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,...
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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 far as I know, no Shakespeare History-play was staged with Elizabethan décor—or non-décor, if that suits you better—till this year, 1951. We should hope to find some curtains taken away (from the mind, I mean), some unanticipated continuities revealed, some unexpected groupings, interconnections, echoes.…
The Man was 48; had begun writing Histories some twenty years back, perhaps as early as 1586, when he left home and twins, and was perhaps 'a Schoolmaster in the Country' (as Beeston jun. told Aubrey). How did he end by thinking of History? Had he any coherent 'view' of the Historic Process: from John—with a jump to Richard II (1398) and thence more or less consecutively to Bosworth...
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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 without conviction or a coherent perspective on its hero.
For still others the play verges on mock-heroic or satire, invoking epic conventions only to undermine them. Common to all these views, I think, is a tendency to oversimplify the play's connection to its given mode. As the exceptional use of the Chorus suggests, Henry V is one of the plays in which Shakespeare exploits most self-consciously generic expectations. The play is epic, I would suggest, in much the same way that As You Like It is pastoral: it offers a sophisticated and searching exploration of a conventional poetic genre and the view of reality that Elizabethans felt the genre implied.
Shakespeare's conception of epic would...
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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 man, and his victory over himself has been much more than a personal victory. Riot and dishonour have been put to flight, reason is passion's master, and England has at last a king who can physic all her ills. Because he has proved himself a valiant and chivalrous prince, and one who acknowledges the sovereignty of law and justice, the crown comes to him 'with better quiet, better opinion, better confirmation', and all the soil of the Lancastrian achievement has gone with his father to the grave. In Henry V Shakespeare celebrates England's recovered majesty through the deeds of 'the mirror of all Christian kings'.
A formidable body of critical opinion is hostile to this view. In general it is held that, if this...
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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. "That within Which Passes Show: The Function of the Chorus in Henry V." Philological Quarterly 58, No. 1 (Winter 1979): 40-52.
Details the role of the Chorus and compares the prologues with the content of each act.
Coursen, Herbert R., Jr. "Henry V and the Nature of Kingship." Discourse XIII, No. 3 (Summer 1970): 279-305.
Asserts that Henry V is an ingenious politician who, in the course of becoming a successful monarch, has lost the ability to "play the part of mere man even if he wishes to."
Erickson, Peter B. '"The Fault / My Father Made': The Anxious Pursuit of Heroic Fame in Shakespeare's Henry V" Modern Language Studies X, No. 1 (Winter 1979-80):...
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