When I first began teaching over 40 years ago, I taught high-school English to freshmen and sophomores. Each day was exciting because those fresh, young faces were alive and curious and enthusiastic, and I was eager to share with them my love for literature and for writing. One of the works that we thoroughly enjoyed was William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet because my students could easily and clearly identify with the young love and passion of those “star-crossed” lovers. Naturally, I, too, could appreciate that passion, but quite honestly, I was even more intrigued by Shakespeare’s crafting of his work and especially by his use of irony in all its forms.
We began by talking about verbal irony where a character says the opposite of what is intended. I’d introduce the technique by pointing out that my students probably used verbal irony themselves without realizing it: “If you received a 50 on a vocabulary quiz, for instance, you might say to your friends: ‘I did a great job on that test.’” Obviously, they could hear a touch of sarcasm in that example, and together, we looked at the Bard’s use of verbal irony.
At the beginning of the play, Romeo is mourning the unrequited love of Rosaline, and he describes her in this way: “One fairer than my love — the all-seeing sun Never saw her match, since first the world begun” (Act 1, Scene 2, Lines 97–98). Obviously, Romeo believes Rosaline is the most beautiful woman the world has ever seen. Yet, just a short time later, when Romeo sees Juliet for the first time, he uses irony to ask himself, “Did my heart love till now? Forswear it sight For I never saw true beauty till this night” (Act 1, Scene 5, Lines 54–55). Essentially, Romeo is denying what he had previously admitted because Juliet’s beauty had entered his world. Juliet, too, uses verbal irony later on, after she and Romeo had wed secretly. When her unaware parents want her to marry Paris, she tells her mother, “I will not marry yet, and when I do I swear, It shall be Romeo, whom you know I hate” (Act 3, Scene 5, Lines 122–123).
Next, we’d move on to dramatic irony which occurs when the audience knows more than one or more of the characters; it’s a secret that adds a level of tension or excitement. Again, I explained that my students experienced dramatic irony whenever they planned a surprise birthday party for a classmate. The party’s organizers and invitees know the secret, so they more closely watch the birthday boy or girl prior to the party to see if the secret had leaked or to see the recipient’s reaction when the surprise is revealed.
Once my students understood the idea of inside knowledge, they found major examples in the play: Romeo and Juliet fall in love without realizing their families are enemies, they get married without their families’ knowledge, and Juliet takes a secret potion to make herself appear dead without Romeo’s awareness. As audience members, we know the uninformed characters in the play will be surprised, and we anxiously wait to see their reactions.
Finally, we also discussed irony of situation, when the audience expects one outcome and the opposite occurs. To explain, I’d often refer to athletic contests when a huge underdog defeats the heavy favorite, the David-versus-Goliath experiences. Since many of my students participated in sports, they easily understood that those unexpected victories can be life changing for the winners and so depressing for the losers.
Thus, if my young charges didn’t know ahead of time that Shakespeare had written a tragedy, they may have expected an entirely different outcome. They may have associated the names “Romeo and Juliet” with the greatest love affair of all time and assumed an ending that included the words “happily ever after.” Unfortunately, that did not occur, and the Montague and Capulet families did not make peace until it was too late.
So, should you be using irony in your writing? Perhaps. Verbal irony can add spice and flavor to the dialogue in your stories. Dramatic irony will definitely add interest and engage your readers. And irony of situation, like any athletic contest, may shock and disappoint some while uplifting and enthralling others. As you consider irony’s use, however, don’t feel pressured to use all three types, especially in a short work. Each type of irony has a unique function, and you should use these devices in light of what you are trying to accomplish.