Shakespearean plays are notable for their articulate language and graphic wordplays, as we understand that words serve more than a one dimensional purpose in the plays. Yet, the most foundational and common device that Shakespeare relies on with the large majority of his plays is irony, and through specific types of irony, Shakespeare compels certain effects to take place. This is no different in Hamlet, where Hamlet’s interior world is drawn up in the most effective use of dramatic irony that not only constructs our emotional empathy for Hamlet, but also epitomises his nobility and intellect. Shakespeare also places titbits of verbal and situational irony to stir interest and added drama in the play, as well as suspense.
From the very beginning of the play, even before Hamlet is made known of the events preluding his father’s death, we understand that there is a bridge between Hamlet and the other characters of the play. Shakespeare only discloses Hamlet’s interior world through his soliloquies, which only the audiences are allowed to hear. Therefore, when the brooding Hamlet enters the stage, the characters outside perceive it as grief for the death of his father, the King, ‘Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death/ The memory be green’ ‘Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off, / And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark’ but we later understand that is also disillusionment and disappointment from the loss of a mother figure, ‘Frailty, thy name is woman’. The characters around Hamlet constantly attempt to interpret his mind and behaviour, but it is only translucent to the audience, and in this fantastical use of dramatic irony, Shakespeare highlights to us how Hamlet’s mind was well beyond the comprehensibility of his own world, and could only be translated to the non-participants of the play.
When the Ghost appears and reveals the central motive of the play – revenge for a father and a King wrongly murdered – things spur out of control for Hamlet’s interior world as he is burdened by the demands of a father, along with the demands of the exterior world. In an upsurge of confusion and disillusionment after the Ghost leaves, Hamlet is completely unable to ground himself, believing his own body would give up on him due to the shock and burden that he has incurred, ‘O, fie! Hold, my heart; And you, my sinews, grow not instant old, / But bear me stiffly up,’. This disillusionment is absolutely heightened in the succeeding scene where Hamlet makes Horatio and Marcellus swear to not tell anyone of what they had seen, and repeatedly says one sentence over and over again, ‘Nay, but swear’t’ ‘Consent to swear’ ‘Swear by my sword’. Hamlet, later decides to put an ‘antic disposition’ to investigate the credibility of the Ghost’s information, and this is only made known to the audience and Horatio. The dramatic irony moves forward when the characters, excluding Horatio, continue to misunderstand Hamlet, as Polonius believes Hamlet’s madness is caused by Ophelia’s rejection of Hamlet’s love, ‘Mad in thy love?’. The dramatic irony deepens when Polonius attempts to convince Claudius into this misguided belief but Claudius believes it is simple melancholia, ‘Love! His affections do not that way tend; / nor what he spake, though, it lack’d form a little, / Was not like madness. There’s something in his sould / O’er which his melancholy sits on brood’, where audiences know that Hamlet is neither mad nor melancholic.
Yet, Hamlet does love Ophelia, and despite it not being the central cause of his ‘antic disposition’, it does play a part in Hamlet’s state of confusion where he has no support system to turn to, and the love of his life allows their private moments to be in privy of two of the men Hamlet hates the most. Shakespeare is clever with his irony as not only do we know of Hamlet’s inner circumstance, but we are also aware of Ophelia’s circumstance as she has been told by her brother and her father to not return Hamlet’s love. Hamlet might possibly suspect this, but it is only the audience who are completely conscious of Ophelia’s state of mind.
The play within the play is the most outstanding deliverance of dramatic irony, possibly in all of Shakespeare’s plays. To the antagonists the play within the play is presented as simply for an entertainment purpose, but it is only clear to the audience that it is Hamlet’s engineering an elaborate trap to either incriminate or vindicate Claudius of the Ghost’s accusations and calls it “Mousetrap” the purpose and theme of which others keep wondering about though we know. Hamlet follows along the series of events that take place in his father’s murder in devising his play and later, implicates Claudius’s regicide by paying close attention to his reactions to the play. However, the play within the play makes Claudius vindictive and prompts him to scheme Hamlet’s murder, creating an offshoot of dramatic suspense.
Shakespeare instils situational irony through both the partly failed attempts on Hamlet’s life. In the first attempt, Claudius convinces Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to accompany Hamlet to England, where his ‘madness’ would not taint the reputation of Denmark and addresses to Hamlet, ‘Hamlet, this deed, for thine especial safety, / which we do tender as we dearly grieve/ For that which thou hast done, must send thee hence’ where this statement itself forms verbal irony as the deed is not written to safeguard Hamlet, but to assassinate Hamlet. When Hamlet finds out about this, he rewrites the letter so that, in a turn of events, Rosencranrtz and Guildenstern are the ones who are killed, presenting a classic form of situational irony as the one intended to be murdered is the one who escapes murder. In the second attempt, the situational irony pans out in a similar manner as Claudius convinces Laertes to avenge his father, ‘what would you undertake/ To show yourself your father’s son in deed/ More than in your words?’ and enforces him to challenge Hamlet to a duel.
Claudius is aware that Hamlet is the better dueller and therefore, poisons Laertes’ sword and the cup which Hamlet is intended to drink from. However, Hamlet is the justice bringer and thus, he is able to defeat Laertes where the Laertes is killed by his own poisoned sword and realises his misguided understanding of Hamlet at his end, ‘Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:/ Mine and my father’s death come not upon thee, / Nor thine on me!’ Claudius is also killed as Hamlet forces him to drink from the poisoned cup meant for him and stabs him as well with Laertes’ poisoned sword, enacting the act of justice to a murderer and a scheming villain.
The character of Hamlet is so brilliant that he has visibly no hamartia at all, but the real flaw in the play lies with the outside world and their failure in understanding the true Hamlet, and that is perhaps the biggest dramatic irony of all. Hamlet’s mind constantly remains an enigma for the other characters and they translate his behaviour to their own convenient description – as Polonius believes he is mad for his daughter, Claudius believes Hamlet is simply melancholic about his father’s death and Gertrude shares the same ideology. These prompt all of them to take the wrong step and eventually lead them to their demise. Dramatic irony is interweaved with contrast and suspense in the play, as the contrast between understanding and misunderstanding is the main catalyst of death in the play, not Hamlet or the Ghost.