Three Types of Dramatic Irony
Professor Timo Airaksinen
"Warning: this MS is a preliminary draft. Not to be quoted without my explicit permission."
-Professor Timo Airaksinen
What is dramatic irony? I present a definition and its three versions: doxastic asymmetry, meaning differences, and missed ironies on stage. The first one is problematic because it overlooks the ironic status of dramatic irony. Why call it irony? This definition is too broad because it specifies a necessary but not sufficient condition of dramatic irony. The meaning-based version is more promising. The third version deals directly with the relevant ironies. I start with Peter Goldie's views and mention Kafka's novels, Euripides' Bacchants, Sophocles Ajax, Machiavelli, and some Biblical narratives. I discuss the problem of ironic alienation and contrast it to the thesis that dramatic irony makes the characters on stage look and feel sympathetic. Typically, irony entails distancing and alienation. The consideration of different types of should illustrates the full import of dramatic irony as an aesthetic category. We can ask what the audience should know and why.
Keywords: Irony; Situational Irony; Verbal Irony; Goldie; Brecht; Machiavelli; Euripides; Sophocles; Alienation; Sympathy
Definitions of Dramatic Irony
Peter Goldie provides two examples of dramatic irony:
In Shakespeare's King Lear, there is a scene that involves a very a 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 not know: that, contrary to what he thinks, he is not on the edge of the cliffs of Dover, and thus not able with one step to cast himself over the edge to his certain death. This is dramatic irony.1
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."2 Macmillan Dictionary agrees: dramatic irony occurs in "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 both the idea of different meanings and the knowledge gap.3 Dictionary.com says: 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)
Dramatic irony emerges in a scene whenever the audience is in a superior position to the characters on stage. The audience's and characters' mutual positions are asymmetric in three possible ways. Dramatic irony entails (1) a doxastic asymmetry between the characters on stage and the audience, (2) their different understanding of relevant meanings, or (3) their different attitude towards obvious irony on stage. I will defend the third one against the other two.
In what follows, I understand irony in a usual manner. Verbal irony entails a discrepancy between a speaker's surface meaning and real meaning, or what she says and does not say, given that the context is not metaphoric.4 A big and robust person begs an aggressive little man not to hurt him. What he says (surface meaning) does not fit what the audience thinks he does not but should say (real meaning). This is verbal irony that one freely creates.5 Verbal irony emerges via describing a given social situation in a twisted manner, regardless of the situation. One makes it look strange. Situational irony is what one finds in a twisted social situation. The example above turns into situational irony when we do not understand the big man's utterance as verbal irony; he is afraid of the little man. If the big man is not afraid, the irony is of the verbal kind; if he is afraid, this is situational irony. Here is a minimalist criterion of an utterance or a social situation being ironic: the case entails irony if and only if we can detect two mutually inconsistent but related interpretations. All three definitions of dramatic irony satisfy this criterion. The question to ask is, what makes them dramatically ironic?
Golding's two examples focus on situational irony. Gloucester wants to commit suicide in a place where it does not make sense. His desire is impossible because of the actual situation. He does now know where he is. Oedipus killed his father believing that he killed a stranger - someone - which is to say that what he did is not what he thought he did. De dicto, he killed someone, but de re he killed his father the king.6 He meant to kill a stranger but actually, he killed his father. The Gloucester case exemplifies the doxastic (1) and the Oedipus case the meaning definition (2). Gloucester's situational beliefs are wrong, and Oedipus' interpretation of his actions is false: manslaughter vs. regicide. Of course, we may read the Oedipus case in terms of the doxastic theory focusing on what he does not know, but then we miss the relevant differences between the definitions (1) and (2). The third definition does not apply here because Gloucester and Oedipus do not miss any ironies of their respective situations where none exist. We will return to this third case below, and we'll see that it allows verbal irony, too. The speaker may miss the ironies in her own utterances. This is an indispensable extension of the scope of dramatic irony. Notice that we can turn the Gloucester case into verbal dramatic irony in the third sense if we focus on what Edgar says to Gloucester while reading it ironically. Gloucester misses this irony, unlike the audience.
Dramatic irony posits characters on stage, a scripted scene, and an audience. Something happens on stage, and the audience reads it better than the characters do. The basic definition of irony applies here. Gloucester thinks he is on a high cliff, which is not true. He wants to commit suicide, which is now impossible. The audience knows what Gloucester believes and what the situation is like. Hence, they face an ironic discrepancy that entails dramatic irony. In this case, we assume that the audience can perceive and understand the ironic elements of the scene. Sometimes these are subtle and less than evident, and the audience members may disagree and perceive the scene in different ways. We assume an intelligent, well-informed, and attentive audience, which is not always the case. The audience has its idealized features.7 The audience is an idealized doxastic agent who does not miss obvious information as the characters do. Sometimes the audience is told directly what to believe; this happens when a narrator tells them before the events become available to the characters. The real audience may miss and misread much information, unlike the ideal audience that reliably acquires the relevant beliefs. We are only interested in an ideal doxastic audience when we discuss dramatic irony. When we focus on real audiences, they may miss all the ironies of a drama. In this case, ironies go unnoticed, which is hardly possible. An unnoticed irony is no irony. An atheist may think that all Christian religious ceremony is dramatically ironic - they worship a god that does not exist. However, in a world before atheism, no such irony existed.
The idea of a stage may be als ob. Sometimes the characters are on a theatre stage, but they may also act in other stage-like situations. The roles and scenes follow a script, or we can read them as if they did: without the script, no characters exist. Characters exist because the script defines them.
The Limits of Doxastic Theory
Sometimes dramatic irony is based on a doxastic asymmetry between the audience and some dramatic characters on stage. The audience knows more than the characters who stay ignorant, mistaken, or misguided. The script's author may independently inform the audience or get their beliefs from the logic of the unfolding events on stage. The doxastic supremacy of the audience comes about in many ways. Suppose they read the script beforehand and then go and see the play. Like some lugubrious divinity, they possess complete knowledge of the future events before they evolve on stage. Does this mean we must now watch the whole play ironically? Everything that happens, every scene, is now supposed to be ironic, which is hardly true. Moreover, I will lose the enjoyment based on the naïve viewing that permits immersion into the events as they progress on stage. Perhaps I do not want to adopt such an overall ironic standpoint, even if I should? The doxastic theory looks too general to be viable. It finds irony where it does not exist.
Popular artistic conventions create scenes that are dramatically ironic in the doxastic sense. This is evident in popular cultures, such as Hollywood films. Conventions indeed offer the audience a chance to ironize their experiences. Classic Westerns are so conventional that today they may look ludicrous - and people love them for that. A good example is Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952). Several bad men arrive in town, but the audience immediately knows they must die as scary as they may look - or because they look so nasty. The contrast between their looks and predictable fate is ridiculous - it is pure comedy. The good guy, sheriff Will Kane, must win the ensuing gun battle. If he got hit by a gunshot, it should be on his shoulder. It is never a scattergun belly shot, and bullet wounds are never painful. The audience knows all this beforehand.
Yet, they do not know how the bad men die, and thus the viewing is both maximally stress-free and enjoyable but also exciting. This type of foreknowledge aims at stress reduction. Conventions also rule sexual scenes. After making love, the woman wraps herself in white bedsheets to her neck, and her bare-chested man smokes a cigarette. The audience tends to miss such conventional ironies because they find such conventions so familiar. Technically, such scenes exemplify doxastic dramatic irony, but perhaps only in a trivial sense. Films need their conventions, and this fact entails no irony in any interesting sense. We do not want to force irony on everything. An example of the outer limits of doxastic dramatic irony is that Will Kane is not Will Kane but Gary Cooper. The audience knows this, but this hardly qualifies as an example of dramatic irony. Why not? It is not easy to explain. The case of John Wayne is even more subtle: he always plays John Wayne even when he plays Ethan Edwards in The Searchers (1956), and of course in Rio Bravo (1959) as sheriff John T. Chance. Isn't it dramatically ironic that John Wayne is John T. Chance who is John Wayne? John Wayne does not act because he is who he is.
As we see, a dramatic scene presupposes, develops, and depicts a possible world where the characters exist and act. This possible world may be nearer or further away from our actual world. The scripted possible world is never quite the same as the actual (possible) world: it is fictional. And the audience is, as I said above, an idealized entity, and thus their world may not be quite the same as this actual world either; these two are intricately connected but not identical. A real audience may see no ironies of the drama on stage, but ideal audiences are thoroughly and accurately aware of it - thus, two different worlds exist. We usually assume that these two worlds are closely similar, unlike the world of the dramatic characters that may be far away from both the actual world and the world of the ideal 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 our actual world to become identical with the world of K. In Amerika, America is a surreal place. Karl's visions feel like surrealistic paintings - think about Mr. Pollunder's enormous but unfinished house that opens into the dark nothingness of infinite space where "[a] breath of dark emptiness met him." Also, the idea of the great Nature Theater of Oklahoma is otherworldly.8
We may, of course, mix these worlds, as Hitchcock and Brecht do. I mean Hitchcock's cameo appearances in his films and the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. A cameo appearance confuses the interpretation of the scene: among fictional characters, the audience sees a real person. According to the doxastic theory, this exemplifies dramatic irony. Unlike the audience, the characters cannot know that they are real persons.
A character on stage may directly address the audience and inform them about some facts the other characters do not know. Suppose a character sits in the audience and participates in the events on stage; now, a character becomes part of the audience. The two possible worlds blend in. In such cases, the doxastic version of dramatic irony may not apply, although these scenes are ironic in their own right. Dramatic irony presupposes a clear distinction between the audience and the characters.
We may find dramatic irony in this unconventional mix-up of possible worlds if we relax this last condition. 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 world. Suppose a member of the audience enters the stage and influences the course of events there. In this case, a character may still think and act as if she still were in the simple conventional scene, that is, in what we call her isolated stage world. The audience knows that this world is now gone, or at least disturbed, and this doxastic asymmetry looks like a possible source of dramatic irony, which is now due to its inherent situational irony. The doxastic theory does not apply here because it misses such novel ironies. It is limited to the strict separation of the two worlds.
The audience may witness and learn about events of which a character remains ignorant. Alfred Hitchcock's Rope (1948) is an example. We see a murder of which the characters know nothing. Rupert (James Stewart) solves the case, and then they all know. The ironic content of all this is minimal. But sometimes, a character knows more than the audience. This is often the case: In Kafka's The Castle, 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 to find out its ironies, unlike the critical reader.
Should we call the beginning of The Castle dramatically ironic because of its inverted doxastic asymmetry? K. knows more than 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? Maybe, but certainly, it is not dramatic irony as defined by the doxastic theory. The reason is as follows. When the characters know more than the audience, this fact means nothing to them; it is all meaningful to them when the audience knows more. The characters do not know that they know more than the audience. The audience knows that they know less, and they work hard to overcome this imbalance. It is meaningful to them. Therefore, the case is not dramatically ironic, although it can be situationally ironic. This shows why the meaning-based definition of dramatic irony is better than the simple doxastic one: the former distinguishes between the two cases, unlike the latter.
The Meaning Theory of Dramatic Irony
The audience and the characters on stage may attach a different meaning to the same dramatic event so that the characters will miss something. This is not the same as the doxastic theory. When Oedipus kills his father at the crossroads, he does not know what he is doing. He knows that he kills but not whom he kills. What is the meaning, for him, of this critical event? The scene is not meaningful to him; it is irrelevant, unlike the audiences in the know. Their beliefs are accurate. Think of Sophocles' Ajax, where the great warrior Ajax falls raging mad and kills a flock of sheep that he thinks are enemy soldiers.9 The mad sheep killing hero initially assigns a significant but mistaken meaning to his act: he sees valor in it. He kills himself when he realizes what happened and understands the situational irony and the sarcastic import of the event. What else could he do when he faces his comrades in arms? The scene is situationally ironic because the meaning mad Ajax assigns to it, the surface meaning, is different from reality. The surface meaning is heroic, but the real meaning is ridiculous. He deserves the ridicule. Here situational irony transforms into the second type of dramatic irony in front of a knowledgeable audience. A brave hero killing sheep sounds ludicrous, and the audience knows this well before the hero comes to his senses and understands the real meaning of his action. Here the ancient moral context is different from the modern one. We think Ajax's madness and Oedipus' ignorance excuse them, which is not what the ancient audiences believe. Ajax and Oedipus are doomed.
Tecmessa, Ajax's concubine, explains the scene and the different perspectives of Ajax and his audience. Ajax fails to interpret his actions correctly, and his madness explains this:
TECMESSA: Yonder man, while his spirit was diseased, / Himself had joy in his own evil plight, / Though to us, who were sane, he brought distress. / But now, since he has respite from his plague, / He with sore grief is utterly cast down, / And we likewise, no less than heretofore. / Are there not here two woes instead of one?
Indeed, in this scene we recognize "two woes instead of one." The audience can see irony where the character cannot.
Superficially, but only superficially, does the Ajax case exemplify the doxastic theory. Ajax does not know what he is doing, unlike the audience. But the more profound point focuses on Ajax's pride in what he did. We can interpret the scene in terms of the third theory, too. Ajax initially does not see the relevant situational irony in what he is doing. A great warrior attacking sheep is paradigmatically ironic- a sheep is a metaphor of defenseless vulnerability and innocence. When Ajax finally understands what happened, he kills himself. The relevant ironies are there, but they do not explain the events. The explanation depends on Ajax's reading of the facts, that is, of the meaning he assigned to them. He does not commit suicide because now he knows what he did - de re he killed some sheep; he must die because now he knows de dicto the intolerable truth of the events. His behavior was not fit for a hero. And the audience understands all this before Ajax does: a sheep killer warrior hero is an oxymoron. Ajax's new identity is hopelessly confused and no longer allows a consistent description. The sheep killing scene is dramatically ironic in the second sense of the term.
Gareth Williams, in his oft-quoted article, refers to "the privileged position of the reader of Heroides 11 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.10 The critical point is the missed situational irony that turns into dramatic irony when the audience understands it. But Williams does not hold this position self-consciously or consistently, as shown by his second example:
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.11
Here we return to the meaning theory of dramatic irony. Such a wavering is typical when one works with an unanalyzed notion of dramatic irony. The following hints at the priority of the meaning theory to the doxastic one: "The true comparison between Aeolus and the winds now lies not in their shared ferocity, but in their common changeability."12 The meanings and relevant metaphors have changed, but Canace, unlike the ideal audience, does not realize it.
The Irony of Missed Ironies in Euripides
Euripides' tragedy Bacchae provides an example of the dramatic irony of the third kind. It also illustrates verbal irony in a dramatic setting. The characters miss ironies de se on stage; that is, ironies that concern them personally. Dionysus, also called Bacchus and Bromius, arrives at Thebes as a human being and promptly announces himself to the court of the king Pentheus as a god who insists on his rites.13 Pentheus rejects his divine status, which is a mistake and leads to tragic consequences. The audience knows that Dionysus is a godhead born to Zeus and Semele, a human woman. The audience also knows the conventions of tragedy: Pentheus must perish, and his house is doomed. The audience realizes that Pentheus should know how things are and yield to the god, but this is now trivial.
Bacchants are already reveling in the nearby hills and woods, but this does not convince Pentheus; it just makes him curious, and he wants to see them. Pentheus should and could have known better. Therefore, his royal arrogance is 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 simple verbal irony turns into situational irony when Pentheus threatens to punish the god as if a mortal human being could do that - the audience knows better. Dionysus puts the situational irony into words:
DIONYSUS: What punishment am I to suffer? What harsh penalties will you inflict?
The situational irony becomes evident when the god dresses the king in women's clothes to smuggle him to the orgies of the female Bacchants. But before this happens, the citizens of his polis have a chance to see their king in the humiliating position dressed as a woman. Again, the audience knows more than Pentheus, which entails dramatic irony. But most importantly, Pentheus misses the situational irony of his case: someone leads the king through his city wearing women's clothes. The audience cannot miss the irony of such a scene: the surface situation is a person walking through the city, and the actual situation is a humiliated king. A walk is not what it looks like, but Pentheus fails to see its ironies.
An additional source of irony is that the early Christian tradition sometimes confused Jesus Christ and Dionysus.14 This is understandable because both are upstart Eastern gods, both born of a woman conceived by a godhead, assuming the form of a human being, and insisting on novel rites. Moreover, their identity is a trinity. Both have three names, and in this sense, they are polymorphic beings, or they are one person in many simultaneous guises simultaneously.15 Their names form two triune metonymic groups: Dionysus, Bacchus, and Bromius; God, Spirit, and Son.
Jesus, like Dionysus, uses clever verbal irony, 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 derides them as if saying, you do not believe in me although you should - and in the end, you must! The point is: you threaten to kill me, but instead, you will kill yourself. His irony is a dire warning of a threatening tragedy. This entails the third kind of dramatic irony: both Jesus and Dionysus speak like gods, or sons of god, although the audience does not know and understand it.
Moreover, they do not see the irony of making threats against gods. We can read these examples in three ways, but the third one looks like the most fundamental when discussing dramatic irony. It allows us to see the scenes in ironic light: to miss irony is genuinely ironic.
In addition to verbal play, the Biblical narrative contains dramatic irony. Jesus has his 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 the sinners.16 This is what Dionysus, that cruel Eastern upstart godhead, says, too. Jesus may have provided his contemporary audiences sufficient evidence of his true nature and offered them a chance to show their devotion, yet they failed. The characters in this great religious drama should have known better, which is the foundation of the dramatic irony that culminates in its own ironies as dramatic irony.
Notice an additional similarity between Jesus and Dionysus: they are ambiguous figures, human beings as well as 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 his 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 Pentheus is now addressing is no longer identical to the god. He is a human messenger, although he has divine powers. Jesus was like this, too. He says people should believe in him, but his final words betray him: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). The question mark here is problematic - the speech act is an accusation that forces dramatic irony into the situation: suddenly, he fails to see what his audience is seeing.
The similarities between Jesus and Dionysus are indeed evident. We learn that their listeners should believe in them, offer them their rites, and worship them - the alternative is death. In both dramas, the characters should know that they must suffer now and forever if they fail. Both plays are cruel because the script's logic dictates that they do not know and believe, although they should. The script condemns them. Should we feel a genuine 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 starts, spawned by the tension between what characters on stage know and what they should know when the audience honestly and seriously experiences this very tension. But they miss this and all the ensuing ironies.
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 costs him dearly in the hands of the god who feels Pentheus has betrayed him and caused him unduly unruly harm and pain. However, the ultimate situational irony here results from 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, nor does Jesus, why the rites and especially sacrificial rites are so crucial.
Indeed, this entails dramatic irony. It is based on situational ironies that neither the king nor the god can see. The audience realizes that Dionysus fails to appreciate the de se ironies related to him being such a needy god. The mighty god is weak. Here is an example of the third type of irony.
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.)
We may say that the god speaks ironically. If this is so, we find no dramatic irony here. However, if he does not speak ironically, the case exemplifies the third type of dramatic irony. In this case, the god misses the irony of being a needy and vulnerable god.
The Two Functions of Dramatic Irony
Irony is a pragmatic trope, and thus dramatic irony has specific effects on the audience. Nordquist writes:
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.17
He continues, "Readers end up sympathizing with the main characters, hence the irony."18 How does ironic treatment create such an S-effect (sympathetic effect)? Irony typically entails alienation and a Brechtian V-effect (Verfremdungseffekt);19 now dramatic irony should make an S-effect, which is the opposite of alienation; why call dramatic irony "irony" if this is the case? The possibility of the S-effect of dramatic irony alone may not refute the idea that irony entails alienation and estrangement.20 S and V -effects are mutually incompatible, and irony loves the V-effect. If the audience only recognizes an S effect, they miss the ironies entailed by the V-effect. Without it, ironic games hardly are worthwhile.21 Think of Gloucester. The audience may miss the irony of the scene. Thus, they feel pity and sympathize with the poor man. Or, they see the irony, which entails the V-effect. After this, they indeed may feel pity and sympathize with his person, but as well they may stay at the ironic level and focus on his gullibility.
These reflections show that V-effect comes first, and S-effect may follow, or perhaps S-effect bypasses the perception of irony. In the Oedipus case, it is easy to miss the irony and pay attention merely to the dire consequences of his actions. Hence, the V-effect is an essential element of irony, whereas the S-effect is a contingent and irrelevant. The lesson to learn is this: we must pay careful attention to the ironic effects of a dramatic scene.
The general problem of dramatic irony is this: The definition may be clear and straightforward, but audiences may have difficulties seeing the irony, especially when the S-effect is strong or the plot is too exciting and engaging. Perhaps invisible irony is an oxymoron? In a scene on stage, dramatic irony rules, but the audience does not notice it. I said above that the idea of an audience is an idealization, and an ideal audience can see and feel the irony wherever it is. How satisfying this solution is, it difficult to say. Dramatic irony is a rather strange type of irony anyway if the audience tends to miss it on a regular and predictable basis. To use a term borrowed from the philosophy of science, dramatic irony is a theoretical term.
As I said, if the audience pities Gloucester, they may have missed the ironies of the case. However, the artistic value of such a scene depends on the ambiguity between its ironic and compassionate readings. The audience may react in two opposite ways. They feel the tension between them, and thus, their experience becomes aesthetically significant. But this presupposes that the audience can see the ironies embedded in the scene.
Creating an S-effect shows that the audience fails to see the case as ironic. Perhaps it rejects the ironic reading; otherwise, they would experience a V-effect: if you experience irony, which is not automatic or necessary, you also fail to experience an S-effect. An ironic speech act may play with falsehoods and twisted language. Thus, it appears as prima facie dishonest. This alienates the audience from the ironic target because now they must start thinking about it from various new perspectives, as if from outside. Also, in the case of verbal irony, the audience must ask what the speaker means. He says something he does not really mean, and this creates a communication gap. We must solve this problem before we react emotionally. The same applies to ironic situations: they all look somehow strange. But when you listen to an ironist, you may empathize with her target as a victim; you may pity him, which entails the opposite of alienation. Therefore, irony prompts an S-effect in some cases, yet if it initially fails to alienate its audience, it is not irony.22
Irony deserves a sarcastic smile, but not compassion and pity. Irony entails a V-effect but not its derivative S-effect. Situational irony may bring about, say, the feeling of vicarious shame, which indicates an S-effect. A nasty sarcasm - sarcasm is always verbal - may bring about well-founded empathy towards an undeserving victim. Still, as I said, this means reaction formation: the inherently alienating effect now backfires.23 Anyone in the audience who wants to save the hero on stage from a trap by standing up and shouting "Stop, don't enter - she has a gun" acts under the influence of the S-effect and misses any irony in the situation.
The Ambiguities of "Should Know"
A dramatic event, to be ironic, must somehow be engaging to the audience. Let me try to explain this intuition. Goldie's example satisfies this condition. Gloucester's situation is miserable, yet Edgar is cruelly deceiving him; thus, the audience cares. And the case is situationally ironic: Edgar's help is a travesty. The ideal audience chooses to sympathize with Gloucester and condemn Edgar or laugh with Edgar, which entails a cynical attitude towards Gloucester and his predicament.
Can we insist that Gloucester should know what is happening to him? Indeed, he should. This is the should of exhortation, which expresses the need to act in a particular manner. Suppose a teacher says to a pupil: you have already read the book; you should know the answer. Here is another sense of should: Gloucester should realize the deception because he has the relevant evidence. We can call this an epistemic should. But he also should know because, otherwise, he will be humiliated and ridiculed. This is the should of exhortation: it would be beneficial for Gloucester to act now.
The should of exhortation focuses on something we should have or do:
You should know, otherwise you cannot find your way home.
You should act, or otherwise you miss a good opportunity.
The doxastic should concerns evidence-based inferences :
You should know, as you have all the relevant evidence.
Some extraneous irony in King Lear follows because Edgar could not mislead Gloucester, as the audience must realize. Think of a person on a high ledge over the ocean and its unique sensory offerings, the sound and echo of seabirds and waves, the sweet smell of sea salt and rotten seaweed, and that moist ocean wind. The scene may work on stage, but at the same time, it fails to be convincing. You find much too much theater here, which itself is an ironic idea. Does this justify the suggestion that Gloucester should understand Edgard's deception? If he should, this scene exemplifies the second type of dramatic irony.
The doxastic should is relevant here. If the character should know and yet does not know, the scene indeed is ironic, and thus it also exemplifies the third definition. She has missed the relevant ironies. The first definition certainly does not require that a character should know in this sense.
If the audience knows the relevant conventions that define the scene, they also know more than the characters, but it may be impossible to insist that they know the conventions. Therefore, to ask "should they know" is essential. Suppose the characters should know, the idea of dramatic irony changes. The audience may now genuinely expect something from the characters and not only watch them acting. We may distinguish between an external and internal theory of dramatic irony when the first requires that the characters should know and the second treats this as an irrelevant requirement. High Noon represents the external and Gloucester vs. Edgar the internal theory. Will Cane cannot know, but Gloucester should know. Will Cane has no evidence for his winning position. Gloucester has evidence for seeing through Edgar's evil plan.
Plato says noble lies are permissible: for instance, the lies of the prince and the doctor.24 They may be necessary because, by lying, one can avoid significant harm. Such lies are examples of something one 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:
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.25
The citizens praise the prince; they do not know better - although they should. The survival of the city state requires princely deception; without it, the prince's realm is in danger, which is why the citizens should not know. Yet, they should know in another sense: the evidence for exposing the lie is available to them. The first should be exhortative, and the second doxastic.
Machiavelli's prince must be aware of the relevant ironies of the scene. He has a good reason to laugh; his citizens fail, as they should, to see through the plot. Hence, here is the primary source of situational irony: the citizens falsely construe the meaning of the event, which was the 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.26 The prince may muse: You served me well, I mean by spilling your guts on my piazza. The citizens should not prudentially know this, but of course, they could: one can come to understand and know such conspiratorial events.
In this sense, the dramatic characters, the citizens, should and should not know, making this play of ironies on stage so fascinating. The irony of it entails the bivalent use of "should." The characters exhortatively 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 (V-effect). The plot is cruel and the prince cynical anyway. This Machiavellian example plays with the idea that, for prudential political reasons, citizens should not know. But we can also develop a dramatic plot so that the characters prudentially should come to know, and at the same time, they cannot know - or it makes no sense to say they exhortatively should know.
Example: K. in Franz Kafka's The Castle tries to find his way to the castle on the hill, which he cannot know is impossible. He has no relevant evidence. Yet, he exhortatively should know the road because, otherwise, he cannot go to the castle, and the audience knows this. A critical gap exists between the knowledge possessed by the characters and the audience. The crucial point is, of course, that K. does not see the de se ironies of the situation, unlike the audience. K.'s efforts are doomed from the beginning; it is all a wild goose chase. As Kafka develops the drama, K. cannot come to know, and the audience realizes this. The situation is like this:
K does not know the road; and K does not know that he cannot know the road; yet he should know it, because 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 ignorance is crucial from K's point of view, but he now misses the de se irony of his situation. The audience may not miss the irony, and this is the source of dramatic irony here. The complex play of should and can makes the case interesting and worthwhile; without this dialectic, we do not have a claim to think about. The should know motivates us to approach the issue, consider its ironies, and feel its dramatic weight.