In act 3, scene 6 of Macbeth, how is Lennox's speech an example of dramatic irony, and why is it important?

Lennox's opening speech in act 3, scene 6 of Macbeth appears at first to be an example of dramatic irony, which is when the audience knows more about a situation in the play than a character does. The speech is actually an example of Shakespeare's use of verbal irony, which includes sarcasm, understatement, and hyperbole, to emphasize essential elements of the plot and to show Lennox and other nobles' increasing hostility towards Macbeth.

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Act 3, scene 6 of William Shakespeare's Macbeth opens in the middle of a conversation between Lennox, a Scottish noblemen, and an unnamed lord. This short scene serves two important purposes, the first of which is to remind the audience of the essential elements of the plot and refocus...

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Act 3, scene 6 of William Shakespeare's Macbeth opens in the middle of a conversation between Lennox, a Scottish noblemen, and an unnamed lord. This short scene serves two important purposes, the first of which is to remind the audience of the essential elements of the plot and refocus the audience's attention on the through-line of the play. The second purpose of the scene is to show the increasing hostility of the Scottish nobility towards Macbeth and the opposing forces that are rising against him.

In his speech in this scene, Lennox summarizes the major events which have occurred in the play thus far, specifically regarding the murders of Duncan and Banquo, and at the same time he expresses his own feelings about what's happened—seemingly using dramatic irony—by employing verbal irony, including sarcasm, understatement, and overstatement, also known as hyperbole.

Dramatic irony occurs when there is a contradiction between what a character says about a particular situation and what the audience knows to be true about the same situation. At first, Lennox's speech appears to be an example of dramatic irony. He relates the events of the play in a manner that seems to imply that Lennox is unaware of the truth of Macbeth's involvement with Duncan and Banquo's murders.

However, as the speech continues, it becomes clear that Lennox is no longer deceived by Macbeth or confused by seemingly unexplained or contradictory events in the play. This takes Lennox's speech out of the realm of dramatic irony, which requires that the audience know something that the character doesn't know, because Lennox now knows and understands exactly what's going on in the play, as well as Macbeth's involvement in the murders of Duncan and Banquo.

In verbal irony, there is a contradiction between what a character says and what the character actually means to say.

The first lines of Lennox's first speech in the scene are as follows:

My former speeches have but hit your thoughts,
Which can interpret farther.

In other words, Lennox is saying to the lord, "I think we agree on this, but I leave it to you to make your own conclusions," but Lennox knows quite well that he and the lord agree on what Lennox is about to say, and they've already come to the same conclusions.

"Only I say / Things have been strangely borne" is an understatement, in that to say only that things that have happened in the play which have supernatural implications "have been strangely bourne" is to minimize the impact of major events in the play.

This understatement is followed by another one:

The gracious Duncan
Was pitied of Macbeth: marry, he was dead.

This is to say, sarcastically, that Macbeth pitied Duncan so much that Macbeth killed him to relive himself of those feelings of pity, or that Macbeth only pitied Duncan after he was already dead, mocking the way that Macbeth expressed to Macduff his overwhelming grief after seeing Duncan's body in act 2, scene 3.

And the right valiant Banquo walk'd too late,
Whom, you may say, if't please you, Fleance kill'd,
For Fleance fled. Men must not walk too late.

Lennox makes an overly obvious conclusion that since Fleance fled the scene when his father, Banquo, was murdered, Fleance must have killed Banquo. Lennox's dark, tongue-in-cheek humor is clear in saying that "men must not walk too late," when Lennox facetiously blames Banquo for his own death, because Banquo was out walking too late at night.

Lennox then turns to overstatement, or hyperbole, which is a purposeful exaggeration of what Lennox means to say.

Who cannot want the thought, how monstrous
It was for Malcolm and for Donalbain
To kill their gracious father? Damned fact!
How it did grieve Macbeth!

Lennox doesn't believe for a minute that Malcolm and Donalbain killed Duncan, and he uses terms like "monstrous" and "damned fact" to emphasize his mock incredulity. Lennox again mocks Macbeth's reaction to Duncan's death—"How it did grieve Macbeth!"—which Lennox believes was Macbeth's own doing.

Did he not straight,
In pious rage, the two delinquents tear,
That were the slaves of drink and thralls of sleep?
Was not that nobly done? Ay, and wisely too,
For ’twould have anger'd any heart alive
To hear the men deny't.

Lennox lays on the hyperbole and sarcasm with a trowel, mocking Macbeth's killing of Duncan's drunken guards "in a pious rage" as "nobly done," when in fact Macbeth killed the guards, "and wisely, too," so they couldn't implicate Macbeth in Duncan's murder.

In lines 16 and 17, Lennox says, "So that, I say, / He has borne all things well," which is a sarcastic understatement in which Lennox is implying that Macbeth has behaved admirably well under the unfortunate circumstances, which are of his own making, and Macbeth somehow managed to soldier on in spite of his personal feelings of grief and dismay at the deaths of Duncan and Banquo.

Lennox has a sarcastic warning for Malcolm, Donalbain, and Fleance.

And I do think
That, had he Duncan's sons under his key—
As, an't please heaven, he shall not—they should find
What ’twere to kill a father; so should Fleance.

Lennox says that if Macbeth had Malcolm, Donalbain, and Fleance under his control, "under his key," Macbeth might murder them and claim that he was again overcome by the same furious rage and "violent love" for Duncan and Banquo that he claimed he felt when he killed Duncan's guards.

At the end of the speech, Lennox takes a mild sarcastic shot at Macduff, who's gone to England to meet with Malcolm and ask the English king for troops to take against Macbeth.

But, peace! For from broad words, and ’cause he fail'd
His presence at the tyrant's feast, I hear,
Macduff lives in disgrace. Sir, can you tell
Where he bestows himself?

"Enough talk about Macbeth," Lennox says, and gently takes Macduff to task, in absentia, for speaking his mind too plainly to Macbeth and snubbing Macbeth's invitation to his coronation feast, then running off to England "in disgrace" to avoid Macbeth's retaliation against him.

The proof of Lennox's attitude in this speech is the line in which he refers to "the tyrant's feast," plainly referring to Macbeth as a tyrant.

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Another way in which Lennox's speech can serve as an example of dramatic irony is in the dramatic change that has taken place in this young man's character since he first appeared with Macduff when they came to wake King Duncan. At that time Lennox was young, callow, naive, awkward, self-conscious, and inexperienced, just starting off in life as a soldier and a courtier. By the time he makes the speech in Act 3, scene 6, the events he has witnessed and the things he has personally experienced have made him grow up very quickly. Now he is cynical, embittered, worldly wise, and cautious. At one point he says:

But, peace! For from broad words, and ’cause he [Banquo] fail'd
His presence at the tyrant's feast... 

If a young man like Lennox can have changed so much and come to such conclusions as he expresses in this speech, it is a strong indication that many other people, nobles as well as commoners, have done likewise. Lennox is a spokesman for the general animosity and unrest which will lead to Macbeth's downfall.

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It is, in fact, Lennox's sarcasm that sustains the dramatic irony. The audience knows that Macbeth is guilty, and subsequently that Fleance and Duncan's sons are innocent. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that the characters do not. In this play, no one (other than Macbeth and his wife) initially know the truth of Duncan's murder. Eventually, others such as Malcolm and Macduff become suspicious of Macbeth.

This scene is interesting because of the language and the sarcasm. Lennox is stating what happened and he does so bluntly. Read without sarcasm, it would seem that Lennox has no idea that Macbeth had some role in the murders; thus, Lennox is still in the dark and the dramatic irony continues. However, read with sarcasm, the dramatic irony is broken (at least with Lennox) because he is starting to presume to know what the audience has all along: that Macbeth is behind all the murders. By the end of the scene, Lennox is no longer sarcastic and has become completely direct, siding with Malcolm in England and opposing Macbeth's "hand accursed" at home in Scotland: 

Fly to the court of England and unfold

His message ere he come, that a swift blessing

May soon return to this our suffering country

Under a hand accursed! (III.vi.49-52) 

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The speech of Lennox in this scene is important because it shows how the pretence of Macbeth is under great suspicion. Note the sarcasm with which Lennox comments upon how conveniently it has all worked out for Macbeth, especially with regard to his "noble" act in killing Duncan's henchman who supposedly killed Duncan:

How it did grieve Macbeth! did he not straight,

In pious rage, the two delinquents tear,

That were the slaves of drink, and thralls of sleep?

Was not that nobly done? Ay, and wisely too;

For 'twould have anger'd any heart alive

To hear the men deny't.

His speech is of course an example of dramatic irony, for he is only able to suspect what we as the audience know: that each one of his suspicions is actually true, and that Macbeth is a cold-hearted murderer and a tyrant. This scene is important as it shows the way that Macbeth's behaviour is eroding his support in Scotland, and alienating the nobles from him, not just Macduff. This in turn foreshadows the desertion of his forces in the final act when he is left to face Macduff alone.

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