Henry V is the last play in the cycle in which William Shakespeare explores the nature of kingship and compares medieval and Renaissance ideal rulers. In Henry IV, Part I (pr. c. 1597-1598, pb. 1598), Hal (the nickname by which Henry was known in his youth) soliloquizes that his roguish behavior, which so disturbs his father and the court, is policy—a temporary ploy soon to be discarded, after which he will astonish and delight his critics. True to that promise, Hal becomes the perfect English king, a true representative of all of his people, one who understands his own vices and virtues and those of his citizens. His youthful escapades have taught him a deep understanding of the human nature of the citizens he must rule, making him wise beyond his years.
Henry V, Shakespeare’s summarizing portrait of what a good king should be, acts in the best Elizabethan tradition. The archbishop of Canterbury’s description in act 1, scene 1, confirms him as well rounded, a man of words and of action, a scholar, diplomat, poet, and soldier. He can “reason in divinity,” “debate of commonwealth affairs,” “discourse of war” or of music, and “unloose the Gordian knot of policy . . . in sweet and honeyed sentences.” Unlike his father, who was tortured by self-recrimination, Henry V is sure of his authority, power, and ability. Proud of his country and followers, he attributes his successes to God’s leadership.
Unlike Richard II, Henry V keeps fears and worries private. He stays attuned to his subjects’ undercurrents of feeling, as when he walks among them in disguise instead of relying on censored reports. His effective spy system ferrets out traitors, whom he disposes of swiftly and violently. His earlier experiences help him distinguish loyal subjects and good soldiers from the disloyal and incompetent; in act 4, scene 1, he rejects flattery but values blunt honesty. Moreover, he surrounds himself with good advisers whose advice he follows. He is generous to friends and supporters, rewards loyalty, and in his St. Crispin’s Day speech calls those who fight by his side “brothers” no matter what their rank or class. Above all, Henry V is flexible, able to be a king in war and a king in peace and capable of gentle mercy as well as harsh justice. His leniency to enemy villagers wins their hearts, but he is merciless to French captives who broke the rules of war, killing English baggage boys.
As a model king, Henry V is, above all else, politic, a follower of Niccolò Machiavelli’s principles as enunciated in Il principe (wr. 1513, pb. 1532; The Prince, 1640) and able to manipulate language and people to attain his country’s welfare. The opening action demonstrates Machiavellian policy consummately managed. As a new, untried king with a youthful reputation for riotous living, Henry V must secure his throne, extend his power, and improve his reputation while he still has youth, vigor, and political support. At the same time, he must take his subjects’ minds off the internal conflicts, rebellions, and usurpations that plagued his father’s reign, and he must unite diverse English factions. The quickest, most effective way to achieve these ends is to do as his father advised: “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.” The French, by contemptuously dismissing Henry V as an effeminate wastrel fit only for the tennis courts, provide the perfect common enemy.
Henry’s forceful yet poetic retorts to French insults couple powerful rhetoric with personal magnetism, and his threat to confiscate the Church’s property motivates its representatives to find religious and legal justifications for a foreign war. Thus, they proclaim that England has not only “means and might” but a righteous “cause”: ousting a usurper. The attack on France will be a holy war, fully backed by holy church and legal precedent: “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” Extending England’s legal claims in the tradition of Edward III reminds...
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