Where is dramatic irony in The Odyssey and what does this show about Odysseus' character?
Much of the second half of Homer's The Odyssey is crafted to take advantage of a literary device called dramatic irony.
Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows something that one or more of the characters do not. It is a way for writers to create a certain kind of suspense on the part of the reader. However, this suspense technique requires more skill to achieve than the typical kind of “whodunit” suspense that we often encounter in stories.
Since the audience already knows the important information, the suspense comes from wondering how characters will react to the situation at hand. This is only effective if we are interested in the characters, and this requires good characterization on the part of the writer.
In The Odyssey, Homer creates dramatic irony in several places, especially late in the story when Odysseus has returned to Ithaca, disguised by Athena (also referred to as Minerva), as a poor beggar. This situation is ripe for some fine dramatic irony, because the reader already knows that the beggar is Odysseus, while most of the characters do not.
At one point, Odysseus is in his house as a beggar. No one except Telemachus knows his true identity. One of the maids, Melantho, who has proven to be unfaithful to Penelope in favor of the suitors, has the opportunity to treat Odysseus with kindness, but says this to him instead:
Stranger, do you mean to plague us by hanging about the house all night and spying upon the women? Be off, you wretch, outside, and eat your supper there, or you shall be driven out with a firebrand.
To hear Odysseus’ servant speak to him this way creates tension for the reader. What will happen to Melantho as a result of this behavior? How does this make Odysseus feel? Later, Melantho and several other unfaithful servants will be hanged as a result of their behavior.
Perhaps the most emotional dramatic irony comes when Odysseus (also called Ulysses in some translations) reveals himself to Telemachus as his father. In situations like this, dramatic irony has heightened impact, as the reader anticipates the climactic scene, which is delayed for a while. The reader has seen Telemachus interact with the disguised Odysseus for awhile. Naturally suspense has been building during this time, as the reader wonders when and how Odysseus will reveal himself, and how Telemachus will react. When Odysseus finally does reveal his true identity, Telemachus doesn’t believe him, and Odysseus responds with:
Telemachus, you ought not to be so immeasurably astonished at my being really here. There is no other Ulysses who will come hereafter. Such as I am, it is I, who after long wandering and much hardship have got home in the twentieth year to my own country. What you wonder at is the work of the redoubtable goddess Minerva, who does with me whatever she will, for she can do what she pleases. At one moment she makes me like a beggar, and the next I am a young man with good clothes on my back; it is an easy matter for the gods who live in heaven to make any man look either rich or poor.
Later, in another highly charged dramatically ironic scene, the disguised Odysseus will talk to Penelope, testing her loyalty and faithfulness.
Dramatic irony occurs when the reader/audience knows something that a character does not. Once Odysseus gets home and is disguised as a beggar, which is from book 18 until the last two books of the epic, we see dramatic irony. One important example occurs in book 19 when Penelope questions Odysseus. There he sits, just inches away from his wife, but he cannot tell her who he is just yet. He must test her first to see if she remains loyal to him. This shows that he is careful and wise at the same time. He took information from Agamemnon in the Land of the Dead and used it to test his wife so that he too would not end up dead. Once he knows for sure that she loves him and has been faithful to him all these years, he will reveal his true identity.