Henry V and the Chivalric Revival
Henry V and the Chivalric Revival
Robin Headlam Wells, University of Hull
"O for a Muse of fire!" What more appropriate way to begin an epic celebration of England's greatest warrior-king than an invocation to Mars, the baleful god of war with 'famine, sword and fire' straining like leashed greyhounds at his heels (Prol. 1-8)?1 Praised by his contemporaries as the flower of knighthood,2 the historical Henry V was the epitome of English chivalry; and chivalry is essentially a martial ideal, a code of values that glorified military prowess as the supreme achievement of the virtuous knight.3 For the medieval chevalier like Shakespeare's Duke of Exeter (4.6.7-32) death on the battlefield in the arms of a brother soldier while in the service of his liege is a consummation devoutly to be wished.
It is this chivalric ideal that the "warlike Harry" epitomizes. Shakespeare's holy warrior has "an aspect of iron" (5.2.239); his god is a 'God of battles' (4.1.285); and when he invades France he comes "In thunder and in earthquake, like a Jove" (2.4.100). Even as a wooer, he loves "cruelly" (5.2.211). But despite the celebratory tone of the Prologue, Henry V is no simple endorsement of chivalric ideals. The history of chivalry in late medieval and early modern England is a complex one, and Shakespeare's play embodies the ambivalent attitudes towards war and military heroism which that history inevitably reflects.
Flower of chivalry
Henry V is chiefly remembered for his extraordinary victory at Agincourt. But hardened at an early age to the rigours of border conflict, he showed a passion for war and a contempt for "the cursyd vice of slouthe and ydlenesse"4 even before he became king. Shortly before his accession he commissioned a translation of the greatest war story of the ancient world. The result was John Lydgate's Troy Book, a translation of Guido delle Colonne's Historia Destructionis Troiae. Like Shakespeare, Lydgate begins his story with an invocation to Mars, patron of chivalry and the "causer [ . . . ] Of werre and stryf":
O myghty Mars, that wyth thy sterne lyght
In armys hast the power & pe my3t,
And named art from est til occident
The myghty lorde, the god armypotent,
That, wyth schynyng of the stremes rede,
By influence dost the brydel led
Of cheualry, as souereyn and patrown . . .
Now help, o Mars, pat art of kny3thod lord,
And hast of manhod the magnificence!5
In his prologue to the Troy Book Lydgate explains that it was Henry's own enthusiasm for "verray kny3thod", "the prowesse of olde chiualrie" and "al that longeth to manhood" that was responsible for the prince's interest in the Troy story (I. 69ff.).
Though Henry's early death meant...
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The chivalric revival
To suggest that Shakespeare was the intellectual prisoner of his time is to imply that Elizabethans were united in their endorsement of the militaristic values that Henry V stood for in the popular imagination. This is not true. A brief review of changing attitudes towards the chivalric ideal in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century England may go at least some way towards explaining the anomalies in Shakespeare's play.
Henry V was written at a time when chivalric values, after a period of self-conscious anti-militarism, were once more in fashion.22 Originating in the Middle Ages as the code of values of a military aristocracy, chivalry placed paramount emphasis on physical courage and military prowess as the guarantors of justice and honour. Where this involved dynastic rights of the kind that were at issue in the Hundred Years War, chivalry provided justification for aggressive international action. In exhorting Edward to defend his territorial rights, William Worcester appeals to "ye noble Englisshe cheualrie [ . . . ] to take armes and enterprinses, seeing so many good examples before yow of so many victorius dedis in armes done by youre noble progenitoures".23 One of chivalry's most enduring legacies to the future was the honour code, a system of values characterized above all by a stress on competitive assertiveness. As Mervyn James explains, the honour code both legitimized and provided moral...
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War and chivalry
Modern criticism is divided on the question of whether the play wants us to see Henry V as Christian hero or deceitful Machiavel. Because Henry is a natural autocrat, post-structuralist historicism sees him, perhaps predictably, as the latter. In one of his most influential essays54 Stephen Greenblatt argues that throughout the three plays in which he appears Henry is a Machiavellian "juggler" and "conniving hypocrite". The final play of the series, says Greenblatt, "deftly registers every nuance of royal hypocrisy, ruthlessness, and bad faith".55 Ruthless Henry undoubtedly is, but to accuse him of bad faith is to deny him his most outstanding and most dangerous characteristic, namely his frank and single-minded fidelity to his cause.
For Greenblatt Henry V is a classic instance of the way authority produces and contains subversion. Insofar as it is concerned to illustrate a transhistorical paradigm of power politics, Greenblatt's essay is, strictly speaking, a-historicist. For all its rhetorical persuasiveness, it suffers from the inevitable limitations of its analogical methodology. When flexible use is made of the text,56 and when external appeal is made, not to proven source material or contemporaneous political debate, but to unconnected "reiterations" of an a priori principle, it becomes difficult either to prove or disprove his thesis. A more truly historicist case for seeing Henry...
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The dangers of idealism
One effect of the meeting between Henry and his bishops at the beginning of the play is to make us warm to Henry's integrity. Confronted with such blatant cynicism, it is not difficult to admire the man of honour. As Robert Ashley writes in a treatise entitled Of Honour (c. 1600):
By honour are vertues kindled and incouraged, by honour are vices eschewed, by honour ignoraunce, error and folly, sloth and sluggishness, hatred and fear, shame and ignoraunce, and all evill affeccions are alayed.79
Henry is a man inspired by a heroic ideal. At Agincourt his integrity and his valour are set off to even greater advantage by the foolish boasting of the Dauphin (3.7). When the man of honour is as gifted an orator as Henry, the combination of missionary zeal and impassioned eloquence is almost irresistible. Against our better judgment we respond to his inspiring words, forgetting for the moment the cruel reality behind the noble rhetoric. Yet repeatedly the play brings us back to that reality. Even as the Act 2 Chorus describes how England's youth are fired with thoughts of war, and "honour's thought/Reigns solely in the breast of every man", he tells us that they follow Henry to battle like "English Mercuries" (2, chorus 3-4; 7).
Mercury is, of course, the messenger of the gods, noted both for his celerity and for his eloquence (not a quality normally...
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