Henry V Essay - Henry V (Vol. 49)

Henry V (Vol. 49)


Henry V

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 to the subject"1 and he "confessed ultimate failure to convert history into drama."2 But surely if a writer is uncertain of success, and insecure about his technique, he does not strive to advertise his flaws and his fears throughout the play. Nor do any of the critics explain why Shakespeare felt no need of a narrator in, say, King John, which radically compresses historical time, sews several campaigns together, and bobs back and forth across the Channel like a tennis ball. Shakespeare's audience can never have expected the kind of panoply and "realism" for the absence of which the Chorus in Henry V apologizes. If they had accepted the tents of Richard HI and Richmond a few feet apart on the same stage with ghosts flitting between, they were hardly likely to feel the lack of prancing steeds and of flotillas for crossing a channel that they had been imaginatively o'erleaping these many years by means of the poet's evocative language. We must find some explanation for the function of the Chorus other than as a vent for Shakespeare's frustration at working with productions governed by severe financial limitations. The only invention that would satisfy this literalist Chorus is the movie-camera. There is no evidence elsewhere of Shakespeare as an early D. W. Griffiths manqué. What there is evidence of everywhere is 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.

The plays which Shakespeare presented on that bare stage were not naturalistic in the modern sense. Many critics, convinced that the acting style Shakespeare's company used was highly artificial and gestural, have ransacked books of rhetoric for evidence of a sort of formal sign language. Other scholars have argued that the actors eschewed the rhetorician's system and tended towards a more realistic portrayal. It is useful to remember that if characters were presented in an extremely formalistic manner many references within the plays become redundant and inexplicable. Shakespeare created a long string of characters who were frauds recognizable by their artificial and imperfect manners. Characters such as Osric, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, Lucio, or even Parolles can only be funny if there is some world of natural courtesy against which to measure their deviancy. Shakespeare was very much aware that the stage could present artificial fustian stuff and he puts parodies of such material into his own plays the better to set off a more natural world. The players' speeches in Hamlet parody the theatre in a way that tends to make us forget we are still in the theatre.

Falstaff in his Cambyses' vein, Pistol, or Don Armado, by their extravagant committment to thespian displays, tend to emphasize by contrast the natural behaviour of those around them. The mechanicals in A Midsummer Night's Dream amuse us because of their fears of success in the naturalistic style. They are hopelessly unaware that their limited acting skills will make it impossible for the audience, however willing, to suspend its disbelief. We can laugh at the failure of one level of illusion only in so far as we submit to the success of illusion at another level. When Shakespeare points our attention to the theatrical he does not weaken its hold over us, he strengthens it. This could only be true, of course, in a society which feels that, far from there being an enormous canyon separating the real world from theatre, there is in fact considerable overlap, a blurring of the line of demarcation which gives the dramatist considerable latitude in manipulating the audience.

The Chorus in Henry V apologizes for the tawdriness of the stage and implies that we can recreate history only by a vigorous exercise of our imaginations. We are immediately into the rich paradox that reality is a product of imagination, and that turns out to be the chief irony associated with the Chorus. The Chorus has a very selective imagination, it will deal only with glamour and bravery. This narrative voice is borrowed from the chronicles, but it is familiar in the older drama. Chorus figures and presenters are quite common in the plays of the 1570s and 1580s, but, as the skill of the dramatists improved, this device which belongs more to the narrative forms of prose than to drama began to disappear. Drama became a complete form when the various tatters of older forms—allegorical figures, prologues, inductions, choruses and so forth were digested by the play proper and the material was presented in terms of character in a self-contained world. It is odd, therefore, that Shakespeare who had already written many plays without resort to these old fashioned devices, should employ a formal chorus in the play which brings to a close his preoccupation with the history of England. Considering Shakespeare's complex skills by this stage of his career we have to assume some deliberate purpose in his employment of such an archaic device.

In Henry V Shakespeare broke the mold in which he had cast all his histories hitherto. That repetitive cycle of rise and fall, of factious barons roaming England and France to seek out their advantage, is finally thrust aside. The last remnant of that struggle, in the treachery of Cambridge, Grey and Scroop (II.ii) is an echo of the past. The King's decisive crushing of that conspiracy brings a whole era to an end. He advances on France with a united front, the factions having buried their enmity in a patriotic crusade. The concord among the nobles is remarkable and Shakespeare cleverly sets it off by relegating the conflict and factiousness to the commoners. He also contrasts the concord of the English high-command with the petty squabbles among the French barons.

The mixture of low-life comedy with the hallowed events of history was not Shakespeare's invention. In the source play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, from which he took many hints, we find a similar admixture. In the episodic nature of the source play there is little evidence of the unifying design, the total structure of ideas, that Shakespeare was to make of history. The source play does not relentlessly examine the traditionally received account of Henry's conquest, rather it follows tradition and enlivens it with comic interludes. The art of Shakespeare's drama is that of placing scenes, of setting up a contrast of attitudes which illuminates a structure of ideas regulating the play. For this purpose he elaborated much of Pistol's part, invented the whole of Fluellen's part and the group of common soldiers present at one of the critical moments of the play. One of the ways of balancing the views presented by this sub-plot world was to introduce the chorus.

The functions of this Chorus would at first sight seem to be straightforward. It provides narrative bridges and exhibits appropriately patriotic sentiments. But those critics who take the function of the Chorus for granted ought to realize that none of its speeches provide information absolutely necessary to our comprehension of the play, a fact noted by Johnson at the end of his 1765 edition of the play.3 In comparison, say, with the spare and obviously functional employment of the chorus in Doctor Faustus, or with its essential narrative importance in Dekker's Old Fortunatus, Shakespeare's Chorus is supererogatory. If we excized the part, however, we would radically alter the structure of ideas and the mood and atmosphere of the play. In the Chorus it seems as though England had at last found its true voice; it is an abstract extension of the function that Shakespeare had first essayed in Faul-conbridge. The cause of battle seems, in the glowing rhetoric of the Chorus, to have passed from individual personality to the whole nation.

I am not suggesting that Shakespeare specifically allegorizes the Chorus but he needed a voice that would represent one extreme of the spectrum of ideas on patriotism, as Pistol represents the other extreme. The King holds the balance. Henry cannot be the embodiment of patriotic zeal because he is faced with the human responses which separate men from their ideals. But if the King is to be properly heroic then no other man must overshadow him by an unquestioning acceptance of the virtues of patriotism. Shakespeare chose, therefore, a figure lacking both in personality and involvement in the action of the play. Being immune to the world it observes, the Chorus is static; its lyric exuberance persists throughout because there is no dynamic principle involved in its depiction which can induce development. The Chorus presents a play within a play, or rather a play within its own flow of grandiose rhetoric. The Chorus claims that the stage is not worthy to present reality but makes us aware that its own affinities are more with poetical transmutation, overblown hyperbole, than with reality.4 It begs admittance to perform as our guide and appears regularly before the opening of each act to speed us on our way. We can come to an understanding of the significance of these choric prologues by weighing them against the content of each act.

The Chorus in the Prologue to Act I paints a rosetinted spectacle of historical events. In attempting to inspire us to reach out for a glorious reality the speech of the Chorus begs us to forget the stage in language that forcibly reminds us of it. Because the Chorus embodies an unquestioning belief in the glory of war it presents a vision which does not adequately cover any man's actual experience of war. Shakespeare has many scenes to exhibit which are far from the pomp and glory of which the Chorus speaks, scenes which are tawdry indeed, ragged men who on this unworthy scaffold hardly aid the swelling scene. A play which capitalized on the tawdriness of the stage, on the ordinariness of human response, might seem more like real life, more real, indeed, than the tantalizingly impossible vision the Chorus presents.

In the first act we turn from the florid invocation to the political details of how the expedition came to be undertaken. The King establishes himself at once as a shepherd of his people intent on securing authoritative support for a just war. Whether we find the genealogical ramblings of Canterbury comic or not, it is clear that Shakespeare devotes a whole act to establishing the unity of the Church and the barons in England's cause. Shakespeare clearly indicates that we are in an entirely new world and to that extent fulfills the picture of a puissant nation which the Chorus had celebrated at the outset. The scenes constantly invoke that golden age of Edward III and the Black Prince so that our eyes are turned on this new king as a rising sun who will return England to its former glory (I.ii. 278-80).

The Prologue to Act II presents us with material designed for lyrical intensity, a patriotic hymn describing a nation girding its loins. The information concerning the conspiracy provides us with no material that we do not obtain by other means during the ensuing action. The information has a similar function to many of the Brechtian devices of anticipation. When we come upon the conspiracy, it does not disturb our faith in England's new found unity, because the Chorus has already informed us that we will ship for France. Thus we can concentrate on the masterly fashion in which the King deals with it.

It must also be observed that the speech which serves as Prologue to this Act makes no mention of the action which fills two-thirds of it. It can hardly be said that the scenes in Eastcheap contribute to the picture of an England transformed into an ideal state. Henry himself may be reformed but Shakespeare saw no point in abandoning his unrepentant associates when they could be used to elaborate richly on the major concerns of the play. The Chorus throughout the play exhibits no knowledge of this world resistant to the poetic vision of a mighty nation eager to fall upon its enemies. We do not expect the hyperbole of the Chorus to acknowledge their pedestrian concerns. But though the Chorus can ignore these characters, the King cannot, and the comic scenes add up in the audience's mind to illuminate the King's contemplation of: "the wretched slave / Who, with a body fill'd and vacant mind, / Gets him to rest, cramm'd with distressful bread" (IV.i.264-66).

In the Prologue to Act II we are prepared for the embarcation at Southampton: "The King is set from London, and the scene / Is now transported, gentles, to Southampton; / There is the playhouse now, there must you sit" (Prologue.II.34-36). The Chorus is interested only in the main line of the story, only in the King and his cause, not in any embellishments. There is even the implication that there is nothing further of interest in this narrative until the King appears: "But, till the King come forth, and not till then, / Unto Southampton do we shift our scene" (Prologue.II.41-42). The Chorus in elaborate manner rushes us forward to Southampton. It is with some surprise, then, that on entering Act II we find Shakespeare lagging behind in Eastcheap. Our sights have been set well above the Boar's Head Tavern:

Now all the youth of England are on fire,
And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies;
Now thrive the armourers, and honour's thought
Reigns solely in the breast of every man . . .

(Prologue.II. 1-4)

Shakespeare tempers this public eulogy with the private humours of Pistol and Nym, which aim at a little less than the reign of honour. This inconsistency might, perhaps, be more easily explained by assuming a late shuffling and addition of scenes or incomplete revision, were it not in line with the entire development of the Chorus, whose poetic vision is played off against the reality of the everyday world. Those critics who have assumed that,the Chorus was designed to link an episodic narrative together and prepare the audience for rapid transitions might note not only that it is almost entirely superfluous in that role, but also that its function might often be more fruitfully examined as a deliberate lack of bridging and preparation for what actually goes on.

It cannot be accidental that the first scene in the Boar's Head parodies the rhetoric of politics in the court world that we have just left. There is division over the title and possession of a piece of property, Nell Quickly; there is an exchange of insults; there is a determination to fight it out, and concord is established by linking us back to the major theme in the resolve to bury the quarrel in France. The "humorous" exchange between Pistol and Nym, with its absurdly overblown conceits and threats, is a comical reflection of the stern rebuttal of the Dauphin's insulting joke. The contrast here, of course, is in the excesses of the bragging, flyting match as opposed to the King's restrained and dignified retort to the French, and the lack of purposeful action that comes from the shouting match as opposed to the King's resolute expedition to conquer France. The overblown battle rhetoric of Pistol acts as admirable counterpoint to the genuinely ecstatic patriotism of the Chorus. Pistol's determination to profit by the war is a far cry from the honour which reigns in the breast of all the youths of England. It must be said, however, that the rogues, who give not a fig for honour, are gradually eliminated from the play. The Lord of Misrule, Falstaff, who had his being in more frivolous days, dies without being given opportunity to make an impact on the crusade, soon Bardolph is hanged, later Nym is reported to have been hanged, and Nell Quickly is said to be dead. Only Pistol, soundly battered, crawls back to England. None of them interacts with the King, save Pistol in his encounter with Harry "Leroy". The new England offers no secure place for the former revellers. This, however, does not prevent us from recognizing that the Chorus's version of events is a considerable gloss on reality.

The Prologue to Act III contains thirty-five lines, and of these only nine and a half at the most can be described as transmitting expository information. The rest is poetic embellishment. We have already learnt at the end of Act II that Henry is footed in France. The evocation of the channel-crossing in vivid pictorial imagery serves more as a transitional pause than for the contribution of information. The patriotic tone is reinforced with the description of a deserted England and the proud, invading army. Only at the close of the speech are we told rapidly about the siege of Harfleur as answer to the unsatisfactory French terms. The two succeeding scenes are set in dialectical contrast, reflecting on this invocation. The King continues the martial rhetoric in his Harfleur speech, living up to the ideal set by the Chorus. The laggards from Eastcheap fall away from that ideal, tempering valour with very heavy doses of prudence. Bardolph's entrance, opening Act HI, Scene ii, inevitably puctures the vein of resounding rhetoric that Shakespeare has sustained unbroken for almost seventy lines. Anything less "Like greyhounds in the slips, / Straining upon the start" can scarcely be imagined. The rhetoric of the Chorus and Pistol is again juxtaposed; they both employ rhetoric of obviously literary origin. The Chorus aspires to the patriotic lyrical strains of a Spenser, magnifying honour to a point that ignores human weakness. Pistol borrows the fustian terms and epithets of the traditional stage braggart to hide his aversion to honour and to cover his human weakness. Hotson has described how the Chorus glorifies Henry while Pistol provides a comic parody of him:

(Pistol's) gift is a daemon possessing him with the conviction that he is essentially a Locrine, a Cambyses, a Tamburlaine. Not, of course, the insane notion that he is a real tyrant king, but the wildly absurd one that he is a player king. Thus he can rehearse valour without requiring courage, carry tempest in his voice without running any measurable danger.5

By providing this parody of heroism Shakespeare induces us to believe the more in the genuine heroism of Henry. That Pistol will twice get his pretence of bravery accepted—Fluellen's eulogy of his work at the bridge and Le Fer's submission—indicates how careful one has to be in recognizing true valour. All the world's a stage to Pistol and he has his moments of glory even as he is also pelted with rotten vegetables when the audience, in this case Fluellen, sees through his performance.

The debate between Fluellen and MacMorris in Act III, Scene ii presents more evidence of the tawdry reality of war. The squabbling of the national representatives is a comic reduction of those factional struggles which had, in earlier plays, rent England asunder. The scene indicates the petty disputes, the touchy pride, the varying views on military strategy, which affect men in war. Shakespeare can thus represent the reality of war without allowing any factionalism to taint, in any serious way, the King's cause. In contrast to his days as Prince, Henry speaks to no one beneath captain's rank until the critical eve of Agincourt (IV.i.). It is well to keep this in mind when speaking of the King's much celebrated "common touch". There are many scenes which carry on a ribald commentary on the glorious action, but Shakespeare carefully disassociates the King from them all, despite his former proclivities, until late in the play. By that time, although we have not forgotten Prince Hal, we have had ample opportunity of recognizing the kind of king he has turned into.

In the Prologue to Act IV we look again in vain if we seek vital narrative informative. We have seen the English offer a challenge to battle, we have heard of the sickness of their troops, and we have observed already "The confident and over-lusty French" despising their English opponents. The Chorus merely reviews this material, but it also creates that midnight calm, that pause on the brink of the storm, in which Henry's tour among his soldiers can take place. The Chorus utters that magic word in English history and raises the spirit of the times—"The name of Agincourt". The function of the Chorus here is almost that of a priest presiding over and ushering in this sacred ritual of patriotism, this re-enactment of a miracle. The magnificent imagery of this speech could have been divided up among the characters but, isolated from the action, its cumulative impact swelling into a hymn of praise to the King helps to set up an atmosphere of reverence which causes the audience to pause and focus its attention. There is a sense here of ritual mimesis in which the priest-like Chorus announces the stages of the re-enactment, which are subsequently performed, thus bringing us to that sense of order and unity aimed at by religious rites. This hallowed atmosphere created by the Chorus is supported by echoes of Christian tradition in the action itself.

The King is something more than human in the speech of the Chorus. He is "like the sun" with miraculous restorative powers; as he moves in the darkness, "A little touch of Harry in the night", he has affinities with Christ as the light of the world. The King is the saviour of the English. As Christ came down to earth and took upon him the image of a humble carpenter's son, so the King walks among his men disguised, dividing his thoughts with them, attending to the humble almost as though they were his flock and he their shepherd. I am, of course, forcing to the surface those associations which must remain vaguely at the back of our minds as we watch these scenes. The imagery of communion, however, is obvious enough. Henry's famous battle speech to his soldiers, as unlikely a band of crusaders as the fishermen disciples themselves, emphasizes the significance of St. Crispian's day and the ritual sharing of blood:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;


The speech draws its strength, too, from the tradition of the comitatus, but in its emphasis on the few, on the chosen, it reminds us of the disciples in a hostile land. Henry is depicted as God's chosen instrument to subdue the pride of the French who have little to say of God and are pictured almost as effete heathens hungering only for glory. The King's anguished soliloquy on the hard duties of being a chosen leader is also perhaps, uttered in the loneliness of the night on the eve of a great trail, a very distant reflection of Christ's agony in Gethsemane. Finally, and more fancifully, there is a very faint echo of the journey to Emmaus in Williams' exchange with Henry, for, having failed to recognize his master disguised in the night, the revelation comes as a shock later on with the King's bounty. These echoes work collectively to create a general atmosphere of religious dedication which is ultimately rewarded with a miracle, the battle losses at Agincourt—"O God, thy arm was here!"

A great deal of this atmosphere of ritual stems, as I have suggested, from the speech of the Chorus. But we must also note that there are other elements in the Act which prevent it from becoming a totally formalized ritual and which place the battle firmly in the human sphere. We realize, if we think about it for a moment, that the Chorus' version of Henry's tour among his soldiers is deliberate misdirection, a lack of preparation for the scene as Shakespeare writes it. The King does not appear like a sun to thaw his soldier's fear, but moves disguised, unknown to his soldiers, not to impress and inspire them but to be depressed and dispirited by them. His experience among them begins with comic familiarity and insults from Pistol and ends almost in a brawl with Williams. In his debate with his soldiers the disguised King has to offer an elaborate theory of self-justification. He receives answers rooted in the immediate fears of men far removed from the theories by which the powerful seek to justify war. Instead of being inspired by a national ideal, or even a little touch of Harry in the night, they are suspicious, uncertain, anticipating the worst.6 The rhetoric of battle may evoke greyhounds in the slips but the play also presents a king isolated in the understanding of his cause in Bates's: "Then I would he were here alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men's lives saved" (IV.i. 120-22).

In the King's soliloquy after the departure of his soldiers the dialectical arguments of the play are resolved. The King's talk of Ceremony and its pageantry deals with surface appearances, that triumphant exterior view which the Chorus has presented. In his talk with his soldiers the King has at last come in contact with its opposite, that care for the self, unmindful of greater causes. The King is incapable of living the carefree day to day existence of his soldiers or of being blinded by the ceremonial trappings of his office. He has to recognize, in full consciousness, the lonely burden of being of mortal clay with the superaddition of regal duty. At last in the history cycle a king appears who, by the nature of his strange education and his practical application of role playing, comes to an understanding of himself and of man's limitations while he is still at the top of Fortune's wheel. This understanding is affirmed by his unwearied ascription of his every success to God's favour.

The Prologue to Act V is the most functional of all in terms of transmitting narrative material, and it is the only one which concentrates on abridging the story. Since we return to the English camp in France immediately, it could be argued that there was no necessity for recounting the King's return home and from thence back to France. Shakespeare is so free in his treatment of history that there seems to be no reason why Henry could not have proceeded straight to the French court. But such telescoping of events was not to Shakespeare's advantage here. Even if historically Henry had not in fact returned home, it would have been necessary for Shakespeare to find some matter to form a transitional pause here. The atmosphere of war which has coloured this play must be brought to an end for the change in mood to the gay courtship which concludes the play. 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. Even so we must note that the Chorus in providing the narrative link suppresses, in fact, more than it reveals. We are told of the triumphant return to England and a second visit to France for the composition of a treaty. No mention is made of Henry's second invasion of France, a four-year battle campaign the treaty for which was not concluded until five years after Agincourt. Shakespeare had chosen to reduce the battles of five years to one swift and decisive campaign. This streamlining of events frees him to explore a sub-plot world and to elaborate a variety of moods and attitudes. The Chorus laments the inadequacy of the stage for transmitting history even as Shakespeare is using it to distort history in order to fit his own dramatic patterns.

Productions of this play in recent times have run to a variety of extreme interpretations. Olivier's film version, reflecting the miraculous heroism of the Battle of Britain, as the original play itself, many have claimed, celebrated the destruction of the Armada, appeared to operate on the assumption that Shakespeare's meaning was to be elicited from the attitude of the Chorus. A more recent London production played in tin hats and gas-masks among trenches, and Michael Langham's production at Stratford, Ontario in 1966 with its Brechtian emphasis, operated on the assumption that Shakespeare's sympathies lay with the informal "chorus" of soldiers. By a rather brutally managed irony the formal Chorus thus appeared to be jingoistic, ludicrously out of touch, in the painting of pretty verbal pictures, with the agonizing realities of war. To interpret Henry V in either of the above manners is to be unjust to the balance of evidence in the play. If we assume the Chorus to be Shakespeare's spokesman, we are hard put to it to give sufficient weight to the evidence of the soldiers. If we emphasize the soldiers' views exclusively, then we have to interpret large sections of the play in terms of a crude and heavily obvious irony that is not characteristic of Shakespeare. Henry is placed in a central position to mediate the dialectical contrast. Shakespeare has shaped Hal through two plays with a kind of education unique among the English kings of whom he wrote, so that at last the glories and horrors of martial struggles can meet in the perception of one man. The plainest thing about the complicated structure of this play is that Shakespeare was not writing heavily weighted propaganda for one side of the problem or the other.7

The Chorus, then, is throughout the play a strategically used device embodying the popular tradition which glowed, perhaps, in the memory of an Elizabethan audience. Tradition tends to rub away the encrustation of human detail, it glamourizes and has an infinite capacity to forget the human weaknesses among the human strengths. There is some truth still in tradition, but it is not the whole truth. Shakespeare did not wish to destroy the glory of Agincourt but he realized that by injecting episodic detail he could make it more convincing. The inclusion of Pistol and the disillusioned soldiers does not enhance the glory of the battle. There could be no greater travesty of chivalry than Pistol's dealings with Le Fer to contrast with Exeter's report of York's heroic death (IV.iv.7-32). The one must inevitably bring tears of laughter to our eyes even as the other brings tears of sorrow to Exeter's. But we accept Shakespeare's battle more readily than that of tradition because it is more firmly based in human experience.

In the final speech of the play the Chorus once again apologizes for the inadequacies of the stage, and yet we, who look back to all such scenes as Pistol grovelling before Fluellen's leek, are unlikely to concur in the judgement of the Chorus: "In little room confining mighty men, / Mangling by starts the full course of their glory" (Epilogue.V.3-4). The great art of Shakespeare's version of the story lies in the ample room that he has allowed himself and his mangling by starts, in such a varied way, the full course of the action.


1 Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962), III, p. 349.

2 Virgil K. Whitaker, Shakespeare's Use of Learning (San Marino: The Huntington Library, 1964), p. 131.

3 W. D. Smith finds the speeches of the Chorus so functionally unnecessary that he suggests that they were added by another hand for a performance at court in 1603. Without accepting this rather extreme conclusion, I would point to his discussion, which contains many useful examples of the redundancies, irrelevancies and often seemingly misleading passages in the choruses regarded from a functionally expository point of view. "The Henry V Choruses in the First Folio," JEGP, 53 (1954), 38-57.

4 The contrast between the heroic view of war and the reality of its seamy side is made with devastating irony at the opening of Troilus and Cressida. The thunderously imposing hyperbole of the Prologue is immediately undercut by the sulkily adolescent, lovesick behaviour of Troilus. Shakespeare does not continue the Chorus in this play because it is enough to have the bludgeon satire of Thersites' choric commentary as a contrast to the overstuffed epithets of war emerging from the mouths of most of the other characters.

5 Leslie Hotson, Shakespeare 's Sonnets Dated and Other Essays (London: Rupert Hart-Davies, 1949), p. 61.

6 Fluellen is used throughout the play to indicate the disparity between war as it should be fought according to hallowed tradition, and the kind of war that is actually fought with its murdering of defenseless boys, an act distressful to the Welshman because it deviates from the copy-book. Fluellen is a comic parody within the plot of the homage to tradition that the Chorus presents outside it.

7 In Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (New York: The Free Press, 1967), a similar balance of ideas is presented in exploring the concept of "complementarity" in Shakespeare's plays. Rabkin, however, believes that the polarized ideas of the play are held in an unresolved tension. He suggests (pp. 98-101) that since the audience cannot easily accept Henry's compromise with reality it must regard the play as a dream. It will be evident that I consider Shakespeare to have presented in the Chorus and Pistol views of the world that deliberately are not viable as alternatives to Henry's realism. Shakespeare's audience had waited patiently through many plays for a king who was neither sunk in the pleasure principle nor lost in the realms of impractical idealism.

Lawrence Danson (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Henry V: King, Chorus, and Critics," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1983, pp. 27-43.

[In the following essay, Danson calls attention to analogies between king and Chorus, suggesting that both the play and its principal character require an impartial, even sympathetic appraisal. Henry and the Chorus are both performers, the critic remarks, adept at creating images and self-images, myths and legends, and together depicting a king who is noble but flawed and who must make painful choices.]

I would like to believe that Henry V was the first of Shakespeare's plays to be performed in his new Globe theatre, and in the absence of proof to the contrary I can at least dally with the surmise. Construction on the Globe began at the end of February 1599, and it must have been completed by late August or early September 1599. The date of Henry V is usually established by its reference to the Earl of Essex: the Chorus imagines in "loving likelihood" that "Were now the general of our gracious empress, / As in good time he may, from Ireland coming" (V. Chorus. 30-31), the people would welcome him as fervently as once they welcomed Henry V. Essex's campaign was in shambles by late summer; by the time the Globe was ready to open, his defeat looked certain. For this reason, editors have generally assumed that the play was written early in the year, before the debacle so clearly impended; and theatre historians have therefore generally assumed that the "wooden O" to which the Chorus repeatedly draws attention was not the Globe but the company's interim home, the Curtain. But the evidence is equivocal. Henry V is a play about a miraculous victory against impossible odds; an English victory in Ireland in late summer 1599 would have been such a victory, as clearly showing God's favoring hand as did, once upon a time, the victory at Agincourt. The Essex allusion does not rule out a date of composition in late August or early September. Such a pluckily defiant reference to temporary English setbacks could have been mighty cheering in that summer, a time enlivened anyway by the inauguration of the most splendid theatre ever built to celebrate the English in England.


Why, then, does the Chorus apologize for the theatre? The question of the Chorus' "apology" (the word, I will claim, does not adequately describe the tone) is as difficult to answer if we assume performance in the old Curtain as in the new Globe. No one, after all, forced Shakespeare to write this play in this particular way. If his flat unraised spirits couldn'T bring forth so great an object on whichever unworthy scaffold, he could have chosen something else to write about. But of course it is no harder to bring forth an Agincourt than a Bosworth Field; and moonlight in the Athenian woods tests the theatrical muscle as much as do flickering campfires in France. The Chorus' apologies violate that elementary rule of English good breeding, "Never apologize, never explain"—not too much, at any rate, lest you keep the offense fresh in mind. The Chorus calls attention to the ostensible fault in a way that makes us consider the fault rather than merely forget and forgive it. He makes us consider our theatrical environment. If that environment is the brandnew Globe, it might make sense for Shakespeare to call attention to it. The Chorus bids us travel in imagination to far off, wonderful scenes; but each such choric invitation, by making the process self-conscious, simultaneously keeps us in mind of our actual location in the theatre. To the extent that the imaginary jaunts to Southampton, Harfleur, Agincourt, or Troyes are successful, the theatre is successful. If the play works, the ostensible apologies only underscore the artistic triumph of Shakespeare's theatre of poor means: the fewer means, the greater share of honor.

No doubt there is an element of actual apology in what the Chorus says. The theatre does have certain limitations with regard to "real" life and to history; the best in this kind are but shadows, as needs no Chorus to tell us. But there is also an element of playing at apologizing. The Chorus enacts a sly version of the modesty topos, which (according to Ernst Curtius) was widely used by good orators "to put [the] hearers in a favorable, attentive, and tractable state of mind. How do this? First, through a modest presence. But one has to draw attention to this modesty oneself. Thus it becomes affected."1 Affectation is a fault, and the use of such a hoary rhetorical ploy as the "modesty formula" could be dull. The Chorus solves those problems by mocking his own act with self-conscious exaggeration even as he earnestly enacts it. The profundity of the bow—"O pardon!"—lets us take his words in various ways. His tone tells us that he's sorry but proud, and proud of being sorry in such an ingenious way. Thus the Chorus woos the audience as King Harry does Kate: the one lacks a muse of fire, the other cannot look greenly nor gasp out his eloquence; the player lacks a kingdom for a stage, the King can only speak "plain soldier." But "nice customs curtsy to great kings" (V.ii.284), and the theatre's "imaginary puissance" (Prologue. 25) can work wonders.

Harry wins Kate, but notoriously he has not won the critics, from Dr. Johnson through Hazlitt to the recent editor who finds his wooing "ursine."2 The critical reluctance to "cry, 'Praise and glory'" on Henry V's head is a curious case of theatrical lèse majesté because it is a vote of no-confidence, not just in Harry, but in that other noble speaker, Shakespeare's Chorus, as well. As the critical literature richly attests, and nowhere better than in Norman Rabkin's recent essay about the phenomenon, it is hard to know what to make of Henry V, because its various parts seem to tug us in such extremely different directions.3 But hard as the play's problems are, they do not make it a gestaltist experiment, for the Chorus is there to give a sense of perspective, to establish the figure against the ground. The Chorus is simultaneously an actor in the play and a privileged voice outside it; we may not approve of privileged characters, but neither should we ignore them. So it is notable that critics hostile to Harry tend to neglect the evidence of the Chorus (other critics neglect other evidence); occasionally they fail to remark that their interpretations conflict with that of Shakespeare's own interpreter. The Chorus should pose a challenge to anyone who thinks we murder to ascribe a "meaning" to Shakespeare, while the distance between what he tells and some of what the intervening acts show challenges anyone who thinks that a privileged character ought to mean what he says.


In the matter of meaning, we need not take the extremes of all or none. The extremes do serve some purposes: those of the semiotician, for instance, to whom the play is like any other system of signs to be deconstructed into its many contradictory possibilities, or who searches along the text's small fissures in order to discover the social strains disguised by aesthetic sleights. For other purposes we may still value an interpretive via media where diversity is prized for the unity it can yield, and where coherent does not necessarily mean reductive. E. pluribus unum is a lively ideal in traditions as diverse as the Aristotelian and the Coleridgean and—most important for the immediate case—the theatrical. To the scholar alone in his famous study, Henry V may seem equally a rabbit and a duck, but I cannot imagine how you stage such duplicity. Audiences will buy complexity, but an optical illusion is what closes on Saturday night. Actors and directors cannot be relativists; they must make choices.

In Henry V there are many difficult choices to be made, and all the more difficult because Shakespeare lets us know what each choice excludes. Therefore he gives us the Chorus. The Chorus tells us how to respond as an audience, watching a play, watching a king. And he does this by linking the two circumstances, the theatrical and the historical, allowing us in both a coherent response. The Chorus reflects upon the nature of his own theatrical being at the same time that he holds up "the mirror of all Christian kings" (II. Chorus. 6). The images of homo ludens and homo regens are not identical; they exist in prismatic relation, the one image refracting interesting bands of light upon the other. The Chorus' presentation of Harry is as complex as its self-presentation. The Chorus can call attention to the play's inherent theatrical limitations at the same time that it invites us to revel in theatricality; and the play can show the human weakness of its hero at the same time that it celebrates his greatness. Henry V, partly through the prismatic relation of Chorus and King, allows us to see the weakness attendant on all human greatness yet to recognize that greatness when we see it.

As the audience is to the players, so Harry's men are to Harry. And, because the analogy points this way, as we are to the players so should we be to Harry—for the King too is only a man trying with limited resources to turn intractable reality into something resembling imaginative success. The King's actorliness has often been recognized by critics, though they have drawn various conclusions about it. Una Ellis-Fermor was dismayed that Henry V "is never off the platform," that man and role are so united in him that "there is no Henry, only a king." (The play existed for her as text rather than performance, and that may have something to do with her negative evaluation. "Generations of Shakespeare's readers have found little to love in this play," she wrote, just before a generation of moviegoers would start loving it in the Olivier version.)4 James Calderwood also notices that "To play the king is to play the actor, for the king must have many roles in his repertoire." But Calderwood's evaluation of Harry's actorliness is more positive than Ellis-Fermor's, partly because he sees that acting one's self well, or acting well as if one were one's self, is not such a bad thing to do; and because he sees that the King's actorliness is related to what the play as a whole is doing: "Harry acts marvelously well, and the militant English road company for which he stars prospers apace."5

Less common than the recognition that the King is like an actor is the recognition that that special actor, Shakespeare's Chorus, is like the King. Michael Goldman makes the point in his fine reading, which is antipodal to Ellis-Fermor's in its precise attention to the play's performance qualities. "Once it is recognized that the Chorus sounds very much like the King, much of the play's method becomes clear," he writes; and "the figure of the Chorus rousing the audience to cooperation and excitement is rather like the figure of Henry addressing his men."6 We can see this analogical relationship in other details too, for instance in Harry's ostensibly tongue-tied wooing and the Chorus' ostensible lack of theatrical means. The director Terry Hands points out that the line with which the King wraps up his Crispin Day speech—"All things are ready if our minds be so"—"is the same message uttered by the Chorus at the beginning of the play. It will serve for visual spectacle, or personal behaviour."7 But most importantly we see this relationship overall in an attitude, and it is that attitude I want now to explore. The relationship of play-maker and audience is uneasy and dependent. If the Chorus can take pride in the theatre's limited resources (since the confession of those resources sets off, like a foil, the wonders the theatre can perform), he can do so only if he has a responsive auditory. The Chorus needs our sympathetic participation. We must "work" and "follow" and "eke out [the] performance" "in the quick forge and working-house of thought." We must be willing, for the success of the theatrical enterprise, not to overlook the theatre's limitations, but fairly to revel in the successful effort of overcoming them. "It's very hard," an interviewer commented to Alan Howard when he was playing the role of Henry V for the RSC, "to find a commentator from Dr. Johnson to Yeats who doesn'T find the play shallow or jingoistic." "Why," the interviewer asked, "do you think that is?" "Well," said Alan Howard, "they haven'T had to play it. . . . It is a play, after all, not a novel."8 And a good audience to that play is neither hostile nor passive. It is mercifully critical, answering the Chorus' prayer "Gently to watch, kindly to judge, our play" (Prologue. 34).


The Chorus to Act IV is a good place to see the playfully self-conscious complexity of Shakespeare's attitude to his own theatrical accomplishment, and I will begin with it before going on to what it tells, by analogy, about Shakespeare's attitude to the King. The Chorus enacts the playwright's version of the inexpressibility topos, the most sublime form of the modesty formula. Once again, that is, just as thrice previously in the play, Shakespeare is showing to the capable imagination's eye what his words claim he cannot show. The burden is on the audience to "entertain conjecture of [the] time," because (as the Prologue had earlier told us) the unworthy scaffold and its cockpit cannot hold "the vasty fields of France" or "the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt" (Prologue. 10-14). This is the sort of technical problem that floored bully Bottom, but the Chorus in Henry V, even while it professes the canons of naive realism, shows how verbal art can overgo reality. The conjectured scene is so sensuously rich, its words at once so specific and suggestive, that (as the Olivier version shows) it becomes an embarrassment to the cinematographer's camera, which can only tag along and palely imitate what the instructed mind's eye can conceive. This Act IV Chorus is itself a protocinematic tour de force. It begins with a distant tracking-shot, which the imagination brings into more vivid focus than a passive camera could do. The tension with which we see and hear the uncreated scene is like the tension of the English and French "fix'd sentinels" who "almost receive / The secret whispers of each other's watch" (11. 6-7). We strain to hear a murmur that is synesthetically "creeping" and to see a "dark" that is "poring" both because, by transference, it is "eyestraining" (Arden ed. note) and because, by punning, it is filling "the wide vessel of the universe" (11. 2-3). The tenseness of the scene is embodied in a series of imagistic and syntactical oppositions, as "fire answers fire" and "steed threatens steed" (11. 8, 10); and it is concluded in a way which simultaneously caps and releases the tension as "The country cocks do crow, the clocks do toll, / And the third hour of drowsy morning name" (11. 15-16).

We cut quickly now to "The confident and over-lusty French" (1. 18), and for a moment the tension of our "conjecture" is relieved by the vigor of their dicing and chiding. But the image of "the cripple and tardy-gaited night / Who, like a foul and ugly witch doth limp / So tediously away" (11. 20-22), brings back the dominant sense of action done with difficulty. That painful, slow limping is our cue to pan to another mid-shot and see "The poor condemned English." Their stillness, as they "Sit patiently, and inly ruminate / The morning's danger" (11. 24-25), is in both moral and formal contrast to the French in the previous shot; and their insubstantiality ("lank-lean" and "war-worn," they are "So many horrid ghosts") sets off the vigor of the halfline, "O, now, who will behold" (1. 28).

"Behold": no mere conjecture, now, nor difficult straining to see and hear. The sudden appearance of "The royal captain of this ruin'd band" (1. 29) rewards and relieves our attentiveness. He is a gift to us as much as to his men. A refusal now to "cry, 'Praise and glory on his head!'" (1. 31) is a refusal of Shakespeare's poetry, a spurning of his virtuosity. And it is worth pausing for a moment (before concluding this little summary of the Act IV Chorus) to ask why we have so often refused the cry. Much of the answer will have to wait—all of it, in fact, having to do with the King's actions in propria persona. For the moment I am only interested in the part having to do with the Chorus' presentation.

Rarely in Shakespeare do we find poetry that has so palpable a design on us. Comparable things happen in epilogues, like Puck's or Prospero's; but an epilogue, because it "comes after all, imploring pardon," is safely set off from the preceding action. Its direct address is not felt as an interruption of the more usual modes of dramatic indirection. More nearly akin to the problem of the Chorus is the problem caused when a character steps out of dramatic context to serve, momentarily, a choric function. Such a moment occurs in 1 Henry IV, just before the battle, in Vernon's description of Hal:

I saw young Harry with his beaver on,
His cushes on his thighs, gallantly armed,
Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat
As if an angel dropped down from the clouds
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.


But here we are inclined to forgive the dramatic fault because of its transparency. Since there is absolutely no reason why Vernon should want to deject his troops (except to cheer up the audience), we can draw on our knowledge of non-naturalistic dramatic conventions and let it go at that. Elsewhere Shakespeare does this sort of thing better, so that there is no need to make allowances. Enobarbus dying of a broken heart while telling us how to respond to Antony's generosity is such a moment.

But the Chorus in Henry V is unique. The direct appeal is both intrusive and perfectly in character, and it is therefore possible to resent it. The Chorus is indulgent, not just of the King, but of himself: he indulges in oral/aural pleasures, with mouth-and ear-filling sensuousness. Emrys James, who played the Chorus to Alan Howard's Henry, confesses that "for years I used to do 'O for a Muse of fire' as my audition speech. And then maybe I would get the part and maybe I wouldn'T, but that speech and the other Chorus speeches stayed with me in my head. I'd be walking down Oxford Street and there would be those extraordinary words, ticking over in my head, just there, for no reason at all, except that they'd been planted in my brain." Michael Goldman describes these speeches as "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."9

But some of us resent authority and are suspicious of histrionic self-indulgence. People who are made uneasy by displays of virtuosity will find the Chorus more resistible than I do; and they may, by the same token, also resist the King's performance.

The end of the Act IV Chorus shows with what virtuosity both Chorus and King perform their parts. "Upon his royal face there is no note / How dread an army hath enrounded him," the Chorus assures us; "Nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour / Unto the weary and all-watched night" (11. 35-38)—though fear and exhaustion, we will discover, are precisely what the King is feeling. But the Chorus' own description, in advance of the enacted revelation, makes the King's actions seem a calculated performance. Though beheld in closeup, in the concluding scene of this sequence, the King is still kept emotionally distant by the Chorus' imaginary lens. His feelings are suggested only by the negative assertion of what he does not reveal. His ostensibly easy movement "from watch to watch, from tent to tent" (1. 30) is the product of great effort, as he "freshly looks and overbears attaint" (1. 39). He exists for us as a source of emotion in others; so that while he is closely seen he is also held away, objectified, known chiefly by the effect he has, when

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, . . .

(11. 41-45)

This scene of the King begins with the direction "behold," and the final image returns to that word: "Behold, as may unworthiness define. . . . " These lines perfectly illustrate the playfulness of the Chorus' attitude. The phrase "as may unworthiness define," like the Chorus' other apologies, has the effect of turning our attention from the message to the medium. But what a moment to break the illusion, just as the Chorus is about to deliver himself of his finest line yet! It is like apologizing for the amazing Globe theatre. We hear the modest disclaimer, wait for the offense, and are rewarded with "A little touch of Harry in the night." The tenous delicacy of that "little touch" and the frightful portent of "the night" surround and set off the bold English name of "Harry"—the first time we have heard it in this speech, which has taken us from distant prospect to mid-range to close-up. The reward is all the more precious because there is no lingering on it:

And so our scene must to the battle fly;
Where, O for pity! we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt. But sit and see;
Minding true things by what their mock'Ries be.

(11. 48-53)

Again a name, "Agincourt," provides a satisfying climax instead of the anticipated disgrace. The apologetic "O for pity" functions like the previous "as may unworthiness define," acknowledging an obvious failure (not for us, today, "the very casques / That did affright the air" [Prologue. 13-14]), while granting us a different sort of aesthetic triumph.


Thus with only his words and our charitably disposed imaginations the Chorus demonstrates the principle that less is more. In the political world of Henry IV this is a principle that Hal had known from the early days when he made his apparent moral poverty serve the ends of future greatness:

So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt'Ring o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'Ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.

(7 Henry IV, I.ii.205-14)

At Agincourt, Prince Hal's shrewd accountancy is still recognizable in King Harry's making of "fewer men, the greater share of honour" (IV.iii.22). But if Harry's Crispin Day speech recalls Hal's politics it also, and more immediately, reflects the Chorus' imaginative investment. The Crispin Day speech is Chorus-like, not only because it makes more of less, but because it is specifically an aesthetic or imaginative sort of triumph that Harry aims for. It is his own legend, and his men's, that Harry is creating—writing, in effect, his own play. Like the Chorus, he involves his audience in a communal effort; and like the Chorus, he brilliantly manipulates the sounds of names:

This day is call'd the feast of Crispían:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispían.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, "To-morrow is Saint Crispían":
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, "These wounds I had on Crispin's day". . . .
. . . . Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.

(IV.iii.40-48, 51-55)

Richard II had a similar talent for imaginative self-creation, but he could make it work for him only at the expense of life. His role was victim, his genre tragedy. Sitting upon the ground and telling sad stories of the death of kings, making dust his paper and with rainy eyes writing sorrow on the bosom of the earth, fretting for himself and Aumerle a pair of graves within the earth (complete with sad epitaphs), preparing for his queen the "lamentable tale of me" that would send her hearers weeping to their beds: repeatedly Richard was the author of his own self-sacrificial myth. Harry at Agincourt is in a similar way the author of himself; and like Richard's, his myth creates a mythic setting for his followers as well as for himself:

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispían shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speak
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.


Unlike Richard's, Harry's tale ends in triumph.

Or so the story goes. The trouble is that texts (including plays and plays-within-plays) are notoriously unstable. Harry, committing himself (with the aid of Chorus) to the status of fiction, becomes by that token an object for interpretation.10 Tellers can be unreliable; texts (some maintain) write their authors; language is symbolic, and any symbol can be read in bono or in malo; genre creates meaning, but irony subverts genre and can turn the heroic into the satiric. Whatever our school of criticism, the stories of such self-creative characters as Richard and Harry demand interpretation—a fact Shakespeare implicitly acknowledges and manipulates. In Richard II, while he leaves us ample room for interpretive shadings, he provides a series of characters whose function it is to ratify the broad outlines of Richard's account: the Bishop of Carlisle, the groom (and roan Barbary), the Queen, finally Bolingbroke himself with his vow to expiate Richard's death—each tells us that this is a tragedy rather than (say) a moral tale about a bad man who got what he deserved. We remain free to respond in a variety of ways to the tragedy, but the choric voice assures us that pity and fear will be among the appropriate responses and that certain other responses (indifference or contempt, for instance) may be less appropriate. And in Henry V Shakespeare gives us the Chorus, not to deprive us of the freedoms of interpretation but to give some direction to them. The Chorus in his own demeanor shows us and in his words tells us the spirit in which we are to understand Harry's plays—both the one he writes on Crispin's Day and the one Shakespeare and history wrote for him.

The sophisticated indirection of the Chorus' self-deprecation makes it likely that he will be indirect in his presentation of King Henry, too. Undoubtedly there are gaps (I will return to them) between some of the things he tells us and some of the things we actually see performed. Each such gap becomes an opportunity for interpretation, and the Chorus is clear in his directions "gently to watch, kindly to judge, our play." Our role is not to ignore or even to excuse Harry's shortcomings, any more than we are to ignore or excuse the theatre's. Sympathetic understanding, based on a sense of shared enterprise and shared humanity, will allow us to celebrate Harry's greatness—a greatness we recognize not despite but because he is flawed, because he is human. "In this theatre of man's life it is reserved only for God and the angels to be lookers on": some of the criticism of Henry V that stresses the play's putative dark ironies, turning it from heroic celebration to satiric denegration, proceeds as though it stood safely on the sidelines, exempt from the choric appeal for charitable identification.


I want now to take up just a few of the items of critical controversy with regard to the King, and to look at one specific scene with that choric appeal in mind. But I want to avoid, what the critical situation makes very hard to avoid, the air of an advocate answering a bill of indictment. I cannot, for gravest instance, justify the King's...

(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'sand at least as justifiable as Henry's right to the throne of Francebut it's not in the self-interest of any of them to raise this issue.]...

(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 obediencethe 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...

(The entire section is 19957 words.)

Further Reading

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...

(The entire section is 1442 words.)