Henry V (Vol. 30)
See also Henry V Criticism (Volume 49), and Volumes 67, 89.
Henry V has been praised by many scholars as a vigorous portrayal of one of England's most popular national heroes. From the early nineteenth century to the present, the central issue for critics has been the character of the king and whether he represents Shakespeare's ideal ruler. While this debate has continued in recent decades, modern commentary has increasingly explored both Henry's positive and negative attributes. Although the personality of the king has attracted significant criticism, commentators have also shown renewed interest in Shakespeare's attitude toward patriotism and war, and the play's epic elements, particularly his use of the Chorus.
A majority of modern critics have concentrated on the character of Henry V and have been divided over whether Shakespeare intended to portray Henry as an ideal monarch and military hero or as a ruthless plotter. Michael Manheim has represented both views in stating, "Henry is intended to be a successful, admirable, and heroic figure" while simultaneously being "as consummate a Machiavel as any king" represented in the tetralogy. Although earlier critics have condemned Henry for his self-interestedness, brutality, and lack of emotion, some modern commentators have praised him for his piety, heroism, and statesmanship. For example, Zdenĕk Str̆íbrný has applauded "magnanimity, modesty, bravery, coolness and high spirits in the face of danger," and has called him "the most voluminous of all Shakespeare's characters." M. M. Reese has further noted that, "If in the play [Henry's] virtues seem to be superhuman, this does not invalidate the seriousness of Shakespeare's purpose nor, within the restrictions imposed by his medium, the success of his execution." One of the most significant issues debated by commentators remains whether Henry embodies Shakespeare's ideal king. Some other critics have cited the use of irony and death imagery in the play as indicative of Shakespeare's lack of compassion for the central character; C. H. Hobday has asserted that these recurrent images "suggest that, whatever Shakespeare may say about Henry, in his heart he regarded him as a murderer." However, other scholars have maintained that Shakespeare sought to present Henry as the ideal hero, one who reflects the Elizabethan notion of a perfect monarch. Discussing the play in historical context, G. P. V. Akrigg has commented, "If Shakespeare had presented the real Henry with all his aspects, including his limitations, his occasional craftiness and slightly nauseating sanctimony, he might have provoked the most notable riot in the history of the Elizabethan theatre." In emphasizing the complexity of Henry's character, W. L. Godshalk has observed that "Henry's inability to accept responsibility& is both his political strength and his personal weakness," and has concluded that this characteristic makes him both "the perfect Christian king and the Machiavellian manipulator."
Many twentieth-century critics have also explored the pervasive concern with war and patriotism in Henry V. Herbert R. Coursen, Jr. has maintained, "Henry V is not so much concerned with patriotism as with the price of patriotism," arguing that Henry finally becomes controlled by the role he has assumed. Focusing on the interaction between structure and theme in the play, Larry S. Champion has noted, "Shakespeare develops a stylized and highly patriotic theme throughout the three movements of the plot: the preparation for war, the combat itself, and the concluding of the peace." Anthony S. Brennan, analyzing Henry's return home in the last act, has written, "The description by the Chorus of Henry's reception in London not only crowns the patriotic fervor which has built up throughout the play but also neatly rounds off the preoccupation with war by a celebration of the return to peace." In addition, scholars have praised Shakespeare's accurate portrayal of Renaissance warfare through his use of specific details such as the slaughter of the prisoners and threats of plundering, sacking, and burning. Gordon Ross Smith has remarked, "Taken altogether, with its kings and nobles, captains, and commoners of varying merits, Shakespeare's Henry V is a public and semi-official portrait of a nation at war."
Shakespeare's use of epic elements in Henry V has also elicited much critical attention. By far the most panoramic of his plays, Henry V dramatizes an epic theme and celebrates a legendary hero. According to several scholars, the play therefore fulfills most of the formal requirements of classical epic: its hero is of national significance; it emphasizes destiny and the will of God; its action is impressive in scale and centers upon war; and it includes a narrator, an invocation to the Muse, a large number of warriors, battle taunts and challenges, and other traditional epic devices. Most commentators have agreed that Shakespeare's use of epic elements contributes significantly to the success of the play. Reese has pointed out that Shakespeare "decided that the noble deeds of Henry V, which were of a kind to inspire wonder and imitation, could not be fittingly celebrated except through the medium of epic," while Str̆íbrný has maintained that "he was both forced and inspired to create a new dramatic genre, what we might almost call an epic drama."
Scholars have repeatedly focused on the role of the Chorus in exposing the limitations of the Elizabethan stage. Reese has remarked that the function of the Chorus "is to apologise for the unsuitability of any stage for the breadth and sweep of epic; but at the same time Shakespeare uses it with great boldness and ingenuity to make good some of the deficiencies he so modestly admits," and Michael Goldman has stated that, "Nowhere else does he use [the Chorus] to call attention to the inadequacies of his stage." However, other critics have contended that Shakespeare's audience would never have expected the kind of cinematic "realism" that the Chorus makes apology for lacking; Brennan has argued that there is evidence of "Shakespeare's overwhelming confidence that the simple, bare, thrust stage of his theatre could be used to present any kind of story in any kind of world whether real or imaginary." Summarizing the role of the Chorus in Henry V, Edward I. Berry has observed, "Though the Chorus fulfills several functions as narrator—apologizing for the limitations of the theater, explaining lapses of time and shifts in locale, creating atmosphere—its most important function is to evoke an epic mood, to incite the audience to see a 'platonic' realm of epic ideals through the actions and characters represented on stage"; James L. Calderwood has added that "not only does the Chorus encourage unity of interpretation, it also helps create unity of structure in the play itself by building narrative bridges between the five acts." The play's choric prologues have similarly received critical praise for their eloquence and contribution to the epic tone of the play. Manheim has suggested, "The Chorus sets the tone at the start and helps maintain it through his overtures to each act," and Akrigg has pointed out that "Nobody& has criticized Shakespeare for his superb prologues to Henry V. The reason, of course, is that Henry V has to be at once a drama and an epic poem. And the prologues help wonderfully to establish the epic dimension, both through what they say and through the superb sustained poetry of the saying."
C. H. Hobday (essay date 1968)
SOURCE: "Imagery and Irony in Henry V," in Shakespeare Survey, No. 21, 1968, pp. 107-14.
[In the essay below, Hobday explores the use of death imagery in Henry V and its emotional significance for Shakespeare, noting that he "constantly juxtaposed the fine talk of honour and religion with the realities of human greed and cruelty."]
During the last century and a half many of the most distinguished Shakespearian critics, from Hazlitt to J. Dover Wilson, have disputed over the character of Shakespeare's Henry V. When such a debate has continued so long, without showing any sign of reaching a conclusion, it seems reasonable to assume that the division of opinion among critics may reflect a division in Shakespeare's own mind, and that his emotions may have rebelled against his conscious intentions in writing the play. One criterion by which we can attempt to ascertain the feelings with which he wrote is through his image-clusters, which afford a clue to the emotional associations which certain words possessed for him. In Henry V one image-cluster plays an especially significant part, that associated with death.
Some two dozen images were linked in Shakespeare's mind with the idea of death, and can be roughly divided into seven groups: bones, leanness, pallor, rottenness, and ghost; hollowness, grave, vault or cave, earth, and womb; mouth or teeth, and eating; eyes and weeping; war, cannon, blood, and fire; sea, rocks, and wind or storm; and lion or tiger and roaring. The train of thought linking many of these ideas is obvious enough. Shakespeare saw death personified as a meagre, white-faced, ghostly figure, a rotting corpse, a skeleton, or a monster feeding on men—hence the association with the mouth and eating. Death, weeping, and hence eyes is a natural sequence of ideas, but the connexion between them is strengthened by the fact, which Caroline Spurgeon noted [in Shakespeare's Imagery, 1935], that when Shakespeare thought of a skull it was often the empty eye-sockets which first came into his mind. The grave, vaults, and earth are obviously connected with death, but they are also linked with one another, with the womb and caves, with cannon, and with the skull and its eye-sockets, by the common idea of hollowness. The association between the last three groups of images may have arisen from the fact that Petruchio refers to roaring lions, the sea, winds, cannon, thunder, battle, and fire when enumerating louder noises than that of a woman's tongue (The Taming of the Shrew, I, ii, 201-10); the speech has nothing to do with death, but tongue may have suggested mouth, and hence Death the devourer. Again, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe may have contributed to bring together in Shakespeare's mind tomb, hole (hollowness), lion, roar, mouth, blood and death: in Titus Andronicus Pyramus is mentioned in a passage containing a long sequence of death-images (II, iii, 227-49). Finally, lions and tigers are linked with the sea by the application of 'roaring' to both (Romeo and Juliet, V, iii, 39; Hamlet, I, iv, 77-83).
This complex of images seems to have possessed an intense emotional significance for Shakespeare. It is found in passages relating, not merely to death, but to the murder of the innocent—the murder of Gloucester (2 Henry VI, III, ii, 141-76), the appearance of the ghost to Hamlet (I, iv, 47-50, 77-90), Lear's entry with the dead Cordelia (V, iii, 258-61), the discovery of Duncan's murder (Macbeth, II, iii, 69-103), and the appearance of Banquo's ghost (III, iv, 71-101). It occurs, too, at moments which mark a turning-point in the action of a play, such as the death of Gloucester, the final parting of Romeo and Juliet (III, V, 17-20, 56-9), or Northumberland's announcement of Bolingbroke's return (Richard II, II, i, 263-70). In Henry V such a turning point comes at the end of Act II and the beginning of Act III with the outbreak of war, and it is here that Shakespeare's death-imagery is concentrated.
Death-imagery dominates Exeter's warning to the French king:
Therefore in fierce tempest is he coming,
In thunder and in earthquake, like a Jove,
That if requiring fail, he will compel;
And bids you, in the bowels of the Lord,
Deliver up the crown, and to take mercy
On the poor souls for whom this hungry war
Opens his vasty jaws: and on your heads
Turns he the widows' tears, the orphans'
The dead men's blood, the pining maidens'
For husbands, fathers, and betrothed lovers
That shall be swallowed in this controversy.
(II, iv, 99-109)
More death-images follow in Exeter's defiance to the Dauphin:
He'll call you to so hot an answer of it
That caves and womby vaultages of France
Shall chide your trespass, and return your
In second accent of his ordinance.
The theme of Exeter's first speech, it will be noticed, is the death of innocent. He, of course, blames the French king, but it would be a poor diplomat who could not prove the other side responsible for any war. The question remains, whom did Shakespeare himself hold responsible?
Death-imagery (wind, sea, dead, ordnance, mouths, cannon) continues throughout the following chorus, with which we move from peace to war, and the first fifteen lines of Henry's speech before Harfleur (dead, blast, tiger, blood, eye, cannon, rock, ocean, teeth). If it is not heresy to say so, this passage is surely very badly written. Rhetoric has been defined as the will doing the work of the imagination, and by this criterion the speech is not poetry but rhetoric. Shakespeare's imagination is not engaged, and he forces the note. The result, when Henry issues detailed orders on the exact expression to be worn in battle, is unintentionally comic.
The implications of the death-images in this speech are disturbing. Henry's picture of the breach in the wall packed tight with corpses looks forward to Octavia's horrifying image:
Wars 'twixt you twain would be
As if the world should cleave, and that slain
Should solder up the rift.
(Antony and Cleopatra, III, iv, 30-2)
Again, why should Henry order his men to 'imitate the action of the tiger'? Why not the lion? To Shakespeare the lion was a noble beast with a 'royal disposition' and 'a vice of mercy', but the tiger was above all cruel and merciless. Heroic figures such as Richard I, the Black Prince, Julius Caesar, and Antony are compared to lions in his plays, but the six characters who are compared to tigers—Aaron, Tamora, Queen Margaret, Richard III, Goneril, and Regan—are all notorious for cruelty. The details of the expression which Henry's soldiers are to assume are full of significant echoes. 'Hard-favoured rage' suggests 'hard-favoured death' (1 Henry VI, IV, vii, 23) and 'that devil's butcher, hard-favoured Richard' (3 Henry VI, V, V, 77-8). 'Let the brow o'erwhelm it' recalls the 'overwhelming brows' of the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet (V, i, 39), whom Shakespeare seems to envisage as an incarnation of death; note the death-images running through the scene (vault, pale, meagre, bones, earthen, thinly, death, fired, cannon's womb, eyes, food, grave). 'Now set the teeth' is echoed in Antony's lines in another passage full of death-imagery:
Men did ransom lives
Of me for jests: but now I'll set my teeth
And send to darkness all that stop me.
(Antony and Cleopatra, III, xiii, 180-2)
Setting the teeth for Shakespeare was evidently associated with refusal of mercy in battle. 'Stretch the nostril wide' echoes Warwick's description of the murdered Gloucester, 'his nostrils stretched with struggling' (2 Henry VI, III, ii, 171). Thus these fifteen lines contain a whole succession of images associated not only with death but with cruelty and murder.
That such images recur almost continuously through a passage of about a hundred lines, and are placed in the mouths of Henry himself and his spokesman, can hardly be accidental. They would seem to suggest that, whatever Shakespeare may say about Henry, in his heart he regarded him as a murderer. Faced with the demand to depict such a man as a hero, he took refuge in the irony which permeates the whole play, and constantly juxtaposed the fine talk of honour and religion with the realities of human greed and cruelty.
Such a contrast occurs at the very beginning of the play, when immediately after praying for a muse of fire Shakespeare introduces two bishops who discuss how they can prevent Church property from being confiscated for public and charitable purposes, and decide to encourage the King to invade France. An audience in Protestant and anti-clerical London would automatically have assumed that the two Popish prelates were up to no good, and would have thought the confiscation of Church property an excellent idea. Shakespeare probably sympathized with their views. His Catholic bishops and cardinals—Beaufort, Pandulph, Wolsey, Gardiner—are an unsavoury bunch, in contrast with the Protestant Cranmer; the Bishop of Carlisle in Richard II might be cited as an exception, but even he takes part in a murder plot. The terms in which Shakespeare refers to the use to which the Church's wealth might be put—
to relief of lazars and weak age,
Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil
(I, i, 15-16)
—have an emotional note, unlike Holinshed's dry 'for reliefe onelie of the poore, impotent, and needie persons,' which suggests that he would have favoured its use for such purposes. That the bishop's testimonial to Henry's Christian virtues is interpolated in the middle of their plot to frustrate the relief of the poor would seem to throw some doubt upon its value.
In defence of the bishops, Dover Wilson points out that they do not initiate the idea of the war. Shakespeare's own views on its origin can be found in 2 Henry IV, where Henry IV advises his son 'to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels' (IV, V, 214-15) in order to divert attention from the weakness of his claim to the throne, and at the end of the same play it is suggested that Henry is planning to
bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France.
(V, V, 112-13)
This fact lessens the Archbishop's guilt, but it only increases Henry's.
Dover Wilson goes on to argue that 'the sole connection between the subject of the Archbishop's speech (on the Salic Law) and the question of Church lands is that both are spoken of in the conversation of the two bishops which constitutes the opening scene'; that in the 'perfectly legitimate desire' of removing any temptation for the King to finance his war by expropriating Church property the Archbishop offers him a large subsidy towards its cost; and that there is 'not a hint of a bribe on the Archbishop's part, still less of his provoking the King to war in order to protect Church property'. This argument ignores Shakespeare's text. If there is no connexion between the Church property question and the Archbishop's support for the war, why should the play open with a completely irrelevant discussion? There is not a word anywhere about Henry's being tempted to finance the war at the Church's expense. On the King's attitude towards the Church property bill, the Archbishop says that he seems
rather swaying more upon our part
Than cherishing th'exhibiters against us;
For I have made an offer to his majesty,
Upon our spiritual convocation,
And in regard of causes now in hand,
Which I have opened to his grace at large,
As touching France, to give a greater sum
Than ever at one time the clergy yet
Did to his predecessors part withal.
(I, i, 73-81)
That word for is decisive; Henry does not support the bill, because the Archbishop has offered him a large subsidy. If this is not a bribe, what is it? When later the Archbishop urges the King to war he again reminds him of his offer:
O let their bodies follow, my dear liege,
With blood and sword and fire to win your
In aid whereof we of the spiritualty
Will raise your highness such a mighty sum
As never did the clergy at one time
Bring in to any of your ancestors.
(I, ii, 130-5)
The virtual repetition of lines from the Archbishop's earlier speech is clearly intended to emphasize that the motive for his support of the war is his fears for the Church's lands. When the spokesman of the 'spiritualty' advocates a policy of 'blood and sword and fire' for fear that Church property will be used to relieve 'indigent faint souls', Shakespeare's irony becomes Swiftian in its saeva indignatio.
The Archbishop's argument in support of Henry's claim to the French throne—that a claimant descended in the female line from the senior branch of a royal house takes precedence in the succession over one descended in the male line from a junior branch—in reality proves, not that Henry is the rightful King of France, but that he is not the rightful King of England. As Shakespeare himself had twice demonstrated at length in earlier plays, the house of Mortimer was descended in the female line from the third son of Edward III, through whom Henry claimed the French throne, whereas the house of Lancaster was descended in the male line from the fourth son (1 Henry VI, II, V, 71-8; 2 Henry VI, II, ii). To assume that Shakespeare regarded Henry's claim to the French throne as justified is therefore to assume that he was incapable of reasoning. As he saw the matter, Henry put forward a legally unjustifiable claim to the French throne because he had no legal right to the English throne either. The suffering which the resultant war was bound to cause the innocent is repeatedly stressed in the play—in Exeter's speech already quoted, in Henry's threats to the citizens of Harfleur (III, iii, 1-43), in Williams's reflections on the King's responsibility (IV, i, 140-53), and in Burgundy's description of desolated France (V, ii, 38-62). Hence when Shakespeare reached the actual outbreak of war, his feelings found expression in his imagery.
There is an implied comment on the nature of the war in the fate of Bardolph. Holinshed states that Henry had a soldier hanged for stealing a pyx (a box for consecrated wafers); Bardolph is hanged for stealing a pax (a tablet depicting the crucifixion, which was kissed by the communicants at mass). The Quarto text, which reads 'packs', shows that 'pax' in the Folio is not a misprint. J. H. Walter comments that 'Shakespeare, who surely must have known the difference, may have substituted "pax" for some reason not now clear'. The reason seems clear enough; Shakespeare equates Bardolph morally with Henry, who has stolen the peace of England and France.
Through tattered clothes great vices do appear:
Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin
And the strong lance of justice hurtless
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.
(King Lear, IV, vi, 168-71)
Even if Shakespeare wrote 'pax' by mistake for 'pyx', the slip was surely a Freudian one; his unconscious mind insisted on giving vent to his real feelings about the war.
His divided mind is most apparent in the Agincourt scenes. There is much in them that is eloquent and deeply felt—the preliminary chorus, the Crispin's day speech, the description of the deaths of Suffolk and York. But the most moving passage of all is Williams's indictment of Henry: 'But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, "We died at such a place"; some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left' (IV, i, 140-6). In his laboured reply Henry answers Williams's suggestion that he is responsible for the fate of his subjects' souls, but completely evades the issue of his responsibility for the death of their bodies and the sufferings of their dependants. Left alone, he whines in an orgy of self-pity that his subjects do not appreciate 'what watch the king keeps to maintain the peace' (IV, i, 300). Shakespeare's irony here is palpable enough.
After the heroics of the Crispin's day speech, the first we see of the actual battle is Pistol extorting a ransom from his prisoner. This is indeed to reduce Agincourt to a 'brawl ridiculous'! As for Henry's contribution to the victory, it is apparently confined to an order for the massacre of the prisoners. Walter defends this order on the ground that 'he is moved to rage by the treacherous attack on the boys and lackeys in his tents', but in fact when he gives it all Henry knows is that 'the French have reinforced their scattered men' (IV, vi, 36)—another example of how his defenders are forced to ignore Shakespeare's text. Shakespeare's own ironic comment, which he puts into Gower's mouth—'the king most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O,'tis a gallant king!' (IV, vii, 8-10)—is typical of the method of the play in its juxta-position of the patriotic illusion ('most worthily', 'gallant') with the stark reality ('cut his prisoner's throat'). In the Quarto text, which may preserve Shakespeare's original intention, immediately after Henry gives his order Pistol utters his catch-phrase 'Coupe le gorge!' In the very next line we learn that the French have massacred the boys in the English camp. Thus Henry, Pistol, and the chivalry of France are shown within a few lines to move on the same moral level.
Then there is what Sherlock Holmes would have called the curious incident of Henry's fight with Alençon. In earlier battle scenes Shakespeare had introduced completely unhistorical hand-to-hand combats between leading figures on the two sides—Richard III and Richmond, Henry himself and Hotspur. When his sources for this play of all others afforded him an opportunity to show a historical combat between his hero and a French nobleman, one would have expected him to seize on it eagerly, yet all we hear of the incident is a passing reference after the battle (IV, vii, 161-8). Walter seeks to explain the omission by suggesting that 'physical prowess in Henry was not at this point the most important quality. It is Henry's spiritual strength, his faith and moral courage which inspire and uphold his whole army'—the spiritual strength and moral courage, presumably, being shown in the order for the massacre of the prisoners. The real explanation surely is that by this time Shakespeare could not bring himself to show Henry as a heroic figure. There is something Brechtian in his depiction of Agincourt, not as a heroic feat of arms, but as a brutal and sordid affair of plunder and massacre.
It may be objected that this conclusion attributes to Shakespeare a pacifism alien to the Elizabethan age. Such an argument ignores historical facts. By 1599 the Spanish war had been in progress for over ten years, and the country was weary of it. The popular mood is often reflected in the drama of the last years of the century. The pressing of unwilling workmen, recruiting scandals, the neglect of the disabled soldier, and the stealing of their soldiers' pay by corrupt officers are frequent themes for protest or satire. The author of I Jeronimo, for example, wrote:
O dear Andrea, pray, let's have no wars.
First let them pay the soldiers that were
In the last battle ere more wretches fall.
(I, ii, 31-3)
Shakespeare's implicit condemnation of the Archbishop in Henry V is paralleled in the priest's speech in Fulke Greville's Mustapha:
we are untrue
And spiritual forges under tyrants' might;
God only doth command what's good for you,
Where we do preach your bodies to the war&
(IV, iv, 45-8)
The hero of The Shoemaker's Holiday, when commissioned to serve under Henry V in France, prefers to stay at home and carry on a love affair. Dekker apparently finds nothing dishonourable in such conduct; the moral of the play might in fact be 'Make love, not war'. It would be surprising if Shakespeare had not been affected by the widespread anti-war feeling.
If he found Henry V so unsympathetic, why did he write about him at all? Presumably he had no choice. He had committed himself to write such a play in the epilogue to 2 Henry IV, and was under an obligation to his company—perhaps under pressure from them—to supply it. There may also have been a demand for a patriotic play that would arouse public enthusiasm for Essex's Irish campaign. If there was, Shakespeare failed to supply it; his incidental compliment to Essex, the leader of the war party, in the chorus to Act V could hardly be more tepid. Once engaged on the play he did his best to supply what was expected of him, but his own feelings would insist on asserting themselves. This may explain why he did not keep his promise that the play would have 'Sir John in it.' The case put forward by Dover Wilson and Walter for believing that Falstaff appeared in the first draft is a strong one, but their suggested reasons for his subsequent omission are unconvincing; neither Will Kempe's absence nor Lord Cobham's hypothetical objections prevented the Chamberlain's Men from continuing to act the Falstaff plays. It seems more probable that Falstaff acted as Shakespeare's mouthpiece, and that he re-wrote the play without him because he realized that his patriotic play was turning into a satire on war. Two such stars as Henry and Falstaff could not keep their motion in one sphere, and with Sir John in it Henry V might have done for the Hundred Years' War what Troilus and Cressida did for the Trojan War, with Falstaff playing a similar role to Thersites. Bernard Shaw was probably not far from the truth when he suggested that 'it was to expose and avenge his mistake and failure in writing Henry V that he wrote Troilus and Cressida'.
This does not mean that Shakespeare was necessarily insincere when he wrote, say, the Crispin's day speech. He was repelled by the callous cynicism of Henry V's aggression against France, but his imagination and his sympathies were stirred by the Dunkirk situation of a small English army with its back to the wall. That is why the Harfleur speech is so bad and the Crispin's day speech so good. Like most of us, Shakespeare had something of the patriot and something of the pacifist in his make-up. He was no more inconsistent than the arch-pacifist Tolstoy, who wrote the great epic of Russian patriotism and, long after he had reached the conclusion that war is always wrong, wept with shame at the news of the surrender of Port Arthur. Much of the interest in Henry V arises from the tensions in Shakespeare's mind between conflicting emotions, and between his own feelings and the external pressures to which he was subjected. We may apply to him what a contemporary has written of poets in general: 'The poet is always a double man, an internal émigré, a hostage in enemy country. His task is to try and reconcile the short-term public demand and the long-term private vision and to express the tension which this task necessarily brings with it' [Lacieu Rey, New Left Review, no. 38].
Michael Goldman (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Henry V: The Strain of Rule," in Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama, Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 58-73.
[In the following essay, Goldman examines the great speeches of the Chorus and of Henry, commenting on the relation they create between the actors and the audience.]
Henry V is a play of great addresses. They make for a vital bond of pleasure that joins us to the play; it is absolutely essential to any satisfying production that the actors be capable of all these speeches demand. The grand declamations of both King and Chorus induce a kind of theatrical kinesthesia … ; they make us want to act. I doubt that anyone can read the play through without reading some of these speeches aloud— and, if at all possible, loudly. They are display arias for the commanding actor; they stimulate us to share his noticeable effort, to be aware of the glory and labor involved in making authoritative sounds. They carry with them, in the most patent and seductive form, the pleasures, the rewarding effort of persuasive, masterful public performance. Their verse is wonderfully suited to the accents of a man speaking to a crowd, a confident man, practiced in exertion but working hard, raising his voice, stilling and exhorting the group around him. Their content, too, seems to echo their physical appeal. Significantly, all but one of the half-dozen famous speeches of the play have in common a concern for encouraging their hearers to make some kind of demanding effort, whether of action, feeling, or imagination. These speeches insist on what is strenuous, and Henry V's dominant atmosphere is of strenuous activity. The play communicates a sense not exactly or not primarily of strain, but of straining effort, of life that is arduous, exigent, and sometimes exhausting.
Once it is recognized that the Chorus sounds very much like the King, much of the play's method becomes clear. Like Henry, the Chorus is a man whose job is to rouse his hearers to unusual effort. The straining note is struck from the start, and may well be the primary reason for the Chorus's existence, since none of the theories ordinarily advanced to account for Shakespeare's unparalleled reliance on the device is satisfactory. Elsewhere he uses a chorus to provide a back-ground or set a mood (Romeo and Juliet) or to direct our attention to a special aspect of the scene to follow (2 Henry IV). But nowhere else does he use it to call attention to the inadequacies of his stage, which is of course no more inadequate to this story than to the material of the other histories. Here, however, the notion of inadequacy is insisted upon, as is the effort we must put forth to make up for it:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
The playwright and the resources of his stage are deficient, but so are we, and we are asked to perform all kinds of brain-work to convert the work of the actors into a convincing spectacle.
At the same time, the Chorus develops a complementary sense of the size and energy of the subject, both of which are pictured as being held in with difficulty, barely restrained or contained:
&at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine,
sword, and fire
Crouch for employment.
Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confin'd two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
(Prologue, 6-8, 11-14, 19-22)
It is a "swelling" scene—and the epithet not only means "magnificent" but carries the modern meaning (common in Shakespeare's day) as well; some distending energy within the scene threatens to break it apart. We are asked not to imagine many men where we see one but to "divide" one man "into a thousand parts." As the Chorus says in his second appearance, the project we are engaged in is to "force a play."
Introducing the third act, the Chorus returns to the charge. The effort of the enterprise described is caught in the contrast between the delicacy of the sails and the huge vessels they move through the water, and the effort is echoed in the sound and movement of the verse:
Behold the threaden sails,
Borne with th' invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the furrowed
Breasting the lofty surge.
The audience is enjoined to strain its minds, to apply the same effort to imagining the war. Commands to "suppose" and "think" give way to "Follow, follow," "Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy," and "Work, work." The Chorus continues to remind us that this is not a battlefield, not an ocean, but merely a theater. Its soaring language, like the effort of imagination it enjoins, seems to be part of the struggle to overcome the limits of performance. The firing off of "chambers" in the theater—an effect repeated in the following scene—adds to the sensation of stupendous energies at work. Here and in other choruses we seem to hear continual reverberation—the womby earth being trampled by horses, ordance going off, armorers busily hammering. Echoes, loud sounds, and hollow chambers are regularly referred to. In the fourth chorus, the universe is a "wide vessel" filled first by night and low sounds, then by the clang of armorers, cock-crow, and the approaching clamor of battle. There are descriptions of horses, too, by the Chorus and the French nobles, that help sustain this aural atmosphere:
Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful
Piercing the night's dull ear;
(IV, Prologue, 10-11)
When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk; he
the air; the earth sings when he touches it;
(III, vii, 15-17)
Mount them, and make incision in their hides,
That their hot blood may spin in English eyes,
And dout them with superfluous courage, ha!
(IV, ii, 9-11)
Our ears are assaulted and roused to gratified awareness by the repeated suggestion of vast spaces to be filled by energetic outbursts, by the strain of producing the energy, and by the energy itself straining to be set free.
I have suggested that the figure of the Chorus rousing the audience to cooperation and excitement is rather like the figure of Henry addressing his men. Just as the Chorus's speeches emphasize effort and strain and the making of much out of little, so throughout the play we are aware of the effort and strain of leading an army, of making a kingdom bigger, of turning a man into a soldier, and indeed of turning a man into a king. Immediately after the Chorus has begun Act III by urging us to follow, grapple, and work, and with the "devilish cannon" still echoing in our ears, the King enters. His men carry scaling ladders; we are in the midst of battle. Henry V, like the chorus before him, exhorts his hearers to make a strenuous imaginative effort; he asks them to transform themselves, to change their size, shape, and strength, to eke out the performance with their minds:
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height.
The soldier's task of preparation is described as a violent muscular contortion. He must strain his muscles so that his eye pries through his face till it sticks out like a cannon—and of course it is a brass cannon, with all the sense of metallic echoing sound this brings in. "On, on," he cries to the troops, as the Chorus has cried "Follow, follow" and "Work, work" to us. Physical limitation overcome by supreme effort is Henry's theme here, and it is also the method of his speech, which requires a great physical effort from the speaker. It makes a splendid noise; it is full of demanding emphases and syntactical elaborations. From a vocal stand-point, the speech is a remarkable athletic exercise, and a directly gratifying one for the actor who can manage it. Theatrical tradition leaves no doubt of the speech's power to excite and charm an audience—a point which needs to be stressed in the light of some influential—and useful—modern criticism. It is misleading to conclude from the extremity of its verbal figures that the speech is meant to project a feeling of the grotesque or unpleasant. To do so, to find as Traversi does [in An Approach to Shakespeare, 1956] that there is a "strong flavor of artificiality& something forced, incongruous, even slightly absurd" in the speech is, I think, to consider the words out of theatrical context, without concern for the acting opportunities, the physical presence and rhythms of the scene. True, the actor runs a terrific obstacle course on the way to his final self-assertive shout:
Cry, "God for Harry! England and Saint
If he allows the absurd or incongruous to emerge along the way, he will fail to negotiate it. One might say of a running track lined with hurdles and patches of water, "There is a strong flavor here of falling flat on one's face," but the obstacles are there precisely to celebrate the virtues of those who do not fall flat, and to clothe their skills in wonder.
This is the play in which Falstaff dies; and the scenes—early in the play—in which we learn of his death and see what his friends are now like, help to set its tone. A number of critics have noticed the element of darkness or chill which the treatment of Falstaff contributes to Henry V, and all may at least agree that it does add to the sense of strain creeping into its genuinely heroic occasions.
The opening scenes of Act II show us first Hal's old friends and then some of his new friends—the traitors Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge. Scroop was Henry's "bed-fellow (ii, 8)& [who] didst bear the key of all my counsels& knew'st the very bottom of my soul (96-97)." His new friends betray him (or like Canterbury and Ely deal with him on a political level where intimacy can only be an illusion or a danger); his old friends think he has betrayed Falstaff. The comedy of Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph of course echoes the serious action ("On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!" shouts Bardolph as Hal's Harfleur speech concludes), but it also develops the sense of strain. Nym and Pistol are cowards who feign different kinds of toughness. What we laugh at are the kinds of effort they make in doing so. Nym pretends to a tight-lipped laconic ominousness:
I cannot tell. Things must be as they may.
Men may sleep, and they may have their throats about them
at that time; and some say knives have edges.
(II, i, 22-25)
Pistol, on the other hand, is like Henry and the Chorus, a great vocal artist and exhorter. His speeches even impress Fluellen for a time. Pistol and Nym's performances are at least good enough to take each other in; they frighten one another thoroughly in II, i. Theirs is not the effortless improvisation of their former leader, but a perpetual straining to perform. Falstaff is shifty and always ready to retreat, but one never feels he is seriously concealing his real self. He is his facade, and his bravura is always accompanied by a wink. Pistol and Nym cower inside their affections.
Falstaff's old gang forms a particularly scabrous appendage to an army that grows increasingly weak and ragged as the play progresses. There are a number of references to its condition, and at one point the stage directions are unusually explicit (I give the Folio wording):
Enter the King and his poor Soldiers.
(III, vi, 91)
In part this points up the greatness of Henry's victory at Agincourt. It allows us, too, to see Henry as the shepherd of a small enfeebled flock. But the plight of the troops also helps sustain a kind of ratty counterpoint to the strenuous music of triumph. Consider the following sequence of exhortations, all of which are heard within some 74 lines:
Grapple your minds etc. &
Work, work &
(III, Prologue, 17ff.)
Unto the breach&
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry, "God for Harry! England and Saint
(III, i, 1-34)
On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the
(III, ii, 1-2)
Up to the breach, you dogs! Avaunt, you
(III, ii, 21-22)
Bardolph's is already an unheroic parody in the familiar vein of the Elizabethan comic underplot, but Fluellen's echo cuts deeper. We are reminded that there are men who have to be scolded and perhaps whipped into battle. "You dogs!" is finally but a basic-English translation of what the King calls his soldiers:
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips.
(III, i, 31)
It is not only famine, sword, and fire that "leash'd in like hounds& crouch for employment" at King Harry's heels.
It is this picture of the army, set against the more exalting music of grand effort, that will be in the audience's minds as the fourth act begins with its scenes of the King moving among his men. These encounters turn out differently from what Henry expects, and, more important, from what the audience has been led to expect. The Chorus, ending its night-piece, seems to prepare us very fully for what is to come:
For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends, and country-
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
& every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.
The problem is that the King does not do this—at least in the scenes that follow. It could perhaps be argued that the Chorus is simply describing what the King has been doing up to now, but the Chorus sounds as if it is providing an introduction rather than a bridge, and the scene starts out as if we were indeed about to see the kind of thing the Chorus has described. On the basis of sound generalship alone, to say nothing of what we have just been told, we might expect that Harry would want to go round the camp, as the King, and say a few good words to individual soldiers, as he does to Sir Thomas Erpingham, reassuring them, with a judicious use of the common touch, that the King has their interests at heart and is a good fellow to boot, "a bawcock and a heart of gold," as Pistol would say.
Instead, the King disguises himself. The effect of his subsequent conversation on the soldiers cannot fairly be called encouraging; it is disconcerting at best. He tries, in the character of a private man, to draw them out about his character as a king, and his trouble seems to be that he cannot maintain both roles simultaneously. Even with Pistol, things go a little oddly. We do not get the expected joke, patented in Henry IV—and consequently what Shakespeare's audience would be waiting for—of the rogue behaving badly when he thinks the Prince isn't watching. Pistol does not criticize Hal as Falstaff does when the Prince is disguised as a waiter in 2 Henry IV. But there is something out of key and embarrassing about his praise of Henry, if only because he insists too vulgarly upon the King's human qualities.
With Bates, Court, and Williams, Henry insists at length on the humanity of the King:
For, though I speak it to you, I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it does to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing. Therefore, when he sees reason of fears as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are &
(IV, i, 104-114)
This is in service of a rather special argument:
yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.
In other words, because he is a man the King is susceptible to fear, but because he is a king we must conspire to keep him from being afraid.
He sounds out the men on their feelings toward the King and passionately (even comically) defends himself when he feels they put too great a responsibility upon him. They accept his argument that the King is not to blame if a soldier dies with sins on his head, and they show a ready loyalty:
'Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head, the King is not to answer it.
I do not desire he should answer for me; and yet I determine to fight lustily for him.
Nevertheless, Henry seems unsatisfied. The soldiers' loyalty to the public man is unquestionable, but now he asks them for a favorable judgment on the King's private attitudes:
I myself heard the King say he would not be ransom'd.
Like any sensible soldier, however, Williams knows that political calculation lies behind any public pronouncement:
Ay, he said so [he replies], to make us fight cheerfully; but when our throats are cut, he may be ransom'd, and we ne'er the wiser.
Earlier, informed by Henry that the King's cause is just, Williams has said, "That's more than we know," and now he maintains the position. The soldiers can know the King only as loyal subjects, not as peers or brothers. But Henry, dangerously, keeps at it:
If I live to see it, I will never trust his word after.
You pay him then. That's a perilous shot out of an elder-gun, that a poor and a private displeasure can do against a monarch!& You'll never trust his word after! Come, 'tis a foolish saying.
Your reproof is something too round. I should be angry with you, if the time were convenient.
The scene is remarkably imagined. Henry is in understandable difficulties, yet we cannot feel entirely in sympathy with him. He is asking too much. Now he is offended because Williams has spoken to him, the King, as he would to a private man. Henry has tried to appeal to the men both as a king and as a man who is not the King. It is unfair, and Williams will properly criticize him for it later:
Your Majesty came not like yourself. You appear'd to me but as a common man& and what your Highness suffer'd under that shape, I beseech you take it for your own fault and not mine.
(IV, viii, 53-57)
Henry's encounter with the soldiers prompts his one soliloquy, the speech on ceremony. Ceremony may be all a king has to set him off from other men, but we scarcely need even Henry's deeply troubled recollection of Richard II in the prayer that follows to be reminded how great a difference ceremony makes, and what a change in the quality of one's being it demands. A king is not simply his role; his power and authority do not flow directly from his person, as Richard, tragically, tried to insist. Neither, however, is a king simply a man like other men, no matter how attractive and at times politically useful the pretense may be. The demands of office change a man. A king is not a man like other men—but he is a man, and his humanity consists in this: he must pay the price of his role.
The achievement of the play—the fact that with all its ironies it remains great patriotic drama—lies with its ability to project the glory of the ruler in a way that is true to—indeed depends upon—the price of his role. In the St. Crispin's Day address, for example, we are stirred, certainly, by the way Henry meets the challenge of the moment and rallies his men, but our sessions with the Chorus and the army have made us sensitive to the fact that his speech, like the rejection of Falstaff in 2 Henry IV, is a performance and not a revelation of some previously unsounded self. It is in part an attempt to deal with the cynicism he has met in the night. When the King steps forward with, "What's he that wishes so?" and claims that every man who fights that day will be his brother, we are thrilled. But we are thrilled because he is brilliantly meeting a political challenge that has been spelled out for us—as earlier he met the challenge of the tennis balls. It is a moment when he must respond to the unspoken needs of his men, and we respond to his success as we do when a political leader we admire makes a great campaign speech: we love him for his effectiveness. The King is speaking ex officio, and if he calls himself Harry, this is not because he is a man like other men, speaking merely out of personal conviction and desire. He is, rather, projecting an "image"—the hero as good fellow (like "Ike" or "Jack" or "Bobby"). It has been developed for a purpose, and the King must rely on his muse, must place a strain on his imagination, himself, and his hearers—just as the play, according to the Chorus, must place a strain on us.
The actor's problem in this scene is, above all, that of being convincing as a leader. Interpretation, even technique, do not present primary difficulties. Performing convincingly is both the actor's and the character's greatest problem here. The speech is one in which Henry reveals not himself (in the manner of Junius Brutus, Richard III, or Juliet), but his abilities. We experience the moment of patriotism with a shock of approval rather than recognition.
In the battle that follows, we do not see any heroic combat. Beyond Pistol's craven bargaining with his prisoner, our only knowledge of the battle is by report—with one exception, and this involves the French prisoners, whose wretchedness, like that of the English army earlier, is forced upon us. The Folio stage direction for IV, vi reads, "Enter the King and his train, with Prisoners." The scene ends with Henry's command:
The French have reinforc'd their scatter'd
Then every soldier kill his prisoners;
Give the word through.
Presumably the prisoners on stage are included in the order. In the next scene the slaughter is repeated, once more before our eyes. So the only bloodletting we experience directly is of the nastiest kind. Modern productions usually introduce a silent scene that shows the French killing the boys in the English camp—and often banish at least some of the English throat-cutting from the stage. But this is not true to Shakespeare. While his script allows us to comprehend that Henry's action is in some sense justified (like the invasion itself), we feel it at this point only as a blood-chilling fact.
Like Henry we have been schooled throughout the tetralogy in the renunciations and exertions demanded of the ideal king, and in the treatment of the prisoners on stage we are made to feel, as Henry does, the ashes in the mouth of all political glory.
We seem to be let off easily at the end. The charm of the wooing scene—which has proved irresistible to actors and audiences in spite of a long tradition of solemn critical disapproval—derives from the very spectacle of the King being a private man, both in his engaging awkwardness with Katharine, and in his playing in a plain and personal way with political ideas:
Is it possible dat I should love de enemy of France?
No; it is not possible you should love the enemy of France, Kate; but, in loving me, you should love the friend of France; for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it.
(V, ii, 178-83)
The prose, by contrast to the strenuous rhetoric of the play's verse, suggests the personal as opposed to the public. It is as if, after all the hardships, exertions, renunciations, and successes of the war, the King were now free to play the man, if only briefly.
It may seem surprising that the Hal of Henry IV, who was so adept at playing roles, should be at all heavy-footed here, and it is his apparent awkwardness, his exaggerated lack of polish that has most troubled critics (Tillyard calls him a "lubberly wooer" [in Shakespeare's History Plays, 1947]). But this is unfair to the scene as it is written, and as it can be played by the actor who takes full advantage of its opportunities. For the King's awkwardness is never really out of control. He can strike the note of smooth and persuasive gallantry when he pleases:
Fair Katharine, and most fair,
Will you vouchsafe to teach a soldier terms
Such as will enter at a lady's ear
And plead his love-suit to her gentle heart?
and he can translate his public authority into seductive energy, mixing force and grace:
O Kate, nice customs curtsy to great kings. Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country's fashion. We are the makers of manners, Kate; and the liberty that follows our places stops the mouth of all find-faults, as I will do yours, for upholding the nice fashion of your country in denying me a kiss; therefore, patiently and yielding.
The actor who plays Henry as genuinely embarrassed in this scene will cheapen his comic effects and quickly exhaust them. The point is that the King really has to play at being the man; he is in a sense affecting a "humanity" perfectly appropriate to his position and his audience (it is certainly well-calculated to impress Katharine). His "private" life is as much a performance as his speech on Crispin's Day.
This helps to explain why such an ending can be deeply satisfying—not only pleasing in itself, but the right note of mirth to cap the play. We are left with few of the tragic reflections that pursue Henry when he plays the man with Bates and Williams, though the references to Henry VI in both the wooing scene and the epilogue keep our contentment from going slack. Though its gaiety is appropriate to Henry's moment of success, the scene is fully consistent with the essential impulse of the play—the effort of greatness, both what it is like to make the effort and to experience it—the demands on the self that being a king involves.
Anne Barton (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History," in The Triple Bond: Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance, edited by Joseph G. Price, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975, pp. 92-117.
[Here, Barton analyzes Shakespeare's use of the romantic motif of the disguised monarch—a recurrent theme in folk ballads and late sixteenth-century drama—in Henry V.]
In the worst moment of the French campaign, when the night before Agincourt finds the English army reduced, dispirited, and ailing, "even as men wrack'd upon a sand, that look to be wash'd off the next tide" (IV.i.97-98), Henry V pays two quite different visits to his despondent troops. Although the first of them, made in his own person as king, is not enacted, the Chorus testifies eloquently to its success:
every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.
Later, in the first scene of act IV, Henry borrows a cloak from Sir Thomas Erpingham, conceals his royal identity, and ventures alone among soldiers no longer able to recognize him as their king. His fortunes in this second sally are altogether less prosperous. Thorny and disquieting from the start, his conversation with Williams, Court, and Bates ends in an open quarrel. Moreover, it provokes Henry's only soliloquy in the play: a bitter examination of kingship itself and of the irremovable barriers isolating the monarch from a world of private men.
Shakespeare may well have remembered from Holinshed, or from The First English Life of Henry V, that the historical Henry "daylie and nightlie in his owne person visited the watches, orders and stacions of everie part of his hoast." Nowhere, however, is it suggested that he ever did so incognito. Geoffrey Bullough has argued that when Shakespeare made Henry muffle himself in Erpingham's cloak he was thinking of a passage from Tacitus's Annals in which Germanicus disguises himself on the eve of a battle in order to assess the morale of the Roman legions. Germanicus, however, lurks outside his soldiers' tents as a mere eavesdropper; he never attempts a personal encounter. Although the passage cannot be discounted entirely as a source for Henry's disguise, its importance has surely been overestimated. For those Elizabethans who watched Henry V in the new Globe theatre in 1599, the king's behavior before Agincourt would have had analogues far more striking and immediate. There is a surprising number of disguised kings to be found in those English history plays which have survived from the period 1587-1600. A few of these princes are driven to dissemble their identity for a time out of political necessity, as Marlowe's Edward II does after the triumph of Young Mortimer and Queen Isabella, or Shakespeare's Henry VI in the last part of the trilogy, when he rashly steals across the border into England "disguised, with a prayer-book," only to be recognized despite this precaution by the two Keepers and haled away to the Tower. A larger and more interesting group is composed of kings who, like Shakespeare's Henry V, adopt disguise as a caprice, for reasons that are fundamentally exploratory and quixotic.
Toward the end of George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield (?Robert Greene, c. 1590), an unspecified King Edward of England decides to "make a merrie journey for a moneth" along with his friend King James of Scotland, for the purpose of meeting the folk hero George a Greene, a loyal pinner in the north country who has been instrumental in putting down a rebellion against the Crown. The two monarchs travel on foot and in disguise. At the town of Bradford they yield meekly to the insolent demands of the locals, trailing their staves in order to pass without argument through the town. George a Greene, disgusted by such pusillanimity, berates the two kings soundly for cowardice and forces them to hold up their staves. King Edward gains a vivid and somewhat disconcerting idea of the character and temper of his subject before the revelation of his royal identity puts an end to the game. All is forgiven. George is offered a knighthood, which he politely refuses, preferring to remain an English yeoman. Edward unites him with Bettris, his love, over-riding the snobbish objections of her father, and the play ends harmoniously with a feast at which King Edward, King James, George a Greene, Robin Hood and Maid Marian, and all the shoemakers of Bradford sit side by side as friends and good companions.
Peele's Edward I (c. 1591) also associates the king in disguise with the Robin Hood stories. Lluellen, the rebellious Prince of Wales, his mistress Elinor, and his friend Rice ap Meredith have taken to the greenwood in the company of a friar, "to live and die together like Chamber-Britaines, Robin Hood, Little John, Frier Tucke, and Maide Marrian." King Edward, intrigued to learn of this little society, decides to pay it a secret visit, disguised, and accompanied only by Lluellen's brother, Sir David of Brecknock:
as I am a Gentleman,
Ile have one merrie flirt with little John,
And Robin Hood, and his Maide Marian.
Be thou my counsell and my companie,
And thou maist Englands resolution see.
In the forest, Edward adjudicates in a dispute between two rogues who have tried to cozen one another, agrees with Lluellen that his purse will belong to whichever man can overcome the other in fair fight, and (exactly as his prototype Richard Coeur de Lion had done in the ballads) sends "Robin Hood" sprawling. The exigencies of Peele's plot made it impossible for this forest scene to end with reconciliation and pardon in the ballad tradition. Lluellen, rebellious to the end, is killed in battle later in the play. It is remarkable, however, how close this personal encounter between the outlaw and the king he cannot recognize—in both senses of that word—has come to healing the breach between them. When "Longshanks" has gone, his identity disclosed, Lluellen admits ruefully that "his courage is like to the Lion, and were it not that rule and soveraigntie set us at jarre, I could love and honour the man for his valour" (xii. 1917-19).
The two anonymous plays Fair Em (c. 1590) and The True Chronicle History of King Leir (c. 1590) both present kings who disguise themselves in the cause of love. William the Conqueror, in Fair Em, falls in love with a picture of Blanch, Princess of Denmark, and travels to see her in her father's court under the name of Sir Robert of Windsor. Finding the lady less glamorous in reality than she seemed in her portrait, he tries to elope with Mariana, a lady promised to his friend and traveling companion, the Marquis of Lubeck. Mariana, however, not only surmounts the temptation to abandon Lubeck for a crown but contrives to substitute a masked and lovesick Blanch for herself at the rendezvous appointed. William, who discovers the fraud on arrival in England, is understandably put out but decides that although Blanch is not Mariana she is nonetheless tolerable, and certainly preferable to war with Denmark. At the end of the play, William marries Blanch and, at the same time, restores Godard the supposed miller to his rightful place in society and bestows his daughter Em upon Valingford, the suitor who best deserves her.
In King Leir, the Gallian king comes to England disguised as a pilgrim, in order to determine which is the best and most marriageable of Leir's three daughters. He meets Cordella after her disgrace, finds her fair and good, and pretends that he has been sent as an ambassador by his royal master to make her the Gallian queen. Cordella, who has most perspicaciously fallen in love with the humble palmer himself, spurns this splendid offer and bids him "cease for thy King, seeke for thy selfe to woo." After this gratifying proof that Cordella loves the man and not the monarch, the palmer reveals his identity and the two are married immediately and return to France. Disguise, however, remains a feature of their court. In scene xxiv, the Gallian king and queen mingle with their subjects in the guise of country folk and, thus obscured, discover and are reconciled with the wretched Leir and his counsellor Perillus on the seacoast of Brittany.
Finally, The First Part of King Edward IV, a play written by Thomas Heywood before 1599, presents two quite separate royal disguises. Edward conceals his identity when he goes into Lombard Street for the first time to lay amorous siege to Mistress Shore. More relevant to Henry V, however, is his encounter with John Hobs the tanner. The king, hunting incognito at Drayton Basset, becomes separated from his queen and courtiers. Hobs, meeting him in the forest, suspects him at first for a thief ("How these roysters swarm in the country, now the King is so near"), but is persuaded at length that Edward is a minor hanger-on at court: in fact, the king's butler. Under this delusion, he prattles on merrily about the two kings of England, Edward at court and the deposed Henry VI in the Tower. Edward, slyly anxious to know how he is regarded by this outspoken subject, receives some disconcertingly frank answers to the questions he puts. The commons of England, according to Hobs, love King Edward
as poor folk love holidays, glad to have them now and then; but to have them come too often will undo them. So, to see the King now and then 'tis comfort; but every day would beggar us; and I may say to thee, we fear we shall be troubled to lend him money; for we doubt he's but needy.
Even more improbable in its light-hearted political inconsequence is Edward's amused acceptance of the tanner's shifting loyalties. "Shall I say my conscience?" he inquires cunningly. "I think Harry is the true king."
Hobs. Art advised of that? Harry's of the old house of Lancaster; and that progenity do I love.
King. And thou dost not hate the house of York?
Hobs. Why, no; for I am just akin to Sutton Windmill; I can grind which way soe'er the wind blow. If it be Harry, I can say, "Well fare, Lancaster." If it be Edward, I can sing, "York, York, for my money."
Basically, as it turns out, Hobs approves of King Edward for reasons that have nothing to do with his government of the realm: "He's a frank franion, a merry companion, and loves a wench well." To his way of thinking, the king ought not to encourage patents and monopolies, but Hobs is willing to believe that Edward does so out of ignorance, because he has been misled by greedy counsellors and because he cannot see for himself how the system operates. As subject and king converse, Edward's respect for this "honest true tanner" and for his powers of observation grows. Hobs, for his part, comes to like the supposed butler so well that he invites him home to his cottage for dinner and the night. The tanner has a pretty daughter and there is even some talk of a match, although Hobs would like his prospective son-in-law to have a steadier profession, not one of these fly-by-night court posts. Not until daybreak does Edward tear himself away from the tanner's hospitality to return to London and the troubles of a kingdom in revolt. Again, the meeting between subject and king in disguise has generated harmony, good fellowship, and mutual understanding.
In all these English histories—and there must have been many more plays like them, now lost—the king's disguise demands to be seen as a romantic gesture. Edward IV, William the Conqueror, Edward I, the Gallian king, or the brace of monarchs in George a Greene, all conceal their identities in much the spirit of Haroun al Raschid, the caliph of The Arabian Nights who liked to walk the streets of Baghdad incognito, in search of the marvellous and the strange. Moreover, the people they meet come from the world of balladry and legend. Robin Hood and Maid Marian, the folk-hero George a Greene, the miller and his daughter, thieves and outlaws, the beggar-maid destined to become a queen, or the tanner of Tamworth: all were characters nurtured in the popular imagination. Maurice Keen, in The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, describes the informal meeting of commoner and king as the wish-dream of a peasantry harried and perplexed by a new class of officials, an impersonal bureaucracy against which the ordinary man seemed to have no redress:
They only knew that the King was the ultimate repository of a law whose justice they acknowledged, and they saw treason against him as a betrayal of their allegiance to God himself. If they could only get past his corrupt officers, whose abuse of the trust reposed in them amounted to treason in itself, and bring their case before the King, they believed that right would be done. Their unshakeable faith in the King's own justice was the most tragic of the misconceptions of the medieval peasantry, and the ballad-makers and their audiences shared it to the full.
In the ballads, king and unsuspecting subject meet time after time and discover unanimity of opinion and mutual respect. Richard Coeur de Lion banquets in Sherwood Forest on stolen venison, forgives Robin Hood and his men, and confounds the sheriff of Nottingham. Henry II so enjoys the rough but generous hospitality of the miller of Mansfield that he makes him a knight and gives him a royal license to keep the forest of Sherwood. Other ballads describe the meeting of Edward I and the reeve, King Alfred and the shepherd, Edward IV and the tanner, Henry VIII and the cobbler, James I and the tinker, William III and the forester, and many similar encounters.
That conversations of this sort represent a fantasy, the "misconception," as Keen terms it, of a victimized agrarian class, is obvious. They derive from attitudes far removed from anything which the hard-headed citizens of Elizabeth's London actually believed. Yet the old roots ran deep. This type of ballad not only survived through Jacobean and Caroline times: the idea behind it remained oddly resonant and haunting. Real Tudor monarchs sometimes played at enacting it. Henry VIII, as Hall tells us, graciously allowed himself to be "waylaid" and dragged off to a reconstruction of Coeur de Lion's feast with Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and their fellows. Queen Elizabeth, walking in Wanstead gardens, suddenly found herself confronting a group of supposed country folk: "Though they knew not her estate, yet something there was which made them startle aside and gaze upon her" ["The Lady of May," in The Complete Works of Philip Sydney, ed. Albert Feuillerat, 1922]. Cunningly, Philip Sidney proceeded to involve the queen in a dispute between a shepherd and a forester for possession of the Lady of May, requesting her, after she had heard the rustic arguments of both sides, to award the lady to the suitor she considered most deserving. Traces of this kind of situation can be seen as well in some of the masques at court, but it was in the drama proper that the idea of the king's personal engagement with his subjects and their problems flowered and was most fully exploited.
There are a few Elizabethan plays in which the king manages to mingle with his subjects freely and dispense justice without resorting to disguise. At the end of Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, Henry V in his own person sweeps away the snobbery of his officers and nobles:
Dost thou not know that love respcts no
Cares not for difference of birth or state?
The maid is young, well born, fair, virtuous,
A worthy bride for any gentleman.
As benevolent deus ex machina, he joins the hands of Rose, the citizen's daughter, and Lacy, nephew to the Earl of Lincoln. Annihilating objections based upon wealth or class, he acts from principles of perfect equity as soon as he examines the case himself, just as the medieval minstrels had always believed he would. Yet even Dekker's Henry, in a play which could scarcely be described as realistic, worries about the constraints and inhibitions which his declared royal presence may impose on London's madcap mayor, Simon Eyre, at the Shrove Tuesday banquet where these events take place. Most Elizabethan dramatists seem to have accepted the idea that disguise was an essential prerequisite for the ease and success of the meeting between private man and king. Only if the king's identity was concealed could there be natural conversation, frankness, and a sense of rapport. It is the fundamental premise of all these plays that the king, rightly considered, is but a man, and a remarkably understanding man at that. If only, they seem to suggest, king and commoner could talk together in this way, without formality or embarrassment, how many problems would be solved, how many popular grievances redressed. Humanity and humor, an easy cameraderie: these qualities, usually obscured by ceremony, distance, and that hierarchy of officials standing between the monarch and his people, emerge clearly as soon as he steps down from his throne to speak, for a little while, as a private man.
When Shakespeare sent Henry V to converse incognito with Williams, Court, and Bates on the night before Agincourt, he was surely influenced by plays like these far more than by any distant memory of how Germanicus had behaved in the war against Arminius. Generically, Shakespeare's disguised king belongs with Peele's Edward I, Heywood's Edward IV, or the accommodating monarchs of George a Greene. Yet the Henry V episode is unique. By 1599, the king who freely chooses disguise had become the hallmark of a particular kind of play. Polonius almost certainly would have defined the mode (quite shrewdly) as the "comical-historical." Henry V, however, is not a comical history. Far more ironic and complicated than the plays which belong properly to that genre, it introduces the timeworn and popular dramatic motif of the king disguised into its fourth act in order to question, not to celebrate, a folk convention. In itself, the gesture could be relied upon to generate certain clearly defined emotional expectations in an Elizabethan audience powerfully conditioned by both a ballad and a stage tradition. Shakespeare built upon this fact. He used Henry's disguise to summon up the memory of a wistful, naive attitude toward history and the relationship of subject and king which this play rejects as attractive but untrue: a nostalgic but false romanticism.
As the royal captain of a ruined band, a sun-god radiating his beams indiscriminately upon the soldiers among whom he walks, Henry is effective, as the Chorus makes plain. Throughout this...
(The entire section is 30992 words.)
A. P. Rossiter (essay date 1954)
SOURCE: "Ambivalence: The Dialectic of the Histories," in Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures, edited by Graham Storey, Longmans, 1961, pp. 40-64.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1954, Rossiter ascribes a dialectical "way of thinking about History" to Shakespeare.]
Stratford 1951, a Shakespeare Memorial Theatre playing a sequence of History-plays in a fixed unchanging Elizabethan-house-front stage-set. Stratford 1612, a man writing his last History: Henry VIII, first performed 29 June 1613, when in a sense it 'brought the house down', for The Globe was set on fire.… And as...
(The entire section is 24449 words.)
Edward I. Berry (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: '"True Things and Mock'ries': Epic and History in Henry V." The Journal of English and Germanic Philogy, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 1, January 1979, pp. 1-16.
[In the following essay, Berry contends that Henry V is an epic, noting the tension that results from the opposing notions of epic ideal and political reality in the play.]
Among the many points of disagreement in criticism of Henry V is its relation to epic. For some critics the play is a "true" Renaissance epic, a patriotic celebration of an ideal Christian king. For others it is an unrealized epic—a play written in the heroic mode but...
(The entire section is 15959 words.)
M. M. Reese (essay date 1961)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's England: Henry V," in The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays, Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd., 1961, pp. 317-32.
[In the following essay, Reese defends the character of Henry V against critical attack, maintaining that "Henry is an appointed symbol of majesty, and the action of the play is directed with the most elaborate care to show him doing everything the age expected of the perfect king."]
After the sustained conflicts of [King John and Henry IV], Henry V is in the main a demonstration. The hero is no longer in the toils. The end has proved the...
(The entire section is 41414 words.)
Babula, William. "Whatever Happened to Prince Hal?: An Essay on Henry V." Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 47-59.
Contends that during the course of the play, Henry learns the importance of moderation, honesty, and peace, thereby attaining a maturity that he lacks at the start of the drama.
Berry, Ralph. "Henry V: The Reason Why." In The Shakespearean Metaphor: Studies in Language and Form, pp. 48-60. Totowa, N. J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978.
Argues that Henry is no ideal king, but rather an extremely successful politician with an unusual talent for making "all that he wishes or does" appear inevitable.
Brennan, Anthony S....
(The entire section is 648 words.)