Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11146
E. F. C. Ludowyk
[In the excerpt below, Ludowyk praises Henry V as a celebration of an honoured and national hero of England. He contends that the play is a combination of fact and myth, and that it must be considered in relation to the Elizabethan audience. Ludowyk also reviews the structure of the play, the theme of war, and the character of Henry.]
The national hero
Henry V is Shakespeare's celebration of one of England's national heroes—the warrior prince, Henry of Monmouth, who defeated the French at Agincourt, a battle remembered and honoured nearly 180 years later. In 3. 7. 31-2 the Dauphin speaks of 'varying' (inventing variations on the theme of) the deserved praises of his palfrey. In this play Shakespeare, in dramatic terms, is 'varying' the deserved praise of Henry V. His story was known to Elizabethans, as 5 Prologue states. Henry is Shakespeare's theme, the legendary subject of his panegyric [formal praise].
We have to consider the play against the background of the meaning of the legend of Henry V to Elizabethans, and not in connection with any promises made in the epilogue to 2 Henry IV. It is related to that play, and even to Richard II, but it exists in its own right independently of them, and we should look at it in the light of its own intentions and achievement.
The legend of Henry of Monmouth was the familiar story of the young man who appears to be a wastrel and a ne'er-do-well, but who makes a glorious reformation, and becomes a heroic figure. It is like those stories of the ugly duckling who grows into a beautiful swan. For his play Shakespeare used the sober historical material of his time—the chronicles of Hall and Holinshed. In them, and also in contemporary plays, there were popular stories of the hero. The subject would therefore be a combination of fact, and, what is more important, belief in the myth which years of tradition had sanctioned.
Something more comes into Shakespeare's play, and this is his own memory of England at his time. Behind all the histories is a strong nationalist and patriotic feeling, given a new consciousness of itself after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The England Shakespeare writes of in this play is the England of his time, though the events described are nearly two centuries old. So into this play comes an explicit reference to contemporary events, when Shakespeare, asking his audience to picture the welcome given to Henry after Agincourt, thinks of Essex, as 'happily he might', returning successful from Ireland. But more important than this reference is the complex of feelings which must have been the attitude of many men, when they thought of England in 1599, when the play was written.
This complex of feelings must have been made up of satisfaction and pride in the past, and confidence in the future if, as Falconbridge said in King John, 'England to itself remained but true'. But there would also be apprehension and uncertainty about both present and future. The Queen was as glorious a figure as any past hero. But she was old. She had reigned for just over forty years, and the end of her reign was in sight. Yet no successor to the kingdom had been formally named, and, as Tudor political wisdom had pointed out, and Shakespeare's own chronicle histories had maintained, the dangers of a disputed succession were plain for all to see.
So if Henry V is the celebration of England's national hero at a momentous period in the country's history, it should not be forgotten that there are other tones, suggesting the limitations of any heroic figure, and doubts of the future.
The play is a paean [song] of praise for Henry V. But other things come into it too—the crime of Henry's father who had usurped the throne; disloyal nobles; the boon companions of the king's youth; and the savagery of war. It could be supposed that Shakespeare, intending the play as tribute to the national hero, found that the presentation of a man so variously celebrated had its natural disadvantages. Inherent in the theme are the difficulties present in any artistic medium attempting to present the complete hero. The picture of the good man is usually dull and unattractive. So the hero 'full-fraught and best induced' (the all-round man endowed with all the graces) would seem wooden and unlifelike, or at any rate less plausible and human than the less 'complete' man.
We might remember, too, that our attitudes to persons, even those we admire and revere, are rarely without contradictory impulses of criticism and even of hostility. There is a human tendency to derive satisfaction from feelings of aggression to persons whom we honour and love. If, therefore, as it has so often been held of this play, into this vehicle for Henry's glory comes in material tending to his hero's dispraise, it could be put down to Shakespeare's common humanity. The play must then be regarded as Shakespeare's 'varying' of the theme of the heroic and ideal stature of Henry V, together with whatever of a contrary significance naturally attached to such exercises.
The play is made up of five prologues or choruses, which enunciate some part of the theme which the following scenes illustrate. All of them contribute to the general suggestion made in 1 Prologue that the great theme is that of the warrior-king. This Prologue states the general theme: Henry of Monmouth as the hero who, if the medium used by the dramatist was equal to the task, would 'assume the port of Mars', that is, formally take on himself as was his right the bearing of Mars, the god of war. As 1 Prologue is general introduction, we should take 1.1 as being a further specific prologue to the scenes illustrating it. The epilogue reiterates the main theme, and apologizes, as do all the Prologues, for the unworthy treatment of a subject too great for the dramatist's powers.
We should see the structure of the play as dramatic illustration of the theme enunciated in the several prologues. The latter provide the statement, the acts and scenes which follow are their amplification. There is an additional feature in the content of these illustrative scenes. Quite often there will be found in them material of another kind, seemingly opposed in its effect to the general intention of the prologues. The scenes which follow the prologues should therefore be looked at as both extending the statement of the prologue, and also contributing something antithetical.…
Before we examine this structure in greater detail, it is necessary to ask one question: why did Shakespeare use these prologues? Of course they were not unusual on the Elizabethan stage, and in earlier drama there was a 'presenter' whose function was to state to the audience the content of the play, and to draw their attention to any special points made by the dramatist.
The Prologues in this play will be seen to fall into three parts. They are, like all prologues, informative, and announce what has happened in the interim between the scenes just played on the stage and the appearance of the chorus. Secondly, they apologize for the inadequate means employed by the dramatist in putting his material on the stage, and acknowledge his 'abuse' of such things as 'time', 'place', and 'numbers'. As 1 Prologue puts it the dramatist has had to 'jump' over 'times'. This 'abuse' of time, according to Renaissance notions of playwriting, was the inclusion in the plot of events covering a greater period of time than that conventionally allowed.
In 2 Prologue the chorus undertakes to make the audience 'digest' another abuse—that of 'distance', or the fact that in the play we are at one time in one place and the next moment in another. Thus, again, by Renaissance 'rules' was inadmissible.
And both in 1 Prologue and elsewhere the dramatist, unable with the few actors in a stock company to put as many people as would be required on the stage, apologizes for the 'abuse' of 'numbers'.
Finally, the chorus urges the audience to compensate for the stage's deficiencies by using their 'imaginary forces', that is their imaginations are to work, and so 'piece out' or patch up what is wanting in the stage's treatment of its subject.
Why should Shakespeare have felt, in the first place, that he was infringing the 'rules' and, in the second, that his stage was unable to present scenes of battle and a war between two mighty countries? In every single one of his plays up to this time, he had not troubled himself with any 'rules' of time and place, and he was always working with the same slender resources of a stock company. Further, he had never felt, or stated his feelings, that his stage was incapable of giving his audiences scenes of war, or of famous battles. In Henry VI the most popular scenes with the London audiences had been those of Talbot in battle. In Richard III he had made such a success of the battle of Bosworth that Burbage's cry in his play seemed to be the most memorable thing in it. And in the plays yet to come he was to put on the stage momentous conflicts like those between Augustus Caesar and the conspirators, Actium, and the campaigns of Coriolanus.
The most favoured explanation is that Shakespeare taking up the story of England's national hero as a subject on his hands better suited to epic poetry than to drama. Such a subject was hedged about with literary conventions so powerful at that time, that anyone hardy enough to undertake it would neglect the 'rules' only at grave risk to his reputation. Shakespeare's subject, as he seems to see it in 1 Prologue, required epic narration and epic description. There had been plays on these subjects of England's wars and England's heroic figures before, but the dramatist, feeling that his form could scarcely do justice to his material, continually aspires (in his images of fire and air, and in the urgency of his tones with the repeated admonitions to the audience to 'think', to 'look', to 'work with their thoughts') to the height of epic grandeur and excellence.
There is something more. Shakespeare's difficulty, if this account of it is accepted, was not only one of the literary form he chose, but of his medium of presentation. In this play he excuses himself not only for offences against literary canons, but also for the ineptitudes of his stage. This avowal need not be taken too seriously, for he continued to do just what he apologizes for here. What is more, in 3 Prologue, he adds a dramatic touch at the very moment of his admission that dramatic modes are inadequate for his 'task'. His passionate 'work, work your thoughts and therein see a siege' (3 Prol. 25) is followed by the firing of a cannon off stage. The stage direction at 1.33 'alarum, and chambers go off', proves that imagination, for all its resolution, did not disdain stage effects.
This may seem the unconscious revenge of the theatre on the dramatist a little too prone to slight its resources. The combination in this prologue of the acknowledgement that the medium is inadequate with its efficient use seems typical of other contraries in the play, its material being the celebration of Henry together with a glance at what is unattractive in his character.
Focus on Henry
This is Henry's play. He is the one person on whom attention is continually focused. All the others in the play are there to pay their tribute to him as the ideal king. Numerous persons fill out this long play, but however interesting in their own right—the Dauphin, the typical vaunting knight, or the pedantic and honourable Welshman—their real function is to lend dramatic contrast and illustration to the main character.
Henry—'full of grace'. Two prelates open the play with a scene of exposition which should be taken as the specific prologue to Act 1. They see that the church's best defence is the king's character itself, rather than diverting him, with the offer of a large subsidy, to a war against France. Protestant historians linked the church's offer to the king with its support of Henry's claims to France, but it is clear, in the answer to Ely's question in 1. 1. 21, that the king will not countenance the bill against church properties because he has become the king he is. It is important that in the legend of Henry as the young man addicted to 'courses vain' ('open haunts and popularity' of 1. 1. 59), a less strongly stressed detail should not be overlooked. The king has undergone spiritual conversion.
We should note too how strongly Canterbury opens in 1. 22 with 'the king is full of grace and fair regard'. 'Grace' is a condition which the Christian continually strives after. It is a stronger word than mercy, and should be interpreted as being in a state of reconciliation with God and given power by God to persevere in right action.
The images. The intention of Canterbury's speeches is clear: to present the king as the epitome of kingly excellence. The verse is oratorically full and easy, the images employed—from the service of baptism, from the Bible, and the classical fable of Hercules cleansing the Augean stables—lending their weight to the figure being projected. Is there a feeling, however, that we are being given not a human being, but an unnatural prodigy? The threefold repetition of 'never' in lines 32-5, and the parenthetical 'all at once' in line 36 indicate the determination of the speaker to force into life an unbelievable figure of a man.
When Canterbury goes on in line 38 he indulges in a hyperbolic extension of this superhuman king. Again with a biblical reference—to the wind that bloweth where it listeth—he claims that the air, a 'libertine' because it does exactly what it wishes, is so charmed by the king's excellence of discourse that, dumbfounded and wondering, it hangs about men's ears, just to catch his beautifully expressed maxims. These 'sweet and honeyed sentences' seem to have two tones; of statement which may be sincere and also of crude flattery. Is there anything more in this hyperbole than straightforward praise, or does it, in trying to attain its object, overreach itself, and leave an impression of a kind of person too good to be true, or a speaker too flattering to be sincere?
In this passage and elsewhere in the play it is possible to see that the image, as Shakespeare uses it now, is so embedded in its dramatic context that it is not, as might have been the case in earlier plays, a device of the poetry as distinct from the drama. The image illuminates mental attitudes; it helps us to sense the dramatist's feelings towards the material he is shaping, to its persons and its situations; it reveals the relations of the persons of the play to each other.
Ely notes (1. 1. 60-6), as Canterbury had done, the wonder of the king's character, and, using an illustration from gardening, he points out how the king's study of life had developed and matured under the cover of scapegrace behaviour in his youth. This image is like that of the Constable of France in 2. 4. 39-40, describing the contrast between the wildness of his youth and the nobility of his present character. Ely goes on to remark that the king's powers grew, like summer grass at night, unobserved, because they had the innate ability to do just this. Canterbury agrees. It is no miracle; the king's present perfection must be due to the natural cause ('means') of his inborn goodness of character.…
Henry—defender of the commonweal
On this follows an outburst of patriotism and national pride from churchmen and nobles who cite the glorious precedents of the past—the victories of Edward III and the Black Prince in France. They are all off in their rousing speeches to defeat the French again, but it is the king, with his care for the commonweal, who debates in his mind what will happen in England should the main force of the country be divided with the best part away in France. He has to calculate how his forces should be deployed and how the 'ill neighbourhood'—the hostile feelings of their neighbours the Scots—has to be feared. Could the king be away and the main strength of the country be safely divided?
Nobles and churchmen now reassure the king about the health and sound condition of the kingdom. The substance of what they say is: Do not fear to divide up your forces, setting out with the main body to France, for out of the division of parts comes the full harmony of the whole. Exeter's image in 1. 2. 180-4 was frequently used by Shakespeare to illustrate the concord made up of the voices singing the notes of their various parts.…
Henry—the Christian king
So the spiritual counsellor calms the king's apprehensions through an argument from parallels. Satisfied that the country will be in no danger, the king asks for the embassy from France. He indicates to the ambassador at once that he is
a Christian king,
Unto whose grace our passion is as subject
As is our wretches fettered in our prisons
—a statement of one of his great virtues. Time and time again—with Montjoy, with his soldiers, with the French—the king shows perfect control of himself and of the impulse to give way to passion. Only once in the play does he say that he has been 'angered' (4. 7. 54).
His reply, therefore, to the insulting message of the Dauphin is a neat and witty rejoinder. Punning on references to tennis as played at that time, he tells the Dauphin that the opponent ('wrangler') he has taken on will undo France and himself. The king speaks as king; of himself he uses the language conventionally used of kings. Like a lion he will 'rouse himself in his throne of France. Like the sun he will dazzle the eyes of the French.
Twice in his speech which closes the scene, God's help is invoked. The sentiments may be conventional, but the formal occasion demands formal speech. But is there besides the dignity of the speech a sinister touch of grim seriousness in lines 282-99? The destruction of war, its slaughter and devastation are taken by the verse in its stride, but it leaves an impression of hardness and ruthlessness. The 'merry message' has an undertone of grimness.
The second Prologue is off with its description of the preparations for the war. But as soon as the chorus has announced the promise held out to the king and his chivalrous knights, it goes on to state that all is not well with the country. The French, through their spies, have corrupted three important nobles.…
The king shows Christian mercy in pardoning the man who had abused him when drunk. The conspirators' objection to this, with their distinction between mercy and justice—always a fruitful theme with Shakespeare—is ironically turned aside by the king in 2. 2. 52-60. In seeming to give them their letters of appointment he hands them writs impeaching them for high treason.
The long speech (2. 2. 79-144) places this sudden turn of events in the setting the dramatist intends for it. Dramatic effectiveness and surprise probably account for the king's having played cat and mouse with them. The attitude he takes up shows that their crime makes the conspirators extraordinary creatures, to be pointed at and looked at as queer freaks were at fairs. They are English monsters, just as Caliban could have been thought of as an 'Indian' (or American) monster. For their crime is against 'proportion', the harmony of the well-ordered state. It is more than the disloyalty of a 'bedfellow' to his friend, bad as that might be.
Everything in lines 109 to the end of the speech depends on the enormity of the sin. It is so 'preposterous' (it turns the natural order upside down) that the king rises to a height of eloquence in underlining its illogicality, its combination of treason, murder and inexplicability. Scroop's crime has poisoned the sweet water of trust ('with jealousy infected the sweetness of affiance'). It seems nothing less than a 'second fall of man', as Bolingbroke's crime was to the queen in Richard II. Yet when the king says in line 140 'I will weep for thee', are the words sincere, or are they an oratorical device? And the references to God's mercy in lines 166, and 177-81—are they the king's fervent wish, or do they imply that even God would find it hard to forgive such wrongs?
The king's behaviour is obviously in keeping with the traditions of political wisdom. He must tender the safety of the kingdom more than any threat to his person. But does this scene in showing him as wise in his handling of such emergencies leave a trace of dissatisfaction at the sternness of 'this grace of kings'?…
Henry—as man of war
The theme of the third Prologue is war. Henry goes to France in pursuance of a claim supported by his spiritual counsellors and by the whole country.
3. 1 opens with the army on the stage with their 'scaling ladders' before the gate of Harfleur. The whole of the scene is a warrior's call to arms. As usual on the Elizabethan stage war is conveyed most effectively through the speeches of the combatants.
Henry's lines in 3. 1 are the exaltation of the man of war. The human being is turned into an abstraction which combines the animal and the machine. The movement of the tiger, the eye threatening like the cannon as it points at the enemy through its embrasure, the brow in anger hanging like a worn crag over the raging sea greedily devouring its base—these images in the speech are unnatural portents.
It is true that this is the disguise which the warrior must put on. But there is in the organization of the lines such force and strain that we feel doubtful here of the panegyric lavished on Henry as 'this grace of kings'.…
Of all the Prologues the fourth is the most interesting, because it creates a scene free from the extravagance and the hyperboles of the earlier prologues, and places squarely in it neither a 'grace of kings', nor a god of war, but the man Harry. If the earlier prologues are busy with a hero soon to 'assume the port of Mars', or a statesman unravelling the Gordian knot of policy, here the 'touch of Harry in the night' makes us conscious that Shakespeare's hero was a human being too.
In this Prologue the poet's sensitiveness to the great event of which he is writing enables him to provide a strong impression of expectancy, movement, and life. The references to darkness which strains the eyes, to the fires which are springing up all over the field, to darkened faces caught up in their dull light, have dramatic reality.
In this setting he gives us the French army 'secure' (an intensification of the Latin sense of 'securus', free from care) and the English as victims destined for the sacrifice on the morrow. The hero of his play is treated not as king, but as the captain of a band of soldiers. To him now his men are not the horrid engines he had urged them to become at the gates of Harfleur, but 'brothers, friends and countrymen'. The 'touch of Harry in the night' is a 'little touch' only because the dramatist is conventionally doubtful of his ability to put the man on the stage. 'As may unworthiness define' shows us this. But we may be grateful for this little 'touch', or account of the king, for it does much to humanize the idealized figure the play has been putting before us.
The great difference is that for the first time we have a king who speaks in natural tones. In the bluff humour of the scenes in Act 4 which follow we are made aware of a man, and not a hero. The king is capable now of seeing the reality of his situation. In both his prose and verse in 4. 1 we note tones of liveliness and criticism which have not entered his speech till now. His remark in 4. 1 4-7 on the 'soul of goodness in things evil' is not a solemn moral tag, it is the rueful joke of a man who in the worst position of all resolves that the best thing to do is to turn off most things with a laugh. To dwell on the uncomfortable reality would be to discountenance his men, so he continues with a good jest on 'dressing fairly for our end', and drops the light-hearted remark that even the devil himself, if need be, could be put to good moralistic use.
In the same strain are his remarks to Erpingham that if an analogy fan 'example') helps a man to endure distress, why should it not be used, for if the mind is revived, then the physical frame is once more active, like the snake which has sloughed off its skin. The dramatist is exhibiting here another facet of the character of the ideal monarch—his ability to keep up the spirits of his men.…
The fifth Prologue, having established Henry as national hero and Christian prince, goes on to complete the study of Henry as the ideal king. He is first in peace as he was first in war. His character, both as statesman and the architect of peace, will be filled in. So 5. 2 will show how the warrior sets about making peace and restoring order to both countries, in the only way in which peace was then secured—by a dynastic marriage. Henry will be exhibited to us, not as lover, but as statesman.…
Henry as statesman
5. 2 for the first time brings the two mighty monarchs, France and England, on the stage together for the purpose of discussing the terms of peace. The English king is not the engine of war of the earlier acts, nor is he yet a romantic squire who will look 'greenly' or love-sick. Henry in this scene is the statesman who keeps the affairs of the commonwealth very clearly in front of him. He has certain justified claims on France, and he does not abate a jot of them. The marriage proposal is item no. 1 in his list, as he says in 5. 2. 96-8. The peace he is interested in has to be 'bought' from him, as he has won it through his victory over the French. We should not read this scene therefore only as an amusing sketch of the warrior unskilful in love wooing his princess. It is a demonstration of one of the qualities of the ideal king. Here Henry unlooses the Gordian knot of policy. How skilful he is in the role of suitor, though with conventional modesty he depreciates his abilities, the scene will show.
That peace is necessary to the French is shown in Burgundy's speech in 5. 2. 31-67. His is a picture of the waste of civil war, the fair garden ruined and turning to wildness because war has upset the natural order. The image of the country as a garden which it is the duty of the king to tend, and which cannot flourish unless order prevails, is already familiar through Richard II. What Burgundy says of France would come home to the imaginations of the English, to whom the threat of civil war was always a fearful possibility. The comparison of France to a garden, the symbol of the state, sets the level at which the scene of courtship should be taken. It is no real love scene. Wise forethought which must benefit both states is its main impulse.
Henry as 'lover'
In the scene with Katharine, Henry is the blunt soldier who though, he says, he lacks skill in words, yet has a good sense of the occasion and an impressive readiness of speech. Two details in the makeup of an ideal king are stressed in it: his devotion to his country and his honesty of purpose as man. As lover he is, like the best of Shakespeare's lovers, not romantic but full of good sense: 'To say to thee that I shall die is true; but for thy love, by the Lord, no: yet I love thee too.' Comedy enters into it too, both in its breezy references to the physical and in the contrast between the soldier and the man.
So the match is made; Henry gets all he specified, even to the details of his royal titles; and the French king hails a union which will plant 'neighbourhood' and Christian-like accord between two kingdoms. A grand procession crowns the play, and the chorus enters for the last time as epilogue. The actor apologizes, as usual, for the shortcomings of the dramatic medium. He is also careful to point out that none of the fine hopes raised by the last scene was ever fulfilled. Though no reason is given for this, there is in the words 'whose state so many had the managing', an eloquent hint, that England was divided and there was lack of unity in the country. So France was lost and England bled. Shakespeare has dramatically 'varied' the praises of England's ideal king at a time when the wonderful reign of a monarch her people idealized was drawing to its close. The connection between England at the beginning of the fifteenth century and at the end of the sixteenth was clear. This play, like the other histories, was a 'mirror' for England.
SOURCE: "Henry V," in Understanding Shakespeare, Cambridge at the University Press, 1962, pp. 144-71.
Robert B. Pierce
[In the following essay, Pierce analyzes the symbol of the family as an echo of political themes in Henry V. He contends that the traditional themes associated with family inheritance of virtue, threat of political disorder to its unity, and need for companionship are significant to the development of Henry's moral and political character.]
Among the history plays, Henry V. is something of a paradox. It is good without being great, and that is not at all what one would predict following the Henry IV plays. One might expect to see the triumph of Shakespeare's historical vision, the capstone of his second tetralogy, with the ideal king appearing in action against France, England's traditional enemy. Or one would not have been surprised by a daring failure, a play that starts off in a new direction with only partial success, like Measure for Measure. Some critics, including Derek Traversi [in Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V; 1957], have seen just such experimentation in Henry V; but the foreshadowings of a new Shakespeare are of the faintest even in his account. Besides, Henry V is preeminently a successful play; significantly, it has produced one of the best of the Shakespearian films, Sir Laurence Oliver's spectacle.
Clearly Henry V is the last of Shakespeare's series of history plays in the 1590s. One can with some confidence date it in the spring or summer of 1599, though it is possible that there was an earlier form or even that it was later revised. In this last of the series, Shakespeare turns to epic drama in order to glorify his ideal king, Henry V, a national hero of legendary proportions and the product of Hal's education in the Henry IV plays. Since Renaissance epic is not characteristically strong in dramatic power, there is peril in such handling. Both the idealized type-characters and the high decorum of language could cripple the stageworthiness of the play. In particular, overemphasis on Shakespeare's lofty manner could have brought back much of the stiffness of the first tetralogy as he tried to duplicate in dramatic verse the stateliness and pictorial richness of The Faerie Queene and Chapman's Homer. Such a play might have been all too like Richard III without the villain.
However, Shakespeare is too professional a dramatist to leave his hero merely a stiff epic figure. Once again he explores the man behind the public role, the kind of study that yields such rich results in the Henry IV plays. What is difficult to explain is why this approach is less rewarding in Henry V than in the two previous plays. Somehow the two sides of this king, public and private, exist parallel to each other but without much interaction. We see a Henry V who relaxes as a man among men, but when he takes on his regal authority, it is as though in gathering his robes about him he becomes a different person. Only in IV.i, perhaps the finest scene in the play, does Henry seem to be trying to define himself, to find some reconciliation of these two sides, as Henry IV and Prince Hal are constantly doing. As a result Henry V does not really seem like Hal grown older. The pressure of Hal's questing intellect is for the most part absent in this confident monarch, and so his intelligence is not so dramatically convincing. Hal is equal to Falstaff's wit—in a sense more than equal, for he can spar with the knight while holding part of himself in reserve. He is not subdued to the quality of his environment, whether in the tavern or on the battlefield at Shrewsbury.
Henry never faces an antagonist of Falstaff's brilliance, and he shows Hal's intellectual detachment only occasionally. Thus he is harder to see apart from the moral ambiguities of his environment. In I.ii he listens to his counselor's advice and makes his decision to invade France, but Shakespeare does little to suggest the thought processes by which he does so. Hence one is left wondering about his motives. Is he a noble patriot being duped by the clergy with their interested motive in supporting a French war? Is he unconcerned with the moral issue of his title as long as it is plausible, since what he wants is a war to unify the English after their long civil strife? Or does he allow for the clergy's bias even while being genuinely concerned with the validity of his title? Though Shakespeare may well have intended the last of these possibilities, one wishes that he had dramatized it more clearly. Perhaps he was overwhelmed by a sense of pervasive evil and corruption in even the noblest undertaking when he wrote Henry V. Hence he could not afford to make his king quite so aware of unpleasant reality as Hal is and still have him a patriotic man of action. If so, there is only a short step from this epic-comic history to the tragedy of Brutus, who can be moral only at the cost of willful blindness. (Shakespeare probably wrote Julius Caesar at about this time.)
Through most of the play we perceive King Henry V much more clearly than Harry LeRoy. This unresolved public-private duality spreads out from him to affect the whole play, including the use of the family. Throughout, the family is prominent as a public symbol. Although rhetorical allusions to the family are characteristic of all the history plays, Henry V relies more on this device than any other play since the first tetralogy. Woven into the public speeches of the English and French leaders are the traditional themes: the inheritance of virtue, the family as a symbol of unity, and political disorder as a threat to the family. Henry's reliance on his brothers' counsel and support is appropriate to his position as the leader of a unified and vigorous nation. The ideal king depends on his family, not on favorites, and Henry follows his father's advice in doing this (2 Henry IV, IV.iv.20-48).
Likewise Henry V progresses toward a marriage that both effects and symbolizes union (a momentary one) between the two ancient rivals, France and England. Queen Isabel makes this symbolism explicit at the end of the play:
God, the best maker of all marriages,
Combine your hearts in one, your realms in
As man and wife, being two, are one in love,
So be there 'twixt your kingdoms such a
That never may ill office, or fell jealousy,
Which troubles oft the bed of blessed
Thrust in between the paction of these
To make divorce of their incorporate league.
This is a formal speech in the old vein, based on the system of correspondences. But this speech has the effect of gratuitous embroidery after the lively comedy of the wooing scene and the cynical realism of the negotiations. Whereas Richard III points with solemn inevitability toward the marriage that unites the two warring houses, Henry V modulates from a military victory to a playful courtship that suddenly turns out to have symbolic significance.
Similarly, the few episodes of family life in the comic plot lack any thematic connection with the serious lot, unlike the Henry IV plays. Even if one reads Henry V as a satire on militarism and hence emphasizes the parodic side of the comic plot, it remains all too directionless and only partly relevant. Pistol arrives onstage in II.i as a bridegroom and promptly engages in a thrasonical [boastful] quarrel with Nym, a rejected suitor. Their squabbles begin a burlesque of soldierly heroism that runs through the comic episodes, but Shakespeare makes no attempt to parody Henry V's marriage in advance as he had parodied the interview between Hal and his father in 1 Henry IV.
Perhaps the lack of organic connection comes from the absence of a character like Prince Hal to mediate between the comic and serious plots. A Henry V who can comment without emotion or even wit on Bardolph's execution has lost touch with Falstaff's world, whether or not he finds some community with the tidier low life of Williams and the other common soldiers. Still, though the role of the family may be simpler and less developed than in the Henry IV plays, it is of genuine significance both in general and specifically in developing Henry's character.
One of the Renaissance doctrines on which Shakespeare relies in Henry V is moral inheritance. The English and the French agree that breeding should reveal itself in courage and military skill, but the French are puzzled to explain the tenacity of these "Norman bastards" (III.v. 10). The Dauphin puts their attitude with vigorous contempt:
O Dieu vivant! shall a few sprays of us,
The emptying of our fathers' luxury,
Our scions, put in wild and savage stock,
Spirt up so suddenly into the clouds,
And overlook their grafters?
In this commonplace imagery even his association of birth with growing plants is traditional. Both son and father have to admit the inbred strength and courage of the English. Weightier because less flippant than this speech is the French king's fearful awareness that Henry descends from Edward III, the victor of Crècy. The grandiloquent mouthings of the French nobles express their decadence and their unwilling admiration for English valor and tenacity. In spite of themselves they praise the breeding of these "mastiffs in robustious and rough coming on" (III.vii.148).
Meanwhile the English proclaim their duty to uphold a noble heritage. The point at issue is whether Henry has a better title to the French crown than its present holder. For all Shakespeare's consciousness of the mixed motives that lead men to war, there seems to be no doubt in the play that the English title to France is valid. The French themselves never question it, and the extraordinary triumph at Agincourt is a sign of God's support for the righteous claims of a united England. However, Shakespeare does raise the question of Henry's title to his own crown, vaguely at first in the conspiracy scene and then explicitly in the king's prayer the night before Agincourt. Even though the English heritage is superior in law and virtue to the French, it has within it a flaw that will lead to the collapse of order and civil war, "Which oft our stage hath shown" (Closing Chorus, 13). The warrior son that Henry and Katherine are to breed is the weakling Henry VI. Nonetheless, the primary contrast is between degenerate chivalry in the French and hereditary valor in the English under their warrior king.
In its rhetoric Henry V derives England's glory from its mighty heritage. All of Henry's counselors incite him by means of this heritage when he nears the decision to invade France. In words that foreshadow the French king's reference to Edward III, the Archbishop of Canterbury caps an appeal to Henry's forebears with a picture of that king smiling while his son defeats the French with only half the English forces. The Bishop of Ely and the Duke of Exeter are quick to second this appeal to the warrior blood in Henry's veins. The doctrines of inheritance are woven into Henry's own speech as well. In his grief at the betrayal by Lord Scroop, he includes with Scroop's apparent virtues the noble birth that should have guaranteed them.
As a warrior rallying his troops Henry places special emphasis on the doctrine of inherited virtue. At Harfleur the climax of his speech is a reminder of his men's heroic ancestry, first to the nobles and then to the common soldiers:
On, on, you noblest English!
Whose blood is fet from fathers of warproof;
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even
And sheath'd their swords for lack of
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good
Whose limbs were made in England, show us
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I
For there is none of you so mean and base
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
If Traversi is right in finding unconscious irony suggested by the language just before this, a powerful suggestion that war is unnatural to man, this passage is a curious reversal. Here the warrior is a natural product of his birth. Surely this effect is where the primary emphasis of the speech, and the play, lies. If the appeal to inheritance in Henry's oration has a leanness and vigor beyond Shakespeare's early style, still it is traditional in content and in its abstractness of phrasing.
Related to the doctrine of inheritance is the conception of patriotic unity, symbolized by the bonds of family, as a precondition of political and military success. When Henry makes a decision, he gives due consideration to the counsels of his brothers and uncle, while in the French court the king engages in unseemly and fruitless squabbles with his son. The movement toward temporary harmony at the end is decorated by the two kings' constant references to each other as "brother France" and "brother England." This rhetoric of diplomacy is entirely hollow, as is clear from the fact that Charles invokes the bonds of kinship while agreeing to disinherit his son so that he may keep the throne during his lifetime, just as Henry VI does. Henry V never pretends to take this diplomatic rhetoric seriously. All through Act V he shows a playfulness that reminds one of Faulconbridge laughing at the false language of diplomacy. Even the French king catches this spirit long enough to exchange hardheaded appraisals of the bargaining under the veil of a joke about virginity.
Such formal language need not be a cloak for the realities of power politics, however. After the moving revelation in IV.i of his personal affection for his men, Henry's celebrated lines at Agincourt ring true:
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.
Shedding blood together becomes a figurative union of bloods. Under such a king the terrible chain of hereditary enmity that has bound England is for the moment broken.
Facing the task of a righteous war, England draws together like one family. There are both truth and irony in the traitor Grey's words:
Those that were your father's enemies
Have steep'd their galls in honey, and do
With hearts create of duty and of zeal.
The treachery by Grey and his companions is not enough to prevent the triumph at Agincourt, though it foreshadows developments that will eventually lose the fruits of victory. The chorus uses the language of correspondences to describe this imperfect unity:
O England! model to thy inward greatness,
Like little body with a mighty heart,
What might'st thou do, that honour would
Were all thy children kind and natural!
(Chorus to Act II, 16-19)
In the happy ending of victory in battle and a marriage that combines love and political union, we have only a vague consciousness that there will be unnatural, "landless" disorder in the family of England, that this precarious unity will collapse.
Nearly as prominent as these two themes is a darker use of the family to express the horrors of war. In the first tetralogy civil war destroys not only love and family loyalty but also wives and children, innocent victims of the conflict. If Henry V glorifies the victory at Agincourt, it does so without concealing any of the violence and corruption that taint the English triumph. In contrast with the jesting Dauphin, Henry is determined to assure the justice of his cause before pursuing it into battle because he knows the evils that he will unleash, even on the innocent. At the French court Exeter proclaims Henry's guiltlessness in the war:
on your head
Turning the widow's tears, the orphans'
The dead men's blood, the prived maidens'
For husbands, fathers, and betrothed lovers,
That shall be swallow'd in this controversy.
Though Shakespeare may well be paraphrasing Hall, the sentiments are an Elizabethan commonplace. He gives a striking visual quality to another such passage when Henry warns the citizens of Harfleur that continued resistance will expose them and their families to violence. Although this theme does not go beyond the language to permeate the dramatic structure as the other two do and as it did in the plays of civil war, it is still an important part of the imagery of Henry V.
Insofar as the family theme goes beyond this essentially public and traditional handling, it does so through Henry himself. Because he is in part an epic figure, the ideal king and warrior, the public language of the family with all its severe dignity is appropriate to him. After all, he represents in the state the moral values that the family stands for in private life. But if Henry is an epic hero, he has more in common with Odysseus than with Achilles. He is the balanced hero, the prudent man, and his story moves toward reconciliation and marriage rather than toward tragedy. Such a hero can be more at his ease than his sterner counterpart, and he is seen in a broader environment, one that includes his personal relationships. Tamburlaine, the Achilles of the English stage, cannot stoop to prose comedy or to wandering among his men in disguise; he is too unitary a character for either. At least in flashes Henry shows a broader, more Odyssean nature.
What is most effectively human about Henry is his desire for companionship. He refuses to accept the isolation involved in royalty. When he does for a moment break through the forms of his office, in the comradeship of battle or in wooing Katherine, he shows a gaiety reminiscent of Prince Hal escaped from the court. When something makes him newly conscious of his isolation, his spirits fall. This side of him is hidden during the formal ceremonies of Act I, but even in his public reproof of the treacherous Scroop something of his personal feeling comes through. He voices the grief of betrayed friendship, a powerful theme in many of the plays and sonnets. As Henry goes to France, he seems entirely alone, there being no hint that he is personally close to any of his brothers.
In the communal effort that leads to Agincourt, he finds the contact with other men that he desires. His spirits rise as the battle nears, especially during the previous night. Although the companionship that he finds is mostly that of brothers in arms rather than actual kin, the family does play some part in the language of IV.i, and in the first few lines he appears among his blood brothers. Now they talk without the solemn formality of the scene in the English court. Henry's moralizing is playful as he shuffles off his kingly distance, first with them and then with the men while he wanders around the camp. Episodes involving the king in disguise are a favorite device of Elizabethan drama, in part because they emphasize his humanity and community with the people. Thus Henry whimsically identifies himself to Pistol as a kinsman to Fluellen, that embodiment of the commonplace virtues.
Henry's debate with the common soldiers implicitly defines the king's similarities and differences from other men. They talk of the king as a man with fears and hopes like theirs, and the disguised Henry is one of them both in physical presence and in manner. The point at issue is how far he is differentiated by his office, especially by responsibility for the individual fates of his soldiers. Both Williams and he think of the family in their dispute. Williams recalls with graphic literalness the effects of war on widows and children, and Henry argues by analogy to a father and son: "So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him" (IV.i.150-53). Here the fatherhood of the king, a traditional figure of speech, implies what Henry himself illustrates, the combination of authority and personal affection in an ideal king. One thinks of the autocratic Elizabeth and her love for her countrymen. During a scene in which Henry escapes from his formal role, Shakespeare gives these stock references to the family a new immediacy. Henry and Williams argue in the same terms because they are men with the same concerns and values, yet this sameness can emerge only because the king is disguised.
In his soliloquy on ceremony and his prayer, Henry's isolation becomes all the more poignant because for a moment he has been just a man among men. He is left to himself with the responsibilities of kingship and his father's guilt. As king and father to all England, he has to be inhumanly strong and wise; alone before the God whose magistrate he is, he must bear the responsibility that ordinary men escape.
Henry's gaiety and sense of community return with the rising sun. The experience of the past night colors his words to his companions. The high rhetoric of Harfleur mixes with the plain manliness of phrases like "Good God! why should they mock poor fellows thus?" (IV.iii.92). In this way a bridge is made between the formal king of I.ii and the lusty wooer, the plain-speaking man, of V.ii. Henry V is both man and king; his royalty is personal virtue expanded to the larger sphere of public affairs. If this bridge between the private and public man is not so strong as in the Henry IV plays, if it is fully apparent in only one scene, still it is there as an indication of the relationship between man and office.
In the courtship itself we see the man Henry clearly enough, but Shakespeare makes little effort to show the epic king. Johnson remarks discontentedly, "I know not why Shakespeare now gives the king nearly such a character as he made him formerly ridicule in Percy." That is not quite fair, since presumably Henry is playing a part out of sheer exuberance. In one way like Richard III, he exults in the strength that lets him win a lady's love under the most adverse circumstances. Still Johnson's discontent is justified. Ingratiating though the scene may be, it is not really a part of the epic story. Henry plays the farmer seeking a wife, and the game sheds little light on the nature of kingship and on the precarious union between France and England. Hence the ending with its use of the coming marriage as a symbol seems perfunctory, neither triumphant nor effectively ironic.
The excellence of Henry V has little to do with the family, partly because Henry's isolation, unlike that of the two Richards, has no moral significance. Despite its traditional role in the language, the family has no broader dramatic role. Henry V carries out the pattern of making the family an echo of political themes, but it does not deepen this function.
SOURCE: "Henry V," in Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State, Ohio State University Press, 1971, pp. 225-40.
Moody E. Prior
[In the following excerpt, Prior discusses Henry V's emphasis on war. He traces the structure of the play, from the preparations for war to the negotiations for peace, noting that no other of Shakespeare's histories focus on war so exclusively as subject or setting.]
Henry V is constructed on bold, simple lines. It is dominated by the figure of the warrior king, and it moves in a sequence of well-defined acts without the complex interrelations of an intrigue plot and subplots, and with strongly contrasting scenes. There are, however, several clearly established links between Henry V and the preceding plays. The prince's youthful wildness and later reformation, so large a feature of 1 and 2 Henry IV, is the topic of conversation between the two bishops in the opening scene. In 2 Henry IV Henry warns his son that his title, though got by direct succession, is but newly won, and advises him to busy giddy minds in foreign wars in order to unify his country; and the last speech of that play, spoken by Prince John, predicts the easing of civil tensions by means of a war with France:
I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France. I heard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the king.
War with France is the main issue in the first act of Henry V. Henry IV confesses to his son in 2 Henry IV that his own title was dubiously got, and in his prayer before Agincourt Henry V alludes to his father's guilt in compassing the crown. All of Hal's tavern companions are back except Falstaff. The connections are numerous and provocative and it is natural to suppose that, as in the case of the interrelationships among the other plays in the series, the links indicate significant lines of development which may be followed through with some consistency in any serious study of Henry V. One consequence of approaching Henry V in this way is that the directness and straightforward simplicity of Henry V begin to disappear in complexities, and it becomes necessary to ask how far the method can really be applied in this case. The epilogue to 2 Henry IV promises more of Falstaff, but Falstaff does not appear again; thus anyone unfamiliar with that remarkable figure from the two previous plays would not know what to make of the talk of his death in the early scenes of Henry V, and might be puzzled by Fluellen's praise of the king for casting him off. An individual play that is destined for performance must, simply as a condition of its intelligibility in the theatre, be able to stand pretty much alone. To the extent that this consideration determines the primary impression which the play can make, it must be respected in criticism.…
Politically and geographically, Henry V represents a distinct change from the previous plays. The scene enlarges to include the Continent, and most of the action takes place across the sea in France. The kinds of political issues which are at the center of the other plays—the struggles for power, the legal questions of legitimacy, the relations of power to sovereign authority, the evils of civil strife, and the crises of ambition and conscience which trouble a nation and distress or destroy its leaders—these cause no major concern here. The internal politics at the outset has to do with the interplay of special interests which influence the decision to go to war, with the internal dangers that must be met, and with the wedding out of a few traitors. These all, however, are ultimately related to the negotiations between the rival nations. The politics of Henry V is, in the broadest sense, international politics, or, more specifically, war politics, for the entire play is about war. To this central emphasis the construction is a clue. The effect of the play is not that of a tightly knit series of events, but of a sequence of five large episodes, almost pageant-like in quality, separated by the choruses into the five acts designated by modern editions, each dealing with one stage in the course of events that unfolds when two great nations become involved in war.
The first act is the prelude to war—the debate which justifies the going to war and establishes its aims, and the formal diplomatic confrontation the failure of which leads to hostilities. It is puzzling that Shakespeare introduced Henry V with the two bishops worrying over a proposed bill to expropriate temporal lands willed to the church. This topic does lead directly to the laudatory descriptions, amounting to near reverence, of the reformed king, who will shortly appear on the scene, but the connection has its purpose: the bishops see in this "true lover of the holy Church" a possible ally, and their offer of great sums in support of a possible campaign against France is calculated to influence the king in their favor. This heroic play thus opens in an atmosphere of devious politics in undisguised form, and it does not improve our impression of the archbishop when we learn that
the church wealth which Parliament proposes to confiscate would be used to
maintain, to the King's honor,
Full fifteen earls and fifteen hundred knights.
Six thousand and two hundred good esquires,
And to relief of lazars, and weak age,
Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil,
A hundred almshouses right well supplied;
And to the coffers of the King beside,
A thousand pounds by the year.
A modest and apparently laudable social revolution. What is further disturbing is that the man to whom the king appeals to expound whether he can "with right and conscience make this claim" (1.2.96) to the French lands is none other than "my gracious Lord of Canterbury," "my dear and faithful lord" (1.2.1, 13), who had made the offer of church funds to support a possible war with France. Thus, before the play is scarcely under way, we find ourselves among people who seem to have been brought up on The Prince and Bacon's "Of Negotiating," and it is not surprising that many critics find this conniving distasteful and so turn against Henry. As one of his modern biographers puts it [Harold Hutchinson, in Henry V: A Biography, 1967], "If Shakespeare is to be believed, the renewal of what we now call 'The Hundred Years War' was entirely due to the cynical advice of English Churchmen." Shakespeare, it is true, gives a more favorable picture of the churchmen and their efforts to influence the king than do his sources, but even in his modified form the calculated, conniving conduct of the churchmen serves well enough. Aided by recollections of "that vile politician Bolingbroke," the business at Gaultree Forest, and Henry IV's dying advice, our impulse at the outset is to involve the king in this sad business and mark him down for a sharp and conniving operator.
This is probably a mistake, and subsequent developments might make one think so. Shakespeare does not spare the churchmen, but it is they who are busy being politicians, and not Henry. The odd thing about Henry V is that as we look at the king's conduct at home and abroad, he turns out in all his dealings to be the most straightforward, candid political man of the whole lot. Even when he is courting Kate with tedious gallantry, he is blunt about his purpose: "No, it is not possible you should love the enemy of France, Kate; but in loving me you should love the friend of France, for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine" (5.2.176-80). It should be noted, moreover, that negotiations between the countries had been in progress before the offer of the bishops. As the play opens, the French envoys are waiting to present their reply to an embassy sent by the king, before the play begins, to state his claims to France. As Shakespeare arranges the order of events, the offer of money is not the primary incentive to undertaking the war, and so in solemnly warning Canterbury to state the case of his French claims honestly and without sophistry Henry need not be pretending piety or indulging in irony. On the score of learning and logic—too much for us as audience—Canterbury's speech shows that Henry has asked the right man. Today the long harangue on the Salic law is a bore, and whether, as has been alleged, it was more interesting to an age that had to listen to long sermons can be no more than a hopeful guess. But Shakespeare introduces it as though he wished it to be taken as reasonable, and it is doubtful that he put it in for laughs—which is the only way Olivier saw of getting by with it in the film version of the play. By itself the play does not readily support the charge that Henry trumped up an unjust war—a charge, incidentally, which, as the Arden editor [J. H. Walter] points out, would not have been supported by the eminent sixteenth-century jurist, Gentili.
Shakespeare's dramatic strategy has induced numerous unfavorable responses, but it can be accounted for. Henry is presented as a model king, but he rules over an ordinarily imperfect nation—it is one way of bringing a sense of reality into the affairs of this near-perfect epic hero. The play moves on to high moments of patriotism and heroism, but in the course of events there are unsentimental glances now and then at the realities which accompany such great actions of state. The canny and self-serving politicking of the churchmen is to the deliberations that precede the hostilities with France what the discreditable conduct of a few of the king's soldiers is to the heroism of Agincourt. They impinge on Henry, they are part of the nation he must lead to glory, but he is not tarnished by them. There are politicians among the clergy, traitors among the nobles, and shabby characters among the soldiers, but the king employs or disposes of these as he must, moving about them without losing his independence and national regard. There are, moreover, two nations involved in these negotiations. The answer which the French embassy brings in act 1 is not from the king of France but from the dauphin, and it is an insult, which therefore renders further diplomatic negotiations impossible. National honor is a concept which our times have made to seem shabby, but it is nevertheless still true that in diplomacy a public insult from a weak nation is easier to disregard than from an equal. In the setting of the play, the uncompromising reply and the dauphin's contemptuous gift of tennis balls allows a choice only between humiliation and war. Act 1 is thus a dramatization of the cross-currents of debate, negotiation, and diplomacy which precede and in their mixed and sometimes irrelevant way combine to bring nations to war.
The second act encompasses the events between the breakdown of diplomatic missions and the actual fighting, in a loose sequence of events. The chorus tells of the contagious excitement that makes youth eager to take part in the national adventure:
Now all the youth of England are on fire,
And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies;
Now thrive the armorers, and honor's
Reigns solely in the breast of every man.
They sell the pasture now to buy the horse,
Following the mirror of all Christian kings
With winged heels, as English Mercuries.
The play, however, shows us none of this. The odd assortment of characters from the tavern at Eastcheap are all we actually see responding to the war fever, and they are about to join Henry's forces for sordid reasons. In Pistol's inelegant but vivid language, "Let us to France, like horse-leeches, my boys, / To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck" (2.3.56-57). They threaten the lofty tone, like the practical politics of the bishops. We do not see the Gowers and Fluellens, the Williamses and the Courts being moved by the spirit of the moment to join the troops, though they are there at Harfleur and at Agincourt to carry the honor of their country while the Pistols and Bardolphs come to a bad end. The second major episode of act 2, clearly anticipated with appropriate comment by the chorus, is the discovery of the traitors. The final scene is in the French court, and while the picture suggested by the chorus, of the French quaking with fear and pale policy, is not borne out by the dramatization of the episode, the king of France warns the arrogant dauphin not to underestimate the English, and even the dauphin agrees to prudent preparations. The scene ends with the arrival of Exeter bringing an English ultimatum which is dismissed by the French with defiance. In the midst of these miscellaneous scenes, only Henry's confident words after he has dismissed the traitors match the high promise of the opening lines of the chorus:
We doubt not now
But every rub is smoothed on our way.
Then forth, dear countrymen. Let us deliver
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10541
Scholars have discussed a number of characteristics of Henry V's kingship, including the validity of his succession and the burden of the role of king. Critics such as Charles Mitchell and Harold C. Goddard have assessed Henry's right to both the English and French thrones. Mitchell contends that while Henry is proving his right to the French throne, he is also securing his right to the English crown. Other critics, including D. A. Traversi and Peter G. Phialas, focus on the burden of the position of king and Henry's inner conflict between self-control and passion. Phialas asserts that while Henry struggles to achieve a balance between the demands of the crown and his right as a human being to express personal feelings, he does not fully accomplish this reconciliation until the close of the play. Alice Shalvi, however, contends that Henry is an ideal king precisely because of his human qualities. She states that Henry's courage and leadership, combined with his knowledge of and love for his people, serve as the basis of his success as king. Herbert R. Coursen, Jr. examines Henry's inability to act like a mere man now that he is king, and also notes that limited vision and the ability to make morality subservient to politics are essential to the successful ruler. Karl E. Snyder reviews Henry's fulfillment of several aspects of kingship, including his relationship with his counselors and his divinity.
Harold C. Goddard
[In the excerpt below, Goddard discusses Henry's claim to the French throne and his discrediting of the Salic law. This law made it illegal for a woman to take the throne, thus denying Henry's great-great-grandmother from rightfully succeeding her father. Goddard notes that Henry uses this argument as a basis for waging war on France.]
Henry V opens with war on France as good as decided on. Henry would have resented it if someone had told him that. Who doesn't resent being told that his mind is made up when he thinks it is still open? The resentment is a confession that it is closed.
The previous play ended with these words from John of Lancaster:
I will lay odds, that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France. I heard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleas'd the
Come, will you hence?
The present play, after a Chorus that forecasts the coming conflict, opens with a conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely that takes war for granted, though Canterbury does not refer to it in so blunt a term but, more tactfully, as "causes now in hand … as touching France." What the King's brother, a little bird, a Chorus, and two Bishops agree in foreseeing is certainty coming. Henry has obviously made up his mind to follow his father's advice to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.
War being deemed desirable, the next thing is to find a reason for it. The opening of the play is dedicated to a search for sound moral ground for the attack on France. Fortunately for Henry, the Archbishop of Canterbury not only has such a sanction at hand but has a motive for bringing it forward. By a happy chance, he has discovered that what is good for the church coincides with what the King has decided is good for his kingdom. In Henry IV's reign a bill had been introduced to confiscate the better half of the church's wealth. Because of the troubled times it had never come to passage. But now it has been revived:
CANT.: Thus runs the bill.
ELY: This would drink deep.
CANT.: 'Twould drink the cup and all.
ELY: But what prevention?
CANT.: The king is full of grace and fair
ELY: And a true lover of the holy church.
CANT.: The courses of his youth promis'd it
and the two men digress from the subject in hand to comment on the miraculous change that has come over Henry. "But, my good lord," says Ely, returning to the main point,
How now for mitigation of this bill
Urg'd by the commons? Doth his majesty
Incline to it, or no?
CANT.: He seems indifferent,
Or rather swaying more upon our part
Than cherishing the exhibiters against us;
For I have made an offer to his majesty.…
This offer, he goes on to explain, is that the clergy shall make the greatest contribution ever recorded to the war chest of the sovereign. It will obviously be better for the church to make a large gift and so forestall confiscation than to give little or nothing and have its wealth expropriated.
ELY: How did this offer seem receiv'd, my lord?
(There is another word, also of five letters, that would define the nature of the proposed transaction more precisely than "offer." But it would be too much to expect either of these churchmen to employ it.)
With good acceptance of his majesty,
says Canterbury, answering Ely's question,
Save that there was not time enough to
As I perceiv'd his Grace would fain have
and the Archbishop proceeds to tell of another trump card he had up his sleeve which an interruption prevented him from putting on the table before the King:
The severals and unhidden passages
Of his true titles to some certain dukedoms,
And generally to the crown and seat of
France Deriv'd from Edward, his great-grandfather.
In a word, the Church will supply not only treasure for the war chest but a justification for making the war. What more could Henry ask? This is far more than his spiritual and political "father," the Lord Chief Justice of the previous play, would have had to offer in the circumstances. That may seem a cynical way of putting it, and Henry's words, when he resumes the interrupted conversation in the next scene, seem to make it utterly unwarranted. The King begins by warning the Archbishop not to incite him to war on specious grounds. Think of the blood that will be spilt, he reminds him, every drop of which will be a just complaint against whoever begins an unrighteous conflict.
We charge you in the name of God, take
Under this conjuration speak, my lord,
And we will hear, note, and believe in
That what you speak is in your conscience
As pure as sin with baptism.
Nothing could sound more moral and humane (though a suspicious mind might find a Chaucerian ambiguity in that last phrase). But we must judge Henry by his acts, not by his words.
The King must have an irreproachable reason for making war. The one thing that his claim to the French throne must be is clear. But when the Archbishop goes on to expound that claim, clear is the one thing it does not seem to be. The sixty-odd lines Canterbury devotes to it make one of the most complicated passages of pure exposition in Shakespeare and one of the most difficult to assimilate without an opportunity to study it minutely. No one could possibly take it in in the theater. Any stage director would be certain to cut it drastically. Yet attention to it in detail is indispensable to an understanding of the scene.
The gist of Henry's claim rests on the fact that his great-great-grandmother was the daughter of Philip IV of France, the only bar to its legitimacy being the Salic law under which succession through the female line is illegal. Even if the title had been a technically good one, time had had the same effect on it as a statute of limitations. But its very age seems to recommend it all the more to the learned Archbishop. His speech consists of an elaborate discrediting of the Salic law. Under analysis it turns out to be (as it is even in Holinshed whom Shakespeare follows closely here) a colossal piece of ecclesiastical casuistry [resolving of duty or conduct through ethical principles or religious doctrine] with a highly ironical application to the situation in which Henry finds himself.
That situation itself, without any historical assistance, is ironical enough. Henry's father had seized the English throne—with disillusioning consequences. His son now proposes to seize the French throne in the hope—shall we say, of wiping out his father's sin? The Archbishop's speech rubs in the irony, for all the genealogical details he cites fit with damning neatness the situation in which Henry finds himself, and tend to undermine the very claim they are brought forward to substantiate. How far the learned Archbishop is intentionally obscuring the issue, and how far it is obscuring him, is difficult at times to make out. But if the style is the man we are entitled to believe the worst.
To prove that Henry will not be a usurper if he seizes the crown of France in defiance of the Salic law he cites the cases of three French kings who themselves inherited through the female. The first one deposed another king (as Henry IV did Richard II). The second "usurped the crown" by pressing his title
with some shows of truth,
Though in pure truth it was corrupt and naught,
(just as the Archbishop is urging Henry to press a similar title at the moment). The third, who was sole heir to this usurper (as Henry V was to Henry IV), was so uneasy in his mind about his title (as the first Henry was) that he could not keep quiet in his conscience (as the second Henry is now, by his present enterprise, proving that he cannot). The allusiveness of all this to the pending question makes cynical in the extreme the citation of titles "corrupt and naught" as precedents in support of a claim supposed to be pure and substantial. It is like pointing to a dog's mongrel ancestors to prove it a thoroughbred. But the effrontery of the Archbishop's reasoning exceeds even this. The kings of France unto this day, he says to Henry in conclusion, want to bar your title to their throne because you inherit it through the female line, when, all the while, their own titles are crooked and were usurped from you and your progenitors because they were inherited in precisely the same way. The very thing that proves the title of a French king crooked— namely, inheritance through the female—serves, by some twist of ecclesiastical logic, to prove the title of an English king good. Heads you lose, tails I win.
Canterbury's long argument and its conclusion, which he pronounces "as clear as is the summer's sun," bewilder Henry as much as they do the reader. Or perhaps he prefers not to understand, that the responsibility may rest on the Archbishop. At any rate, quite as if he had not taken in a word of Canterbury's magnificent effort, he merely reiterates his original question:
May I with right and conscience make this claim?
To which the Archbishop replies:
The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!
For in the book of Numbers is it writ,
When the son dies, let the inheritance
Descend unto the daughter.
The Book of Numbers! The Archbishop has been holding back his ace. All those tedious genealogical details, then, were only a foil against which the crowning precedent should shine forth. (Quite in Henry's own style.) It was a considerable step back to the King's great-great-grandmother. But Moses, or whoever wrote the Pentateuch, is an even more venerable authority. When, in the next act, Exeter, in Henry's name, demands that the French King resign the crown and adds, as he presents his sovereign's pedigree:
That you may know
'Tis no sinister nor no awkward claim,
Pick'd from the worm-holes of long-vanish'd
Nor from the dust of old oblivion rak'd,
He sends you this most memorable line,
In every branch truly demonstrative,
we remember the learned Archbishop's researches and the Book of Numbers, and perceive that Exeter's vehement denial that there is anything shady or far-fetched in Henry's claim is the poet's oblique way of telling us that shady and far-fetched is exactly what it is.
And there is irony in this scene at a still deeper level. Henry bases his title on inheritance through the female line. But by this very rule under which he claims the French, he must surrender the English' throne, for, allow inheritance through the female, and Edmund Mortimer, who is descended from the third son of Edward III through his grandmother, has a prior claim over Henry, who is descended from the fourth son. Shakespeare leaves it to anyone who will to remember this little fact. With it, the play is one thing; without it, quite another.
Cheerly to sea! the signs of war advance,
cries Henry when the decision to cross the Channel is announced,
No king of England, if not king of France.
"I am not worthy to be your king," he means, "if we cannot beat these Frenchmen." But attending to truth rather than to meter, the line ought to read:
No king of England, if king of France.
Between war and law, Henry is bound to lose. If he wins the war, he confirms inheritance through the female and is "no king of England." If he loses it, he is no king of France.
We interrupted the Archbishop at the Book of Numbers. Let us return to his speech. "Gracious lord," he exclaims, passing from learning to exhortation,
Stand for your own! Unwind your bloody
Look back into your mighty ancestors!
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire's
From whom you claim.
It is indeed a tombstone claim.
For in his tomb lie my affections,
Henry, we may recall, said of his father. Now they go still deeper into the family burial chambers. Could anything make clearer the atavistic character of the change that is coming over Henry than these references to blood and ancestry and graves? His nobler self is regressing not merely into his father but into "the fathers."
In what follows one might imagine that that nobler self makes a final attempt to assert itself, for Henry says nothing for forty lines, while Canterbury, Ely, Exeter, and Westmoreland vie with one another in urging him to rouse himself like "the former lions" of his blood to "forage in the blood of French nobility" as did that "lion's whelp," the Black Prince, in his great-grandfather's day. Their verbal violence suggests both a suppressed thirst for blood on their own parts and a fear that Henry is hesitating to give the final word. Your subjects' hearts have already left their bodies and lie pavilioned on the fields of France, says Westmoreland.
O, let their bodies follow, my dear liege,
cries the Archbishop,
Witli blood and sword and fire to win your
In aid whereof we of the spiritualty
Will raise your highness such a mighty sum
As never did the clergy at one time
Bring in to any of your ancestors.
Fire, blood, lucre, and spiritualty! The witches' brew in Macbeth scarcely exceeds that.
It is evidently at just this moment that Henry overcomes any lingering scruples. With the tension removed, all these men, including the King, let themselves go a bit and their metaphors grow correspondingly revealing. The Scots, who are likely to attack England when her back is turned, are called petty thieves, snatchers, and weasels who suck princely eggs.
England is an eagle in prey—and a cat. But the Archbishop's comparison is a worse giveaway than any of these. He likens human polity in a well-ordered state to that of the bees. The bees, it turns out, have nearly everything in their community that men have except archbishops and armies. No high churchmen of the hive are mentioned. And as for fighters, this is the way the Archbishop tries to squeeze them in:
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer's velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring
To the tent-royal of their emperor.
As if bees hovering above flowers, or the fruitful communion of the two, could be compared to the clash of enemies on the battlefield, or honey to the spoils of war! The Archbishop is as deficient in his science as in his symbolism. His childhood was plainly not spent in the meadows of Stratford. And his logic, that theological and ecclesiastical specialty, is no better. The bees are united and harmonious in a perfect division of labor, he says; "therefore" Henry-should "divide" his forces into four parts, attack France with one, and leave the other three for home defense. What these two kinds of division have to do with each other only a mind more concerned with words than realities could figure out. What fun Shakespeare must have had making such a fool of his Archbishop, knowing all the while that his audience would swallow his utterances as grave political wisdom.
The King evidently accepts them as such, for as the Archbishop concludes, he gives the order:
Call in the messengers sent from the
Now are we well resolv'd.
The French ambassadors enter and ask whether they shall speak their sovereign's intent plainly or veil it in diplomatic language.
Henry tells them to speak out:
We are no tyrant, but a Christian king;
Unto whose grace our passion is as subject
As are our wretches fetter'd in our prisons:
Therefore with frank and with uncurbed
Tell us the Dauphin's mind.
The metaphor is worth nothing, for it is presently going to escape, as prisoners sometimes do, and stab its user in the back. "Whatever praises itself but in the deed," Shakespeare was to write a year or two later, "devours the deed in the praise." He knew it already.
Accepting Henry's invitation not to mince their words, the ambassadors declare that the Dauphin thinks Henry's claims (to certain lands in France— they have not yet heard his claim to the throne) "savour too much of your youth," a plain allusion to the part Hal had taken in robberies; that he cannot dance and revel himself into French dukedoms. Therefore he sends. Henry, in satisfaction of his claims and as more appropriate to his spirit, a tun of treasure. The treasure turns out to be—tennis balls!
This allusion to his gay youth touches Henry where he is sorest. On the instant his passions, which a moment before he had boasted were his subjects and prisoners, break their chains in such a threat of violence that it sounds more like the barbarous license of some Goth or Norseman in the days of Beowulf than the utterance of a supposedly responsible monarch. Go tell the Dauphin that
many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin's
Diplomatic insults have often precipitated wars, and it isn't easy even for the Mirror of all Christian Kings to be twitted in the presence of his court on the subject of his misspent youth. Yet somehow all those widows and mothers and unborn babes seem more than an equivalent for a few tennis balls.
Intoxicated by his own strong speech, the King becomes so consumed with this idea of dominating France that England begins to seem like a mere side issue, a vacation spot where he has given himself up to gaiety while absent from his "home," the throne of France:
We never valu'd this poor seat of England;
And therefore, living hence, did give ourself
To barbarous license; as 'tis ever common
That men are merriest when they are from home.
(What would Faulconbridge and John of Gaunt have said to that?) But when I come back to that home, Henry declares,
I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.
That same old metaphor of the sun is still troubling him! Possessing him rather, we should say, for the sun is now turning from a glorious thing into a deadly one.
Evidently the "barbarous license" that the rejection of Falstaff supposedly ended forever did not include the barbarous license of speech in which Henry indulges in this interview with the ambassadors. But something within his unconsciousness (where the rejected Hal, it should be remembered, now resides) is evidently uneasy and attempts to strike a balance by making Henry introduce references to God, three in a score of lines, immediately following his bragging outbreak. This is one of the King's most interesting psychological symptoms. Those tennis balls shall turn to cannon balls, he boasts in one breath, and the Dauphin's soul at the Judgment Day shall be charged for the vengeance they bring.
But this lies all within the will of God,
he adds in the next breath, as if catching himself up, "in whose name … I am coming on," he concludes in a third breath, "to venge me." He cannot leave himself out after all. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord— and Henry V of England is my instrument. So reads Henry's revised version.
And thus the first act ends. One wonders whether any who find it lacking in drama may possibly have missed some of its irony.…
SOURCE: "Henry V," in The Meaning of Shakespeare, The University of Chicago Press, 1951, pp. 215-68.
D. A. Traversi
[In the following excerpt from an essay first published in 1956, Traversi observes Henry's moral and political conflict between self-control and passion. He contends that as king, Henry must possess a complete devotion to his position and cannot allow selfishness to affect his decisions. Traversi argues that Henry V provides the link between political unity and personal order in England. He also traces Henry's struggle throughout the play with personal control and order.]
The political success aimed at by Henry IV is finally achieved, in the last play of the series, by his son. The general theme of Henry V is the establishment in England of an order based on consecrated authority and crowned by action against France. The conditions of this order are, again in accordance with the main conception, moral as well as political. The crime of regicide which had stood between Bolingbroke and the attainment of peace no longer hangs over Henry V—unless as a disturbing memory—and the crusading purpose which had run as an unfulfilled aspiration through the father's life is replaced by the reality, at once brilliant and ruthless, of the son's victorious campaign.
This, as critics have not always realized, is less a conclusion than a point of departure for the understanding of Henry V. It was the conditions of kingship, at least as much as its results, that interested Shakespeare in these plays: and these conditions are viewed, by the time the last of them came to be conceived, in a light definitely akin to the tragic. The problem of political unity and that of personal order have been brought in the course of these historical studies into the closest relationship. The former has been achieved, in the preceding plays, by the development of a political capacity that recalls, in various of its aspects, the Machiavellian conception of the Prince; but success of this kind increasingly poses for Shakespeare, whose thought was at once more traditional and less limited to the political than that of the great Florentine, wider problems more definitely moral, even religious, in kind. Just as the state, already in Henry IV-Part II, is regarded in its divisions as a diseased body ravaged by a consuming fever, so is the individual seen increasingly as torn between the violence of his passions and the direction of reason; and just as the remedy to political anarchy lies in unquestioned allegiance to an authority divinely constituted, so does personal coherence depend upon the submission to reason of our uncontrolled desires. The link between the two states, political and personal, is provided in these plays by concentration upon the figure of the king. The problem of the state becomes that of the individual at its head. The king, who properly demands unquestioning allegiance from his subjects, is first called upon to show, through the perfection of his dedication, a complete and selfless devotion to his office. The personal implications, as well as the patriotic triumphs, which that devotion brings with it are considered in Henry V.
It demands, in the first place, an absolute measure of self-domination. Called upon to exercise justice and shape policies for the common good, the king can allow no trace of selfishness or frailty to affect his decisions. He must continually examine his motives, confirm them in the light of reason; and this means that he is engaged in a continual struggle against his share of human weakness. As the play proceeds, we become increasingly aware that there is in Henry an uneasy balance between violent passion, in certain of its forms, and firm self-control. The control is, indeed, an essential part of his political capacity and of his personal stature. Without it, Henry would not be a true king at all; but, precisely because he is a man and not a crowned puppet, there are times when an unmistakable sense of constraint makes itself felt, as for instance in his greeting to the French ambassador:
We are no tyrant, but a Christian king;
Unto whose grace our passion is as subject
As are our wretches fettered in our prisons.
The harshness of the comparison is, to say the least, remarkable. Such control, though admirable, and doubly so in a king, is necessarily precarious. The passions, "fettered," treated with a disdain similar to that which, as Prince Hal, he has already displayed to the considerations of normal feeling when the fulfillment of his vocation imposed the renunciation of his past, may be expected to break out in forms not immediately attractive.
Almost at once, in fact, they do so. The French envoys, in fulfilling their mission by presenting him with the Dauphin's tennis balls, touch upon a raw spot in Henry's sensibility; they expose him to ridicule and, worst of all, they refer—by the observation that "You cannot revel into dukedoms here"—to the abjured but not forgotten past. Henry's reaction, in spite of the opening affirmation of self-control, takes the form of one of those outbursts which are habitual with him whenever his will is crossed. As when France was to be "bent" or "broken," his rhetoric, measured and even cold on the surface, is full of accumulated passion:
When we have match'd our rackets to these
We will, in France, by God's grace, play a
Shall strike his father's crown into the
The reference to "God's grace," rarely omitted from Henry's official utterances, clearly befits a Christian king, and we need not deny its propriety; but from the personal point of view, which the play is also concerned to stress, the note of resentment which rises through the speech is equally significant. It rankles at this point until the real motive, or an important part of it, becomes at last explicit:
we understand him well,
How he comes o'er us with our wilder days,
Not measuring what use we made of them.
The personal offense once mentioned, the considerations of conscience are swept aside, at least for so long as the new emotion is in command. The horrors of war, the slaughter and misery attendant upon it, are once again mentioned, but only that he may disclaim responsibility for them. The tone of his words, following the swell of emotion, rises to one of ruthless and triumphant egoism:
But I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turn'd his balls to gun-stones; and his
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful
That shall fly with them: for many a
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin's
"I will rise there"; "I will dazzle all the eyes of France." The Dauphin's gibe has set free Henry's "fettered" passions and these express themselves in a cumulative vision of destruction. The tone of the utterance—the impact of "strike," the harsh reference to the balls which have been turned to "gun-stones," the sense of irresistible, ruinous force behind "mock castles down"— reflects the new feeling and anticipates the later, more masterly picture of Coriolanus in action. This is not to say that we are to regard Henry as a monster at this point, or to deny that a proper sense of royal responsibility underlies his words. He is uttering a warning, condemning the real irresponsibility of others; but the speech has, beyond this, an intimate content which is also part of the complete effect. The sense of power, inhuman and destructive beneath the surface of righteous anger, has been unleashed in the king. The responsibility for coming events, already assumed by the Archbishop of Canterbury earlier in the same scene, has now been further fastened upon the Dauphin, and Henry is in a position to announce his coming descent upon France with a phrase that incorporates into his new vehemence the convenient certainty of righteousness:
But all this lies within the will of God,
To whom I do appeal.
No doubt the conviction is sincere; but the fact remains that the will of God and the will of Henry, now fused in the passion released by the Dauphin's jest, have become identical.
It is not until the opening of the French campaign that Henry's utterances are translated into action. The poetry of war in this play deserves careful attention. Much of it, corresponding to the spirit of the patriotic chronicle, is full of life and vigor; such is the elaborate description in the Prologue to this same act of the "fleet majestical" which bears the English forces to Harfleur. The king "embarks his royalty" on a "brave fleet," adorned and lighted by the dawn:
behold the threaden sails,
Borne with the invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the
Breasting the lofty surge: O, do but think
You stand upon the rivage and behold
A city on the inconstant billows dancing;
For so appears this fleet majestical.
Such imagery, splendidly and consciously laden for its effect, is a contribution to the spirit of the play. It may be that some of its deeper notes are not included in it, but the effect of a pageant, of the confident display of might in beauty, is undoubtedly part of Shakespeare's debt to his theme which, whilst balancing it against other elements, it was no part of his intention to forgo. If, in much of this play, he qualifies the note of majesty with more somber and reflective tones, the effect of these tones is in part gained by the contrast with the appeal of majesty itself.
Yet when, immediately after, Henry himself appears, much of his first utterance, as he incites his followers to battle, has about it a strong flavor of artificiality and strain:
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril
Hold hard the breath and bend up every
To his full height.
There is about this incitation something forced, incongruous, even (if we may risk taking the point a little too far) slightly absurd. The action of the warrior is an imitation, and an imitation of a wild beast at that, carried out by a deliberate exclusion of "fair nature." The blood is to be summoned up, the sinews stiffened to the necessary degree of artificial savagery, while the involved rhetorical comparisons which follow the references to the "brass cannon" and the "galled rock" strengthen the impression of something very like unreality. In stressing this note of inhumanity, the speech does not intend to deny the poetry of war, which, as we have just seen, Shakespeare expresses most fully in certain passages from the various prologues of this play; but, as later in Coriolanus, he balances the conception of the warrior in his triumphant energy as "a greyhound straining at the leash" against that, not less forcible, of a ruthless and inhuman engine of destruction. Both ruthlessness and splendor are inseparable aspects of the complete picture.
Henry's treatment of the governor and citizens of Harfleur relates this conception of the warrior to tensions already apparent in his own character. Not for the first time, two scenes are placed together to point a contrast. The way in which he presents his ultimatum is full of that sense of conflict between control and passion that was so prominent in his early utterances. The grotesque inhumanity implicit in his words is balanced by a suggestion of tragic destiny. Beneath his callousness is a sense that the horrors of war, once unleashed, freed from the sternest control, are irresistible. His soldiers, he warns the governor, are still held uneasily in check. "The cool and temperate wind of grace," whose control over passion is the mark of a Christian soldier, still exercises its authority; but "licentious wickedness" and "the filthy and contagious clouds" of "heady murder" threaten to break out at any moment. In his catalogue of the horrors of war stress is laid upon rape and the crimes of "blood." The "fresh-fair" virgins of Harfleur will become the victims of the soldiery, whose destructive atrocities are significantly referred to in terms of "liberty":
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
The process of evil, once unleashed, follows courses fatally determined; but Henry, having described them in words which emphasize his awareness of their horror, ends by disclaiming all responsibility for them, just as he had once disclaimed all responsibility for the outbreak of the war. The whole matter, thus taken out of his hands, becomes indifferent to him:
What is't to me, when you yourselves are
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
Yet this very assertion of indifference carries with it, at bottom, a sense of the tragedy of the royal position. Only this denial of responsibility, it would seem, only the exclusion of humanity and the acceptance of a complete dualism between controlling "grace" and the promptings of irresponsible passion, make possible that success in war which is, for the purposes of this play, the crown of kingship.
For it would certainly be wrong to suppose that Shakespeare, in portraying Henry, intends to stress a note of hypocrisy. Rather, his purpose is to bring out the burden of royalty, to point to certain contradictions, human and moral, which seem to be inherent in the notion of a successful king. As the play proceeds, Henry seems at times to be, at least in a moral sense, almost the victim of his position. The treasonable activities of Cambridge, Grey, and Scroop are indications of the duplicity with which monarchs are fated by their position to deal. Somewhere at the heart of this court there is a fundamental flaw which must constantly be allowed for by a successful ruler. It appears to Henry, in his dealings with the conspirators, as something deep-rooted enough to be associated with the original fall of man:
seem they religious?
Why, so didst thou: or are they spare in
Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger,
Constant in spirit, not swerving with the
Garnish'd and deck'd in modest complement,
Not working with the eye without the ear,
And but in purged judgement trusting
Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem:
And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot,
To mark the full-fraught man and best
With some suspicion. I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man.
It is remarkable that Henry, in meditating upon this betrayal, should return once more to that theme of control, of freedom from passion, which is so prominent in his own nature. By concentrating on the functioning of the body, and on the sense of mutual divergence between eye, ear, and judgment in the difficult balance of the personality, the speech sets spiritual control in contrast with a sense of anarchy that proceeds, most typically, from the contemplation of physical processes. "Gross passion"—the adjective is significant—is associated with the irrational "swerving of the blood," and the judgment which controls it needs to be "purged" by fasting ("spare in diet") before it can attain a scarcely human freedom from "mirth or anger." By thus emphasizing the difficult and even unnatural nature of such control, the speech casts a shadow, at least by implication, over that of Henry himself; but it is also seen to be necessary, inseparable from his office. The administration of justice, upon which depends order within the kingdom and success in its foreign wars, demands in the monarch a detachment which borders on the inhuman. The state must be purged of "treason lurking in its way" before it can be led, with that single-mindedness of purpose which is both Henry's strength and, perhaps, in the long run, his limitation, to the victorious enterprise in France.
It is clear, indeed, that Henry V represents, however tentatively, a step in the realization of themes fully developed in the tragedies. Inheriting from his sources the conception of a victorious king, perfectly aware of his responsibilities and religiously devoted to the idea of duty, Shakespeare seems, in the most individual scenes of his play, to emphasize the difficulties of the conception, the obstacles, both personal and political, which lie between it and fulfillment. These difficulties, however, never amount to a questioning of the royal judgment. Even in the disguised Henry's debate with Williams and Bates on the morning of Agincourt (IV. i), where the implications of his power are most searchingly discussed, the king's right to command obedience is never in question. For Bates the duty of a subject lies in loyal execution of the royal will, and the responsibility for wrong action rests beyond the simple soldier with the king: "we know enough, if we know we are the king's subjects." Nor does Williams, though more skeptical in his attitude, question the postulate that the subject is bound to obey; for to disobey, as he puts it, "were against all property of subjection," and the emphasis is still upon the "proportion" to be observed between king and subject, directing head and executing body, and upon the proper submission which the successful prosecution of the military effort requires.
Henry, of course, accepts this view of his position; but although the questionings of his followers do not— and cannot—lead him to doubt his own authority, they do force him to reflect deeply upon the weaknesses which even kings cannot overcome. "The king is but a man as I am; the violet smells to him as it doth to me;… all his senses have but human conditions; his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet when they stoop they stoop with the like wing." There is about the argument a universality which transcends the royal situation. Men, differentiated by vain "ceremony," are united in their common "nakedness," and the most notable feature of human behavior seems to the speaker to be its domination by impulse, its helplessness before the stooping of the affections. In this respect the king is one with his men; and just because he is so like them, because his senses too "have but human conditions" and are constantly liable to break through the guard of rigid self-control imposed upon him by his vocation, there is something precarious, potentially disproportionate in his absolute claim upon the allegiance of his followers.
The royal isolation is further underlined by Williams when he points out the spiritual consequences of a conflict for which the king has accepted full responsibility: "For how can they [Henry's soldiers] charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it" (IV. i). These words repeat once more, but with a greater urgency, a preoccupation with the horrors of war which Henry has already expressed, even if he succeeded in shaking off responsibility for them, to the French envoys and the governor of Harfleur. They imply, beyond the sense of responsibility which derives from the traditional conception of monarchy, a contrast—already familiar—between the Christian law of "charity" and the impulse to destruction that threatens it in the necessary acts of war with the consequences of unlimited brutality. The connection between this conflict of flesh and spirit and the tendency of human societies, states and families alike, to dissolve by the questioning of "degree" into anarchy is not established in this play as it is in the tragedies which followed. But Hamlet himself might have reflected like Henry on the precarious basis of human pretensions, and Angelo defined in similar terms the catastrophic realization of it brought about by his encounter with Isabella. Had Henry once followed his line of speculation far enough to doubt the validity of his motives for action, or—on the other hand—had he given free play to the sinister impulses dimly recognized in himself, he would of course have been the protagonist of another and quite different play; but the possibilities are there as a premonition, a first indication of issues brought fully to light in later actions.
For the moment, Henry counters the implications of this argument by pointing out that soldiers "purpose not their death, when they purpose their services." Williams' somber reflections, however, impose themselves upon him, attach themselves to his own meditations, and are profoundly echoed in his own words. Connecting war with sin, he repeats the tone of earlier statements: "Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrament of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers: some peradventure have on them the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder; some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seal of perjury" (IV. i). The result is, in part, a fresh emphasis on meticulous self-examination as a means of conserving spiritual health— "Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience"—and, in the verse soliloquy which closes the scene, one of those outbursts of nostalgic craving for release which have appeared already, in his father's mouth, in Henry IV—Part II, and which will be reflected with a new, more physical apprehension of existence in Hamlet's soliloquies and in the Duke's incitations to Claudio in Measure for Measure:
what infinite heart's ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy!
The craving for "heart's ease" in this long speech is still, generally speaking, what it is in Henry IV: a desire to be freed from the burden of an office in which human purposes seem fatally divorced from human achievement. The development of the verse is still painstaking, leisurely in the expansion of its long periods, and a little rhetorical; but there are moments which foreshadow the association in Hamlet of this nostalgia with a desire to be free from the encumbrances, the "fardels," the "things rank and gross in nature" by which the flesh persistently seems to obstruct the workings of the spirit. "Greatness" is a "fiery fever" which consumes its royal victim like a bodily disease, and the contrasted peace of the humble subject is described with a curious ambiguity of tone:
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who with a body fill'd and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm'd with distressful bread.
In the association of peace with bodily fullness and vacancy of mind, in the impression, harshly and directly physical, behind "fill'd" and "cramm'd," there is a distinct suggestion of certain descriptions of satiated, idle contentment in plays as far apart as Troilus and Cressida and Coriolanus. Here already such imagery represents a kind of residue, intractable and irreducible, in direct contrast to the king's increasing emphasis on the need for spiritual discipline. It is no more than a suggestion, unabsorbed as yet into the main imaginative design of a play conceived on different, simpler lines; but, tentative as it is, it stands in a certain relationship to the clash of flesh and spirit—"passion" and "grace"—which exacts continual vigilance from Henry and which is slowly moving through these developments of imagery to more open realization.
A similar potential cleavage can be detected in the treatment of the two sides drawn up for battle at Agincourt. Shakespeare differentiates between the French and English forces in a way which sometimes seems to foreshadow the balance held in Troilus and Cressida between Greeks and Trojans, though it is true that the unfavorable estimate of the English, which is scarcely compatible with the spirit of the play, is expressed only in the words of their enemies. The English are morally worthy of their victory, but the French account does go a little way to anticipate the possibility of criticism. The French, combining a touch of the unsubstantial chivalry of Troilus with a more than Trojan emptiness, are, like the Trojans, and more justly, defeated; the English, whom they represent as gross and dull-witted, are as undeniably successful as the Greeks. Shakespeare's handling of the battle carries on this conception. The French, trusting in a thin and rhetorical belief in their own aristocracy, rush hastily and incompetently to their deaths; the English, deriving their spirit from their king, win the day by their perseverance and self-control. Self-control, however, which is—as in Henry himself—not without some suggestion of harshness and inhumanity. Henry's righteousness does not prevent him from inflicting merciless reprisals on his prisoners, and, though these matters need to be looked at in the spirit of the times, and the play is careful to emphasize the base act of treachery which rouses Henry to righteous anger, there is something finally sardonic about Gower's comment that "the king, most worthily, hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O, 'tis a gallant king" (IV. vii). By such excellence, Shakespeare would seem to say, must even the most just and patriotic of wars be won.…
SOURCE: "Henry IV—Parts I and II, and Henry V," in An Approach to Shakespeare, third edition, Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1969, pp. 191-258.
[In this essay, Mitchell examines Henry's attempts to establish his legal and moral right to kingship. He notes that by proving his right to the French throne, Henry simultaneously secures his claim to the English crown. Mitchell also discusses the concept of honor in Henry V and ways Henry achieves these ideals.]
The war in Shakespeare's Henry V is significant because it provides the occasion for Henry's proving his right to kingship. Henry's need to establish his legal right to the throne of France serves the more pressing need to ensure his right to the English throne: [according to John Palmer in his Political Characters of Shakespeare, 1952] he "has invaded France in order that he may acquire a second crown which is to secure him yet more firmly in possession of a crown already in his grasp." The traitorous Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey challenge Henry's English rights, but by publicly laying claim to the French throne on the basis of his lineage, he simultaneously proves his right to the English crown. Henry's pedigree allegedly proves his right to the French crown, and the possession of that French crown would in turn prove the pedigree, which entitles him to rule England. At the same time that he establishes his legal right, Henry must also demonstrate his moral right to the English throne. Because Henry IV usurped the throne from Richard II, Henry feels that his legal right is dubious; others may be satisfied that his right can be supported by policy and power, but for Henry the legal dubiety is underlined by his doubt that he has an ethical right to kingship. In trying to satisfy his conscience that he deserves to be king, he discovers the qualities and attitudes which a truly virtuous ruler should possess. He gradually develops the proper ethical responses to concepts of conscience and commonwealth, honor and degree. At the end of the play Henry has become an embodiment of the ideals of political honor.
In spite of the fact that Henry is eulogized for being able to "reason in divinity," "debate on commonwealth affairs," and "turn him to any cause of policy," the events of Act I suggest that he possesses a strong self-interest which hinders the accurate translation of the "theoric" into the "practic part of life" (I.i.37-52). Ely and Exeter tempt Henry with attractions similar to those Cassius presents Brutus—degree and noble ancestry, which Henry must affirm and extend for himself:
Awake remembrance of these valiant dead,
And with your puissant arm renew their
You are their heir; you sit upon their
The blood and courage that renowned them
Runs in your veins; and my thrice-puissant
Is in the very May-morn of his youth,
Ripe for exploits and mighty enterprises
Canterbury enriches Ely's temptation with a speech leading up to the "chronicle … rich with praise" (I.ii.162). That Henry is attracted by this reward of the war against France is indicated in his reply to Ely, Exeter, and Canterbury:
Either our history shall with full mouth
Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave,
Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless
Not worshipp'd with a waxen epitaph
Great fame will accrue to Henry should he do what none of his ancestors could: make good the English claim to the French throne. Henry's sense of the power of personal accomplishment is expressed in his conclusion:
Now are we well resolv'd; and by God's
And yours, the noble sinews of our power
France being ours, we'll bend it to our awe,
Or break it all to pieces
Although more than lip service is being paid to divine providence, Henry's emphasis is on his own power and sense of high position. The insult from the Dauphin is certainly a circumstance which partially excuses Henry's pride; nevertheless, it does cause Henry to reveal his self-interest in the impending war. Henry's sense of his glory chronicled in the future is linked with his present vanity about his royal importance:
But tell the Dauphin I will keep my estate,
Be like a king, and show my sail of
When I do rouse me in my throne of France.…
But I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us
At the beginning of the play divine providence is more like a means to an end, Henry's personal victory; at the close, Henry views his personal victory as a means of implementing a higher end, God's providence.
As an instrument of policy, the war is a necessity and seems to Henry a positive good. But viewed as an experience rather than an instrument of policy, the war is a gruesome reality which startles him out of his self-interest and into an enlarged sense of responsibility. His initial attitude toward war, supported by the Dauphin's insult, enlivens Henry's self-interest, but the second attitude modifies that self-interest and transmutes it into concern for his subjects. By that transformation Henry earns the ethical right to kingship. War as policy makes Henry legally a king; but war as horrible experience makes him ethically a king.
In his essay on Henry V [An Approach to Shakespeare, 1956] Derek Traversi remarks that "Called upon to … shape policies for the common good, the king can allow no trace of selfishness or frailty to affect his decisions. He must continually examine his motives." If Henry's motives for entering the war are not stirred by conscience, they are at least checked and examined by it. Though he frequently tries to evade his conscience by placing his responsibilities on others, he finds himself increasingly unable to act without its sanction. At the outset, he tries to satisfy his conscience that the war is legally justified, by requiring Canterbury to supply the legal justification:
For we will hear, note, and believe in heart
That what you speak is in your conscience
As pure as sin with baptism
And after Canterbury's long justification Henry asks again, "May I with right and conscience make this claim?" (I.ii.96). Henry's repetition of the question would seem to indicate that he doubts Canterbury's somewhat tangled argument; perhaps he realizes that his motive is not itself pure but is being purified by the character of the ecclesiastical authority who adduces the argument and whose own conscience has perhaps been bought, intentionally or not, by Henry's recent political favors. At any rate, the exchange between Henry and Canterbury suggests that Henry both meets and evades his conscience by placing responsibility on the Archbishop. The fact that Henry allows the three traitors to judge themselves may express both his objectivity and his unwillingness to assume full responsibility:
The mercy that was quick in us but late
By your own counsel is suppress'd and kill'd
Simultaneously Henry justifies and evades responsibility for a harsh judgment. Again, at Harfleur, Henry places the blame for impending martial destruction on his enemy; they will be "guilty in defence" (III.iii.43), whereas his own soldiers,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like
Your fresh fair virgins and your flow'ring
The grotesqueness of the imminent carnage and the linking of conscience with hell have robbed conscience of meaning, turning it into a mere word which supplants the principle.
[Palmer notes that two] common soldiers, Bates and Williams, accuse Henry: "out of the mouth of John Bates, he finds himself charged with precisely the burden he has always sought to avoid.… Driven to the wall, Henry is prompt in defence. Despite his lifelong evasions he has been brought to a point where the imminent death of twenty thousand men is laid to his account." It is not difficult to shift responsibility for an unfought war, and for the penalty imposed on traitors, and for the contemplated destruction of the enemy; but it is more difficult for Henry to justify the impending slaughter of his own countrymen. Henry seeks to evade the blame for the death of his men: "every subject's soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience" (IV.i.188-89). He has given only a partial solution to a difficult problem, and hence when the soldiers leave him with their accusation, Henry reluctantly accepts in private his moral responsibilities:
Upon the King! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the King!
Unlike Coriolanus, Henry permits himself to be upbraided by a plebeian: in so far as the master becomes servant to his servant, the servant may on occasion discipline his master, perhaps serving as an outward conscience questioning the master's motives.
Henry questions his motives in private and is less able than Brutus to evade the probing eye of conscience. Pressed hard by his conscience, Henry ferrets out one of the motives he has screened from himself, and in the process of that self-analysis, he reaches some remarkable conclusions about kingship and degree. In the process of trying to define the role of king, which includes the need to clarify the distinction between king and subject, Henry admits that his motives include the desire for ceremony and degree (IV.i. 247-301). He is, of course, unlike Coriolanus and Brutus in his admission to himself that such a desire is a part of his motive. Unlike them again, Henry admits his common humanity and identifies himself, the highest figure in the social hierarchy, with his men, the lowest figures in it. He admits that as a man there is no essential difference between himself and his subjects; the only difference is the unessential one of ceremony and rank:
but for ceremony, such a 'wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep
Had the fore-hand and vantage of a king.
Ceremony and degree, which before Henry had esteemed when defending himself against the Dauphin's mock, he now mocks:
O Ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree, and
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Divorced from ethical function, ceremonial degree becomes valueless, a "proud dream." More important and basic than the concept of degree is the concept of equality, demonstrated by Henry's mixing with everyone both "mean and gentle" (IV. prol. 45) and by the basic political assumption of the play. That assumption is that political harmony is achieved by equal contributions from all members of society directed at the target of common interest:
I this infer,
That many things, having full reference
To one consent, may work contrariously.
As many arrows, loosed several ways,
Come to one mark; as many ways meet in
As many fresh streams meet in one salt sea;
As many lines close in the dial's centre;
So may a thousand actions, once afoot,
End in one purpose
Yet fused with the concept of ordered equality is a hierarchical arrangement expressed in Canterbury's progression from king downward to drone (I.ii. 190-204). The two concepts of hierarchy and equality compose the single paradoxical principle of political rule: that the king is both master and servant to his people. In The Education of a Christian Prince, [1936, Desiderius] Erasmus says that the king serves as both the mind and heart to his people: "the rule of a prince over his people is no different from the mind over the body. The mind dominates the body because it knows more than the physical body.… What the heart is in the body of a living creature, that the prince is in the state." As the embodiment of mind the king dominates his subjects, but as the embodiment of heart, he is lowered to their level: "The heart is situated in the middle of the body. Just so should a prince always be found among his people." Henry is the living embodiment of the paradox. When he rids himself of the sterile concept of ceremonial degree, Henry admits the essential equality between himself and his subjects. That admission leads back to the principle of hierarchy: Henry realizes that since ceremonial degree does not differentiate a king from other men, a king must be superior to others ethically in that he deserves to rule because he is most willing and able to serve. Henry thus concludes his soliloquy with a reference to the "watch the King keeps to maintain peace." It is a bitter truth, realized on the eve of battle. When he next addresses his men, he states that social hierarchy should be a reflection of ethical hierarchy, the degree of inner goodness revealed by selfless valor:
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;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here.
At the same time Henry expresses a willingness to share that glory which before he had sought for himself.
Having denied hierarchy in the name of equality, Henry has, in effect, reaffirmed hierarchy in the name of equality: he affirms that a man is superior only in so far as he recognizes his equality with others by-serving them. Henry's progress toward moral superiority is marked by a kind of symbolic social progress: in rising above most men in his willingness to accept responsibility and to serve others, he casts off the garb which disguised him as a common man and assumes the rights of kingship. These rights require that he now assert the concept of hierarchy in order to maintain harmony. Whereas before he had neglected degree, he has newly discovered its meaning and therefore can newly affirm it: thus he cannot accept Williams' challenge: "It may be his enemy is a gentleman of great sort, quite from the answer of degree" (IV.viii.141-43). At the end Henry may with perfect moral rectitude both covet glorious honor and be "free from vainness and self-glorious pride" (V. prol. 20). The honor Henry seeks is not external, false honor:
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my
But if it be a sin to covet honour
I am the most offending soul alive
It is morally a sin to covet honor if it is the mere outer garment of social degree, but if that honor is true—one's moral goodness as it is confirmed by the judgment of good men—it becomes a sin, as it does in Coriolanus, not to seek it, since the minds of good men serve as the collective conscience which corrects, and rewards, individual conscience. At the close, therefore, Henry can both covet honor and efface his own power:
O God, thy arm was here;
And not to me, but to thy arm alone
Ascribe we all!
The opposing terms in the paradoxical concept of honor are resolved in Henry: he deserves because he makes no claim to desert, he merits rank because he affirms equality, and he merits praise because he does not seek it but seeks the inner spirit of praise— honor as "a certeine testimonie of vertue shining of yt self, given of some man by the judgement of good men."
SOURCE: "Henry V: The Essential King," in Shakespearean Essays, No. 2, 1964, pp. 97-103.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4968
Analysis of the language and imagery in Henry V has yielded a variety of critical interpretations. Michael Goldman studies the use of language to exhort and to motivate listeners to action. He asserts that the speeches in the play are passionate and require great physical effort by the speaker. Robert Hapgood concentrates on the disputative tone of the language in the play, maintaining that the speech contributes to the constant arguments and the movement from peace to war. C. H. Hobday also notes the transition to war by assessing the references to death imagery in Henry V. For further analysis of the language and imagery of Henry V, see the essay by Landon C. Burns, Jr. in the EPIC ELEMENTS section.
[In the excerpt below, Hapgood contends that the argumentative language of Henry V contributes to the tone and meaning of the play. He observes that disputes take place within the two camps more frequently than between the two enemies. Hapgood also notes that Henry's most characteristic mode of speech is that of agreement, which results in the nobility's loyalty to the king.]
The central mode of speech in Henry V is that of dispute. Unlike the other three Lancastrian plays, each of which announces its central mode at the outset, Henry V begins with its main anti-mode, concert and agreement: the Prologue invokes a Muse of fire, appeals to English national feeling, and apologetically seeks the cooperation of spectator with performer; and the first scenes show the church and the crown working out the terms of their mutual assistance. Not until the end of the second scene, when the Ambassadors of France arrive with their tennis balls, is the dominant mode sounded. Disputes between the two enemies were of course to be expected in this play, and we are not disappointed; shamelessly weighted to favour the English, they continue until the agreements of the finale. What might not have been expected is the extent to which the two sides quarrel among themselves. Such disputes are even more frequent than those between the two sides.
The French mode of dispute is that of mocking insult. This is emphatically the manner of the Dauphin's gift of tennis balls and of the Constable's advice that the English repent before they die (IV, iii, 83-7). Among themselves, it marks the Constable's barbed raillery with the Dauphin and Orleans (III, vii) and seems even to be the mode of French women; the Dauphin protests:
Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
Our mettle is bred out and they will give
Their bodies to the lust of English youth…
(III, v, 28-30)
The French are much given, also, to bragging, both to the English and among themselves. As King Henry jokes to Montjoy:
forgive me, God,
That I do brag thus! This your air of
Hath blown that vice in me; I must repent.
(III, vi, 159-61)
Yet they are quickly reduced to unconditional surrender, most abjectly in Monsieur le Fer's cries: 'O, je vous supplie, pour l'amour de Dieu, me pardonner!' (IV, iv, 42).
Like the top levels of the French court, the lower orders of the English army are constantly in dispute; yet unlike the French, whose disagreements are often left hanging in the air, theirs are always resolved, as in the quarrel (II, i) between Nym and Pistol over Nell Quickly. Captain Fluellen, the very embodiment of disputatiousness, is at the centre of these disputes. His 'prawls, and prabbles, and quarrels, and dissensions' are what he lives for, and he is too prone to equate love of dispute with valour in battle. He grossly underestimates Captain Macmorris, who is all fight and no talk; while he at first grossly overestimates Pistol, who—as the Boy puts it—'hath a killing tongue and a quiet sword'. Fluellen is so disputatious that he can even provoke a slight tiff with the otherwise ever-agreeable Gower (IV, i, 76), but his main disputes are of course with Pistol. Their contention echoes the international dispute, as the braggart's mocking insults give way to easy and total submission: 'Must I bite?' King Henry's magnanimity to a conquered foe is reflected in the groat Fluellen gives Pistol to 'heal your pate'.
Apart from his international exchanges, King Henry's chief disputes come when he is in disguise—first, as Harry le Roi, with Pistol (IV, i, 35-63); then, later in the scene, with Williams. The latter is easily the most searching of the play's disputes, the disguised king and his men debating the highest issues of duty and rule before descending to embroilments about the king's 'foolish saying' and Williams's 'something too round' reproof.
The king's most characteristic mode of speech, however, is the play's chief anti-mode: concert and agreement. Among the English nobility, especially in contrast to the French, there is notable amity among themselves and loyalty to the king. If the three traitors pervert this solidarity in their false expressions of fidelity (II, ii, 18-51), the king is not deceived; and their exception is more than counter-balanced by Exeter's account of the deaths of Suffolk and York (IV, vi, 7-32), which is the most extreme expression of amity in the play, perhaps in Shakespeare. Henry knows how to knit his band of brothers. Of course there are those who do not respond to his appeals. Among the stragglers, Bardolph can only parody the king's battle-cry: 'On, on, on, on, on! to the breach, to the breach!' (III, ii). The king is prepared to sacrifice their friendship. In their place, he welcomes Fluellen, who does respond to his cry and echoes it, if very much in his own idiom: 'Up to the breach, you dogs! avaunt, you cullions!'
With France, Henry's is again the voice of unity: not as a mediator—he is not a Bardolph or a Bates or, at the international level, a Burgundy—but as a magnanimous conqueror. Typically, his victory with Kate is on his own terms—she goes much further than he in an attempt to 'talk the same language'—yet he has the magnanimity to attempt a little French.
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Thematic Modes of Speech: Richard II to Henry V," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 20, 1967, pp. 41-9.
C. H. Hobday
[In the following essay, Hobday explores the use of death imagery in Henry V and the emotional significance that the imagery had for Shakespeare. He notes that Shakespeare constantly places the language of honor and religion amidst the realities of greed and cruelty]
During the last century and a half many of the most distinguished Shakespearian critics, from Hazlitt to J. Dover Wilson, have disputed over the character of Shakespeare's Henry V. When such a debate has continued so long, without showing any sign of reaching a conclusion, it seems reasonable to assume that the division of opinion among critics may reflect a division in Shakespeare's own mind, and that his emotions may have rebelled against his conscious intentions in writing the play. One criterion by which we can attempt to ascertain the feelings with which he wrote is through his image-clusters, which afford a clue to the emotional associations which certain words possessed for him. In Henry V one image-cluster plays an especially significant part, that associated with death.
Some two dozen images were linked in Shakespeare's mind with the idea of death, and can be roughly divided into seven groups: bones, leanness, pallor, rottenness, and ghost; hollowness, grave, vault or cave, earth, and womb; mouth or teeth, and eating; eyes and weeping; war, cannon, blood, and fire; sea, rocks, and wind or storm; and lion or tiger and roaring. The train of thought linking many of these ideas is obvious enough. Shakespeare saw death personified as a meagre, white-faced, ghostly figure, a rotting corpse, a skeleton, or a monster feeding on men— hence the association with the mouth and eating. Death, weeping, and hence eyes is a natural sequence of ideas, but the connexion between them is strengthened by the fact, which Caroline Spurgeon noted [in Shakespeare's Imagery, 1935], that when Shakespeare thought of a skull it was often the empty eye-sockets which first came into his mind. The grave, vaults, and earth are obviously connected with death, but they are also linked with one another, with the womb and caves, with cannon, and with the skull and its eye-sockets, by the common idea of hollowness. The association between the last three groups of images may have arisen from the fact that Petruchio refers to roaring lions, the sea, winds, cannon, thunder, battle, and fire when enumerating louder noises than that of a woman's tongue (The Taming of the Shrew, I, ii, 201-10); the speech has nothing to do with death, but tongue may have suggested mouth, and hence Death the devourer. Again, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe may have contributed to bring together in Shakespeare's mind tomb, hole (hollowness), lion, roar, mouth, blood and death: in Titus Andronicus Pyramus is mentioned in a passage containing a long sequence of death-images (II, iii, 227-49). Finally, lions and tigers are linked with the sea by the application of 'roaring' to both (Romeo and Juliet, V, iii, 39; Hamlet, I, iv, 77-83).
This complex of images seems to have possessed an intense emotional significance for Shakespeare. It is found in passages relating, not merely to death, but to the murder of the innocent—the murder of Gloucester (2 Henry VI, III, ii, 141-76), the appearance of the ghost to Hamlet (I, iv, 47-50, 77-90), Lear's entry with the dead Cordelia (V, iii, 258-61), the discovery of Duncan's murder (Macbeth, II, iii, 69-103), and the appearance of Banquo's ghost (HI, iv, 71-101). It occurs, too, at moments which mark a turning-point in the action of a play, such as the death of Gloucester, the final parting of Romeo and Juliet (III, V, 17-20, 56-9), or Northumberland's announcement of Bolingbroke's return (Richard II, II, i, 263-70). In Henry V such a turning point comes at the end of Act II and the beginning of Act III with the outbreak of war, and it is here that Shakespeare's death-imagery is concentrated.
Death-imagery dominates Exeter's warning to French king:
Therefore in fierce tempest is he coming,
In thunder and in earthquake, like a Jove,
That if requiring fail, he will compel;
And bids you, in the bowels of the Lord,
Deliver up the crown, and to take mercy
On the poor souls for whom this hungry
Opens his vasty jaws: and on your heads
Turns he the widows' tears, the orphans'
The dead men's blood, the pining maidens'
For husbands, fathers, and betrothed lovers
That shall be swallowed in this controversy. (II, iv, 99-109)
More death-images follow in Exeter's defiance to the Dauphin:
He'll call you to so hot an answer of it
That caves and womby vaultages of France
Shall chide your trespass, and return your
In second accent of his ordinance.
The theme of Exeter's first speech, it will be noticed, is the death of innocent. He, of course, blames the French king, but it would be a poor diplomat who could not prove the other side responsible for any war. The question remains, whom did Shakespeare himself hold responsible?
Death-imagery (wind, sea, dead, ordnance, mouths, cannon) continues throughout the following chorus, with which we move from peace to war, and the first fifteen lines of Henry's speech before Harfleur (dead, blast, tiger, blood, eye, cannon, rock, ocean, teeth). If it is not heresy to say so, this passage is surely very badly written. Rhetoric has been defined as the will doing the work of the imagination, and by this criterion the speech is not poetry but rhetoric. Shakespeare's imagination is not engaged, and he forces the note. The result, when Henry issues detailed orders on the exact expression to be worn in battle, is unintentionally comic.
The implications of the death-images in this speech are disturbing. Henry's picture of the breach in the wall packed tight with corpses looks forward to Octavia's horrifying image:
Wars 'twixt you twain would be
As if the world should cleave, and that slain
Should solder up the rift.
(Antony and Cleopatra, III, iv, 30-2)
Again, why should Henry order his men to 'imitate the action of the tiger'? Why not the lion? To Shakespeare the lion was a noble beast with a 'royal disposition' and 'a vice of mercy', but the tiger was above all cruel and merciless. Heroic figures such as Richard I, the Black Prince, Julius Caesar, and Antony are compared to lions in his plays, but the six characters who are compared to tigers—Aaron, Tamora, Queen Margaret, Richard III, Goneril, and Regan—are all notorious for cruelty. The details of the expression which Henry's soldiers are to assume are full of significant echoes. 'Hard-favoured rage' suggests 'hard-favoured death' (1 Henry VI, IV, vii, 23) and 'that devil's butcher, hard-favoured Richard' (3 Henry VI, V, V, 77-8). 'Let the brow o'erwhelm it' recalls the 'overwhelming brows' of the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet (V, i, 39), whom Shakespeare seems to envisage as an incarnation of death; note the death-images running through the scene (vault, pale, meagre, bones, earthen, thinly, death, fired, cannon's womb, eyes, food, grave). 'Now set the teeth' is echoed in Antony's lines in another passage full of death-imagery:
Men did ransom lives
Of me for jests: but now I'll set my teeth
And send to darkness all that stop me.
(Antony and Cleopatra, III, xiii, 180-2)
Setting the teeth for Shakespeare was evidently associated with refusal of mercy in battle. 'Stretch the nostril wide' echoes Warwick's description of the murdered Gloucester, 'his nostrils stretched with struggling' (2 Henry VI, III, ii, 171). Thus these fifteen lines contain a whole succession of images associated not only with death but with cruelty and murder.
That such images recur almost continuously through a passage of about a hundred lines, and are placed in the mouths of Henry himself and his spokesman, can hardly be accidental. They would seem to suggest that, whatever Shakespeare may say about Henry, in his heart he regarded him as a murderer. Faced with the demand to depict such a man as a hero, he took refuge in the irony which permeates the whole play, and constantly juxtaposed the fine talk of honour and religion with the realities of human greed and cruelty.
Such a contrast occurs at the very beginning of the play, when immediately after praying for a muse of fire Shakespeare introduces two bishops who discuss how they can prevent Church property from being confiscated for public and charitable purposes, and decide to encourage the King to invade France. An audience in Protestant and anti-clerical London would automatically have assumed that the two Popish prelates were up to no good, and would have thought the confiscation of Church property an excellent idea. Shakespeare probably sympathized with their views. His Catholic bishops and cardinals—Beaufort, Pan-dulph, Wolsey, Gardiner—are an unsavoury bunch, in contrast with the Protestant Cranmer; the Bishop of Carlisle in Richard II might be cited as an exception, but even he takes part in a murder plot. The terms in which Shakespeare refers to the use to which the Church's wealth might be put—
to relief of lazars and weak age,
Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil
(I, i, 15-16)
—have an emotional note, unlike Holinshed's dry 'for reliefe onelie of the poore, impotent, and needie persons,' which suggests that he would have favoured its use for such purposes. That the bishop's testimonial to Henry's Christian virtues is interpolated in the middle of their plot to frustrate the relief of the poor would seem to throw some doubt upon its value.
In defence of the bishops, Dover Wilson points out that they do not initiate the idea of the war. Shakespeare's own views on its origin can be found in 2 Henry IV, where Henry IV advises his son 'to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels' (IV, V, 214-15) in order to divert attention from the weakness of his claim to the throne, and at the end of the same play it is suggested that Henry is planning to
bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France.
(V, V, 112-13)
This fact lessens the Archbishop's guilt, but it only increases Henry's.
Dover Wilson goes on to argue that 'the sole connection between the subject of the Archbishop's speech (on the Salic Law) and the question of Church lands is that both are spoken of in the conversation of the two bishops which constitutes the opening scene'; that in the 'perfectly legitimate desire' of removing any temptation for the King to finance his war by expropriating Church property the Archbishop offers him a large subsidy towards its cost; and that there is 'not a hint of a bribe on the Archbishop's part, still less of his provoking the King to war in order to protect Church property'. This argument ignores Shakespeare's text. If there is no connexion between the Church property question and the Archbishop's support for the war, why should the play open with a completely irrelevant discussion? There is not a word anywhere about Henry's being tempted to finance the war at the Church's expense. On the King's attitude towards the Church property bill, the Archbishop says that he seems
rather swaying more upon our part
Than cherishing th'exhibiters against us;
For I have made an offer to his majesty,
Upon our spiritual convocation,
And in regard of causes now in hand,
Which I have opened to his grace at large,
As touching France, to give a greater sum
Than ever at one time the clergy yet
Did to his predecessors pan withal.
(I, i, 73-81)
That word for is decisive; Henry does not support the bill, because the Archbishop has offered him a large subsidy. If this is not a bribe, what is it? When later the Archbishop urges the King to war he again reminds him of his offer:
O let their bodies follow, my dear liege,
With blood and sword and fire to win your
In aid whereof we of the spiritualty
Will raise your highness such a mighty
As never did the clergy at one time
Bring in to any of your ancestors.
(I, ii, 130-5)
The virtual repetition of lines from the Archbishop's earlier speech is clearly intended to emphasize that the motive for his support of the war is his fears for the Church's lands. When the spokesman of the 'spiritualty' advocates a policy of 'blood and sword and fire' for fear that Church property will be used to relieve 'indigent faint souls', Shakespeare's irony becomes Swiftian.…
The Archbishop's argument in support of Henry's claim to the French throne—that a claimant descended in the female line from the senior branch of a royal house takes precedence in the succession over one descended in the male line from a junior branch—in reality proves, not that Henry is the rightful King of France, but that he is not the rightful King of England. As Shakespeare himself had twice demonstrated at length in earlier plays, the house of Mortimer was descended in the female line from the third son of Edward III, through whom Henry claimed the French throne, whereas the house of Lancaster was descended in the male line from the fourth son (1 Henry VI, II, V, 71-8; 2 Henry VI, II, ii). To assume that Shakespeare regarded Henry's claim to the French throne as justified is therefore to assume that he was incapable of reasoning. As he saw the matter, Henry put forward a legally unjustifiable claim to the French throne because he had no legal right to the English throne either. The suffering which the resultant war was bound to cause the innocent is repeatedly stressed in the play—in Exeter's speech already quoted, in Henry's threats to the citizens of Harfleur (III, iii, 1-43), in Williams's reflections on the King's responsibility (IV, i, 140-53), and in Burgundy's description of desolated France (V, ii, 38-62). Hence when Shakespeare reached the actual outbreak of war, his feelings found expression in his imagery.
There is an implied comment on the nature of the war in the fate of Bardolph. Holinshed states that Henry had a soldier hanged for stealing a pyx (a box for consecrated wafers); Bardolph is hanged for stealing a pax (a tablet depicting the crucifixion, which was kissed by the communicants at mass). The Quarto text, which reads 'packs', shows that 'pax' in the Folio is not a misprint. J. H. Walter comments that 'Shakespeare, who surely must have known the difference, may have substituted "pax" for some reason not now clear'. The reason seems clear enough; Shakespeare equates Bardolph morally with Henry, who has stolen the peace of England and France.
Through tattered clothes great vices do
Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin
And the strong lance of justice hurtless
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce
(King Lear, IV, vi, 168-71)
Even if Shakespeare wrote 'pax' by mistake for 'pyx', the slip was surely a Freudian one; his unconscious mind insisted on giving vent to his real feelings about the war.
His divided mind is most apparent in the Agincourt scenes. There is much in them that is eloquent and deeply felt—the preliminary chorus, the Crispin's day speech, the description of the deaths of Suffolk and York. But the most moving passage of all is Williams's indictment of Henry: 'But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, "We died at such a place"; some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left' (IV, i, 140-6). In his laboured reply Henry answers Williams's suggestion that he is responsible for the fate of his subjects' souls, but completely evades the issue of his responsibility for the death of their bodies and the sufferings of their dependants. Left alone, he whines in an orgy of self-pity that his subjects do not appreciate 'what watch the king keeps to maintain the peace' (IV, i, 300). Shakespeare's irony here is palpable enough.
After the heroics of the Crispin's day speech, the first we see of the actual battle is Pistol extorting a ransom from his prisoner. This is indeed to reduce Agincourt to a 'brawl ridiculous'! As for Henry's contribution to the victory, it is apparently confined to an order for the massacre of the prisoners. Walter defends this order on the ground that 'he is moved to rage by the treacherous attack on the boys and lackeys in his tents', but in fact when he gives it all Henry knows is that 'the French have reinforced their scattered men' (IV, vi, 36)—another example of how his defenders are forced to ignore Shakespeare's text. Shakespeare's own ironic comment, which he puts into Gower's mouth—'the king most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O,'tis a gallant king!' (IV, vii, 8-10)—is typical of the method of the play in its juxtaposition of the patriotic illusion ('most worthily', 'gallant') with the stark reality ('cut his prisoner's throat'). In the Quarto text, which may preserve Shakespeare's original intention, immediately after Henry gives his order Pistol utters his catch-phrase 'Coupe le gorge!' In the very next line we learn that the French have massacred the boys in the English camp. Thus Henry, Pistol, and the chivalry of France are shown within a few lines to move on the same moral level.
Then there is what Sherlock Holmes would have called the curious incident of Henry's fight with Alencon. In earlier battle scenes Shakespeare had introduced completely unhistorical hand-to-hand combats between leading figures on the two sides—Richard III and Richmond, Henry himself and Hotspur. When his sources for this play of all others afforded him an opportunity to show a historical combat between his hero and a French nobleman, one would have expected him to seize on it eagerly, yet all we hear of the incident is a passing reference after the battle (IV, vii, 161-8). Walter seeks to explain the omission by suggesting that 'physical prowess in Henry was not at this point the most important quality. It is Henry's spiritual strength, his faith and moral courage which inspire and uphold his whole army'—the spiritual strength and moral courage, presumably, being shown in the order for the massacre of the prisoners. The real explanation surely is that by this time Shakespeare could not bring himself to show Henry as a heroic figure. There is something Brechtian in his depiction of Agincourt, not as a heroic feat of arms, but as a brutal and sordid affair of plunder and massacre.
It may be objected that this conclusion attributes to Shakespeare a pacifism alien to the Elizabethan age. Such an argument ignores historical facts. By 1599 the Spanish war had been in progress for over ten years, and the country was weary of it. The popular mood is often reflected in the drama of the last years of the century. The pressing of unwilling workmen, recruiting scandals, the neglect of the disabled soldier, and the stealing of their soldiers' pay by corrupt officers are frequent themes for protest or satire. The author of I Jeronimo, for example, wrote:
O dear Andrea, pray, let's have no wars.
First let them pay the soldiers that were
In the last battle ere more wretches fall.
(I, ii, 31-3)
Shakespeare's implicit condemnation of the Archbishop in Henry V is paralleled in the priest's speech in Fulke Greville's Mustapha:
we are untrue
And spiritual forges under tyrants' might;
God only doth command what's good for
Where we do preach your bodies to the war …
(IV, iv, 45-8)
The hero of The Shoemaker's Holiday, when commissioned to serve under Henry V in France, prefers to stay at home and carry on a love affair. Dekker apparently finds nothing dishonourable in such conduct; the moral of the play might in fact be 'Make love, not war'. It would be surprising if Shakespeare had not been affected by the widespread anti-war feeling.
If he found Henry V so unsympathetic, why did he write about him at all? Presumably he had no choice. He had committed himself to write such a play in the epilogue to 2 Henry IV, and was under an obligation to his company—perhaps under pressure from them—to supply it. There may also have been a demand for a patriotic play that would arouse public enthusiasm for Essex's Irish campaign. If there was, Shakespeare failed to supply it; his incidental compliment to Essex, the leader of the war party, in the chorus to Act V could hardly be more tepid. Once engaged on the play he did his best to supply what was expected of him, but his own feelings would insist on asserting themselves. This may explain why he did not keep his promise that the play would have 'Sir John in it.' The case put forward by Dover Wilson and Walter for believing that Falstaff appeared in the first draft is a strong one, but their suggested reasons for his subsequent omission are unconvincing; neither Will Kempe's absence nor Lord Cobham's hypothetical objections prevented the Chamberlain's Men from continuing to act the Falstaff plays. It seems more probable that Falstaff acted as Shakespeare's mouthpiece, and that he rewrote the play without him because he realized that his patriotic play was turning into a satire on war. Two such stars as Henry and Falstaff could not keep their motion in one sphere, and with Sir John in it Henry V might have done for the Hundred Years' War what Troilus and Cressida did for the Trojan War, with Falstaff playing a similar role to Thersites. Bernard Shaw was probably not far from the truth when he suggested that 'it was to expose and avenge his mistake and failure in writing Henry V that he wrote Troilus and Cressida?
This does not mean that Shakespeare was necessarily insincere when he wrote, say, the Crispin's day speech. He was repelled by the callous cynicism of Henry V's aggression against France, but his imagination and his sympathies were stirred by the Dunkirk situation of a small English army with its back to the wall. That is why the Harfleur speech is so bad and the Crispin's day speech so good. Like most of us, Shakespeare had something of the patriot and something of the pacifist in his make-up. He was no more inconsistent than the arch-pacifist Tolstoy, who wrote the great epic of Russian patriotism and, long after he had reached the conclusion that war is always wrong, wept with shame at the news of the surrender of Port Arthur. Much of the interest in Henry V arises from the tensions in Shakespeare's mind between conflicting emotions, and between his own feelings and the external pressures to which he was subjected. We may apply to him what a contemporary has written of poets in general: 'The poet is always a double man, an internal emigre, a hostage in enemy country. His task is to try and reconcile the short-term public demand and the long-term private vision and to express the tension which this task necessarily brings with it' [Lacieu Rey, New Left Review, no. 38].
SOURCE: "Imagery and Irony in Henry V," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 21, 1968, pp. 107-14.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5325
Shakespeare's use of the Chorus and other epic elements has attracted significant critical attention. Many commentators, including Anthony S. Brennan, Lawrence Danson, and Paul Dean, have speculated on the role of the Chorus. Brennan disputes the assumption that Shakespeare used the Chorus to express his own feelings, contending instead that the Chorus adds significantly to the patriotic theme. Danson asserts that the Chorus exists to provide a sense of perspective, praising its contribution to the tone of the play. Dean analyzes the relationship between the Chorus and Henry, stating that the Chorus praises Henry's achievements but also cautions against blindly accepting his success. Other critics have explored Shakespeare's representation of Henry V as an ideal epic hero; Landon C. Burns, Jr. examines this magnification of the king through the nationalistic theme in the play, in which Shakespeare glorifies all things English. Helen J. Schwartz analyzes the idealization of Henry by studying the comic scenes and contending that these episodes prove Henry's ability as king. J. H. Walter praises Shakespeare's ability to incorporate an epic tone in the play, contending that he did not merely extract material from an epic story, but gave the illusion of an epic whole. For further analysis of the epic elements in Henry V, see the essay by E. F. C. Ludowyk in the OVERVIEWS section, and the essay by William Babula in the HENRY section.
Landon C. Burns, Jr.
[In this excerpt, Burns examines Henry V as a patriotic play which glorifies England and its hero-king. Burns contends that Shakespeare uses this nationalistic theme to praise all things English and eliminate anything that could spoil this image. He also argues that although Henry seems to represent the ideal king, Shakespeare does not present him as a flawless ruler. Burns concludes by comparing the comic scenes and language in Henry V with that found in Henry IV.]
Shakespeare's Henry V is a very different kind of play from his other histories, for, as has often been pointed out, it is an epic pageant rather than a character study. Whereas in Henry IV and the Richard plays we are intensely interested in the kings as men, here the interest is in the king as political hero. Henry V was a symbol of the great hero-king; popular opinion remembered his reign as the one really bright and glorious interlude in the whole long, wretched period of the civil wars. He was a symbol, too, of the unity of the people, of England's most impressive military and territorial strength before the Tudors. Thus, conventional opinion may, in part, have determined the direction which the play took. Various conjectures have also been made about Shakespeare's motives: the play may have been a not-very-subtle compliment to Elizabeth, for in some ways both the times and the monarchs were similar; or, having written, in Richard III, the history of the lowest point to which the kingship ever sank, Shakespeare felt compelled to balance it by writing the history of one of the highest points; to round off the tetralogy (Richard II, 1 & 2 Henry IV) he needed a hero of great stature who would fulfill the promise at the end of 2 Henry IV.
Whatever the causes, the play remains Shakespeare's glowing tribute to England, to the King, and to the people. And while it is splendid in this respect and exciting in its pageantry, it is not really one of Shakespeare's best plays. National heroes do not make very good dramatic ones unless they are treated as men rather than as paragons of virtue and symbols of majesty (and if they are treated as men, they tend to lose their viability as patriotic symbols). For one thing, the national hero must be a composite man; indeed, Henry becomes almost a universal hero, excelling all others in whatever business is at hand. Henry, as Shakespeare portrays him, is the ideal king, just, cautious, brave, tactful, conscientious, considerate, a successful general and lover. Real men are not like this. Hal of Henry IV was not, and even allowing for reform and growth, could never have become so. But Hal was a character in whom Shakespeare was interested qua character; Henry V is not. Here the interest (albeit a sporadic one) is in Henry the symbol and hero. The loss in dramatic power and effectiveness is enormous, but the patriotic symbol so created is superb.
Henry V, then, is a patriotic play, glorifying England and things English. Everything which could possibly detract from this central focus is eliminated. Thus, Falstaff must go. The rarefied and exalted sentiment of Henry V could never support his weight, for Falstaff's charm and vitality, the very essence of his character, come from his parody of noble sentiments. Falstaff was representative of the warm, human, fallible side of Hal, and he was symbolically rejected at the end of 2 Henry IV, but now he must go entirely. And significantly he dies from the cold, the cold-heartedness of the practical Lancastrian character which even Falstaff could not withstand. In the same manner, the riotous, disorderly Eastcheap world has become domesticated. Mistress Quickly has married; Pistol and Nym leave off their quarrel to fight for the King. In short, anything which could serve either as a reminder of the old Hal or detract from the new one as the center of interest and exemplar of virtue and valor has been excised. Again the dramatic loss is regrettable, though the practical necessity is obvious.
In another way Shakespeare uses some rather mechanical devices to show Henry as the man who can unite antagonistic elements for his great cause. Fluellen, Jamy, and Macmorris, representing the Welsh, Scottish, and Irish, fight shoulder to shoulder with their English brothers. The symbolic meaning here is evident. Just as Henry could draw Pistol and Nym from their quarrelling, so too he unites all the British national elements in a way that could only be brought about by his dynamic and universal character. But there is something a little too obvious about these characters. Fluellen achieves a certain amount of individual importance; the others remain rather wooden and dramatically ineffective. Thematicaliy, of course, they are important because they illustrate Henry's ability to wed inharmonious elements in allegiance, but they are certainly not among Shakespeare's memorable characters.
Henry is able not only to bring together antagonistic groups, but also to command the loyalty of men holding two entirely different kinds of values. Old Sir Thomas Erpingham is in the play for a specific purpose; he represents the good side of the old chivalric world that had been repudiated with Hotspur's defeat. His devotion to the King is sacramental, for, though he is old, and perhaps fearful about the outcome of the battle, he knows his place is beside the King. And significantly, Henry borrows Sir Thomas' cloak, for Henry needs what it symbolizes just as much as he needs the cool, practical, determined mind he has inherited from his father. He inherited his father's concern about this problem, and now, taking Sir Thomas' cloak, he takes in so far as possible, the sacramental principle unto himself. But most of all Henry needs the English long-bowman, the common man. It is upon these common men that the victory depends, and it is to them that Henry pays his allegiance. The days of chivalry, of knights in armor and codes of honor are past, and Henry knows it. He sees (as Richard II never did or could) that his responsibility is to the people, not to a chivalric code or a concept of divine right:
Canst thou, when thou command'st the
Command the health of it? No, thou proud
That play'st so subtly with a king's repose;
I am a king that find thee; and I know
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,
The farced title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave,
Who, with a body fill'd and vacant mind
Gets him to rest, cramm'd with distressful
but in gross brain little wots
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.
The King must protect his people, lead and inspire them; in fact, he is their servant. This is a far cry from the concept of kingship as Richard saw it.
It is a concept which has as its corollary the implied fact that it is not the ceremony, pomp, and regal trappings which make the King, but rather the man. Of course, this is a very convenient philosophy for the Lancastrians since their usurpation (and neither Henry nor his father was ever quite able to rationalize that away) depended on opportunistic employment of power rather than sacramental consecration. But it is more than an expedient position for Henry here; it is the realization that the King who is to lead these long-bowmen needs more than "the sceptre and the ball,/The sword, the mace, the crown imperial." These things were enough to lead the old chivalric knights who paid allegiance to a sacramental, inviolable kingship. But Henry IV changed all that, and Henry V knows it when he speaks incognito to Bates:
I think the king is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing. Therefore when he sees reason of fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are: yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army. (IV.i.101-113)
The French, however, have not changed. They are still playing the old game and not playing it very well. The nobles in the French camp give the appearance of acting by the rules of the old chivalric code, but they are deluded, frivolous, concerned with armor, horses, and mistresses rather than with policy and the business at hand. Their overconfidence is chronic, and nothing could illustrate their weakness better than the list of casualties in Act IV. Of the French losses, over eighty per cent were noblemen of some kind; on the eve of the battle five hundred new knights had been created as if to terrorize the English by the very number of their titles, as if to imply that superiority and valor inhered in a name. There was a day when such strategy might have had some effect, but not any more. The English go on undaunted, and their losses include only two noblemen, a knight, and
Davy Gam, esquire;
None else of name; and of all other men
But five and twenty.
The implication is clear: it is the common Englishman who has fought and won the war, and it is a King, realizing his responsibility to those common men, who has led them.
These are a few of the salient features of the play's nationalistic theme, but there are also a few indications that Shakespeare was not entirely happy with his hero-king presentation. Or to put it another way, Shakespeare the poet rebels against Shakespeare the patriot. Henry, for example, evades responsibility. On the surface, of course, he appears to be taking the whole burden of the war on himself:
Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition!
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing. What infinite heart's
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
But this is not quite true. From the beginning he has tried to shift the responsibility for the war: first he cites the Church (I.ii.9 ff.); then he accuses the Dauphin of inciting hostility (I.ii.281 ff.); and Henry says often that he is merely following God's will, that it is a part of the divine plan that he should conquer France. All of this may convince his troops, but it never quite convinces the audience or Henry himself.
In the case of the traitors, Cambridge, Grey, and Scroop, Henry makes them sentence themselves. A trick of this kind is, perhaps, expedient, for Henry can claim it is they who have condemned themselves and thereby obviate any possibility of leniency, but it is a trick Prince Hal would never have stooped to. Henry also evades his quarrel with Williams by passing the glove to Fluellen. He sophistically claims that the Governor of Harfleur will be responsible for whatever damage is done to the town. (III.iii.19 ff.). When Henry prays he seems self-righteous rather than penitent:
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a day their wither'd hands hold
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn
Sing still for Richard's soul.
And when Henry answers Williams he does not really speak to the question (IV.i.150 ff.). All these are perhaps minor points, but they do indicate that Shakespeare refused to make his hero a spotless saint.
The comic scenes here are also revealing in that they are more mechanical than those in Henry IV. There, each comic scene made a comment on, contributed to our understanding of, the serious level. They seem now to be inserted merely for relief and amusing effect. The love plot is so much in the background that the final scene, which is the only one devoted to it, seems structurally anomalous. Now and then we see the dirty, ugly side of the war:
Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch'd
With rainy marching in the painful field.
... in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend head dash'd to the
There are Bardolphs to rob churches and Pistols to accept bribes, just as much as there are dear friends to fill the breach on St. Crispin's Day.
The language, though it occasionally rises to heights of oratorical excellence, is not nearly so poetic and powerful as that of the first three plays of the tetralogy. There is a flatness, for example, in a speech like Henry's in IV.i when he speaks to Williams, or in Canterbury's in I.ii, that betrays a certain lack of inspiration. And finally, there is the use of prologues, a device Shakespeare did not normally feel compelled to employ in apology for the limitations of his stage and craft; surely this, if nothing else, betrays the uneasiness Shakespeare the dramatist and poet felt in presenting a patriotic pageant.
Yet, it is the pageant we remember, and a superb one it is. Henry the magnificent symbol rather than Henry the evasive and expedient man is the image which remains dominant. For all its less glorious elements, the primary tone of the play is that of "Cry, 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'" (III.i.34). This is what Shakespeare in Henry V sets out to create and in the end does. It is a panegyric to patriotism and national pride, and everything else in the play pales beside the resonant strains of
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
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's
SOURCE: "Three Views of King Henry V," in Drama Survey, Vol. 1, No. 3, February, 1962, pp. 278-300.
Helen J. Schwartz
[In the following essay, Schwartz examines the importance of the comic scenes to the play as an epic and contends that these scenes prove the worthiness of the king and his subjects. Schwartz maintains that Shakespeare replaces the Eastcheap gang with more orderly comic characters who can prosper under Henry's command and can contribute to the stability of his rule.]
The comic scenes in Shakespeare's Henry V are often used to support a satiric interpretation of the play, are diagnosed as evidence for an inadequate rendering of an epic intention, or are censured or largely ignored in interpretations of the play as epic. I would argue, however, that these scenes have an integral and important function in the plotting of a national English epic and a drama of an heroic king. Two ingredients are necessary for such a play: subjects capable of glory and a ruler both personally noble and politically effective. J. H. Walter, in his introduction to the Arden edition, has ably argued Henry's qualities as an ideal king: wise in formulating national policy, but also forceful in implementing it. It is my intention to show how the comic scenes give evidence both of Henry's ability as a monarch and of the potential of English subjects to achieve national glory.
The comic scenes produce this effect by several means. Their overall plotting shows the comic figures of misrule controlled and replaced by a new kind of comic figure who serves and thrives under Henry's command. Falstaff, the most lovable of the Eastcheap gang, cannot survive in the world of Henry V after rejection by the newly reformed monarch in 2 Henry IV. And his cohorts are pushed further and further from power in Henry V by the king's just policies as well as by the honesty and bravery of the emergent comic type. The epic evocation of "English Mercuries" in the Prologue to Act II is apparently undercut by the immediately following scene with Pistol and his friends but the eventual predominance of soldiers like Fluellen upholds the truth of epic. Furthermore, parallel episodes show the Eastcheap crew as typical of the English soldier. Finally, the comic Fluellen-Williams episode after Agincourt (IV. vii) parallels and parodies the earlier conspiracy against the king involving Cambridge, Grey and Scroop. The progression from serious threats to parallel comic threats shows that the king has achieved his national policy and increased the stability of his rule.
The first casualty among the figures of misrule is Falstaff. Perhaps it is true, as Mistress Quickly claims, and Fluellen implies (IV. vii), that "the king has killed his heart" (II. i. 92). And we who have seen Falstaff in the two earlier plays may be more saddened than gratified by the report of his deathbed repentings. But there can be no room for the old knight in the world of Henry V or Henry V (perhaps because he might steal the show). To Fluellen, one of the new comic type that replaces the Eastcheap gang, Falstaff's death is only matter for a "figure" to compare a modern (and superior) hero to an ancient one: "As Alexander killed his friend Cleitus, being in his ales and his cups; so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgements, turned away the fat knight with the great-belly doublet: [ … ] I have forgot his name. [ … ] I'll tell you there is good men porn at Monmouth" (IV. vii. 46-53, 55). Falstaff's "discretion" and mercenary motives are no longer good, clean fun; France is not Gadshill, and Pistol lacks Falstaff's wit and perception. When Pistol goes off to France with his friends "like horseleeches, [ … ] To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck" (II. iii. 58-59), and when he treats his French prisoner this way—"As I suck blood, I will some mercy show" (IV. iv. 68)—he is not viewed tolerantly as Falstaff was in similar situations, but seems more like "the weasel Scot" who might invade a defenceless England "and so [suck] her princely eggs" (I. ii. 170-171).
If the English troops invading France are no better than the Scots provided against by Henry's wisdom, they can hardly be considered the stuff that epics are made of. The introduction of the Eastcheap gang initially supports—in fact, stimulates—such fears about Harry's troops. The first comic scene comes immediately after the description of "English Mercuries" in the Prologue to Act II:
Now all the youth of England are on fire,
And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies:
Now thrive the armourers, and honour's
Reigns solely in the breast of every man.
But our first example of these troops is Bardolph, whose face is fiery not from martial zeal but from drink. Then Pistol engages Nym in a fight over the former Mistress Quickly and they are reconciled only when Pistol promises to pay a debt to Nym from his expected war profits; dalliance gives way, but to economic "honour". It seems that the choric evocation of the ideal soldier Henry needs is satirically undercut by the reality. But just as Canterbury's machinations (I. i) seem to undermine the epic promise of the first Prologue, only to be reversed by the kingly decorum and intelligence of Henry in the second scene, so here in the second act our suspicions about Henry's "English Mercuries" are aroused only to be undercut by the subsequent fate of Bardolph, Nym and Pistol.
Furthermore, the actions of other commoners show that the gallants from Eastcheap are the nadir, not the norm, of the Englishman. Parallel episodes show Pistol and his friends to their disadvantage. For example, Nym and Pistol seem more likely to kill or disable each other in a personal quarrel over Mistress Quickly than to kill any Frenchmen (even for mercenary motives). There are two other occasions in the play when it seems that personal quarrels may divert English soldiers from their fight against France. But when Fluellen and Macmorris seem about to fight over the "disciplines of war" and the Irish nation, they break off when their duty as soldiers calls (III. ii); and when Williams and the disguised Henry quarrel before Agincourt, they hold the resolution of their personal differences in abeyance until they have fought the French. But Nym and Bardolph abate their "love quarrel" in the second act only to fight about a debt which the parasite Pistol will repay from profits in France. Ultimately they do go into battle, but at Harfleur it is only the Scylla of Fluellen which drives them to the Charybdis of the Harfleur "breach." Their behaviour also contrasts with the common soldiers'—Bates, Williams, and Court—when they talk fearfully before Agincourt though they resolve to fight bravely.
Eventually the brave commoners prevail over the comic figures of misrule. But although the Harfleur encounter between Fluellen and Pistol shows the Welsh captain in control, it appears later that the roles may be reversed. The posturing of Pistol at the "pridge" has taken in Fluellen, and therefore the thieving Bardloph may escape Exeter's sentence if Pistol's intercession with Fluellen succeeds. But though the honest comic soldier may be mistakenly impressed by heroics, he is sure about his military principles: "discipline ought to be used" (III. vi. 59). Furthermore, the English captain, Gower, can see through the likes of Pistol and warns Fluellen: "You must learn to know such slanders of the age, or else you may be marvellously mistook" (II. 83-85). And these commoners are supported by commanders like Exeter who order thieves hanged and a king like Henry V who reinforces military discipline and justice (II. 112-120).
Thus, as the play progresses, we see in Henry's army that the cowardice of Pistol is exposed and that first Bardolph and then Nym are hanged for theft, but it seems that Pistol's mercenary plans find lawful fulfillment in the service of war. He expects the ransom of his French prisoner as a prize (IV. iv). But while the victor crows over his captive, the Boy returns to his duty with the luggage boys, where presumably he is killed in the renewed French attack. It is this same attack which prompts King Henry to kill all the prisoners, including Pistol's. Three significant features emerge from this plotting. First, it shows mercenary motives foiled. Second, we see an important attrition in the Eastcheap group: the Boy has rejected Pistol as a model. Instead he has chosen allegiance to duty, not to booty, and thus he is killed by a cowardly enemy, not by his own disciplining colleagues. Third, it is fitting that the cowardly attack of the French should deprive an English coward of his spoils.
Finally, the "aunchient lieutenant" is undone even in his bragging superiority to the Welsh customs of his fellow soldier, Fluellen; he is made to eat the leek and is reprimanded by the Englishman Gower. At the end of the play, Pistol's comic cunning is powerless in Henry's army. He alone survives of the Eastcheap gang, since "Nell [Quickly] is dead i' the spital/Of malady of France" (V. i. 87-88). They are replaced by the dutiful comic characters, just as King Henry V has replaced Prince Hal.
Fluellen, chief among the emergent comic type, is laughable in his preoccupation with the Welsh mystique and the rules of war, but neither obsession works counter to the purpose of the war as the Eastcheap motives do. As we have seen, his preoccupation helps preserve military order, even when he is taken in by Pistol's appearance. His fight with Pistol over the Welsh leek (V. i) has been put off because it was occasioned, as Fluellen says, "in a place where I could not breed no contention with him" (II. 11-12). That is, he subordinates private quarrels to the interest of the national quarrel. Finally, his insistence on quiet in the English camp on the eve of Agincourt sets up a comparison between the English camp and that of the Roman Pompey in contrast to the showy noise of the French camp:
Fluellen: [to Gower] Speak lower. It is the greatest admiration in the universal world, when the true and aunchient prerogatifes and laws of the wars is not kept: if you would take the pains but to examine the wars of Pompey the Great, you shall find [ … ] that there is no tiddle taddle [ … ] in Pompey's camp; I warrant you, you shall find the ceremonies of the wars, and the cares of it, and the forms of it, and the sobriety of it, and the modesty of it to be otherwise.
Gower: Why the enemy is loud; you hear him all night.
Fluellen: If the enemy is an ass and a fool and a prating coxcomb, is it meet, think you, that we should also [be] [...]?
Gower: I will speak lower. (IV. i. 65-82)
Though Fluellen's military pedantry is laughable, his intention is not, as Gower's response acknowledges. Furthermore, this speech, coming as it does after the French foppery and internecine backbiting in III.vii and after Erpingham's stoic wit to the king (IV. i. 13-17), shows the relative sobriety of the English camp and undercuts Pistol's braggadocio in the episode immediately preceding the speech quoted above. The realistic conversation with the common soldiers following Fluellen's speech may indicate that while the English are not exactly ancient Romans, their stoic acceptance of duty in the king's cause proves them to be more like Erpingham than like the empty show of the French and of Pistol. King Henry himself tells us exactly how to value Fluellen and his rules of war: "Though it appear a little out of fashion,/There is much care and valour in this Welshman" (IV. i. 84-85).
My final example of the function of the comic scenes deals with the Fluellen-Williams episodes in Act IV. Here we see a comic equivalent of the scene with the traitors Cambridge, Grey and Scroop (II. ii). Henry's handling of the episodes is similar, with his staging of the "commissions"-turned-accusation in the early scene and employment of the glove gambit at Agincourt. But the king's earnest play to unmask treason becomes, in the later scene, a playful resolution of loyal "disloyalty." The private friends of Henry plan public murder of the king; the soldier who commits himself to fight in the national cause voices private reservations about the king's policies. But although Williams pledges to fight the common soldier of Erpingham's company, he will not and cannot fight the king. What would be a point of honour in a private quarrel becomes a public treason when the king is involved.
This contrast is pointed up by the judgements of Fluellen. When asked by the king whether Williams should keep his oath to fight an English soldier, he answers, "He is a craven and a villain else" (IV. vii. 140); when the quarrel is presented as a promise to strike the king, he says, "let his [Williams'] neck answer for it, if there is any martial law in the world" (IV. vii. 46-47). Henry rejects the harsh judgement of the loyal Fluellen, just as he has rejected the traitors' harsh advice about the common man who railed against the king. He accepts the justness of Williams' defence:
King Henry: It was ourself thou didst abuse.
Williams: Your majesty came not like yourself: you appeared to me but as a common man [ … ] and what your highness suffered under that shape. I beseech you take it for your own fault and not mine: for had you been as I took you for, I made no offence; therefore, I beseech your highness, pardon me. (IV. vii. 52-60; emphasis added).
Henry knows that Williams is basically loyal and that his comments did not reflect any deep-seated disaffection, as the soldier argues: "All offences, my lord, come from the heart; never came any from mine that might offend your majesty" (IV. vii. 49-51).
Williams, then, parallels both the common man and the traitors in the earlier scene. His challenge, if urged, is as dangerous to the king's life as the planned treason of Cambridge, Scroop and Grey; but Henry's dismissal of Williams is just like his "mercy" to the commoner who was his earlier detractor. Because the king has brought a just order to English society at home and to his troops in France, he can regard such criticism as "little faults" to be "wink'd at" (II. ii. 54, 55).
In conclusion, the comic scenes provide evidence of the worthiness of king and subjects in Shakespeare's English epic. The victory over France owes much to Henry's leadership—in ordering himself, national policy, and military discipline. But much is also owing to the brave and well-disciplined comic characters. Just as Henry represents Britain in his person, so do Henry's four captains—Fluellen, Macmorris, Jamy and Gower—represent the four British races: Welsh, Irish, Scottish, English. None are exactly "English Mercuries," but all are not Pistols. Though the Eastcheapians never seriously threaten the French venture, their control and explusion by the valiant captains represent the symbolic replacement of misrule by order. Henry's influence supports the valour and responsibility of the state at the commoners' level, just as his wisdom has ordered the state at the highest levels of government. As the comic scenes help to show, it is the efforts of loyal soldiers as well as those of an heroic king which achieve "the world's best garden" (Epilogue, 7).
SOURCE: "The Comic Scenes in Henry V," in Hebrew University Studies in Literature, Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1976, pp. 18-26.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10897
Critics have been vastly divided in their responses to Henry. Some scholars, such as Joseph M. Lenz, Dorothy Cook, M. M. Reese, and Rolf Soellner, have praised Shakespeare's presentation of Henry as the ideal ruler. Reese declares that Shakespeare carefully directed the dramatic action of the play to portray him as doing everything that the Elizabethan age expected of the perfect king, and Soellner contends that Henry represents Shakespeare's ideal character and that he attempts to paint a sympathetic portrait of his hero. However, most critics, including Norman Rabkin, Hardin Craig, W. L. Godshalk, Roy W. Battenhouse, Marilyn L. Williamson, and Stopford A. Brooke have argued that Henry is far from perfect. Rabkin asserts that although Henry is depicted as an ideal king, he is not flawless, and Craig acknowledges that Shakespeare was conscious to show Henry's humanity. Godshalk examines Henry's inability to accept responsibility for his actions and ways he uses this weakness to his own benefit. Battenhouse maintains that Henry's morality and piety are not deeply held principles, but mere counterfeits of genuine feeling, and Williamson characterizes the king's actions in the "wooing scene" as manipulative, self-justifying, and disingenuous. Still other commentators have focused on particular aspects of Henry's character. Sylvan Barnet analyzes Henry's ambiguity, while William Babula and H. M. Richmond detail his development and maturation throughout the play. For further analysis of Henry's character, see the essays by E. F. C. Ludowyk and Robert B. Pierce in the OVERVIEWS section, the essays by D. A. Traversi and Charles Mitchell in the KINGSHIP section, and the essay by Landon C. Burns, Jr. in the EPIC ELEMENTS section.
[In this excerpt, Craig discusses Henry's fulfillment of the qualities of a true king. Craig contends that Shakespeare displayed his hero in the framework of four virtues—Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, and Wisdom—and illustrated these virtues through Henry's conduct. Craig states that while Shakespeare presented a glorified king, he was also careful to show Henry's humanity.]
To understand what it is that Shakespeare has done with his favorite character it is necessary to resort to a common doctrine of the Renaissance, the qualities of the true prince. Normal, moral, efficient manhood seems often to be the commonplace thing. Shakespeare had the task of making his audience realize the significance of normal virtues. Milton had this same demonstration to make in the case of Adam; and Thackeray came near succeeding with it in Henry Esmond. Shakespeare displays his king in the framework of Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, and Wisdom. The idea of the perfect prince or governor was an old one in Shakespeare's day and is still an idea of great importance. Henry V illustrates these virtues in the action of the play, not formally in terms of the four Platonic virtues, but essentially in the conduct of the King. No doubt Shakespeare has heightened his effort to exalt the commonplace by his splendid gift of eloquence and his deep appeal to patriotic feeling. These enabled him to cast a light of glory over his hero and his deeds, and Shakespeare uses every occasion to endow his hero with his own knowledge about life. He had learned the fundamental importance and the wide appeal of human nature, or humanity. He therefore loses from beginning to end no opportunity to show how human his hero is.
Shakespeare begins the play of Henry V with his usual ideational clarity. The dialogue between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely (I, i) brings out the kingly accomplishments of the new monarch. Henry V, we are given to understand, has the qualities of a real king as the Renaissance understood the matter. He is a scholar—knows divinity, commonwealth affairs, war, and policy. When he speaks we discover that he is an orator. The second scene of the first act reveals the new king's careful sense of justice. He investigates his claim to the French crown and gets advice from the best authorities, and in this area of justice, the particular field of kings, one sees him strong, not only in distributive justice, but in corrective justice. He punishes the traitors, Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey, displaying, as he does so, natural, righteous indignation. His judgment is in the form of an invective (II, ii, 79 ff.).
The brilliant assault on Harfleur (III.i) shows King Henry's courage and his mastery of the psychology of combat (II. 5-17):
But when the blast of war blows in our
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, sumon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril
wide, Hold hard the breath and bend up every
To his full height.
Henry's courage is, however, properly tempered with prudence, so that it is true fortitude. He would rather not fight at Agincourt, because he is ill-prepared to do so; but, if he has to fight, he will fight bravely and in the wisest way (III, vi, 173-4):
We would not seek a battle, as we are;
Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it.
Henry V is definitely religious, and no man could show a greater zeal to get God on his side. His private prayer on the night before the battle of Agincourt (IV, i, 306-22) is a model of humility and confession:
O God of battles! steel my soldiers' hearts;
Possess them not with fear; take from them
The sense of reckoning, if the opposed
Pluck their hearts from them. Not to-day, O
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
He has no foolishness in his heart as regards the superiority of kings. He knows, just as Shakespeare knew, that kings are men. In the wise and reasonable words he says to the soldiers while he is walking among them in disguise (IV, i, 103-246) and in the soliloquy that follows, he puts stress, as Shakespeare does elsewhere, on the overwhelming responsibilities of kings. Surely these opinions on kingship which Shakespeare attributes to his great hero at a crisis in his life are very close to Shakespeare's own opinions. The allegiance of his soldiers means merely that the battle in which they are about to engage is a common enterprise, not the King's battle only or mainly. There are moving scenes within the English camp, and in the battle the King shows himself wise, merciful, appreciative of the service of others, and yet stern where sternness is required. The play ends in the glory of national victory, presented, not as conquest, but as justice and the will of God, as if it were regarded as the restoration of a rightful king to his kingdom.
In the last scene of the play we have presented an aspect of Henry V's character for which this play and its predecessors have hardly prepared us. It no doubt fulfilled an ideal of Shakespeare's age to show this king without a trace of sentimentality. He will lay firm hands on that which belongs to him. He loves France so well that he will not part with a village of it. That disposition to claim his rights belonged to him and no doubt made him more attractive to the audience, but his manners are another matter. Although his wooing of the Princess Katherine is a very funny scene, very charming on the stage, one is hardly prepared to see him suddenly become actually bluff and boisterous, qualities admired in King Henry VIII and of course attractive to the Elizabethan audience.
Henry V has in it little dramatic conflict, but is a positive hero play almost epic in its nature. One would not minimize the greatness of Shakespeare's representation or the splendid character of his hero. King Henry V has his personal struggles, which display his courage, his wisdom, his essential democracy, his piety, and his charm.…
SOURCE: "Success in the Theater," in An Interpretation of Shakespeare, Lucas Brothers, 1948, pp. 116-53.
[In the following excerpt, Babula traces the development of Henry V as he matures throughout the play, transforming from a clever but immature youth to an honest and experienced king. Babula concludes by noting how the maturation of the character of Henry V contributes to the dramatic unity of the play.]
E. M. W. Tillyard [in Shakespeare's History Plays, 1946] is right in his assertion that Shakespeare in Henry V was 'jettisoning the character he had created' in the Henry IV plays. The Hal that developed out of those earlier histories is not present at the opening of Henry V. This does not mean that Shakespeare has now accepted a Henry 'who knew exactly what he wanted and went for it with utter singleness of heart …' Nor has he, as Mark Van Doren would have us believe [in Shakespeare, 1939], stretched a hero 'until he struts on tiptoe and is still strutting at the last insignificant exit.' Nor, on the other extreme, is Henry the ideal humanistic hero, 'conceived of as beyond the limitations of nature, able to impose the order of philosophy on the protean world of history.' Rather, as H. M. Richmond notes [in Shakespeare's Political Plays, 1967], Henry in this play begins as a 'clever young hero masquerading as the ideal king', and ends as 'a mature man'. Thus the process of growth that Henry undergoes in the play is crucial. While this process may render the second tetralogy inconsistent, it gives a marked consistency to the play Henry V as it stands alone. For in it Shakespeare has decided to dramatize again the maturation of a ruler.…
The play opens with a Chorus that provides part of the context in which the audience sees Henry. In typical epic fashion the poet through his Chorus presents the invocation: 'O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention …' (Prologue, 1-2). It sounds as if we are going to see the epic hero many have seen in Henry V. And there is no reason to doubt this notion as the Chorus turns apologetic:
But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
The theme is presented as epic but the audience is also reminded that they are seeing an illusion created by art. The Globe, the 'scaffold', this 'cockpit', this 'wooden O' are to be transformed into the vastness of France. A perfect apology for the limitations of the Elizabethan stage? If so, every play would require it to some degree. Or perhaps Shakespeare is introducing the audience to one of his major concerns: the distance between art and reality. In this case it applies to the theatre. It will come to apply, however, to the distance between the art, the words, the rhetoric of Henry and the reality of his actions. There is an art that covers reality in the political world as well as in the playhouse.
As the play proper opens the audience hears of what it is going to see and hear of so much in Henry V: the quarrel. In this case the Parliament is contemplating a bill that will strip the Church of its wealth. As Canterbury comments, 'If it pass against us, / We lose the better half of our possession' (I, i, 7-8). The pivot upon which this question rests is the king. Canterbury then begins to heap praise upon this king— a character we have not yet seen in this play. Henry, no longer the riotous prince, is now like a 'paradise'. He can 'reason in divinity', 'debate of commonwealth affairs', and cut 'the Gordian knot' of policy—a reference to Alexander the Great that will rebound ironically later in the play. Yet all of this idealized language can be explained rather cynically. When the Bishop of Ely asks which side is Henry on, Canterbury replies that the king is 'rather swaying more upon our part … (I, i, 73). And certainly it is difficult to miss the suggestion of a bribe when Canterbury explains the king's favor—note the 'for' in particular:
For I have made an offer to his majesty,
Upon our spiritual convocation … to give a greater sum
Than ever at one time the clergy yet
Did to his predecessors part withal.
(I, i, 75-6, 79-81)
Could Henry make an unbiased choice? All of the grand-sounding language by which Canterbury describes the king sounds like the epic and idealizing language of the Prologue. In fact it sounds as if the bishop would cover the limitations of the king just as Shakespeare would disguise the limitations of his playhouse. But beneath the language there is an inescapable reality of person and platform.
In the second scene Henry appears for the first time. He sends for Canterbury and requires of him:
My learned lord, we pray you to proceed
And justly and religiously unfold
Why the law Salique that they have in France
Or should, or should not, bar us in our
And God forbid, my dear and faithful lord,
That you should fashion, wrest or bow your
(I, ii, 9-14)
One critic [M. M. Reese, in The Cease of Majesty, 1961] has commented: 'To consult his spiritual advisers on a matter of this gravity was the correct thing for a king to do …' Yet the audience knows that the bishop, to protect Church property, must have the war in France; it is hard to imagine that this politic king does not know the same thing. What he seems to want are the words that will legalize aggression. He also wants to abdicate his responsibility for any of the slaughter to follow.
For God doth know how many now in
Shall drop their blood in approbation
Of what your reverence shall incite us to.
(I, ii, 18-20)
Verbally Henry pretends to have little to do with what will happen; the active verb 'incite' is given to the bishop—whatever happens will be his fault. It is not a very pleasant situation for Canterbury. This is indeed a politic king but not necessarily an epic hero.
Canterbury then launches upon a 62-line defense of Henry's right to the French throne. No audience simply hearing this complicated and twisting explanation could have much idea what it means. In terms of stage action the king himself seems confused. After he has been told in Canterbury's involved speech that he is the proper heir, he still has to ask: 'May I with right and conscience make this claim?' (I, ii, 96). He does not really understand the basis of his claim and neither could the audience. The bishop assures him, however, by reference to 'the book of Numbers'. The search for authority seems rather desperate. One would hardly think of the book of Numbers as providing 'unhidden passages' through which an English king could claim a French throne.
When Henry resolves to claim the throne, before the French ambassadors enter, he states: 'France being ours, we'll bend it to our awe, / Or break it all to pieces …' (I, ii, 224-5). It is the absolute demand of the immature man, the kind of demand we would expect from Hotspur. But when the ambassadors come in and tell Henry the Dauphin rejects all of his claims and has sent over some 'tennis-balls' instead, Henry projects himself as an epic hero—but note how his self-glorification reminds us of Richard II, another sun-king:
… I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France.
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.
(I, ii, 278-80)
It sounds impressive, but Richard II sounded impressive, too. Henry pretends this insult has resolved him when he had already made up his mind to claim France. Also, Henry does to the Dauphin what he did to Canterbury; he takes responsibility from himself and puts it on another. It is the Dauphin who 'hath turn'd his [tennis] balls to gun-stones' (I, ii, 282). It is the Dauphin whose soul 'shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance / That shall fly with them …' (I, ii, 283-4). If the audience has put aside the Hal of the Henry IV plays, it is seeing a clever, but not necessarily attractive, immature man.…
The Chorus then returns to tell the audience to imagine the 'well-appointed king' sailing in epic splendor to France. And quite properly to the epic tone Henry will not accept a compromise with the French; he is not satisfied with the king's daughter Katharine and 'some petty and unprofitable dukedoms'. Instead, the cannon will fire and the siege of Harfleur will continue. Yet even in this epic-sounding Chorus there are certain ambiguities. Is it a positive act for Henry to have left England, 'Guarded with grandsires, babies, and old women' (III, Prologue, 20)? The reference to the cannon by the Chorus seems clearly ironical: 'And down goes all before them' (III, Prologue, 34). It is just not true. Harfleur is not coming down. Once more words are found quite distant from the reality of the situation.
As the scene shifts to before Harfleur the audience hears the rhetorical Henry exhorting his men: 'Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; / Or close the wall up with our English dead' (III, i, 1-2). It may be a compelling statement, but as Richmond notes the attacks repeatedly fail. Also, Henry's own language suggests the distortion of human nature required to carry on these brutal acts:
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews; summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye terrible aspect …
(III, i, 6-9)
The words in italics all suggest an unnatural making-over of man for war. Yet Henry sees in these men, these 'English dead' a 'noble lustre'.…
The scene then shifts back to the central quarrel. Incredibly, Henry, as he speaks to the Governor of Harfleur, is denying responsibility for what will happen in the city. He describes in detail the terrors that will befall Harfleur if it does not surrender, then warns the Governor: ' … you yourselves are cause …' (III, iii, 19). He also terms the Governor 'guilty in defense'. This is just too much from Henry. Shakespeare makes his own attitude clear when he compares through Henry the war the king is ready to unleash 'to the prince of fiends'. It is a devil that Henry brings. Even more pointed is the irony in Henry's calling his soldiers 'Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen' (III, iii, 41). It is impossible to take the allusion as a compliment. More and more the doubts about the validity of Henry's quarrel are growing. Yet, for the first time something seems to be changing. Harfleur surrenders because the Dauphin cannot aid it. But as Henry accepts his prize—consider the rhetoric he employed a moment ago—he seems somewhat deflated and his language reflects this change: 'The winter coming on and sickness growing / Upon our soldiers, we will retire to Calais' (III, iii, 55-6). For the first time Henry stops sounding like an epic hero and starts sounding like an honest man. Rhetoric is put aside. Henry trapped in a discredited war is beginning to mature.…
When the French ambassador enters in the same scene it is he who fills the air with the rhetoric of war: 'Our voice is imperial: England shall repent his folly …' (III, vi, 31-2). Instead of reacting in kind, as he did when he received the tennis balls, Henry simply asks him to leave the country:
Turn thee back,
And tell thy king I do not seek him now;
But could be willing to march on to Calais
Without impeachment …
(III, vi, 148-51)
Henry is asking for peace. But almost more important is his rejection of the epic art associated with the opening prologues. It is, as Henry notes, foolish to admit your weakness to your enemy. But Shakespeare seems to want to make it clear that Henry is no longer covering reality with words. So while the statement may be illogical from a strategical point of view, it is dramatically logical as it shows Henry's maturation. Thus in honesty, without artifice, he comments:
… to say the sooth,
Though 'tis no wisdom to confess so much
Unto an enemy of craft and vantage,
My people are with sickness much
My numbers lessen'd …
(III, vi, 151-5)
This is not the Henry who reminded the audience of Hotspur in the opening scene.
In fact all of the disagreeable elements that Shakespeare associated with the English earlier now begin to pass over to the French. At the moment it is Henry who is seeking peace. Also the petty quarrels are now French petty quarrels. In III, vii, the Constable of France, Orleans, and the Dauphin argue about their armor and their horses. Going the furthest, the Dauphin says of his horse:
It is the prince of palfreys; his neigh is like the
bidding of a monarch and his countenance enforces
(III, vii, 29-31)
This is too much for Orleans but the Dauphin will not be stopped. He declared: 'I once writ a sonnet in his praise and began thus: "Wonder of nature"' (III, vii, 42-3). In fact the Dauphin states: 'My horse is my mistress' (III, vii, 46). The argument begins to parallel that of Nym and Pistol over Nell; only now the question is far more absurd. The mistress in question now becomes a horse. It is the French who are being presented as absurd.
Instead of Henry's rhetoric, the audience hears the bragging of the French who are all impatient for the day when 'by ten / We shall have each a hundred Englishmen' (III, vii, 168-9). Yet it will be the English who will be out on the field of battle first. And now instead of Henry it is the Dauphin who is looked at with suspicion. When he exits the Constable of France calls the Dauphin a braggart who can never do harm. When Orleans says that the Dauphin is valiant, the Constable ironically agrees, for 'he told me so himself (III, vii, 117). If the audience is watching for parallels it can see one between Pistol and the Dauphin. Gradually Henry is moving away from the unattractive elements in the play. Shakespeare is shifting them to the French.
Yet, petty quarrels continue to plague the English camp. Henry disguises himself with a cloak as a 'gentleman of a company'. Soon he runs into Pistol and though the king shows restraint he does provoke an argument with him when he tells Pistol he is Fluellen's kinsman. It all ends with Pistol's 'The figo for thee, then!' (IV, i, 60). As Henry continues through the camp he meets the positive parallels to Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol in Bates, Court, and Williams. When Henry says, however, the king's cause is 'just and his quarrel honourable' (IV, i, 133), Williams replies, 'That's more than we know' (IV, i, 134). In fact he then goes on to hold the king responsible if the cause is not just:
But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all 'We died at such a place …'
(IV, i, 140-5)
Once more a raw nerve is struck in Henry and in a speech that covers 42 prose lines (IV, i, 154-6), the audience hears him denying responsibility again. He avoids the central issue of the just cause and presents such statements as: 'Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own.' On stage, though Williams and Bates agree, the speech is hard to follow—recall Canterbury's treatment of the Salic laws. And it just does not answer the question of responsibility that Williams posed. Henry is not yet free of his rhetoric.
In fact, the soldiers continue cynical when Henry tells them the King has said he would not be ransomed. As Williams says:
Ay, he said so, to make us fight cheerfully: but when our throats are cut, he may be ransomed, and we ne'er the wiser.
(IV, i, 204-6)
This exchange leads to another foolish quarrel and Henry and Williams exchange favors so that they can recognize each other and fight at a more appropriate time. Oddly, it is not Henry, but Bates who stops the quarrel: 'Be friends, you English fools, be friends …' (IV, i, 239). As the soldiers exit, Henry in soliloquy, upset by Williams' remarks about the king's responsibility, comments:
Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!
(IV, i, 247-9)
Yet the war is his responsibility. It is hard to miss Shakespeare's irony when Henry laments: ' … in gross brain little wots / What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace …' (IV, i, 299-300). It was Henry who, like Bardolph, stole the pax or peace. While Henry is still confined by his rhetoric, he is growing more honest. He is ready to admit that not only is there some doubt about his claim to the French throne, but there is doubt about his right to the English crown. As the scene ends, referring to the murder of Richard II, he prays:
Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
(IV, i, 309-11)
The process may be taking a long time, but Henry is maturing.
I spoke above of the parallel between the Chorus's admission that it was covering a limited stage with devices of art and our sense that Henry may have been doing the same thing in his role as epic king. In the Prologue to Act IV, the Chorus now apologizes for the battle scene:
…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.
(IV, Prologue, 49-52)
But this apology does not nearly come up to the apology required. In the Prologue to the play, the Chorus asked the audience 'into a thousand parts divide one man' (I. 24) and thus imagine the large battle. Another apology for technical limitations? Hardly. None of this prepares us for what we are going to see in the only actual battle scene where French and English meet: IV, iv. What Shakespeare has asked us to do is to divide Pistol the coward and a more cowardly Frenchman into a thousand parts to represent the monumental English victory at Agincourt. Pistol takes him prisoner and says he will cut his throat. The Boy translates the French soldier's reply:
He prays you save his life: he is a gentleman of a good house; and for his ransom he will give you two hundred crowns.
(IV, iv, 47-9)
The offer satisfies Pistol, who states: 'As I suck blood, I will some mercy show' (IV, iv, 68). His words recall his earlier intentions as he left for France: 'To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck' (II, iii, 58). Shakespeare is not limited by his theatre, he has chosen to present Agincourt in the worst way possible. The only hero we see on stage is one whom, as the Boy comments, 'Bardolph and Nym had ten times more valour than …' (IV, iv, 74).
As the French begin to sense defeat, Bourbon urges them on in terms that recall the argument over Nell, the reference to Frenchwomen giving 'their bodies to the lust of English youth …' (III, v, 30) and Henry's references to the rape of virgins as he stood outside Harfleur. Orleans says he who will not follow him into battle is
Like a base pandar, [who will] hold the
Whilst by a slave, no gentler than my dog,
His fairest daughter is contaminated.
(IV, v, 14-16)
Then the battle, if possible, becomes even less attractive. Exeter describes in pathetic terms the deaths of York and Suffolk. Henry is moved almost to tears. But at this very moment Henry learns the French are regrouping and he commands: 'Then every soldier kill his prisoners: / Give the word through' (IV vi, 37-8). Immediately juxtaposed to this act is the French act of brutality: they have slaughtered the boys who were with the luggage. For this, Fluellen explains, 'The king, most worthily, hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O, 'tis a gallant king!' (IV vii, 10-11). The irony seems inescapable. Just as Henry decided to attack France before the insult of the tennis balls, Henry now ordered his massacre before the French carried out theirs. Pistol and the French soldier are not bad 'ciphers to this great accompt'. Once more the reality of the battle has been quite different from the promises of the early Choruses. If we are going to admire the Henry that was maturing before the battle, Shakespeare must extricate him from this degrading turmoil.
But it is not time yet. Fluellen and Gower compare Henry who could 'cut the Gordian knot' and Alexander the Great who comes out in Fluellen's Welsh distortion of big as Alexander the Pig. Both epic heroes are being trimmed down to size. The audience may imagine, however, that Shakespeare is going to compare Henry's victory with Alexander's conquests. But this is hardly the case. There is a comparison, however, as Fluellen states:
If you mark Alexander's life well,
Harry of Monmouth's life is come after it indifferent well … Alexander … did, in his ales and his angers, look you, kill his best friend, Cleitus.
(IV, vii, 34-6, 39-41)
When Gower objects that Henry never killed any of his friends, Fluellen responds with Falstaff:
Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his
good judgments, turned away the fat knight … (IV, vii, 49-51)
The comparison with Henry presented as coldblooded, can hardly be to his advantage.
In fact, as he enters immediately after this passage he threatens the French prisoners once more: 'We'll cut the throats of those we have …" (IV, vii, 66). Yet when the French surrender Henry can take a new tone: 'Praised be God, and not our strength, for it!' (IV, vii, 90). In contrast to his earlier bragging, in contrast to the French bragging, his tone and attitude seem refreshing. But another quarrel, much less important, must be settled as well. Williams and Henry are to meet after the battle. But to avoid insult to the royal person, Henry gives the favor that marks him as Williams' enemy to Fluellen. He is careful, however, that nothing serious should pass and he sends certain lords to 'follow, and see there be no harm between them' (IV, vii, 190). Yet we see on stage another quarrel as Williams recognizes the favor and strikes Fluellen. The audience must by now desire peace on stage. Henry enters to settle the quarrel and tells Williams that he had insulted the king the night before the battle. Williams defends himself, however, by saying it was Henry's fault:
… what your highness suffered under that shape, I beseech you take it for your own fault and not mine …
(IV, viii, 56-8).
And as Henry rewards this fellow the audience feels he is finally beginning to take responsibility. It was his fault. Yet Fluellen's advice to Williams at this point can apply to Henry as well:
I pray you to serve God, and keep you out of prawls, and prabbles, and quarrels, and dissensions …
(IV, viii, 69-70)
The Prologue to act V presents the conqueror Henry in rather unheroic terms. That is, Henry is no longer a braggart. What follows is his reaction to a triumphal procession:
… he forbids it,
Being free from vainness and self-glorious
Giving full trophy, signal and ostent
Quite 'from himself to God.
(V, Prologue, 19-22)
It is easy to be cynical about this pose, yet it does present us with a Henry who is more humble than the character we experienced at the beginning of the drama. He also becomes more attractive to us when the Chorus, ignoring real time, now carries Henry back to France—only now he is there for peace and not for war. His new role is juxtaposed to the roles his soldiers still play. The audience watches while the English soldiers continue to argue among themselves. Fluellen, in terms of stage action, had just condemned 'quarrels and dissensions' but now he is ready for another meaningless argument with Pistol about the Welsh and the symbol of their pride, the leek (V, i). Once more there is confusion and dissension on stage when the audience is weary of this kind of thing. We have been overwhelmed with quarrels, debates, and wars; everything should be over. No wonder Henry looks so good in the final act when he brings peace to a play that is itself in turmoil.
Indeed, Henry is removed from the conflicts that take place on stage. Fluellen beats Pistol on the stage for mocking the Welsh, a punishment well earned. In fact, Pistol has been driven out of the army as the worst aspects of Henry's character seem to have been driven out of him. Now Pistol, whom we will hear of no more, comments:
Old do I wax; and from my weary limbs
Honour is cudgelled. Well, bawd I'll turn,
And something lean to cutpurse of quick
To England will I steal, and there I'll steal:
And patches will I get unto these cudgell'd
And swear I got them in the Gallia wars.
(V, i, 89-94)
He will continue to be a thief, an occupation that Henry has now apparently disavowed. Also throughout the play Pistol's boasting served to parody the epic language of the king and the Chorus. Pistol is going to continue to boast and swagger like a 'turkey-cock'—he is going to present himself as a soldier wounded in the wars—while the audience will see in the next scene a Henry who has put off such swaggering language. Thus Pistol who served in the play as a parallel to Henry, reminding us of the king's limitations, now serves as a contrast to a matured king. Having shown us what Henry is not going to be, he departs forever from Shakespeare's stage. It is the perfect moment to dismiss him.
This time Henry has come not to suck the blood of France but for peace. Yet even this late in the play we are reminded of an earlier Henry. The king tells Burgundy that peace is the French King's responsibility: 'Well then the peace, / Which you before so urged, lies in his answer' (V, ii, 75-6). Will the king accept Henry's 'just demands?' Once again he is avoiding responsibility. But there is a difference. He is now ready to compromise, something a Hotspur could never do. He tells his negotiators:
. . . take with you free power to ratify,
Augment, or alter, as your wisdoms best
Shall see advantageable for our dignity,
Anything in or out of our demands
And we'll consign thereto.
(V, ii, 86-90)
He is much more concerned with wooing Katharine.
Indeed it is in this action, as they are left alone on stage (except for Alice), that the audience really sees a new Henry. The change in Henry is particularly signified by the change in his language. He once spoke in epic rhetoric concerning war, he now speaks in simple prose as he pleads his love. In fact he insists upon an honesty of style; he is not covering anything with art. This is certainly different from the Henry we saw before and from the Chorus who admitted covering reality with art. Now Henry woos:
But, before God, Kate, I cannot look greenly nor gasp out my eloquence, nor I have no cunning in protestation; only downright oaths …
(V, ii, 146-9)
Though love is certainly different from war, the audience does see and hear a Henry who seems to have rejected the deceptive arts of rhetoric. For the first time we may be having a fully positive reaction to him. There is no longer a distance between words and reality, a distance we felt so keenly between the words of the Chorus and the realities of the action. No longer does he need the confusing legal language of the bishop; no false claims are being covered up by words. Also all of the imagery of the rape of Frenchwomen, which certainly reflected upon Henry's purposes in attacking France, now only serves as a contrast to his honorable proposal of marriage.
Thus the quarrel is finally resolved with the marriage of Henry and Katharine—the ending reminds one of the conclusions of various comedies. Peace is the value stressed. Yet there is one final irony that obviously affected the Elizabethan audience. If more and more the audience felt as it watched this play the futility of all 'dissensions', what more support could it require than the Epilogue? Henry dies and leaves both France and England to his son. But the Chorus-now like Henry in the last scene, speaking without art or rhetoric—tells us honestly that:
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd King
Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed.
Thus, with no cover of art, the audience is reminded of the uselessness of the entire glorious action. The reality of war is no longer disguised; the Chorus presents it as accomplishing nothing.
Thus the play presents several positive elements in its conclusion. If it began in war, it suggests the value of peace at the end. If it begins with a foolish king, it seems to end with a mature one. If it begins with an artificial language, it ends with an honest one. Thus process and development must be recognized if the play is to be understood. It is as if Shakespeare had decided to redo the education of a prince presented in 1 and 2 Henry IV. Any inconsistency that Shakespeare may be charged with is historical. That is, he begins in Henry V to write about a monarch who resembles the earlier character Hotspur. This is a new play in which a rash, rhetorical, young and foolish king will learn a lesson in moderation. The audience can follow his development as it responds to his language and the language of the Chorus. At the end of the play both king and Chorus eschew the rhetorical language with which they disguised facts. Art has been stripped off and the reality remains. At the close of the play Henry is honest and peaceseeking; he has matured as monarch and man. Thus in Henry V we simply do not have Hal. Shakespeare repeats the theme concerned with the education of a prince, but it is a different prince. Overlooking this fact has led many a critic astray who could not locate the Hal of the earlier plays in this one. He is not there. Thus the unity of Henry V is internal and does not depend upon a tetralogy for justification. Henry V must stand alone if its dramatic unity is to be appreciated.
SOURCE: "Whatever Happened to Prince Hal? An Essay on Henry V" in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 30, 1977, pp. 47-59.
W. L. Godshalk
[In the essay below, Godshalk focuses on Henry's tendency to evade responsibility, claiming that this trait "is both his political strength and his personal weakness." Godshalk contends that Henry's political and personal insecurities are the basis for his fear of the responsibilities of kingship.]
Readers of Shakespeare have been vastly divided in their responses to Henry V. Some have seen him as "an ideal or nearly ideal character", while others have been just as certain that he is a jingoistic warmonger. Alfred Harbage argued [in his edition of Henry V, in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, 1969] that the divergent readings were a result of Shakespeare's temporarily inept dramaturgy: "The 'faults' which critics have found in Henry are really the side-effects of Shakespeare's having tried to do too much for him-by conferring upon him incompatible virtues.… At the same time that he exemplifies Christian virtue, he also exemplifies non-Christian virtue." More recently, Norman Rabkin takes a less critical look [in "Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V," SQ 28 (1977)] at these unresolved conflicts in Henry's character, emphasizing the "complementarity" of Shakespeare's concept which requires "that we hold in balance incompatible and radically opposed views each of which seems exclusively true." Multivalence is Shakespeare's dramatic virtue. In the following pages, I do not reject the idea that Henry is a complex character—far from it—but I do isolate one factor of that complexity in an attempt to show how that factor—Henry's inability to accept responsibility—is both his political strength and his personal weakness.
From the beginning of his concept of the character, Shakespeare underlines Henry's tendency to evade responsibility. In 1 Henry IV, although Hal may come up with some plausible excuses for his inaction, he only fleetingly assumes his role as heir apparent. He may kill Hotspur in true princely fashion, but he allows Falstaff to take the credit and responsibility for the act. The freeing of the Douglas he delegates to his brother John, and he himself retires to the background. At the beginning of Part 2, he has again deserted the court; just as in Part 1, after elaborately promising his father that he has reformed, he returns to the tavern in a playful march. Some critics have been hard put to rationalize these shifts in Hal's behaviour, but I think we can accommodate them if we accept what appears to be the evident fact that Hal has a difficult time handling responsibility. This is not to deny that Hal desires the crown and wishes to be a powerful monarch, but at some level—Shakespeare intimates—Hal is terrified by the dreadful responsibilities of kingship.
At the same time, Hal is a shrewd political manipulator, and although we do not see him in a position of great authority in 1 Henry IV, we are given ample demonstrations of his power of control. Falstaff tries to manipulate Hal throughout the play, but it is Hal who steals the old man's horse at Gadshill and later forces him to walk to Shrewsbury. Hotspur too is part of Hal's plan. Although Hotspur may well believe that his roan shall be his throne (II.3.70), Hal informs his father, Percy is but my factor (III.2.147), and finally it is Hal who vaults on his horse like feathered Mercury and witches the world with noble horsemanship (IV.1.104, 110). But perhaps the most interesting and informative example of Hal's ability to control is his brief scene with Francis, where the poor drawer is cruelly and utterly manipulated by Hal's precedent (II.4.31). And indeed, it is a precedent for Hal's political career.
The basis for these characteristics, I contend, is insecurity, both political and personal. The political insecurity of the Lancastrian crown is freely admitted by Hal's father and fully illustrated by Shakespeare in the last two acts of Richard II and throughout the Henry IV plays. Hal is instructed by Henry to begin a foreign war to help make the crown more secure, to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels (2 Henry IV, IV.5.213-14). However, Hal's neurotic inability to accept responsibility for that war in Henry V indicates a deeper level of insecurity. A close reading of that play with these ideas in mind will suggest the source of Henry's personal insecurity, and it will certainly show us his political genius as he turns his failing into political capital: the subtle politics of non-responsibility are Henry's forte.
The first scene of the play shows us the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely discussing a bill which, if passed, will strip the Church of the better half of its possessions (I.1.8). The opposition of the clerics is presented as ironic since the bill would be both politically and morally good for the state. Apparently indifferent, Henry uses the situation to gain certain favours from the Church—a greater sum/ Than ever at one time the clergy yet/ Did to his predecessors part withal (79-81). But Henry gets more than a bribe from the embattled clergy. Feeling the need to be absolved from the responsibility of the French war—a war which he is determined to begin—he charges the Archbishop to take extreme care: For God doth know how many now in health/ Shall drop their blood in approbation/ Of what your reverence shall incite us to (I.2.18-20). Originally the king had asked Canterbury simply to explain the Salic Law; now quite unexplainably that explanation has become an incitement to war. Henry, of course, realizes that the clergyman has a stake in turning the attention of the state to foreign broyles in order to save the Church's possessions. Using that self-interest, Henry forces responsibility onto the Church. May I with right and conscience make this claim? (96), Henry asks, and, taking the hint, Canterbury replies, The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!(97). Although it has been argued that Henry is carefully soliciting advice before making a momentous decision, his insistent demand that the Archbishop take responsibility for the war seems unusual. After a king has freely evaluated the advice of his council, he should assume complete responsibility for his final decision. Henry does not.
Happily for him, yet another scapegoat is available. After determining to bend France to our awe/ Or break it all to pieces (I.2.224-5), Henry calls in the messengers from the Dauphin who deliver him a tun of tennis balls. The insult—the Dauphin reminds the king of his wilder days (267)—provides Henry with another person on whom to place blame for the war. He asks the ambassadors to
tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turn'd his balls to gun-stones; and his soul
Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them: for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands;
Mock mothers from their sons.
Although Canterbury has already taken the sin of the war on his head, Henry now assures the Dauphin that his ironic gift will make him guilty of the Franco—British war which Henry has already determined to begin. Henry establishes a cause and effect sequence where none really exists. His anger over the Dauphin's reminder of his wilder days is excessive, even childish, but to his own satisfaction, Henry has distributed the blame for his war. He comes away from his first scene smelling, so his thinks, like a lily.
In Henry's next scene, he again places responsibility for his actions on his victims. Using the case of a drunken soldier, he contrives to have the three traitors—Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey—advise him to judicial severity. When Henry offers to have the soldier released without punishment, Scroop advises: Let him be punish'd, sovereign, lest example /Breed, by his sufferance, more of such a kind (II.2.45-6). We assume that Scroop's advice issues from a guilty conscience trying to mask itself with strict justice. Henry, it appears, relies on this reaction. A little cat-and-mouse game follows, with Henry's let us yet be merciful (47) eliciting a series of admonitions against excessive mercy. In this way, when he hands the men the warrants for their arrest, he can answer their cries for mercy with: The mercy that was quick in us but late/ By your own counsel is suppress'd and kill'd: / You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy (79-81). The traitors must take responsibility for Henry's lack of mercy, and in gale of self-justification, the king continues his diatribe, especially against his favourite, Scroop, for sixty-two more lines. This revolt of thine, he tells Scroop indignantly, is like / Another fall of man (141-2). The submerged implication is that Scroop stands in the same relation to Henry as Adam stood to God. Scroop's punishment is as deserved and irrevocable as Adam's; Henry's innocence, as absolute as God's. So Henry implies.
But the situation is much more complicated than the Chorus's easy answer that France had found a nest of hollow bosoms which it filled with treacherous crowns (II.Chorus.21-2). One of the so-called traitors, Richard Earl of Cambridge has—through Mortimer—a better claim to the throne than Henry. At least, such a case may be argued. Cambridge's enigmatic statement—For me, the gold of France did not seduce, /Although I did admit it as a motive / The sooner to effect what I intended (II.2.155-7)—is explained by this fact: Cambridge wants Henry's crown, not the treacherous crowns of France. There is a conspiracy of silence here, for both sides can profit from the pretence that this is a foreign intrigue rather than a native dynastic struggle. Henry gains political sentiment against the underhanded French; Cambridge keeps the Yorkist aspirations quietly alive to be reactivated at a later time. Shakespeare had already treated this reactivation fully in the Henry VI plays and perhaps felt that only a subtle allusion to the Yorkist claim was needed here.
We can make two points about this situation. First, Cambridge's conspiracy underlines the political insecurity of Henry's reign. Obviously Henry IV was wrong: the dynastic troubles from the past have not been completely solved by turning the attention of the English toward the conquest of France. Second, Cambridge's claim to the English crown is historically similar to Henry's claim to the French crown. This submerged parallel—Shakespeare does not insist upon it—ironically undercuts Henry's pretensions to France. This subtle point has its more blatant counterpart in the first scene of King John where John's judgment of the Faulconbridge case may be applied to his own claim to the English crown. Like John, Henry judges against himself.
As Henry sentences his three former friends to death, he gives them over to God's mercy. God, not he, must take care of the erring sheep. Touching our person seek we no revenge, he claims, But—and this is an ironic but for the first line must sound like a reprieve to the ears of the three traitors—we our kingdom's safety must so tender, / Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws / We do deliver you (174-7). Not only must the traitors condemn themselves, Henry must abjure any personal animosity; the impersonal law is functioning here.
The scene at Southampton is surrounded in the play by two scenes which chronicle the sickness and death of Falstaff. In the scene before Henry's condemnation of the traitors, Henry himself is held responsible for Falstaff's depression and subsequent degeneration:
Nym. The king hath run bad humours on the knight; that's the even of it.
Pistol. Nym, thou hast spoke the right; His heart isfracted and corroborate.
And immediately after Henry finishes denouncing his former friend Scroop, Mistress Quickly describes the serio-comic death of Henry's former friend Falstaff. The ironic contrast is apparent: Henry's bitter denunciation of Scroop may be turned against himself. The juxtaposition of scenes severely qualifies the credibility of Henry's righteous indignation and of his attempts to avoid responsibility for what he has done and is doing.
Before the walls of Harfleur, Henry again exhibits his propensity for evasion. After leading his soldiers to the walls and urging them into the breach, he asks the citizens, What is't me, when you yourselves are cause, / If your pure maidens fall into the hand / Of hot and forcing violation? (III.3.19-21). For Henry there seems to be a disjunction between the act of leading soldiers into the breach and the responsibility for what the soldiers do while they are there. In any case, Henry goes on to explain, quite coolly, what will happen if he takes the city by storm. He asks:
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
We may as bootless spend our vain
Upon th' enraged soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore. Therefore, you men of
Take pity of your town and of your people,
While yet my soldiers are in my command.
Although Henry can justly argue that his blind and bloody soldiers (34) will be out of control after a successful siege, he seems morally obtuse when he tries to transfer the blame for the siege onto the citizens of the city. The citizens cannot be faulted (Gentili's statement [in De lure Belli] notwithstanding) for loyally defending their city for the French king. If patriotism is a virtue for the English, it is equally a virtue for the French.
Later, when the tables are turned and Henry is confronted with the main French army, he tries to evade the confrontation, sending Montjoy back to the French king with this message:
tell thy king I do not seek him now,
But could be willing to march on to Calais
Without impeachment; for, to say the sooth,
Though 'tis no wisdom to confess so much
Unto an enemy of craft and vantage,
My people are with sickness much enfeebled, …
We would not seek a battle as we are;
Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it.
If Henry's soldiers are as sick as he claims, this attempt at evasion may be a simple measure of his intelligence. But, given the pattern of Henry's behaviour to this point in the play, we may not be wrong in suspecting that even here a characteristic tactic is at work. Henry does not wish to initiate an action and thus have to assume responsibility for its outcome. The situation is reversed, but Henry's response is predictable.
And as we may expect from Shakespeare's procedure so far, Henry's response to the French challenge is undercut, for the foppish French knights are hardly presented as adequate opponents (i.e., an enemy of craft and vantage) for the English. The English are tough professional and conscripted soldiers who know exactly what battle is all about; the French are inexperienced, nervous, impatient—courtiers playing at soldiership. The dramatized contrast serves to question Henry's apparent fears that the battle will be a disaster for his seasoned troops. His sprezzatura may be the bravura of an almost sure winner. Or is Henry's admission of weakness merely propaganda so that the French will ride (I am here thinking of Olivier's jingoistic movie version) unsuspectingly into a horrible massacre?
Before the battle, Henry—disguised in Sir Thomas Erpingham's cloak—visits his troops. Shakespeare here dramatizes the Chorus's adulatory little touch of Harry in the night (IV.Chorus.47). But the situation, instead of allowing the king to cheer his men warmly and personally in a bad hour, again gives Henry a chance at apologetics. When Michael Williams elouently maintains that if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make (IV.1.135-6), Henry skilfully counters with what appears to be a rather well-prepared argument:
So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon his father that sent him: or if a servant, under his master's command transporting a sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant's damnation. But this is not so: the king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death when they purpose their services.
This part of Henry's defence, it seems to me, is indefensible. First, Henry does not address himself to William's hypothesis which is that Henry will be guilty if the war is unlawful and his guilt will be increased if certain soldiers are damned while participating in an unlawful war. Williams does not argue that the soldiers are not responsible for themselves and their individual crimes. Second, the father and the master are not precisely analogous to the king. Death is inextricably linked to battle; soldiers fight to kill, and Williams has already pointed out to Henry that few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument? (143-6). In contrast, death is not a necessary part of the father's mission or the master's command; the son and the servant are not being sent to kill or be killed.
Henry wishes to have it both ways: Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own (182-4). For the king they must kill without mercy; for themselves they must maintain Christian charity. This separation of political duty from personal morality is undoubtedly an orthodox position for a Tudor apologist, but the sceptical listener will not necessarily accept this kind of immoral orthodoxy. Bates's response, I do not desire [the king] should answer for me (195), is that of a man who knows how to accept responsibility for his actions.
In the light of our analysis of Henry's inability to accept responsibility, his following soliloquy resounds with irony. Upon the king! he exclaims as if in anguish,
but let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition!
If we may trust the evidence of this soliloquy, Henry has no insight into his evasions. As we have seen, Henry bears nothing; he refuses to. And possibly in his prayer near the end of this scene, we come close to understanding this mysterious inability:
Not to-day, O Lord!
O not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard's body have interred new,
And on it have bestow'd more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood…
More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Retaining the usurped throne, Henry obviously feels responsible for his father's usurpation and Richard's inevitable assassination. This guilt is impossible to evade since his penitence comes after all and since Henry is not prepared to renounce the fruits of his father's evil—the crown. Henry's earlier savage indignation against Scroop is, at least on one level, a denunciation of his own father's act and Henry's subsequent feelings of guilt. Since he reveals these deep feelings in prayer, I think we can take them at face value; this is not another evasion. Given this central insight into Henry's emotions, we can see why he is forced into elaborate delegations of responsibility. Overwhelmed by guilt from the past, he forces others to take responsibility for the present.
After the battle, Shakespeare returns to Henry's quarrel with Williams over the issue of ransom. Disguised as Erpingham, Henry has committed himself personally to Williams: Give me any gage of thine, and I will wear it in my bonnet: then, if ever thou darest acknowledge it, I will make it my quarrel (IV.1.214-16). Now, when Henry hands Fluellen the gage given him by Williams with a cock-and-bull story about Alencon, we are not surprised. Fluellen must take the blow meant for Henry; and after forcing an explanation and an apology from Williams, the king has Exeter fill his glove with crowns. The incident is clearly another manifestation of Henry's passing the buck; he could never claim, The buck stops here. We have much more sympathy for the two manipulated soldiers than for the evasive king—even though we now understand more fully his compulsion. The effect of the incident is to question Henry's intention of not allowing himself to be ransomed. After all, he does not keep faith with Williams, and a man who cannot keep faith in small things can hardly be expected to keep faith in large—especially when his life is at the stake.
Henry's final comment at Agincourt, however, may well surprise us. After a brilliant military achievement, he proclaims:
O God, thy arm was here;
And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
Ascribe we all! When, without stratagem,
But in plain shock and even play of battle,
Was ever known so great and little loss
On one part and on th' other? Take it, God,
For it is none but thine!
That Henry might wish to evade responsibility for dubious achievements such as starting a war, executing a close friend and a claimant to the throne, or getting caught in the field with a weak army, we can understand. But why not take credit for winning a major battle? The question may give rise to a series of conjectures, some perhaps more tenable than others, but I suggest a simple answer in line with our previous analysis. Henry knows—I am not sure how conscious this knowledge is—that to accept responsibility for any victory implies an acceptance of other responsibilities which may lead to less happy consequences. If Henry allows himself to climb on the scale of responsibility once, he may never be able to get off.
Henry ends the play as he began, by distancing himself from the imminent decision. If Henry forces responsibility for the war on Canterbury and on the Dauphin, he commands others to be responsible for the peace that follows. When the French king declares that he is ready to begin negotiating a peace treaty, Henry turns to his entourage:
Go, uncle Exeter,
And brother Clarence, and you, brother
Warwick and Huntingdon, go with the king;
And take with you free power to ratify,
Augment, or alter, as your wisdoms best
Shall see advantageable for our dignity,
Any thing in or out of our demands,
And we'll consign thereto.
While Henry plays with Katherine for a kiss, the negotiations for the marriage are carried on by his surrogates. Somehow this separation of play from work sums up perfectly Henry's inability; like a young child, he desires the candy, but he cannot force himself to mow the grass to earn it. Fortunately for Henry, he is powerful, cunning, and manipulative enough to indulge himself while others assume the sins, take the beatings, suffer death, and, most pathetically, negotiate for his wife.
And so while the serious negotiations go on off stage, Henry plays with Katherine for a kiss, assuring her, when she demurs, that nice customs curtsy to great kings. He calls her Dear Kate in his most charming bluff king manner, and tells her, You and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country's fashion: we are the makers of manners, Kate; and the liberty that follows our places stops the mouth of all find-faults, as I will do yours, for upholding the nice fashion of your country in denying me a kiss (V.2.284-90). In this speech I find a grim irony. After evading responsibility for the butcheries of his conquest of France. Henry as a jest takes responsibility for changing an idle social custom. The French princess may now kiss before she is married. While Henry gains his kiss, the thoughtful reader may well remember his harsh question to the citizens of Harfleur: What is't to me … / If your pure maidens fall into the hand / Of hot and forcing violation? The memory undercuts Henry's boyish exuberance in this scene. My reaction is a faint disgust.
Of course, Henry is a good many more things than the passive neurotic that I've sketched here. If he were merely a dodger of responsibility, he would hardly be the successful political and military leader he is in the play. On the contrary, Henry is able to use the politics of non-responsibility with a great deal of acumen. By forcing others to take responsibility for his actions, he walks through the holocaust untarnished—the perfect Christian king and the Machiavellian manipulator. Henry says it in many ways, but this message is perfectly clear: "Don't blame me! I'm not responsible!"
SOURCE: "Henry V's Politics of Non-Responsibility," in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 17, April, 1980, pp. 11-20.
Joseph M. Lenz
[In this excerpt, Lenz studies the role of honor in Henry V and the importance the king places on keeping his oaths. Lenz asserts that Henry does not make his oaths rashly, but that he is fully aware of their implications. Lenz also focuses on Henry's constant pleas to God for forgiveness and mercy.]
Henry V begins with the king's resolve to invade France, "by God's helpe," and it closes with his prospective marriage to Katherine,
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1020
Although Falstaff never appears in Henry V, his absence has a significant impact on the tone of the play. Critics including John Middleton Murry have asserted that Falstaff had to be removed from the play in order for Henry to mature into his position as king. Michael Platt explores the absence of Falstaff from the play and Henry's absence from Falstaff's death bed. He maintains that Falstaff was afraid to die, and that this fear is seen in other characters throughout the play. He also contends that Henry, although he never speaks of Falstaff's death, learns from it and teaches his soldiers to imitate Falstaff. Robert F. Fleissner extensively analyzes Mistress Quickly's allusion to Falstaff's dying moments, noting how appropriate it is that Falstaff's death was as complex and dramatic as his life.
John Middleton Murry
[In the excerpt below, Murry praises Shakespeare's handling of the death of Falstaff in Henry V. He assesses Falstaff's reported death and analyzes the dramatic necessity of removing Falstaff from the play.]
Falstaff lives in and by a certain inimitable opulence of language. That opulence of language he does not employ in person in Henry V. He speaks no word in the play. We hear that he is ill; and we know the reason. 'The King hath killed his heart', says Mistress Quickly. She goes off to tend him. Then she reappears.
HOST. As ever you came of 'women, come in quickly to Sir John. Ah, poor heart! He is so shaked of a burning quotidian-tertian, that it is most lamentable to behold. Sweet men, come to him.
NYM. The King hath run bad humours on the knight; that's the even of it.
PIST. Nym, thou hast spoke the right; His heart is fracted and corroborate.
NYM. The king is a good king: but it must be as it may; he passes some humours and careers.
PIST. Let us condole the knight; for, lambkins, we
will live. (II. i. 122-34)
There is no mistaking the meaning. They all agree: Falstaff's heart has been broken by the King. One more scene and he is dead. But, miraculously, to describe his death, the rich rare language that is his, that is him, suddenly comes from one who never had command of it before. Mistress Quickly has her own way of talking, and a splendid way it is; but now she speaks with a voice not her own.
PIST. Bardolph, be blithe: Nym, rouse thy vaunting veins: Boy,
Bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is
dead, And we must yearn therefore.
BARD. Would I were with him, wheresome'er he is, either in heaven or in hell!
HOST. Nay, sure, he's not in hell: he's in Arthur's bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom. A' made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a' parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o' the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play with flowers and smile upon his fingers' ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen and a' babbled of green fields. 'How now, Sir John!' quoth I: 'what, man! be o' good cheer.' So a' cried out 'God, God, God!' three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a' should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a' bade me lay more clothes on his Feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
(II. iii. 4-28)
There are moments—and this is one of them—when I think that the most marvellous speech in all Shakespeare. It is wonderful. There is nothing remotely like it in all the literature of the world. How should there be? It is Shakespeare's requiem over the darling of his imagination.
There is no death like Falstaff's: therefore there is no description of a death like his. I cannot think of any other character whom Shakespeare was compelled to kill, as he was compelled to kill Falstaff. It is a quite different act from the killing of Mercutio. Mercutio is merely killed; but Falstaff is degraded. It had to be. Shakespeare could not spare him. Falstaff had to be cast off in order that Prince Hal could get back into history and become the national hero of Henry V.
I am the Prince of Wales; and think not,
To share with me in glory any more:
Two stars keep not their motion in one
Nor can one England brook a double reign. (H4A. v. iv. 64-7)
Those are Prince Harry's words to Hotspur before he kills him. Change 'Percy' to 'Falstaff, and they exactly describe the dramatic necessity for the dethroning of Falstaff. Only the order in which the necessity is compulsive is not the historical order, but the imaginative. And the necessity is a symbol of the tension between imaginative reality and historical fact.
Shakespeare was—thank Heaven—not a critical philosopher, but a poet of the human heart. Had he been a critical philosopher, he might have said to himself, 'The orders are different, incommensurable: Falstaff cannot be degraded, neither can he die. His degradation and death are appearance only: crude and clumsy symbols of the discrepancy between Imagination and Reality, between the poet's knowledge and the people's expectation, between the Soul and the Body'. He might have said this and gone on to glorify the warrior king. But he could not. His human heart could not suffer it. He had not been Sir John Falstaff for nothing. He stands looking upon him, as Horatio looks upon Hamlet:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good night,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
SOURCE: "Falstaff and Harry," in Shakespeare, Jonathan Cape, 1936, pp. 170-87.
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