Henry V


William Shakespeare

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Henry V: Irony 5 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 1, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—Miracles:

In a deeply ironic scene, the Archbishop of Canterbury casts doubt on the possibility of “miracles.” Speaking privately with the Bishop of Ely prior to their meeting with the King, the Archbishop states: 

It must be so, for miracles are ceased,
And therefore we must needs admit the means
How things are perfected.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is not just an important figure in the hierarchy of the medieval Catholic Church; he is the highest religious authority in Britain. The audience might reasonably expect him to espouse Christian beliefs, values, and ideals. Instead, he bluntly concedes that “miracles are ceased,” or in other words, that miraculous and impossible things do not truly occur. His use of the word “miracles” is suggestive here, as it has strong religious connotations; many important episodes in the Bible involve “miracles,” as do later stories concerning the lives of saints. 

Instead of placing faith in miracles, then, the Archbishop suggests that it is more important to understand “the means” or the realistic causes of a phenomenon. His irreligious language is ironic given his high status in the Church, reflecting the “worldly” or materialistic nature of the Archbishop in general. Indeed, he does not seem to be guided by faith in his decisions or priorities, encouraging Henry to go to war with France in order to distract the King from confiscating Church property, despite the violence and bloodshed that are sure to follow. 

Act 2, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Laying a Trap:

King Henry V’s conversation with the traitorous lords—the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, and Sir Thomas Grey—is deeply layered with verbal and dramatic irony, as they do not realize that the King already knows of their intended betrayal. Henry asks for their advice on punishing a commoner who has insulted him and, not recognizing the trap that the King has set for them, the lords advise him to offer no mercy:

Let him be punished, sovereign, lest example
Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind.

O, let us yet be merciful.

So may your Highness, and yet punish too.

Sir, you show great mercy if you give him life
After the taste of much correction.

Alas, your too much love and care of me
Are heavy orisons ’gainst this poor wretch.

Henry’s language in this passage exemplifies verbal irony, as he maintains the deception that he does not know about the assassination plot. Instead, he continues to treat them as loyal subjects who have “too much love and care” for their King to bear any insult against him. The King, in other words, is toying with the Lords, sarcastically praising their loyalty while he in fact plans to execute them for their betrayal. The Lords, in turn, demonstrate an exaggerated and hypocritical affection for the King in an attempt to mask their true intentions. Ironically, in recommending harsh punishment for the slanderous commoner, they have given Henry ample justification to send them to their own deaths.

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Act 2, Scene 3
Explanation and Analysis—King Arthur:

The Hostess of a public tavern in London makes an ironic allusion to the legendary figure of King Arthur in describing the death of Falstaff, King Henry’s former companion and mentor. When Bardolph says that he wishes that he was with Falstaff “either in heaven or in hell,” the Hostess sharply refutes the implication that Falstaff might have gone to hell, stating: 

Nay, sure, he’s not in hell! He’s in Arthur’s
bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. He
made a finer end, and went away an it had been any christom child.

The phrase “Abraham’s bosom” appears in the Bible, and Christian interpreters read the phrase as referring to heaven. The Hostess, then, confuses the important biblical figure of Abraham with the medieval folk hero King Arthur, exposing her own ignorance and reflecting her comic role in the play as a “low” or common character. Religious authorities in Shakespeare's day often condemned folk tales, and particularly the legends of King Arthur, as distractions from the Bible and other religious study; the Hostess’s mistaken allusion seems to confirm this anxiety. Worse yet, her impious confusion leaves open the question of whether or not Falstaff has indeed gone to heaven or hell after his death. 

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Act 4, Scene 1
Explanation and Analysis—King in Disguise:

In a scene rife with verbal and dramatic irony, King Henry disguises himself among his soldiers in order to better understand their perception of the war and of himself as a leader. 

I myself heard the King say he would not
be ransomed.

Ay, he said so to make us fight cheerfully,
but when our throats are cut, he may be ransomed and we ne’er the wiser.

If I live to see it, I will never trust his
word after. 

The audience, unlike Williams, understands that he is speaking frankly—perhaps dangerously so—about the King to the King himself. Indeed, William speaks here in a candid and natural manner that he would never otherwise use around a figure such as the King, and Henry in turn maintains the pretense that he is merely an ordinary soldier in order to better understand his own army.

Ironically, Henry insists that he would “never trust” the King’s word if he were to break his promise by using public funds to pay his own ransom upon capture by the French. This scene demonstrates Henry’s understanding that his position as King bars others from speaking honestly with him. Unlike previous kings in English history, Henry wants to avoid being deceived by the flattering words of courtiers, and later in the play, he rewards Williams for his honesty. 

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Act 4, Scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Pistol the Gentleman:

As the tide of battle turns in favor of the English, Pistol apprehends a French Soldier whom he intends to ransom for money. In a satirical scene full of dramatic irony, the French soldier mistakes Pistol, a low class criminal, for an English nobleman. The Boy translates for the Soldier, stating: 

He gives you upon his knees a thousand thanks,
and he esteems himself happy that he hath fall’n
into the hands of one, as he thinks, the most
brave, valorous, and thrice-worthy seigneur of

This ironic scene of mis-recognition comedically satirizes the pretensions of the French nobility. That a lowly and unimpressive character like Pistol is able to overpower this French soldier, a “gentleman of a good house” by his own admission, underscores the inferiority of the French to their English counterparts. Indeed, Pistol’s conduct during the war has proven that he is anything but “brave, valorous, and thrice-worthy,” and the French nobleman’s misapprehension reflects poorly on his own personal qualities. 

However, the irony in this scene cuts both ways: if the cowardly and slovenly Pistol can successfully pass for a member of the English nobility, what does that suggest about the other English nobles? The difficulty of determining identity on the battlefield challenges the class distinctions so central to the politics of the play's setting. 

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