In Act I, scene V of Hamlet, there is a major example of dramatic irony that is fundamentally important for the entire play. The ghost of the late king, Hamlet’s father, tells Hamlet that he was killed by his brother Claudius. The previously known explanation was that the king had died of a snake bite, but his ghost explains that he was poisoned so that Claudius would be able to become king instead, as is the situation. This allows the audience to sympathize with both the king and Hamlet, while creating antipathy in regards to Claudius. In addition, while developing their characters, this also serves as the first major turning point in the play.
Upon hearing of the unjust reality of the king’s plight, the audience is able to sympathise with his character. He is now seen in a new light, rather than just the mysterious ghost, or the dead king. Rather, the king is shown to be the victim of a vindictive plot that has taken away everything from him, from his crown, to his wife, and of course, his life. Audiences at this point cannot feel anything but pity for the unfortunate king. Meanwhile, the same goes for Hamlet who has not only lost his father, but has now discovered that a serious grievance was committed upon his family by his uncle.
The audience also feels sympathy for Hamlet, who is suddenly burdened with becoming the hero and avenging his father, moments after hearing such appalling news. In contrast, Claudius is abruptly painted in a very negative way. He is told to be a scheming murderer, automatically making him the villain and gaining antipathy from audiences as a result. However, in addition to garnering these audience opinions, this also helped to develop their characters. The ghost is shown to actually have a purpose, instead of just aimlessly wandering around the castle. Hamlet is now portrayed as the ‘hero’ with a mission, instead of just the Prince who is sad over his father’s death. Claudius is revealed to be manipulative and selfish in how he killed his own brother, with a full plan. This example of dramatic irony in Hamlet served several purposes.
In addition to the effects it had on the characters involved, this scene also had an enormous impact on the play itself. The conflict of the play is introduced here and Hamlet is given a purpose that acts as the play’s initial purpose as well. This is what actually starts the plot. Also, this is what incites the following conflicts in the rest of the play. For example, because of Hamlet’s need to get revenge against Claudius, he mistakenly kills Polonius instead. This affects Laertes and Ophelia who lose a father to murder just like Hamlet, and starts Laertes on his own mission for revenge. These events, inspired by this first incident of dramatic irony, as a result, develop the theme of ‘revenge’ in the play, which is prominent. The piece of news that is delivered exclusively to Hamlet and the audience is what spurs on the rest of the play.