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Tragic irony

Parents: tragedy - irony

Related: ambivalence - poetic justice

“Poetic justice” (the name often given to artistic miracle-mongering) may be comforting, but we regretfully recognize that it is very bad art. “Poetic justice” is indeed the wrong name to give it, since it is neither poetry nor justice; there is a true poetic justice, which we know better by the name of “tragic irony,” which is of the nature of judgment and is the most tremendous power in literature as in life — but in that there is no element of miracle. What we commonly mean by “poetic justice” is a system of rewards and punishments bestowed, like their nursery exemplars, “because you have been good” and “because you have been naughty” — or sometimes simply with the object of keeping the children quiet. --Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957)


Situations resembling poetic justice, but lacking the aspect of justice, may also be ascribed to the irony of fate.

For instance, tragic irony occurs when a character onstage is ignorant, but the audience watching knows his or her eventual fate, as in Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King.

Tragic irony (dramatic irony)

In tragedy, what is called "tragic irony" becomes a device for heightening the intensity of a dramatic situation. Tragic irony particularly characterized the drama of ancient Greece, owing to the familiarity of the spectators with the legends on which so many of the plays were based. In this form of irony, the words and actions of the characters belie the real situation, which the spectators fully realize. It may take several forms: the character speaking may realize the irony of his words while the rest of the actors may not; or he or she may be unconscious while the other actors share the knowledge with the spectators; or the spectators may alone realize the irony. Sophocles’ Oedipus the King provides a classic example of tragic irony at its fullest and finest.

Irony may come to expression in inappropriate behavior. A witness to a scene involving threats of violence, for example, may perceive continued politeness on the part of the victim as increasingly ironic as it becomes increasingly inappropriate. Sometimes the “second” audience is the private self of the ironist.

When not recognized, irony can lead to misunderstanding. Even if an ironic statement is recognized as such, it often expresses less clearly what the speaker or writer wants to say than would a direct statement.

Another famous case of tragic irony occurs in the William Shakespeare play, Romeo and Juliet when Romeo finds Juliet in a drugged death-like sleep, he assumes her to be dead and kills himself. Upon awakening to find her dead lover beside her, Juliet kills herself with his knife.

See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tragic irony [Sept 2006]

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