Irony occurs when an outcome is different than expected. It is very possible for one situation to strike one reader as ironic and another not.
There are a few different kinds of irony: dramatic, situational, and verbal.
The first, dramatic irony, is used to refer to a situation where the audience, such as that of a movie or play, knows more about what’s going on on-screen or stage than the characters do. The technique is also used to heighten the audience’s emotions, they might be aware of something critical to the plot of a story, be able to see it playing out in the background, but no one on stage has any idea.
The most commonly cited example of this kind of irony is in Shakespeare‘s Romeo and Juliet. At the end of the play, the readers/listeners/viewers know that Juliet isn’t dead, but sleeping. Romeo, though, has no idea. He commits suicide believing his true love has died while the viewers look on, knowing the truth.
Situational irony can be further divided into three different parts: cosmic, historical, and Socratic. Cosmic has to do with fate, and often the gods. Historical is concerned with real events that only seem ironic when they are seen in retrospect. The latter, Socratic irony, was used by the philosopher Socrates in order to push his conversational opponents into more ridiculous arguments.
Let’s take a look at an example of situational irony in Samuel Taylor Coleridge‘s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner‘. In this long and wonderfully written poem, there are many literary techniques that one could comment on. But, the irony is one of the simplest and the most relatable. It presents itself with the ninth stanza of Part II of the poem. The lines read:
Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink
In these lines, Coleridge’s speaker is considering their situation and that of their fellow crew members. It is ironic because, very simply, there’s a lot of water but they can’t drink it. They are at risk of dehydration and death while surrounded by the ocean.
Aye; all was hushed. The about-to-fire fired not,The aimed-at moved away in trance-lipped song.One checkless regiment slung a clinching shotAnd turned. The Spirit of Irony smirked out, ‘What?Spoil peradventures woven of Rage and Wrong?’
In these lines the speaker, who has been discussing the end of WWI and how this terrible period in human history is going to end with a shot. The world enters into a period of peace, marked by one final act of violence.
Verbal irony is the final type of irony and the most common. It occurs when a speaker says something that is in direct conflict with what they actually believe or mean. These kinds of statements often consist of comparisons utilizing similes. There are any number of examples a careful reader can find within poetry, but one prominent one comes from William Shakespeare‘s sonnet ‘My mistresses eyes are nothing like the sun,’ otherwise known as Sonnet 130. Take for example these lines from the poem:
My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
- ‘The War Horse‘ by Eavan Boland
- ‘The Waste Land‘ by T.S. Eliot
- ‘O Me! O Life!‘ by Walt Whitman
- ‘There Is But One May In The Year‘ by Christina Rossetti