Henry V (Vol. 49)
See also Henry V Criticism (Volume 67) and Henry V Criticism (Volume 89).
Modern scholars writing about Henry V frequently remark on its distinctiveness. Unlike Shakespeare's other English histories, it focuses almost exclusively on the protagonist. Moreover, no other play in the Shakespeare canon uses a choric figure so extensively. Henry V is the last of Shakespeare's chronicle histories, and critics have characterized it as the most morally ambiguous as well. Up until about 1975, commentary on the play was sharply divided between those who embraced the heroic interpretation articulated by the Chorus and those who read Henry V as a caustic satire exposing the hypocrisy and cruelty of military adventurers. More recently, an increasing number of critics have moved away from an either/or position. Simplistic judgments cannot be substantiated, these commentators assert, because the play offers a number of competing viewpoints from which to evaluate such issues as patriotism, national unity, and the justice of foreign conquest.
Henry V is centrally concerned with the question of whether the invasion of France is justified, but it also deals with another important issue of law and justice: Henry's possession of the crown that his father usurped. Karl P. Wentersdorf (1976) maintains that the dynastic struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster is at the heart of the Southampton conspiracy, which Henry exposes in Act II, scene i. The critic points out that the principal conspirator, the earl of Cambridge, is married to the daughter of Edmund Mortimer—the brother of Richard II and Richard's appointed heir; thus Cambridge's infant son would be in the direct line of royal succession if Mortimer had become king instead of Henry IV. Wentersdorf asserts that placing Mortimer's grandson on the throne is the real reason for the conspiracy. David Scott Kastan (1982) declares that Henry V directly challenges the Tudor version of history and dynastic succession by exposing the fallacy of Henry's unquestioning assumption of the justice of the French war. Henry is so sure of the legitimacy of the invasion, Kastan remarks, that he brushes aside all suggestions of moral or legal ambiguities—raised, for example, by the aristocratic conspirators and by the commoners Williams and Bates; moreover, he ruthlessly condemns what he sees as the unlawful resistance of the citizens of Harfleur.
The most thoroughly uncritical view of the justice of the French campaign is provided by the Chorus in his prologues and epilogue. Indeed, the role of the Chorus in Henry V, and its implications for the play as a whole, have been the subject of a growing number of commentators, most all of whom reject the notion advanced by earlier scholars that these prologues were written by someone other than Shakespeare or that they were not originally part of the play. There is no similar unanimity, however, regarding the function of the Chorus's speeches. Anthony S. Brennan (1979) contends that the Chorus, who holds an unwavering belief in the nobility of war, represents an extreme position. Brennan points out that the Chorus's sentiments are regularly—and ironically—undercut by the scenes which immediately follow his prologues and which show what war looks like from the viewpoint of the common soldiers and the low-life characters from Eastcheap. Similarly, Lawrence Danson (1983) suggests that the Chorus exists to provide "a sense of perspective" and to demonstrate that an overly indulgent assessment of the king is mistaken. In contrast to Brennan, however, Danson argues that the dramatic action complicates the Chorus's preparation rather than contradicting it, and thus we become aware of Henry's human weakness well as his greatness. Also recommending a balanced view of the king, Anthony Hammond (1987) maintains that the contradiction between the Chorus's descriptions of what will be shown on the stage and what we actually see is designed to underscore the duality that runs throughout the play. A dichotomy is built into Shakespeare's characterization of Henry, Hammond asserts, and while the play incorporates the Chorus's attitude toward the king and specific dramatic events, it also directly challenges that conception. Günter Walch (1988) relates the role of the Chorus to the play's representation of political doctrine, maintaining that the Chorus is profoundly involved in creating a national ideology. The unreliability of his information is central to the drama, Walch argues, for this exposes the illusory nature of national myths and legends, and demonstrates how they can be used as instruments of power.
Many late twentieth-century commentators have focused on the relation between power and ideology in Henry V, often from the perspectives of new historicism or cultural materialism. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (1985) contend that the play explores Henry's attempt to establish himself as the sole repository of political power. Henry's goal, they declare, is the complete suppression of all challenges to his authority, and he uses the ideological concept of national unity to achieve this. In their judgment, however, the play reveals, through numerous instances of dissension and threats of disobedience, the profound anxieties that accompany the imposition of ideological conformity on a nation comprised of diverse personal and political interests. Alexander Leggati (1988) also examines the question of how Henry V portrays national unity, asserting that it shows the concept to be a "patriotic fantasy." He points out that Canterbury's refashioning of the traditional fable of the bees' commonwealth, in which all factions of an ideal state work together harmoniously, is juxtaposed to the depiction of disgruntled soldiers, scheming prelates, and France in ruins. Audiences and readers must work out these contradictions for themselves, Leggatt recommends, for the play offers both points of view and provides no simple resolution of this discrepancy. Similarly, Graham Bradshaw (1993) recently interprets Henry V as promoting uncertainty rather than a single, reassuring response to its representation of history. He contends that although the Chorus tries to control our reaction, and while Henry adroitly offers justification after the fact for the course he has already embarked on, the play's subversive connotations would not have been missed by those who first saw the play in performance. Like Leggatt and others, Bradshaw cautions that single-minded judgments of Henry, the justice of his war, and the integrity of the play's portrayal of history are unwise and reductive.
Anthony S. Brennan (essay date 1979)
SOURCE: "That Within Which Passes Show: The Function of the Chorus in Henry V" in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 40-52.
[In the essay below, Brennan views the Chorus as representing one side of a dialectical argument about the nature of war and national leadership. The critic believes that the Chorus's definition of war as a glorious undertaking and the grim perspective provided by the common soldiers are mediated by Henry's perception of the limitations and responsibilities of power.]
The use of the Chorus in Henry V is really central to the whole question of what Shakespeare is doing when he reminds us so deliberately of the illusory nature of the play-world. Does the Chorus speak directly for Shakespeare in lamenting that the glorious history of England can receive no fully worthy representation on a tawdry stage? It has become a commonplace of criticism that any Shakespearian character who can be termed "choric" may often be taken to be presenting the dramatist's own views on the action, inheriting the habit.Seneca gave the chorus of passing on didactic messages to the audience. How natural, therefore, to assume that we have Shakespeare's own scarcely disguised voice when he came to present a formal Chorus. We are told that Shakespeare "seems to have felt that his dramatic technique was inadequate...
(The entire section is 26508 words.)
Law And Justice
Karl P. Wentersdorf (essay date 1976)
SOURCE: "The Conspiracy of Silence in Henry V," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 264-87.
[In the essay that follows, Wentersdorf explores the reasons why none of the principals on stage in Act II, scene i refers to the real motive behind the Southampton conspiracy: to make Cambridge or his son king of England. The critic points out that all the assembled nobles know that Cambridge's title to the English crown is as strong as Henry's—and at least as justifiable as Henry's right to the throne of France—but it's not in the self-interest of any of them to raise this issue.]
In spite of the episodic nature of the materials out of which Shakespeare created Henry V, the drama, in the eyes of most critics, is notable for its unity of action and tone. There has been considerable disagreement, however, as to the precise nature of that tone. For some, the play presents the story of an ideal monarch and glorifies his achievements; for them, the tone approaches that of an epic lauding the military virtues. For others the protagonist is a Machiavellian militarist who professes Christianity but whose deeds reveal both hypocrisy and ruthlessness; for them, the tone is predominantly one of mordant satire.
The series of episodes giving rise to this...
(The entire section is 20595 words.)
Politics And Ideology
Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1988)
SOURCE: "Henry V," in Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and The Roman Plays, Routledge, 1988, pp. 114-38.
[Below, Leggatt considers possible readings of the play, its depiction of war, and its portrait of political authority. He invokes the need for audiences to be engaged as well as skeptical, particularly with respect to appraising Henry, whom the critic sees as a man motivated by obedience—the same virtue that Canterbury cites as the means of keeping all parts of an ideal nation working in harmony for a common purpose.]
Henry V presents the anatomy of a war. We see the causes and the aftermath, the leaders and the common soldiers, the heroism that lives in legend and the grumbling, sickness, and petty crime that generally do not. Only strategy and tactics are underplayed. Shakespeare is more interested in the feelings and imaginations of his characters than in the way they move on a map—just as in Richard II he was more interested in the mentality that led the King to abuse his office than he was in the abuses themselves. The play's function as anatomy is connected with its episodic quality. We are not so much following an action as looking all round a subject, often in a discontinuous way. This includes not only characters and events but attitudes towards them, even ways of dramatizing them....
(The entire section is 19957 words.)
Ayers, P. K. " 'Fellows of Infinite Tongue': Henry V and the King's English." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 34, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 253-77.
Relates Henry V's mastery of diverse modes of speech to the complex pattern of historical and theological issues raised by the play. Ayers believes that the king's verbal strategy has several different purposes: to reshape his public and private personas, erase the objective past, and obscure his own sins.
Babula, William. "Whatever Happened to Prince Hal?: An Essay on Henry V? Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 47-59.
Asserts that Henry V is concerned with the same theme as the two parts of Henry IV: the education of a ruler. Babula contends that Henry slowly but gradually progresses from a rash youth who avoids responsibility and whose speech is highly artificial to a mature, plainspoken monarch who fully appreciates the values of peace and moderation.
Barton, Anne. "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, pp. 92-117. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975.
Argues that in Henry V Shakespeare employed the popular motif of a disguised monarch's...
(The entire section is 1442 words.)