Henry V is the last play in the cycle in which William Shakespeare explores the nature of kingship and compares medieval and Renaissance ideal rulers. In Henry IV, Part I (pr. c. 1597-1598, pb. 1598), Hal (the nickname by which Henry was known in his youth) soliloquizes that his roguish behavior, which so disturbs his father and the court, is policy—a temporary ploy soon to be discarded, after which he will astonish and delight his critics. True to that promise, Hal becomes the perfect English king, a true representative of all of his people, one who understands his own vices and virtues and those of his citizens. His youthful escapades have taught him a deep understanding of the human nature of the citizens he must rule, making him wise beyond his years.
Henry V, Shakespeare’s summarizing portrait of what a good king should be, acts in the best Elizabethan tradition. The archbishop of Canterbury’s description in act 1, scene 1, confirms him as well rounded, a man of words and of action, a scholar, diplomat, poet, and soldier. He can “reason in divinity,” “debate of commonwealth affairs,” “discourse of war” or of music, and “unloose the Gordian knot of policy . . . in sweet and honeyed sentences.” Unlike his father, who was tortured by self-recrimination, Henry V is sure of his authority, power, and ability. Proud of his country and followers, he attributes his successes to God’s leadership.
Unlike Richard II, Henry V keeps fears and worries private. He stays attuned to his subjects’ undercurrents of feeling, as when he walks among them in disguise instead of relying on censored reports. His effective spy system ferrets out traitors, whom he disposes of swiftly and violently. His earlier experiences help him distinguish loyal subjects and good soldiers from the disloyal and incompetent; in act 4, scene 1, he rejects flattery but values blunt honesty. Moreover, he surrounds himself with good advisers whose advice he follows. He is generous to friends and supporters, rewards loyalty, and in his St. Crispin’s Day speech calls those who fight by his side “brothers” no matter what their rank or class. Above all, Henry V is flexible, able to be a king in war and a king in peace and capable of gentle mercy as well as harsh justice. His leniency to enemy villagers wins their hearts, but he is merciless to French captives who broke the rules of war, killing English baggage boys.
As a model king, Henry V is, above all else, politic, a follower of Niccolò Machiavelli’s principles as enunciated in Il principe (wr. 1513, pb. 1532; The Prince, 1640) and able to manipulate language and people to attain his country’s welfare. The opening action demonstrates Machiavellian policy consummately managed. As a new, untried king with a youthful reputation for riotous living, Henry V must secure his throne, extend his power, and improve his reputation while he still has youth, vigor, and political support. At the same time, he must take his subjects’ minds off the internal conflicts, rebellions, and usurpations that plagued his father’s reign, and he must unite diverse English factions. The quickest, most effective way to achieve these ends is to do as his father advised: “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” The French, by contemptuously dismissing Henry V as an effeminate wastrel fit only for the tennis courts, provide the perfect common enemy.
Henry’s forceful yet poetic retorts to French insults couple powerful rhetoric with personal magnetism, and his threat to confiscate the Church’s property motivates its representatives to find religious and legal justifications for a foreign war. Thus, they proclaim that England has not only “means and might” but a righteous “cause”: ousting a usurper. The attack on France will be a holy war, fully backed by holy church and legal precedent: “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” Extending England’s legal claims in the tradition of Edward III reminds Henry’s subjects and his European critics of his glorious ancestry and evokes English patriotism. Here, Henry V effectively employs Machiavellian strategies; his forceful rhetoric demonstrates good policy and good kingship. His warning to Harfleur, for example, paints such a grim picture of death and destruction, of raped maidens and skewered infants, that fearful town officials surrender peacefully.
The victorious battle at Agincourt, the play’s crux, proves Hal’s right to rule England. Shakespeare carefully avoids mentioning the main historical reason for victory, the fact that the English battle tactic of employing foot soldiers with long bows was superior to the medieval French tactic of employing single armored knights to wage hand-to-hand combat. He chooses instead to attribute the victory to a glorious English king whose rhetoric and personal valor were able to inspire common men to brave deeds against impossible odds. The French Dauphin and his nobles provide the antithesis to Hal’s good English king, for they are vain, arrogant, and overconfident, willing to leave the battle to servants and to flee at the first real opposition; they are disorganized and quarrelsome, whereas, thanks to Henry V’s leadership, the English fight as an organized “band of brothers,” their hearts “in the trim,” “warriors for the working-day” ready for God to “dispose the day.”
Act 5 portrays Henry V as the complete hero king. The first four acts having demonstrated Henry’s virtues in war, act 5 shows a more casual Henry, commanding but at ease, a king for peace. It also demonstrates what a hero king can bring to England: a peace treaty with provisions for lands, power, title, and honor, as well as an attractive queen whose intelligence and proud spirit make her worthy to carry on both royal lines. A “conqu’ring Caesar,” Hal tempers justice with mercy, restores order and harmony, and strengthens political bonds through a royal marriage that weds nations and provides a new garden, sullied but mendable, for England’s royal gardener, the king, to cultivate and make profitable. Henry does not bargain away what was gained in the field but stays firm. He shows another facet of his rhetoric and understanding of psychology when he adopts the appealing role of a blunt solider, unused to wooing, to win a hesitant princess who does not wish to be forced into a loveless political marriage.
Henry V purposefully lends weight to the Tudor myth of divine right and reflects glory on Henry’s descendant, Elizabeth I. The problem set by the tetralogy that Henry V concludes is how to legitimate this line of English monarchs. Richard II, the rightful king, was deposed by Henry IV, calling into question the ideology of divine right upon which the monarchy is founded. Shakespeare spends these four plays transitioning from the legitimate Richard, through the usurper, Henry IV, to the relegitimated Henry V. The latter Henry’s victories confirm his (and by extension Elizabeth I’s) God-given right to power.
Elizabethan audiences were meant to understand that the qualities and blessings of Henry V had been passed on to Elizabeth by right of birth. Moreover, Henry V provides a model of good kingship: the harsh realities of political life demand both action and thought, mercy and justice, war and peace. A good king uses whatever tools are available to attain order, harmony, peace, and prosperity, for good ends justify the means.