The Use of Situational Irony in Cask of Amontilliado

Categories: Short Story

There is nothing more compelling than the dramatic power that the villain holds over drama. In the stories of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes and William Shakespeare's play “Othello” , rhetoric proves to be an amazing tool is building the treacherous characters of Fortunato and Montresor for Poe, Professor Moriarty for Doyle and Iago for Shakespeare. Through the careful use logic, emotion and persuasive language, the authors pull us in to witness the timeless power that villains bestows upon protagonists and readers alike – and ultimately over the authors who have created them.

The villain Iago in Shakespeare’s most famous play “Othello” is intelligent and masterful at manipulating people. In particular, he produces impact by appealing to the instincts, subconscious and conscious sides of human psyche, and to the most bestial forces that lie deep in mind of each person. His language is sophisticated as he aims to appeal to emotions and logic and reason, to make his speech most convincing to others, so that the latter is forced to perceive Iago’s talk as most sensible and true.

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For instance, the villain is fond of making the statements of general wisdom, which are supposed to be taken for granted. In the attempt to convince Roderigo of Othello’s evil character and behavior, he fills his speech with general statements, such as “We cannot all be masters, nor all masters / Cannot be truly follow'd” (Shakespeare 5). By using these phrases, which presuppose agreement by their universal truth, Iago earns trust and makes the man believe all the other of his statements.

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In addition, the villain applies rich poetic language filled with various figures of speech: for instance, metaphorical phrases, “there are many events in the womb of time, which would be delivered” (34), “the tribe of hell” (34), impressive, poetic comparisons and parallelisms, “Our bodies are our gardens, to the which our wills are gardeners” (33), “as luscious as locusts,” “as bitter as coloquintida,” (34), which create rhythm and thus produce strong influence on the listening person. His favorite means of persuasion is appeal to emotions; he actually involves all the variety and subtones of human feelings, from love and hatred, to greediness, drunken rage and jealousy. Besides, Iago is simply a master of human psychology, although in the evil sense as he skillfully defines the most bestial side of everyone’s personality and makes it a target of his destructive impact.

“The Cask of Amontillado” is a short story written by Poe in 1846, not long after his most famous poem “The Raven” was published. During this time period, Poe explored the darker tones of gothic fiction and presented his characters in a creepy and scary context to help illustrate their natures. This technique was also seen in some of his other works, including “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841). Characters in these tales are often downtrodden or faced with desperate times, and helped to establish him as “the father of American mysteries” (Gigliotti, p.90).

For “Amontillado” we are introduced to two Italian noblemen, Fortunato and Montresor, the narrator of the tale. The story appears truncated, as if it is missing information, which adds an element of mystery to the proceedings. Montresor, a man with an urgent, desperate plan, wishes to take revenge upon his friend Fortunato, whom he believes has done him wrong through insult and previous injury, although no previous details are given. Fortunato is presented as an arrogant and proud expert on wine, laughing at life and dressed as a court jester during a carnival, where the story begins. Through the course of Poe’s writing, we are shown two villains, two rivals of sorts, where one is a murderer and the other is a condescending fool.

The story follows Fortunato as he innocently follows Montresor down into the dungeons of his friend’s run down estate and mansion, hoping to enjoy a rare wine in the spirit of his revelry. In the tombs under the river, both characters end up among the bones of Montresor’s ancestors, suggesting they are both demons lurking in the shadows. Fortunato continues to laugh, as Montresor’s weapon of wine continues to weaken and deceive him. “I drink to the dead!” he proclaims proudly, while Montresor chains him against a wall and covers up the room with bricks. But when Fortunato finally suspects foul play, it is too late. His arrogant nature and blindness have sealed his fate, and his disappearance will remain a mystery.

Montresor, for his part, is both the murderer and the storyteller, and plays out his revenge without guilt or remorse, fully justified in carrying out his plan. He uses his fake smile and fake compliments to lure his old friend to drink among the bones of his ancestors, a fitting symbolic gesture since he believes that Fortunato has insulted his family’s good name and reputation. We cannot help but be compelled and fascinated because, in the simplest terms, he gets away with it. In this scenario, revenge wins out over rationale or morals of friendship, because we are allowed only to follow along with Montresor’s point of view.

In Doyle’s “The Final Problem”, a chapter within Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the reader is presented with perhaps the most diabolical of villains, Professor Moriarty, the greatest adversary who ever faced off against the most well-known detective of Victorian literature.

Through dialogue and lavish description, both the author and his prized protagonist show the utmost respect for the incredible nature of his opponent: “my horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration at his skill.” (Doyle, 4). Holmes and Moriarty, like Fortunato and Montresor, are also rivals, but on a different level they are intellectual equals. They complete each other, and are perfect for each other as adversaries. Each anticipates the other’s move; each has respect for the other’s meticulous nature; each is driven to the result of their objective. And both are confident they will be victorious.

Holmes is portrayed through conversation with his loyal servant Watson, and later on by Watson himself, who must finish the tale. Moriarty, on the other hand, is made much more mysterious as we know him only through description and dialogue from the valiant detective. Holmes offers so much praise on his evil counterpart that you’d almost think that they are friends, and in a way they are. But in the end, Moriarty threatens Holmes out of revenge and desperation, and later we are meant to suspect he has carried out that threat, when Holmes goes missing at the waterfall due to deception. These are the vices of villainy: desperation, revenge and treachery, all morally justified according to their twisted plans. But the reader is assured of good triumphing after all: Watson relays to us Holmes’ suspicions of a trap, and leaves evidence for the police. The fact that both the detective and Moriarty are not seen again is poetic; we are meant to believe they perished together, thus giving Holmes “the crowning of his career” (Doyle, p.14). A fitting conclusion to a well-written cat-and-mouse game of sorts: the villain may have won the battle, but the story will always win the war.

“Powerful minds are not always drawn to the pursuit of good.” (Riggs, p.78). A hero is nothing without the villain to keep him heroic, to keep him on the correct moral compass. Poe, Doyle and Shakespeare offer great characters in the shape of villainy, giving them vivid description, a logical plan of attack, and a justifiable emotional code that makes them both horrific and fascinating. The tools of rhetoric help bring these characters to life for both writer and reader, and help to push along the moral conflicts and dangers that make drama so worthwhile.

Updated: Feb 02, 2024
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The Use of Situational Irony in Cask of Amontilliado. (2024, Feb 12). Retrieved from

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