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...
(The entire section is 1217 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Henry V Critical Essays. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!