Henry V


William Shakespeare

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Henry V: Situational Irony 1 key example

Read our modern English translation.
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.