What are two examples of dramatic irony in Twelfth Night?

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Dramatic irony occurs when the audience is aware of a significant fact that the characters in the play are not.  The most obvious example of this type of irony in the play is the mistaken identity/love triangle.

The audience knows early on that Viola, after her shipwreck,  has adopted the persona of her twin brother with the hopes that she might gain employment safely.   She works for the Duke who loves Olivia who falls for Cesario (Viola in disguise) who actually loves the Duke.

It is quite funny for the audience to understand what is really happening while the characters remain in the dark until the end of the play.

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This is a play that is full of dramatic irony. Let us remind ourselves that dramatic irony is when we as an audience and one or more characters on stage know something that other characters do not. Of course, when we think of this play, the principal occurrence of dramatic irony occurs through the use of disguise and mistaken identity: we know that Cesario is actually Viola, which makes it hilarious when Viola falls in love with Orsino but then has to plead Orsino's love to Olivia, who herself falls in love with Cesario.

Likewise, we know the way in which poor Malvolio has been tricked and that Olivia is not actually in love with him. We, and Sir Toby Belch, Maria and Feste, know that he is not actually mad, though Malvolio himself is made to believe this.

Lastly, we also know that Sir Andrew Aguecheek's chances of success in wooing Olivia are non-existent, and that Sir Toby is keeping him with him by giving him false hope so that Sir Toby can spend all of his money.

Of course, these are but three examples of dramatic irony. Actually, in the text, there are plenty more, so I hope these examples help you to go back over the text and identify further incidents of dramatic irony. Good luck!

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Shakespeare's comedy Twelfth Night follows the outline of Elizabethan comedy as it has the elements of mistaken identity, separated twins, and gender-crossing disguise.  With these elements comes the dramatic irony that contributes to the comedic effect of the play.

1.  Perhaps the most salient example of dramatic irony is the disguise of Viola, who is saved after being shipwrecked by a captain who puts in to shore on Illyria.  After learning that the captain knows the Duke of Illyria, Viola asks him to disguise her as a eunich so that she may work in his service.  In this disguise, that only the audience is privy to, Viola is better able to perceive the true nature of the characters as they confide in Cesario, her male disguise.  When she goes to work for the Duke, he has Cesario go to Olivia's house to plead his love for him.  However, Viola who is actually in love with the Duke, says in an aside after telling the Duke,"Ill do my best to woo your lady,"

Yet a barful strife!

Whoe'er I woo, myself would be his wife. (1.5.41-42)

The original love connection of the Duke has been skewered by the end of this scene since there are two twists to the plot:  Viola states her attraction to the Duke Orsino; Olivia reveals a liking for Cesario/Viola.  The effect of this dramatic irony is to demonstrate the subjectivity of love.  For, when a person sees someone with whom he/she falls in love, this love is felt in the person who does the loving of another.  And, a person cannot be made to feel love simply by the attraction of the other for him/her.

2. Another example of dramatic irony occurs when the Puritan Malvolio mistakenly believes that Olivia is in love with him after he receives a forged letter actually written by Maria that he believes is from Olivia.  In Act I, Scene 5, the letter to Malvolio, supposedly written by Olivia, he is instructed to wear yellow hose and crossed garters.  When he approaches Olivia, she is astounded by his attire and smiles.  This scene about the "full of water Malvolio" affords Shakespeare the opportunity to assail the hypocrisy and judgmental nature of Malvolio, a hypocrisy not untypical of the unpopular Anabaptists.

3.  In Act IV, Sebastian and Olivia are brought together.  Since Olivia has already spoken to Cesario about her love, she assumes again that she is speaking to Cesario when it is Sebastian that she addresses.  Even though Sebastian is confused by her declaration of love, he enjoys the sentiment, and takes part in the illusion:

What relish is in this?

Or I am mad, or else this is a dream.

Let fancy still my sense in Lethe steep;

If it be thus to dream, still let me sleep! (4.1.60-3-63)

The irony here produces the result of enlightening the audience to the fact that some lovers delight in the illusions of love and often are satisfied with being the object of someone's else love.


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Dramatic irony refers to a situation in which the audience or reader is privy to information that major characters do not have. In Twelfth Night, one example of dramatic irony occurs when Viola dresses as a boy, and the captain she is in love with feels an attraction to her, not knowing she is a woman. This also allows a homoerotic subtext to the story.

The second example occurs when Malvolio is tricked into reading a letter he thinks is addressed to him from Lady Olivia (it was actually written by servants trying to play a joke on him). The letter instructs him to dress in yellow and cross garters, and smile widely, all fashions and habits she actually detests. So when he visits her, she is annoyed, but he believes she is in love with him and pleased to see him in the mode of dress she indicated. The servants and the audience can then laugh at Malvolio, at his expense.


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