Shakespeare is known for his wit and brilliance in writing. One of his tactics is his use of irony. There are three types of irony: verbal, dramatic and situational. Verbal irony is a figure of speech in which the speaker says the opposite of what he or she intends to say. Dramatic irony is the contrast between what a character says or thinks and what the reader knows to be true. Situational irony is the discrepancy between appearance and reality or between expectation and fulfillment. Shakespeare uses all three very often. One example of verbal irony is when Catesby is trying to convince Hastings to join Richard in his attempt to take the thrown. He says, “The Princes both make high account of you/ [aside] For they account his head upon the bridge” (3. 2. 71-72). Catesby is referring to Richard and Buckingham having high regard for Hastings. What he says aside is ironic because in those days, the heads of traitors would be displayed high up in the London Bridge.
They don’t hold him in high regard as a person; they are hoping to hold his head high on the bridge. Another prime example of verbal irony I’ll point out is during a meeting to decide the date of the new king’s coronation. Since Richard is a prince, he is supposed to be present for the vote but he’s late. Hastings says how much Richard loves him and that Richard would be fine with Hastings voting on his behalf, Richard walks in just then and responds, “My noble lords and cousins all, good morrow/ I have been long a sleeper; but I trust/ My absence doth neglect no great design/ Which by my presence might have been concluded” (3. 4. 22-26). Richard is acknowledging that Hastings tried to vote for him and he is ultimately saying that he won’t stand for it. The last example of verbal irony I will use comes after Richard has ordered Hastings to the Tower.
Ratcliffe is trying to take Hastings away while he is lamenting, “O momentary grace of mortal men/ Which we more hunt for than the grace of God!/ Who builds his hope in air of your good looks” (3. 4. 98-100). When Hastings says “in air of your good looks” he means apparent favor. He is saying to Ratcliffe that he might seem to be in favor with Richard now but, Richard doesn’t care who he kills to get what he wants. In other words Hastings is saying, you appear to be in good standings with Richard, but you’re not. Dramatic irony, once again, is when a character says something but the reader knows the opposite to be true. For instance, Stanley has a dream where a bore lifts his crown which means Richard cuts off his head. Stanley sends a messenger to Hastings to inform him of this fear and Hastings replies, “Go, fellow, go. Return unto thy lord/ Bid him not fear the separated council/ His Honor and myself are at the one/ And at the other is my good friend Catesby/ Where nothing can proceed that toucheth us” (3. 4. 20-24). Hastings tells Stanley not to worry because nothing can happen to them when the reader knows that they both need to worry.
They will both be murdered by Richard. Another example of dramatic irony is when Hastings tells the court how much Richard loves him when in reality Richard is about to have him killed, “I know his Grace, I know he loves me well/ But for his purpose in the coronation/ I have not sounded him, nor he delivered/ His gracious pleasure any way therein/ But you, my honorable lords, may name the time/ And in the Dukes behalf I’ll give my voice/ Which I presume he’ll take in gentle part” (3. 4. 15-21). Hastings unsuspectingly thinks Richard loves him enough to trust his word to him but we, as the reader, know Richard will have him killed. Soon after this speech is made, comes another moment of dramatic irony. Richard accuses Hastings and his wife of trying to kill him with witch craft, “Thou protector of this damned strumpet/ Thou art a traitor” (3. 4. 75-76). The reader knows that Richard is just looking for an excuse to have Hastings killed.
The characters however, honestly believe Hastings is in the wrong. The last kind of irony is situational irony. In this kind of irony the discrepancy is between what is and what would seem appropriate. After Stanley has the dream and sends the messenger, he himself goes to visit Hastings. While talking of the queen’s family and their executions, Stanley says, “They, for their truth, might better wear their heads/ Than some that have accused them wear their hats” (3. 2. 93-94). What he is saying, is that they are being killed for their loyalty to their brother-in-law. They are among the only characters in the play that stay loyal to the rightful king and they are among the first in the play to be killed. In another instance of situational irony, Hastings is talking to a Pursuivant and says, “I tell thee, man, ‘tis better with me now/ Than when thou met’st me last where now we meet/ Then was I going prisoner to the Tower/ By the suggestion of the Queen’s allies/ But now, I tell thee – keep it to thyself-/ This day those enemies are put to death/ And I in better state than e’er I was/” (3. 2. 99-105).
This is ironic because the queen’s family tried to have Hastings arrested but instead got arrested themselves. This could also be considered dramatic irony because he winds up being imprisoned anyway even though he says he’s in the best time of his life. The most important part of the play is the curse Queen Margaret places on several of the characters including the queen’s family, Richard and Hastings. Grey, brother of the queen, while in the Tower about to be executed says, “Now Margaret’s curse is fall’n upon our heads/ When she exclaimed on Hastings, you, and I,/ For standing by when Richard stabbed her son/” (3. 3. 14-16).
The fact that she cursed the queen’s family and Hastings first and they are among the first to be murdered is ironic because when Margaret first cursed them, they ignored her. We don’t usually look at curses as actually dangerous. The theme of the play itself is that God hears and acts in the form of curses. These are just a few of the many examples of true, literary irony used by Shakespeare. He was the master of symbolism and poetry itself. He was a master of subtly saying more than the words could say if arranged in any other way. His irony isn’t just for entertaining purposes; it’s for learning more about the inner workings of our minds and the minds of his characters. He enables us to see right into their souls if we are willing to look hard enough.
Shakespeare, William. Richard III. New York: Washington Square Press, 1996. Print
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