All's Well that Ends Well


William Shakespeare

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All's Well that Ends Well: Irony 3 key examples

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Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Act 4, Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—Parrolles the Cat:

Parrolles finds himself being interrogated in Act 4, Scene 3, completely unaware that his captors are his colleagues in disguise. The dialogue here features dramatic irony and verbal irony to depict Parolles’s deceit and foolishness. The Second Lord quietly mocks him to Bertram:

SECOND LORD (aside): This is your devoted friend, sir, the manifold linguist and the armipotent soldier.                  

BERTRAM  (aside): I could endure anything before but a cat, and now he’s a cat to me. 

The Second Lord’s statement to Bertram, lauding Parolles as a "manifold linguist" and an "armipotent soldier," is steeped in verbal irony. These words are sarcastic, highlighting the discrepancy between how Parolles wants to be seen and how he actually is. The audience, who know more about Parolles’s true nature than Bertram does, can recognize the irony of “manifold linguist” (someone who speaks a lot of languages) and “armipotent soldier” (someone who’s a powerful fighter). The audience's knowledge that Parolles is unknowingly conversing with his allies creates the dramatic irony; his unawareness of the situation at hand and his misplaced alarm at his situation make the scene very funny.

Bertram’s reference to Parolles as a "cat" also emphasizes the new distrust that he has for him.  By calling him a “cat,” Bertram points to his realization of Parolles’s deceitful character. Calling someone a “cat” in the Early Modern period meant that you thought they were sly and self-serving. Bertram can bear “anything but a cat,” because he hates cowardice and dishonesty. This reflects how Bertram now sees Parolles as cunning and untrustworthy.

Explanation and Analysis—Double-Meaning Prophesier:

Shakespeare utilizes dramatic irony and simile in Bertram’s dialogue as he talks to soldiers about Parolles. Bertram states:

I mean the business is not ended as fearing to hear of it hereafter. But shall we have this dialogue between the Fool and the Soldier? [...] He has deceived me like a double-meaning prophesier.

Bertram uses a simile when he likens Parolles to a “double-meaning prophesier.” This paints Parolles as someone whose words can have hidden or duplicitous meanings. He's like an oracle whose predictions are cryptic and unclear. This simile reflects Parolles’s deceptive nature and characterizes him as untrustworthy and underhanded.

Dramatic irony also comes into play in this passage. While Bertram is aware of Parolles's deceptions, he is unaware of his own precarious situation. He believes that he has managed to escape his troubles, but the audience knows otherwise. This creates a sense of irony as Bertram, who is criticizing Parolles for deception, is oblivious to the parallels between Parolles’s actions and his own behavior. He’s also unaware of the secret plot between Helen and Diana going on in the background of all this. This dramatic irony builds tension and anticipation for the audience, as they await the unfolding of events that must happen to resolve all these inconsistencies.

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Explanation and Analysis—The Grave of It:

In Act 4, Scene 3, the First Lord employs a metaphor to assure the Second he won’t repeat what he’s being told, using a metaphor referring to death. Shakespeare also employs dramatic irony as the First Lord declares:

When you have spoken it, ’tis dead, and I am the grave of it.

The First Lord says that he is the "grave" of the words spoken to him, meaning that his ears will be the final resting place of the information. In this metaphor, he implies that when words are spoken to him they become “dead.” By claiming to be the “grave” of the secret, the First Lord claims that once spoken, the words will be buried with him and go no further. This is a vivid way to express the concept of keeping a secret, as the reference to death makes the audience feel a chilling finality.

However, this assurance takes on a layer of dramatic irony as the audience is aware of Bertram’s actual misdeeds. Given previous events, they know that it’s highly likely that the conversation will be repeated or come to light. The metaphor, in this case, underscores the gravity of the secrets being shared, and the dramatic irony works to heighten the tension for the audience, who have access to more information than the characters do.

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