Introduction to Method Handles

This page was contributed by Nataliia Dziubenko under the UPL


What are method handles

Method handles are a low-level mechanism used for method lookup and invocation. They are often compared to reflection, because both the Reflection API and method handles provide a means to invoke methods, constructors, and access fields.

What exactly is a method handle? It's a directly invocable reference to an underlying method, constructor, or field. The Method Handle API allows manipulations on top of a simple pointer to the method that allows us to insert or reorder the arguments, transform the return values, etc.

Let's take a closer look at what method handles can provide and how we can effectively use them.


Access checking

The access checking for method handle invocations is done differently compared to the Reflection API. With reflection, each call results in access checks for the caller. For method handles, the access is only checked when the method handle is created.

It is important to keep in mind that if the method handle is created within a context where it can access non-public members, when passed outside, it can still access those non-public members. As a result, non-public members can potentially be accessed from code where they shouldn't be accessible. It's a developer's responsibility to keep such method handles private to their context. Alternatively, the method handle can be created with access limitations right away using the appropriate lookup object.


Method handle lookup

To create a method handle we first need to create a Lookup object, which acts as a factory for creating method handles. Depending on how the lookup object itself or the method handles are going to be used, we can decide whether we should limit its access level.

For example, if we create a method handle pointing to a private method and that method handle is accessible from the outside, then the private method is as well. Normally we would like to avoid that. One way is to make the lookup object and method handle private too. Another option is to create the lookup object using the MethodHandles.publicLookup method, so it will only be able to search for public members in public classes within packages that are exported unconditionally:

MethodHandles.Lookup publicLookup = MethodHandles.publicLookup();

If we are going to keep the lookup object and the method handles private, it's safe to give them access to any members, including private and protected ones:

MethodHandles.Lookup lookup = MethodHandles.lookup();


Method type

To look up a method handle we also need to provide the type information of the method or field. The method type information is represented as MethodType object. To instantiate a MethodType, we have to provide the return type as the first parameter followed by all the argument types:

MethodType methodType = MethodType.methodType(int.class /* the method returns integer */,
        String.class /* and accepts a single String argument*/);

Having the Lookup and the MethodType instances, we can look up the method handle. For instance methods, we should use Lookup.findVirtual, and for static methods Lookup.findStatic. Both of these methods accept the following arguments: a Class where the method is located, a method name represented as a String, and a MethodType instance.

In the example below, we are using Lookup.findVirtual method to look up an instance method String.replace, which accepts two char arguments and returns a String:

MethodHandles.Lookup lookup = MethodHandles.lookup();
MethodType replaceMethodType = MethodType.methodType(String.class, char.class, char.class);
MethodHandle replaceMethodHandle = lookup.findVirtual(String.class, "replace", replaceMethodType);

In the next example, we are using Lookup.findStatic to look up a static method String.valueOf, which accepts an Object and returns a String:

MethodType valueOfMethodType = MethodType.methodType(String.class, Object.class);
MethodHandle valueOfMethodHandle = lookup.findStatic(String.class, "valueOf", valueOfMethodType);

Similarly, we could use Lookup.findConstructor method to look up a method handle pointing to any constructor.

Finally, when we have obtained a method handle, we can invoke the underlying method.


Method handle invocation

The invocation can also be done in multiple ways.

All the methods that facilitate invocation eventually funnel down to a single method that is called in the end: MethodHandle.invokeExact. As the method name suggests, the arguments provided to invokeExact method must strictly match the method handle's type.

For example, if we invoke a String.replace method, the arguments must strictly correspond to a String return type and two char arguments:

MethodType replaceMethodType = MethodType.methodType(String.class, char.class, char.class);
MethodHandle replaceMethodHandle = lookup.findVirtual(String.class, "replace", replaceMethodType);
String result = (String) replaceMethodHandle.invokeExact("dummy", 'd', 'm');

MethodHandle.invoke is more permissive. It attempts to obtain a new method handle with adjusted types that would strictly match the types of provided arguments. After that, it will be able to invoke the adjusted method handle using invokeExact.

String result = (String) replaceMethodHandle.invoke((Object)"dummy", (Object)'d', (Object)'m'); // would fail with `invokeExact`

One other alternative to invoke a method handle is to use MethodHandle.invokeWithArguments. The result of this method invocation is equivalent to invoke, with the only difference being that all the arguments can be provided as an array or list of objects.

One interesting feature of this method is that if the number of provided arguments exceeds the expected number, all the leftover arguments will be squashed into the last argument, which will be treated as an array.


Accessing fields

It is possible to create method handles that have read or write access to fields. For instance fields, this is facilitated by the findGetter and findSetter methods, and for static fields, by the findStaticGetter and findStaticSetter methods. We don't need to provide a MethodType instance; instead, we should provide a single type, which is the type of the field.

For example, if we have a static field magic in our Example class:

private static String magic = "initial value static field";

Given that we have created a Lookup object:

MethodHandles.Lookup lookup = MethodHandles.lookup();

We can simply create both setter and getter method handles and invoke them separately:

MethodHandle setterStaticMethodHandle = lookup.findStaticSetter(Example.class, "magic", String.class);
MethodHandle getterStaticMethodHandle = lookup.findStaticGetter(Example.class, "magic", String.class);

setterStaticMethodHandle.invoke("new value static field");
String staticFieldResult = (String) getterStaticMethodHandle.invoke(); // staticFieldResult == `new value static field`

Here is an instance field abc of class Example:

private String abc = "initial value";

We can similarly create method handles for reading and writing to the instance field:

MethodHandle setterMethodHandle = lookup.findSetter(Example.class, "abc", String.class);
MethodHandle getterMethodHandle = lookup.findGetter(Example.class, "abc", String.class);

To use setter and getter method handles with an instance field, we must first obtain an instance of the class where the field belongs:

Example example = new Example();

Afterward, we must provide an instance of Example for invocation of our setter and getter:

setterMethodHandle.invoke(example, "new value");
String result = (String) getterMethodHandle.invoke(example); // result == `new value`

Although it is possible to read and write field values using method handles, it's not common practice. For fields, it's more suitable to use VarHandles instead, which can be created using findVarHandle and findStaticVarHandle methods.


Working with arrays

The MethodHandles class contains methods that provide a number of preset method handles. These include method handles that allow array manipulations. Creating these method handles doesn't require access checking, so the lookup object is not necessary.

Let's create an array of Strings containing 5 elements using arrayConstructor:

MethodHandle arrayConstructor = MethodHandles.arrayConstructor(String[].class);
String[] arr = (String[]) arrayConstructor.invoke(5);

To modify a single element, we can use arrayElementSetter, to which we provide the reference to the target array, the index of an element, and the new value:

MethodHandle elementSetter = MethodHandles.arrayElementSetter(String[].class);
elementSetter.invoke(arr, 4, "test");

To read the value of a single element, we should use arrayElementGetter method handle, to which we provide the reference to an array and the element index:

MethodHandle elementGetter = MethodHandles.arrayElementGetter(String[].class);
String element = (String) elementGetter.invoke(arr, 4); // element == "test"

We could also use the method handle provided by arrayLength to get the array length as integer:

MethodHandle arrayLength = MethodHandles.arrayLength(String[].class);
int length = (int) arrayLength.invoke(arr); // length == 5


Exception handling

Both invokeExact and invoke throw Throwable, so there is no limitation to what an underlying method can throw. The method that invokes a method handle must either explicitly throw a Throwable or catch it.

There are certain methods in the MethodHandles API that can make exception handling easier. Let's take a look at several examples.

catch wrapper

The MethodHandles.catchException method can wrap a given method handle inside a provided exception handler method handle.

Say, we have a method problematicMethod that performs some business logic, and a method exceptionHandler that handles a particular IllegalArgumentException. The exception handler method must return the same type as the original method. The first argument it accepts is a Throwable that we're interested in, after which follow the rest of the arguments that we've originally accepted:

public static int problematicMethod(String argument) throws IllegalArgumentException {
    if ("invalid".equals(argument)) {
        throw new IllegalArgumentException();
    return 1;

public static int exceptionHandler(IllegalArgumentException e, String argument) {
    // log exception
    return 0;

We can look up the method handles for both these methods and wrap problematicMethod inside an exceptionHandler. The resulting MethodHandle will handle the IllegalArgumentException properly on invocation, continuing to throw any other exceptions if they arise.

MethodHandles.Lookup lookup = MethodHandles.lookup();
MethodHandle methodHandle = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "problematicMethod", MethodType.methodType(int.class, String.class));
MethodHandle handler = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "exceptionHandler",
        MethodType.methodType(int.class, IllegalArgumentException.class, String.class));
MethodHandle wrapped = MethodHandles.catchException(methodHandle, IllegalArgumentException.class, handler);

System.out.println(wrapped.invoke("valid")); // outputs "1"
System.out.println(wrapped.invoke("invalid")); // outputs "0"

finally wrapper

The MethodHandles.tryFinally method works similarly, but instead of an exception handler, it wraps a target method adding a try-finally block.

Let's say we have a separate method cleanupMethod containing cleanup logic. The return type of this method must be the same as the target method's return type. It must accept a Throwable followed by the resulting value coming from the target method, followed by all the arguments.

public static int cleanupMethod(Throwable e, int result, String argument) {
    System.out.println("inside finally block");
    return result;

We can wrap the method handle from previous example inside the try-finally block as follows:

MethodHandle cleanupMethod = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "cleanupMethod",
        MethodType.methodType(int.class, Throwable.class, int.class, String.class));

MethodHandle wrappedWithFinally = MethodHandles.tryFinally(methodHandle, cleanupMethod);

System.out.println(wrappedWithFinally.invoke("valid")); // outputs "inside finally block" and "1"
System.out.println(wrappedWithFinally.invoke("invalid")); // outputs "inside finally block" and throws java.lang.IllegalArgumentException 


Method handle transformations

As seen from previous examples, method handles can encapsulate more behavior than simply pointing to an underlying method. We can obtain adapter method handles, which wrap target method handles to add certain behaviors such as argument reordering, pre-inserting, or filtering of the return values.

Let's take a look at a couple of such transformations.

Type transformation

A method handle's type can be adapted to a new type using the asType method. If such type conversion is impossible, we will get a WrongMethodTypeException. Remember, when we apply transformations, we actually have two method handles, where the original method handle is wrapped into some extra logic. In this case, the wrapper will take in the arguments and try to convert them to match the original method handle's arguments. Once the original method handle does its job and returns a result, the wrapper will attempt to cast this result to the given type.

Assume we have a test method that accepts an Object and returns a String. We can adapt such a method to accept a more specific argument type, such as String:

MethodHandle targetMethodHandle = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "test", 
        MethodType.methodType(String.class, Object.class));
MethodHandle adapter = targetMethodHandle.asType(
        MethodType.methodType(String.class, String.class));
String originalResult = (String) targetMethodHandle.invoke(111); // works
String adapterResult = (String) adapter.invoke("aaaaaa"); // works
adapterResult = (String) adapter.invoke(111); // fails

In fact, each time we use invoke on a MethodHandle, the first thing that happens is an asType call. invoke accepts and returns Objects, which are then attempted to be converted to more specific types. These specific types are derived from our code, i.e., the exact values that we pass as arguments and the type that we cast our return value to. Once the types are successfully converted, the invokeExact method is then called for these specific types.

Permute arguments

To obtain an adapter method handle with reordered arguments, we can use MethodHandles.permuteArguments.

For example, let's create a test method that accepts a bunch of arguments of different types:

public static void test(int v1, String v2, long v3, boolean v4) {
    System.out.println(v1 + v2 + v3 + v4);

And look up a method handle for it:

MethodHandle targetMethodHandle = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "test",
        MethodType.methodType(void.class, int.class, String.class, long.class, boolean.class));

The permuteArguments method accepts:

  • Target method handle, in our case the one pointing to test method;
  • New MethodType with all the arguments reordered in desired way;
  • An index array designating the new order of the arguments.
MethodHandle reversedArguments = MethodHandles.permuteArguments(targetMethodHandle,
        MethodType.methodType(void.class, boolean.class, long.class, String.class, int.class), 3, 2, 1, 0);
reversedArguments.invoke(false, 1L, "str", 123); // outputs: "123str1false"

Insert arguments

The MethodHandles.insertArguments method provides a MethodHandle with one or more bound arguments.

For example, let's look again at the method handle from previous example:

MethodHandle targetMethodHandle = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "test",
        MethodType.methodType(void.class, int.class, String.class, long.class, boolean.class));

We can easily obtain an adapter MethodHandle with String and long arguments bound in advance:

MethodHandle boundArguments = MethodHandles.insertArguments(targetMethodHandle, 1, "new", 3L);

To invoke the resulting adapter method handle, we only need to provide the arguments that are not pre-filled:

boundArguments.invoke(1, true); // outputs: "1new3true"

If we try to pass the arguments that are already prefilled, we will fail with a WrongMethodTypeException.

Filter arguments

We can use MethodHandles.filterArguments to apply transformations to arguments before invocation of the target method handle. To make it work, we have to provide:

  • The target method handle;
  • The position of the first argument to transform;
  • Method handles for the transformations of each argument.

If certain arguments don't require transformation, we can skip them by passing null. It's also possible to skip the rest of the arguments entirely if we only need to transform a subset of them.

Let's reuse the method handle from the previous section and filter some of its arguments before invocation.

MethodHandle targetMethodHandle = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "test",
        MethodType.methodType(void.class, int.class, String.class, long.class, boolean.class));

Then we create a method that transforms any boolean value by negating it:

private static boolean negate(boolean original) {
    return !original;

and also construct a method that increments any given integer value:

private static int increment(int original) {
    return ++original;

We can obtain method handles for these transformation methods:

MethodHandle negate = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "negate", MethodType.methodType(boolean.class, boolean.class));
MethodHandle increment = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "increment", MethodType.methodType(int.class, int.class));

and use them to get a new method handle having filtered the arguments:

// applies filter 'increment' to argument at index 0, 'negate' to the last argument, 
// and passes the result to 'targetMethodHandle'
MethodHandle withFilters = MethodHandles.filterArguments(targetMethodHandle, 0, increment, null, null, negate);
withFilters.invoke(3, "abc", 5L, false); // outputs "4abc5true"

Fold arguments

When we want to perform pre-processing of one or more arguments before the invocation of a MethodHandle, we can use MethodHandles.foldArguments and provide it with the method handle of any combiner method which will accept arguments starting at any preferred position.

Let's assume that we have a target method:

private static void target(int ignored, int sum, int a, int b) {
    System.out.printf("%d + %d equals %d and %d is ignored%n", a, b, sum, ignored);

Using foldArguments we can pre-process a subset of its arguments and insert the resulting value as another argument and proceed to the execution of the target method.

In our example, we have arguments int a, int b at the end. We can pre-process any amount of arguments, but they all must be at the end. Let's say, we would like to calculate a sum of these two values a and b, so let's create a method for that:

private static int sum(int a, int b) {
    return a + b;

Where will the resulting value go exactly? It will be inserted into one of the arguments of our target method. It must be the argument right before the arguments that we are going to fold, so in our example argument int sum. The argument reserved for the folding result can't be at any other position. If the target method needs to accept more arguments not related to this folding logic, they all must go first.

Let's create the method handles and see how we should combine them together:

MethodHandle targetMethodHandle = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "target",
        MethodType.methodType(void.class, int.class, int.class, int.class, int.class));
MethodHandle combinerMethodHandle = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "sum",
        MethodType.methodType(int.class, int.class, int.class));
MethodHandle preProcessedArguments = MethodHandles.foldArguments(targetMethodHandle, 1, combinerMethodHandle);

The foldArguments method accepts:

  • MethodHandle target: The target method handle, in our case the one pointing to the target method.
  • int pos: An integer specifying the starting position of arguments related to folding. In our case, the sum argument is located at position 1, so we passed 1. If we skip this argument, pos will default to 0.
  • MethodHandle combiner: The combiner method handle, in our case the one pointing to the sum method.

At the end, we can invoke the resulting method handle and pass all the arguments except sum which is going to be pre-calculated:

preProcessedArguments.invokeExact(10000, 1, 2); // outputs: "1 + 2 equals 3 and 10000 is ignored"

It is possible that the combiner method processes values but doesn't return anything. In this case, there is no need for a result placeholder in the target method argument list.

Filter return value

Similarly to arguments, we can use an adapter that will apply transformations to the return value.

Let's imagine a situation where we have a method that returns a String, and we would like to channel any returned value from this method into another method that replaces character d with m and uppercases the resulting value.

Here's the method handle for the getSomeString method which always returns the value "dummy":

MethodHandle getSomeString = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "getSomeString", MethodType.methodType(String.class));

Here's the resultTransform method that performs transformations:

private static String resultTransform(String value) {
    return value.replace('d', 'm').toUpperCase();

Here is the method handle for our transformer method:

MethodHandle resultTransform = lookup.findStatic(Example.class, "resultTransform", MethodType.methodType(String.class, String.class));

Finally, this is the combination of the two method handles where the result returned by the getSomeString method is then provided to the resultTransform method and modified accordingly:

MethodHandle getSomeUppercaseString = MethodHandles.filterReturnValue(getSomeString, resultTransform);
System.out.println(getSomeUppercaseString.invoke()); // outputs: "MUMMY"


Method Handles vs Reflection API

Method handles were introduced in JDK7 as a tool to assist compiler and language runtime developers. They were never meant to replace reflection.

The Reflection API offers something that method handles cannot, which is listing the class members and inspecting their properties. Method handles, on the other hand, can be transformed and manipulated in a way that is not possible with the Reflection API.

When it comes to method invocation, there are differences related to access checking and security considerations. The Reflection API performs access checking against every caller, on every call, while for method handles, access is checked only during construction. This makes invocation through method handles faster than through reflection. However, certain precautions have to be taken so the method handle is not passed to the code where it shouldn't be accessible.

You can learn more about Reflection in this tutorial.


Conversion between Reflection API and method handles

The Lookup object can be used to convert Reflection API objects to behaviorally equivalent method handles, which provide more direct and efficient access to the underlying class members.

To create a method handle pointing to a given Method (given that the lookup class has permission to do so), we can use unreflect.

Let's say we have a test method in our Example class which accepts a String argument and returns a String. Using the Reflection API, we can obtain a Method object:

Method method = Example.class.getMethod("test", String.class);

With the help of the lookup object, we can unreflect the Method object to obtain a MethodHandle:

MethodHandles.Lookup lookup = MethodHandles.lookup();
MethodHandle methodHandle = lookup.unreflect(method);
String result = (String) methodHandle.invoke("something");

Similarly, given a Field object, we can obtain getter and setter method handles:

Field field = Example.class.getField("magic");
MethodHandle setterMethodHandle = lookup.unreflectSetter(field);
MethodHandle getterMethodHandle = lookup.unreflectGetter(field);
String result = (String) getterMethodHandle.invoke(); // result == "something"

Conversion from MethodHandle to a Member is also possible, with the condition that no transformations have been performed to the given MethodHandle.

Let's say we have a method handle pointing directly to a method. We can use the MethodHandles.reflectAs method to obtain the Method object:

Method method = MethodHandles.reflectAs(Method.class, methodHandle);

It works similarly for the Field object:

Field field = MethodHandles.reflectAs(Field.class, getterMethodHandle); // same result is achieved by reflecting `setterMethodHandle`



In this tutorial, we have looked into the method handle mechanism and learned how to efficiently use it. We now know that method handles provide a means for efficient method invocation, but this mechanism is not meant to replace the Reflection API.

Method handles offer a performance advantage for method invocation due to a different access checking approach. However, since access is checked only on method handle creation, method handles should be passed around with caution.

Unlike the Reflection API, method handles don't provide any tooling for listing class members and inspecting their properties. On the other hand, the Method Handle API allows us to wrap direct pointers to methods and fields into more complex logic, such as argument and return value manipulations.

Last update: May 31, 2024

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