Dramatic Irony In Hamlet

In acts 1 and 2, what are some examples of dramatic irony in Hamlet?

One example is in act 2, scene 2, with Polonius believing Hamlet has gone mad as a result of unrequited love. The audience knows it not to be true, because, earlier in the play, Hamlet decided to pretend to be crazy, in order to investigate the role Claudius may have had in King Hamlet's death.

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In act 2, scene 2, Polonius reveals his belief that the cause of Hamlet's madness is that Hamlet is in love with Ophelia. Polonius previously told Ophelia (his daughter) to break things off with Hamlet, and Polonius now tells Claudius and Gertrude that this is likely what precipitated Hamlet's mental illness. They plan to allow Ophelia to speak with Hamlet and observe their interaction, and Polonius says,

If he love her not
And be not from his reason fall'n thereon,
Let me be no assistant for a state
But keep a farm and carters (2.2.165–168).

In other words, Polonius stakes his profession on his certainty that Hamlet has lost his reason as a result of his unrequited love. Of course, we know that this is not true. Hamlet is not actually mad (at least according to Hamlet himself) but has resolved to act as though he is in order to investigate Claudius's involvement in King Hamlet's death. Therefore, the audience knows a great deal more, here, than Polonius and the royal couple.

Later, in act 3, scene 3, Hamlet happens upon Claudius while the king is praying. It occurs to Hamlet that he could murder the king now, but he decides not to because it wouldn't be fair. Claudius killed King Hamlet before he could confess to or atone for his sins, and so King Hamlet went to Purgatory; Hamlet doesn't want to send Claudius straight to heaven (since he has just, perhaps, sought absolution), because this is not true revenge. Hamlet doesn't realize, however, that Claudius is actually praying unsuccessfully—he does not actually feel enough remorse to give up what he gained by murdering the old king. In the end of the scene, he says to himself,

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go (3.3.98–99).

Thus, we know more than Hamlet. Hamlet actually could have killed Claudius at this time, and Claudius would have met death with all his sins on his head.

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In act one, scene two, dramatic irony occurs following Hamlet's soliloquy where he discloses to the audience that he is upset at his mother's immediate incestuous marriage to his inferior uncle. Claudius and Gertrude believe that Hamlet is simply mourning the unfortunate death of his father and are not aware of his negative feelings regarding their marriage.

After Hamlet speaks to his father's ghost and discovers that Claudius committed regicide (and fratricide), Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus that he will pretend to act insane. In act two, dramatic irony occurs when Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia all believe that Hamlet is mad. However, the audience and Horatio are aware that Hamlet is only putting on an act.

Dramatic irony also occurs in act two when Polonius sends his servant Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in France. Laertes will believe that Reynaldo is simply delivering Polonius's money and letters, while the audience knows that Reynaldo is visiting France to spy on him.

Dramatic irony occurs when Polonius informs Claudius and Gertrude that he has discovered the cause of Hamlet's mania. Polonius proceeds to explain that Hamlet is lovesick because Ophelia will not reciprocate his love. However, the audience knows that Polonius is wrong, and Hamlet is only pretending to be irrational. Hamlet is truly upset at Claudius for assassinating his father and at Gertrude for her decision to marry his uncle.

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Since dramatic irony is the kind of irony in which a character in the play thinks one thing is so, but the audience or reader knows better, scenes involving Polonius serve as having dramatic irony:

  • When Polonius speaks with his son Laertes, who is about to return to France, the father gives advice to his son.  But, buried in conversation are the themes honest vs. deceit and love vs. betrayal as, after Laertes leaves, Polonius instructs Reynaldo to spy on his son. (Act I,sc.3)
  • In his conversation with Ophelia, as well, Polonius is deceitful.  While he questions her about Hamlet, he does shown concern for his daughter's feeling; however, he later informs the king that after Hamlet is mad based upon what Ophelia has told him.  Polonius, then, arranges for Claudius and himself to betray Ophelia's trust by spying on her with Hamlet. (Act II)
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Examples of dramatic irony in the first two acts of Shakespeare's Hamlet include at least the following:

  • Claudius and Gertrude assume in Act 1.2 that Hamlet is depressed because of the death of his father, but they are only partially correct.  After they question Hamlet and he launches into a soliloquy, the audience knows that he is also deeply upset about the hasty, incestuous remarriage of his mother to his uncle.  Indeed, Hamlet seems to dedicate more lines during the rest of the play to his mother's remarriage than to his father's death. This is dramatic irony, since the audience knows something the characters of Claudius and Gertrude do not.  The audience is aware long before Claudius and Gertrude are that Hamlet is extremely upset with Gertrude for marrying Claudius. 
  • The audience also knows that Hamlet is only pretending to be "mad" or insane.  He tells Horatio that he will be putting on an "antic disposition"--pretending to be mad.  Claudius spends much of the next three acts trying to find out specifically why Hamlet is mad, while the audience knows Hamlet is pretending.  This, too, is dramatic irony. 
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