Dramatic Irony In Macbeth

What is an example of dramatic irony in act 1, scene 3 or 4 of Macbeth?

Dramatic irony occurs as the second witch addresses Macbeth as Thane of Cawdor. The audience knows Macbeth has been titled the next Thane of Cawdor by King Duncan in act 1, scene 2, before Macbeth knows of it himself.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Dramatic irony refers to situations in which the audience possesses information unknown to the characters within the play. In act 1, scene 3, there are actually at least two key examples of dramatic irony present. Both apply to the predictions of the witches. The first lies in their greetings to Macbeth, referring to him as thane of Glamis, Cawdor, and a future king. Macbeth, at this point in the play, is not aware of his recently being awarded the thaneship of Cawdor, unlike the audience, which has seen the preceding act 1, scene 2.

The second example of dramatic irony present in this scene involves the witches' greetings to Banquo, whom they refer to as "lesser than Macbeth, and greater," "not so happy, yet much happier," and as a father of kings. Discerning the dramatic irony present in this scene, however, requires some awareness as to the nuances of seventeenth century politics. Namely, it should be noted that Banquo was not an invention of Shakespeare himself (like many of Shakespeare's plays, Macbeth was derived from pre-existing sources).

Quite on the contrary, Banquo was actually the presumed ancestor of the Stuart line, which ruled over Scotland and later, after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, England as well. In this case, these predictions concerning Banquo are a direct reference to the family line of Shakespeare's own royal patron, King James I. While this connection would be largely lost to a modern audience, when seen from the perspective of Shakespeare's original production, it would have served as a vital part of the play's subtext, one which would have been recognizable to part of Shakespeare's original audience, particularly anyone connected with the royal court.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Dramatic irony is irony inherent in the speeches or situations in which the characters find themselves and the irony is understood by the audience, but the characters themselves are unaware thereof. Simply put, the audience knows things which the characters do not, and they act or say things without realising the irony of what they say or do.

A good example of this is when the second witch greets Macbeth thus:

All hail, Macbeth, hail to thee, thane of Cawdor!

Macbeth's response is:

Stay, you imperfect speakers, tell me more:By Sinel's death I know I am thane of Glamis;But how of Cawdor? the thane of Cawdor lives,A prosperous gentleman; and to be kingStands not within the prospect of belief,No more than to be Cawdor.

Macbeth expresses doubt about the fact that the witches greet him by such a noble title. He knows that he is Thane of Glamis, but how could he possibly be thane of Cawdor when he is still alive, a wealthy gentleman? To be thane of Cawdor is just as much beyond belief as to believe that he would be king.

The dramatic irony lies in the fact that we, the audience already know that in Act 1 Scene 2, king Duncan has ordered the execution of the thane of Cawdor for his betrayal and that he...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

has bestowed this title on Macbeth, as indicated below:


No more that thane of Cawdor shall deceiveOur bosom interest: go pronounce his present death,And with his former title greet Macbeth.

Neither Macbeth nor Banquo is aware of this yet, so Macbeth's reaction is quite ironic. Macbeth soon learns, however, that the witches' prediction is true when Ross informs him about king Duncan's generosity:

And, for an earnest of a greater honour,He bade me, from him, call thee thane of Cawdor:In which addition, hail, most worthy thane!For it is thine.

This can be deemed as one of the pivotal moments in the play, for this is when Macbeth convinces himself that it is his destiny to be king, whether by fair means or foul, and this sets him off on the path to destruction.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Macbeth, there are many instances of irony. Irony is a literary technique and, its use in Macbeth, contributes to the plot development and the appearance and reality theme. The anticipation of events is intensified through Shakespeare's use of irony, both dramatic and situational. The fact that Lady Macbeth will be driven mad by her own desires and need to "unsex me here," (I.iv.38), determined to do anything to ensure that Macbeth is king, and at the end, in her madness, her commanding that the imaginary blood spots be washed from her hands: "Out, damned spot!" (V.i.32) is not lost on the audience as her very resolve has driven her mad. 

Dramatic irony provides information without revealing the details to the characters, themselves. In Act I, scene i, line 10, the witches introduce the audience, amidst scenes of thundering and lightning, to the concept of "fair is foul, and foul is fair." In Act I, scene iii, Macbeth, himself, then uses the same comparison when he suggests that, "So foul and fair a day I have not seen" (38). The audience is preparing for much more than meets the eye. Duncan will unwittingly expose himself to Macbeth and Lady Macbeth's schemes. Having just been told by the witches that, not only will Macbeth be Thane of Cawdor but go on to be king, the dramatic irony drives the plot forward as incidents unfold and Duncan's men bring the good news of Macbeth's new title. Macbeth immediately begins to ponder, not only his new title but, as the witches promised much more, the possibility that, "If chance will have me King, why, chance may crown me without my stir."(I.iii.143). Macbeth addresses the audience at this point and the audience can presume that, if "chance" does not, in fact, ensure Macbeth's rise to be king, he will take matters into his own hands, having been given, "an earnest of success." (132)   

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The best example of dramatic irony in Act 1, Scene 4 of Macbeth is when Duncan says he trusts Macbeth, and the audience knows that Macbeth is expecting to become king.  Macbeth is not at all trustworthy!

There's no art

To find the mind's construction in the face:

He was a gentleman on whom I built(15)

An absolute trust. (Act 1, Scene 4, p. 17)

Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that the characters do not.  In this case, Duncan does not know about the witches’ prophecy, or that Macbeth is expecting to become king and will kill to get the honor.  The audience knows about the witches, and so this scene is especially dramatic because we wonder what will happen next.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team