The term “situational irony” is often used to describe a situation that does not turn out as expected and indeed even turns out in a way that is the opposite of what was expected. A person, for instance, might plot to kill someone else but in the process kill himself. A famous example of situational irony occurs at the end of Kate Chopin’s short tale “The Story of an Hour.” In that work, a wife believes that her husband has died in an accident, and so she looks forward to living a long life filled with personal freedom; at the end of the story, the husband comes home unexpectedly and, when the wife sees him, she instantly dies from shock.
Situational irony plays a significant role in the second act of William Shakespeare’s play King Lear. In the first act of the play, when Lear was dividing his kingdom between his two “loyal” daughters, Goneril and Regan, he had imagined the kind of comfortable and honored life he would lead in the future. Addressing his daughters, he had said,
Ourself, by monthly course,
With reservation of an hundred knights,
By you to be sustain'd, shall our abode
Make with you by due turns.
By the end of Act 2, however, these grand plans have completely collapsed as Goneril and Regan try to strip him of almost his entire retinue:
Regan. I pray you, father, being weak, seem so.
If, till the expiration of your month,
You will return and sojourn with my sister,
Dismissing half your train, come then to me.
I am now from home, and out of that provision
Which shall be needful for your entertainment.
. . . . . . . . . . . .
Goneril. Hear, me, my lord.
What need you five-and-twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?
Regan. What need one?
Lear. O, reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
By this point in the play, the situational irony of Lear’s predicament is clear. The pleasant old age he had imagined for himself when he gave up his kingship has now been revealed as a sham. He had hoped to retain both the respect of his daughters and effective power over them, and he had assumed that he would be able to retain both of these things. By the end of Act 2, however, he clearly has lost both. The irony of his situation is obvious.