free and enjoyable but also interesting. This type of foreknowledge aims at stress reduction more than to S-effect.
What about the following example? Alfred Hitchcock made a cameo appearance in most of his films, an amusing and original trick his dedicated audiences love. But the characters in his films did not know about him, and therefore this arrangement satisfies the first definition of dramatic irony: it is understood by the audience but not grasped by the characters in the play. We can ask whether they could understand it. Jimmy Stewart can understand what is going on but the character he plays cannot: the character cannot see the director of the play de re but not de dicto and de se; he should know he is a character in the play, which is impossible in any realistic setting. Of course, one can write a postmodern script in which the characters know and even say that they are characters in the play and on stage, and thus they may also realize that the director makes his signature cameo appearance behind their backs. However, in a realistic play this does not work; in the realistic case, the cameo appearance is an ironic move, and I mean situational irony - and yet in some sense this does not sound right. The case is an extra-narrational expression of secondary dramatic irony based on missed irony. In the classical drama the characters cannot know what they are, characters, unlike the audience who knows it all the time; therefore, the audience knows more. This is dramatic irony. Notice that this idea is firmly based on the idea of situational irony.
Divine Dramatic Irony
Euripides' tragedy Bacchae provides an example of divine dramatic irony. In Thebes Dionysus, also called Bacchus and Bromius, arrives in the guise of a human being and announces himself to the court of the king Pentheus as a god who insists on his rites. Pentheus denies his divine status, which is a serious mistake and leads to tragic consequences. The audience knows that Dionysius is the real thing, a godhead born to Zeus and Semele, a human woman. The audience also knows the conventions of tragedy, that is, Pentheus must perish and his house is doomed. The audience comes to realize that Pentheus should know how things are and yield to the god.
His bacchants are already reveling on the nearby hills and woods but this does not convince Pentheus, it just makes him curious. He wants to see them. Here the crucial idea is that Pentheus should and could have known better. His royal arrogance is therefore misplaced and Dionysius mocks him in a threatening manner promising him a quick death. For him, one's name is an omen, or Nomen est omen:
DIONYSUS: You're quite ignorant of why you live, what you do, and who you are.
PENTHEUS: I am Pentheus, son of Agave and Echion.
DIONYSUS: A suitable name. It suggests misfortune.
This is simple verbal irony that turns into situational irony when Pentheus threatens to punish the god, as if a mortal human being could do that. Dionysus puts the situational irony into words:
DIONYSUS: What punishment am I to suffer? What harsh penalties will you inflict?
However, the ultimate situational irony is revealed when the god dresses the king in women's clothes to smuggle him to the orgies of the female Bacchants. But before he can witness them, the citizens of his polis have a chance of seeing their king in the ultimately humiliating position dressed as a woman.
In the early Christian tradition, Jesus Christ and Dionysius often got mixed up. This is understandable because both are upstart Eastern gods, both born from a woman conceived by a godhead, assuming the form of a human being, and insisting on novel rites. Moreover, their identity is defined by a trinity. Both have three names, and in this sense, they both are polymorphic beings, or they are one person in three simultaneous guises at the same time. Their names form two triune metonymic groups: Dionysus, Bacchus, and Bromius; God, Spirit, and Son.
Jesus, like Dionysus, retorts to clever irony when necessary, for instance:
The Jews picked up stones again to stone Him. Jesus answered them, "I showed you many good works from the Father; for which of them are you stoning Me?" (John 10:31-32)
Just at that time some Pharisees approached, saying to Him, "Go away, leave here, for Herod wants to kill You." And He said to them, "Go and tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I reach My goal. Nevertheless I must journey on today and tomorrow and the next day; for it cannot be that a prophet would perish outside of Jerusalem. (Luke 13:33)
These exchanges serve a purpose: they emphasize that the audience should know better, that is, that Jesus indeed is a divine being. He mocks them as if saying, you do not believe in me although you should - and in the end, you must! What he says is, you threaten to kill me but instead you are killing yourself. His irony is not innocently humorous, it is a dire warning.
Therefore, in addition to such verbal irony, the Biblical narrative contains dramatic irony. Jesus has two audiences, the readers of the Bible and his contemporary listeners to whom he announces his divine status and promises life to the believers and death to sinners. This is what Dionysus says, too - that cruel Eastern upstart godhead. Jesus provided his contemporary audiences sufficient evidence of his true nature and offers them a chance to show their devotion, yet they fail. The characters in this great religious drama should have known better, and this is the foundation of the dramatic irony here.
Notice additional similarity between Jesus and Dionysus: they are both ambiguous figures, both human beings and gods. Dionysus says:
Yes, I've changed my form from god to human, / appearing here at these streams of Dirce, /the waters of Ismarus. I see my mother's tomb- / for she was wiped out by that lightning bolt. / It's there, by the palace, with that rubble, / the remnants of her house, still smoldering / from Zeus's living fire-Hera's undying outrage / against my mother.
He says he is godly, this is an assertion of identity, yet in other places he says the god sent him to act as his messenger. Both Jesus and Dionysus are both human and divine, in addition to being members of a trinity.
The king and the god discuss, Pentheus trying to be ironic:
DIONYSUS: I'm from there. My home land is Lydia.
PENTHEUS: Why do you bring these rituals to Greece?
DIONYSUS: Dionysus sent me-the son of Zeus.
PENTHEUS: Is there some Zeus there who creates new gods?
DIONYSUS: No. It's the same Zeus who wed Semele right here.
Dionysus is indeed a god but the person whom Pentheus is addressing is, intriguingly, no longer identical with the god. This was the case with Jesus, too. He says people should believe in him, but his words betray him: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46, Mark 15:34). I do not agree with the question mark here - his speech act is not really a question but an accusation that forces dramatic irony to the situation: suddenly he fails to see what his audience is seeing.
The similarities between Jesus and Dionysus are indeed obvious. What we learn is that their listeners should believe in them, offer them their rites, and worship them - the alternative is death. In both dramas they should know, if they did not they must suffer, now and forever. Both plays are cruel because the logic of the script dictates that they do not know and believe, although they should. The script condemns them. Can we find an S-effect here? Should I feel a temptation to warn the characters who listen to these two cruel Eastern gods, namely, "please, have faith in these two, they are going to humiliate and kill you." This is where the irony is said to be, begat by the tension between what a character in the drama knows and what she should know, when this very tension is honestly and seriously experienced by the audience.
When Dionysus leads Pentheus in woman's clothes through the streets of Thebes to his doom in the hands of the raving bacchae, the audience feels not only that Pentheus should know but he could know better. His initial arrogance is paying him dearly in the hands of the god who feels Pentheus has betrayed him and caused him unduly and unruly harm and pain. However, the ultimate situational irony here is revealed by the strange vulnerability of the god: how can a humble human being cause so much harm to a noble god, or why does he so desperately need his rites? Dionysus never tells, not does Jesus, why the rites are so crucial. Is this dramatic irony? Perhaps not, because the two principal characters may not know but then the audience does not know either. Yet the play entails dramatic irony: the audience knows more than Pentheus. But this dramatic irony is based on situational irony that neither the king nor the god can see. Dionysus himself cannot appreciate the ironies related to such a needy god the audience can see.
DIONYSUS: You've heard what I had to say, / Pentheus, but still you're not convinced. / Though I'm suffering badly at your hands, / I say you shouldn't go to war against a god. / You should stay calm. Bromius will not let you / move his Bacchae from their mountains. (My italics.)
Kafka Takes on Dramatic Irony
To develop a proper idea, if not a definition, of dramatic irony, let us investigate Kafka's novels and their opening salvoes of foundational statements, or ideas and images readers are invited to share when they approach the novels. By doing so, they watch a strange drama unfold. In The Castle, the reader is told that a land surveyor has arrived in the village. In The Trial one is told that Josef K is arrested. In America, Karl initially looks like an active and strong person arriving at the New York harbor - this is a misleading conversational implicature. These foundational beliefs are wrong, in the simplest sense in The Castle: the land surveyor K is not a land surveyor, or this is a lie. In The Trial, Josef K is not arrested in the normal sense of the term: the bailiffs come and tell him he is under arrest and then they leave, we see no paperwork nor information concerning the case. The arrest took and did not take place. "Someone must have been telling lies about Josef K., he knew he had done nothing wrong but, one morning, he was arrested." This is what Josef K believes, his belief being expressed indirectly by the omniscient but dishonest narrator. This is nonsense. Some strange men visit him but they press no charges; he is not taken anywhere. Josef K is convinced anyhow that some legal authorities somewhere think he is legally guilty of something, and he wants to do something about it, or clear his name. It will be a quixotic project. In America, Kafka leaves Karl's status and even location left even more undefined, and all this is reflected on the many mistaken characterizations of New York and its harbor: the Statue of Liberty is wielding a sword etc. All these are problematic and possibly ironic background facts, but what kind of irony is it?
Let me focus on the two best known stories. In The Castle, K asks what this village is and whether it has a castle, but then he announces:
Let me tell you that I am the Land Surveyor whom the Count is expecting. My assistants are coming on tomorrow in a carriage with the apparatus. I did not want to miss the chance of a walk through the snow, but unfortunately lost my way several times and so arrived very late. That it was too late to present myself at the Castle I knew very well before you saw fit to inform me.
Many commentators believe this is a false start: K is not a land surveyor; the assistants never arrive, nor is K worried about them. And to say one was tempted to a hike through snowbanks in late evening a dead giveaway. The castle does now know anything about him, yet he monomaniacally tries to secure an invitation - we do not know why.
The drama starts from here. What do Kafka's audiences know? Initially we are misled by the narrator, but as attentive readers we will soon realize the true nature of the situation, as explained above: the facts are not what they are said to be, or what K believes. The audience may not know the truth, but they should know - the text hints at the truth that is, presumably, knowable. Next, what do the characters of the dramatic know? Josef K seems to think that indeed he is arrested and accused of some crime he did not commit, and thus he insists on justice to himself. K, even if he is not land surveyor but a trickster, must know the truth about himself, or so we may suppose. Of course, this is not certain but let us assume he does - he looks like a sane and rational person.
These two cases exemplify dramatic irony in its purest, why? Josef K is a character in a drama where he does not know what is going on; at the same time the audience knows that he does not know - but he does not know that he does not know. He thinks in legal terms and hence tries to find the right lawcourts and their judges, which proves to be an unfeasible project. This is something the audience learns very quickly when the narrative unfolds in all its bizarre detail. The audience knows more than Josef K.
What can be said of K's case? He fails to know the facts concerning his quest, and these facts are somehow parallel to those that trouble Josef K. Both have a goal, the castle and the relevant lawcourts, that they cannot attain or find a path to, and all the time Kafka's audiences know that they will fail. How do they know? The events of the drama make it abundantly clear. I only give two examples: K finds a path that leads to the Castle but when he follows it, the path takes him away from the castle. Josef K learns that the high lawcourts are everywhere and at the same time nowhere. They should know better but they do not, which the audiences may find quite amusing but also disturbing; this to say that the audiences know so much more than Josef K and K. Why do they fail, that the question. The necessary evidence is there and they need to know. In both novels the characters and the audience are misled, but the audience may learn to cope with the absurd details of the drama, unlike the characters. Notice, that regardless of all this dramatic irony, the audiences cannot find K and Josef K sympathetic characters. All this dramatic irony fails to create an S-effect. Instead, the gap of alienation stays wide open between them and the audiences. The Brechtian V-effect is at work here.
Dramatic Irony between Possible Worlds
We are invited to identify dramatic irony on the basis of a doxastic asymmetry between representatives or ideal members of the audience and some of the dramatic characters so that the audience knows more than the characters, who stay ignorant, mistaken or misguided. The audience may be independently informed by the author of the drama or they may gain their beliefs from the logic of the unfolding events on stage. A character may miss some relevant beliefs for various reasons: another character may mislead him deliberately or accidentally, or he may make a mistake on his own - perhaps he is thoughtless and inattentive or less than clever. Concerning audience, we suppose they are able to form the relevant true beliefs and come to know something the dramatic characters miss. This makes audience an idealized doxastic agent who does not miss obvious information like the characters do. This ideal aspect becomes evident especially where the audience is told more or less directly what to believe; this happens when a narrator tells the truth or the relevant events unfold in front of the audience, although these beliefs and events are inaccessible to the key characters. The real audience may miss much of this, unlike the ideal audience that reliably acquires the relevant beliefs. We are only interested in an ideal doxastic audience when we discuss dramatic irony. For some people irony is a difficult idea to accept, comprehend, and utilize even when it is real. They typically fail or refuse to see Godot as God who will never arrive.
A dramatic narrative develops and depicts - or presupposes - an isolated possible world where the characters exist and act. This possible world may be nearer or further away from our actual world. The narrated possible world is never quite the same as the actual (possible) world for the simple reason that it is narrated. And the audience is, as I said above, an idealized entity and thus their world may not be quite the same as the actual world; they are intricately connected but not identical. In the actual world the audience may see no ironies of the drama on stage; but the ideal audience is fully and accurately aware of it - thus two different words exist. Normally we assume that the two worlds are closely similar, unlike the world of the dramatic characters that may be far away from the actual world and the world of the audience. This is true of Kafka's novels: especially in The Trial, K's world is a distant but possible world, or a mere echo of the actual world as the audience knows it. We have no idea how to transform the actual world so that it becomes identical with the world of K. In America, America is a surreal place; Karl's visions feel like surrealistic paintings - think about Mr. Pollunder enormous but unfinished house that opens to the dark nothingness of infinite space, and the idea the Nature Theater of Oklahoma.
Now, we can use this ontology to clarify the idea of dramatic irony. The ideal audience witnesses a new possible world on stage where the dramatic characters act; they have no contact with the audience's world. We may of course mix these worlds, as Hitchcock and Brecht do. They also can be mixed in a more thorough manner, for instance, a character on stage directly addresses the audience and informs them about some facts the other characters do not know. Or a character sits in the audience and participates in the events from there; in this case a character is a member of the audience and vice versa, which is the say that the two possible worlds blend together. In such a case, the idea of dramatic irony does not apply, for obvious reasons. All irony is now situational irony.
Perhaps we can find dramatic irony even in this non-classical mix up of possible worlds. Dramatic irony emerges when a character does not know that the two relevant worlds are now, either occasionally or permanently, confused and form one larger meta-world in which the audience is invited to enter the stage and influence the course of events there. In this case the character may still think and act as if she still were in the simple classical situation, that is, in what can be called her isolated character-world. The audience knows that this world is now gone, or at least disturbed, and this doxastic asymmetry looks like a possible a source of dramatic irony, which is now due to its inherent situational irony.
In many cases the audience witnesses to and learns about events that some character remains ignorant of. In Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) is an example. But it also it possible that a character knows more than the audience. This is often the case: K knows that he is not a land surveyor, but a naïve reader may well read the whole book without realizing this fact. It is not easy to see through K's lies. Two types of readers exist: critical and naïve, both are ideal cases but they still read differently. The naïve type wants to get immersed in the text and she never aims at finding out of its ironies, unlike the critical reader. Should we call the beginning of The Castle dramatically ironic because of its typical doxastic asymmetry? K knows more that the audience. Hercule Poirot always knows the name of the murderer before the audience does - and the audience wants to be surprised by him. Is this dramatic irony? May be, but certainly it is not irony in any standard sense of the word.
We should remember what Nordqvist says above about the case of dramatic irony, "[r]eaders end up sympathizing with the main characters, hence the irony." But in the inverted case of dramatic irony, this is not possible: could the characters now start sympathizing the audience? Of course not: a one-way filter works between the audience and the characters allowing audience to know things about the characters but not the other way round, that is, in the classical case. However, one may say the fact that such a filter exists creates certain situational irony that alienates the audience from the characters: we (the audience) know they (characters) know nothing about us but we know them. We hear them, they do not hear us. The characters never empathize the audience, except in the case where a V-effect is needed and created by their cross-world speech and action.
Theories of Dramatic Irony
What about the number two theory of dramatic irony? I mean the theory that audience and the characters attach a different meaning to the same dramatic event. This theory is not quite the same as the simple doxastic theory. When Oedipus kills his father at the crossroads, he does not know what he is doing de re. What is the meaning, for him personally, of this event? Obviously, it is meaningless, although hugely meaningful to the audiences who are in the know. Their de dicto beliefs are accurate. We may call the character, Oedipus, an innocuous agent. But think of Sophocles' Ajax, where the great warrior Ajax kills a flock of sheep that he thinks are a group of enemies, but the other characters as well as the audience know this is not the case. The sheep killing hero indeed assigns a great but mistaken meaning to his act: he sees valor in it. When he realizes what happened - he understands the situational irony and the sarcastic import of the event - he kills himself. What else could he do? This case collapses into the third case, because the source of the dramatic irony now is the situational irony on stage, which Ajax only later comes to see. A hero killing sheep is situationally ironic description, and the audience knows this well before the hero comes to his senses, which entails dramatic irony.
Superficially, but only superficially, this case exemplifies the doxastic theory: Ajax does not know what he is doing, the audience does. The point is: Ajax does not see the situational irony, and then he finally understands it, he kills himself. He does not commit suicide because of now knowing what he did; he must die because of the deeply ironic nature of the case. And the audience understands all this before Ajax does: a sheep killing warrior hero is an oxymoron.
Let us return to Golding's Shakespeare example where Edgar cheats Gloucester. According to Golding, this is a paradigmatic case of dramatic irony. His readers may ask, what is this? What does he mean? For him, the doxastic gap is the key factor, namely Gloucester, unlike the audience, does not know where he is. However, when you read the relevant Dictionary.com definition, the idea of dramatic irony is different: it is said there that dramatic irony is created by irony that is "inherent in speeches or a situation" on the stage, and yet a character misses it, unlike the audience. According to Golding, a doxastic failure, or asymmetric understanding, is a sufficient condition; according to Dictionary.com, dramatic irony implies some prior ironies on the stage, and then and only then the doxastic gap becomes relevant to dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is based on missed ironies and therefore the Ajax case is so illuminating.
I will argue that the doxastic account runs into trouble when we ask, what is so ironic about it. Golding's account suffers from the symptom, as we may call it, of being too obvious. According to the model suggested in Dictionary.com, Ajax, when he becomes conscious of his actions, first fails to appreciate the irony inherent in the events; he does not experience the V-effect, and this is ironic in itself - this is second order situational irony created by missed ironies. Instead Ajax reacts with plain horror. The audience now can see irony where the character cannot, and this in itself is ironic, which is dramatic irony that is independent of the doxastic gap and the meaning gap. Irony now returns to the stage: the character does not see the irony that the audience sees, or at least should see. This explains why dramatic irony qualifies as irony: the reason is a dramatic character's failure to recognize irony - situational irony that is - and this creates meta-irony. The point is, the so-called dramatic irony is (i) irony because of the meta-irony based on some missed but obvious situational irony on stage; (ii) it is dramatic because the audience of the drama may come to apprehend it.
Gareth Evans writes in his oft-quoted article: "[T]he privileged reader of Heroides 1 who, through access to the Odyssey, is alive to ironies which Ovid's Penelope cannot realize"; hence, we find dramatic irony here in the third sense of the notion. The key point is the missed situational irony that turns into dramatic irony when the audience sees it. But Evans does not hold this position self-consciously or consistently:
She is right to equate Aeolus with the winds, but she does not know enough to appreciate the full force and accuracy of the comparison. Her father's change of heart enables the privileged reader to realize the full potential of the comparison which is impossible for Canace herself.
Here we are back to the doxastic and meaning theories of dramatic irony. Such a wavering is typical when one works with an unanalyzed notion of dramatic irony. The next sentence in this context hints at the priority of the meaning theory in relation to the doxastic theory: "The true comparison between Aeolus and the winds now lies not in their shared ferocity, but in their common changeability." The meanings and the relevant metaphors have changed, but that Canace, unlike the audience, cannot know it.
The Ambiguities and Ironies of "Should Know"
A dramatic event, to be ironic, must be engrossing to the audience. Let me try to explain this intuition. Golding's example satisfies this condition. Gloucester's situation is miserable and yet Edgar is cruelly deceiving him; thus we care. And the case is situationally ironic: Edgar's help is a joke. The ideal audience may sympathize with Gloucester and condemn Edgar, or they laugh with Edgar, which entails a cynical attitude towards Gloucester and his predicament. In the first case, the affective effect of the doxastic gap as the source of dramatic irony is minimal, in the second case it is maximal. In the first case, audience tends to pity Gloucester, and this feeling annuls ironic effect: irony entail V-effect and is therefore alienating, which in this case is impossible. Pity is the opposite of alienation, and so is righteous anger, too. Only if you laugh with Edgar, are you open to the ironic aspects of the case. Laughter is certainly compatible with irony and irony compatible with comedy.
Can we say Gloucester should know what is happening to him? Suppose a teacher says to a pupil: you have read the book, you should know the answer. This is the should of exhortation. In this sense, Gloucester should know he is cheated because the relevant evidence is there. But he also should know because otherwise he will be humiliated and ridiculed. This is the should of prudentiality: it would be good and useful for Gloucester to know.
Plato says two types of lies are permissible: the lies of the prince and the doctor. They may be necessary in the sense that by lying one can avoid some major harm to others. Such lies are examples of something we should not know - that is why the lies are prudentially justifiable. Machiavelli, of course, is the master of this black art. Think of this princely display of deception and cruelty, which anyhow is a justifiable political move: Ch. 7
And because he knew that the past severity had caused some hatred against himself, so, to clear himself in the minds of the people, and gain them entirely to himself, he desired to show that, if any cruelty had been practiced, it had not originated with him, but in the natural sternness of the minister. Under this pretense he took Ramiro, and one morning caused him to be executed and left on the piazza at Cesena with the block and a bloody knife at his side. The barbarity of this spectacle caused the people to be at once satisfied and dismayed.
The citizens praise the prince, they do not know better - they prudentially should not know. The survival of the city state requires this; without it, the prince's realm is doomed, and this is the reason why the citizens should not know. In another sense they should know: the evidence for exposing the lie are there. The first "should" is prudential and second epistemically exhortative.
Machiavelli's prince is aware the relevant ironies, I suppose so, so that he has a good reason to laugh; his citizens fail, as they should, to see through the plot. Hence, here is the main source of situational irony: the citizens construe the event falsely, which was the very plan and purpose of the prince and, hence, they call what is a crime and conspiracy a blessing. The prince thinks as follows: I killed the police chief but you do not know the truth, which is just as it should be, a good thing. He has now created a situation where bad looks good - this is a paradigmatic case of irony. The prince may muse: You bastard served me very well, I mean by spilling you guts on my piazza. The citizens should not know this, and of course they could: one can come to understand such conspiratorial events, and in this sense, they should know.
In this sense the dramatic characters, the citizens, should and should not know, which makes this play of ironies on stage so irresistibly interesting to the audience. The irony of it all is based on the bivalent use of "should." We may call the play of these two iterations of "should" dialectical. The characters should know the truth, and this interests the audience (S-effect). But the characters as citizens should not know from the prudential political point of view, which may not engage the audience (V-effect). The plot is cruel and the prince cynical anyway. The princes cause is not ours, the audience may think.
The Machiavellian example plays with the idea that, for prudential political reasons, the citizens should not know. But we also can develop a dramatic plot in such a way that the characters (prudentially) should come to know, and at the same time they cannot know - or it makes no sense to say they should know (exhortatively).
Example: K in The Castle triesto find his way up to the castle, which he cannot know is impossible for him. Yet, he should (prudentially) know the road because otherwise he cannot go to the castle, and audience knows this. Here is then the required gap between the character's and audience's knowledge. The key point is, of course, that K do not see the irony of the situation, unlike the audience: K's efforts are doomed from the beginning, it is all wild goose chase. When Kafka develops the drama, obviously K cannot come to know, and the audience realizes this, too.
K does not know the road; and K does not know that he cannot know the road; yet he should know it, if he wants to go to the castle.
The audience knows that K cannot come to know the road, and thus he cannot go to the castle.
This type of second order ignorance is crucial from K's point of view but this is what he now misses, or the irony of his own situation. The audience may not miss the irony, and this is the source of dramatic irony here. The complex play with "should" and "can" makes the case interesting and worthwhile; without this dialectic we do not have a case to think about. The "should know" motivates us to approach the case and feel its dramatic weight.
Conclusion. To create dramatic irony, the drama on stage must at least tell a story in which (1) the characters should know and understand certain significant facts, meanings, and ironies; (2) the audience find them engrossing, and (3) they know and understand them; hence, (4) a gap opens between the characters and the audience. (5) In the most obvious case, the relevant events on stage exhibit situational irony, but (6) The characters miss it. (7) The characters and the audience live in their own possible worlds that do not meet or mix. In other words, the audience is interested in the characters and know more than they do, when the speeches and events on stage are distorted by various ironies. The key rule is, no dramatic irony without missed ironies on stage.