Verbal irony in Stockton's "The Lady or the Tiger?" can best be identified by understanding what verbal irony is.
Verbal irony...is a trope in which a speaker makes a statement in which its actual meaning differs sharply from the meaning that the words ostensibly express.
In the story, it is ironic that the king is semi-barbaric and allegedly presents a method of justice. What makes a person barbaric is the essence of his or her inability to behave in a civilized way—which is necessary for administering justice, as opposed instead to exercising one’s will based upon perceptions rather than facts. The king is not interested facts:
He was a man of exuberant fancy, and, withal, of an authority so irresistible that, at his will, he turned his varied fancies into facts.
His desires are not based upon facts, but upon his power to convince others that his “fancies” are “facts.”
In this kingdom…
…the minds of his subjects were refined and cultured…
This is ironic, for how refined and cultured can his subjects be if they are excited about the possibility of watching someone rewarded or devoured simply by capricious fate?
This vast amphitheater, with its encircling galleries, its mysterious vaults, and its unseen passages, was an agent of poetic justice, in which crime was punished, or virtue rewarded, by the decrees of an impartial and incorruptible chance.
Such a concept is ironic in that "poetic justice" is not a true form of justice; and while the decrees are said to be impartial and incorruptible, they must first have the potential for justice in keeping with one’s guilt or innocence. Once again, justice is missing when one’s fate is decided by choosing the right or wrong door.
The idea of the king's justice is also ironic because there is no positive outcome in this judgment; there is simply one that is more desirable than the other. The person on trial either dies violently or loses his free will. Regardless of what happens, only punishment is meted out. The king has no concern whether the person is guilty or innocent. He also has no regard as to whether the person presented with a lovely maiden already has a wife or sweetheart. Additionally, the only situations that face judgment in the arena are those that capture the king’s interest.
There is irony as well in the feelings that the princess has for her lover.
This royal maiden was well satisfied with her lover, for he was handsome and brave to a degree unsurpassed in all this kingdom, and she loved him with an ardor that had enough of barbarism in it to make it exceedingly warm and strong.
There is enough barbarism in the woman to guarantee that her love is "warm and strong," but there seems not enough substance in her feelings for the man to guarantee that their bond can withstand the true test of love: giving up what she wants if it is better for him. In this case, she would be giving him his life. One might question if theirs was an affair of love. As the lover enters the arena, the narrator states...
…he saw, by that power of quick perception which is given to those whose souls are one, that she knew behind which door crouched the tiger, and behind which stood the lady.
If their souls were truly one, would she have hesitated to give him the answer he needed? The question of the royal maiden's devotion is ironic in that we would believe that souls thus united would do anything for the good of the other.
There are many examples of verbal irony in this story. The concept of justice from a semi-barbaric leader is ironic in that one cannot be partially civilized. In actuality, his behavior makes him totally barbaric. Justice by its very nature is based upon what is right or wrong. However, to dismiss the concept in light of one's opinion (ignoring facts) means that justice cannot be present or carried out. The maiden's concept of dedication is ironic—one would expect one so devoted would always choose in favor of love rather than self.
It would seem that the core of the irony in this story is based upon the unrealistic concept of "semi-barbarism."