What are some examples of irony in Hamlet? Mainly in the first 3 acts of the play, what are some examples of dramatic or verbal or general irony?

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Irony creates such pleasure in the reader because we like to feel smart -- like we know more than everyone else. Sometimes we know more story facts; sometimes we appreciate a particular tone of voice in a character's speech or a reference being made; sometimes we enjoy and appreciate that element of surprise.

Here a few examples of irony from the first half of the play:

  • Claudius addresses Hamlet as his son (step-son) and wonders why the clouds of mourning still hang on him. Hamlet's response is that he is "too much in the sun." This is a great example of verbal irony and a pun. Hamlet means that he is now too-closely related to his uncle/step-father now that they are technically father/son. He is using the pun on sun/son to make his wit and point clear, but Claudius only hears the reference as a comment in response to the weather.
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's presence in the play provides many elements of dramatic irony. First of all WE know that they only came because the King and Queen summoned them to try to find out what exactly was bothering Hamlet. We know where their ultimate loyalties lie, so we are pleased when Hamlet catches on to their motives and essentially says that he will never trust them (without their really understanding what he means when he says that he is "but mad north-northwest, when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.")
  • It is also clear dramatic irony when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are pleased to report that they have "assayed Hamlet to a pastime" of putting on the play. WE know that the purpose of the play will be to ultimately reveal Claudius's guilt. It is an extra layer of dramatic irony when Claudius is pleased by this turn of events because WE hope that this will be the cause of his downfall.
  • An example of general or situational irony is Hamlet's killing of Polonius. As readers, we are first shocked that Hamlet kills anyone in the first place because he has acted so cautiously up to this point, but it is also ironic that Polonius is the one killed when Hamlet only had thoughts to kill Claudius. An additional element of irony is that the only reason Polonius dies is because he is too busy in everyone else's business and in the act of spying.

Here are a few other examples that you could explore:

  • Claudius's first address to the court.
  • Hamlet's decision not to kill Claudius when he appeared to be at prayer.
  • The players are able to show emotion for things that are not real, when Hamlet can't act for things that are real.
  • The "To be or not be soliloquy" is loaded with the ironies of why we choose to live and the related idea of action versus thoughts.
  • Hamlet's calling Polonius a fishmonger and Jephthah.
  • The queen's comments to Polonius when he trying to tell them what he thinks is the cause of Hamlet's lunacy.
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