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Henry V

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Henry V has been praised by many scholars as a vigorous portrayal of one of England's most popular national heroes. From the early nineteenth century to the present, the central issue for critics has been the character of the king and whether he represents Shakespeare's ideal ruler. While this debate has continued in recent decades, modern commentary has increasingly explored both Henry's positive and negative attributes. Although the personality of the king has attracted significant criticism, commentators have also shown renewed interest in Shakespeare's attitude toward patriotism and war, and the play's epic elements, particularly his use of the Chorus.

A majority of modern critics have concentrated on the character of Henry V and have been divided over whether Shakespeare intended to portray Henry as an ideal monarch and military hero or as a ruthless plotter. Michael Manheim has represented both views in stating, "Henry is intended to be a successful, admirable, and heroic figure" while simultaneously being "as consummate a Machiavel as any king" represented in the tetralogy. Although earlier critics have condemned Henry for his self-interestedness, brutality, and lack of emotion, some modern commentators have praised him for his piety, heroism, and statesmanship. For example, Zdenĕk Str̆íbrný has applauded "magnanimity, modesty, bravery, coolness and high spirits in the face of danger," and has called him "the most voluminous of all Shakespeare's characters." M. M. Reese has further noted that, "If in the play [Henry's] virtues seem to be superhuman, this does not invalidate the seriousness of Shakespeare's purpose nor, within the restrictions imposed by his medium, the success of his execution." One of the most significant issues debated by commentators remains whether Henry embodies Shakespeare's ideal king. Some other critics have cited the use of irony and death imagery in the play as indicative of Shakespeare's lack of compassion for the central character; C. H. Hobday has asserted that these recurrent images "suggest that, whatever Shakespeare may say about Henry, in his heart he regarded him as a murderer." However, other scholars have maintained that Shakespeare sought to present Henry as the ideal hero, one who reflects the Elizabethan notion of a perfect monarch. Discussing the play in historical context, G. P. V. Akrigg has commented, "If Shakespeare had presented the real Henry with all his aspects, including his limitations, his occasional craftiness and slightly nauseating sanctimony, he might have provoked the most notable riot in the history of the Elizabethan theatre." In emphasizing the complexity of Henry's character, W. L. Godshalk has observed that "Henry's inability to accept responsibility& is both his political strength and his personal weakness," and has concluded that this characteristic makes him both "the perfect Christian king and the Machiavellian manipulator."

Many twentieth-century critics have also explored the pervasive concern with war and patriotism in Henry V. Herbert R. Coursen, Jr. has maintained, "Henry V is not so much concerned with patriotism as with the price of patriotism," arguing that Henry finally becomes controlled by the role he has assumed. Focusing on the interaction between structure and theme in the play, Larry S. Champion has noted, "Shakespeare develops a stylized and highly patriotic theme throughout the three movements of the plot: the preparation for war, the combat itself, and the concluding of the peace." Anthony S. Brennan, analyzing Henry's return home in the last act, has written, "The description by the Chorus of Henry's reception in London not only crowns the patriotic fervor which has built up throughout the play but also neatly rounds off the preoccupation with war by a celebration of the return to peace." In addition, scholars have praised Shakespeare's accurate portrayal of Renaissance warfare through his use of specific details such as the slaughter of the prisoners and threats of plundering, sacking, and burning. Gordon Ross Smith has remarked, "Taken altogether, with its kings and nobles, captains, and commoners of varying merits, Shakespeare's Henry V is a public and semi-official portrait of a nation at war."

Shakespeare's use of epic elements in Henry V has also elicited much critical attention. By far the most panoramic of his plays, Henry V dramatizes an epic theme and celebrates a legendary hero. According to several scholars, the play therefore fulfills most of the formal requirements of classical epic: its hero is of national significance; it emphasizes destiny and the will of God; its action is impressive in scale and centers upon war; and it includes a narrator, an invocation to the Muse, a large number of warriors, battle taunts and challenges, and other traditional epic devices. Most commentators have agreed that Shakespeare's use of epic elements contributes significantly to the success of the play. Reese has pointed out that Shakespeare "decided that the noble deeds of Henry V, which were of a kind to inspire wonder and imitation, could not be fittingly celebrated except through the medium of epic," while Str̆íbrný has maintained that "he was both forced and inspired to create a new dramatic genre, what we might almost call an epic drama."

Scholars have repeatedly focused on the role of the Chorus in exposing the limitations of the Elizabethan stage. Reese has remarked that the function of the Chorus "is to apologise for the unsuitability of any stage for the breadth and sweep of epic; but at the same time Shakespeare uses it with great boldness and ingenuity to make good some of the deficiencies he so modestly admits," and Michael Goldman has stated that, "Nowhere else does he use [the Chorus] to call attention to the inadequacies of his stage." However, other critics have contended that Shakespeare's audience would never have expected the kind of cinematic "realism" that the Chorus makes apology for lacking; Brennan has argued that there is evidence of "Shakespeare's overwhelming confidence that the simple, bare, thrust stage of his theatre could be used to present any kind of story in any kind of world whether real or imaginary." Summarizing the role of the Chorus in Henry V, Edward I. Berry has observed, "Though the Chorus fulfills several functions as narrator—apologizing for the limitations of the theater, explaining lapses of time and shifts in locale, creating atmosphere—its most important function is to evoke an epic mood, to incite the audience to see a 'platonic' realm of epic ideals through the actions and characters represented on stage"; James L. Calderwood has added that "not only does the Chorus encourage unity of interpretation, it also helps create unity of structure in the play itself by building narrative bridges between the five acts." The play's choric prologues have similarly received critical praise for their eloquence and contribution to the epic tone of the play. Manheim has suggested, "The Chorus sets the tone at the start and helps maintain it through his overtures to each act," and Akrigg has pointed out that "Nobody& has criticized Shakespeare for his superb prologues to Henry V. The reason, of course, is that Henry V has to be at once a drama and an epic poem. And the prologues help wonderfully to establish the epic dimension, both through what they say and through the superb sustained poetry of the saying."


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C. H. Hobday (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Imagery and Irony in Henry V," in Shakespeare Survey, No. 21, 1968, pp. 107-14.

[In the essay below, Hobday explores the use of death imagery in Henry V and its emotional significance for Shakespeare, noting that he "constantly juxtaposed the fine talk of honour and religion with the realities of human greed and cruelty."]

During the last century and a half many of the most distinguished Shakespearian critics, from Hazlitt to J. Dover Wilson, have disputed over the character of Shakespeare's Henry V. When such a debate has continued so long, without showing any sign of reaching a conclusion, it seems reasonable to assume that the division of opinion among critics may reflect a division in Shakespeare's own mind, and that his emotions may have rebelled against his conscious intentions in writing the play. One criterion by which we can attempt to ascertain the feelings with which he wrote is through his image-clusters, which afford a clue to the emotional associations which certain words possessed for him. In Henry V one image-cluster plays an especially significant part, that associated with death.

Some two dozen images were linked in Shakespeare's mind with the idea of death, and can be roughly divided into seven groups: bones, leanness, pallor, rottenness, and ghost; hollowness, grave, vault or cave, 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 (III, 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 the 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 war
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, Pandulph, 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 part 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 sum
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 in its saeva indignatio.

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 appear:
Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin
 with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.
                    (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 juxta-position 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 Alençon. 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 you,
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 re-wrote 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 émigré, 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].

Michael Goldman (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Henry V: The Strain of Rule," in Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama, Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 58-73.

[In the following essay, Goldman examines the great speeches of the Chorus and of Henry, commenting on the relation they create between the actors and the audience.]

Henry V is a play of great addresses. They make for a vital bond of pleasure that joins us to the play; it is absolutely essential to any satisfying production that the actors be capable of all these speeches demand. The grand declamations of both King and Chorus induce a kind of theatrical kinesthesia … ; they make us want to act. I doubt that anyone can read the play through without reading some of these speeches aloud— and, if at all possible, loudly. They are display arias for the commanding actor; they stimulate us to share his noticeable effort, to be aware of the glory and labor involved in making authoritative sounds. They carry with them, in the most patent and seductive form, the pleasures, the rewarding effort of persuasive, masterful public performance. Their verse is wonderfully suited to the accents of a man speaking to a crowd, a confident man, practiced in exertion but working hard, raising his voice, stilling and exhorting the group around him. Their content, too, seems to echo their physical appeal. Significantly, all but one of the half-dozen famous speeches of the play have in common a concern for encouraging their hearers to make some kind of demanding effort, whether of action, feeling, or imagination. These speeches insist on what is strenuous, and Henry V's dominant atmosphere is of strenuous activity. The play communicates a sense not exactly or not primarily of strain, but of straining effort, of life that is arduous, exigent, and sometimes exhausting.

Once it is recognized that the Chorus sounds very much like the King, much of the play's method becomes clear. Like Henry, the Chorus is a man whose job is to rouse his hearers to unusual effort. The straining note is struck from the start, and may well be the primary reason for the Chorus's existence, since none of the theories ordinarily advanced to account for Shakespeare's unparalleled reliance on the device is satisfactory. Elsewhere he uses a chorus to provide a back-ground or set a mood (Romeo and Juliet) or to direct our attention to a special aspect of the scene to follow (2 Henry IV). But nowhere else does he use it to call attention to the inadequacies of his stage, which is of course no more inadequate to this story than to the material of the other histories. Here, however, the notion of inadequacy is insisted upon, as is the effort we must put forth to make up for it:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
                              (Prologue, I-4)

The playwright and the resources of his stage are deficient, but so are we, and we are asked to perform all kinds of brain-work to convert the work of the actors into a convincing spectacle.

At the same time, the Chorus develops a complementary sense of the size and energy of the subject, both of which are pictured as being held in with difficulty, barely restrained or contained:

      &at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine,
   sword, and fire
Crouch for employment.

    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?

Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confin'd two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
                 (Prologue, 6-8, 11-14, 19-22)

It is a "swelling" scene—and the epithet not only means "magnificent" but carries the modern meaning (common in Shakespeare's day) as well; some distending energy within the scene threatens to break it apart. We are asked not to imagine many men where we see one but to "divide" one man "into a thousand parts." As the Chorus says in his second appearance, the project we are engaged in is to "force a play."

Introducing the third act, the Chorus returns to the charge. The effort of the enterprise described is caught in the contrast between the delicacy of the sails and the huge vessels they move through the water, and the effort is echoed in the sound and movement of the verse:

   Behold the threaden sails,
Borne with th' invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the furrowed
Breasting the lofty surge.

The audience is enjoined to strain its minds, to apply the same effort to imagining the war. Commands to "suppose" and "think" give way to "Follow, follow," "Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy," and "Work, work." The Chorus continues to remind us that this is not a battlefield, not an ocean, but merely a theater. Its soaring language, like the effort of imagination it enjoins, seems to be part of the struggle to overcome the limits of performance. The firing off of "chambers" in the theater—an effect repeated in the following scene—adds to the sensation of stupendous energies at work. Here and in other choruses we seem to hear continual reverberation—the womby earth being trampled by horses, ordance going off, armorers busily hammering. Echoes, loud sounds, and hollow chambers are regularly referred to. In the fourth chorus, the universe is a "wide vessel" filled first by night and low sounds, then by the clang of armorers, cock-crow, and the approaching clamor of battle. There are descriptions of horses, too, by the Chorus and the French nobles, that help sustain this aural atmosphere:

Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful

Piercing the night's dull ear;
                                 (IV, Prologue, 10-11)

When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk; he
the air; the earth sings when he touches it;
                                 (III, vii, 15-17)

Mount them, and make incision in their hides,
That their hot blood may spin in English eyes,
And dout them with superfluous courage, ha!
                                (IV, ii, 9-11)

Our ears are assaulted and roused to gratified awareness by the repeated suggestion of vast spaces to be filled by energetic outbursts, by the strain of producing the energy, and by the energy itself straining to be set free.

I have suggested that the figure of the Chorus rousing the audience to cooperation and excitement is rather like the figure of Henry addressing his men. Just as the Chorus's speeches emphasize effort and strain and the making of much out of little, so throughout the play we are aware of the effort and strain of leading an army, of making a kingdom bigger, of turning a man into a soldier, and indeed of turning a man into a king. Immediately after the Chorus has begun Act III by urging us to follow, grapple, and work, and with the "devilish cannon" still echoing in our ears, the King enters. His men carry scaling ladders; we are in the midst of battle. Henry V, like the chorus before him, exhorts his hearers to make a strenuous imaginative effort; he asks them to transform themselves, to change their size, shape, and strength, to eke out the performance with their minds:

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 o'erwhelm it
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 spirit
To his full height.
                                     (i, 7-17)

The soldier's task of preparation is described as a violent muscular contortion. He must strain his muscles so that his eye pries through his face till it sticks out like a cannon—and of course it is a brass cannon, with all the sense of metallic echoing sound this brings in. "On, on," he cries to the troops, as the Chorus has cried "Follow, follow" and "Work, work" to us. Physical limitation overcome by supreme effort is Henry's theme here, and it is also the method of his speech, which requires a great physical effort from the speaker. It makes a splendid noise; it is full of demanding emphases and syntactical elaborations. From a vocal stand-point, the speech is a remarkable athletic exercise, and a directly gratifying one for the actor who can manage it. Theatrical tradition leaves no doubt of the speech's power to excite and charm an audience—a point which needs to be stressed in the light of some influential—and useful—modern criticism. It is misleading to conclude from the extremity of its verbal figures that the speech is meant to project a feeling of the grotesque or unpleasant. To do so, to find as Traversi does [in An Approach to Shakespeare, 1956] that there is a "strong flavor of artificiality& something forced, incongruous, even slightly absurd" in the speech is, I think, to consider the words out of theatrical context, without concern for the acting opportunities, the physical presence and rhythms of the scene. True, the actor runs a terrific obstacle course on the way to his final self-assertive shout:

Cry, "God for Harry! England and Saint

If he allows the absurd or incongruous to emerge along the way, he will fail to negotiate it. One might say of a running track lined with hurdles and patches of water, "There is a strong flavor here of falling flat on one's face," but the obstacles are there precisely to celebrate the virtues of those who do not fall flat, and to clothe their skills in wonder.

This is the play in which Falstaff dies; and the scenes—early in the play—in which we learn of his death and see what his friends are now like, help to set its tone. A number of critics have noticed the element of darkness or chill which the treatment of Falstaff contributes to Henry V, and all may at least agree that it does add to the sense of strain creeping into its genuinely heroic occasions.

The opening scenes of Act II show us first Hal's old friends and then some of his new friends—the traitors Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge. Scroop was Henry's "bed-fellow (ii, 8)& [who] didst bear the key of all my counsels& knew'st the very bottom of my soul (96-97)." His new friends betray him (or like Canterbury and Ely deal with him on a political level where intimacy can only be an illusion or a danger); his old friends think he has betrayed Falstaff. The comedy of Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph of course echoes the serious action ("On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!" shouts Bardolph as Hal's Harfleur speech concludes), but it also develops the sense of strain. Nym and Pistol are cowards who feign different kinds of toughness. What we laugh at are the kinds of effort they make in doing so. Nym pretends to a tight-lipped laconic ominousness:

I cannot tell. Things must be as they may.
Men may sleep, and they may have their throats about them
at that time; and some say knives have edges.
                                  (II, i, 22-25)

Pistol, on the other hand, is like Henry and the Chorus, a great vocal artist and exhorter. His speeches even impress Fluellen for a time. Pistol and Nym's performances are at least good enough to take each other in; they frighten one another thoroughly in II, i. Theirs is not the effortless improvisation of their former leader, but a perpetual straining to perform. Falstaff is shifty and always ready to retreat, but one never feels he is seriously concealing his real self. He is his facade, and his bravura is always accompanied by a wink. Pistol and Nym cower inside their affections.

Falstaff's old gang forms a particularly scabrous appendage to an army that grows increasingly weak and ragged as the play progresses. There are a number of references to its condition, and at one point the stage directions are unusually explicit (I give the Folio wording):

Enter the King and his poor Soldiers.
                                     (III, vi, 91)

In part this points up the greatness of Henry's victory at Agincourt. It allows us, too, to see Henry as the shepherd of a small enfeebled flock. But the plight of the troops also helps sustain a kind of ratty counterpoint to the strenuous music of triumph. Consider the following sequence of exhortations, all of which are heard within some 74 lines:


              Follow, follow!
Grapple your minds etc. &
Work, work &
                        (III, Prologue, 17ff.)


Unto the breach&
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry, "God for Harry! England and Saint
                                      (III, i, 1-34)


On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the
                                     (III, ii, 1-2)


Up to the breach, you dogs! Avaunt, you
                                    (III, ii, 21-22)

Bardolph's is already an unheroic parody in the familiar vein of the Elizabethan comic underplot, but Fluellen's echo cuts deeper. We are reminded that there are men who have to be scolded and perhaps whipped into battle. "You dogs!" is finally but a basic-English translation of what the King calls his soldiers:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips.
                                        (III, i, 31)

It is not only famine, sword, and fire that "leash'd in like hounds& crouch for employment" at King Harry's heels.

It is this picture of the army, set against the more exalting music of grand effort, that will be in the audience's minds as the fourth act begins with its scenes of the King moving among his men. These encounters turn out differently from what Henry expects, and, more important, from what the audience has been led to expect. The Chorus, ending its night-piece, seems to prepare us very fully for what is to come:

For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends, and country-
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
& every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

The problem is that the King does not do this—at least in the scenes that follow. It could perhaps be argued that the Chorus is simply describing what the King has been doing up to now, but the Chorus sounds as if it is providing an introduction rather than a bridge, and the scene starts out as if we were indeed about to see the kind of thing the Chorus has described. On the basis of sound generalship alone, to say nothing of what we have just been told, we might expect that Harry would want to go round the camp, as the King, and say a few good words to individual soldiers, as he does to Sir Thomas Erpingham, reassuring them, with a judicious use of the common touch, that the King has their interests at heart and is a good fellow to boot, "a bawcock and a heart of gold," as Pistol would say.

Instead, the King disguises himself. The effect of his subsequent conversation on the soldiers cannot fairly be called encouraging; it is disconcerting at best. He tries, in the character of a private man, to draw them out about his character as a king, and his trouble seems to be that he cannot maintain both roles simultaneously. Even with Pistol, things go a little oddly. We do not get the expected joke, patented in Henry IV—and consequently what Shakespeare's audience would be waiting for—of the rogue behaving badly when he thinks the Prince isn't watching. Pistol does not criticize Hal as Falstaff does when the Prince is disguised as a waiter in 2 Henry IV. But there is something out of key and embarrassing about his praise of Henry, if only because he insists too vulgarly upon the King's human qualities.

With Bates, Court, and Williams, Henry insists at length on the humanity of the King:

For, though I speak it to you, I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it does 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 &

(IV, i, 104-114)

This is in service of a rather special argument:

yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.


In other words, because he is a man the King is susceptible to fear, but because he is a king we must conspire to keep him from being afraid.

He sounds out the men on their feelings toward the King and passionately (even comically) defends himself when he feels they put too great a responsibility upon him. They accept his argument that the King is not to blame if a soldier dies with sins on his head, and they show a ready loyalty:


'Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head, the King is not to answer it.


I do not desire he should answer for me; and yet I determine to fight lustily for him.


Nevertheless, Henry seems unsatisfied. The soldiers' loyalty to the public man is unquestionable, but now he asks them for a favorable judgment on the King's private attitudes:


I myself heard the King say he would not be ransom'd.


Like any sensible soldier, however, Williams knows that political calculation lies behind any public pronouncement:

Ay, he said so [he replies], to make us fight cheerfully; but when our throats are cut, he may be ransom'd, and we ne'er the wiser.

Earlier, informed by Henry that the King's cause is just, Williams has said, "That's more than we know," and now he maintains the position. The soldiers can know the King only as loyal subjects, not as peers or brothers. But Henry, dangerously, keeps at it:


If I live to see it, I will never trust his word after.


You pay him then. That's a perilous shot out of an elder-gun, that a poor and a private displeasure can do against a monarch!& You'll never trust his word after! Come, 'tis a foolish saying.


Your reproof is something too round. I should be angry with you, if the time were convenient.


The scene is remarkably imagined. Henry is in understandable difficulties, yet we cannot feel entirely in sympathy with him. He is asking too much. Now he is offended because Williams has spoken to him, the King, as he would to a private man. Henry has tried to appeal to the men both as a king and as a man who is not the King. It is unfair, and Williams will properly criticize him for it later:

Your Majesty came not like yourself. You appear'd to me but as a common man& and what your Highness suffer'd under that shape, I beseech you take it for your own fault and not mine.

(IV, viii, 53-57)

Henry's encounter with the soldiers prompts his one soliloquy, the speech on ceremony. Ceremony may be all a king has to set him off from other men, but we scarcely need even Henry's deeply troubled recollection of Richard II in the prayer that follows to be reminded how great a difference ceremony makes, and what a change in the quality of one's being it demands. A king is not simply his role; his power and authority do not flow directly from his person, as Richard, tragically, tried to insist. Neither, however, is a king simply a man like other men, no matter how attractive and at times politically useful the pretense may be. The demands of office change a man. A king is not a man like other men—but he is a man, and his humanity consists in this: he must pay the price of his role.

The achievement of the play—the fact that with all its ironies it remains great patriotic drama—lies with its ability to project the glory of the ruler in a way that is true to—indeed depends upon—the price of his role. In the St. Crispin's Day address, for example, we are stirred, certainly, by the way Henry meets the challenge of the moment and rallies his men, but our sessions with the Chorus and the army have made us sensitive to the fact that his speech, like the rejection of Falstaff in 2 Henry IV, is a performance and not a revelation of some previously unsounded self. It is in part an attempt to deal with the cynicism he has met in the night. When the King steps forward with, "What's he that wishes so?" and claims that every man who fights that day will be his brother, we are thrilled. But we are thrilled because he is brilliantly meeting a political challenge that has been spelled out for us—as earlier he met the challenge of the tennis balls. It is a moment when he must respond to the unspoken needs of his men, and we respond to his success as we do when a political leader we admire makes a great campaign speech: we love him for his effectiveness. The King is speaking ex officio, and if he calls himself Harry, this is not because he is a man like other men, speaking merely out of personal conviction and desire. He is, rather, projecting an "image"—the hero as good fellow (like "Ike" or "Jack" or "Bobby"). It has been developed for a purpose, and the King must rely on his muse, must place a strain on his imagination, himself, and his hearers—just as the play, according to the Chorus, must place a strain on us.

The actor's problem in this scene is, above all, that of being convincing as a leader. Interpretation, even technique, do not present primary difficulties. Performing convincingly is both the actor's and the character's greatest problem here. The speech is one in which Henry reveals not himself (in the manner of Junius Brutus, Richard III, or Juliet), but his abilities. We experience the moment of patriotism with a shock of approval rather than recognition.

In the battle that follows, we do not see any heroic combat. Beyond Pistol's craven bargaining with his prisoner, our only knowledge of the battle is by report—with one exception, and this involves the French prisoners, whose wretchedness, like that of the English army earlier, is forced upon us. The Folio stage direction for IV, vi reads, "Enter the King and his train, with Prisoners." The scene ends with Henry's command:

The French have reinforc'd their scatter'd
Then every soldier kill his prisoners;
Give the word through.

Presumably the prisoners on stage are included in the order. In the next scene the slaughter is repeated, once more before our eyes. So the only bloodletting we experience directly is of the nastiest kind. Modern productions usually introduce a silent scene that shows the French killing the boys in the English camp—and often banish at least some of the English throat-cutting from the stage. But this is not true to Shakespeare. While his script allows us to comprehend that Henry's action is in some sense justified (like the invasion itself), we feel it at this point only as a blood-chilling fact.

Like Henry we have been schooled throughout the tetralogy in the renunciations and exertions demanded of the ideal king, and in the treatment of the prisoners on stage we are made to feel, as Henry does, the ashes in the mouth of all political glory.

We seem to be let off easily at the end. The charm of the wooing scene—which has proved irresistible to actors and audiences in spite of a long tradition of solemn critical disapproval—derives from the very spectacle of the King being a private man, both in his engaging awkwardness with Katharine, and in his playing in a plain and personal way with political ideas:


Is it possible dat I should love de enemy of France?


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.

(V, ii, 178-83)

The prose, by contrast to the strenuous rhetoric of the play's verse, suggests the personal as opposed to the public. It is as if, after all the hardships, exertions, renunciations, and successes of the war, the King were now free to play the man, if only briefly.

It may seem surprising that the Hal of Henry IV, who was so adept at playing roles, should be at all heavy-footed here, and it is his apparent awkwardness, his exaggerated lack of polish that has most troubled critics (Tillyard calls him a "lubberly wooer" [in Shakespeare's History Plays, 1947]). But this is unfair to the scene as it is written, and as it can be played by the actor who takes full advantage of its opportunities. For the King's awkwardness is never really out of control. He can strike the note of smooth and persuasive gallantry when he pleases:

  Fair Katharine, and most fair,
Will you vouchsafe to teach a soldier terms
Such as will enter at a lady's ear
And plead his love-suit to her gentle heart?

and he can translate his public authority into seductive energy, mixing force and grace:

O Kate, nice customs curtsy to great kings. Dear Kate, 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; therefore, patiently and yielding.


The actor who plays Henry as genuinely embarrassed in this scene will cheapen his comic effects and quickly exhaust them. The point is that the King really has to play at being the man; he is in a sense affecting a "humanity" perfectly appropriate to his position and his audience (it is certainly well-calculated to impress Katharine). His "private" life is as much a performance as his speech on Crispin's Day.

This helps to explain why such an ending can be deeply satisfying—not only pleasing in itself, but the right note of mirth to cap the play. We are left with few of the tragic reflections that pursue Henry when he plays the man with Bates and Williams, though the references to Henry VI in both the wooing scene and the epilogue keep our contentment from going slack. Though its gaiety is appropriate to Henry's moment of success, the scene is fully consistent with the essential impulse of the play—the effort of greatness, both what it is like to make the effort and to experience it—the demands on the self that being a king involves.

Anne Barton (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History," in The Triple Bond: Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance, edited by Joseph G. Price, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975, pp. 92-117.

[Here, Barton analyzes Shakespeare's use of the romantic motif of the disguised monarch—a recurrent theme in folk ballads and late sixteenth-century dramain Henry V.]

In the worst moment of the French campaign, when the night before Agincourt finds the English army reduced, dispirited, and ailing, "even as men wrack'd upon a sand, that look to be wash'd off the next tide" (IV.i.97-98), Henry V pays two quite different visits to his despondent troops. Although the first of them, made in his own person as king, is not enacted, the Chorus testifies eloquently to its success:

      every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all,

Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

Later, in the first scene of act IV, Henry borrows a cloak from Sir Thomas Erpingham, conceals his royal identity, and ventures alone among soldiers no longer able to recognize him as their king. His fortunes in this second sally are altogether less prosperous. Thorny and disquieting from the start, his conversation with Williams, Court, and Bates ends in an open quarrel. Moreover, it provokes Henry's only soliloquy in the play: a bitter examination of kingship itself and of the irremovable barriers isolating the monarch from a world of private men.

Shakespeare may well have remembered from Holinshed, or from The First English Life of Henry V, that the historical Henry "daylie and nightlie in his owne person visited the watches, orders and stacions of everie part of his hoast." Nowhere, however, is it suggested that he ever did so incognito. Geoffrey Bullough has argued that when Shakespeare made Henry muffle himself in Erpingham's cloak he was thinking of a passage from Tacitus's Annals in which Germanicus disguises himself on the eve of a battle in order to assess the morale of the Roman legions. Germanicus, however, lurks outside his soldiers' tents as a mere eavesdropper; he never attempts a personal encounter. Although the passage cannot be discounted entirely as a source for Henry's disguise, its importance has surely been overestimated. For those Elizabethans who watched Henry V in the new Globe theatre in 1599, the king's behavior before Agincourt would have had analogues far more striking and immediate. There is a surprising number of disguised kings to be found in those English history plays which have survived from the period 1587-1600. A few of these princes are driven to dissemble their identity for a time out of political necessity, as Marlowe's Edward II does after the triumph of Young Mortimer and Queen Isabella, or Shakespeare's Henry VI in the last part of the trilogy, when he rashly steals across the border into England "disguised, with a prayer-book," only to be recognized despite this precaution by the two Keepers and haled away to the Tower. A larger and more interesting group is composed of kings who, like Shakespeare's Henry V, adopt disguise as a caprice, for reasons that are fundamentally exploratory and quixotic.

Toward the end of George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield (?Robert Greene, c. 1590), an unspecified King Edward of England decides to "make a merrie journey for a moneth" along with his friend King James of Scotland, for the purpose of meeting the folk hero George a Greene, a loyal pinner in the north country who has been instrumental in putting down a rebellion against the Crown. The two monarchs travel on foot and in disguise. At the town of Bradford they yield meekly to the insolent demands of the locals, trailing their staves in order to pass without argument through the town. George a Greene, disgusted by such pusillanimity, berates the two kings soundly for cowardice and forces them to hold up their staves. King Edward gains a vivid and somewhat disconcerting idea of the character and temper of his subject before the revelation of his royal identity puts an end to the game. All is forgiven. George is offered a knighthood, which he politely refuses, preferring to remain an English yeoman. Edward unites him with Bettris, his love, over-riding the snobbish objections of her father, and the play ends harmoniously with a feast at which King Edward, King James, George a Greene, Robin Hood and Maid Marian, and all the shoemakers of Bradford sit side by side as friends and good companions.

Peele's Edward I (c. 1591) also associates the king in disguise with the Robin Hood stories. Lluellen, the rebellious Prince of Wales, his mistress Elinor, and his friend Rice ap Meredith have taken to the greenwood in the company of a friar, "to live and die together like Chamber-Britaines, Robin Hood, Little John, Frier Tucke, and Maide Marrian." King Edward, intrigued to learn of this little society, decides to pay it a secret visit, disguised, and accompanied only by Lluellen's brother, Sir David of Brecknock:

        as I am a Gentleman,
Ile have one merrie flirt with little John,
And Robin Hood, and his Maide Marian.
Be thou my counsell and my companie,
And thou maist Englands resolution see.
                                 (x. 1548-52)

In the forest, Edward adjudicates in a dispute between two rogues who have tried to cozen one another, agrees with Lluellen that his purse will belong to whichever man can overcome the other in fair fight, and (exactly as his prototype Richard Coeur de Lion had done in the ballads) sends "Robin Hood" sprawling. The exigencies of Peele's plot made it impossible for this forest scene to end with reconciliation and pardon in the ballad tradition. Lluellen, rebellious to the end, is killed in battle later in the play. It is remarkable, however, how close this personal encounter between the outlaw and the king he cannot recognize—in both senses of that word—has come to healing the breach between them. When "Longshanks" has gone, his identity disclosed, Lluellen admits ruefully that "his courage is like to the Lion, and were it not that rule and soveraigntie set us at jarre, I could love and honour the man for his valour" (xii. 1917-19).

The two anonymous plays Fair Em (c. 1590) and The True Chronicle History of King Leir (c. 1590) both present kings who disguise themselves in the cause of love. William the Conqueror, in Fair Em, falls in love with a picture of Blanch, Princess of Denmark, and travels to see her in her father's court under the name of Sir Robert of Windsor. Finding the lady less glamorous in reality than she seemed in her portrait, he tries to elope with Mariana, a lady promised to his friend and traveling companion, the Marquis of Lubeck. Mariana, however, not only surmounts the temptation to abandon Lubeck for a crown but contrives to substitute a masked and lovesick Blanch for herself at the rendezvous appointed. William, who discovers the fraud on arrival in England, is understandably put out but decides that although Blanch is not Mariana she is nonetheless tolerable, and certainly preferable to war with Denmark. At the end of the play, William marries Blanch and, at the same time, restores Godard the supposed miller to his rightful place in society and bestows his daughter Em upon Valingford, the suitor who best deserves her.

In King Leir, the Gallian king comes to England disguised as a pilgrim, in order to determine which is the best and most marriageable of Leir's three daughters. He meets Cordella after her disgrace, finds her fair and good, and pretends that he has been sent as an ambassador by his royal master to make her the Gallian queen. Cordella, who has most perspicaciously fallen in love with the humble palmer himself, spurns this splendid offer and bids him "cease for thy King, seeke for thy selfe to woo." After this gratifying proof that Cordella loves the man and not the monarch, the palmer reveals his identity and the two are married immediately and return to France. Disguise, however, remains a feature of their court. In scene xxiv, the Gallian king and queen mingle with their subjects in the guise of country folk and, thus obscured, discover and are reconciled with the wretched Leir and his counsellor Perillus on the seacoast of Brittany.

Finally, The First Part of King Edward IV, a play written by Thomas Heywood before 1599, presents two quite separate royal disguises. Edward conceals his identity when he goes into Lombard Street for the first time to lay amorous siege to Mistress Shore. More relevant to Henry V, however, is his encounter with John Hobs the tanner. The king, hunting incognito at Drayton Basset, becomes separated from his queen and courtiers. Hobs, meeting him in the forest, suspects him at first for a thief ("How these roysters swarm in the country, now the King is so near"), but is persuaded at length that Edward is a minor hanger-on at court: in fact, the king's butler. Under this delusion, he prattles on merrily about the two kings of England, Edward at court and the deposed Henry VI in the Tower. Edward, slyly anxious to know how he is regarded by this outspoken subject, receives some disconcertingly frank answers to the questions he puts. The commons of England, according to Hobs, love King Edward

as poor folk love holidays, glad to have them now and then; but to have them come too often will undo them. So, to see the King now and then 'tis comfort; but every day would beggar us; and I may say to thee, we fear we shall be troubled to lend him money; for we doubt he's but needy.

Even more improbable in its light-hearted political inconsequence is Edward's amused acceptance of the tanner's shifting loyalties. "Shall I say my conscience?" he inquires cunningly. "I think Harry is the true king."

Hobs. Art advised of that? Harry's of the old house of Lancaster; and that progenity do I love.

King. And thou dost not hate the house of York?

Hobs. Why, no; for I am just akin to Sutton Windmill; I can grind which way soe'er the wind blow. If it be Harry, I can say, "Well fare, Lancaster." If it be Edward, I can sing, "York, York, for my money."

Basically, as it turns out, Hobs approves of King Edward for reasons that have nothing to do with his government of the realm: "He's a frank franion, a merry companion, and loves a wench well." To his way of thinking, the king ought not to encourage patents and monopolies, but Hobs is willing to believe that Edward does so out of ignorance, because he has been misled by greedy counsellors and because he cannot see for himself how the system operates. As subject and king converse, Edward's respect for this "honest true tanner" and for his powers of observation grows. Hobs, for his part, comes to like the supposed butler so well that he invites him home to his cottage for dinner and the night. The tanner has a pretty daughter and there is even some talk of a match, although Hobs would like his prospective son-in-law to have a steadier profession, not one of these fly-by-night court posts. Not until daybreak does Edward tear himself away from the tanner's hospitality to return to London and the troubles of a kingdom in revolt. Again, the meeting between subject and king in disguise has generated harmony, good fellowship, and mutual understanding.

In all these English histories—and there must have been many more plays like them, now lost—the king's disguise demands to be seen as a romantic gesture. Edward IV, William the Conqueror, Edward I, the Gallian king, or the brace of monarchs in George a Greene, all conceal their identities in much the spirit of Haroun al Raschid, the caliph of The Arabian Nights who liked to walk the streets of Baghdad incognito, in search of the marvellous and the strange. Moreover, the people they meet come from the world of balladry and legend. Robin Hood and Maid Marian, the folk-hero George a Greene, the miller and his daughter, thieves and outlaws, the beggar-maid destined to become a queen, or the tanner of Tamworth: all were characters nurtured in the popular imagination. Maurice Keen, in The Outlaws of Medieval Legend, describes the informal meeting of commoner and king as the wish-dream of a peasantry harried and perplexed by a new class of officials, an impersonal bureaucracy against which the ordinary man seemed to have no redress:

They only knew that the King was the ultimate repository of a law whose justice they acknowledged, and they saw treason against him as a betrayal of their allegiance to God himself. If they could only get past his corrupt officers, whose abuse of the trust reposed in them amounted to treason in itself, and bring their case before the King, they believed that right would be done. Their unshakeable faith in the King's own justice was the most tragic of the misconceptions of the medieval peasantry, and the ballad-makers and their audiences shared it to the full.

In the ballads, king and unsuspecting subject meet time after time and discover unanimity of opinion and mutual respect. Richard Coeur de Lion banquets in Sherwood Forest on stolen venison, forgives Robin Hood and his men, and confounds the sheriff of Nottingham. Henry II so enjoys the rough but generous hospitality of the miller of Mansfield that he makes him a knight and gives him a royal license to keep the forest of Sherwood. Other ballads describe the meeting of Edward I and the reeve, King Alfred and the shepherd, Edward IV and the tanner, Henry VIII and the cobbler, James I and the tinker, William III and the forester, and many similar encounters.

That conversations of this sort represent a fantasy, the "misconception," as Keen terms it, of a victimized agrarian class, is obvious. They derive from attitudes far removed from anything which the hard-headed citizens of Elizabeth's London actually believed. Yet the old roots ran deep. This type of ballad not only survived through Jacobean and Caroline times: the idea behind it remained oddly resonant and haunting. Real Tudor monarchs sometimes played at enacting it. Henry VIII, as Hall tells us, graciously allowed himself to be "waylaid" and dragged off to a reconstruction of Coeur de Lion's feast with Robin Hood, Maid Marian, and their fellows. Queen Elizabeth, walking in Wanstead gardens, suddenly found herself confronting a group of supposed country folk: "Though they knew not her estate, yet something there was which made them startle aside and gaze upon her" ["The Lady of May," in The Complete Works of Philip Sydney, ed. Albert Feuillerat, 1922]. Cunningly, Philip Sidney proceeded to involve the queen in a dispute between a shepherd and a forester for possession of the Lady of May, requesting her, after she had heard the rustic arguments of both sides, to award the lady to the suitor she considered most deserving. Traces of this kind of situation can be seen as well in some of the masques at court, but it was in the drama proper that the idea of the king's personal engagement with his subjects and their problems flowered and was most fully exploited.

There are a few Elizabethan plays in which the king manages to mingle with his subjects freely and dispense justice without resorting to disguise. At the end of Dekker's The Shoemaker's Holiday, Henry V in his own person sweeps away the snobbery of his officers and nobles:

Dost thou not know that love respcts no
Cares not for difference of birth or state?
The maid is young, well born, fair, virtuous,
A worthy bride for any gentleman.

As benevolent deus ex machina, he joins the hands of Rose, the citizen's daughter, and Lacy, nephew to the Earl of Lincoln. Annihilating objections based upon wealth or class, he acts from principles of perfect equity as soon as he examines the case himself, just as the medieval minstrels had always believed he would. Yet even Dekker's Henry, in a play which could scarcely be described as realistic, worries about the constraints and inhibitions which his declared royal presence may impose on London's madcap mayor, Simon Eyre, at the Shrove Tuesday banquet where these events take place. Most Elizabethan dramatists seem to have accepted the idea that disguise was an essential prerequisite for the ease and success of the meeting between private man and king. Only if the king's identity was concealed could there be natural conversation, frankness, and a sense of rapport. It is the fundamental premise of all these plays that the king, rightly considered, is but a man, and a remarkably understanding man at that. If only, they seem to suggest, king and commoner could talk together in this way, without formality or embarrassment, how many problems would be solved, how many popular grievances redressed. Humanity and humor, an easy cameraderie: these qualities, usually obscured by ceremony, distance, and that hierarchy of officials standing between the monarch and his people, emerge clearly as soon as he steps down from his throne to speak, for a little while, as a private man.

When Shakespeare sent Henry V to converse incognito with Williams, Court, and Bates on the night before Agincourt, he was surely influenced by plays like these far more than by any distant memory of how Germanicus had behaved in the war against Arminius. Generically, Shakespeare's disguised king belongs with Peele's Edward I, Heywood's Edward IV, or the accommodating monarchs of George a Greene. Yet the Henry V episode is unique. By 1599, the king who freely chooses disguise had become the hallmark of a particular kind of play. Polonius almost certainly would have defined the mode (quite shrewdly) as the "comical-historical." Henry V, however, is not a comical history. Far more ironic and complicated than the plays which belong properly to that genre, it introduces the timeworn and popular dramatic motif of the king disguised into its fourth act in order to question, not to celebrate, a folk convention. In itself, the gesture could be relied upon to generate certain clearly defined emotional expectations in an Elizabethan audience powerfully conditioned by both a ballad and a stage tradition. Shakespeare built upon this fact. He used Henry's disguise to summon up the memory of a wistful, naive attitude toward history and the relationship of subject and king which this play rejects as attractive but untrue: a nostalgic but false romanticism.

As the royal captain of a ruined band, a sun-god radiating his beams indiscriminately upon the soldiers among whom he walks, Henry is effective, as the Chorus makes plain. Throughout this play, the relation between the Chorus's unequivocal celebration of Henry and his war in France and the complicated, ambiguous, and sometimes flatly contradictory scenes which these speeches are made to introduce is productive of irony and double focus. This duality of attitude is particularly striking in act IV, where the Chorus's epic account of the king dispensing comfort to his troops in his own person leads directly into that altogether more dubious scene in which Henry visits the army a second time, disguised, in the manner of a ballad king. Once he has obliterated his identity, Henry falls into a series of nonencounters, meetings in which the difficulty of establishing understanding between subject and king is stressed, not the encouraging effect of "a little touch of Harry in the night" (IV.47).

It is true that Ancient Pistol, the first man Henry faces, is scarcely capable of rational discourse. Pistol lives in a wholly private world, a heightened and extravagant realm where everything appears twice life size. His overcharged style of speech, filled with contempt for Fortune, exotic geography, and resounding proper names, derives from Marlowe and from those lesser dramatists who imitated Marlowe. Pistol's language is a tissue of play scraps. In his own mind, as Leslie Hotson has pointed out [in Shakespeare's Sonnets Dated, and Other Essays, 1949], he is Tamburlaine. "As good a gentleman as the emperor" (IV.i.42), he appears blatantly literary, a mere stage king, as soon as he confronts Henry. Linguistically, Shakespeare's early histories had been intermittently Marlovian. Here, at the end of his Elizabethan cycle, he effectively laid the ghost of Tamburlaine as a hero, making it impossible for him to be taken seriously again until the Restoration. By deliberately weighing Pistol's egotism, his histrionics, against the workaday prose of the true king, he indicated the distance between one kind of theatrical fantasy and fact.

Perhaps because he fears recognition by his captains, Henry makes no attempt to speak to Fluellen and Gower. He waits in silence until the entry of Williams, Court, and Bates: three ordinary soldiers for whom the king has always been an unapproachable and distant figure. This encounter is, of course, the mirror image of all those scenes in plays like George a Greene or Edward IV in which the king and his humble subject reach a frank and mutual accord. Here, nothing of the kind occurs. Instead, Henry finds himself embroiled in a tough and increasingly embarrassing argument. He is rhetorically dexterous, and he succeeds in convincing the soldiers that the king cannot be held responsible for the particular state of soul of those individuals who die in his wars. The other question raised by Williams, that of the goodness of the king's cause in itself, his heavy reckoning at that latter day when he must confront the subjects who have been mutilated and have died for him in a war that perhaps was unjust, Henry simply evades. Here, as in the play as a whole, it is left standing, unresolved.

Even worse, Henry discovers with a sense of shock that his soothing account of the king as "but a man, as I am" (IV.i. 101-2), sensitive to the disapprobation or approval of his humblest subject, is treated as flatly absurd. For Williams, the gulf between commoner and king is unbridgeable. A man "may as well go about to turn the sun to ice with fanning in his face with a peacock's feather" as expect his "poor and private displeasure" to influence the behavior of a monarch (IV.i. 194-99). This shaft strikes home, exposing the speciousness of Henry's pretense that he can really be the friend and brother of these soldiers, as well as their king. The conversation ends in a quarrel, a failure to arrive at understanding which contradicts the romantic, ballad tradition. Left alone, Henry meditates acrimoniously on the pains of sovereignty, the doubtful worth of the "ceremony" that divides the king from a world of private men without providing him with any adequate compensation for his isolation and his crippling weight of responsibility.

Subsequently, after Agincourt has been won, Williams learns that it was the king himself whom he offended and with whom he has promised to fight. Like the outlaws of medieval legend, Williams meets not only with pardon but with royal largesse. He receives his glove again filled with golden crowns by Henry's bounty. Yet this gift, unlike its archetypes in the ballads and in Elizabethan comical histories, seems strangely irrelevant. Consciously anachronistic, it provides not the ghost of an answer to the questions raised during this particular encounter between common man and king disguised. Is the king's cause just? If not, what measure of guilt does he incur for requiring men to die for anything but the strict necessity of their country? Can the opinions and judgments of private men influence the sovereign on his throne? Henry is generous to Williams, but it is a dismissive generosity which places the subject firmly in an inferior position and silences his voice. The two men do not sit down at table together to any common feast, in the manner of Dekker's Henry V or Heywood's Edward IV. Indeed, Williams himself seems to be aware that the answer represented by the glove full of crowns is inadequate. He never thanks Henry for the present, accepting it without a word and turning, in the next instant, to repudiate the shilling offered him by Fluellen: "I will none of your money" (IV.viii.70). That gift he can dare to refuse. Even his plea for pardon is filled with suppressed anger and resentment:

Your majesty came not like yourself: you appeared to me but as a common man; witness the night, your garments, your lowliness; and what your highness suffered under that shape, I beseech you, take it for your own fault, and not mine.


Henry V is a play concerned to force upon its audience a creative participation far more active than usual. The Chorus urges an unceasing visualization, bright pictures in the mind, of horses, ships under sail, silken banners, or the engines of siege warfare. Within the play itself, Shakespeare suggests without indicating priority a multiplicity of possible responses to every character and event. Celebration and denigration, heroism and irony exist uneasily side by side. The Chorus may regard England's despoliation of France as a species of sacred obligation. Elsewhere, the attitude is far less clearcut. Always in the background there hovers a disconcerting memory of Canterbury and Ely in the opening scene, busily fomenting the war in France to divert attention from the temporal wealth of the Church. Behind that lurks Henry IV's deathbed advice to his son to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels" (2 Henry IV, IV.v.213-14) in the hope that the shaky legitimacy of Lancastrian rule might thus escape scrutiny. Among Shakespeare's other histories, only Henry VIII is so deliberately ambiguous, so overtly a puzzle in which the audience is left to forge its own interpretation of action and characters with only minimal guidance from a dramatist apparently determined to stress the equivalence of mutually exclusive views of a particular complex of historical event.

In both Henry V and Henry VIII, the fact that the mind and heart of the king are essentially opaque, that his true thoughts and feelings remain veiled behind a series of royal poses—as those of Richard II, Richard III, King John, Henry VI, or even Henry IV do not—contributes to the difficulty of assessment. Even Henry's soliloquy before Agincourt is strangely externalized and formal, in no sense a revelation of the private workings of a mind. Neither here nor anywhere else in the play is the whole truth about the king's personal decision to invade France disclosed. This reticence is not accidental. Henry is, by secular standards, an extraordinarily successful example of the God-man incarnate. The conception of kingship in this play derives not from the relaxed and essentially personal tradition of the ballads but from a complicated, inherently tragic Tudor doctrine of the king's two bodies. Shakespeare had previously dealt with the violence of divorce or incompatibility between the twin natures of the king. Henry V, by contrast, has achieved a union of body natural and body politic difficult to flaw. Yet the price he pays for his subordination of the individual to the office is heavy, in personal terms. There is loss as well as gain in the gulf that now divides Henry from his old associates Bardolph and Pistol, from a world of private men in which he alone speaks out of a double nature. Hal's sudden unavailability as a person, his retreat into an oddly declamatory series of stances, reflects neither his own nor Shakespeare's weakness. It is simply a measure of the signal effectiveness of this man's incarnation as king.

In many respects Henry V is a success story. Agin-court, at least from one angle, is a splendor. Within its own limited sphere the rhetoric of the Chorus rings true. Henry himself can be described as an "ideal" sovereign, God's gift to an England weary of rebellion, usurpation, and civil war. At the same time, it is not easy for any mere mortal to support the psychological and moral burden of a double self. At a number of points in the play, particularly in situations which seem to demand an essentially personal response, the strain involved in maintaining such a constant ventriloquism becomes obvious. Even when Henry tries temporarily to obliterate one half of his identity, as he does in the scene with Williams, Court, and Bates, he finds it impossible to produce a natural and unforced imitation of a private man. Richard II, ironically enough, had experienced similar difficulties after his deposition. In Henry's case, the suppression of one side of his nature is only momentary, the product of whim rather than political defeat. Nevertheless, his awkwardness with the soldiers points to the irrevocability of that mystic marriage of king and man accomplished in the ceremony of coronation. Only death can dissolve this union.

Meanwhile, the king must contrive to deal with a world of single-natured individuals from which he himself stands conspicuously apart. Henry cannot have personal friends as other men do. There is a sense in which the rejection of Falstaff at the end of 2 Henry IV leads directly on to the rejection of the traitor Scroop in the second act of Henry V. Precisely because Scroop is someone Henry has imagined was bound to him as a man by private ties of affection and liking, his treason is far more painful than the more neutral betrayal of Cambridge and Grey. With the latter he deals in an efficient, almost perfunctory fashion. Only Scroop evokes a long and suddenly emotional remonstrance in which Henry effectively bids farewell to the possibility of personal relationship. Significantly, this scene at Southampton is placed between the two episodes in London dealing with the death of Falstaff. The epic voyage to France is thus preceded by three scenes dealing not merely with the death of former friends but with the final severance of the new king's remaining personal ties. Thereafter in the play, he will use the term "friend" in a special sense.

Not by accident, Henry abruptly abandons the royal "we" when he turns to accuse Scroop. In act I he had spoken almost entirely from this corporate position, allowing himself only infrequently to be jolted into an adventurer's "I." The Southampton scene is also one which insists throughout upon the double nature of the king and makes that nature grammatically clear through his habitual use of a plural first person. Cambridge and Grey, it seems, have conspired to kill "us" (II.ii.85-91): "But O, / What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop?" (II.ii.93-94). In his long, passionate speech to this false friend "that knew'st the very bottom of my soul" (II.ii.97), Henry grieves more as man than as king. Not until the moment comes for sentencing all three conspirators does he regain his balance, discriminating calmly between the offense intended to his body natural and his body politic:

Touching our person seek we no revenge;
But we our kingdom's safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you. Get you therefore hence,
Poor miserable wretches, to your death.

The voice here is impersonal, speaking from behind the mask of kingship, deliberately avoiding the first person singular of individual response.

Once arrived in France, Henry refers to himself far more often as "I" or "me" than he does as "we" or "us," at least up to the council of Troyes in the fifth act. As leader of an English host stranded in a foreign country and in a position of increasing danger, Henry finds it not only possible but necessary to simplify his royalty to some extent. After much painful marching in the rain-drenched field, he can describe himself as a soldier, "a name that in my thoughts becomes me best" (III.iii.5-6). In this role he achieves a measure of escape from the royal impersonality demanded under more ordinary and formal circumstances. When he warns the governor of Harfleur of the horrors that lie in store for his city if it fails to capitulate, when he exchanges badinage with Fluellen, or celebrates honor in the Crispin day speech in terms that Hotspur would have understood, he is playing a part—much as Prince Hal had done in the tavern scenes of the Henry IV plays or among the alien but imitable chivalries of Shrewsbury. In this context, the infrequent appearances of the royal "we" in acts III and IV become purposeful and striking reminders of the ineluctable reality of the king's twin nature—a nature temporarily obscured by the adventurer's pose appropriate to the French campaign.

Gravely, Henry reminds Williams that "it was ourself thou didst abuse," before he dismisses him with pardon and reward (IV.viii.48). When his old associate Bardolph is summarily executed for robbing a church, Fluellen informs the king and, describing the dead man's face in terms so vivid that there can be no possible mistake, inquires somewhat tactlessly: "If your majesty know the man" ( Henry's stiff reply to this appeal to his memory of a time before his coronation is more than a politic evasion: "We would have all such offenders so cut off." His sudden use here of the first person plural of majesty, occurring as it does in a scene where even the French herald Montjoy is addressed by Henry as "I," constitutes the real answer to Fluellen's question. As a twin-natured being, the king is stripped not only of personal friends but also of a private past. To recognize Bardolph, let alone to regret him, is impossible.

The war in France provides Henry with "friends" of a rhetorical and special kind. It also allows him an ambiguous use of the pronoun "we" which momentarily clothes the abstract doctrine of the king's two bodies with flesh. Before Harfleur, Henry rallies "dear friends" to the breach, or urges them "to close the wall up with our English dead" (III.i. 1-2). The good yeomen whose limbs were made in England are asked to "show us here the mettle of your pasture" (III.i.26-27). Later, before Agincourt, he will tell his cousin Westmoreland that "if w are mark'd to die, we are enow / To do our country loss" and speak of "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers" (IV.iii.20-21, 60). His encounter with Williams, Court, and Bates in act IV is prefaced by a speech addressed to Bedford and Gloucester in which the pronouns "we" and "our" are by implication both royal and collective:

Gloucester, 'tis true that we are in great
The greater therefore should our courage be.
Good morrow, brother Bedford. God
There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
Would men observingly distil it out;
For our bad neighbour makes us early stirrers,
Which is both healthful and good husbandry:
Besides, they are our outward consciences,
And preachers to us all; admonishing
That we should dress us fairly for our end.
Thus may we gather honey from the weed,
And make a moral of the devil himself.

In passages like these, where Henry's "we" and "our" seem to refer both to himself as king and to the nobles and soldiers around him as a group, a community in which he participates, the idea of the king's two bodies acquires a meaning that is concrete and emotionally resonant. Rightly considered, Henry's soldiers are part of his body politic and thus extensions of his own identity. But it is only in moments of stress and mutual dependence that the doctrine articulates itself naturally, allowing the king an easy jocularity which is familiar without being intimate, essentially distant at the same time that it creates an illusion of warmth and spontaneity. As the peril of the situation in France grows, so does Henry's sense of fellowship. It is almost as though he extracts from danger a kind of substitute for the genuinely personal relationships abandoned with Falstaff and Scroop.

Ironically, Henry's dazzling victory at Agincourt necessarily spells the end of this special accord. The king who speaks in the council chamber at Troyes in act V is once again firmly entrenched behind a royal "we" that is a diagram rather than a three-dimensional fact. Somewhat disconcertingly, he insists upon using the first person plural even in his request that the girl he intends to marry should remain in the room with him when the peers of France and England depart to discuss terms of peace:

Yet leave our cousin Katharine here with us:
She is our capital demand, compris'd
Within the fore-rank of our articles.

For all its political realism, this seems a desperately awkward beginning to a declaration of love. In the wooing scene that follows, Henry falls back upon his soldier's persona. He resurrects this "I" to deal with a situation of peculiar difficulty. How should a king, encumbered by twin natures, embark upon what is necessarily the most personal of all relationships, that of love? Henry's particular compromise is witty, and yet the problems of communication in this scene do not spring entirely from the fact that the king's French is even more rudimentary than the lady's English. Most of Henry's blunders, his various solecisms, derive from his uncertainty as to whether at a given instant he is speaking as Harry or as England, and whether the girl he addresses is the delectable Kate or the kingdom of France. Certainly the princess, when informed that her suitor loves France so well that "I will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine: and Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine," might well be excused for complaining that "I cannot tell wat is dat," even if her linguistic skills were considerably greater than they are (V.ii. 178-83). The loving monarchs of Fair Em and King Leir recognized no such problems of expression. Whatever this wooing scene was like in the lost, original text of The Famous Victories of Henry V, it has been made in Shakespeare's play to serve the theme of the king's two bodies: the dilemma of the man placed at a disadvantage in the sphere of personal relations by the fact of a corporate self.

The first part of Sir John Oldcastle, a play belonging to the Lord Chamberlain's rivals, the Admiral's Men, was staged by 1600. Its four authors, Michael Drayton, Anthony Munday, Richard Hathway, and Robert Wilson, were certainly painfully conscious of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays and probably of Henry V as well. In the absence of any Elizabethan equivalent to Vasari, a writer who would have relished and also recorded the whole imbroglio, there seems no way of knowing precisely what steps the Brooke family took to try and dissociate their ancestor Sir John Oldcastle, the Lollard martyr, from Shakespeare's Falstaff. That Shakespeare had orginally christened his fat knight Oldcastle is clear from surviving allusions within 1 Henry IV, from the public apology in the epilogue to the second part—"For Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man"—and from the malicious references of contemporaries as anxious to press the connection as Sir Henry Brooke was to repudiate it. Whether Shakespeare was forced to remove Falstaff from Henry V because of the protests of the Brookes and then permitted to display him at full length in The Merry Wives of Windsor at the direct request of Queen Elizabeth remains conjectural. It seems likely, however, that the Brooke family eventually realized that their repressive tactics were only serving to make them ridiculous and, in desperation, decided to fight fire with fire: to appeal to the stage itself to counteract the slanders of the stage.

There is no positive evidence that the mysterious sum of money received by Philip Henslowe "as a gefte" to the four authors of Sir John Oldcastle came from Sir Henry Brooke. On the other hand, everything about the first and only surviving part of their history suggests a work especially commissioned as an answer to the Falstaff plays:

The doubtfull Title (Gentlemen) prefixt
Upon the Argument we have in hand,
May breed suspence, and wrongfully disturbe
The peacefull quiet of your setled thoughts.
To stop which scruple, let this briefe suffise:
It is no pamperd glutton we present,
Nor aged Councellor to youthfull sinne,
But one, whose vertue shone above the rest,
A valiant Martyr and a vertuous peere;
In whose true faith and loyaltie exprest
Unto his soveraigne, and his countries weale,
We strive to pay that tribute of our Love,
Your favours merite. Let faire Truthe be
Since forg'de invention former time defac'te.

That the "pamperd glutton," the "aged Councellor to youthfull sinne" referred to in this prologue is Shakespeare's Falstaff admits of no doubt. Drayton, Munday, Wilson, and Hathway were out to soothe the Brooke family by presenting their ancestor as a hero, claiming in the process that they spoke truth where Shakespeare had lied. Furthermore, they had to construct an effective dramatic entertainment: a play which could support inevitable comparison with the popular Henry IV and V plays offered by the rival Lord Chamberlain's Men at The Globe. The result is curious. The first part of Sir John Oldcastle is, in effect, a detailed demonstration of how to turn a tragical into a comical history.

The four Sir John Oldcastle authors faced from the beginning a problem even more difficult than that of rivaling Shakespeare's invention. The historical Sir John Oldcastle, a follower of Wicliffe, had eventually given his life for the Protestant faith. As such, he was entirely eligible for the status of Elizabethan hero. Unfortunately, he happened to live in the reign of Henry V, a king who not only was not a Protestant himself, but one who firmly put down any outbreaks of this heresy that came to his attention. In writing his own Henry V play, Shakespeare had been able to ignore the inconvenient fact of the Henrician persecutions. The Old-castle authors, on the other hand, could scarcely evade the religious issue, given a hero who was remembered solely because of it. Neither could they ask an Elizabethan audience to accept Henry V, the hero-king of the Agincourt ballad, the conqueror of France, as a villain. Because the second part of Sir John Oldcastle has been lost, it is impossible to know how they treated the awkward fact of the martyrdom itself. Part I, however, is remarkable for the consistency with which it romanticizes and obscures political and religious issues that were potentially dangerous. Carefully, and unhistorically, the four dramatists dissociated Oldcastle from a Lollard uprising aimed against the king as well as the pope. The rabble in the play is confused about its religious motives and activated chiefly by the hope of plunder. With this irresponsible and seditious mob the character Oldcastle is shown to have no connection. It is only the bishops, and certain nobles jealous of his popularity, who pretend that he leads the rebels. Henry himself is in no way distressed by Oldcastle's Protestantism, so long as it remains unconnected with the elements of political disorder in the state. It is almost suggested that Henry yearns to become a Protestant himself, except that the time is somehow not right. (There were, after all, limits to the liberties Elizabethan dramatists could take with history.)

That the Oldcastle authors were perfectly familiar with Shakespeare's histories is obvious. Indeed, they seem to have spent a good deal of their time wondering how to convert the fine things in the possession of the Lord Chamberlain's Men to their own uses. Like Henry V, Sir John Oldcastle opens just before the expedition to France. Here too, the clergy are scheming to divert attention from the wealth and rich livings of the church through the judicious dispensation of a portion of their gold: some is destined to help finance the war; some is offered to the Earl of Suffolk as a bride to persuade him to speak against the troublesome Oldcastle—the most articulate opponent of ecclesiastical wealth and ceremonies—to the king. At the beginning of act II, a summoner engaged by the wicked Bishop of Rochester arrives before Oldcastle's house in Kent to serve a summons upon its master. Unluckily for him, he meets Harpoole, Oldcastle's brusque but loyal steward, first. Harpoole examines the legal document carefully:

Harp. Is this process parchment?
Sum. Yes, mary.
Harp. And this seale waxe?
Sum. It is so.
Harp. If this be parchment, & this waxe, eate you
this parchment and this waxe, or I will make
parchment of your skinne, and beate your brains
into waxe: Sirra Summer, dispatch; devoure, sirra,

After a comic struggle, in the course of which the wretched summoner is threatened with a beating and administered a cup of sack with which to wash down the last scraps, he duly eats the summons including the seal. "Wax," as Harpoole opines, is wholesome: "the purest of the hony."

This episode has its obvious parallel in Henry V. In act V, Fluellen invokes the aid of a cudgel to force a reluctant and histrionic Ancient Pistol to eat the leek he had previously mocked. The New Arden editor regards the similarity here as part of the evidence that the Oldcastle authors were familiar with Henry V as well as the two parts of Henry IV when they wrote their own play. He is probably right. Yet it is surely important to note that there is a third scene of this kind, earlier than either Henry V or Sir John Oldcastle, which should be taken into account. In George a Greene, Sir Nicholas Mannering arrives at the town of Wakefield bearing a commission from the rebellious Earl of Kendall for the requisition of victuals for his soldiers. George a Greene himself, outraged both by the request and by Mannering's insolence in urging it, first tears the parchment and then compels this traitor to King Edward's throne to eat the seals that were attached to it:

Man. Well, and there be no remedie, so, George:
    [swallows one of the seals.]
One is gone: I pray thee, no more nowe.
George.                  O sir,
If one be good, the others cannot hurt.
So, sir;
    [Mannering swallows the other two seals.]
Nowe you may goe tell the Earle of Kendall,
Although I haue rent his large Commission,
Yet of curtesie I haue sent all his seales
Back againe by you.

The episode involving Harpoole and the Summoner in Sir John Oldcastle may well have been inspired by Pistol's encounter with Fluellen; it is nevertheless with this older scene from George a Greene that its real affinities lie. Like the pinner of Wake-field, Harpoole is a man of the people, someone who clings to a vanishing world of immediate feudal loyalties. His aggression stems not, like Fluellen's, from the need to avenge a personal affront but from the desire to defend his master from traitors who obscure simple right and wrong with the aid of a new and suspect legalism. The spice of the incident lies in the audacity of the underdog: the simple, honest man converting rotten parchment bonds into matter-of-fact fodder. It reflects one of the wish-dreams of a lower class victimized by legislation forced upon it from above, by a sea of paper which it could not understand. In both George a Greene and Sir John Oldcastle, the plain old loyalties of master and servant, subject and king, achieve a triumph in the moment that the parchment (or the seals) slides down the officer's unwilling throat. When Shakespeare converted the original legal document into a vegetable, the dapper courtier worsted by the pinner into an entirely personal matter involving Fluellen's Welsh pride and Pistol's unconsidered boasting, he was moving away from traditional forms in response both to the spirit of the time and to the shape of his own history play. By 1599, the comical history was a consciously reactionary, an outdated dramatic mode. That cycle of Shakespearean plays which begins with Richard II and ends with Henry V had helped to make it so. Yet Elizabethans could still be made to respond emotionally to the ballad and folk material upon which the genre depended, while withholding actual belief in such distant and half-legendary types of social protest.

Harpoole himself has nothing but praise for the constable who enters immediately after the discomfited summoner has crept away. This functionary has been sent to make hue and cry after a thief who has robbed two clothiers. He means to search the ale-house for the culprit, but because that building stands in Oldcastle's "libertie" he refuses to exercise his function "except I had some of his servants, which are for my warrant" (II.i. 140-41). In effect, the constable of his own free will recognizes and honors an older order of jurisdiction and responsibility based on the autonomy of the great house and its demesne. That the inviolability of Oldcastle's "libertie" from outside interference is no longer something taken for granted is apparent in Harpoole's cry of relief: "An honest Constable! an honest Constable!" The steward is old-fashioned, a believer in relationships and prerogatives which, in his time, were beginning to be questioned and superseded. Later in the play, he will engineer his master's escape from the Tower and loyally, without hope of reward, accompany Oldcastle and his Lady in their flight. His taste in literature reflects his attitudes toward society and the proper relationship of vassal and overlord. When the Bishop of Rochester orders the "heretical" books in Cobham's house to be burned, Harpoole makes a heated defense of his own personal library: "for I have there English bookes, my lord, that ile not part with for your Bishoppricke: Bevis of Hampton, Owleglasse, the Frier and the Boy, Ellenor Rumming, Robin Hood, and other such godly stories" (IV.iii. 166-69).

Harpoole and his library are by no means the play's only links with the ballad and romance tradition. The cast of characters includes another Sir John besides the hero: Sir John the parson of Wrotham. This cleric is a hanger-on of precisely those covetous bishops who cause Oldcastle so much trouble. He follows them, however, purely to serve his own ends:

Me thinkes the purse of gold the Bishop gave
Made a good shew; it had a tempting looke.
Beshrew me, but my fingers ends do itch
To be upon those rudduks. Well, 'tis thus:
I am not as the worlde does take me for;
If ever woolfe were cloathed in sheepes coate,
Then I am he,—olde huddle and twang, yfaith,
A priest in shew, but in plain termes a theefe.
Yet, let me tell you too, an honest theefe,
One that will take it where it may be sparde,
And spend it freely in good fellowship.
I have as many shapes as Proteus had,
That still, when any villainy is done,
There may be none suspect it was sir John.
Besides, to comfort me,—for whats this life,
Except the crabbed bitternes therof
Be sweetened now and then with lechery?—
I have my Doll, my concubine, as t'were,
To frollicke with, a lusty bounsing gerle.

As an example of Shakespearean influence, this speech would be hard to surpass. It is perfectly evident that Sir John of Wrotham represents an attempt on the part of the Oldcastle authors to make use of precisely the character their play was designed to discredit and obliterate from the memory of Elizabethan audiences: Sir John Falstaff. Somehow, Drayton, Munday, Hathway, and Wilson were going to contrive to introduce the Gad's Hill robbery into their work too. Doll, the parson's paramour, is sister to Falstaff's Doll Tearsheet and, in the course of the play, will display the same mixture of tenderness and fury as her prototype. The line about Proteus has been stolen from one of the speeches of the future Richard III, in 3 Henry VI (III.iii.192). Otherwise, the speech appears on the surface to be all fake Falstaff. Yet something about the tone is alien. Falstaff, after all, was scarcely "an honest theefe," concerned to "take it where it may be sparde." A purse was a purse for him, whether it belonged to a wealthy traveler or was to be extracted from poor Mistress Quickly at the cost of all her plate. It is in the outlaw ballads of the late Middle Ages, particularly those centered upon Robin Hood, that the source of this Sir John's attitude may be found. What the Oldcastle authors have done is to reach back through Falstaff to resurrect the far older figure of Friar Tuck.

When Shakespeare's Henry V adopted disguise, the night before Agincourt, he found himself confronting men who inquired into the nature of the king's responsibility with uncomfortable particularity. The Oldcastle Henry V also resorts to disguise, perhaps in imitation of Shakespeare's play. At the end of act III, the king sets off to Westminster alone and incognito to gather news about the rebellion. On Blackheath he encounters Sir John disguised in green, the color traditionally worn by the followers of Robin Hood. Courteously and wittily the thief relieves his unknown sovereign of a purse containing one hundred pounds in gold. This Henry V, unlike his Shakespearean counter-part, evinces no hesitation in speaking about his dis-reputable past and old associates:

Wel, if thou wilt needs have it, there 'tis: just
the proverb, one thief robs another. Where the
divil are all my old theeves, that were wont to
keepe this walke? Falstaffe, the villaine, is
so fat, he cannot get on's horse, but me
Poines and Peto should be stirring here

Sir John, informed that his victim is a gentleman of the King's chamber, professes himself doubly pleased: this traveler can spare his money without hardship and may also be useful in future to "get a poor thiefe his pardon" (III.iv.82). With this latter contingency in mind, the concealed parson breaks a golden angel between them so that they may know each other again. Sir John swears that this token, when produced, will forestall any second robbery. Henry, in return, is to remember his promise of a pardon. In high good spirits, and without the least animosity on either side, the two men shake hands and separate.

Henry, now quite penniless, but delighted by this irregular encounter, proceeds on his way and joins his army in a field near London after dark. His lords greet their king ceremoniously, but find him strangely reluctant to abandon his disguise. "Peace, no more of that," he tells Suffolk, who has addressed him formally as "your Highnesse":

The King's asleepe; wake not his majestie
With termes nor titles; hee's at rest in bed.
Kings do not use to watch themselves; they sleepe,
And let rebellion and conspiracie
Revel and havocke in the common wealth. …
… this long cold winter's night
How can we spend? King Harry is a sleepe
And al his Lords, these garments tel us so;
Al friends at footebal, fellowes al in field,
Harry, and Dicke, and George. Bring us a dramme;
Give us square dice, weele keepe this court of guard
For al good fellowes companies that come.
                           (IV.i.6-10, 29-35)

Predictably, Sir John is the first good fellow to wander in. In the gaming that ensues, the disguised king wins back his hundred pounds. When the parson produces his half of the broken coin as a final stake, Henry matches it, and challenges the thief to a combat. The two take up their positions and are about to engage when a horrified noble intervenes and reveals the identity of the king. Without this interruption, the episode would fairly clearly have terminated in the manner sanctioned by the Robin Hood ballads and actually demonstrated in Peele's Edward I: with a victory for the king that vindicated his strength and manly prowess.

In Sir John Oldcastle, Henry amuses himself for a few moments by adopting a pose of mock severity toward this Friar Tuck. Reminded, however, by the culprit that "the best may goe astray, and if the world say true, your selfe (my liege) have bin a thiefe" (IV.i.182-84), the king freely admits the fact and contents himself with urging upon the parson a repentance and reclamation like his own. He makes him a free present of the stolen gold, a gift which Sir John receives with an unfeigned gratitude and delight that is worlds away from Williams's taciturn acceptance of the glove filled with crowns in Shakespeare's play: "Vivat Rex & currat lex! My liege, if ye have cause of battell, ye shal see sir John of Wrootham bestirre himself in your quarrel" (IV.i. 197-99). One may well suspect the parson's ability to forswear cards and wine and become an honest man-indeed, on his next appearance, in act V, he is confessing to Doll that drink, dice, and the devil have consumed the hundred pounds and preparing to recoup his fortunes by way of another robbery—but not the sincerity of his admiration for King Henry as a man.

Consistently, in borrowing from Shakespeare, the Old-castle authors turned their material back in the direction of balladry and romance. That doctrine of the king's two bodies which underlies all of Shakespeare's histories from Richard II to Henry V is nowhere visible in their play, any more than it is in George a Greene, James IV, or the old Famous Victories of Henry V. The Oldcastle Henry shifts from the first person singular to the plural form much as he might put on a furred cloak for a state occasion: to mark the momentary appropriateness of formality. This king is first and foremost a man, an understanding good companion, happy to try conclusions with a thief, prevented only by lack of time and the necessary affairs of state from engaging more often in the kind of light-hearted, picaresque adventure he so clearly loves. Not even his confrontation with the traitors Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey in act V can shake his confidence in the possibility of personal relations. The whole idea of kingship in this play is uncomplicated, stripped of sacramental overtones, and essentially gay. It is also deliberately unreal, a fiction deriving from a distant and half-legendary past. Henry V may seem, by comparison with Shakespeare's other histories, to be optimistic and celebratory, a simplified and epic account of certain events in the Hundred Years' War. To set it for an instant beside Sir John Oldcastle is to relize, not only that Shakespeare was an incomparably finer dramatist than his four rivals put together, but that his conception of history, even when he was chronicling one of England's moments of glory, was fundamentally tragic.

In the absence of any formal dramatic theory which could be said to connect with the productions of the public stage, Elizabethan drama seems to have developed to a large extent through a curious kind of dialogue among specific plays. The world of the London playhouses was small and intimate: everyone, as it seemed, knew everyone else. Kyd once shared a room with Marlowe, and lived to regret it; Ben Jonson loved Shakespeare but prided himself on being able to beat Martson and take his pistol from him; Shakespeare suffered from the animosity of Greene and was defended by Chetile; the so-called War of the Theatres sent a number of poets into battle with each other for reasons that must have been aesthetic and personal in about equal measure. The true history of the hostilities and allegiances, the jealousies and discipleships among the dramatists writing between 1587 and 1600 can never be recovered now. Yet the plays that have survived from this period are in a sense projections and records of these long vanished relationships and artistic controversies. Because the history play was a relatively new genre, without the classical sanction possessed by comedy and tragedy, and also because its brief flowering was effectively bounded by the reign of Elizabeth, it can provide a particularly rewarding study of the way writers tended to articulate their own dramatic ideas by reference to pre-existing plays. No Puttenham or Abraham Fraunce, no Sidney or Ben Jonson ever troubled to distinguish between the comical and the tragical history as dramatic forms. It is only from the plays themselves that these categories emerge as something more real and consequential than the private lunacy of a Polonius, or the rodomontade of Elizabethan printers concerned to imp out a title-page with words.

The roots of the tragical history lie, fairly obviously, in those Tudor entertainments which A.P. Rossiter called [in English Drama from Earliest Times to the Elizabethans, 1950] "the interludes of church and state." The consequential dialogue between plays begins, however, in 1587 when Marlowe used the memory of Preston's Cambises (1561) and plays like it to launch his own counterstatement in the form of Tamburlaine the Great. Plays like the anonymous Locrine (1591) or Selimus (1592) reveal much about the impact of Marlowe upon his contemporaries: the need to assimilate and learn from Tamburlaine but also to domesticate and render it harmless. In Edward II (1592), on the other hand, Marlowe himself seems to have felt impelled to imitate Shakespeare's new style of history play, much in the way that Raphael, painting in the Vatican Stanza della Segnatura, suddenly was led to create figures patently Michaelangelesque after he had been shown the unfinished Sistine ceiling. Because Vasari thought such things important, the details of how and when Raphael managed to see the tormented grandeurs of the Sistine Chapel are known, even as the long hours Michaelangelo himself had spent absorbing the figure style of Masaccio in the Brancacci Chapel are known, even as the long hours Michaelangelo himself out the testimony of Vasari, there would only be certain stylistic features from which to construct a hypothesis that Raphael's experience of the Sistine ceiling was so unexpectedly intense that for a time it altered the character of his own work, or that Michaelangelo learned from Masaccio. The problem of identifying reaction and' specific indebtedness would, in fact, strongly resemble the one which confronts the Elizabethan scholar trying to make sense of the development of dramatic forms during the crucial years 1587-1600.

As it was defined by Shakespeare, the tragical history became a serious, and politically a somewhat incendiary, examination into the nature of kingship. At the heart of the form lay the Tudor doctrine of the king's two bodies, which, in the fullness of time, was to provide the Puritans with justification for the execution of Charles I. Shakespeare himself, absorbed by the difficulties of royal incarnation, never wrote a comical history, unlike Peele, Greene, Heywood, Dekker, and a host of other contemporary dramatists. Yet he must have been aware of it as an alternative form, stemming originally from ballads and romances, made dramatic at least as early as 1560, and still wistfully alive in his own time. Certainly he introduced its most characteristic motif, that of the king disguised, into Henry V because he expected to gain, by his atypical handling of it, a calculated and powerful emotional effect. For Shakespeare, Henry V seems to have marked the end of his personal interest in the tragical history. He had virtually exhausted the form, at least in its English version, and not only (as it turned out) for himself. When the four Oldcastle authors accepted the doubtful task of competing with Shakespeare's Henry IV ana V plays, it cannot have been only the religious difficulties posed by their subject matter which led them to turn tragical history so completely into comical. Sir John Oldcastle is a tribute to Shakespeare not only because it is haunted everywhere by characters, episodes, and turns of phrase taken from his own cycle, but also because its entire style and anachronistic ethos as a play stand as silent witness to the fact that in the English tragical history, the more consequential form Shakespeare had made peculiarly his own, little or nothing now remained for anyone else to do.

James L. Calderwood (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Henry V: The Act of Order" and "Henry V: English, Rhetoric, Theater," in Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: "Richard II" to "Henry V," University of California Press, 1979, pp. 134-61, 162-82.

[Calderwood has examined what he calls Shakespeare's "metadrama" in Shakespearean Metadrama (1971) and Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad (1979). In the introduction to his earlier book, he claims that Shakespeare 's plays are concerned with various moral, social, and political themes, and also self-reflexively concerned with dramatic art itself—"its materials, its media of language and theater, its generic forms and conventions, its relationship to truth and social order." In the following excerpt from his second study of the Henry plays, Calderwood argues that "Shakespeare might have well felt that writing Henry V was less an exercise in creative freedom than a discharge of obligation," and therefore "seems to have written into the play a self-justifying rationale."]

Henry IV, Part 2 is a static moment in Shakespeare's Henriad, a holding action in which the playwright repeats the form, though not the substance, of Henry IV, Part 1. 2 Henry IV does not so much succeed the earlier play as recast it, attenuating its order—the old order—to the point where, as Northumberland suggests, order itself might well die. In act 4, scene 5, however, Hal and his dying father together realize that the old order—the waning reign of Henry IV—has been merely a sacrificial interim that now must yield to national destiny. History must resume; Henry V must succeed Henry IV. Drama too must resume; Henry V must succeed Henry IV. Act 4, scene 5 releases England from the reign of its usurper king and Shakespeare's tetralogy from the paralysis of 2 Henry IV, which had usurped the place intended for Henry V in the dramatic succession.

Henry V is a king who "succeeds" in both senses of the word, both inheriting a crown and triumphing with it. As a play, however, Henry V has by no means triumphed with the critics. "Many people find Henry V offensive," Sigurd Burckhardt observes [Shakespearean Meanings, 1968], "though they argue whether it is offensively foolish or offensively knavish. Was Shakespeare nationalist fool enough to believe such stuff, or was he theatrical knave enough to exploit it?" Let me defer for the while the question of the play's "success" as triumph in order to consider its success as sequential advance. That it is an advance, a shaping of a new kind of dramatic order, is argued by its New Arden editor, J. H. Walter, who says:

Shakespeare's task was not merely to extract material for a play from an epic story, but within the physical limits of the stage and within the admittedly inadequate dramatic convention to give the illusion of an epic whole. In consequence Henry V is daringly novel, nothing quite like it had been seen on the stage before.

No wonder, then, Walter observes, that Shakespeare, after his epic invocation in the Prologue—"O for a Muse of fire …"—quickly grows apologetic about the inadequacies of the theater to represent the manifold of history. The same theme of apology runs through all the prologues and the epilogue. Since history in its "huge and proper life" cannot "be here presented" (Prologue, Act 5), it must be represented, not in its wholeness but in its "partness." A thousand men are reduced to one man and "the accomplishment of many years / Into an hour-glass" (lines 24, 30-31). The technique is essentially metaphoric and, since metaphor requires an act of imaginative completion by a reader, Shakespeare asks here not merely for his audience's indulgence but for their imaginative assistance in creating the "tenor" of English history by means of the "vehicle" of metaphoric theater. More specifically, however, the technique is synecdochic, using the dramatic part to stand for the historic whole.

The relation of part to whole is a cardinal issue in Henry V, for the illusion of epic unity that Shakespeare is seeking is sought also—and rather readily discovered—by King Harry in the political sphere. The ideological basis for political unity is supplied by the Archbishop of Canterbury's speech in act 1 about divine, natural, governmental, and military order (1.2. 183-220). The speech itself is curiously excessive to the.problem of defending England from the Scots while Harry's armies are in France. Ultimately it is decided to divide Harry's forces into four parts, leave three in England, and take one to France. But this rather obvious solution comes only after some thirty-four lines by Exeter and Canterbury justifying such division on the grounds of unity of purpose. Illustrations of this kind of unity are drawn from music, sundials, archery, the confluence of roads and streams, and most expansively from bees—"Creatures that by a rule of nature teach / The act of order to a peopled kingdom" (1.2. 188-189). In this Platonic perspective the emphasis is upon transcendence. Particulars are of no value in themselves; a man achieves fulfillment not by cultivating singularity but by submerging himself in a larger scheme. Self-servers like Bardolph and Nym will be brought down, to the full stretch of hemp, and even Pistol will be demeaned—that sorry stand-in for the Great Gormandizer must come at last to dine on leeks. On the other hand, through personal sacrifice and useful service, the individual transcends himself to become a functional part of the greater whole. Thus the Many, whether bees or barons, become the One.

Such an order—in which the individual part is justified by its relation to the whole—suggests the kind of synecdochic representation of historic whole by dramatic part to which Shakespeare calls attention in his prologue. Canterbury's speech surely addresses the problem of epic unity in drama as well as national unity in England, and we may well wonder, as Shakespeare appears to have done, whether honey-bees "teach the act of order" not merely to a peopled kingdom but also to playwrights who must people stages. In a play often called episodic, pageantlike, constructed as a series of tableaux, what principle of order does Shakespeare follow, what whole unifies his parts?

As an exposition of order in nature and society Canterbury's speech is perfectly orthodox; it dominates the conduct of the English throughout the play. National unity is achieved by inclusion and by exclusion—by incorporating the Welsh Fluellen, the Irish Macmorris, and the Scottish Jamy into the English cause, for example, and by eliminating the English traitors, the disobedient Bardolph and Nym, and ultimately the opposing French. The French are, of course, poor imitators of God's confluent order. In 3.5 their preparations for battle seem largely to consist of a roll call of titled names: "High dukes, great princes, barons, lords, and knights" (3.5.40-46). Harry can cite noble names too (4.3.51-55), but he can also give tribute to the worker bees and the cooperative hive:

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


It is true that Harry has not so much established a happy democracy here as introduced upward mobility into the Great Chain of Being. Even so, in contrast to the feudal French, he proposes a "gentling of condition" that is earned rather than inherited, a brother-hood with the king that is achieved not through shared bloodlines but through shared blood losses. Then, during the final act, after the harsh dialectics of combat, we are given a glimpse of a transcendent synthesis. King Harry and Princess Katherine are to lose their individuality and, "being two, are one in love" (5.2.389). Frenchmen and Englishmen are to lose their nationalities and mingle indistinguishably as members of God's international community (395-396), though we may take leave to doubt whether the conquering English are as anxious as the conquered French to dissolve all differences.

The demand for unity in England is fully honored by England's new king, whose own personality is a microcosm of the nation in this regard. Everyone has lamented the loss of Prince Hal in King Harry, nearly as much as the loss of Falstaff in Henry V, for the newly crowned king's famous "I know thee not, old man" seems also to have meant "I know thee not, young prince." At any rate, the various-minded Hal, who moved gracefully between the worlds of court, tavern, and battlefield, who could speak prose as well as verse, who could say "I am now of all humours that have showed themselves humours since the old days of goodman Adam to the pupil age of this present twelve o'clock midnight," has been succeeded by King Harry, single-mindedly pious, militant, even ruthless. Victories can not do without victims, and the victims add up: Falstaff ("I know thee not, old man"), Lord Scroop and his fellow traitors ("Touching our person seek we no revenge, / But we our kingdom's safety must so tender" …), the citizens of Harfleur whom Harry's armies will ravage ("What is it then to me.… What is't to me … ?"), Bardolph of the lantern nose ("We would have all such offenders so cut off), the French prisoners at Agincourt ("Then every soldier kill his prisoners"), and finally Katherine, who though only coyly resistant is nevertheless part of the spoils of war.

So thoroughly has Hal disappeared with Falstaff from Henry V that Una Ellis-Fermor has claimed [in The Frontiers of Drama, 1945] it is futile to "look for the personality of Henry behind the king; there is nothing else there.… There is no Henry, only a king." This is both true and untrue. It is true that, as Alvin Kernan says ["The Henriad: Shakespeare's Major History Plays," in Modern Shakespearean Criticism, ed. Alvin B. Kernan, 1970], our "difficulties in understanding the King are intensified by the almost total absence from the play of speeches in which Henry speaks as a private man, directly revealing his own feelings," and that Harry "lives in the full glare of public life." But it is not true that the crown never leaves Harry's head. Shakespeare is quite clear about that on the eve of Agincourt when he has Harry tell Bates:

For, though I speak it to you, I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it does 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 …


Public office and private man are for Harry the reverse of what they were for Hal. As part of his sun-cloud strategy Hal suppressed his princeliness, making his office—or his training for office—private, and gave public expression to the wayward young man. Intending to prove "better than [his] word," he has, as Henry V, become so. Harry the man is now kept private, suppressed in favor of Harry the king, who is nearly always on public display. In keeping with the theme of unity, the private man is subsumed by the public office. As for his motives, they are the motives of a king who consults England's welfare rather than his own feelings before rendering decisions. Not for himself but for the nation Harry declares war, executes traitors, threatens Harfleur, refuses ransom, orders prisoners killed, gives credit for the victory to God, and marries Katherine.

The very unity of Harry's character as king—the lack of self-division, conflict, and the ironies these give rise to—provokes dissatisfaction, though more often in critics than in audiences. Moody Prior puts it well [in The Drama of Power, 1973]:

The misleading notion of a sly Machiavellian Henry V growing out of Henry IV is an understandable product of unsympathetic critics attempting to find a consistent center for this character. Since it is hard to believe in the paragon, it seems sensible to look for the smart operator. There is, one might more properly contend, too little of Prince Hal and his father in the character. All the rich if sometimes contradictory and even unpleasant possibilities which have been built up over two plays are largely set aside in the interest of the hero of Agincourt and the myth of the spotless Christian king who upon his coronation was made new. The reader is not so completely persuaded of the miraculous change as the bishops, and in consequence Henry V turns off more people than does his father, the political man who knew himself for what he was.

Harry's personality is united under his political office, and his conduct in office is designed to unite the nation in accordance with Canterbury's speech on order. As Harry's piety testifies, God stands in relation to Harry's well-ordered character as He does also to order in England, for God has been Englished by Canterbury's rhetoric. God created order in nature, the English and Harry imitate it and triumph, the French fail to do so and predictably suffer.

Cast in military form, Canterbury's confluent order appears as a united English army mowing down the French nobility. Cast in dramatic form, it would appear as a play all the parts of which yield to a unifying principle. Taken metadramatically, Canterbury's speech might be seen as an apologia for the playwright who, claiming a kind of divine authority, nationalizes his literary themes, suppresses internal dissent, and tailors his characters and actions to a partisan pattern. And this is partly the case. Shakespeare the English dramatist has to some degree imitated Harry the English king in suppressing private feeling in favor of national interest. He too achieves unity through inclusion and exclusion. If Harry has rejected Falstaff at Westminster, thus killing his heart, as the Hostess claims, Shakespeare has done the dramatic equivalent, writing Falstaff out of Henry V (despite his promise in the Epilogue of 2 Henry IV to "continue the story, with Sir John in it") and literally killing his heart offstage. The epic-heroic mode is no country for unemployed highwaymen. Falstaff's burlesques of a prince who in the Henry IV plays was himself given to burlesque were harmless enough. But with the prince turned king, and pious to boot, those flouts and parodies would give us pauses that Shakespeare's play cannot abide. So too with the remaining low-life characters. If Harry eliminates the traitorous Grey, Scroop, and Cambridge, Shakespeare diminishes in his turn the comic rebels Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol. If they survive Falstaff, as though to inherit his role as parodist, they are granted a toothless parody at best. No sooner have they mimicked Harry's "Once more unto the breach" address at Harfleur—in a scene of uninspired humor—than Fluellen arrives to pummel them into battle and the Boy lingers on to satirize the would-be satirists. Their villainies stem, the Boy claims, from a failure to match words with deeds—"For Pistol, he hath a killing tongue and a quiet sword" and "For Nym … his few bad words are matched with as few good deeds" (3.2.35-42). As a result their burlesque of the main plot succeeds only in degrading themselves. Instead of being made to seem foolish, Harry emerges as the one man whose words are more than matched by his deeds, as he declared they would be from the beginning: "By how much better than my word I am, / By so much shall I falsify men's hopes" (1 Hen. IV, 1.2.233-234). In the remainder of this scene, having excluded the three self-serving parasites, Shakespeare underscores unity by inclusion with the three representatives of England's habitually churlish border nations—the Welsh Fluellen, the Irish Macmorris, and the Scottish Jamy—who, though contentious enough with one another, are united in their desire, as Jamy puts it, to "de gud service" against the French (3.2.123).

All that remains, then, now that the English are in harmony, is to do in the French. History having made the English victory a foregone conclusion, Shakespeare can busy himself to make it glorious. It is not enough that the French lose at Agincourt; they must also deserve to lose. Hence the Dauphin is made supercilious and arrogant, and the French in general, especially in 3.7 and 4.2, are presented as fatuously insolent. In them feudal chivalry has degenerated into a mannered doting on trivia, of which the Dauphin's sonnet in praise of his horse is emblematic.

Finally, having protected Harry and England from within by aggrandizing those who are "with" and either eliminating or degrading those who are "against" the national cause, Shakespeare takes pains to indemnify the epic-heroic mode against misinterpretation from without. In the Induction to 2 Henry IV Rumour announced himself as running up and down England sowing dissension of understanding. In a play so prefaced, false expectations, ironic double meanings, and mistrust will afflict not merely the characters but the audience as well. But Rumour is succeeded in Henry V by the Chorus, whose name in itself implies musical unity and whose dramatic function is to secure unity of interpretation. We are told in unambiguous tones what to expect in this play and how to respond to it. As an English audience, we are told to identify with, to admire, and to yearn for the lost glories of Henry's reign.

Not only does the Chorus encourage unity of interpretation, it also helps create unity of structure in the play itself by building narrative bridges between the five acts whose discreteness has prompted from critics such adjectives as episodic and tableaulike. This structural unity to which the Chorus contributes reinforces the internal thematic unity of the play, which is so rigorous in behalf of the English, so disturbingly suggestive of a "God's on our side" chauvinism, that many critics have sought evidence of Shakespearean irony. For how could he either believe, as Burckhardt says, or exploit such stuff? How could he—by killing off Falstaff and degrading the comic subplot characters, by making the French ridiculous, by making us view everything through the patriotic eyes of the Chorus—how could he stack the dramatic deck so blatantly?

The issue is larger than chauvinism and the question of Shakespeare's patriotic beliefs or theatrical opportunism. We encounter here an old critical problem that new critical attention has brought into sharper focus. If literary works consist of a marriage between parts and whole, which of the partners to this marriage must defer to the other? Should priority be given to unity and wholeness—to Apollonian order, Aristotelian form, Hegel's synthesis, Ransom's universal, Tate's intension, Frye's archetype? If so, how much Platonic oneness can the work permit without converting its marriage into a bleak domestic tyranny of the whole over the parts? On the other hand, will not too great a complexity of parts—Hegel's dialectical conflict, Empson's ambiguity, Brooks's paradox, Warren's impurity, Wimsatt's hateful contraries, Krieger's existential chaos, and so on—dissolve all order and unity in the work? How much Dionysiac dancing and rebellious individuality can the work permit without converting its marriage into a domestic insurrection of parts against whole? In this direction madness lies; in that, an arid sanity.

Chaos, strife, and irresolution come cheap. Any literary neophyte, mind boggling like Bottom's with inexpressible dreams, can strew a page with slices and shards of irreconcilable "life." Order is another matter. To cast the clutter of raw experience into even a trivial, third-hand, sentimental order takes a measure, however small, of literary skill. By its nature order must be imposed, and its price, the price of unity in the work, is necessarily the autonomy of the parts, of the division and strife that make for internal complexity. This unifying, overdone, … is from the purpose of art; and so, to save the work from the grey homogeneity of an order too repressively imposed, we welcome, invite, cast about for intramural complications. But, on the other hand, to prevent the work from becoming a dizzying reproduction of life's disorder—Yvor Winter's "fallacy of imitative form"—we concede that these intramural complications must be resolvable.

With the notion of resolvable complications we seem to have got safely out of this winding dark wood of poetics. But alas, as Murray Krieger reminds us [in The Tragic Vision, 1960], resolvable complications come not by the grace of Manichaean chance but by authorial design, no less so than the preordained structure of meaning in the most rigid of allegories. For to introduce resolvable complications the writer must load his artistic dice and call upon all his skill to disguise that fact. Instead of earning or achieving an order, instead of allowing a new order to emerge from the dialectical ordeal of the creative process, the writer will merely impose upon the work a preexistent order. And yet, what remedy? The literary dice are either loaded or they are not loaded; there are no degrees in between, such as their being only "slightly" loaded. If the writer plays for truth with loaded dice, he is patently dishonest. If he does not, he abandons the literary game to the randomness of chance. On the one hand he is not an honest artist, on the other he is not an artist at all.

I think Shakespeare was aware of these problems, indeed, this dilemma, and that we can see him exploring it in Henry V. Faced with the obligation of writing Henry V, in fact, he could hardly avoid such issues. For a play in which "this star of England" is to be studied at its zenith makes more than ordinary demands on its author. Shakespeare knows, for instance, that he is bound by history. Not enslaved by it—he can collapse history's four dauphins into one for his purposes—but bound by it nevertheless, and willing to admit as much in his prologues, as when the epilogue refers to "Our bending author [who] hath pursued the story." Moreover, he knows that he is bound by his own immediate literary history, the three preceding plays in The Henriad. History alone would have authorized him to conclude Henry V with, say, Harry's death and funeral as readily as with Agincourt and a marriage. But the Henry IV plays have guaranteed us that Henry V will exhibit sovereignty in success, ending not with death but with triumph and a sense of national fulfillment. And, finally, Shakespeare knows that he is bound by his audience and the nationality he shares with them. How he presents Harry and his England depends less on his own inclinations than on the expectations of an English audience who may not know the details of history but are steeped in awe for the mythical magnificence of Harry and his times.

Having given hostages to English history, to his own tetralogy, and to the expectations of his English audience, Shakespeare might well have felt that writing Henry V was less an exercise in creative freedom than a discharge of obligations. Thus he seems to have written into the play a self-justifying rationale, a speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury emphasizing obedience to higher laws, self-sacrifice, all the virtues of the "act of order." Sanctified by the cause of national and dramatic unity, the play eliminates all dissension and advances toward Agincourt under God's banner.

But at this point Shakespeare seems to have suffered doubts. In any event, it is at this point that he inflicts doubts upon the previously self-assured King Harry. On the eve of Agincourt, when Harry goes disguised among his men, the foot-soldier Williams raises the question of royal responsibility and the Tightness of the English cause in France:

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 battle shall join together at the latter day and cry all, "We died at such a place." … I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle, for how can they 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, who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.


Williams asks, in effect, "Are my services to the king consistent with my obligations to God?" If they are, well and good; if they are not, the king must answer for it, since I am bound to his service.

We know what Richard's answer would have been: "For every [enemy] … / God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay / A glorious angel" (Rich. II, 3.2.58-61). Service to a Divine Right king is service to God, and no soldier, however bloody his employment, need fear for his soul. We know too what Canterbury's answer would have been: "The English order is God's order, the English king is God's king, and the English war is God's war."

But Harry does not even begin to answer in this fashion. The gist of his reply—which is long, consistent, well illustrated, and quite beside the point—lies in one sentence: "Every subject's duty is the king's, but every subject's soul is his own" (4.1.185). Williams seems reassured, but he has small reason to be. At issue are not the private sins each soldier totals up in the general business of living—from that point of view, every subject's soul is indeed his own—but rather those sins he specifically commits "when blood is their argument," when he is, in the present case, piling up legs and arms and heads to support Harry's claims in France. From this standpoint, each subject's soul and duty are inevitably the king's responsibility, and the question comes back, "Is the king's cause also God's cause?"

That, however, is precisely the question Harry avoids. The reason for this avoidance is not far to seek. In his speech on Ceremony immediately following the departure of the soldiers Harry demythologizes kingship rather as Falstaff did honor at Shrewsbury. In contrast to Canterbury's thesis about God and His divine order standing surety for the king and his well-regulated state—in effect, the old Ricardian "divine right" view of politics—King Harry confesses that there is nothing inherently majestic about majesty. "Place, degree, and form" are not ways in which men participate in divine order but merely instruments of political expediency "creating awe and fear in other men" and lending dignity to the exercise of power (4.1.263-264). Then Harry addresses a prayer to the "God of battles" asking Him to "think not upon the fault / [His] father made in compassing the crown" (lines 310-311) and citing at length his own contrition for Richard's death and efforts in his spiritual behalf.

Despite Harry's regal confidence up to this point, we now see that he is uneasily aware that he owes his kingship not to God but to his usurping, regicidal father. Perhaps this uneasiness has been with him earlier. For if God had made him king, if he were graced with the Divine Right legitimacy of a Richard, Harry would not have had to rely on Canterbury to sanctify the invasion of France ("The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!" [1.2.97]). Nor would he have had to make others responsible for his decisions: the Dauphin and his father for the war (1-2.284-288, 2.4.105-109), the English traitors for their punishment ("The mercy that was quick in us but late, / By your own counsel is suppressed and killed" [2.2.79-80]), the citizens of Harfleur for atrocities done them ("What is it to me, when you yourselves are cause" [3.3.19]), and the foot-soldiers for the perils of their souls. As God's vicege-rent, King Harry would legitimize his ventures by the act of announcing them. But how Harry's credit stands in heaven, heaven alone knows. Instead of inheriting Divine Right from Henry IV, he has inherited mere Ceremony—"titles blown from adulation"—a showy but sorry substitute.

If Harry's regal insecurities account directly for the priests singing and the poor praying for Richard's soul, they also account for Harry's general oversupply of piety, his almost automatic qualification of every stated intention with a "God willing" or "God before" or "But this lies all within the will of God." These are symptoms not merely of routine religious deference but of Harry's quasi-fallen royalty. If the king cannot claim to speak for God as His appointed agent, he had better speak to Him as His devoted appellant.

Harry's speech on Ceremony and his prayer to the God of battles have no effect upon the English, who of course remain as united as before; but they do call into question the aesthetic and thematic unity of Henry V. However foreordained the outcome of Agincourt may be from the standpoint of the audience, Shakespeare takes unusual pains to assure us that from Harry's perspective there are no guarantees whatsoever. God will bring no legions to Agincourt in support of the beleaguered English. In His divine wisdom He may know in advance how the plot turns out—who wins, who loses, who's in, who's out—but in His divine inscrutability He keeps His intentions shrouded. Up until now it has seemed that God's role was that of a participant who had chosen a side to defend. Now it appears that He is in the role of a judge who will render a verdict after reviewing the military, and presumably the moral and spiritual, evidence on both sides.

With God's withdrawal from overt partisanship, what had seemed a sure thing takes on the character of a genuine contest, a true trial of the English cause. That means, for Harry and the English, an element of risk. The French, who are going to die at Agincourt but who cannot know that, take no risks beforehand; they ride the odds and their sleek horses toward an obvious victory. The English, on the other hand, most of whom are not going to die at Agincourt but who cannot know that, ponder on St. Crispian's Eve the dreary likelihood that their souls as well as their lives are in peril, and then soberly risk both on the morrow.

And the king whom they follow at such risk, he risks most of all. First, of course, his life. Refusing to avail himself of kingly privileges by accepting ransom, as Williams had feared he might, Harry hazards his life as extremely as his men do theirs: "Bid them achieve me," he cautions the French herald, "and then sell my bones" (4.3.91). Second, he risks his title, not only to France but to England as well, as he did not understand when he cried "No king of England, if not king of France!" (2.2.193) God, we know, conferred kingship on Richard; and Bolingbroke, God knows, conferred it on himself, substituting Ceremony for Divine Right. With no claim to Divine Right and with no trust in Ceremony, Harry is afflicted with royal doubts. For if he remains tainted by his father's usurpation and regicide, then he is an impostor, and the English order descending from God is a fraud. If so, then Harry risks not only life and title but, as Williams feared, the lives and souls of all his soldiers as well. That most awe-some risk Harry accepts as part of his own trial: "We must bear all."

Thus at Agincourt Harry redeems from hazard not only his own life, and the lives and souls of his men, but English kingship too, which has been in pawn since Richard's reign. Instead of Richard's inherited Divine Right, however, Harry acquires an earned human right to the crown, gained through ordeal by combat, "in plain shock and even play of battle" (4.8.114). On the day of battle his royal authenticity is plainly evident. If at Shrewsbury in 1 Henry IV the English sovereign was unrecognizable amid the (other) counterfeits dressed in his coats, at Agincourt no man walks in the king's coat but the king himself. Harry may pass un-recognized in Erpingham's cloak on St. Crispian's Eve, but on St. Crispian's Day every man knows who the King of England is.

At Agincourt King Harry also redeems the playwright Shakespeare from the charge of artistic despotism. As England and Harry's armies have banded together in self-righteous confidence of God's partisanship, so the play Henry V has been thematically unified by an act of order imposed on it by its partisan playwright. With God inside the play and Shakespeare outside it both bent on being fully English, Henry V exemplifies that tyranny of whole over parts, Apollow over Dionysus, thesis over antitheses.… Or so it seems. From our present perspective, however, we can see that if Shakespeare framed Canterbury's speech on order as a justifying rationale not only for military unity in England but for an overbearing thematic unity in Henry V he at some point came to regard that speech with suspicion. Thus he subjects the Archbishop's routine recipes for national efficiency to a shrewd critique by the distraught King Harry, and in doing so he introduces an element of thematic dissension into his previously un-troubled drama. What had seemed an uncontested whole is now challenged by a part, the very scene in which Harry's legitimacy is challenged by his fears of divine disfavor.

By rendering Harry's doubts so vividly at this point, Shakespeare in effect causes God to withdraw from apparent partisanship—and that emblemizes Shakespeare's own withdrawal from partisanship as omnipotent author, at least his withdrawal from the kind of naive, unexamined partisanship that seems to have characterized him thus far. Later on, as we know, when the battle is over, Harry will claim that God's "arm was here," that God was partisan after all. And we know too that Shakespeare's arm was certainly here, even though, like God, he seems to have announced his withdrawal. But if he has not totally withdrawn from the literary engagement—and of course how could he?—he has withdrawn from apparent chauvinism into a more sophisticated partisanship, making an honest playwright of himself, and an honest God of God, by bringing before us the very issue of honesty in art. From a too easy concept of literary order he wrests a new kind of order, tested in action and opposition, the dramatic ordeal by combat.

Harry undergoes his ordeal too. If his deepest fears hold true, then his royal legitimacy is no more valid than the gauds and trappings of office—mere Ceremony—and he is on his own. Say he is—what then? Harry has his look into the abyss, and what he sees there he takes in reasonable stride. If he cannot look to divine aid in battle, he will look to himself and his ragged followers. The battle is not won through divine interference but in familiar human ways—through courage, discipline, cooperative effort—and, to be sure, in familiar inhuman ways, through the proposed slaughter of French prisoners. His methods are no more legitimized in advance than is his kingship; they earn legitimacy in action, by proving successful in England's cause. The king will cut the throats of his prisoners if necessary, because he knows that God will not cut them for him—witness the ineffectual Richard calling in vain for angelic legions. So long as God voices judgment only after ordeals by combat, the king must do as he can—and find in his success a declaration of divine will:

O God, thy arm was here
And not to us, but to thy arm alone,
Ascribe we all!


We need not look for irony here, suspecting a hypocritical attempt to sanctify a dubious cause and a vicious victory with claims of divine support. The Chorus assures us in the Prologue to act 5 that Harry's piety is genuine: "Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride," the king gives "full trophy, signal, and ostent / Quite from himself to God." If we want hypocrisy, we need only remember Prince John's declaration after the nonbattle of Gaultree Forest: "God, and not we, hath safely fought today" (2 Hen. IV, 4.2.121). Not until Agincourt—not since Richard cast down his warder at Coventry, preventing the contest between Bolingbroke and Mowbray—has God had an opportunity to try the English in authentic combat. We may also remember that the price of Prince Hal's giving full trophy, signal, and ostent for the killing of Hotspur to Falstaff at Shrewsbury Field was a gilding lie. The price of giving credit for Agincourt to God is not a lie but, rather, a humble truth, an admission that the king is not that mortal splendor described by Shakespeare long ago, in the opening lines of 1 Henry VI, where Gloucester says of Harry:

England ne'er had a king until his time.
Virtue he had, deserving to command.
His brandished sword did blind men with his
His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings;
His sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than mid-day sun fierce bent against their
What should I say? His deeds exceed all
He ne'er lift up his hand but conquered.

Before this image of the king girt in the awesome robes of Ceremony ordinary men, whether friend or enemy, might well grow pale. But this is not the role Harry plays after the battle of Agincourt. Giving the honors to God, he is content himself to speak of wearing Fluellen's Welsh leeks on Saint Tavy's day "for a memorable honour," to commemorate not his own but his forbears' victories in France (4.7.95-109). And in keeping with his conception of the English as a band of brothers, he is also content to acknowledge his common ties with Fluellen: "For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman" (4.7.110).

Shakespeare's intention in this is not to diminish Harry's royalty but to indicate its source. In plain shock and even play of battle Harry has earned God's approval, and with it he has earned, not so much a new as an old and long-neglected concept of royal order. Ideally the English king derives his authority from God above and his subjects below, his own function being to mediate between the two. Richard, claiming his authority exclusively from on high, disregarded the downward direction of royal sway, lost touch with the commons, leased out the very land itself. Shakespeare makes a point of distinguishing Harry from Richard now by having Fluellen echo a famous speech by the dead king:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an annointed
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.

(Rich. II, 3.3.54-57)

Unlike Richard, Harry has not been elected by the Lord. He has had a corporate majesty founded on shared English culture, English aspirations, English blood. Thus Fluellen says, "All the water in the Wye cannot wash your Majesty's Welsh plood out of your pody, I can tell you that" (4.7.111-113), and adds:

But Jeshu, I am your Majesty's countryman, I care not who know it. I will confess it to all the 'orld. I need not be ashamed of your Majesty, praised be God, so long as your Majesty's an honest man.

To which Harry replies, "God keep me so!"

Kingship, it is clear, has not descended on Harry; he has risen to it. But he has not risen to it in his father's fashion, Bolingbroke of the supple knees and usurping mind, whose overeager "In God's name, I'll ascend the regal throne" provoked Carlisle's righteous "Marry, God forbid!" (Rich. II, 4.1.113-114). If Richard owed all to heaven, and Bolingbroke all to himself, neither held full title to the crown. But Harry descends to the level of his soldiers and rises with them to heights of Agincourt, earning God's endorsement in the process. The divine and temporal dimensions of royal authority thus coalesce in English kingship as they have not done since before Richard's time.

And, we must add, as they will not do for very long in Harry's time. Only for a brief moment, a "small time," as the Epilogue reminds us, does this star of England give off an authentic royal glitter. If, in the metaphoric way of things, that implies that Shakespeare's act of dramatic order is no more enduring than Harry's, then we need to consider that order more closely yet.

The most difficult roles in Shakespeare are assigned to Oberon and Ariel, for the latter is ordered by Prospero to "be subject / To no sight but thine and mine" and Oberon is obliged by Shakespeare to turn to the audience and announce "I am invisible." Henry V has a role of similar difficulty. Although God does not appear in the list of characters He nevertheless appears in the play. Or does He? When Agincourt is safely won, Harry says:

        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 the other? Take it, God,
For it is none but thine!


Agincourt presents us with the "plain shock and even play of battle"—that is, it is a genuine contest—and yet "God, thy arm was here"—that is, it is not a genuine contest, for if God's arm was here, it was here in behalf of the English. Somehow God manages to enact a paradox of partisan impartiality. Perhaps the most that can be said is that God has been discreet. He has made Agincourt as genuine a contest as possible, not by abdicating His judgmental throne, but by eschewing ostentatious involvement. He has supplied no omens of victory to Harry, no portents or signs, offered no ghostly comforts in response to Harry's prayers, brought no legions into the field. Like Harry doffing regal Ceremony to go among his troops on the eve of Agincourt as a mere man, God gives over divine Ceremony and appears at Agincourt, if not as a "mere" God, at least as an unobtrusive one. So far as the audience can see, at any rate, Harry and the English are on their own.

To be present and yet invisible may come easily to gods and fairy kings—not so for dramatists. However commendable it might be for the playwright to remain impartial and divinely aloof from the internal factionalism of his work—even "paring his fingernails," as Stephen Dedalus would have it—he cannot help being present, at Agincourt or London, in the Forest of Arden or on the plains of Philippi. Like God, however, his presence may be either blatant or subtle. He can impose his dramatic order as conspicuously as Shakespeare does in Canterbury's speeches, blazoning his Englishness in an English cause; or he can aspire to a more genuine contest by generating complications, doubts, thematic oppositions—authentic antitheses against which his thesis must make its way. Shakespeare … does what he can in this regard. Having loaded the dice to begin with, he does his best to unload them later. By compelling Harry to do battle in mortal doubt of God's inclinations, by holding God's judgment in abeyance until the dust has settled and the blood congealed, Shakespeare strives to achieve the dramatic equivalent of an ordeal by combat refereed by a concerned but distant God. In consequence, the English victory is both a divine gift—"O God, thy arm was here"—and a human achievement—"in plain shock and even play of battle." But the achievement comes first. Thus as Harry moves toward an earned kingship, Henry V moves toward an earned unity, making good its right to be so totally English.

More than that, perhaps, for we might want to argue that the play earns the right not merely to be English but also to be in English. At the end of the play we have a grand spousal of persons and nations, the political version of an overarching divine order, but of course behind the rituals of international harmony is poised the mailed fist of English nationalism. By the same token, the linguistic version of divine order would be a marrying language that brings French and English under the same verbal roof, a unifying Esperanto presided over by God, best maker of all marriages. But there is no such language at the end of Henry V, and in its absence the King's English will serve. Indeed, it has served all along. Up until Katherine's English lesson in act 3, the French have all spoken English, as of course they must in an English play. Yet precisely because they must, the fact that they do passes largely unnoticed. In act 3, scene 2, where Jamy, Fluellen, and Macmorris convene to quarrel, Shakespeare asks us to observe that the dialects of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland may rasp and clash against each other but still address themselves to the English cause in harmony. However, while we watch the play advance toward a great military engagement between England and France, a test of dominance, we are not likely to realize that from the moment they have begun to speak the French have already suffered total defeat from Shakespeare's all-conquering English language. The first words spoken by the French king are "Thus comes the English will full power upon us" (2.4.1). He might with equal truth have said "Thus comes English with full power upon us," since by the all-compelling grace of an English playwright King Charles is unwittingly gifted with his enemies' speech. At Shakespeare's Agincourt there can be little hope of success for the French when even their battle cries must be issued in English.

I may seem to be making too much of what is simply an unavoidable necessity of English drama, a theatrical convention without which the play could not play. After all, the French in Henry IV—not to mention Greeks, Romans, Danes, Bohemians, Italians, in other plays—also speak English without being pursued by a cry of critics. Why seems it so particular with Henry V ?

Henry V raises this linguistic issue primarily by means of Katherine's language lesson in an act 3, which is related to the general problem of partisan impartiality.… Here again the dramatist plays the partisan, forcing the King's English upon both his play and the French, just as he Englishes divine order and makes straw men of his French characters. This Englishing of things, which happens whenever an author marshals his literary forces toward a predetermined victory, appears from one standpoint to be a dishonest stacking of the dramatic deck, but from another to be the indispensable price of artistic order, form, and unity. Parts, if they are to be parts, must be subdued if the whole is to be whole. And what could better illustrate the necessity of wholeness than the language in which a work is to be presented? If English speech did not unify Henry V, Bacon's "second curse" of man, Babel, would descend on the theater, rendering the play unintelligible through a clash of competing vernaculars.

So we concede, a bit unhappily, that the playwright must stack his linguistic deck no less than his thematic one and thereby incur the charge of dishonesty. Yet perhaps he need not be totally dishonest. At the very least he can avoid being an out-and-out knave by practicing his low dramatic shifts with a certain openness. He can confess to his audience that beguilement and dissembling are his stock in trade. Dramatic conflicts, he will remind us, are by nature recalcitrant; they will not resolve themselves of their own accord. If the playwright merely sets down on the fields of Agincourt a band of ragged and starving English, the French will swallow them whole. Christian history needs God's aid, English drama needs the English playwright's.

I argued earlier that Shakespeare raises this issue when he figures the withdrawal and return of the partisan playwright in the withdrawal and return of a partisan God. A truly high-minded, impartial God should not aid the English, but somehow does. An English playwright should not, in all honesty, aid the English, but, in all practicality, he is obliged to. Now, with respect to language, Shakespeare makes a similar point, announcing what he is artistically doing, what he cannot help doing. He introduces, before Agincourt, a scene in which the French princess takes a lesson in English speech—as though it were foreordained that Katherine's French must in the future give place to Harry's English.

Of course it is foreordained: history will not have it otherwise. In dramatizing this fact by means of the language lesson, even before the battle whose outcome will produce Katherine's marriage to Harry, Shakespeare underscores a larger fact: that he has compelled the French to speak Harry's English throughout the play. Through Katherine's English lesson Shakespeare addresses his audience somewhat as follows: "Let us be open with one another. The judicious among you will observe that Katherine will need no English if the French win at Agincourt. If the French win at Agin-court, then my play will contain, in this scene of the language lesson, a conspicuous irrelevance, an un-Aristotelean superfluity, as Ben Jonson will be quick to inform me. But of course I will not let the French win at Agincourt, because they did not win at Agincourt. And I will not let them speak French in my play, regardless of what they spoke in history, because the backward among you—glovers' sons from Stratford and the like—cannot understand French, let alone write it. So if I have not been quite fair to the French, at least I am being fair to you by exposing my dishonesty. However, let us not speak of dishonesty in this matter, but rather of how remarkably well I have instructed these haughty French, that they speak English, if not, my lords, as well as you, at least as well as I."

With something of this kind of openness Shakespeare becomes as honest as the theater will permit, and in this sense he earns the right to couch his play in English, especially during the final act. There we see Katherine's French yielding to Harry's English; for he, despite a few courteous assays at French, can find truth only in his native tongue: "Now, fie upon my false French! By mine honour, in true English, I love thee, Kate" (5.2.236-237). It is entirely fitting that a king who spent an unprincely youth learning all the dialects of England, who could "drink with any tinker in his own language" (1 Hen. IV, 2.4.20), who studied "his companions / Like a strange tongue" (2 Hen. IV, 4.4.68-69), and who learned his lessons so well that "when he speaks, / The air, a chartered libertine, is still" (Hen. V, 1.1.47-48)—that a king who has acquired such a command of English should subject all other accents and languages to its strict dominion. The round of oaths to be sworn at the end of the play (5.2.398-402) will be sworn, we can be sure, in English. The French will yield their words to the English conqueror even as they have yielded them to the English playwright from the beginning. What has been imposed from without, by Shakespeare, has been earned from within, by Harry.

Henry V ends with mention of this round of oaths whose purpose is to bind a man and a woman in marriage and two nations in peace. Shakespeare might have left it at this, ending on a note of triumph and reconciliation. Instead, however, he adds an Epilogue in which he reminds us that Harry's triumph was short-lived. His successors not only broke the peace he so laboriously earned but also "lost France and made his England bleed" (line 12). Given the stress in the final act upon the triumph of English as well as of the English, it is not merely the peace that is subverted by Shakespeare's Epilogue but also the language in which that peace is framed—in which the entire play is framed. It is as though Shakespeare, not entirely satisfied with Henry V, advertises in his Epilogue the impermanence of his achievement. The medium of dramatic expression has earned, it seems, only a short-term legitimacy. If these inferences are justified, we shall need to look more closely at the parallels between language and kingship.

Let me recapitulate. The breakdown of an ontological language in Richard II brings into divided focus both the lie and the metaphor as verbal symbionts. The Henry IV plays center in a fallen language whose once time-honored truths have been called in cynical doubt by a world governed at the top by the lying king at Westminster and at the bottom by the lying knight at East-cheap. The young Prince Hal seems to accept the lie—not his father's kind, claiming to be more than he is, but his own kind, claiming to be less than he is—until he can wring from it a royal truth. More accurately, he begins with the appearance of a lie. What he has actually embraced is the doubleness of metaphor rather than the duplicity of the lie. If metaphor earns its truth by disguising itself as a lie, by claiming the name of another concept which it is not, then Hal makes his way to kingship metaphorically, by claiming the title of wastrel prince. This strategy, his descent into the clouds of Eastcheap in Henry IV, must pay off royally in Henry V—and of course does. Truancy miraculously issues in sense of duty, apparent self-indulgence as pious self-sacrifice. Once again, however, Harry finds himself confronted by metaphoric doubleness. He is not the perfect fusion of person and office, thing and name; he is not Richard II, the sacrosanct king of God's choice, but a mere man. On the other hand, he is not an outright lie, an illegitimate usurper of kingship; he is not Henry IV but a king by direct lineal descent. Lacking credentials from God, he who once played the wastrel prince must now play the regal monarch. So young Harry plays King Henry V, not without a certain histrionic self-consciousness, until he can be assured of his title at Agincourt.

To play the king is to play the actor, for the king must have many roles in his repertoire. He must be able to play Henry VI, listening to the Archbishop and remaining oblivious to what the Church stands to gain from war with France. He must be able to play Richard III, affable and guileless as he springs his trap on the traitors. And Tamburlaine, crying down atrocities on the citizens of Harfleur. And Hotspur, covetous of honor at Agincourt and blunt-spoken soldier wooing Katherine. And as the learned Fluellen reminds us, he must play Alexander, killing his friend Cleitus at least figuratively, "for there is figures in all things." In these roles Harry acts marvelously well, and the militant English road company for which he stars prospers apace.

Now to militant kingship the parallel in language is militant speech—that is to say, rhetoric, the dominant verbal style in Henry V. Rhetoric in Harry's employ has not yet become, as it did in the sixteenth century, the language of ostentation, all gawds and tassels, but remains primarily functional and combative. Even when defined as the art of persuasion, rhetoric is a martial employment of words, its object being to conquer its verbal enemies through argument. And since conquest, as we have seen throughout Henry V, demands the ruthless subordination of individuals to the general cause, it follows that in the language of conquest words will be valued not in themselves but as instruments of political policy. "Turn him to any cause of policy," Canterbury says of the reformed Harry, and

The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter; that when he speaks
The air, a chartered libertine, is still,
And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears
To steal his sweet and honeyed sentences;
So that the art and practic part of life
Must be the mistress of this theoric.


The "sweet and honeyed" aspect of Harry's speech does not suggest rhetorical floweriness so much as the beehive theme of political order in which all parts serve the whole—as the royal honey of the king's language feeds men's ears, or as the "art and practic part of life" serves the "theoric" of policy. And to be sure, words in rhetorical service have something of the worker bee about them. Their job is not to glitter but to get things done. Thus Harry's rhetoric is servanted to action. In its most strident employment, in his prebattle speeches, we have the Word as adrenalin. "Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood," he cries before Harfleur (3.1.7); and after delivering his St. Crispían speech at Agincourt he concludes, "All things are ready, if our minds be so" (4.3.71). Rhetoric readies the mind, the mind readies the body, and a few unpromising English bodies, desperate with patriotism, go among the French like reapers.

However artificial, as in the considered hysteria of his exhortations before Harfleur, or bumbling, as in the near antispeech of his wooing of Katherine, Harry's speech accomplishes its rhetorical aims: it works. His stumbling French in the wooing scene reminds us that if he is not well-schooled in Katherine's language he most certainly is in his own. His studies of English in all its varieties and in all its classrooms, from Falstaff's taverns and highways to Hotspur's battlefields and Henry IV's court, have of course been also a studying of England herself. Through this self-imposed education Harry has made the King's English a composite of the speech of all England. As a result, the easy synecdoche by which the English king becomes "England"—as when King Charles commands his nobles to "Bar Harry England, that sweeps through our land" (3.5.48)—has in this king's case a more than usual claim to truth. Although Harry is careful to distinguish his ordinary self from his extraordinary office, as in the speech on Ceremony, the high office nevertheless confers its magnitude upon him. The play's almost obsessive concentration on the rhetorical figure of the king—on Harry's voice addressing his courtiers, his soldiers, the French, Katherine—presents us not with the self-singing Richard II, nor with the multilingual name-trumpetings of Falstaff, but with the self-transcending language of corporate majesty. With all ideolects gathered in this King's English, Harry has become a linguistic version of H. C. Earwicker in his role of "Here Comes Everybody"—the personification of a manifold but unified Respublica.

Yet despite this air of success in Harry, there is that note of transitoriness in the Epilogue, an implication that Harry's and Shakespeare's achievements are fleeting. Why Shakespeare chose to end on that note becomes clearer if we return to the Chorus and consider, as a parallel to the rhetorical issue, Shakespeare's pre-occupation with the theatrical means at his disposal.

Henry V is surely the most self-conscious, even the most apologetic, of Shakespeare's plays. In the person of the Chorus the dramatist explores, exploits, but most of all laments the drawbacks of theatrical presentation. How can this "cockpit hold / The vasty fields of France," convey armies back and forth across the Channel, or telescope the historical accomplishments of decades into "an hourglass"? These, one notes, are visual rather than verbal problems. They would not arise if Shakespeare were writing an epic poem, as many have wished, instead of an epic drama. They do not arise, for instance, in such word-dominated histories as the Henry VI trilogy or even Richard II. In those plays he is concerned less with the nature of the stage than with that of speech. But now, with the Word fallen into disrepute, he addresses himself to the non-verbal dimensions of his art. If truth no longer resides in language, to be borne on speech to the expectant ears of his audience, then it must be conveyed to their eyes—though, alas, by the implausible makeshifts of theater: "Yet sit and see, / Minding true things by what their mockeries be" (Prologue, Act 4). Imparted by such scapegrace means, truth becomes something of an embarrassment. When Agincourt is sadly abridged to "four or five most vile and ragged foils / Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous" (Prologue, Act 4), Shakespeare is not apt to speak about drama holding the mirror of truth up to nature. What he does speak of again and again, however, and always disparagingly, is the purely functional nature of theater. Visual enactment is not a mimetic illusion of historical realities but an expedient, a device devoid of truth in itself, rather shabby beside the glories it depicts, indeed a mockery.

Yet the theater is not wholly without value and truth. The theatrical mockeries Shakespeare laments are analogous to the trappings of kingship that the troubled King Harry debunks on St. Crispian's Eve. Under the head of Ceremony, the royal stage properties—

the crown, 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, [and] the tide of pomp
That beats upon the high shore of this world


—may be "thrice-gorgeous," but at bottom they exist merely to aggrandize the king and to create "awe and fear in other men." That the ceremonies of kingship have no inherent truth is an admission Harry makes, to be sure, only in private soliloquy. However, his conduct at Agincourt, where he makes his "farced title" an authentic title, is consistent with his soliloquy. On the field he earns his kingship, not by robing himself in Ceremony and thus distancing himself from his awed followers, but by putting off Ceremony and addressing his soldiers as coequals in the martial enterprise: "For he that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother" (4.3.61-62). Only by donning the leather and mail of an English soldier does he earn the "intertissued robe of gold and pearl" of a true English king. Thus it is not the charismatic Harry who triumphs at Agincourt but "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" (4.3.60).

Like King Harry, Shakespeare recognizes the frailties of his own dramatic office, and if there is a Falstaffian ring to Harry's debunking of Ceremony, so is there in Shakespeare's choral apologies for the debasements of theater.… [We] saw Falstaff rising from apparent death and threatening to secede from Henry IV insofar as the play purports to be a realistic illusion of historical life. This internal uprising, which momentarily split the play into a mimetic dimension occupied most prominently by the "dead" Hotspur and an artistic-theatrical dimension occupied most fully by the live Falstaff, was put down by Prince Hal, who alone inhabited both dimensions. Now, in the choral prologues of Henry V, Shakespeare has elevated Falstaff's revolt against the play into an official principle of the play. Over and again the Chorus makes Falstaff's divisive point about the purely theatrical and inadequate nature of what sets itself up as true history. Falstaff, nervously debating how dead Percy really was and how genuine his own pretence to death, said in effect to the audience, "I am the only true man here, since I confess that the play is a sham. The others, who pretend to be real, are counterfeiters and liars." Now it is Shakespeare who takes this line. The theater, he admits, has its limitations. One begins with that. Ben Jonson keeps insisting that we cannot shift scenes from England to France, squeeze Agincourt into a narrow theatrical O, or roll out the whole story of Harry's reign in a scant three hours. Not, at any rate, if we want to keep mimetic faith with reality. And Ben is absolute for mimesis. If he could, he would resurrect Harry and his fellows so that, playing themselves, they could reenact history before our eyes. Well, to be sure, that has its attractions:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword,
 and fire
Crouch for employment. But.…

(Prologue, Act 1)

It is, as Fluellen might say, an honest "but." Instead of attempting to foist theatrical illusions upon his audience in a sixteenth-century forerunner of epic cinema—"on-site filming with a cast of thousands!"—Shakespeare plainly acknowledges the limits of theater. Calling up the past to enact itself again is past the size of dreaming. For that original production God was the dramatist, but now we must make do with substitute playwrights sharked up from Stratford, partisan men given to the native tongue. God, best maker of marriages, is also best maker of reality; it is no part of dramatic wisdom to enter the lists with Him. How He manages His mortal and unruly materials toward providential ends defies understanding; how He frames His historical plot and yet leaves his actors freedom of will is sheer bafflement. This playwright, the Chorus keeps reminding us, operates otherwise. He deals of necessity in visual shifts and verbal craft, in disguises, techniques, beguilements. Whatever the credulous may think, to the discerning, this playwright's hand, unlike God's, is everywhere apparent; his wonders are performed not mysteriously but brazenly.

In short, this playwright works less like God shaping existential dramas than like a king fashioning plays of state—like King Harry, for instance, who has his repertory of political illusions to call on, who relies on Ceremony to move the minds of his national audience, and who is conscious of the lack of inherent legitimacy in his methods and status. And therefore, as King Harry calls upon his followers to aid him as coequals at Agincourt, so the playwright Shakespeare calls upon his theatrical followers to aid him in recreating Agin-court. Indeed, in asking his audience to "eke out our performance with your mind" (Prologue, Act 3), he invites them to join with him as coauthors of the play. The theatrical victory that follows is, like Agincourt, the product of a collaborative enterprise. The unity of English spirit on the battlefield is mirrored by the unity of English minds in the theater.

This victory—so truly theatrical in being achieved by the collective imagination of playwright, actors, and audience—marks the distance Shakespeare has come from the self-containment, the purely individual sovereignty of the lyric-narrative poet. It is his plainest admission of a truth he has grown to recognize more clearly from play to play—that the passage from poetry to drama involves a loss of creative independence, a sacrifice of self to the dramatic office that is analogous to the sacrifice of self to the political office made by King Henry.

One would like to stop on that note of dramatic triumph—but must, like Shakespeare, add an epilogue. With the fall of a language instinct with truth and value, a language envisaged in Richard II, Shakespeare has passed in the Henry IV plays through a period in which language seems entirely corrupt, a multitudinous lie, and on in Henry V to rhetorical speech, in which words acquire pragmatic value as instruments of action. Rhetoric as a response to the fall of language parallels Harry's reign as a response to the fall of kingship. That is, just as Harry, lacking Divine Right sovereignty, earns his title to kingship through an ordeal by combat at Agincourt, so rhetoric, lacking the automatic sovereignty of poetry, earns its keep in action, substituting for inherent validity an achieved validity. Moreover, this conception of rhetoric as a pragmatic use of words has its analogue in Shakespeare's stress upon the theater as self-erasing technique—the purely instrumental makeshift by which the truths of English history are so imperfectly approached. Truth and value do not reside in theatrical presentation, any more than perfect circularity resides in a particular representation of a circle. Henry V acts upon the imagination of its audiences in such a way as to reach toward historical truths which it is, in itself, incapable of compassing.

As usual, Shakespeare is ahead of us. Thus he reminds us in his Epilogue that what King Harry achieved was soon lost, which suggests—if the kinship between king and dramatist holds true—that Shakespeare's own dramatic achievements are fugitive, that in deploying his artistic means toward shaping this nationalistic play he has found only a stop-gap solution to theatrical enigmas of enduring complexity. But that, after all, is the fate of means. Having no instrinsic value, they serve the needs of the occasion and then, as occasions change, fall from fashion. Rhetoric is cursed with built-in obsolescence; it inspires and, having attained its end, dissolves with all the finality of a Shakespearean performance. It may be revived, like Henry V itself, whenever war is again in favor and the hackles of the populace need raising. Another Harry, in the person of a Maurice Evans, for instance, may tour the battlefields of another war, crying "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!" For the moment, in Henry V, Shakespeare may settle uneasily for that kind of verbal efficacy. But finding truth and meaning through one's art is a far cry from finding them in one's art. So the word serves its turn as rhetoric in Henry V, and epic drama serves its turn as stimulus of the patriotic imagination, and for a time the English, both in Harry's kingdom and in Shakespeare's theater, are bound in brotherhood. "Small time," the Chorus says, "but in that small most greatly lived / This star of England" (Epilogue). The small time of history has become even smaller on Shakespeare's stage. History is linear and unrepeatable, except in drama, and now that Shakespeare has freed his own drama from the eddying of 2 Henry IV it too has become linear and unrepeatable. The dramatic succession moves on, and we have not long to wait before Hamlet addresses itself by indirections to those familiar unresolved issues of theatrical illusion and poisoned speech.

Historical Elements

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 24449

A. P. Rossiter (essay date 1954)

SOURCE: "Ambivalence: The Dialectic of the Histories," in Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures, edited by Graham Storey, Longmans, 1961, pp. 40-64.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1954, Rossiter ascribes a dialectical "way of thinking about History" to Shakespeare.]

Stratford 1951, a Shakespeare Memorial Theatre playing a sequence of History-plays in a fixed unchanging Elizabethan-house-front stage-set. Stratford 1612, a man writing his last History: Henry VIII, first performed 29 June 1613, when in a sense it 'brought the house down', for The Globe was set on fire.… And as far as I know, no Shakespeare History-play was staged with Elizabethan décor—or non-décor, if that suits you better—till this year, 1951. We should hope to find some curtains taken away (from the mind, I mean), some unanticipated continuities revealed, some unexpected groupings, interconnections, echoes.…

The Man was 48; had begun writing Histories some twenty years back, perhaps as early as 1586, when he left home and twins, and was perhaps 'a Schoolmaster in the Country' (as Beeston jun. told Aubrey). How did he end by thinking of History? Had he any coherent 'view' of the Historic Process: from John—with a jump to Richard II (1398) and thence more or less consecutively to Bosworth and 1485, the Tudor dawn … ?

His last play—or his and Fletcher's—ends with the dazzle of the Elizabethan sunrise: with the christening of the baby Elizabeth, and Cranmer in the role of 'prophet new inspired'. Yes; but in 1612 the Queen was nine years dead; the great age was dying before her; and this Man, who had seen so deeply, so terrifyingly, into human experience could not be blind and deaf to the ironies of his last stage-situation. To say no more: Could he, who had staged so many 'poor painted Queens', be nescient of the irony of Anne Bullen's triumph—he knowing all that followed … ? And with the noble, pathetic, fallen Katherine in the selfsame play?

Looked at one way, the Histories present a triumphal march of the destinies of England. But look at them another way—at the individual lives of men and women—and your conclusion will be nearer to what Yeats wrote (also At Stratford on Avon):

He meditated as Solomon, not as Bentham meditated, upon blind ambitions, untoward accidents, and capricious passions; and the world was almost as empty in his eyes as it must be in the eyes of God.

I find that apposite to the Histories; for though Shakespeare gives but few generalizations applicable to 'the Historic Process' (as we grandly call it…) yet Yeats catches the note that rings beyond the melancholy brooding of Richard II on the fates of Kings: the note of the helpless Henry VI at Towton (Pt. 3, II. v); it is near to the feeling of Henry V's 'idol Ceremony' speech; it generalizes for Margaret of Lancaster, for Isabella of France, for Katherine of Aragon … (Proud Names!) … for all the long line of women broken in the course of great events. And it most precisely fits that generalizing moment when the weary sleepless Henry IV is turning over in his midnight mind the history of his own times:

O God! that one might read the book of fate,
And see the revolution of the times
Make mountains level, and the continent,
Weary of solid firmness, melt itself
Into the sea … how chances mock,
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors! O, if this were seen,
The happiest youth, viewing his progress
What perils past, what crosses to ensue,
Would shut the book and sit him down and

(Pt. 2, III, i, 45.)

Those melancholy tones are familiar enough: they are what makes the burdened man-beneath-the-Crown a major symbol in the Histories. The voices murmur on behind the tapestries: 'sad stories of the deaths …' 'all murdered …' 'Upon the King …' 'Uneasy lies the head …' They mind me of Chaucer's lines (on quite another theme):

What? Is this al the Ioye and al the feste?
… Is al this peynted proces seyd, alas,
Right for this fyn?

(Troylus and Crysede ii. 421 f.)

But though there is a 'Doubleness' here: in the conflicting values set by the Greatness (the Triumph) of the National Destiny, and the Frustration, the inadequacy, of the Individual (the frail Man within the robe)—there is nothing complex in that 'Doubleness'. It falls just short of the tragic; where Man's greatness is asserted in his destruction. That falling-short is characteristic of the Histories.

These kings and great persons are all sub-tragic. They lack a degree (or some degrees) of freedom; are caught in nets of events by which they are frustrate and less than their potential selves. In Rilke's phrase, they are Verwirrt mit Wirklichkeit: bondsmen to a 'reality' which is that of the world of action, therefore temporary, pragmatic, unreal. And they (to quote Yeats again):

Constrained, arraigned, baffled, bent and
By those wire-jointed jaws and limbs of
Themselves obedient,
Knowing not evil and good;
Obedient to some hidden magical breath.

(The Double Vision of Michael Robarles)

The mechanism to which they are subjected is that process of 'retributive reaction' which is the only tragic component of the Histories.

Retributive Reaction is my name for the principle of the simplest of the patterns in these plays; of which pattern we see only a short and misleading section in the Richard-to-Henry V tetralogy. There, the usurpation of Bolingbroke (exactly described in terms of consequences by Carlisle), with Richard's death by murder, leads on to the Unquiet Time of Henry IV—to the Percies' Rebellion, and the father's fears that Prince Hal is just another Richard; and so up to the death-scene in 'Jerusalem' and 'God knows, my son …' followed by the advice to 'busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels': which is—despite all that Arch-bishops may say—the political reason for Henry V's French campaign. That is victorious, and the curse of usurpation seems to sleep. Yes, to sleep; it is not dead.

The closing chorus of Henry V refers back to the Henry VI series, the loss of France—'which oft our stage hath shown'. Thus the sequel to Henry V, in the complete pattern, is 'Hung be the Heavens with black' and the Roses series, where 'civil dissension' carries forward the curse of royal murder, uncertain or divided right, brother against brother, for the sixty years to Bosworth Field.

The pattern can be extended the other way, to Henry VIII (I mean in Wolsey as antagonist to Katherine, and what we know of Anne Bullen, the usurperess). It is one of Shakespeare's constants. But when I say 'retributive reaction' I mean just that; for whether it is 'justice' or not, God knows … (Professor Butterfield would have it that he knows too, and that it is all the Will of God. To me, it is obscure, ironic, and—as far as Shakespeare shows me the scheme of things—seemingly endless.) Taken all together, the Histories are a dark glass, where we gaze per speculum in enigmate. The mystery beneath the surface of the magic mirror with its shows of kings is chill and deeply saddening.

Action is transitory; a step, a blow,
The motion of a muscle, this way or that,
'Tis done, and in the after-vacancy
We wonder at ourselves like men betrayed;
Suffering is permanent, obscure and dark,
And shares the nature of Infinity.

(Wordsworth: The Borderers)

This pattern of 'obscure tragedy' runs, for me, far deeper than any feelings I can derive from knowing the 'philosophic' system which modern scholarship has extracted from the plays (and other Elizabethan sources undique coemptis). I must briefly outline it, (a) because it is indubitably 'there' as a pattern of thought, and (è) because it offers simplifications which are in danger of diminishing the true complexity of Shakespearian History—and in the best plays. Remember, then, that I am not arguing anything away: a pattern is there, and it is like Edward Halle's. But Halle's theory of history is naïve, and though the Elizabethan reader found it as satisfying as the Chronicles of Israel and Judah (with similar formulae on how King So-and-so did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord and followed after the ways of Jeroboam the son of Nebat who made Israel to sin), yet I cannot find it in my reading of Shakespeare to suppose that his mind was quite as naïve as all that. There is more in the dark glass than the moral history of the Lancastrian House of Jeroboam and the happy ending in the dawn of Tudarchy.

On Order, Degree, and so on, let me be brief: the essentials only need recall; let me remind you:

The State, as monarchy, is ordained by God; its structure is hierarchical, and in health all its orders or degrees are 'congreeing in a full and natural close/Like music' (as Exeter says in Henry V, I. ii). To all orders as way of life there is 'fixed as an aim or butt/ Obedience'—as the Archbishop goes on to say, using bees as ideals or exempla. (The whole speech is very serious; whatever Stratford producers may choose to do with comic clergymen.) From the principle of Obedience—which really means a complete system of proper respects towards all superiors from parents upwards—it follows that the rightful King is, as it were, the organic nucleus of the cell-State; and that without due and rightful succession all Order (all its vital processes) is put in jeopardy. The only right way with a bad King is non-resistance: binding God's good time in Christian patience—as Gaunt tells the wronged Duchess of Gloucester—for ill Kings are as much ordained by God as good ones.

The curse of usurpation is that it confuses Right, en-dangers all Order. That of rebellion is that it commits the Luciferian sin of pride, and destroys all Order: by the assumed 'law' that men who will revolt against the highest loyalty (to God's Deputy) cannot be bound by any other loyalty, nor decency. The rebel abrogates all respects; and since the King-enucleated State is ordained by God, by Natural Law, therefore he is a thing unnatural: a boil, a plague-sore, a carbuncle of corrupted blood.

This system of notions, with its hysterical terror of treason, is alien to our minds. We can see why the Tudors wanted England convinced that no worse chaos than the Roses civil war had ever come upon the English; especially in the late 1590s, when the Queen was old and had been flattered too much and too long on her immortality to be at all inclined to contemplate her own mortality and fix on her successor. We can see that Shakespeare has this nexus of thought in an astonishing intensity: especially over his horror of the mob—as a hydra-headed incarnation of disorder. I still feel the need of an approach less. Tudor-moral. I find it in a MS. note of Coleridge's: 'What a world of Love and Bee-like Loyalty and Heart-adherence did the Stuarts trick and tyrannize away.'

If we think of the ideal State as bound together like that, by happily unquestioning devotions, we come much nearer at the 'politics' of the Histories than by making them rigid, frigidly-patterned Moralities of State-right and State-wrong. (Like Halle, or the Homilies.)

There is real danger of that simplification; and one important ill-effect is on Falstaff. The Dover Wilson Sir John Paunch is dangerously near usurping the place of a much greater man: because any ideological view which makes Henry IV into a princely morality reduces Falstaff to little more than a symbol of all the fat and idle temptations which royalty rejects. There is something in John Dover Wilson which makes him a little like that Lord John of Lancaster—lays him open to Sir John's comment, 'This same sober-blooded boy doth not love me, nor a man cannot make him laugh.…' Already semi-deflated Falstaffs are reaching the stage—Welfare-State Falstaffs, shrunk in the moral wash, or preconditioned for pricking before they have got so far afoot as Shrewsbury. That is not only sad. The effect is to neglect all the comic criticism which Falstaff himself supplies; and also all the complexities of the Henry IV plays, which often result from the use of comic parallelism of phrase or incident. That is, of parody, critically used; or of travesty-by-parallel.

Parody of this kind operates by juxtapositions of opposites; by contrasts so extreme as to seem irreconcilable. In this sense Falstaff at Shrewsbury is a 'parody' of knighthood: everything a knight in battle ought not to be; that is, IF men are all that theoretical codes assume.… It is this travesty-by-parallel which makes Sir John more than a bigger and a greater Bluntschli, in this other inquiry into Arms and the Man: as much greater as sherris sack is finer, nimbler, more forgetive than chocolate-creams. Parody is used again when Hotspur and Lady Percy have appeared in Act II. sc. iii., with Hotspur taking an easy leap out of Kate's bed to pluck bright Honour (in a traitorous conspiracy), and rudely ignoring her questions. He calls a servant, asks about a horse—a roan, a crop-ear was it not?—and then pretends he has forgotten all her inquiries. In the next scene, in Eastcheap, the Prince suddenly thinks of Hotspur. What follows?—An exact parallel, a travesty of the Percy ménage; and in dialogue, too:

I am not yet of Percy's mind, the Hotspur of the north; he that kills me some six or seven dozen of Scots at a breakfast, washes his hands, and says to his wife, 'Fie upon this quiet life. I want work.' 'O my sweet Harry', says she, 'how many hast thou kill'd today?' 'Give my roan horse a drench', says he; and answers 'Some fourteen', an hour after, 'A trifle, a trifle.'

The parallelism is manifest. The next sentence reminds us how farcical travesty by play-acting is an intrinsic part of the Eastcheap critique. The Prince continues thus: 'I prithee, call in Falstaff. I'll play Percy, and that damned brawn shall play Dame Mortimer his wife.'

The 'switch' that happens in this kind of parody is not unlike the technique of the modern periodical called Lilliput: an interesting collection of the earlier successes in it was published under the name of Chamberlain and the Beautiful Llama (Hulton Press, 1940). The wit of Lilliput is, moreover, sometimes used in this Shakespearian way—I mean, to make the conventionally—respected suddenly absurd: as Hotspur's 'Honour-and-Glory tough-with-the-women' stuff is deflated by the Prince's echo of it in a different tone or key.

It would be merely a mistake to attach this bit of parody to the 'character' of Prince Hal and only that; it is a quality of the play. As you can see from the scene at Bangor (III. i.), where it is Hotspur who is the plainman parodist—of the fantastic Welsh-nationalism and supernaturalism of Glendower. Again (I cannot discuss it in detail)—there is the recurrent theme of Falstaff's bogus repentances: all in a play framed on the crude subject of a wild and prodigal Prince's unlikely reformation. The best is in the opening speeches of Act III. iii., which follow immediately on the moving and earnest scene of the Prince's vows to repent and reform—the scene with his father. The switch to Falstaff telling Bardolph, 'I'll repent and that suddenly, while I am in some liking' (and so on) is another sign of how comic parallelism is thematic in the entire play. I shall next explain my term 'Ambivalence' in my own way, and then return to these items, to argue whether these Lilliput-like switches are tricks, or mere farce, or something more significant.


It is hard to persuade everyone that what is laughable may also be serious; or that a man who laughs at something is 'thinking', or 'as good as thinking' (and maybe better). That is, unless it is when a satirist laughs at things we delight in or revere; then we call it 'mocking' and say he's a horrid fellow. All that being so, I will use an example into which amusement doesn't enter.

Wordsworth's A slumber did my spirit seal is a familiar poem. But if you think of it as 'One of the Lucy poems, I must tell you at once that those poems were never a Wordsworthian sequence. Ward's English Poets (1880) puts three poems together, with this one last; the Golden Treasury has a sequence of four; but in neither does Strange fits of passion appear, though why that isn't a 'Lucy poem' is beyond any man's discerning. Of the Ward trio, the first is the eighth of Wordsworth's Poems of the Affections, the second is the tenth among Poems of the Imagination; and 'A slumber did' is Imagination No. II. If we are concerned with Wordsworth's poems, we must disembarrass our minds of the superfluous fictions generated by editors, and take this poem as Wordsworth offered it—as a single separate lyric on a 'she' who is dead. At all events, that must be the first approach: until you know all that's in a poem, you can't tell what cross-references are relevant, nor what to be after looking for in other poems on what superficially appears to be 'the same subject'. Try, then, to listen to the poem 'unseen' as it were; I'm going to repeat it now, without 'expression' (as far as I can)—I don't want to bias a hearer either way.

A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Now that first line is ambiguous—'A slumber did my spirit seal'—and the ambiguity lies in the little word DID: a word often used for mere poetic emphasis or intensification, but also capable of referring to time. I'll take the first first; never mind the second. Taking did as a poetic intensive, you have an emphatic perfect tense: a slumber really sealed up my spirit. As in that other poem:

Among thy mountains did I feel
The joy of my desire …

or the six-winged seraph in Isaiah: 'With twain he covered his face, with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.'

On this reading, which I'll call the A-version, the poem is a record of immediate experience: of a dream or visionary state, in which all his 'human fears' were gone, and his mind was filled with an overpowering sense of her immortality. No christian, but a pantheistic immortality, in which she is one with all the wide world's being, its greatness and its mystery. The tone is rapt. The closing lines have a triumphant sweep; and the energy and magnitude of suggestion of 'Rolled round in earth's diurnal course' contradicts, no, obliterates the suggestions of 'No motion … no force' or any deadness in 'She neither hears nor sees.' The seems in 'She seemed a thing …' is the seems of wonder, the visionary recalling the magic of his slumber; not the very different seems of recognized illusion. If I had to characterize this A-version out of Wordsworth, I would use those Tintern Abbey lines describing a 'serene and blessed mood' of mystical self-annihilation in which

           we are laid asleep
In body, and become a living soul …

The B-version is quite other. As I said, DID can refer mainly to time. On this, the B-reading, did is an emphatic form of the imperfect tense (not the perfect); and the line means, 'I was utterly asleep': my senses were sealed up in a slumber (but they are not so now). At once there is a marked contrast of tone between stanza I and stanza 2. The first reports on what was—till she died; the second is the hurting record of what is—now she is dead. A simple para-phrase of this version would run thus: 'The eyes of my mind were shut as in deep sleep, and my sense of normal human dangers and our fears for those we love was stopped up. In that unseeing condition she seemed to be a thing which would never have any touch from the normal changes of life, would never be damaged by time.… But now.… How wrong that sleeping was. She is a dead thing, without power to move or do: deaf: blind: a bit of material substance rolled about day by day with the earth, and as deadly—like stone or wood.' No mysticism there, no serenity or blessedness of mood. It becomes a very painful poem, of a certain kind of self-reproach, and the pain than which Dante said there was none greater. ('Nessun maggior dolore … ') But no less Wordsworthian—as witness those other lines:

She died, and left to me
This heath, this calm and quiet scene,
The memory of what has been
And never more will be.

Or again:

But she is in her grave, and O
The difference to me.

Now experiment shows that if a number of people are asked to paraphrase the poem, they come down about equally on either side, A or B; and it is very rare for anyone to doubt that it can be read in any other way than his. Yet closer verbal analysis would show that in both A and B readings there are words which would point to the opposite interpretation, if they could take the bit in their teeth.

I say, therefore, that the question 'Which is right, A or B?' is a no-question: the poem is ambivalent. It subsumes meanings which point to two opposite and irreconcilable systems of values; and the two are related only by the fact of death. If there is a spiritual or real Life in all things, then 'Lucy' is one with that life, and this is felt in the visionary moment. But perhaps in that only. For if there is no Pantheistic All, only a material earth of a-spiritual non-human stuff, then 'Lucy' is dead among the deadness. As there is no certainty either way, Wordsworth's poetic mind produced his ambivaient poem: a poem only fully felt when the reader has responses to both the readings I have separated. Yet each of those readings implies, ultimately, a system of thought: a philosophy: values. (And to a sincere and thinking Christian, both aspects are delusions.)

That is what I mean by 'Ambivalence': that two opposed value-judgments are subsumed, and that both are valid (i.e. for that work of art or the mind producing it). The whole is only fully experienced when both opposites are held and included in a 'two-eyed' view; and all 'one-eyed' simplifications are not only falsifications; they amount to a denial of some part of the mystery of things.

Return now to Shakespeare. I can do no more but only remark in passing how irony—including 'dramatic irony'—is a display of an essential ambivalence. Dramatic irony causes an exact juxtaposition of opposites in the mind of the audience: opposites, in that the 'true' for one hearer (the stage Persona) must exclude the 'true' for other hearers, who take the same words in a far extended sense, of which the hearing Persona is known to be unaware. ('Fail not our feast', e.g.) Yet both meanings only happen in the same mind: the audience's or reader's. The emotive effect is a terrifying belittlement of human prescience or judgement, as in tragedy, when we project the simple meaning on to the mind of a Macbeth, then contemplate it, as it were, against the ironized, unsimple meaning. Or, where sympathy lacks, the effect is some kind of detached sardonic amusement: as in some of Richard Ill's ironies, or, perhaps, in watching Falstaff and Co. scampering up to London for Harry's coronation, with Shallow in tow and all to the tune of: 'Let us take any man's horses. The laws of England are at my commandment. Happy are they which have been my friends; and woe unto my Lord Chief Justice.'

We have seen the Prince reconciled to the L.C.J.—we know the rest. But though this is still irony, it is now Comic Irony: in which pathos, derision, a sad wry smile and a malicious grin strive together—and all 'belong'. A modern Mirror-for-Magistrates view, to which Falstaff is only the 'Vice' to be formally discarded in a moral interlude of princely education, leaves just nothing of all that doubleness of feeling.

But Shakespearian History plays double tunes on far more than the comic aspects of the misfortunes of an old fat cynical reprobate—even when they do (as here) symbolize the absurd vanity of human wishings (which supply all beggars with dream-horses at the twinkle of a main-chance). Consider how in both parts of Henry IV the shady and seamy sides of glorious War are presented; and comically. In Part I Falstaff explains how he damnably misuses the King's press (Act IV. sc. ii.). In Part 2 a full-length exposition of the game is given (in III. ii.), with Feeble as the unwittingly ironical commentator—laughed at for a fool, yet the only man's-size voice in Gloucestershire:

By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once; we owe God a death. I'll ne'er bear a base mind. An't be my destiny, so; an't be not, so. No man's too good to serve's Prince …

The Mug is the Hero, without prejudice to his mugdom: the Fool is the only clear-seer. Ambivalence again. And all comic; though implicitly all these 'King's press' episodes are serious commentary on the wickedness and irresponsibility inseparable from WAR. Damnably wrong, clean contrary to all the war-values associated with Crécy, Agincourt or Harfleur … and therefore a critical comic commentary on a set of human facts which the 'Agincourt-values' insist on viewing (if at all) with one eye only. 'Two voices are there', as Wordsworth said in quite another connection: 'This is damnably wicked', says the one. 'It's damn' funny', says the other. Historian Shakespeare heard both.

I shall not labour to explain how the famous 'Honour' catechism comically balances the accounts of that main term in 1 Henry IV; but I must remark on the beautifully complicated parallelisms generated when Falstaff tells the Prince how his father has sent for him, and that he had best rehearse before he goes to the palace to explain himself. It is a scene which travesty-parallels the true meeting later (in III. ii), and it is East-cheap interlude-acting played to the height.

First, KING Falstaff rebukes his 'son' (with a parody of Puritan oratory), allowing that he has observed one virtuous man in Harry's company: 'If that man should be lewdly given, he deceiveth me; for, Harry, I see virtue in his looks.' Next, the Prince insists that they change roles, and we have the Prince (as King) pretending just what he will have to pretend when he is King: viz. that Falstaff is 'an old white-bearded Satan', a 'villainous misleader of youth'. The picture is the obverse of Falstaff's; but now Shakespeare goes one better still, and makes Falstaff as Prince offer a final turn of defence—ending with 'Banish not him thy Harry's company.… Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.' To which the King-Prince replies—as the Prince-King will have to in earnest—'I do, I will'.

In that three-move epitome you have all the special technique of the Henry IV plays: a constant shifting of appearances, like the changing lights of an opal, so that every event, every person becomes equivocal—as Falstaff made Honour. That Gadshill robbery is not mere farce. If we 'realize' it, in an Usurper's state where Henry's right is only that of might, might only—then what are the Percies and Bolingbrokes but Gadshills, Bardolphs, Petos in Bigger Business?

Thieves for their robbery have authority
When judges steal themselves

so says Isabella in Measure for Measure. The comic robbing of the robbers is comically parallel to what the King would do with Percy's Scots prisoners; and the difficulty of establishing the Right in anything, in an England under no rightful king, is paralleled and parodied throughout in Falstaff's 'manner of wrenching the true cause the false way'—whether in the inventive proliferation of buckram men, in belying Mrs. Quickly to the Lord Chief Justice, or bamboozling her into vigorous denials of her own (perhaps not impeccable) virtue. I mean where he calls her an otter, and explains 'She's neither fish nor flesh; a man knows not where to have her.' To which the wronged woman replies in great moral indignation, 'Thou art an unjust man in saying so. Thou or any man knows where to have me, thou knave thou.'

It is in all such places—in Falstaff as the Wit: the witty equivocator who turns all to mirth, destroying ideals and seriousnesses with a turn of the word—that the Comic Histories go beyond anything that Shakespeare attempted in Richard II. There, too, that the narrowly Tudor-political or 'moral' approach will most oversimplify, and thin, the true Shakespearian vintage. The 'moral-historical' approach diminishes Falstaff as Wit, leaving him with little more than the rascally quick-wittedness which gets Eulenspiegels and Harlequins out of tight corners. Sir John is more. He is not only witty in himself (No, I'm not going on with Familiar Quotations)—he is Wit ipse. And wit is critically destructive—of ideal systems which assume that human nature is what it isn't. The doubleness of implicit values in those situations which are ambivalent; those which can be seen as serious and farcical: as pathetic and absurd: as abominable and laughable: as fine-and-admirable and as all-very-fine-and-large; all that centres on Falstaff. To read it as simply 'evil' (or 'the antithesis of the Princely virtues') and to make 'evil' the opposite of the Order required by the military State of a Henry V, is too naïve. And I don't mean just 'too naïve for 1951', I mean 'Too naïve for the mind of a Shakespeare, in 1599'. As Walter Raleigh wrote:

This is indeed the everlasting difficulty of Shakespeare criticism, that the critics are so much more moral than Shakespeare himself, and so much less experienced.… The ready judgments which are often passed on Shakespeare's most difficult characters are like the talk of children. Childhood is amazingly moral, with a confident, dictatorial, unflinching morality. The work of experience … is to undermine this early pedantry … to teach tolerance, or at least suspense of judgment.

That's 'period-piece', no doubt, and I wouldn't endorse its rather shapeless liberalism, which half suggests the (to me absurd) conclusion that Shakespeare is not moral at all—let alone one of the greatest of moralists. But Raleigh didn't have the word 'doctrinaire' to hand, I suppose. The warning he gives is by no means out of date, I should say.

I hope I'm not slipping towards (what he would call) the surprising moral immaturity of some of our doctrinaire contemporaries, if I say that there is, in Falstaffian wit, something of the devaluating skill of The Devil. Let me hide behind Coleridge to advance my point. In table-talking on 16 February 1833, Coleridge gave a long account of a Faust play he had designed before ever he read Goethe. (I don't believe him, but that's unimportant.) He said, 'My Devil was to be, like Goethe's, the Universal Humorist, who should make all things vain and nothing worth, by a perpetual collation of the Great with the Little in the presence of the Infinite.' Now surely that is very near to what Falstaff does, when most the Clown critical. 'The perpetual collation of the Great with the Little' is no bad formula for what Shakespeare is repeatedly doing in both Henry IV plays.

In Part 2, however, the Universal Humorist is a far more sardonic one than before. Not only in that Old Age, in its failings, its brags, its pavidities and follies, is a major theme; nor only that Lord John of Lancaster's 'victory' is disgracefully won; there is more besides. To hint that 'more', I'll glance at the very first speech: 'Enter Rumour painted full of tongues'.

Open your ears; for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumour
I, from the orient to the drooping west,
Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold
The acts commenced on this ball of earth.
Upon my tongues continual slanders ride,
The which in every language I pronounce,
Stuffing the ears of men with false reports.
I speak of peace while covert enmity,
Under the smile of safety, wounds the world;
And who but Rumour, who but only I,
Make fearful musters and prepared defence,
While the big year, swoln with some other
Is thought with child by the stern tyrant war,
And no such matter? Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still-discordant wavering multitude,
Can play upon it. But what need I thus
My well-known body to anatomize
Among my household? Why is Rumour here?

That is the first part of the speech. It is followed by a list of the tales which are spreading from the Battle of Shrewsbury, and the piece concludes thus:

The posts come tiring on,
And not a man of them brings other news
Than they have learnt of me. From Rumour's
They bring smooth comforts false, worse than
true wrongs.

Rumour's prologue offers a theme which runs right through the whole play; a theme which invites a sardonic, detached, unsympathetic or coldly-critical attitude towards all the agents in the historic field. False-report befools everyone. Not only in the rumoured rebel victory at Shrewsbury; not only in the false (favourable) report of Falstaff's prowess—to which Coleville surrenders, and which even the L.C.J. makes some allowance for. Falstaff's own trust in the Prince and his star is also 'smooth comforts false': as is old Shallow's trust in Sir John and the smell of Court. So too—false—is this same Shallow's roaring-boy Past in London. And Pistol is false-alarm personified: mouthfuls of Theatre masquerading as a man—whereas he is nothing but wind. And thus the parallel to 'Sir John to all Europe': the vain delusion to which Coleville surrenders, as the northern rebels surrender to 'smooth comforts false' from Westmorland and Prince John. Finally, the King—King Hal the First—that Falstaff expected to find in London is only a delusion; and the laugh is on Falstaff—with a grating edge to the amusement. (A. C. Bradley only encountered this unhappy Mixed Feeling at the Rejection. In fact it starts much earlier in the play. Modern 'moral' critics apparently never meet it at all.)

These shifting mirage-like effects of unstable appearances relate Part 2 to the so-called 'Problem Plays' (which I call 'Tragi-comedies'). They develop from, e.g., the Honour theme of Part I, but go well beyond that historical Comedy.

And if you wonder why—talking on 'The Histories'—I say so little about Richard II and Henry V, my answer is: I am diagnosing their shortcomings by focusing attention on Shakepearian History at its highest development. (I say 'History'. If you want to see this kind of thing taken on, in later work, go to the Galley-scene in Antony and Cleopatra: a similar comedy, sardonic comedy, of the frailty of the Great: the strange absurd chances that turn the fate of worlds.) But in Richard II—either Shakespeare was bent on following Marlowe and writing an unEnglish tragedy (i.e. without comic interplay: though Woodstock put it directly before him); or he knew instinctively that the preciosity and self-regarding sentiment of Richard could not stand comic criticism or even lapse of seriousness.

In Henry V his aim was changed. Whatever he once intended (and that last speech, by the Dancer, in 2 Henry IV, does show the intention to export Falstaff to France), what he produced was a propaganda-play on National Unity: heavily orchestrated for the brass. The sounding—and very impressive—Rhetoric shows how something is being stifled. The wartime-values demand a determined 'one-eyedness'; the King fails to reach the fullest humanity because of that demand. He has banished Plump Jack; and 'all the World' has been banished with him. At least, the 'Allness' is gone. The play is 'fracted and corroborate'.

Without going all the way with 'Q', to say that Falstaff must go to 'Arthur's bosom' because he can kill Harry with a look, I do agree that Sir John had to be dead; for fear of the damage he must needs have done by babbling of (not 'green fields') … by killing the heroics with a jest. When the ranks are closed, and to question is to lack Will, to falter, then there is not so much freedom of mind as will say outright what every sane man knows (however brave): 'I like not such grinning Honour as Sir Walter hath.… Give me Life, say I.'

There are fine things in Henry V; but much of the comedy has lost touch with the serious matter. It's a play Shakespeare had finished with well before he finished it. His falling-back on the old Famous Victories for that slapdash stuff—treating the Princess of France like a Free Frenchwoman, etc.—that shows it. It surprises me that our London dramatic critics should have been surprised to find that as a climax to the 1951 Stratford historical tetralogy it does not come off. The truth is, the heart of Shakespeare's insight into English History (which means a good deal more than the History of England)—the heart is in the middle of the sequence: in the Henry IV plays, where he turned back from the sentimental seriousness of Richard II, back to the kind of Comic History he had made rough beginnings with in Parts 2 and 3 of Henry VI. (Where he had achieved something remarkable in the grotesque, Hieronymus-Bosch-like sarcastically-comic scenes of Cade's rebellion.)

To see why comic History was his true genre, it is needless to go back to the evolution of the Elizabethan Drama and its Miracle-play and Morality-play underlays. 'Mungrell tragy-comedy' was the mere-English genre, but never mind that now. Look only at King John—those lines by the Bastard on 'Commodity' ('Mad world, mad kings … etc.')—and you will see how they take the gilded lid off the lofty illusions of theoretical Tudor Politics (I mean Stage-politics). By-passing all the ideals of Order, Degree, Non-resistance, Right-divine and God's-deputyship, the Bastard exposed the world of politics as 'a racket'. The thought implicit in the making of that speech has the same quality of deep political penetration that emerges from the conflict of serious and comic in Henry IV—and in Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra. That speech shows the same ambivalence, but simpler; for Falcon-bridge is a noble fighting humorist as well as a critical wit. He is not, like Falstaff, a Universal Humorist; but some of the undermining intellectual clear-sightedness of the later Histories is there.

Throughout the Histories it is in the implications of the Comic that shrewd, realistic thinking about men in politics—in office—in war—in plot—is exposed: realistic apprehension outrunning the medieval frame. Because the Tudor myth system of Order, Degree, etc. was too rigid, too black-and-white, too doctrinaire and narrowly moral for Shakespeare's mind: it falsified his fuller experience of men. Consequently, while employing it as FRAME, he had to undermine it, to qualify it with equivocations: to vex its applications with sly or subtle ambiguities: to cast doubts on its ultimate human validity, even in situations where its principles seemed most completely applicable. His intuition told him it was morally inadequate.

Hence the unhappy feelings which generous-minded critics have displayed about the Rejection of Falstaff. That some of them have overdone it is neither here nor there. It is well enough for Dr. Tillyard or Professor Dover Wilson to tell us that the Prince had to cast off Sir John. We know that. We know what Kingship meant to textbook Tudors (far better than the Globe audiences knew, I dare say). Yet I still feel that as Shakespeare was Shakespeare—the man who made Hermione and Hamlet, drew Kate Percy as war-widow (a traitor's wife by the Code), drew Katherine as the fallen majesty of England—he must have known, and felt, the lack of humanity (of generosity, high-mindedness, true magnanimity) in his Hal in that scene. And again, I think, in Henry's treatment of the conspirators at Southampton; where the King is so obviously playing a publicity propaganda part, as Justice, iron-visaged, pitiless.… As obviously as he said he was in that first of unprincely soliloquies, 'I know you all.…' (1 Henry IV, I. ii. end.)

Is there not a resemblant quality in his father: the 'silent king', Bolingbroke, in the mirror-episode in Richard IH A separateness from the feeling world, which makes the actor in public affairs assume a predeter-mined part, like a play-actor, only with all his directives outside and none of his? One of those 'who, moving others, are themselves as stone', as the sonnet phrases it: 'the lords and owners of their faces'? And thus again a resemblant quality in John of Lancaster's treachery to the northern rebels? Oh, I know it can be argued that, to the Elizabethans, no ill treatment or trickery towards rebels could be unjustified. But can we assume that Shakespeare's sensibilities were so crass as not to know meanness as meanness, perfidy as perfidy, when it could be said to have profited the State? I say no more than, 'I think not'. And if you agree on any of these points I've hung on to the Rejection of Falstaff, doesn't it follow that you are made to feel (not merely 'see', notionally) how the frame of Order, the coherent rigid medieval system accepted by some of our most reputed modern scholars, is outrun by that mind which Jonson (who 'knew the man … etc.') considered to be 'not for an age but for all time'?

It follows, if I have taken you along with me, that we cannot dissect-out, stain and fix the system of Shakespeare's reflexion on History. A rigid political-moral good-and-evil system is there; but as the events and the people speak into our inner mind, we find that Shakespeare is shifting subtly from key to key, as if by what musicians call 'enharmonic changes': using ambiguous note-sequences till contradiction is itself confounded, and yields a precise evocation of the paradox of human experience.

Thomas Mann has explored this musical symbolism to the limit in his vast, amazing, fascinatingly wearisome novel Doktor Faustus. When his damned musical genius, Adrian Leverkühn, makes his first experiments with notes, the narrator (Serenus Zeitblom Ph.D.) records a comment which seems to be saying a lot about what I find in the ambivalences of Shakespeare. 'Relationship is everything', said Leverkühn. 'And if you want to give it a more precise name, it is Ambiguity …' And again, later, 'You know what I find?—That music turns the equivocal into a system.'

What is more, Leverkühn finds something amenable to his music in Shakespeare. He takes Love's Labour's Lost as a theme to treat. On this Zeitblom reports, 'He spoke with enthusiasm of the theme, which gave opportunity to set the lout and the 'natural' alongside the comic sublime, and make both ridiculous in each other.' Mann is not explicit, but it is clear enough that he means the three lover-nobles by 'comic sublime', placed vis-à-vis Costard as 'the natural'. Zeitblom Ph.D. is unhappy about it: 'I have always been rather unhappy at the mockery of humanistic extravagances; it ends by making Humanism itself a subject for mirth.' That would be a good text for setting out to explore the entire subject of so-called 'Comic Relief in Shakespeare. I must keep within my limits, come back to Histories.

'Music turns the equivocal into a system.' That is why I used the phrase 'The Dialectic of the Histories' in my—admittedly alarming—title (for which I now apologize). The Order-code-system of Tudor theory approaches History with the kind of argument that Plato called eristic: that is, argument aimed at the extinction of an opposite and 'bad' system of beliefs. The code is moral, but in the narrow sense: too much so for Shakespeare's contemplation of mankind; too narrow and bounded for his human insight, from which he derived a political wisdom. As Hazlitt once observed:

Shakespeare was in one sense the least moral of all writers; for morality (commonly so called) is made up of antipathies; and his talent consisted in sympathy with human nature in all its shapes, degrees, depressions and elevations.

I shan't examine that for its shortcomings, beyond saying that it is morally acuter than Raleigh—as witness the distinction 'morality commonly so called'. Taking it as it stands, then, I say: Therefore, Shakespeare's intuitive way of thinking about History (which we cannot formulate as an abstracted notional system) is dialectical. The old eristic-argumentative system which he used is static, changeless; but his thought is dynamic, alterative, not tied to its age. It has that extra degree-of-freedom which is given only by what I called a constant 'Doubleness': a thoroughly English empiricism which recognizes the coextancy and juxtaposition of opposites, without submitting to urges (philosophical, moral, etc.) to obliterate or annihilate the one in the theoretic interests of the other. That is what I tried to express by the figure of 'two-eyedness'.

His awareness of the 'soul of goodness in things evil' is not less than his sense of the spirit of seriousness (or significance) in things base—or foolish—or farcical—or indecent. To laugh at Hotspurious honour is as good as to think. To laugh at Shallow, or at Falstaff with Doll Tearsheet, is the substance of some wry or wringing thinking. But no less funny for that. And thus it is that the serio-comic dialectic of the Histories leads on to the Tragedies, where you have (as in the Histories you have not, I consider) Coleridge's 'collation of the Great and the Little in the presence of the Infinite'. In none of the Tragedies is the Order—system the friend of human greatness; rather the enemy.

If you have difficulty in refusing the critics' directions to see Henry V as Shakespeare's Ideal; if you cannot quite accept what I've said about the constant Doubleness of the Shakespearian vision in the Histories; then let me ask you to face a straight question: 'WHO, in the later, greater plays, are the heirs and successors of those Order-symbols Henry V and Henry Tudor (the triumphant Richmond of the end of Richard III)? The men who are, to the State-order system, 'goods': unifying nuclei of the organism, whether a People or the mind itself: the beings on whom the political heaven smiles. Who are they?' I should reply, 'The Fortin-brasses, the Octavii, Lodovicos, Macduffs, the Edgars and Albanies. On whose heroic qualities Bradley is, for once, entirely adequate.'

But why is 'the other side', the reverse to the kingly, historic, patriotic obverse, the Comic? Is it not partly this? In History Shakespeare felt that men were constrained to be much less than their full selves. He knew the burden of princehood: the Ceremony lines alone would proclaim it. All the Lancasters are less than full men. None is himself; only what he wills to be for the time only. By and by he will 'be more himself. Hal says it: Father says it. None does it. Richard does try to be himself, full kingly length. He finds a shadow in a mirror. Only the other Richard—Gloucester—can say, 'I am myself alone'. And he is the Devil, spinning the orb on his thumb. Now Comedy is the field of human shortcoming; and therefore Shakespeare's History, at its greatest, had to be comic. What isn't Comic History in the Histories is what I can only call 'Obscure tragedy'.

At the very end of his career, back here at New Place, collaborating with young bright immoral John Fletcher in his last history-play (or so I think; and others more eminent do not)—he brought the same elements into Henry VIII. The man of forty-eight had not changed his mind. That was 1612; in 1616 he was dead. I hope that he was ending in something like the mind of those lines of Yeats:

No longer in Lethean foliage caught
Begin the preparation for your death
And from the fortieth winter by that thought
Test every work of intellect or faith,
And everything that your own hands have
And call those works extravagance of breath
That are not suited for such men as come
Proud, open-eyed, and laughing to the tomb.

Eamon Grennan (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: '"This Story Shall the Good Man Teach His Son' : Henry V and the Art of History," in Papers on Language & Literature, Vol. 15, No. 4, Fall, 1979, pp. 370-82.

[In the essay below, Grennan aims "to characterize the play as an exposition of the nature of official history and official historiography, with the king and the chorus cast in analogous roles as self-conscious historymakers."]

On the victorious field of Agincourt Fluellen reminds his king how

Your grandfather of famous memory, an't please your majesty, and your great-uncle Edward the Plack Prince of Wales, as I have read in the chronicles, fought a most prave partie here in France.

The scholar-soldier is not the first to remember the famous victory of Edward III and his son at Cressy. The Archbishop of Canterbury as well as the King of France both use for their own purposes this event. The "famous memory" forms a functional and rhetorically impressive element in Canterbury's exhortation to war (1.2.106-10), and is, in the French king's even more elaborate version of the same moment ("When Cressy battle fatally was struck"), an instrument of cautionary counsel (2.4.54-62). Such strategically repeated references transform this battle into an historiographical emblem. As well as revealing in summary form the necessary partiality of historiographical perspective, it acts as a vivid metaphor for the sort of historical significance which Henry initially covets and finally achieves. Further, the allusion which links Fluellen, Canterbury, and the King of France reveals in this play a self-conscious concern with the art of history itself, the written record which shapes the past into significant, useful patterns. This deliberate concern makes sense of such otherwise puzzling elements of the play as Canterbury's astonishingly tedious recitation of the Salic Law, during which he appeals to the French's "own authors" and "their writers" (1.2.43, 64), Henry's reference to what Edward Hall calls the "English Chronographiers" (1.2.146-49), and of course Fluellen's obsessive and incessant devotion to the modes, however "out of fashion" (4.1.83) they might be, of humanist historiography.

Such simple observations may have important consequences. As far as the present essay is concerned, they initiate a coherent reading of the whole play. For I would argue that the critically puzzling differences between Henry V and its predecessors in the second tetralogy are rooted in the dramatist's decision, appropriate to the concluding chapter of his exhaustive exploration of English history, to compose a work that is explicitly about the art of history itself and a powerful demonstration of this art in action. As well as offering a concluding perspective upon the problematic nature of history itself, the play thus conceived also provides some final insight into the natures of the two principal and, as it turns out, complementary "makers" of history—the king, maker of res gesta, and the official historiographer, maker of res scripta.

The latter of these categories, for example, helps explain the presence of the chorus. The chorus is a commissioned historiographer. In his high, grandiloquent introduction, he embodies an active response to the appeal Samuel Daniel put into Henry's own mouth, passionately seeking a poet historical to record in an appropriate manner the epic dimensions of his reign. At his every appearance the chorus is clearly at pains to supply an official (and therefore favourable) picture of the reign and its chief actor. Whether recording the patriotic fervour of "all the youth of England" (2, chorus, 1) making essentially moral distinctions between the English and the French (4, chorus, 19, 22), or portraying the superhuman or endearingly human qualities of "the warlike Harry" (prologue, 5-8; 4, chorus, 28ff.) the chorus invariably comes across as an historian engaged in his partisan task. Like Froissart [in Chronicle of Froissart], he wishes to "inregister and put in perpetuali memory … the honorable and noble aventure of featis of armes." He shares Daniel's orthodox sense of history as moral instructor, and is, as his comments on the conspirators make clear (2, chorus, 16-29), a decisively unambiguous moral interpreter of the events he describes.

The chorus must be understood, therefore, as an engaged character within the action of the play rather than as a detached commentator upon it. His continual reminders of the unhappy limitations of staged history also testify to his role as official historian. Apparently encouraging the audience to use its imaginative freedom, he is, as the number of imperatives in his speeches shows, in reality censoring what they see and how they interpret it. In this way a dramatic persona reaches for the power of a narrative historian, significantly shaping his material into pictorial compositions of committed content and persuasive beauty. Not only is he himself a narrative historian, he is also determined to make narrative historians of his audience. As he creates meaningful patterns of the material of history, so would he have his audience create nobly imagined historiographical scenes from the flimsy evidence of "the flat unraised spirits … / On this unworthy scaf-fold" (prologue, 9-10). Instructions to see predominate ("Yet sit and see; / Minding true things by what their mock'ries be," 4, chorus, 52-3), and the audience is invited to turn even their minds, by which they might question the nature and significance of the events before them, into instruments of simple sight: "Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege" (3, chorus, 25)

Most theatrical productions of Henry V take their tonal cue for the serious, the 'historical' side of the play from the chorus. Shakespeare the dramatist, therefore, has abdicated his function as historian to the narrative art of the chorus. In his three previous history plays the dramatist's art revealed an historical reality riddled with ironies, punctuated by uncertainties, throbbing with a bewildering emotional variety. Always alive with a sense of process, it advanced from the problematic facts of history to a dramatic embodiment, in 2 Henry IV, of the actual medium of history, the temporal process itself. The narrative art of the chorus, on the other hand, reflects even in its grammar (indicative and imperative moods predominating) and syntax (straightforward, with some inversions to strike an appropriately Latinate epic pose) its own unproblematic, unquestioning sense of history. Its repeated appeals to sight reveal history as spectacle, a revelation confirmed in the many beautiful pictures it offers. Organized into a series of intensely visualized scenic moments, history is drained of temporality: enfranchised of time it happily inhabits the category of space, a canvas of brilliant colours and sharp, unshaded lines. The final effect achieved by the chorus, however, is dramatic. For by offering the chorus as a character within the larger drama Shakespeare manages to reveal, without value judgments, the nature and procedures of official historiography. This, in effect, would be the final dramatic "point."

Chief supporter of the preceding argument is the king. His every action is designed to promulgate an image of himself and his reign at one with that communicated to posterity (the audience) by the chorus. His first acts as king (in 2 Henry V) reveal him as the public maker of historical reality, no longer the man made by a strategic cooperation with history. In his election of the Chief Justice and his rejection of Falstaff, the new king acts out on the world's stage the morality play of his own official biography. In the latter action, especially, we see him ("so shall the world perceive," he says, 5.2.57) organize his experience into a coherent, communicable, and politically useful moral pattern. By means of his rhetorical genius he imposes upon his own historical career its official historiographical meaning. The public, visual element in this establishes a link between king and chorus. For as Machiavelli puts it (who understands both sorts of history-making), "men in general judge more by the eye than the hand.… Everyone sees what you seem to be, few experience what you really are."

Public acceptance of this meaning is one of the first things brought to our notice in Henry V, when Canterbury reiterates the official version of the story (1.1.24-31). By implication, therefore, it is as a successful historian of his own history that we are first aware of the king. Each one of his subsequent actions confirms this sense of his character. From first to last, from the politic and heroic prologues to the war with France to the romantic epilogue that concludes it, he seems acutely aware of his own performance. Invariably he places himself at the center of an historical moment (declaration of war, uncovering of conspiracy, the siege, the battle, the wooing), shapes it expertly to his articulate will, and thereby transforms it into the historiographical monument which he would have communicated to posterity. He seems forever acting before the mirror of all Christian kings, in which glass he finds, naturally enough, his official court portrait, a self-portrait painted by the powers of his own extraordinarily able rhetoric. His intense concern with the historiographical organization of his historical experience may be summed up in his speech before Agincourt. His exhortation to his "band of brothers" (4.3.18-67) manifests the union of history-maker and historiographer, as the king prophesies a future in which the present moment will be "history", Agincourt an indelible historiographical memory:

This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispían shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered.


Nothing could better illustrate this man's keen sense of history, his acute consciousness of living in history, and his extraordinary skill at shaping the moment by his own overt performance into the historiographical meanings most favourable to him.

The most decisive proof of the present argument regarding the king's character does not occur, however, in a public event enacted under the protective spotlight of acknowledged majesty. It happens instead in a darkened corner of the stage of history, and to a disguised king who is apparently out of sight of the kind of official perception available to the chorus. For all that, Henry's strenuous confrontation with his own common soldiers reveals in the most conclusive way possible a personality desperate to compose the official historiographical version of his own character and deeds.

The sequence with Bates, Williams, and the silent but significantly named Alexander Court is the most difficult performance of Henry's career. In it he aims at the start to give personal depth to his official portrait, asserting the human nature of the king to whom "the violet smells … as it does to me … all his senses have but human conditions: his ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man" (4.1.102-6). On closer scrutiny, however, such a statement appears both cyclic and unconsciously ironic. For all its eloquent simplicity, the conventional wisdom it imparts is less a moral experience than a strategic item of historiographically useful knowledge. Unfortunately, instead of the expected loyal response, this evokes only a blunt distrust of the king's wish for battle (114-16).

Henry's innocent reference to the justice of his cause and the honour of his quarrel, then, initiates a sequence which throws his character as compulsive historiographer into sharpest focus. His formulaic request for support and approval, an unquestionable component of official narrative historiography, is by means of Williams' simple denial ("That's more than we know" [130]) forced into the danger zone of dramatic dialogue. Like most official historians Henry cannot cope directly with the moral can of worms that Williams opens when he says that "if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make" (135-36) nor with the emotional demands created by the soldier's styleless but powerful evocation of the horror of "all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle" (136-46). Instead he tacks a brilliantly digressive course into the calmer waters of divinity, where he demonstrates the orthodox truth of personal moral responsibility (150-71). From, here, by an appearance of logic ("Now, if …" [171]), he proceeds to the historiographically useful and religiously impeccable conclusion that war is God's providential way of punishing vice, "war is his beadle, war is his vengeance" (174-75). The pulpit eloquence of this long speech (150-92), however, cannot disguise the fact that it is a fine piece of special pleading (e.g., 171-79). Williams' laconic summary, in fact, reveals the whole of Henry's performance as an exercise in historiographical persuasion that leaves the real moral dilemma of the justice of the king's cause unresolved: "Tis certain" says Williams, "every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head; the king is not to answer it" (193-94).

Henry's later attempt to push another historiographical point, this the patriotic one of the king's refusal to be ransomed, is also deflated by Williams' articulate scepticism (199ff.). In the subsequent exchange, when Henry's wit backfires (203), royal patience wears thin and wounded authority peeps through rents in the soldier's cloak concealing the king's majesty. Ironically, and in a manner that is out of Henry's control and impossible to crown with some ideal historiographical point, this angry outburst of the king's proves that very humanity which he had hoped the whole enterprise would demonstrate in the first place. In effect this quarrel with Williams reduces the historiographical lesson projected by the chorus and the king to a very human display of ill-temper, the unhappy implications of which he later tries to dissipate with his oddly indecorous practical joke.

Left alone, however, a disappointed Henry is again free to be his own best historiographer. His bitter soliloquy upon the burdens of kingship pins an official if makeshift meaning upon the dramatic event we have just witnessed. But the conventional contrast he draws between troublous majesty and mindless pastoralism bears as little valid connection with the preceding scene as Williams' quiet sincerity does with "the breath of every fool" (240-41). The speech is purely historio-graphical in intent, consoling himself and enlightening posterity. Playing only to himself and to posterity, he completes that withdrawal of personality into historio-graphically approvable posture that the began in his rejection of Falstaff. In his response to the summons to the simple activity of battle we may sense the relief of one who cannot or must not confront the potentially tragic implications of those choices which have made him what he is:

  My brother Gloucester's voice! Ay;
I know thy errand, I will go with thee:
The day, my friends, and all things stay for


Under the full, unambiguous light of official historiography he can in a language of unparalleled lyrical beauty exude a life that is rich, energetic, even joyful:

We are but warriors for the working day;
Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirch'd
With rainy marching in the painful field.


Even the gaiety of such public utterance, a shining example of his skill as consummate history-maker, cannot erase our memory of the nighttime failure of his art. As in the case of the chorus, therefore, a narrative historiographical point is contained by a dramatic purpose, which is to portray the nature of official history and of its maker.

The object of my argument so far has been to characterise the play as an exposition of the nature of official history and official historiography, with the king and the chorus cast in analogous roles as self-conscious historymakers. But this cannot be the whole story of Henry V, since no mention has been made of the play's comic elements. A careful study of these elements, however, strengthens rather than diminishes the force of any argument. For, with one crucial exception (which in effect proves the rule), the various kinds of comedy which fill out the play belong in a certain sense to official historiography, even if not explicitly included within the frame of the official narrative itself.

Although the picture has undeniable complications, the French are often portrayed as comic villains in a patriotic melodrama, the hubris of whose prebattle locker room frivolity (4.2.8-13) is in laughable contrast with their extravagantly expressed downfall (4.5.3-8). In this they are the victims of the art of national caricature, an art naturally attendant upon official historiography and of which the French themselves are able if, as events prove, erroneous practitioners. This art of national caricature is also responsible for the language lesson between Katharine and Alice (3.4), although here, too, the picture has certain complications, not only because of its relationship to farce, but because of the natural human affection it must inspire for the Frenchwomen.

The comic companion of national caricature is its political antithesis—national cartoon. This too, as any wartime newspaper will demonstrate, is a kind of comedy willingly accommodated by official historiography. In this play its representatives are the four national types—sober Englishman, brave Scot, pedantic Welshman, and wild Irishman. That these all belong to the world of official history is not only proved by the fact that they are the corporate symbol of Henry's army, but even more conclusively by the interesting fact that each one embodies a comically transmogrified aspect of the king himself. Moral Gower's attacks on Pistol, for example (3.6.68-83, 5.1.72-83), recalls the king's righteous indignation against the conspirators and against the luckless Bardolph. Jamy's delightfully dignified expression of patriotic loyalty (3.2.117-21) finds its especial counterpart in the king's refusal of ransom (4.3.121-5). Macmorris' astonishing violence, always wedded to the name of Christ, is a comic echo of Henry's tactical mixture of piety and ruthless efficiency. Most importantly, Fluellen is deliberately aligned with his king on a number of occasions, in his Welshness, his orthodox use of historiography, his quarrel with Pistol, his severity regarding the execution of Bardolph, and in the painful part he must play in the king's practical joke.

Finally, the wooing of Katherine by Henry transforms the comedies of national caricature and national cartoon into the comedy of international romance. This too, and in a specially significant way, is a form of comedy easily accommodated by official historiography. For in victory, it would seem, official historiography adopts the form of romantic comedy, as in defeat it may adopt that of (melodramatic) tragedy. Like romantic comedy, the proper end of official history is that best monument to optimism, the happy marriage. That joyous vision of generation assured which aptly concludes all romantic comedies is surely the burden of Henry's fairy-tale prognostication:

Shall not thou and I, between Saint Denis and
Saint George, compound a boy, half French,
English, that shall go to Constantinople and
the Turk by the beard.


It is no accident, then, that this realist king speaks in the accents of Rosalind (e.g., 5.2.154-55), while still engaged in the task of official, historiographically useful self-portraiture (121 ff.). Even at its most realistic, however, romantic comedy survives, as Feste knows, by denying the more bitter aspects of time. It lives in an enchanted garden (where, occasionally, real toads may be found), whose prevailing philosophy is Henry's own at this moment: '"Tis hereafter to know, but now to promise" (222-23). As romantic comedy persists eternally in the now of promise, it is the ambition of the makers of official history (the prince, the historiographer) to bend the bleak line of mortality and incessant change into the happy circle of generative possibility. That such comedy is at home with official historiography is clear: a political deal is its prime mover; Katharine is, as Henry declares, "our capital demand, compris'd / Within the fore-rank of our articles" (96-97); and in Isabella's blessing upon the marriage the lines between political and romantic reality blend subtly and effectively into one another (e.g. 380-84).

Statistically, then, most of the comic elements in the play may be comfortably co-opted to the needs and purposes of official historiography. There remains, however, as I have already remarked, one crucial exception. The poor remnants of the Tavern world, the raggletag remainder of Falstaff's "minions of the moon," who proved in 1 and 2 Henry IV a vital complement to the higher forms of historical life, become in Henry V a deliberate antithesis to the world of official historiography. Inspired by its muse of fire the official story marches from victory to marvellous victory. This comic story, on the other hand, lacking all decorous form, with a marriage to begin it, a climactic death not long after, and a chief character who never appears, stumbles from defeat to defeat until all save one of its lights are extinguished, and even he, like a taper, waxes old. The king of official history becomes a glorious historiographical monument in his own time. The king of unofficial comedy suffers after his unhappy death (and after the most beautifully garbled eulogy in literature) the ignominy of being turned into an anonymous exemplum in an historio-graphical moral, merely "the fat knight with the great-belly doublet" (4.7.50). It is fitting, indeed, that the chief "historical" comedian, Fluellen, presides over the progressive exorcism of the older comic world, berating like a Welsh Coriolanus the cowardice of the tavern crew (3.2.21), endorsing Bardolph's execution (3.6.54-58, 101-10), forgetting Falstaff's name (4.7.50-52), and literally beating (with an English cudgel) Pistol from the confines of the play. Thus the essentially exclusive mode that is official historiography "deracinates" that world which in the person of its broken-hearted leader was a symbol of all-inclusiveness. But in their going the denizens of this world become memorials too, not of or to official historiography but to the underlying history that is mortality itself in all its organic randomness and unstructurable variety. It proves itself a world in touch with time, in touch with physicality untransmuted by rhetoric (compare Mistress Quickly's account of Falstaff's death with Exeter's pretty picture of the emblematic deaths of Suffolk and York, 4.6.7-32), and in touch with a spontaneous authenticity of feeling hard to find in the higher world (compare the respective responses to the above incidents, for example).

Pistol's decision to turn bawd demonstrates the durability of the comic world (5.1.89-90). It endures, however, beyond the ken of official historiography. (Throughout the play, indeed, the chorus, official historian that he is, manifests not the slightest awareness of the existence of Pistol and company.) Instead of marriage as its well-lit honourable conclusion, it creeps off to a shadier life of bawdry, theft, and dishonest beggary. Pistol's final statement confirms the antithesis between the two worlds. For his decision to get "patches … unto these cudgell'd scars, / And swear I got them in the Gallia wars" (92-93) is in effect nothing less than the anti-mask of the aims and procedures of official historiography.

The relationship between these two worlds (official history and outlawed comedy) provides a valuable dramatic lesson on the nature of official historiography. It is not a lesson in value judgments, although it does suggest something about the necessary limitations of such an historiographical mode (implied, for example by the careful but non-evaluative way references to Falstaff occur in the context of or very close to so many of Henry's triumphant moments). Henry V, therefore, is an effective demonstration of how official history and official historiography are made. Such history is not the creation of a divine author shaping all for the final benefit of a particular dynasty or nation. Instead it is the creature of a very human collaboration between a king who has grown up in the real world and learned how to master it and an historiographer whose record is formally mimetic of the king's own shaping mode. To write this play Shakespeare could have simply become the official historiographer of Henry's reign. In fact, he probably makes more explicit use of the official record than ever before. But he was also a dramatist tutored by his own discoveries about the nature of history and historiography, lessons learned particularly in the composition of the three previous plays of this sequence. Surprisingly, he manages to respond to both obligations. He is true to the record and to his own creative knowledge. He composes a revealing drama about the nature of official historiography and contains within it as its principle component a superb example of the genre. In this way his final history play is an implicit, untheorising demonstration of how history itself—the stuff of life, whatever it is and whatever it means—becomes the meticulously organised, meaningful shapes of official historiography.

This reading of Henry V makes for a genuinely comprehensive understanding of the nature of the play. It does so without resorting, as the critics have often done, to morally evaluative attacks on or defenses of the play or its hero. It can make sense of the design, the details, the style of the play, and offers a plausible reason for its being the most appropriate conclusion to its author's exhaustive exploration of history in nine plays and ten years. The final insight is this: in the efficient hands of the strong man of history (Machiavelli's successful Prince), the drama of history becomes the spectacular pageant of official historiography, commissioned metaphorically at least by the Prince himself (or herself). Such an insight may open to a greater understanding of Shakespeare's own first tetralogy; it may also help explain some of the striking differences between it and the second tetralogy. And, having come a full spiral from that early starting point, it frees him to explore a broader, deeper world of human fact and possibility, a world of which what he has come to know as history in its many manifestations will be a single but vitally important feature. Without this insight, completed in Henry V, the world of the tragedies would be a less substantial place.

Sidney Homan (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Henry V: "Speak freely of our acts, or else," in Shakespeare's Theater of Presence: Language, Spectacle, and the Audience, Bucknell University Press, 1986, pp. 138-52.

[In the following essay, Homan studies the relationship between language and history in Henry V, stating that dramatic speech in the play "both defines and shapes what we see and what we experience in the real world."]

[In] Henry V Shakespeare manipulates the theater and its language for public ends no less than Richard III would have manipulated them to sustain his own private world. Indeed, when matched against the idiosyncratic speech of the history concluding the first tetralogy, the present play offers what one critic has aptly called a veritable "stylistic spectrum" of public discourse [Richard Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence, 1976]. For the audience, the challenge, I think, is not to fathom the darker recesses of its central figures, as was the case in Richard III. Nor is the "problem" of history one of optics, as it is in Julius Caesar, where the onstage spectacle is beyond the individual's grasp. Rather, we confront here a play whose language is, at best, inseparable from the public nature of the theater, and at worst practical, "political," and—in the eyes of some spectators and some critics—dangerously close to propaganda.


It is Shakespeare's other "Richard" play, perhaps, that puts into context the nature of language in Henry V. For if Richard II had persisted, Shakespeare's merging of theater and history would have championed language to the level of abstraction: it is the concept of divine right, rather than physical force, that Richard would marshal against Bolingbroke. His is an error in practical policy judgment, and it is significant, I think, that the poet Yeats, who labeled Hal "remorseless and undistinguished as some natural force," took Richard as his hero for being "full of capricious fancy." Richard's addition to language that is abstract, timeless, and therefore true is echoed here by the first Chorus as it laments the stage's limitations, even as it celebrates, in a revealing paradox, the efficacy of that language spoken in "this wooden O" (Chorus, 1.13): the physical deficiencies of the rounded playhouse can be over-come if the audience grants the principle of representation where, by the use of O as "ciphers," one "crooked figure may / Attest in little place a million" (15-16). The Chorus, in effect, would employ language to elevate physical "facts" to some larger and therefore more significant Platonic reality: in its view Hal is not just the single actor assigned the part, nor merely the historical figure, but rather emblematic, the "mirror of all Christian kings" (Chorus, 2.6). To the degree that Hal himself believes such abstractions, or—what is more like—finds no shame in using them, he would appear a semi-divine figure waging a holy war that itself serves as a "beadle" enacting on earth God's "vengeance" (4.1.169-70). Whether out of sincerity, or policy, or both, the Archbishop of Canterbury picks up this same airy notion of language as he informs the Bishop of Ely that, when Hal talks, "the air, a charter'd libertine, is still, / And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears, / To speak his sweet and honeyed sentences." With such an ethereal concept of language, indeed of the very act of delivery, it follows that the earthly or actual ("the art and practic part of life") can only be an inferior or "mistress to this theoric" (1.1.47-52).

There is a concomitant danger in this linguistic over-riding of reality. Hal would abstract his soldiers to the level of a "copy … to men of grosser blood" (3.1.24) and, even if we allow for the inevitable rousing of the troops before battle, his instructions seem chilling: "imitate the action of the tiger" and "disguise fair nature with hard-favor'd rage," setting "the teeth and stretch[ing] the nostril wide" (3.1.6-15). Nor does the glorious "battle rend'red you in music" (1.1.44) ever materialize. We recognize as pure hyperbole the ironic, albeit patriotic cry that the "hearts" of the English soldiers "lie pavilion'd in the fields of France" while their bodies remain "here in England" (1.2.128-29). Confronted by this evangelical concept of war fostered by the Chorus and at times by Hal himself, some of the play's most perceptive commentators conclude that Henry V, like war itself, brings to the surface, albeit coated with patriotism, "the animal in man," that the play shows there is "no activity so savage that men cannot reduce to sober order and to humane rules and disciplines" [Robert Orustein, A Kingdom for a Stage, 1972].

This tendency of the play's language toward an essentially non-dramatic, abstract level, where dramatic structure is replaced by non-dramatic tableaux, is inseparable from a timelessness, also urged primarily by the Chorus, that wars against the very concept of the "theater of presence." Through language the Chorus would adjust historical time itself by "turning th' accomplishment of many years / Into an hour-glass" (Chorus, 1.30). By language's "imagin'd wing" we can displace not only the limitations of the physical but also the slow time of history itself as the "swift scene flies / In motion of no less celerity / Than that of thought" (Chorus, 3.1-3). Through such a cerebral agency the past dissolves as easily as the future, and Hal becomes not a man moving through the present but a "remembrance of those valiant deeds" that at length stand outside of time (1.2.115). The Chorus voices, in essence, our own yearning for the absolute, for a hai who becomes the perfect allegorical abstraction, the ideal king reconstructed from the "pasts" of those other plays in the tetralogy confined to showing, on their own inadequate physical stages, those imperfect kings whose sacrifice only served to produce Henry V. Like us, Hal would sacrifice "many of our bodies" as long as "witness live in brass of this day's works" (4.3.95-97), preferring to life itself that ultimate art which abstracts both language and time: the epitaph.

More than one commentator has suspected—even accused—Shakespeare of trying here to yoke the nondramatic epic form to the demands of the stage. In observing that actual "history thus defeats those who would defy it by trying to live in a changeless present or an undiminshed youth, or in a realm of pure play," Jonas Barish cites [in "The Taming away of Prince Hal," Shakespeare Studies I, 1965] in effect, the problems posed by the initial Chorus. If anything, that Chorus tries to involve us as collaborators in its concept of language. We are the "gentles all" (Chorus, 1.8) who can "eche out [the] performance with [our] mind" (Chorus, 3.35) or "piece out … imperfections with [our] thoughts" (Chorus, 1.23), thereby surpassing the Chorus's linguistic truth with one even higher in our imaginations and, as a consequence, beyond stage representation. Though the Chorus may represent only one of the play's several positions on the issue of patriotism, still its call for "imaginary forces" (Chorus, 1.18) would make the audience if not the only at least the ultimate text. Not the impartial observer, we would become the godlike judge in a line of descent leading from us, the offstage audience, to this onstage audience of one, to the actors and their playwright, these "flat unraised spirits that hath dar'd / On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object" (Chorus, 1.9-11). This same superior position is reexpressed metaphorically when the Archbishop describes the father of Edward the Black Prince as watching "on a hill" and "smiling" while he observed his son—"his lion's whelp"—who "play'd … a tragedy" by defeating the French" (1.2.105-9). Thus, a reality beyond history stands as the positive alternative to the "mock'ries" of stage enactment (Chorus, 4.52-53).

Eamon Grennan speaks [in '"This Story Shall the Good Man Teach His son'," Papers on Language and Literature 15, 1979] of the Chorus as functioning like a "commissioned historiographer," shaping the physical facts for a king who in turn shapes his own image to fit a predesigned and mythical scenario. Dramatic exposition in the first Chorus and first two scenes of the play would thereby become main action. That claim of the Verbal, in which we are invited to be collaborators, will have "transported" us not just to Southampton (Chorus, 2.35) but to the realms of political allegory; and more than one commentator—if I may venture to say so—has been so seduced.


Though invoked in the play's opening lines, this epic "muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention," cannot last. Once in the play itself, the epic hero Alexander becomes, in Fluellen's tortured King's English, Alexander the Pig (4.7.13), and if Alexander is like Hal, or Hal like him, it is as much for negative as for positive qualities. Even the most telling link between the two, the betrayal of a friend (Clytus, Falstaff), makes reference to an event outside the present play. If Hal emerges from the unpromising youth of the Henry IV plays, then Henry V itself must emerge, I think, from the dramatically unpromising "youth" of Act 1. Ely's metaphor works for both parallel incidents: "the strawberry grows underneath the nettle" (1.1.60), and it is here the "faculty" of the theater itself, "its inherent power," as the Arden edition glosses the word, that is initially or seemingly "unseen, yet crescive" (66). The play's fruition is posited on an initial question: what happens when an epic hero as initially depicted is subjected to the demands of reality as enacted in this medium that, like reality, rests on the productive tension between the visual and the verbal? If chauvinistic thoughts go first on imaginary linguistic wings to France, still the companion cry is "let their bodies follow" (1.2.130): Hal's verbal court of Act 1 must inevitably give way in Act 2 to the shipyards of Southhampton.

Words cannot be all. The same Fluellen who deflates Alexander as an epic, nondramatic hero observes that in the camp of Pompey the Great words must share the stage with action, and, in fact, on the night before battle, when talking may give away a position, "there is no tiddle taddle nor pibble babble" permitted (4.1.70-71). The movement to France is metadramatically a freeing up of the stillborn epic posed by the Chorus. It will be Harry, not the idealized Christian King, "like himself," as enacted onstage by Burbage, who will "assume," but only assume, the bearing of Mars (1.5-6). The world of abstract "givens"—"miracles" in Ely's words—"[is] ceas'd" and "therefore we [those onstage, as well as the audience ratifying the play offstage] must needs admit the means / How things are prefected" (1.1.67-69). A man of the theater, Shakespeare, as eager as his Chorus seems reluctant, must "force a play" (Chorus, 2.32), bringing the "theoric" to what Nym—one careful, perhaps too careful, with his words—sees as the necessary "conclusions" (2.1.24). If the fields of France seem initially too "vasty" (Chorus, 1.12), at issue now is not the literal recreation of Agincourt but a theatrical compromise where we at once see Agincourt, though admittedly on a more limited scale, and—much more significantly—experience what one commentator properly calls history "recreated, evoked, preserved."

What Henry V cannot be, or cannot be exclusively, points to the new, fuller theater to be presented here. The play's own initial "anti-theater" is not so much dissolved as it is transferred to the French, who are nothing if not verbal, and self-indulgently so. Even Hal fears that the "air of French / Hath blown [the] vice" of empty rhetoric into him (3.6.151-52). Nor will Henry V be a "green" or pastoral comedy; once committed to the French campaign, Hal will find no forest of Arden. Bringing the biases of the pastoral to the play, one scholar [Charles Forker, in "Shakespeare's Chronicle Plays as Historical-Pastoral," Shakespeare Studies 1 (1965)] finds it—understandably—an antiwar drama where the French campaign is a "violation of natural law revealed in a landscape that forfeits both beauty and utility." I think Joanne Altieri provides a more circumspect account of the pastoral when, wrestling with the genre of the play [in "Romance in Henry V," Studies in English Literature 21, 1981], she finds its pastoral patterns, while upholding an idealized notion of kingship, coexisting with a realistic appraisal both of the actual soldier king and of the exclusive claims of such pastoral romance.

In the context of the Henry IV plays, we miss, of course, the Falstaffian element, those tavern scenes celebrating play, both verbal and theatrical, at the expense of the demands of a public role, but surely Hal's education as a private being is now complete. William Babula suggests ["What ever Happened to Prince Hal?," Shakespeare Survey 30, 1977] that Hal moves here from a man evading responsibility in the opening act, to one struggling to unite words and action, to the competent king, able to compromise, one who through his experience in France is "created verbally as the hero." Though an essential element in Hal's early education, playing is now merely frivolous, and it is the reported death of Falstaff that frees the present play from the public/private axis of its predecessors. That scene is, without doubt, touching, and one observer speculates that Shakespeare himself identifies with the dying man; another, that Falstaff's death echoes in parody that of Socrates. For present purposes, however, the Falstaff who exists through the Hostess's un-trustworthy description expires verbally. The captivating garrulous seducer of Henry IV is here an invalid who can only babble, and if that babbling is about the appropriate topic of one's salvation ("green fields" [2.3.17]), the hostess has advised Falstaff that there is "no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet" (21-22). Nor can we take seriously the attempted, albeit understandable whitewashing of his character. He cried out, predictably, for sack, but the Hostess's insistence that he did not also cry out for women is undercut by the Boy, who also proves himself on other occasions a good observer. To use Bardolph's words, Falstaff's own "fuel is gone" (2.3.43).

However, his spirit in limitation may be here. We have already observed that parallel between Alexander and Hal as betrayers of their friends. Joseph Porter makes an intriguing link between Falstaff and the Boy, suggesting that the Boy's knowledge of Falstaff, and his cynicism about language as contrasted with Hal's own positive attitude, allow him to stand in for that youthful Hal linked earlier to Falstaff. Still, if Falstaff dies, the Boy must, also. We will recall Hal's anger here when the French kill the boys in the English camps; Porter argues [in Speech Acts] that the present Boy is one of those youthful victims. The critical consensus, however, would have Hal representing the Protestant ethic that is required by the present play, and Falstaff opposing that ethic, albeit granting its heavy price. Robert Kelly even suggests [in "Shakespeare's Scroop and the Spirit of Cain," Shakespeare Quarterly 20, 1969] a parallel between the death of Scroop and that of Falstaff in their successive scenes (2.2. and 2.3): both represent those spirits of discord, public and private, that Hal must challenge. Even a defender of Falstaff like A. C. Bradley saw the rejection of the comic knight as revealing at once the pleasant and unpleasant side of Hal's character: Bradley found Shakespeare overshooting the mark in Falstaff's character and undershooting it in Hal [Oxford Lectures on Poetry, 1909].

If Hal does try a disguise, reminiscent of the stratagem so effective in exposing Falstaff in the Gads Hill robbery, the result is more dubious. When the king is "unmasked," the common soldier Williams proves, at the very least, his intellectual match. The entire episode has what John Wilders calls a "morally disturbing context." [The Last Garden, 1978]. Hal "wins" on the twin issues of separating the private sins of his soldiers from the King's personal responsibility and the right of the soldier-king to claim an allegiance absolving him of guilt for the deaths in battle. However, he cannot answer, or he evades answering, Williams's question as to the justness of the war itself. Perhaps still smarting under his "bitter terms" (4.8.42), Hal demands that he keep his promise to strike the man wearing the matching glove, yet Williams scores again and, in doing so, shows at once why Falstaff must be rejected and why the character of Hal in the present play demands its own special context: the king "came not like himself … but … as a common man," and therefore what Hal "suffer'd under that shape" was his own "fault" (50-54). In short, Hal has here only a public personality. It is unfair, I think, to suggest that he can function any longer as a private person, especially on the eve of an international battle.

This is why we see so little of the "interior" Hal in the present play, and this fact rivals Falstaff's absence, from the perspective of some commentators, as being the play's chief defect. The Hal as described by Bates and Williams—full of ordinary fears, like other men—cannot really exist in Henry V. He can "play" at being like them, yet no longer with the intensity, or even with the sincerity such playing had in Falstaff's tavern. Tracing the disguised-king motif in Elizabethan drama. Anne Barton concludes [in The Triple Bond, ed. Joseph G. Price, 1975] that Hal ultimately has no private dimensions: he is now the royal "we." In France he consciously plays the role of fellow soldier, but only as a stratagem. Thus, his is the "dilemma of the man placed at a disadvantage in the sphere of personal relations by the fact of a corporate self." It is not so much the case, I think, of Hal's consciousness being "restricted," or his being less interesting than Richard II, an intensely private person to be sure. And Hal is no Hamlet, nor is he meant to be. If he hurts inwardly from the "fault / [His] father made in compassing the crown" (4.1.293-94), that fault will not be, like Hamlet's, an irritant infecting and, in the same process, enlarging the consciousness until its bearer adopts a nihilistic attitude toward the public world of the court. Rather, Hal will absolve himself of the past by building "two chauntries, where the sad and solemn priests still sing for Richard's soul" (301-2). He himself will not be among the mourners. And if his one soliloquy, following on the heels of the complex conversation in disguise with Bates and Williams, shows a man petulantly complaining about his position, even condescendingly wishing to be the "wretched slave; / Who with a body fill'd and vacant mind / Gets him to rest" (268-70), it is simply a fact that he does not, like Lear, give up such "ceremony." It is his "brother Gloucester's voice" (307) that pulls him out of the reverie on Richard II, and Hal soon destroys even this fleeting glimpse into his conscience with the authoritative "I know thy errand, I will go with thee."

Robert Egan observes [in "A Muse of Fire" Modern Language Quarterly 29 (1968)] that the soliloquy at once reviews and, no less, concludes Hal's psychomachia. He may indeed be shaken by the camp debate, or may be becoming the "controlled" like his father, thereby demonstrating that the man of forceful political action is at length humanly inadequate. Indeed, we may think of these negative dimensions of Hal as a temporary subtext functioning in its way just as powerfully as the text itself. In this sense, the soliloquy voices our own concerns about what Hal is becoming in the present play, given the claims made on him by the public world. Moreover, his public self is no more real than the private self at length submerged here: Hal himself sees the king, defined by ceremony, as only a "proud dream" (4.1.257).


Though it must be confined within the parameters of this study, I would now define the play's purpose as that of enacting on the public stage man as a public being, acting in the polis, where language is at once both a determinant of reality (if not the determinant) and the source of a relativity that in turn makes reality itself an exercise in individual will. Henry V is thereby an extension of the concerns in Richard II and the two Henry IV plays, and yet, metadramatically, in everything from its attitude toward stage language to characterization to its relation both to the audience and to the historical/present reality encompassing the stage, the play is new, unrelated to its predecessors.

Far from outdistancing spectacle or even serving as a metaphysical extension of physical reality, dramatic speech here must form a partnership with the visual. This same partnership forced by the play's public concern allows, in retrospect, for a more neutral assessment of the Chorus's appeal to the audience's imagination: "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them / Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth" (Chorus, 1.26-27). Bernard Beckerman has argued [in Shakespeare's "More than Words Can Witness," ed. by Sidney Homan, 1980] that increasingly in his career Shakespeare calls for the audience's visual collaboration, as he himself becomes more certain of the strength of his own dramatic language; the present play duplicates this pattern, releasing us from the dominant but static verbal bias of the first scenes. As audience, therefore, we are no longer a verbal collaborator with a Chorus longing for epic significance but rather a disengaged spectator functioning with heightened aural and ocular powers. The earlier "claim of the verbal" is met with a no-less-insistent "claim of the physical." Like the Boy, who has "observ'd" the three comic holdovers from Falstaff's world and finds in them no relation between word and actuality (3.2.28), we must "sit" in the playhouse (Chorus, 2.36) as observers, and if as collaborators, then as collaborators of the playwright working with a dramatic form striving to be as inclusive as the larger reality that is its subject. Like Macmorris as advised by Fluellen, we must be sage interpreters and not "take the matter otherwise than is meant" (3.2.125-26). One scholar [Lanham, Motives for Eloquence] observes that, accordingly, the patriotic Chorus becomes more and more dubious and shallow.

The play is thus an exercise in forging a public language. Dismissed as linguistically and culturally "barbarous" by the stylistically pure French (3.5.4), it is the English, these "bastard Normans" (3.5.10) who, in spite of their verbal plurality, will succeed. Indeed, if there is a fault, it rests on the side of the linguistic conservative, for the play, like the theater itself, is a public medium, subject to a variety of tongues. When Nell, that murderess of even minimal King's English, bids her husband a French "adieu," we know that the French cannot help but lose (2.3.64).

The play, in fact, represents a conflation of competing tongues: there are scenes in English; scenes involving the various dialects of the British empire in English and ranging from courtly high to comic low; scenes in French (or at least Shakespeare's French); scenes involving translation from one language to another; and—as in the movie without subtitles—scenes involving Frenchmen speaking English. In some very perceptive comments on the play's language, Joseph Porter observes [in Speech Acts] that, even while recognizing the plurality of dialects, the playwright's purpose seems to be that of finding the common language that men actually use and can use. Given its purer, more formal speech, French is "a less perfect medium for the king's word than the English society as an organic whole." Hal epitomizes his nation's "illocutionary force," and his speech-acts (speech that implies and then leads to action) parallel the function of the theater itself in combining dialogue and action. With its plurality of tongues, the play recreates a sort of modern-day Babel—I use Porter's term here—even as it seeks a coherence out of the potential chaos of language.

To forge this common tongue the play first attempts to mirror the multifaceted nature of public reality itself, a reality to be distinguished from our own idiosyncratic interior world, and one admitting plural interpretations because that exterior world can be nothing less, no less inclusive. Hence the play can be viewed positively as manifesting the epic spirit, even as it offers an uncritical glorification of its epic hero. That second, seemingly negative judgment admits a bias for the more complex, introspective central character that another commentator finds lacking here, precisely because the play at once deletes the comedy of its predecessors in the tetralogy even as it avoids the questioning of public order that characterizes the tragedies. From one perspective Hal is praised as being the handbook-perfect officer, and that definition admits that the morality of war is not the same as that of peace. Yet, adjusting the focus, he becomes a real person in a play that straddles the line, offering neither "panegyric [nor] satire." Is Henry V many things because it is not unified? Does the subplot deflate Hal's character, or, conversely, does the subplot added to the main plot allow for a fuller response to his French campaign? On the one hand, Shakespeare, it is argued, here attempts something not fully belonging to the theater; on the other hand, the complex response we have to Agin-court anticipates the dichotomous theater of Brecht. The playwright takes the form of tragical history to the extreme here and then exhausts it, or the play is so wide-ranging that it eschews singular judgment, whether of its central character or its genre. If we could only unveil the form (or even forms) of this generic puzzle we could find Shakespeare's position; conversely, discussions of genre are irrelevant. One critic brands the play as exclusive, limiting; another sees in it a wide-ranging analysis of the political mind, at once realistic and cynical, and therefore truthful [Ornstein, Kingdom for a Stage]. Revising an earlier estimate of the play, Norman Rabkin finds Henry V going in two opposite directions, like a Gestaltist's drawing, and, in so doing, daring us to decide ["Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V, Shakespeare Quarterly 28, 1977].

In suggesting now that none of these views is wrong, I am not arguing for formlessness in the play, or for a conscious exercise in paradox on Shakespeare's part. Rather, after the initial enticement by the Chorus to read the history as epic, the play shows epic for what it really is. If Shakespeare, if Hal, has only his language, as that language defines and, in turn, shapes the physical world, we also, the audience responding with ears and eyes, have nothing but that language, that same double-edged inheritance. In revisiting the past as recorded by Holinshed and Hall, Henry V discloses, in its theater of presence, a public figure no less complex than those figures of the tragedies, but one faced primarily with the external world rather than the world of self.

This plurality is expressed most prominently in the Archbishop's analogy of a kingdom with a beehive, from which he makes the inference: "That many things, having full reference / To one content, may work contrariously / As many arrows loosed several ways / Come to one mark; as many ways meet in one town" (1.2.205-8). The play itself moves structurally from England to France to England, but it is an England linguistically changed to which characters and audience so return. This same inclusiveness itself allows for yet goes beyond parody, as when Hal's "Once more unto the breach" (3.1.1) is followed in the next scene, again at the first line, by Pistol's "On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach." The Chorus's admittedly narrow focus itself becomes part of the pluralistic vision of Hal.

Rejecting at once the courtly, nonactualized language of the French and the self-indulgently playful language of the Falstaffian low-life characters, the play seeks a language that can shape, that can give coherence and permanence to this public reality. As the Archbishop well knows, the bill endowing the Church with power can in turn be invalidated by a second bill that would "strip" from the same Church "the better half of [its] possessions" (1.1.7-11). Henry understands the potentially disastrous consequence of a textual misunderstanding as he cautions the Archbishop in reading the Salique law not to "fashion, wrest, or bow [his] reading, / Or nicely charge [his] understanding soul / With opening titles miscreate" (1.2.14-16). Carol Sickerman traces [in '"King Hal'," Texas Studies in Language and Literature 21, 1979] Hal's own recognition of language's power, from his playful tavern speech to the formal verse of the opening scenes, to a "personal legality of language" where, strengthened by the Saint Crispin speech, he learns of the link between words and deeds, and how each validates the other.

This recognition of language's power accounts, I think, for the emphasis in the play on both names and oaths: names as they locate a person's stature in the political world, and oaths as an expression of the contractual bonds of citizens in the polis. It is in God's name that Hal vows vengeance on the French (1.2.290), and, in his judgment, the name that becomes him best is "soldier" (3.3.5-6). He in turn confers names, naming the battle for the "feast of Crispían" and then invoking that battle, once named, five times (43, 46, 48, 57, 67). Conversely, Scroop loses his Christian name, and Hal speculates that his seducer's only "instance" for tempting him was "to dub [him] with the name of traitor" (2.2.120). Even when Hal drops his name in disguise, he still manages to assume a name with a double meaning: "Harry le Roy" (4.1.49).

This naming permeates even to the comic characters. That remnant from Falstaff's days is spoken of as "Doll Tearsheet she by name" (2.1.77). When Fluellen, representing the more responsible comic characters who replace Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym, makes his link between Alexander and Harry as soldiers betraying friends, he recalls Hal's "fat knight" but confesses that he has "forgot his name" (4.7.50-52). The "three sworn brothers" from Falstaff's day (2.1.12) come to ruin: Bardolph is executed for stealing the "pax"; Pistol disgraces his office with bribes; Nym retreats into silence. Violating their military oaths, losing either their figurative names, their reputations, or, in Falstaff's case, a literal name, they fall from Hal, whose assumed name, Harry le Roy, becomes actual when in Act 5 he is named "Henri, Roi d'Angleterre, Heritier de France," and then renamed in Latin "Rex Angliae, et Heres Franciae" (339-42).

Joseph Lenz speaks of the relation between oath-taking and honor as the "socioreligious myth" of the play ["The Politics of Honor," Journal of English and Germanic Philology 80, 1981]. I would observe that it is through this linguistic "naming" as expressed in the oath-grounded or contractual relations between persons that the play establishes its own secular mythology, its public metaphysics. Abjuring the interior dimensions of the tragedies or the implied ritualism of the comedies, Henry V still seeks a larger significance in the facts of public life, in seeing "this history" (Chorus, 1.32) as more than a collection of details.

Devouring time, the force that the Epilogue underscores in noting that Hal's actual reign was tragically brief, is the historical factor with which men and playwrights must contend. Against this force Shakespeare sets the art of public language. Weighing "time / Even to the utmost grain" (2.4.137-38), Hal knows full well that if he fails his punishment will be a verbal one: his bones will then be "tombless, with no remembrance over them" (1.2.229). The alternatives are to be spoken of "freely" by the "full mouth" of "history," or, like a "Turkish mute," to be consumed by the "tongueless mouth" of the grave, and not "worshipp'd with a waxen epitaph" (230-33). This experiment in language for a stage mirroring our own public world thus confronts what Fluellen identifies as the "mutability" of Fortune (3.6.30-38). If Fortune is more properly Providence, then, like his King pictured here, Shakespeare effects—depending on one's point of view—a "happy compromise" or an "uncomfortably precarious balance" between the facts of existence and the human will that battles those facts, both politically and dramatically, with language. A necessity for political stability in the real world, this political language is, I think, the goal, the "necessity" of Henry V.


Act 5, the "conclusions" of this experience, has five distinct movements: the Chorus, the first scene, the initial meeting of the French and English in the second scene, Hal's wooing of the Princess Katherine and the return of the French and English courts coupled with the Epilogue.

I have observed above that the language achieved here, as it seeks its counterpart in the real world, at the very least blurs any clear distinction between theatrical and political speech. Act 5 links the completion of the play with the actual treaty-signing that ends the conflict between the French and English. We are, in effect, "dissolving"—to use the movie term—into reality, both that predating the play, as detailed in the chronicles, and the actual event, the treaty marking the end of Hal's final public education that has been the subject of Henry V. Significantly, the Chorus informs us that Hal now forbids any theatrical presentation of his accomplishments: "Where that his lords desire him to have borne / His bruised helmet and his bended sword / Before him through the city. He forbids it" (17-19). Earlier antithetical, the visual ("behold") and verbal ("thought") are now coming to rest, even as the play returns to its thematic and actual origins: "Now in London place him" (22-23, 35). Appropriately, the Chorus, who had earlier tried to confer epic significance on the bare boards of the Globe, now metadramatically uncovers itself by announcing that it has but "play'd / The interim, by remembering you 'tis past" (42-43). Announcing the role dispels the fiction, by definition, even as "Tis past" signals the fictive nature of a present enactment itself based on facts that are now only historical.

Pistol's appearance in Act 5, scene 1 spells the final dissolution of Henry IV and of his own counterlanguage, as he loses to Fluellen, the play's new breed of responsible, low-life, dialect characters whose regional peculiarities are themselves sacrificed to that national language now achieved in peace. Compelled to eat the leek, Pistol, in essence, is forced gastronomically, fundamentally, to swallow the physical symbol of oath-taking, and hence, of united purpose. The "counterfeit" (5.1.69) standing against the marriage of visual and verbal symbolized by that leek, his crime is itself linguistic: Pistol erred, according to Gower, in assuming that since Fluellen could "not speak English in the native garb," his verbal difficulty was a sign of physical difficulty ("You thought … he could not therefore handle an English cudgel" [75-77]). His own epiloguelike farewell, delivered alone onstage and thus stressing his isolation from the unified assemblages of the next scene, recalls the crimes and the puns of Falstaff's world (he will "steal" to England to "steal") and parodies, though without effect, the play's concern for a meaningful interaction between the visual and the verbal: he will put "patches" on his "cudgell'd scars" and then "swear" he got them in the "Gallia wars" (88-89). If, like his former master Falstaff, he represents the life force, it is only life at the low level of a bawd.

With Pistol's unsavory exit, the twin courts take the stage in Act 5, scene 2, and the stress is clearly on the visual and physical. Burgundy describes the monarchs as having "congreeted" with "face to face, and royal eye to eye" (30-31). Peace, the "dear nurse of arts," is mother to the "joyful births," the restoration of life now possible in "this best garden of the world / Our fertile France" (35-37). We now enter the male, chauvinistic world of realpolitik, where language as persuasion turns to force: Hal's right to dictate terms, to speak unilaterally. Language in its less practical or more imaginative dimension is now housed with the feminine. Queen Isabella suggests: "Happily a woman's voice may do some good / When articles too nicely urg'd be stood on" (93-94). The wooing of Hal and Katherine will now take the stage and, given the accord of the participants on their return, we may assume that her more subtle tongue has prevailed.

That wooing scene has provoked a variety of responses. Its forced marriage is said to blacken the name of romance; Hal's amatory conquest here is merely an instance of domination. The would-be union is a shallow one since Hal and Katherine cannot speak the same language, either linguistically or conceptually. Despite his verbal sophistication elsewhere or the Archbishop's praise of his scholarly English, Hal's pose as a plain-speaking soldier represents a lapse on Shakespeare's part, a cheap attempt for an effect, a capitulation to the convention of the blunt militarist. More positively, the wooing is said show Shakespeare valuing action over characterization, perhaps even restoring the now worldly wise King to the more carefree, engaging stance of his youth. Or it stands emblematically for the merging of the political and social spheres. In the context of the present comments about the play's dissolution of its own imaginary or theatrical language, I would observe that both Hal and Katherine give the illusion of denying the transcendent language we otherwise associate with Shakespeare, thereby parodying the very hand that creates them. Hal is now modeled after a man of the world and no longer imitates the poetic sun or the Son of God from the days of his reformation. The seeming dispraise of playwrights or poets is thus dictated by the demands of this unique play in the canon, and we might therefore take as both proper and ironic the notion that the "tongues of men [playwrights?] are full of deceit" (117-18), the disdain for "verses" (132), for those fellows (surely like Shakespeare himself) of "infinite tongue" (56). As Henry V, by its author's design, veers back to reality, our perspective on the function of dramatic speech must be adjusted, and whatever the immediate political/sensual designs of his spokesman here, Shakespeare himself can momentarily brand an eloquent poet, such as Richard II, "but a prater," and the soaring verse of Henry IV "but a ballad" (158-59). We also recognize that Katherine's inability to "speak [Hal's] English" (102-3) and Hal's bad French serve as the best possible correlatives for the speech that the play itself has championed: artlessness becomes an art in a public world working against the introspective nature of conceptual language.

The demands on the actor are the same as when that actor plays that fellow of infinite speech, Hamlet himself: Hal's thematic sense of timing remains inviolate. Nothing is ever absolutely "plain" or actual on the stage (124), and there is still "music" in this "English broken" (243-44), though it is the music of the same public speech Hal himself defines in his speech lesson to Katherine (220-46): "take me by the hand, and say, 'Harry of England, I am thine'" (236-37). The reward for such speech is a kingdom, if not the romantic love we expect—even demand—in the comedies. Just before the reentrance of the once-rival courts, Hal makes a telling marriage between the physical/visual and the conceptual/verbal, as well as a distinction between the static French language depicted earlier in the play and the English that evolves under his tutelage: "You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate; there is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the tongues of the French council" (275-77). If this is not fully romantic, it is as romantic as public personages are permitted.

With the return of the united courts the practical language of the wooing scene takes a "holiday," as Hal himself, encouraged by Burgundy's playful remarks about Cupid, gives way to a courtly speech more at home, say, in Love's Labor's Lost. Then, just as suddenly as it has appeared, such talk is swept away by the "terms of reason" (329-30) of the international contract. The conferring of French and Latin titles on Henry is itself lifted almost verbatim from Holinshed (330-42); the language now is legal, contractual, anticipatory. If in the wooing scene the dialogue had approached at least a semblance of the private sphere, such domesticity is itself now a metaphor for the public ending: the union of Hal and Katherine is likened to the newly formed marriage between France and England; the joining of bodies in marital consummation stands for a public harmony in which "English may as French, French Englishmen, / Receive each other!" (367-68).

Like Puck's or Prospero's epilogues, the Chorus's final appearance is more than merely a dramatic convention. We are perhaps suspicious of the now repetitious disclaimer of a theater whose author has "pursu'd the story" with only a "rough and all-unable pen," unless, of course, Shakespeare comically casts himself in the role of a nondramatic chronicler. If Hal's special virtue has been to read the times and, in turn, to alter them through that reading, then Shakespeare has done no less in reading Hal, from a trinity of texts extending from the "real" past to the chronicles to the first three plays of the second tetralogy. Thus the phrase mangling by starts (that, is, botching up Hal's life by the playwright's arbitrary selection or omission) actually serves to define Shakespeare's technique rather than to condemn his work.

Even this inverse definition of art is itself swept away by the Chorus's sudden acknowledgment of the brevity of Hal's reign, as the author's productive "mangling" is metamorphosed to the poor "managing" of the realm under Hal's son, Henry VI. History works prospectively, with the troubled, divided realm of Hal's father leading to Hal's reign ("Small time; but in that small most greatly liv'd"), that in turn was dissipated under the next monarchy with the loss of France and "bleed[ing]" of England. But art works retrospectively. Shakespeare's stage "hath shown" earlier the realm of Henry VI: the time covered by the second tetralogy follows in the canon the later historical period covered by the first. The special paradox of the history play, a genre to which Shakespeare would not return until the end of his career, and then probably only in part, rests in the fact that it is at once subject to and yet free from time. Its mirror image is, by definition, inferior to the reality so reflected, yet that reality, for those who live in it as well as participants and the spectators in the theater of its enactment, is itself a construct of language. The issue then becomes: what language is most compatible with the inherent meaning of an event, a meaning at once relative to the perceiver, no less than the playwright, and subject itself to the "acceptance" and hence ratification of the "fair minds" in the audience.

Shakespeare here has his vision of the public world, and if that vision is itself encased in a dramatic illusion, still, against the brevity of Hal's accomplishment in real life stands the finality of his linguistic achievement in "this" present play. Perhaps this distinction between art and life accounts for what the poet Charles Williams calls the "legerity" of spirit in Henry V, the last expression of this spirit before the tragedies [in Shakespearean Criticism 1919-1995, ed. by Anne Ridler, 1936]. Not uncritical of Hal's success, Robert Ornstein observes [in Kingdom for a Stage] that Shakespeare's art here lasts longer than Hal's empire, and of course art is long, life short. I would prefer to qualify the statement by thinking that Shakespeare reads, realistically, the meaning of his King's life, a life rendered significant because of Hal's own collision course with his destiny as forged equally by language and by time. Henry V, a public play on the public stage, enacts in its language and spectacle an existence that is ultimately to be found outside the theater and yet one that, by definition, must be the theater's preeminent concern.

John D. Cox (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: "The Elizabethan Hal," in Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power, Princeton University Press, 1989, pp. 104-27.

[In the essay below, Cox examines ways that the later histories deal with relations between church and state, and suggests that Shakespeare portrayed a monarch who, like Queen Elizabeth, develops an "opaque self" in order to present himself as invulnerable.]

Shakespeare did not abandon his critical interest in Elizabethan power when he dramatized the reigns of the three kings preceding Henry VI; if anything, he made it clearer. The topicality of one these plays, Richard II, seems to have been recognized at once, not only by the censor, who prudently refused to permit publication of the deposition scene, but by the followers of the earl of Essex, who daringly commissioned a revival of the play on the eve of Essex's rebellion, and by the queen herself, who ominously claimed to know that she "was" Richard II. This is not to say that the play would have had precisely the same impact when it was first written that it had in 1601, but merely that Shakespeare's practice of displacing contemporary power relations onto the past—begun in the Henry VI plays—continued with the mature histories. Also consistent with Shakespeare's early attempts in this vein is his insistent and demystifying contrast between sacred and secular history, and here again his recourse to medieval dramatic precedent is a powerful means to achieving that contrast.

Let us begin with the way the later histories deal with church and state, for the Tudors profoundly altered this relationship, and their effect on it is what Shakespeare's plays enact, rather than the pre-Reformation reality. In Henry VIII's bid to consolidate power in his own hands, one of his most effective moves was to make himself supreme head of the church, for by doing so he vastly reduced a major source of independent power in the kingdom and made religion for the first time a responsive instrument of royal policy.… [One] consequence of this move was virtually to eliminate the church as a source of articulate social criticism.

Henry's policy was innovative and strange enough that its ramifications in law and political relations took a long time to work out. Many of them were still unclear when Elizabeth revived essentially the same policy in the settlement of 1559, but thirty-five years later definite patterns had established themselves, and these are what appear in the Lancastrian history plays. Henry V's church, for example, is effectively without pope and cardinals: the highest cleric we see is the archbishop of Canterbury. The phrase "holy church" (Henry V, 1.1.23) is consistent with Elizabethan usage. The king is virtually unchallenged as the governor of a unified national state whose political and ecclesiastical destiny is focused in himself, "the mirror of all Christian kings" (2.Pro.6), one of the Elizabethan poets' favorite images for their sovereign. Canterbury's allusion to the belief that "miracles are ceas'd" (1.1.67) is a Protestant anachronism. Henry's fleeting allusion to the Te Deum and Non Nobis (4.8.122) may strike a modern ear as medieval, but in fact the two psalms he alludes to were only one psalm in the Vulgate, whereas they appear separately, with the Latin names the king uses, in the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer. Retaining such "papistical" details as Latin titles was offensive to Elizabethan Puritans, but the queen insisted on using them, for her taste was conservative in matters of ritual.

The Henry IV plays are consistent with Henry V in depicting a church that is substantially, though not obtrusively Elizabethan, and these plays therefore contrast with King John, the Henry VI plays, and Henry VIII, all of which are more clearly pre-Reformation in their church polity. Yet even in the non-Lancastrian plays, an Elizabethan perspective is evident in varying degrees of opposition to an independent church. When Wolsey, the most famous among Tudor ecclesiastical statesmen, appears in a Shakespearean play, he is a monster, an unambiguous threat to the emergence of rightful power in the king rather than the church. The only other cardinals in Shakespearean drama (Beaufort in 1 and 2 Henry VI and Pandulph in King John) similarly threaten the kingdom, the best efforts of right-minded citizens, and the authority of the monarchy. Such depictions need not be dismissed as unreflective Protestant bias, since they belong to a consistent Shakespearean pattern of dealing with the Elizabethan present as if it were the past.

Relations between church and crown come into unusually clear Elizabethan focus in the first scene of Henry V, where two high churchmen try to arrive at a strategy for dealing with the monarchy. Shakespeare follows Holinshed closely in this scene, but the point at issue is the royal seizure of ecclesiastical land, and this had been a central issue in church/state relations since the dissolution of the monasteries; more important, it was still a matter of urgent concern to the episcopacy in the 1590s. Radical reformers had long advocated the legal appropriation (or "alienation") of church land in the interest of social justice, but they were astonished and disappointed after the dissolution, when they discovered that new prince was but old priest writ large, and the poor were as badly off as ever. They had reckoned without the pressure of upward mobility in the Tudor consolidation of power, for Henry used church land to reward loyal supporters, and their appetite was hard to satisfy. (Suffolk in 2 Henry VI is contemporary in this regard, too, for he is accused by commoners of enclosing land, a practice often followed by the upwardly mobile who acquired ecclesiastical land from the crown in the sixteenth century.) The transfer of church property to secular ownership had been one of the principal reasons for Mary Tudor's inability to undo the work of her father as much as she had wished to, for that transfer had created an irreversible vested interest in Protestant policy.

Under Elizabeth, the elaborate system of patronage centering in the queen depended on her ability to award gifts to her courtiers, and when she came to the most valued gifts, i.e., those in real estate, she obviously preferred to bestow ecclesiastical lands rather than surrender crown capital, on the principle that other people's property is easier to give away than one's own. The church therefore remained the object of unrelenting predation where its temporal lands were concerned. Matthew Parker, the first Elizabethan archbishop of Canterbury, protested the alienation of church lands before his consecration, and he was still concerned with the same problem on his deathbed: his last act was the drafting of a letter to the queen on this subject. That was in 1575, and by the 1590s the queen had actually been compelled to come to the bishops' aid in curbing the more blatant imposition of her courtiers. Their increasing legal sophistication had opened up new lucrative avenues to ecclesiastical property, particularly the so-called concealments, or lands that had escaped appropriation at the time of the dissolution. Private individuals were licensed to search out such lands so they could be added to the crown's rent rolls for eventual dispensation to deserving patrons. So serious were the resulting legal problems for the episcopate that legislation was twice passed in parliament to restrict the practice: once in 1593 and again in 1597-98. John Whitgift, the last Elizabethan archbishop of Canterbury, was himself the object of concealment suits, which he protested to Burghley in 1578 when he was bishop of Worcester. Canterbury's problem was apparently still unresolved in the 1590s, judging from a two-page list of "inconveniences ensuing upon the passing of lands as concealed belonging to churches" that Whitgift sent to Burghley some time before the latter's retirement.

The archbishop of Canterbury, of course, is one of the two churchmen who are concerned about the loss of church land in the first scene of Henry V. The other is the bishop of Ely, whose Elizabethan successor was, if anything, more famously embattled on the issue of church lands than his superior. Until February, 1599, Elizabeth had appointed only one man, Richard Cox, to the bishopric of Ely, and he had been the most vociferous of all the bishops on this issue. He spent twenty-three years in the episcopate fighting successive legal battles to avoid depredation at the hands of Elizabeth's courtiers, among them Sir Christopher Hatton, one of the queen's favorites, whom she admitted to the privy council in 1577 and made lord chancellor ten years later. "For Christ Jesus' sake," Cox implored the queen, "be ye a most pious nurse, favorer and defender of your clergy in this wicked and atheistical age!" When Shakespeare wrote Henry V, the see of Ely had been vacant for eighteen years—ever since Cox had died in 1581—and Elizabeth's inordinate delay in appointing his successor was probably in revenge for Cox's outspoken resistance to the attempted alienation of temporal lands belonging to Ely, for the bill of 1559 permitted the queen to take advantage of a bishop's death by exchanging spiritualities of relatively little profit for wealthy temporal lands as long as the see remained vacant.

Shakespeare's focus on the bishops in Henry V is usually regarded as satirical, particularly given his subsequent treatment of their support for the war in France. The undeniable topicality of the first scene, however, points beyond satire to the dynamics of Tudor monarchy. For the alienation of church lands was central to Elizabethan royal supremacy, which in turn was a matter of effective power, as it had been for Henry VIII, and that kind of power is the consistent focus of Shakespeare's history plays, as … in the case of the Henry VI plays.… Effective power was the motive behind the parliamentary bill of 1559 permitting the queen to disendow ecclesiastical property, for the bill was part of her attempt to reassert royal control over the church after her sister's partial undoing of the Henrician reformation. In other words, royal expropriation of church land was not prompted simply by greed—though greed was certainly not absent from the process—but by Elizabeth's perception of her need to gain control of political affairs. If she was, as she carefully phrased it, "supreme governor" of the church, then she had at her disposal the framework for controlling the church as a political force, and one means of making her control actually work was to lay claim to church property. As Archbishop Whitgift incisively remarked, in a letter to the bishop of Ely, "The temporally seek to make the clergy beggars that we may depend upon them."

Elizabeth's canny focus on effective power explains why, in the course of her reign, her attitude toward the episcopacy underwent an apparent change. If the bill of 1559 was designed to put the church in its place vis-à-vis the crown, so was Elizabeth's choice not to appoint fresh faces from the clergy to her first privy council. It was, in fact, decidedly pro-Protestant, but it excluded powerful clerics like those who had served in the councils of her grandfather and father, and their exclusion signalled secular control of the church without openly declaring it. Later, however, when Puritan resistance to episcopacy increased, Elizabeth began to give the bishops more support. Not only did she move to restrict the seizure of ecclesiastical property, but in 1586 she also appointed Archbishop Whitgift to the privy council. This was a reversal of means only, not of political ends, for her actions both in opposition to the bishops and in support of them were direct expressions of the crown's supremacy, since Puritan opposition to episcopacy began to challenge Elizabeth's initiative in religious policy more seriously than episcopacy itself had done hitherto.

Inevitably the assertion of royal prerogative produced political deals of the sort that appear in Henry V, and just as inevitably their outcome favored the crown, as does the outcome of Henry V. If the particular tradeoff in that play has no actual Elizabethan parallel, the issue itself was certainly familiar, and more important, the mere fact of such political dealing between church and crown was quintessentially Elizabethan. (Historically, the bill mentioned in Henry V 1.1 was actually introduced by Lollard sympathizers during the reign of Henry IV, it was strongly resisted and quickly quashed for its heretical implications. In other words, the original bill was attended by none of the politicking Shakespeare depicts, and though he follows Holinshed closely in rendering the scene, its appeal to him may well have been its familiarity.) One small example of episcopal maneuvering is worth noting because it came close to Shakespeare. Late in his life, Archbishop Parker created six scholarships to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, for poor students from his own see of Canterbury. One of the first students to win a Parker scholarship was Christopher Marlowe, the son of a Canterbury shoemaker. Parker's action in creating these scholarships conforms to a pattern of defensive action taken by Elizabethan bishops to justify their temporal incomes, on the argument that if a leader of Christian pastors was to provide an example of charity to other clergy, as his place required, then he had to have the means to be charitable. This argument and the actions to accompany it, such as the Parker scholarships, were often cited by Elizabethan bishops in opposition to royal expropriation of church lands.

Henry V's resemblance to the only monarch Shakespeare had ever known at the time he wrote his history plays goes much deeper than parallels in church polity, but such resemblances always elucidate the exercise of centralized power. From the time Henry V first appears as a prince in 1 Henry IV, he is incurably theatrical, and his theatricality is inseparable from his pursuit of power, a link that should identify him with Richard III but in fact shows how far Shakespeare had come in this vein since he wrote the early histories. Stephen Greenblatt has pointed out how closely theatricality and power were identified in Renaissance culture, and … this is true not only in the self-fashioning advocated by a realist like Machiavelli but in the directions for courtly behavior put forward by putative idealists like Castiglione and Puttenham, who were much influenced by Italian neo-Platonism and thoroughly understood its utility in self-enhancement. Shakespeare's creation of an ambitious courtier like Richard HI illustrates how readily medieval dramatic tradition could be adapted to the new cultural reality. Indeed, it would be more accurate to speak in terms of a continuous popular tradition that produces characters like the N-Town Satan in the fifteenth century, the Vice in the early sixteenth, and Richard III in the late sixteenth—always from the same perspective on the "new fashion." Richard is related dramaturgically to the N-Town Satan and also to Satan's duplicity, arrogance, and ambition.

Yet for all the usefulness of medieval dramatic tradition in rendering Tudor power, Shakespeare does something quite different with Henry V as prince and king from what he had done with Richard III. To put it succinctly, Henry is no longer self-evident, and he is therefore much harder to understand. Richard Ill's motives, like those of the Vice or of the courtly N-Town Lucifer, are always divulged to us, even though they are concealed from others. Richard's innermost self is therefore transparent, and the moral reality he admits to violating is clear. His debate with himself before the battle of Bosworth (5.3.176-206) belongs to psychomachic tradition, as does Proteus' debate with himself in Two Gentlemen, 2.6, and the aim of that tradition is precisely to clarify the lines of moral conflict. Other ambitious characters in the early histories work the same way Richard does: Suffolk, Winchester, York, all tell us what they are up to, and we watch in ambivalent fascination as they show off to us god-like auditors the impudent pranks they date not show those in their own imagined world. This dramatic strategy in the early histories is one of the ways that Shakespeare preserves the sense of a positive courtly ideal, for only those who are morally duplicitous in seeking power thus bare their gleeful guilty souls before us. Talbot and Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, on the other hand, carry on in moral single-mindedness, without a hint of difference between action and intention.

In contrast to the transparency of Richard III and those like him is the opacity of Henry V, who however is no less theatrical. Henry V therefore renders much more compellingly the kind of theatricality that was evident everywhere on the Elizabethan political scene: his relative opacity is Shakespeare's consummate version of theatrical invulnerability cultivated in the interest of position and power. "Cunningly to be able to dissemble" required a credible representation of what one pretended to be, and credibility is shattered by asides that reveal the duplicitous self behind the dissembling, however effective such things may be in the theater. When Elizabeth was a princess, she found herself in a position where she had to dissemble convincingly to preserve her life—to make herself literally invulnerable—to say nothing of preserving her hope for power. Ironically, this position vis-à-vis her sister, Mary Tudor, was exactly the same position that Mary Stuart would be in vis-à-vis Elizabeth herself thirty years later: a serious contender for the throne, whose religious sympathy made her the natural focus of widespread political opposition. Given Elizabeth's situation in 1553, her sister justifiably regarded her with deep suspicion, and Mary's insistence that Elizabeth publicly declare her allegiance to Catholicism was not motivated so much by disinterested concern for her sister's soul as by Mary's anxiousness to deal a body blow to the opposition by depriving them of a leader—as Elizabeth would do later by executing Mary Stuart. This is where Princess Elizabeth had to dissemble, and her skill in doing so gave her good reason to mistrust Mary Stuart later. Elizabeth chose the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary as the day on which to take her first public mass. The theatricality of this choice is striking: it reveals an unsurpassed ability to conjoin private action (religious commitment) with public show; it seemed to express exemplary Catholic piety; and it flattered Mary decorously by emphasizing the saint for whom.she was named—the Queen of Heaven, at that. Given Elizabeth's subsequent history, this event seems remarkably pragmatic, if not cynical. Yet Elizabeth cannot have allowed any suggestion of its pragmatism to escape for Mary to see it that way, or to be able to prove it if she did see it. Referring to Elizabeth's conversion, the French ambassador wrote his king: "Everyone believes that she is acting rather from fear of danger and peril from those around her than from real devotion," but mere suspicion was not enough to impugn Elizabeth's action. The gesture itself was opaque, creating a sufficient truth about Elizabeth to enable her personal and political survival.

"In pompous ceremonies a secret of government doth much consist," noted an observer of Queen Elizabeth's court, and the observation underscores the queen's ability to rule by means of compelling illusions like her Catholic conversion in 1553. This ability was an open secret of political success that Jonson would recognize and exploit in the masques he wrote for Elizabeth's successor. But Shakespeare seems to have recognized it earlier, and to have made plays—not masques—that enact it. His preparation for creating a king with Elizabeth's kind of theatrical opacity is evident in Richard II. The most theatrical character in this play is King Richard himself, but in talking about his role-playing to the whole world he makes his act inseparable from his identity as king: his kingly role, in the full sense of the word, is to do thus. By swift turns he takes on the roles of Phaeton and Christ (3.3 and 4.1), and his intention in doing so is to shape his auditors' response to the king's dilemma—not to dissemble his motives in the interest of power, as Shakespeare's earlier political actors had done. Who Richard is apart from these roles we do not know, and as a man in pursuit of power he is therefore much harder to assess morally than Richard III. Only after his deposition do we begin to see a personality separating itself from the public role, and then only in the solitude of his prison in Pomfret Castle. At this point, shorn of his power and his audience, Richard discovers his vulnerability, and the discovery is accompanied by "thoughts divine" that identify its tradition, "As thus, 'Come, little ones,' and then again, / 'It is as hard to come as for a camel / To thread the postern of a small needle's eye'" (5.5.12-17). What Richard discovers in his destitution is also true to medieval tradition, as here he achieves more human dignity than he had ever possessed in the inflated versions of himself as king. He is still indelibly theatrical ("Thus play I in one person many people"), but with power no longer his object, his playing is disinterested and allows him to see the truth about himself:

    But whate'er I be,
Nor I, nor any man that but man is
With nothing shall be pleas'd, till he be eas'd
With being nothing.


Like Shakespeare's comic heroes, Richard discovers himself in coming to the end of himself. However, in this play self-discovery is not the climactic focus of the action but a small eddy of solitary activity that emphasizes how difficult such discoveries are in the pursuit of power. Richard's story is no comedy but part of a history, and Richard is an idle captive, another's Jack of the clock, while time "runs posting on in Bolingbroke's proud joy" at the apex of power.

Bolingbroke, on the other hand, is a different case again: a truly opaque self, like his son. Never revealing a transparent dissembling self, like the power seekers of the early histories, and never discovering himself outside the pursuit of power, Bolingbroke is to all appearances a single-minded character like Talbot or Duke Humphrey, and he certainly seems to want the world to think of him that way. Yet his repeated declaration that he has returned to England merely to reclaim his stolen duchy is impossible to reconcile with the timing of his return, the size of the force he brings, or what he does after landing. Words and actions do not say the same thing, either in this case or in many others, as when Henry IV wishes he were rid of "this living fear" and then punishes Pierce of Exton for murdering Richard. In contrast to Richard, Bolingbroke appears to be untheatrical, and he indeed lacks his opponent's way with words and grand gestures. Yet Bolingbroke would seem to understand no less well than Richard III the maxim from Puttenham's Arte that we have encountered before as a quintessential expression of self-fashioning and power: "Qui nescit dissimulare nescit regnare."

Shakespeare's invention of the opaque self achieves its best expression in Henry V, whose cultivation of in-vulnerability in the quest for power is distinctly Elizabethan, like his government's relationship with the church. Henry V's theatricality, like Elizabeth's, is invariably designed to acquire and maintain political advantage, yet the advantage is always a matter of inference, because action and intention are ostensibly the same, as they are with Henry IV. As a heroic exemplar of courtly expectations, Henry far surpasses Talbot of 1 Henry VI, indeed he is explicitly compared to the earl of Essex (Henry V, 5.Pro.30-32), who was by far the most impressive courtier of the late 1590s. Yet the later histories are ambiguous about a positive standard of courtliness, unlike the Henry VI plays, because they create no qualitative distinction between disinterested state servants (like Talbot and Duke Humphrey) and those who quest for power. Every character can now be rendered in relation to that quest, because no revelation of ulterior motive is required, this is the utility of the opaque self, and it is a signal gain over the early history plays in enabling a realistic enactment of contemporary power relations. One is tempted to surmise that at about the time Shakespeare wrote Richard II, he recognized the inherent orientation of courtesy to power and invented the opaque self as a means of conveying that orientation on the stage.

Admittedly, Henry V's occasional soliloquies would appear to be exceptions to his opacity—as in Prince Hal's soliloquy in I Henry IV, 1.2., where he reveals his motive for consorting with tavern haunters and commoners. This soliloquy is more subtle than a mere updating of Richard III's Vicelike revelatory asides, however. Its primary function is to make Hal look just the opposite of Richard III—not a bad man pretending to be good but a good man pretending to be bad. For Hal's soliloquy signals Shakespeare's departure from the tradition of The Famous Victories of Henry V, in which the madcap prince indeed surrenders to the unyoked humor of tavern idleness. Shakespeare's prince must reassure us that he is not really wasting his time: he is only pretending to be a profligate in order to look all the better by comparison when his sudden reformation takes place later on. But Hal's transparency is disingenuous. His strategy inescapably involves power because he is going to be king. As he frankly points out later, "When I am King of England I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap" (2.4.13-14). Since Hal is going to inherit power, no matter what he does, he is quite different from Richard III, but he is identical to Richard in being concerned from the outset that his power be effective, or to put it another way, that he have no effective rivals. The virtue he claims is therefore indistinguishable from virtú. He appropriates moral language ("loose behavior," "reformation"), but what he is really talking about is the skill of the courtier, whose very profession, as Puttenham says, "is in plain terms cunningly to be able to dissemble." A similar opacity characterizes Henry V's soliloquy before Agincourt (Henry V, 4.1.227-81). Apparently a demystifying meditation on the distinction between kingly office and mortal king, this soliloquy actually reveals very little, if anything, about the king's self—or if it does, it shows a self absorbed in the office. Humility is inevitable, and therefore not difficult, when one faces the kind of military odds Henry does in this case—and we must not forget that Henry got himself into his present predicament by his own political ambition: he invaded France, not vice versa. To put it bluntly, this soliloquy reveals no more than that the king is cast back on his own resources out of political necessity. The interrupted soliloquy continues with a prayer in which Henry begs God to forget Henry IV's usurpation of Richard II's throne—a pragmatic request under the circumstances, because the evidence for God's "remembering" will be Henry's defeat, and that is what Henry is trying to forestall by reminding God of the chantries he has funded "to pardon blood" (4.1.297). Unlike Lear's recognition of the disparity between "ceremonious affection" and the king's mortality, Henry V's meditation on ceremony is opportunistic, even if the king himself does not appear to see it that way at the time he says it. His self-deception comes closest to the surface when he construes his lot as harder than a peasant's (4.1.263-81). Only a king preoccupied with problems of his own making could convince himself that peasants always sleep soundly with their bellies full and are therefore happier than kings. Lear in his destitution discovers something quite different.

Hal therefore remains opaque, even in soliloquy, and the question inevitably arises whether an identity apart from the one he shows us even exists. In common sense terms, of course, it obviously does not: we know nothing more of his character than what is enacted before us. But the fact that the question arises at all says something about Hal's ambiguity, and it is a politically significant question because it also arises in connection with theatrical public figures in real life, thus bearing directly on the Elizabethan psychology of pursuing power. In the late 1590s, no power seeker apart from the queen herself was more remarkable than the earl of Essex, and although the late histories were completed before his death (indeed before the failure of his Irish expedition), the manner of Essex's fall and death illustrates how perfectly Shakespeare renders the ambiguities of theatrical opacity in contemporary politics.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15959

Edward I. Berry (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: '"True Things and Mock'ries': Epic and History in Henry V." The Journal of English and Germanic Philogy, Vol. LXXVIII, No. 1, January 1979, pp. 1-16.

[In the following essay, Berry contends that Henry V is an epic, noting the tension that results from the opposing notions of epic ideal and political reality in the play.]

Among the many points of disagreement in criticism of Henry V is its relation to epic. For some critics the play is a "true" Renaissance epic, a patriotic celebration of an ideal Christian king. For others it is an unrealized epic—a play written in the heroic mode but without conviction or a coherent perspective on its hero.

For still others the play verges on mock-heroic or satire, invoking epic conventions only to undermine them. Common to all these views, I think, is a tendency to oversimplify the play's connection to its given mode. As the exceptional use of the Chorus suggests, Henry V is one of the plays in which Shakespeare exploits most self-consciously generic expectations. The play is epic, I would suggest, in much the same way that As You Like It is pastoral: it offers a sophisticated and searching exploration of a conventional poetic genre and the view of reality that Elizabethans felt the genre implied.

Shakespeare's conception of epic would have derived not only from Homer and Virgil, of course, but from Renaissance poets—Spenser and Ariosto, in particular—and even from popular heroic plays such as Tamburlaine and the anonymous Edward III. The structure of Henry V, with its movement from conquest to marriage, is reminiscent of Tamburlaine, Part I, though individual episodes, like the opening council scene, share remarkable affinities with Edward III. Although it draws upon a wide variety of heroic traditions, popular and aristocratic, the play fulfills most of the formal requirements of classical epic: its hero is of national significance; its action is impressive in scale and centers upon war; it emphasizes the will of God; its style is often elevated. The play's use of epic devices, moreover, is remarkably thorough: it includes an epic narrator, the Chorus; an invocation to the Muse; catalogues of warriors; battle taunts and challenges; epithets, like the "deep-mouth'd sea" (V.Chorus.ll) or "the warlike Harry" (Prol., 1. 5); an extended simile—Canterbury's, on the bees. Nothing essential to epic is excluded from the play; the central critical problem is that it.includes, as we shall see, so much more.

In order to understand Shakespeare's exploitation of these conventions, one must consider the Elizabethan attitude toward epic. Sidney's treatment of the subject in the Apologie for Poetrie is typical and directly relevant to Henry V:

There rests the Heroicall, whose very name (I thinke) should daunt all back-biters; for by what conceit can a tongue be directed to speake evill of that which draweth with it no lesse Champions then Achilles, Cyrus, Aeneas, Turnus, Tideus, and Rinaldo? who doth not onely teach and move to a truth, but teacheth and mooveth to the most high and excellent truth; who maketh magnanimity and justice shine throughout all misty fearerulnese and foggy desires: who, if the saying oí Plato and Tullie bee true, that who could see Vertue would be wonderfully ravished with the love of her beauty: this man sets her out to make her more lovely in her holyday apparel, to the eye of any that will daine not to disdaine untili they understand. But if any thing be already sayd in the defence of sweete Poetry, all concurreth to the maintaining the Heroicall, which is not onely a kinde, but the best and most accomplished kinde of Poetry. For as the image of each action styrreth and instructeth the mind, so the loftie image of such Worthies most inflameth the mind with desire to be worthy, and informes with counsel how to be worthy. Only let Aeneas be worne in the tablet of your memory: how he governeth himseife in the ruine of his Country: in the preserving his old Father, and carrying away his religious ceremonies; in obeying the Gods commandement to leave Dido, though not onely all passionate kindenes, but even the humane consideration of vertuous gratefulnes, would have craved other of him; how in storms, howe in sports, howe in warre, howe in peace, how a fugitive, how victorious, how besiedged, how besiedging, howe to strangers, howe to allyes, how to enemies, howe to his owne: lastly, how in his inward selfe, and how in his outward government; and I thinke, in a minde not prejudiced with a prejudicating humor, hee will be found in excellencie fruitfull, yea, even as Horace sayth,

Melius Chrisippo et Crantore.

Although, as we shall see, Sidney's description of The Aeneid implies a certain structure for epic, he is less concerned with form than with effect. Epic is the greatest of poetic genres because of its ability to incite its readers to virtue. It achieves its effect not by imitating life but by idealizing it, dressing virtue in her "holyday apparel"—or, to be more precise, by imitating those "ideas" of perfection that exist in the "golden world" of the poet's imagination, but not in the "brasen world" of nature. It is this Elizabethan oversimplification of classical epic, not epic itself, that most concerns Shakespeare in Henry V.

The play includes a spokesman for this golden world—the Chorus, which serves throughout as a kind of Sidneyan epic voice, mediating between events on stage and the audience. Though the Chorus fulfills several functions as narrator—apologizing for the limitations of the theater, explaining lapses of time and shifts in locale, creating atmosphere—its most important function is to evoke an epic mood, to incite the audience to see a "platonic" realm of epic ideals through the actions and characters represented on stage. As a spokesman for epic norms, however, the Chorus is used to insinuate problems that are alien to Sidney's conception of epic. The process begins with the invocation to the Muse:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention!
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars.…

(Prol., 11. 1-6)

The conventional epic gestures are here: the appeal to the Muse, the straining for sublimity, the elevation of both the action and the hero. Yet the gestures are made only to be subtly withdrawn: "But pardon, gentles all …" (I. 8). Not only are the stage and actors inadequate to the theme, but so is the poet himself; the "flat unraised spirits that hath dar'd … to bring forth / So great an object" include not only actors ("spirits") but the playwright himself, whose animal spirits, in Elizabethan psychology, are crucial to an active imagination. Our author has no "Muse of fire" with which to ascend "the brightest heaven of invention"; the invocation is unique, as far as I know, in consisting of lament rather than prayer. Nor does he have "a kingdom for a stage, princes to act," or "monarchs to behold the swelling scene." At every level, not merely that of stage representation, the drama is wanting.

To see the Chorus as merely an apologist for the limitations of the Elizabethan stage, as is customary, is thus hardly adequate: not merely the stage is imperfect, but author and audience as well. The limitations of the stage, as will become increasingly clear, reflect the broader limitations of reality. Because of these imperfections Henry cannot "assume the port of Mars," cannot be "like himself." His true "self," like a Platonic idea, recedes beyond the poet's ability to embody it in words, the stage's ability to enact it, and the audience's ability to perceive it. In exhorting us to use our imagination, the Chorus urges us to create an ideal, an "aery nothing" (to borrow the language of Theseus) that can be given no "local habitation" or "name." The "truth" of this play, then, lies not in what we see on stage but in our imaginations: "For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings" (Prol., I. 28). The word "deck," which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as "to cover with that which beautifies," conveys precisely Sidney's notion of the epic imagination as that which clothes virtue in "holyday apparel." Sidney's poet, however, embodies epic ideals in language; in Henry V they are confined to the "thoughts" of the audience. For Shakespeare; it seems, the golden world of epic exists only within the imagination, which the Chorus attempts to inspire. Our function as audience, as the Chorus reminds us in Act IV, is to "sit and see,/Minding true things by what their mock'ries be" (II. 52-53).

Having exhorted us to "deck" the play's kings with our "thoughts," to create a true epic in our imagination, the Chorus yields the stage to Canterbury and Ely. The shift is disconcerting. With a golden world in our mind we observe the brazen world of political intrigue. Though the two prelates are not broadly satirized, as they were in Olivier's film, they are clearly creatures of a political world that jars with epic ideals. Seeing the Church's power threatened by Parliament, they are willing to use a French war to defend it. Even their discussion of Henry's "miraculous" conversion is tied to the practical question of his support of the bill before Parliament. When Ely asks Canterbury what can prevent the impending loss of Church properties, Canterbury responds, "The King is full of grace and fair regard" (I.i.22)——as if the mark of grace were by definition political support of Mother Church rather than Parliament. Although he listens patiently to Canterbury's lengthy panegyric, Ely seems anxious to return to the real point at issue:

  But, my good lord,
How now for mitigation of this bill
Urg'd by the commons? Doth his Majesty
Incline to it, or no?


Canterbury's reply betrays eloquently his habitual assumptions:

    He seems indifferent;
Or rather swaying more upon our part
Than cherishing th'exhibiters against us;
For I have made an offer to his Majesty.…


As the causal connective makes clear, Canterbury believes money more efficacious than "grace" or "fair regard." Later, of course, in the council scene, Canterbury will wager his soul that the English claim to France is completely valid: "The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!" (I.ii.97).

The effect of this abrupt shift from epic ideals to political realities is not exactly deflationary, as it would be in mock-epic, but it is unsettling nonetheless. The problem is not that the stage attempts an epic action and fails, in which case the Chorus' apology could be taken in its simplest sense, but that it succeeds so well at depicting a realistic one. In effect, the dramatic mode has changed from epic to historical, and, as Sidney well knew, history is inferior to epic in its ability to inflame "the mind with desire to be worthy": "the Historian, beeing captived to the trueth of a foolish world, is many times a terror from well dooing, and an incouragement to unbrideled wickednes." At issue are two different conceptions of truth—truth to the ideals of the imagination or to the actualities of history.

The tension created by these opposing views, of course, is of profound importance to the Elizabethan and Jacobean age. On the one hand, Sidney commits himself to the golden truth of poetry. Bacon, on the other hand, divorces poetry from truth, since poetry merely submits "the shews of things to the desires of the mind," and elevates history because it is dependent upon reason and "doth buckle and bow the mind unto the nature of things" [The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, Robert Leslie Ellis, and Douglas Denon Heath, 1859]. Sidney praises Virgil because he has embodied in Aeneas the virtues of a perfect prince; Bacon praises Machiavelli because he writes of "what men do and not what they ought to do." Shakespeare, characteristically, requires that we somehow accommodate both perspectives. The Chorus envisions a golden world true to the imagination, a world that Bacon excludes from his new philosophy; the action of the play, more often than not, presents the brazen truth of history, which Sidney excludes from epic.

In a variety of ways, this alternation of opposed perspectives provides the basic rhythm of the play. The Chorus to Act II, for example, exhorts us, in a manner reminiscent of Virgil's description of the arming Latins, to imagine the excitement of the English youth as they prepare for war:

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

(II. 1-4)

The Chorus itself must immediately qualify this image, however, and acknowledge the melancholy fact that the preparations for war include the treachery of Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey. "O England!" the Chorus laments, "What mightst thou do, that honor would thee do, / Were all thy children kind and natural!" (II. 16,18-19). An even more radical qualification occurs in the next scene, which reveals Nym and Pistol, in a parody of "silken dalliance," squabbling over the love of Mistress Quickly before taking leave for France. If "honor's thought / Reigns solely in the breast of every man," Pistol is hardly aware of it:

Yoke-fellows in arms,
Let us to France, like horse-leeches, my boys,
To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck!


Epic ideals may occupy our imagination, but the stage exhibits travesty and treachery.

The pattern is repeated, with variations, in subsequent scenes. In Act III the need to inspire his troops prompts Henry to adopt self-consciously a perspective akin to the Chorus'. "There is none of you," he exclaims,

           so mean and base
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
[Straining] upon the start.


As Henry exits, his "greyhounds," Nym, Pistol, Bardolph, and the Boy, are shown in action—complaining that the "knocks are too hot" (III.ii.3-4), singing ditties of "immortal fame" (I. 11), wishing themselves "in an alehouse in London" (I. 12); they are finally beaten to the breach by Fluellen. The episode that ensues, though not so grossly parodic, offers yet another unsettling perspective on Henry's exhortation, for it presents the officers themselves in postures hardly heroic—Fluellen baiting Macmorris for his ignorance of the true disciplines of war while, as the Irishman complains, "there is throats to be cut, and works to be done, and there ish nothing done, so Christ sa' me law!" (II. 111-13). In Act IV the Chorus prepares us for the "little touch of Harry in the night" (I. 47) that heartens Erpingham and Gloucester, but not for the king's argument with Williams or the mood of bitterness and disillusionment that characterizes his soliloquy. In Act V the Chorus' enthusiastic description of the glorious return of the English is followed by Pistol's own plans for a home-coming:

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.


The elements of parody, comedy, and political realism create a variety of different effects, but they all run counter to the Elizabethan conception of epic dignity assumed throughout by the Chorus. A neoclassicist like Sidney, one suspects, if he would have consented to a dramatic adaptation of epic at all, would have dismissed such "epicomedy" as another of the mongrelized products of the popular stage. Curiously, however, it is difficult to blame this particular mixture of modes directly on the popular tradition, for playwrights with epic pretensions almost invariably avoided comedy. Of the plays that David Riggs discusses [in Shakespeare's Heroical Histories, 1971] as "heroical histories," for example, only a few contain scenes of low-life humor. Those that most clearly betray epic intention, moreover, such as Tamburlaine, Alphonsus, King of Aragon, The Wars of Cyrus, The Battle of Alcazar, Edward III, and Edmund Ironside, maintain an atmosphere that is serious and aristocratic. Tamburlaine may have been an exception, for the Preface to Part I asserts that the stage version included comic scenes. The reason provided for not printing them, however, reveals an allegiance to epic decorum that seems to have affected even popular dramatists: such scenes "would prove a disgrace to so honorable and stately a history." If Henry V is "daringly novel," as J. H. Walter suggests [in the Arden edition], it is not because it adapts epic to the stage, but because it asserts so insistently its epic nature while at the same time including a multitude of elements that threaten to "prove a disgrace to so honorable and stately a history." Although the subgenre is admittedly a motley one, no other "heroical history," as far as I am aware, blends so many or such discordant elements. Although he had not attempted it before, the hybrid was for Shakespeare, of course, hardly revolutionary; he merely superimposed an epic form upon content that remained true to the comic, realistic, and skeptical tendencies of King John and the Henry IV plays.

The effect of this dramatic method upon the characterization of Henry is necessarily complex. With the exception of his brief and relatively uninformative soliloquy the night before Agincourt, we have no access to the private man, and his public rhetoric is inevitably ambiguous; as Machiavelli knew, the public gestures of a merely politic man are almost impossible to distinguish from those of a prudent one. To determine Henry's motives, his inner nature, we must rely on the insinuations provided by the dramatic context, but this, as we have seen, is kaleidoscopic. The Chorus conceives of the play's world as epic; the world we perceive on stage is most often realistic, comic, or burlesque. To argue that our impression of Henry is un-affected by either perspective, the heroic or the unheroic, as the more extreme critics tend to do, seems to me dramatically naïve. The play presents us with at least two sets of lenses; the critical problem it poses is how to adjust them to each other.

An answer is provided obliquely, I believe, as is often the case in Shakespeare, in the casual conversation in which Canterbury and Ely try to come to terms with the implications of Henry's sudden transformation. Canterbury interprets the change as a miraculous re-version to a state of pre-lapsarian perfection:

Consideration like an angel came
And whipt th'offending Adam out of him.
Leaving his body as a paradise
T'envelop and contain celestial spirits.


For Canterbury, only such a miracle can explain how a youth whose hours were "fill'd up with riots, banquets, sports" (I. 56) could become a paragon of kingly virtues. Ely, however, offers a homelier explanation:

The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbor'd by fruit of baser quality;
And so the Prince obscur'd his contemplation
Under a veil of wildness, which (no doubt)
Grew like the summer grass, fastest by night,
Unseen, yet crescive in his faculty.

(II. 60-66)

The naturalistic account removes the sense of miracle and mystery from Henry's transformation. He is now by analogy a strawberry, not the original Adam. His virtues have been achieved not through a miraculous conversion but through a natural and explicable process of development. Though he does so with a touch of wistfulness, Canterbury finally accepts Ely's perspective:

It must be so; for miracles are ceas'd;
And therefore we must needs admit the means
How things are perfected.

(II. 67-69)

Canterbury reluctantly accepts the fact that reality does not live up to one's desires. There are no second Edens; perfections are achieved by humble, even ignoble means. In the context provided by Ely's metaphor and by the conversation as a whole, which is one of political intrigue, the word "perfected" becomes meaningfully ambiguous. Strawberries may achieve perfection in the sense of completion or maturity, but a perfect strawberry is as much a Platonic idea as a perfect king. The opposed views of the two prelates continue the play's dialectic between epic ideals and unheroic realities. Canterbury's "we must admit the means / How things are perfected" becomes what Maynard Mack has called [in The Jacobean Shakespeare, ed. John Russell Brown and Bernard Harris, 1960] an "umbrella" phrase. Its provocative ambiguity covers the major action of the play: is Henry's conquest of France merely completed or made perfect? Like the Chorus' "O for a Muse of fire," the phrase testifies to our desire for heroic ideals that perpetually elude our grasp. Henry's greatness, it seems, grows out of earthly gardens, not Edens. Shakespeare's method forces us to "admit the means," to set the one complete king of English history against the perfect king of our imagination.

The scenes in which Henry appears seem calculated to exploit this tension. Most of them, as J. H. Walter has shown, display Henry in the conventional roles of the ideal Christian king. The episodic structure of the play, in which the hero is depicted in a series of varied postures—in council, in negotiations, in contact with his men, in battle, in private, in courtship—recalls not only Tamburlaine but Sidney's description of The Aeneid. Implicit in Sidney's description of Aeneas is the idea that epic does not depict the development or change of a hero but reveals every facet of his varied perfections. By the time we have finished The Aeneid, according to Sidney, we cannot imagine "so excellent a man every way as Virgil's Aeneas." Critics who have attempted to show development in Henry's nature in the course of the play, I believe, have been less convincing than those who have approached the character in terms of this conception of epic structure. The scenes are constructed in such a way as to highlight the various facets of Henry's character as king against an implied background of epic norms. The method creates a complex view of Henry as a great king who nonetheless falls short, as he must, of our capacity to imagine greatness.

The impression of Henry established in the opening council scene is typical and, since it concerns the justification for the entire war, crucial. Structurally, the scene crystallizes what might be called the chivalric formula for declaring a just war. The king first assures himself of the justice of his cause, both legally and morally, then considers the strategic defense of his kingdom. Only after he has made up his mind does he hear the French ambassador, with the result that the Dauphin's insult, though it arouses his anger, has no effect upon his decision. His final words emphasize that he views the action as righteous and dependent upon the will of God. The nearly formulaic nature of the scene becomes apparent if it is compared to the opening of the anonymous Edward III. Like Henry, Edward III first assures himself of the legitimacy of his claim to France, a claim that in his case too depends upon the invalidity of the Salic law. After he has made his decision, he receives the French ambassador who insultingly demands an oath of fealty to the French king and provokes an angry retort. Finally, Edward considers the threat posed by the Scots, who are laying siege to Roxborough, and prepares to drive them back to Scotland before invading France. The scene ends with the young prince readying himself to exchange his studies for the "school of honour," war.

Though nearly identical in form, the two scenes are radically different in effect. In Edward HI, as might be expected, the Sidneyan epic mode is taken at face value. Edward's title to France is justified, without irony, by a French nobleman who does so out of "love unto my country and the right" (p. 92). Later in the play it is vindicated by the French citizenry (p. 127) and, indirectly, by the French king and his prince, who make no claim to the throne other than that of mere possession (pp. 123-24, 131-33). In Henry V, however, as we have observed, the council scene is preceded by the politic conversation of Canterbury and Ely. The scene itself, moreover, includes Canterbury's interminable discourse on the genealogy of the French kings, which, even if it were "as clear as is the summer's sun" (I.ii.86), would still be tainted by the pedantic legalism that Shakespeare always treats ironically. Unlike the Sidneyan method of Edward III, which excludes political, moral, and psychological complexities, Shakespeare's method consistently brings them to the fore. Edward III depicts on stage the golden world that Shakespeare restricts to our imagination.

The issues raised in Shakespeare's council scene do not completely undermine the character of Henry, but they create suspicions that belong to a brazen rather than golden world. Questions surface that, as far as we can tell, are not being squarely faced. Is a prelate with a vested interest in a French war to be entrusted with the spiritual responsibility of validating it? Is Henry's title to England any clearer than his title to France? Is a legal claim the same as a moral claim? Are Henry's motives entirely disinterested? Or is he perhaps prompted by the need, personal as well as political, to prove himself as king, or by his father's dying advice to "busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels" (2 Henry IV IV.v.213-14)? Without direct access to Henry's mind it is impossible to answer these questions with any certainty—hence the violent disagreements on Henry's character among critics. But it is equally impossible not to confront them; the dramatic method insures that they will be raised. When Shakespeare excludes the audience from a central character's consciousness, moreover, as in the case of Bolingbroke in Richard II or Caesar in Antony and Cleopatra, the exclusion itself becomes a device of characterization—a sign of a mind not given to introspection. In Henry V the impression created is of a king whose political success depends upon his ability to shut off questions that if pursued would only inhibit action. Our own consciousness of these questions leads us to yearn for a golden world in which they would all have easy answers, or, paradoxically, for a hero who would open himself to them and become, in the world that Henry inhabits, a tragic figure. Political realities resist epic formulation.

A similar impression of a restricted consciousness is created when Henry renders judgment against the traitors—Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey. The ironic commentary is again oblique—dependent in this case upon the scenes that frame the episode and announce Falstaff's illness and death. In II. i, we learn from Pistol that Falstaff is dying of a heart "fracted and corroborate" (I. 124), the result of his betrayal by his youthful companion. "The King hath run bad humors on the knight," says Nym, "that's the even of it" (II. 121-22). In Scene ii Henry finds himself betrayed by a youthful companion, Lord Scroop, and expresses bitter disillusionment:

           I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man.

(II.ii. 140-42)

In the allusion to Eden there is perhaps a subdued reminder of Falstaff's former role as Old Adam (I Henry IV III.iii. 164-66). After the traitors have been led off to execution, we learn that Falstaff has been taken to "Arthur's bosom" (II.iii.9-10).

In an examination of the role of the clowns in Henry V, Richard Levin maintains [in The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama, 1971] that "everything in the subplot points unambiguously to its function as a foil employed to contrast with, and so render still more admirable, the exploits of the "mirror of all Christian kings.'" The effect of these scenes, however, as is evident in the parallelism just observed, is more complicated. In one sense, of course, the comparison is simply laughable, as Levin suggests. The political and moral considerations that figured in the rejection of Falstaff can hardly be reduced to a case of "bad humors." Nor can Henry's "betrayal" of Falstaff be equated with the treason of Scroop and his companions, which threatens to destroy the kingdom. In another sense, however, the analogy is disquieting. Though it may be laughable, the response of the London ruffians takes them momentarily outside themselves and, with a wonderfully vulgar lyricism, reminds us of a simple emotional truth—that political greatness is not achieved without human cost. His motives may have been justifiable, but Henry, like Lord Scroop, has suppressed his personal feelings for the sake of "a few light crowns" (II.ii.89). Nym's conclusion recalls Canterbury's reluctant admission of the "means / How things are perfected": "The King is a good king, but it must be as it may; he passes some humors and careers" (II.i.125).

The scene in which Henry judges the traitors, like the earlier council scene, conforms to a heroic paradigm. The central issue, as J. H. Walter observes, is one that appears with regularity in contemporary handbooks for princes—the king's duty to exercise disinterested justice. Having convinced himself of the obduracy of the traitors, Henry yields to an outburst of passion, but before levying judgment he has regained his self-control:

Touching our person seek we no revenge,
But we our kingdom's safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you [have] sought, that to her
We do deliver you.


Such self-mastery is certainly heroic, but in the full context of the scene, which includes Falstaff's dying, it evokes complex emotions. The very ability to control feeling, though necessary to Henry's role, depends upon a deliberate narrowing of his range of response. After this episode Henry never recalls the actions of the traitors, nor does he once allude to Falstaff. And when the learns from Fluellen that Bardolph is likely to be executed for robbing a church (, he betrays not the slightest glimmer of recognition.

The limitations of awareness that characterize Henry the king represent a marked departure from Hal the prince, whose detached yet sympathetic insight penetrates the worlds of Hotspur, Falstaff, and Henry IV. The discrepancy is best explained, I think, not as a failure or change in conception on Shakespeare's part butas the inevitable consequence of Hal's accession to the throne. In assuming the public role of king, Hal takes on a public nature. Though Henry may think of roles as masks, as when he exhorts his troops to "imitate the action of the tiger" (III.i.6), the play makes us uncomfortably aware that men tend to become their roles—that, as Burgundy observes, soldiers who do nothing but "meditate on blood" will "grow like savages" (V.ii.59-60). In Henry V, Shakespeare unfolds the full consequences of Hal's words at the end of 2 Henry IV. "I have turn'd away my former self (V.v.58). Given the realities of politics, the gesture is necessary. But the model in our mind, which the Chorus incites us to build, is not subject to such restrictions.

The absence of Henry's "former self" is felt perhaps most keenly when in disguise he enters the world of the common soldiers. In I Henry IV the prince displays the ability of the heroines of the romantic comedies—the ability to play a role without being confined by it. Though on occasion constricted by their disguises, Hal in the taverns and Rosalind in Arden are also liberated by them; they can extend their personalities into areas of thought and feeling to which they would otherwise be denied access. Poised between two worlds, the workaday and the holiday, they seem to have the best of both. Henry V's disguise, however, proves only a hindrance, for when he encounters the skepticism of Bates and Williams, he cannot parry it as Rosalind does the melancholy of Jaques, nor can be perceive the essential integrity it masks, as Hal does in the case of Hotspur's lawlessness. Instead, he is frozen into his posture as king—so much so, in fact, that he is driven to defend himself, as has often been observed, by an argument that is clearly evasive. When he argues by analogy that a king's responsibility to the troops he sends into battle is no more than that of a father who sends his son away on business, Henry assumes the very point at issue, that the war is just—the very point that the opening of the play, as we have seen, leaves in some doubt. The bitter soliloquy that ensues, in which Henry vents his accumulated resentment, does nothing to readjust our impression of his rigidity or lack of self-awareness. Like Rosalind, Henry is the protagonist of a play that fosters in its audience a multiple perspective on issues and events. Henry, however, sees less than his audience, while Rosalind, if we consider the surprise occasioned by her conjuring of Hymen, sees more.

The marriage with which Henry V concludes suggests another comparison to As You Like It, for Henry's affectionate anti-romanticism is a pale reflection of Rosalind's expressions of love. Rosalind's "men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love" (IV.i. 106-108) joins skepticism with romantic melancholy in a rich emotional blend, suggesting a profound yet fully conscious passion. In comparison, Henry's version seems glib:

I speak to thee plain soldier. If thou canst love me for this, take me! if not, to say to thee that I shall die, is true; but for thy love, by the Lord, no; yet I love thee too.

(V.ii. 149-52)

It is not that Henry has no affection for Katherine, but that he plays the role of lover, as Rosalind could not, without inner tension. There is more at stake in the wooing scene, of course, than private love. Its ultimate epic source, in fact, seems to be the distracting love of Aeneas for Dido, which had disastrous consequences for both parties. The Renaissance epic hero, as is clear from innumerable variations upon the theme—in The Faerie Queene, Tamburlaine, and Edward III, to mention only a few—must subordinate romantic passion to the duties of war. When seen from this perspective, Henry's refusal to drop even one item from his demands demonstrates his heroic virtue:

I pray you then, in love and dear alliance,
Let that one article rank with the rest,
And thereupon give me your daughter.

(II. 345-47)

As the sly pun on "dear" suggests, even the exhilaration of courtship cannot distract Henry's attention from his primary political obligations. The ability to play the lover and the politician simultaneously is the mark of a successful ruler. The failure to do so, however, as we discover in Antony and Cleopatra, may be the mark of a greater man.

The limitations of Henry's vision become most sympathetically apparent, in the wooing scene, when Henry looks toward the future. The article that he insists upon retaining in his treaty, ironically, asserts his claim as heir to the French throne. His joy in his victory, moreover, prompts him to expectations that an audience can only regard as naïve:

Shall not thou and I, between Saint Denis and Saint George, compound a boy, half French, half English, that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard? Shall we not?

(II. 206-10)

As the epilogue reminds us, in a few years Henry himself will be dead, and his son will witness the loss of France and the destruction of England in civil war. What Henry cannot see is history, the brazen world that remains hostile to the heroic imagination. Sidney's golden world of epic, like the idyllic world of pastoral, can only exist outside of time. The epilogue's assurance that the stage has often shown these catastrophic events establishes a final link between its "unworthy scaffold" (Prol., I. 10) and the limitations of actuality.

That Henry has achieved the "world's best garden" (Epil., I. 7) suggests the remoteness of heroic ideals. For Henry has won France, not Eden, and the fruits of victory, as Burgundy eloquently records, include men who have grown "like savages" (V.ii.59) and a land that runs wild:

The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green
Wanting the scythe withal, uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies,
Losing both beauty and utility.

(II. 48-53)

There will be further fruits, of course, in the wars in France and civil wars in England depicted in the Henry VI plays. The allusions to Eden in Henry V are all reminders of a state that is irrecoverable. Like Fluellen's desire for the Roman disciplines of war, or Canterbury's yearning for the age of miracles, or the Chorus' wish for a Muse of fire, the dream of Eden reflects the truth of the imagination but not the mockery of history.

Henry V, then, is epic history only if we accept the phrase as oxymoron. In the view of epic that Shakespeare inherited, there was no place for actuality, and in the view of history that he himself had created there was no place for heroic idealism. Sidney would instruct by raising our imagination toward epic ideals, Bacon by bowing our reason toward historical realities. Henry V achieves its unsettling dramatic power by drawing us in both directions—by admitting not only the truth of our ideals but their inaccessibility, even at a time when "most greatly lived / This star of England" (Epil., II. 5-6). Seen from this perspective, Henry V becomes a natural prelude to Shakespeare's anti-epic, Troilus and Cressida, and to the reconstructions of the heroic personality that take place in the mature tragedies.

Larry S. Champion (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "The Maturity Perspective: King John, 1, 2 Henry IV, Henry V," in Perspective in Shakespeare's English Histories, The University of Georgia Press, 1980, pp. 92-165.

[In the excerpt below, Champion asserts that Henry V is in many ways the most structurally complex of Shakespeare's histories, noting that he uses multiple plots, diverse settings, the chorus, and fixed characterizations to establish and maintain the broad perspective vital to the historical theme.]

Henry V, never a favorite among Shakespeare's plays, strikes most critics and theatergoers as distinctly inferior to the Henry IV plays. Certainly there have been periods of approval during crests of intense nationalism. And on occasion there have been positive appraisals of the pageantry and of the epic qualities of the piece. Critics have even appreciatively, if diversely, acknowledged the design of the title figure: the ideal King of England, on the one hand, the steely and calculating Machiavellian, the ultimate Lancastrian, on the other. Productions generally illustrate this same kind of reductionism. The Olivier film version in 1944 made savage cuts in the text, removing virtually every doubt from the hero's mind in order to create a splendidly patriotic pageant; the Old Vic production in 1951, directed by Glen B. Shaw, likewise eliminated all negative aspects of Henry's character and magnified the unattractiveness of his opponents. On the other hand, the Royal Shakespeare Company's antiwar production in 1964, like that of Michael Kahn for the American Shakespeare Theater in 1969, deemphasized the traditional heroics. "The martial events leading up to and including the battle of Agincourt [were] presented as bloody, clobbering and unpleasant", the ragged army and desperately fatigued leader epitomized not the heroics but the horrors of war.

Whatever the case, critics and directors alike more often than not have spoken without the enthusiasm which results when drama commands genuine emotional involvement, when the fortunes and misfortunes of the characters of the stage world become the consuming interest as a paradigm of human experience. Admittedly a knowledgeable spectator can take pleasure in recognizing the structural features which contribute to the total design of a play and the manner in which each scene functions within the general theme, just as some individuals can perceptively respond to the harmonic design and the structural components of a sonata or a symphony. So also one can be cognizant of the technical virtuosity of performance either of an actor's role or a musical composition. In the final analysis, though, art involves more than a cerebral response; indeed drama encompasses not merely an emotional response but an emotional interaction—hence the actor's passion for a live audience. The spectator is never oblivious of the mimetic abstraction of the stage, to be sure, but in the most powerful drama he also becomes an emotional part of the human conflict unfolding before him. For many, Henry V simply fails to achieve this quality of simultaneous engagement and detachment.

Other voices are beginning to be heard, however. Terry Hands's goal in his 1975 Stratford production was to stress from the opening moments the duality and tension in a play that "runs hot and cold.… Its ambiguity is constant." And Norman Rabkin quite recently has argued [in "Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V," SQ 28, 1977] that it is "too good a play for criticism to go on calling it a failure"; like Shakespeare's great tragedies it requires "that we hold in balance incompatible and radically opposed views each of which seems exclusively true." At the very least one must admit that the relative unpopularity of Henry V is highly ironic since in many ways it represents the culmination of Shakespeare's efforts in the English history play.

Demonstrably in 1, 2 Henry IV a combination of structural devices establishes a perspective of adequately broad scope for the historical theme which yet features a sufficiently detailed quality of characterization to provoke and sustain at least limited emotional involvement. Similar devices are utilized in Henry V. Shakespeare develops a stylized and highly patriotic theme throughout the three movements of the plot: the preparation for war, the combat itself, and the concluding of the peace. With the multiple plots, the diverse settings, the use of the chorus as a persistent pointing device, and the essentially fixed characterization, he establishes and maintains a broad perspective by blocking a close emotional rapport between the spectators and any individual character. At the same time, he labors carefully to make Henry a dramatically compelling figure. This quality he accomplishes through a brief but significantly placed soliloquy, through a constant focus upon Henry resulting from the diverse manners in which the surrounding characters view him, and through the consistent interweaving of thematically related episodes which suspend the spectators between the level of allegorical abstraction on the one hand and of absorption in character analysis on the other.

Breadth of perspective is once more achieved through the interweaving of several significant plot strands, in this instance drawn both from opposing nations and from different sociopolitical English strata. The struggle between England and France is depicted alternately from the view of English theologians, English aristocracy, King Henry, citizens of Eastcheap, English common soldiers, French aristocracy, and Princess Katherine of France. Five separate plot lines are involved. Henry V's pursuit of the war—both the preparation in England and the execution on the French battlefields—comprises approximately 40 percent of the total lines (1,264 of 3,146); the action of his French counterpart and the scene of their capitulation account for 21 percent (656); the dialogue of Nell Quickly and her cohorts makes up 6 percent (193); the scenes with Katherine, 8 percent (256). The fifth plot strand, 26 percent of the total lines (819), is a virtual microcosm of the nation—the English Gower, Welsh Fluellen, Irish MacMorris, and Scots Jamy; in these figures Shakespeare conspicuously reflects the diverse national components (the busied giddy minds) united against the common foe. Enhancing the broad angle of vision resulting from these multiple plot strands, no fewer than forty-two characters have speaking parts, a total in Shakespeare's canon second only to that of 2 Henry IV. And the location of the action shifts abruptly from England to France. The act division established in the Folio (no scenes are marked) involves an English setting in act I—Henry's palace, the London streets, and Southampton—and a French setting for the remainder of the play—King Charles' palace, Harfleur, Rouen, Picardy, and Agincourt. The eight settings (actually a greater number if one considers the multiple locations within the two palaces and the opposing camps at Agincourt) create an almost kaleidoscopic effect, even for the eclectic Elizabethan stage.

The chorus, another feature not utilized extensively in Shakespeare's previous histories, establishes a tone of unmitigated patriotism, which in turn enhances the stylization of the play. The stage will be a kingdom, the actors princes and monarchs. "Warlike Harry [will] / Assume the port of Mars" (prologue, 5-6); he is the "mirror of all Christian kings" (II, 6) who will lead the honor-seeking and expectant "youth of England" (I) against the trembling French who seek to avoid war through "pale policy" (14): "O England! model to thy inward greatness, / Like little body with a mighty heart" (16-17). We are told in act 3 of England's brave and majestical fleet (5, 16) filled with "cull'd and choice-drawn cavaliers" (24) who travel toward Harfleur and destiny. And in act 4 the chorus describes the "hum" of the two camps the evening before battle, the "confident and overlusty French" (18) and the "poor condemned English" (22) cheered by "a little touch of Harry in the night" (47):

And so our scene must to the battle fly;
Where—O for pity!—We shall much disgrace,
With four or five most vile and ragged foils
(Right ill disposed, in brawl ridiculous)
The name of Agincourt.


In the final act King Henry, "free from vainness and self-glorious pride" (20), returns to London and is welcomed by his subjects as a conquering hero, after which he returns to France to conclude negotiations for a treaty with the French king. The epilogue strikes the patriotic chord once more, referring to Agincourt as an event in which "most greatly lived / This star of England" (5-6). Indeed the lone qualifying moment to the consistently hyperbolic and monolithic tone established by the choric figure is the closing reference to the infant Henry VI and to those around him lusting for power who will subsequently lose France and make England bleed (12).

Still another structural feature designed to maintain the broad historical scene, through attention to multiple character interaction rather than individual character analysis, is the virtual absence of soliloquies and asides. While, with the exception of Richard III, no single individual in Shakespeare's previous history plays engages in such private moments to a major extent, the soliloquy does function significantly in those earlier stage worlds. Among the three Henry VI plays and the two Henry IV plays, for example, soliloquies and asides comprise more than 5 percent of the total lines in every instance; the percentage is over 6.5 percent in three and as high as 8.5 percent in one. In signal contrast Henry V features no asides and only six soliloquies for 2.5 percent. Only three of twenty-three scenes (as marked in modern editions) are involved, and Henry's soliloquies occur in a single scene preceding Agin-court. While that scene is critically important, the fact is that Henry is essentially an external characterization. The spectators are not for the most part permitted to share either his private responses or those of the surrounding figures to the decisions (moral and otherwise) which dictate the actions of the play; and considering the relatively extensive use of soliloquies in the preceding stage worlds, one must logically infer that the move is a deliberate one on Shakespeare's part.

The spectators, more specifically, are not permitted a glimpse of Henry's private reaction to the irony of the Church's offer, toward the wars in France, of "a greater sum / Than ever at one time the clergy yet / Did to his predecessors part withal" (I, i, 79-81) at the same time a bill is under consideration which would strip the Church of "the better half of our possession" (8). Henry could hardly be blind to the ploy, and the perceptive spectators must inevitably wonder whose giddy mind is being busied with foreign quarrels. In any case the resulting ambiguity is complex; Henry is either almost incredibly naive, or he is caught up in the emotional frenzy of national patriotism, or he is the master calculator able to conceal his own devious thirst for expansion and martial glory in the seeming tolerance of the vested interests of those around him. Similarly, the spectators do not share Henry's private thoughts concerning the Dauphin's presentation of tennis balls, a gift which brings to mind Hal's wilder days. Likewise they see only the furious courage of the King at Harfleur and only his official proclamation of victory following the battle at Agincourt. When Henry in Picardy hears the report that "one Bardolph, if your majesty know the man" (III, vi, 101-2), is likely to be executed for plundering a church, he is permitted not the least semblance of recognition of their former friendly acquaintance in the peremptory retort: "We would have all such offenders so cut off" (107-8). Least of all does the audience comprehend Henry's true feelings for Katherine of France. The offer of the princess is rejected prior to the siege of Harfleur (chorus, III, 30-32), yet in act 5 he argues that he loves her cruelly (ii, 202-3). As in act I there is never a private word to guide us between the two extremes of the spectrum. While Henry, then, delivers fully 31 percent of the lines in the play (1,054), over 750 more than those of the next highest figure (Fluellen, 298), he speaks virtually without soliloquy. With the exception of an eleven-line passage by the boy who guards the luggage at the English camp (IV, iv, 67-77) and a ten-line passage by Pistol (V, i, 80-89), no other character in the play addresses the spectators privately. Neither of these moments, moreover, is of psychological significance: in the one the boy merely pronounces Pistol a greater coward than Bardolph and Nym, both of whom have been hanged for pillaging, and in the other Pistol admits that "Honor is cudgell'd" from his limbs and that upon his return to England he will turn bawd and cutpurse.

Henry V utilizes the soliloquy and the aside to a smaller degree than any other work in Shakespeare's canon; in many respects a remarkably public play, it focuses upon the numerous interactions and confrontations of characters rather than the subtle complexities of an individual figure. With Henry appearing in such a predominant number of scenes the structure is somewhat akin to that of Richard III without the soliloquies. Rather than a persistent juxtaposition of the King's private and public face, the spectators observe only the King's public actions in a stage world crowded with virtual supernumeraries—thirty-three characters who appear in three scenes or fewer (nineteen in a single scene). Certainly not surprisingly the characterization is static. Henry may face progressively more difficult decisions in the kingship, but he does not develop in the course of the play; whatever his unrevealed motivations he is from first to last the firm but just English monarch for whom the good of the nation is inseparable from his personal fortunes. The Henry who seeks a satisfactory public rationalization for moving against the French in act I is the same Henry who carefully negotiates the political-romantic arrangement with Katherine in act 5. The retributively destructive anger which flashes at the arrival of the Dauphin's gift of tennis balls recurs when the French attack the English camp and murder the young boys who guard it. And the same mercy exercised for the common English soldier at Southampton is visited upon the French at Harfleur, just as the military discipline which leads him unhesitatingly to order the execution of the English traitors at Southampton is evidenced again in his firm leadership at Agincourt. The chronology of the events in the play obviously is vital to the historical narrative, but so monolithic is Henry's character that the sequence of his appearances is of no significance whatever. The most important of the secondary figures, though functioning at times to undercut the dominant pattern of Henry's heroic posture, are themselves no less uniform in quality: for example, the arrogant and somewhat dimwitted Dauphin, who at the very least is furiously nationalistic; the rather pallid and acquiescent Katherine, whose primary dramatic value is her difficulty in pronouncing the King's English; the English traitors who, properly chastened, praise the justice of their fate; the four Englishmen who reflect the various nationalities yoked in the struggle with a common enemy; the incorrigible Pistol whose expediential courage keeps him from the French sword if not from Fluellen's leek and whose return to England bodes no promise of a fortune clear of the law.

The broad historical perspective of Henry V, in summary, is a direct consequence of Shakespeare's methodic combination of structural devices developed in his previous plays—the multiple plot lines, the diverse settings, the static characterizations—with structural features unique to this stage world—the chorus as a pointing voice which unilaterally directs attention to the theme of national patriotism and the virtual absence of internalization in either the central or the surrounding figures. With such principles so firmly established, it is perhaps understandable that more than one critic has considered the drama so rigidly externalized as to preclude profound dramatic conflict. The genuine complexity of the perspective, however, results from the fact that another structural pattern works in subtle opposition to the first and ultimately tends to render such a monolithic view untenable. For one thing, the lone scene in which Henry speaks in soliloquies prior to the Battle of Agincourt reveals a genuine moral sensitivity not otherwise visible in the man. Intimating what Peter Phialas describes [in "Shakespeare's Henry V and the Second Tetralogy," SP 62 (1965)] as a tragic element in his character, the soliloquy suggests the "loneliness of supreme office." His private remarks may have no direct bearing upon his decisions or his military actions; one could hardly imagine, for example, Henry's refusing to lead his troops into battle even if he were not convinced of the King's innocence concerning their deaths. The soliloquies, moreover, admittedly lead to no moral resolution on Henry's part; if he is convinced that "great greatness" (IV, i, 251) is sick and that "idol Ceremony" (240) alone sets the ruler apart from the wretched slave, he later gives no hint of it; in fact his enigmatic wooing of Katherine gives every indication of his determination to expand and strengthen his royal role. Even so, Henry on that one occasion privately voices the same moral questions which the perceptive spectators tend to raise, and although his actions may not be dictated by such contemplation, the soliloquies (IV, i, 34; 83-84; 230-84; 289-305) do lend a human credibility to the figure. He questions, for example, whether the King's position, his "proud dream" (257), is worth the price of his inability to cloak himself in anonymity and shed the responsibilities of rule:

Art thou ought else but place, degree, and
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy, being fear'd,
Than they in fearing.
What drink'st thou oft, in stead of homage
But poison'd flattery?


Moments later he seeks God's blessings upon himself and his troops, "imploring pardon" (305) for the guilt of his father's usurpation with a specific reference to the "contrite tears" (296), the gifts to the poor and lame, and the construction of new chantries where masses are sung daily for Richard's soul.

These insights through soliloquy comprise only a brief moment, of course, and they occur relatively late in the play. Nonetheless they complement a pattern of divergent angles of vision provided by those who surround Henry. While it is not unusual for minor characters to express varying attitudes toward the central figure, the remarkable persistency of focus in this play results in a complexity of character which belies the monolithic quality of Henry's stage presence. In the opening scene, for instance, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely discuss the King's wild days of past years, the "courses of his youth" which, like "th' offending Adam," promised not his present state of "grace and fair regard" (I, i, 24, 29, 22):

   His addiction was to courses vain,
His companies unletter'd, rude, and shallow,
His hours fill'd up with riots, banquets, sports;
And never noted in him any study,
And retirement, any sequestration
From open haunts and popularity.


The Prince, Bishop Ely observes, no doubt "obscur'd his contemplation / Under the veil of wildness" (63-64). The Dauphin's gift of tennis balls, "meeter for [Henry's] spirit" than warfare (ii, 254), obviously reinforces the point: "there's naught in France / That can be with a nimble galliard won; / You cannot revel into dukedoms there" (251-53). While the account of Hal's apparently untutored days forms an important motif in 1, 2 Henry IV, King Henry V is an altogether more decorous figure; and this angle of vision provides an imaginative dimension of personality not literally visible to the spectators.

A similarly provocative perception is provided by Henry's erstwhile Eastcheap companions in act 2. With word that Falstaff is grievously ill and Nell Quickly's comment that the "King has kill'd his heart" (i, 88), the spectators confront the full range of ambivalent emotions concomitant to Hal's banishment of his former companion in fun in the preceding play. According to Nym, the King "hath run bad humors on the knight; that's the even of it.… The King is a good king, but it must be as it may; he passes some humors and careers" (121-22, 125-26). Falstaff's heart, adds Pistol, is "fracted and corroborate" (124). The description of his death two scenes later makes no direct reference to the King, but the intimation of blame still rings in the spectators' ears. And Fluellen, in act 4, equates Henry's action with a telling classical analogy: "As Alexander kill'd his friend Clytus, being in his ales and his cups, so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgments, turn'd away the fat knight with the great belly doublet" (vii, 44-48); the extreme remorse experienced by Alexander notably has no visible parallel in Henry.

Yet another multifaceted view of the King is provided by the participants in the opposing armies. At one point the Dauphin's assumption that England is "idly king'd," her scepter "fantastically borne, / By a vain, giddy, shallow, humorous youth" (II, iv, 26, 27-28), is countered by the Constable's opinion that Henry is "modest in exception" and "terrible in constant resolution" (34, 35); "his vanities forespent / Were but the outside of the Roman Brutus, / Covering discretion with a coat of folly" (36-38). Similarly Charles VI reminds his son that Henry is a "stem / Of that victorious stock" of Edward, the Black Prince, who moved so powerfully against the nation (62-63). Later, as the Battle of Agincourt draws near, the French mock the English leader and imagine the fear which grips his heart; "Poor Harry" no doubt would hold back the fateful dawn rather than issue into battle both outmanned and outwitted: "What a wretched and peevish fellow is this King of England, to mope with his fat-brain'd followers so far out of his knowledge!" (vii, 132-34). Disguised as Harry le Roy, Henry receives an equally wide variety of opinions from his own troops. Pistol may describe him as "most valiant" with "a heart of gold" (IV, i, 46, 44), but Bates believes that he secretly fears the approaching combat (113-15). And Williams rather testily adds that, however much the King may deny it, Henry is not above the coward's way out; "when our throats are cut, he may be ransom'd, and we ne'er the wiser" (193-94).

Throughout the play, in brief, Shakespeare provides added dimensions to the King's characterization through the words of surrounding characters. On stage, with the exception of his brief lines of soliloquy, Henry may be virtually one-dimensional, an intensely patriotic stylization of ideal kingship; the pattern of commentary about him, however, woven consistently throughout the action, focuses directly upon his vulnerable side: the dissipation of his earlier days, the human consequences of his turning away a boon companion, the universal emotions of fear and of despair in the face of woefully uneven odds.

One further structural device helps Shakespeare to achieve most subtly (and potentially most effectively) the ambivalence which has progressively characterized the history plays. Just as the figure of Henry is given the semblance of a full and vital personality despite the stylization, so the play as a whole is afforded dramatic credibility despite the simplistic patriotic fervor which characterizes its surface. Shakespeare has methodically incorporated into each phase of the action a human dimension which qualifies the abstract design. This material may be included in the main action or it may be presented in separate juxtaposed passages. Its relationship to the main action may be parodic or ironic, or it may simply be an extension of the action to a more intimate and personal level. The point is that Shakespeare, for all the surface brilliance of Henry V's reign and of England's military victories over France, is demonstrably attempting to establish the interest in character and human interaction on which drama depends.

The opening scene, concerned essentially with England's psychological and physical preparation for the military invasion of France, provides a ready illustration. Amid the praise of the King's marvelous faculties for theology and politics, his own determination openly to establish the legal justification for war, and the fierce patriotism of his response to the Dauphin's gift, the characters perform purely public stylized roles; Henry's triple references to God in the last twenty-two lines of the act have the brazen ring of religion twisted to the service of public policy. The scenes are not without the appeal of both pageantry and patriotism, to be sure, but the characters give the impression of being created for the lines they speak; there is little hint of the flesh and blood beneath the civic role. Such a glimpse is provided though in the private dialogue of Canterbury and Ely which renders highly ironic the Church's unmitigated support of Henry's military cause. Canterbury asserts that there is no barrier to Henry's claim to the French throne, urging him to "stand for your own, unwind your bloody flag" (ii, 101) even as Ely challenges him with his "puissant arm [to] renew" the feats of his ancestors (116). What only the spectators know is that both men are more concerned with the financial state of the Church than with Henry's foreign policy. The opening words of the drama find Canterbury insisting that a plan must be devised to resist a law which, if passed, would cost "the better half of our possession" (i, 8). The King at the moment is impartial, but "for mitigation of this bill" Canterbury has offered the remarkably large gift of money as a military incentive. It is no doubt an overstatement to claim that Shakespeare through the clergymen totally vitiates the heroic or patriotic view of war or even that this "bribery" is the first in a long line of incidents which renders Henry V a Machiavel and the stage world a sordid and decadent satiric attack upon militarism and nationalism; in actuality there is no such continuity of either tone or incident. What is vitally important to the spectators is the human view of a topic too broad to comprehend emotionally, a dimension, in this particular instance in the form of action to protect vested interests, which provides psychological insight into the less grandiloquent causes of the war and saves the scene from abstraction.

Altogether different types of incidents serve a similar function in act 2. The chorus firmly pronounces that "all the youth of England are on fire" (I); unified for the nation's great military adventure, the people have forgotten individual grievances as "honors thought / Reigns solely in the breast of every man" (3-4). And indeed in II, i, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol are described as "three sworn brothers to France" (12-13). Human nature again rather abruptly intrudes upon the stylized design, however. Both Nym and Pistol lay claim to Nell Quickly's affections; the hostess has married Pistol despite her betrothal to Nym and her avowed dis-taste for the swaggerer in 2 Henry IV, and insults and threats fly freely over the drawn swords. Nym is an "egregious dog," a "braggard vile and damned furious wight" whose "grave doth gape, and doting death is near" (46, 60-61); his colloquial style, as John Draper observes [in "The Humor of Corporal Nym," SAB 13 (1938)], is "purposefully calculated as an adjunct to his apparent martial prowess." Pistol will be scoured with Nym's rapier; "I would prick your guts a little in good terms.… I will cut thy throat one time or other in fair terms" (58, 69-70). Only Bardolph maintains the peace with his threat to run to the hilt who strikes first and his timely reminder that they "must to France together; why the devil should we keep knives to cut one another's throats?" (91-92). In an entirely opposite manner the human dimension surfaces in Henry's denunciation of the traitors at Southampton. Despite the symbolically ceremonial significance of this exposure, a public testimony to the necessity of unity of national purpose and the elimination of those who would prevent it, Scroop's defection seems to give Henry genuine grief, and for a moment the man, not the King, speaks. Henry may well be invoking "the second office of charity … to uphold the order and obedience necessary to state and army," but the incident is also personally painful. Lord Scroop bore "the key of all [Henry's] counsels"; he knew "the very bottom of [his] soul" (II, ii, 96-97): "I will weep for thee; / For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like / Another fall of man" (140-42). The moment is brief. Henry quickly resumes his public posture in the formal proclamation of the charges and the arrests, and any private sensitivity is totally subsumed in his assertion that God's bringing such treason to light bodes "a fair and lucky war.… No king of England, if not king of France" (184, 193). Even so, the scene provides another illustration of the manner in which Shakespeare subtly interweaves through the public pageantry of national heroism and kingly ideality the human element vital to effective drama.

The middle phase of the action (acts 3-4) utilizes precisely the same structural principle. Overtly the action involves the actual conduct of the war in France: the courageous charge at Harfleur; the siege and final offer of mercy to the inhabitants of the city; the apprehension of the English army, outmanned and riddled with sickness, at Agincourt; and, probably the single most glorious moment in England's military past, the magnificently heroic victory achieved in the face of overwhelming adversity. As in acts 1 and 2 this national theme is delineated with a stylized fervor which, while tending toward abstraction, nonetheless does maintain a broad historical perspective. Again, however, the human dimension is interspersed throughout the action. Juxtaposed to Henry's fiercely brilliant oration at Harfleur, in which he charges his troops to stiffen the sinews, set the teeth, and bend the spirit, is Nym's observation that he has no desire to move to the breach: "The knocks are too hot; and for mine own part, I have not a case of lives" (III, ii, 3-5). And Pistol, with the boy, would prefer to be in an alehouse in London. As the boy summarizes the situation, Bardolph is "white-liver'd and red-fac'd," Pistol "hath a killing tongue and a quiet sword," and Nym's "few bad words are match'd with a few good deeds" (32, 34, 39). Such comments do not denigrate Henry's courageous posture in the scene preceding; what they do is to remind the spectators that, whatever the magnitude of the events, they are still performed by human beings plagued in many instances by doubt, fear, and the overriding instinct to survive. Similarly human is the touch provided in the scene juxtaposed to the siege of Harfleur. Seemingly oblivious of the harsh realities of war, Katherine engages in an English lesson with her maid Alice; if homonymic puns resulting from her halting pronunciation create a bit of pit play, she nonetheless is looking beyond the present moment to a time when she will confront an English Harry devoid of armor. Yet another human touch surfaces in the French camp the evening before Agincourt. The Dauphin, a youthfully headstrong and recklessly optimistic braggart, proclaims that he will pave his way with English faces and at midnight takes leave of his companions to arm himself for battle. Wiser and older heads comment sarcastically after his departure that he is "simply the most active gentleman of France," but one who, in doing, has never done harm; "nor will do none tomorrow"; "he will eat all he kills" (III, vii, 97, 191, 92).

The spectators also perceive several human moments during the heat of battle. At Picardy, Pistol, fresh from impressing Fluellen with his "brave words" at the bridge, pleads for Bardolph, who for stealing a pax is condemned to be hanged. When good words transform to insults, Gower brands him "a gull, a fool, a rogue, that now and then goes to the wars, to grace himself at his return into London under the form of a soldier" (III, vi, 67-69). Again such action defies the monolithic delineation of the heroic English army which the chorus articulates; so also does Pistol's subsequent avaricious insistence on money for the life of a prisoner: "Peasant, unless thou give me crowns, brave crowns; / Or mangled shalt thou be by this my sword.… As I such blood, I will some mercy show" (IV, iv, 38-39, 64). Quite different is the emotional touch in the final conversation among the English leaders before the battle. Chances of success are minimal, but there is no shrinking from the task; they speak of a joyful parting, even if it must last "till we meet in heaven.… If we are mark'd to die, we are enow / To do our country loss" (IV, iii, 7, 20-21). Similar affection is reflected later in Henry's "mistful eyes" when he learns of the death of York and Suffolk (IV, vi, 34). Certainly the most compelling single scene is that in which Henry speaks briefly in soliloquy; indeed his private reference to "poison'd flattery" and to the human vulnerability of "great greatness" (IV, i, 251) encompasses the heart of the ambiguity so pervasive throughout the drama. His comment to Bates while he himself is disguised as a fellow common soldier has the similar effect of a soliloquy: "I think the King is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it does 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" (101-9). Such a moment, albeit brief, graphically reveals the human spirit concealed for the most part beneath the symbol of the "star of England" (epilogue, 6).

The final phase of the play (act 5) again combines dramatically interesting detail with abstract stylization. Certainly the major thrust of the action sets forth the conditions of settlement between the opposing nations, conditions which epitomize the glory of Henry's king-ship and of France's capitulation to the English military demands. Both the chorus to act 5 and the epilogue predictably stress the theme of national greatness. So too the action itself celebrates, on the one hand, the Welsh heritage of Fluellen and by extension of the King and, on the other hand, the totality of the English victory. The peace is bought with "full accord to all our just demands" (V, ii, 71); Henry "love[s] France so well" that he will not be deprived of even the smallest village (173); and, as Westmoreland reports, Charles VI agrees to every article set down by the victorious Henry. Amid the pageantry and the patriotic splendor, however, the human dimension emerges in each of the final scenes. In the first, Pistol, like a kind of anti-Henry, finds only shame and ignominy in France. Beaten by Fluellen for his insulting swaggering and forced to eat the leek which he has mocked, the braggadocio is dismissed by Gower as "a counterfeit cowardly knave.… Henceforth let a Welsh correction teach you a good English condition" (i, 69-70, 81 -82). There is a touch of nostalgia in his private remark that his Doll (perhaps Doll Tearsheet, more likely Nell Quickly) is dead from venereal disease. And his parting quip, if it provokes no sympathy, leaves little doubt that common and flawed humanity has played a very present role in England's idealized victory:

Old I do wax, and from my weary limbs
Honor is cudgell'd. 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.


In the second scene an altogether different kind of human credibility surfaces in Henry's exchange with Katherine. The "richly human" scene, as Bertrand Evans describes it, is replete with the almost ritualistic discussion of the terms of peace, even to the point of continued veiled threats from the English ruler should France not accede to his demands, but there are private moments between the couple when Henry speaks not as a confident and demanding King but as a tentative and self-abasing young man. He describes himself as so plain "that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my crown" (126-27); he claims no "cunning in protestation" (144), and his "face is not worth sunburning" (147). He explains that his looks are fierce because his father was thinking of civil wars when he begot him. "But in faith, Kate, the elder I wax, the better I shall appear. My comfort is, that old age, that ill layer-up of beauty, can do no more spoil upon my face" (228-31). The emergent picture is not one of a tender supplicant, to be sure, but the comments do qualify the rigidly onedimensional figure which would otherwise appear.

In 1, 2 Henry IV Shakespeare learned to combine structural devices of breadth with devices of depth. Henry V involves a greater concentration of the action upon the King himself, a characteristic posing two distinct structural problems. On the one hand, with the greater focus upon a single figure the playwright is forced to sharpen the devices of stylization in order to prevent the undue concentration of attention which would limit the scope of the spectators' vision. On the other hand, since the absence of an appreciable presence for the key surrounding figures removes the possibility of balancing the spectators' interest on three or four characters as in the Henry IV plays, there is no way to utilize the narrative continuity of subplots or multiple plots to develop (as with Hal, Falstaff, and Henry IV) contrasting views of a character in the significantly differing contexts which produce the semblance of dynamic human dimensions. Shakespeare's solution to the latter problem is the sporadic insertion throughout the action of brief moments of human insight among a wide variety of characters whose roles are otherwise almost rigidly stylized. That this structural feature is unique to Henry V further attests to his continuing experimentation to achieve the most effective dramatic perspective for the historical theme. "The treatment of characters," as Arthur Sewall notes [in Characters and Society in Shakespeare, 1951]remains "subordinate to the comprehensive vision of the play."

The question obviously persists: if Henry V represents the culmination of Shakespeare's efforts in the English history play and if in important respects it contains the most sophisticated utilization of structural techniques which he developed for this particular dramatic form, why should the play strike many a critic and many a playgoer as something less dramatically profound than his other works in the final years of the sixteenth century? Even if one agrees that his artistic intentions in the history play—and hence the structural principles which determine the dramatic perspective—are altogether distinct from those which lead to his romantic comedies and to his major tragic achievements, there is still the problem of why, to many, Henry V is a lesser creation than the Henry IV plays. The problem may well lie quite literally in the eye of the beholder—in this instance in the complex synthesis demanded of the spectators if the play is to maintain a properly balanced perspective. It is entirely possible that Shakespeare's contemporary audiences were more receptive to this synthesis than his post-Restoration spectators. Accustomed to the complete plasticity of the Elizabethan stage and the symbolism at the heart of the play, they perhaps could respond more readily to a "plane of emotional truth but factual impossibility." Certainly Shakespeare is acutely aware of the need for the spectators' "imaginary forces" to be at work (prologue, 18). The cockpit will hold "the vasty fields of France" (12), and the "Wooden O" (13) must contain the image of Agincourt itself. The scene flies to Harfleur "with imagin'd wing" (chorus, III, I); the stage is all too small to capture the "full course of the glory" achieved by England's "mighty men" in conquering the "world's best garden" (epilogue, 4, 3, 7).

The audience is admittedly an active participant in every Shakespearean stage world. In the most powerful tragedies, the spectators through their omniscient perspective are forced to sit in judgment on the protagonist even as they emotionally respond to his spiritual struggle. In these stage worlds, however, various structural devices such as the soliloquy, the pointing commentary of other figures, and thematically related subplot material combine to guide the spectator coherently to the point of simultaneous engagement and detachment. Similarly, the spectators in the preceding Henry IV plays, privy to the private thoughts or critical moments of the several major figures, alone possess the perspective for responding most fully to the human consequences of the historical events of the narrative. Even so, the ambivalence of Henry IV, Hal, Hotspur, Northumberland, and Falstaff, so vital to the complexity of the spectators' response to them both individually and collectively, is in each case the point of specific discussion and interrelationship by the surrounding characters. In Henry V, as well, Shakespeare's intention is both the broad perspective necessary for the historical theme and the ambivalence which lends a human dimension and thus a dramatic viability to the characters and to the events. Here, however, the playwright utilizes what Richard Levin has called a spatial integration of plots to create, through ambivalencies and ironical tensions, a foil to Henry's glorious exploits. The effect, as Levin, observes [in The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama, 1971] is that of "a musical chord, contingent upon the absolute emotional 'pitch' of each action as well as the relative emotional 'distance' between them." The task of interrelating the components of the plot to achieve this response, however, is left in large part to the spectators. They alone are privy to Canterbury's and Ely's desire to protect a large portion of the Church's wealth; they alone must relate the nature of Nym's, Bardolph's, and Pistol's military activities to the stylized heroism of the English army and its idealized leader. The references to Falstaff's reaction to his repudiation by Hal and the momentary pathos during Nell Quickly's description of his death are never explored in relation to himself; the applicability is left entirely to the imagination of the spectators. The soul-searching evidenced in the King's soliloquy in the middle of the play is, except in the mind of the viewer, ostensibly forgotten in the Henry of act 5. The chorus, instead of providing an integrating and analytic commentary, delivers a veritable encomium on the magnificent and heroic English military accomplishments.

In one sense then Shakespeare's historical perspective has reached a new level of sophistication in the rich ambiguities involved in the spectators' manner of relating the various components of the play. The spectators, like those of Jonson's Sejanus and Catiline, inevitably respond to some degree in terms of their own moral and emotional nature; that is, they are forced to provide, and to test the limitations of, their own personal scale of values as a gauge by which to respond to decisions and actions which precipitate Henry's mounting political successes. In another sense, the perspective has grown so subtle in the active role which it forces upon the audience that the human dimensions might be lost entirely to many a modern viewer, for whom the play becomes stylized either as a crass display of Machiavellian politics or a brittle dramatization of patriotic glory. The spectator's perception, in a word, determines whether Henry V is the most complex or among the most simplistic of the histories. Of Shakespeare's intentions there can be little room for reasonable doubt.

Andrew Gurr (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: In an introduction to King Henry V, by William Shakespeare, Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 1-55.

[In the following excerpt, Gurr analyzes the theme of brotherhood as developed through the structure and language of Henry V.]

Omissions [in Henry V] have many possible explanations. Additions to the story, especially when it was one so famous, so well documented, handled so often before, and so dependent on the factual evidence of the Chronicles, bring a sharper focus.… The closest focus comes from the patterns of situation and language, those structural images and words which run and grow throughout the play and, in their most narrowly linguistic manifestations, give a particular colouring to the shape of the story.

When Alexander Court enters in 4.1.81 and addresses his companion as 'brother John Bates' he gives emphasis to a feature of this play which is unique in all Shakespeare. Court is one of the three English soldiers who are given curiously ordinary and yet full names. There is no Wart or Mouldy in 4.1, nor any anonymous 'soldiers' or mere surnames in their entry direction. And they have the longest talk with Henry in the play. These three brother-soldiers, whose names signify that they are brothers in misfortune rather than true brothers, highlight a special concept in the play. Henry has talked with one group of three of his subjects already. Addressing the three conspirators in 2.2 had involved Henry in some acting, but it was a mask he soon threw off as he threw off theirs. His dismissal of his bedfellow Scroop to death in Act 2 matches the death of Falstaff in the same act as the closing of the last doors on his solitary self. His talk with the three plain soldiers in 4.1 reverses the earlier scene. Where with the conspirators he had acted himself as he threw off their disguises, in this scene with the honest men Henry's mask stays on. He is not one of this band of brothers.

The term Alexander Court uses to John Bates has already recurred through the play. Court's term is a pointer to and a preparation for Henry's most celebrated claim in his Crispin's Day speech, to be brother with all his army. Henry's assertion of brotherhood at that point makes Agincourt unique in the play. It marks what was probably designed to be the most potent single factor in the English victory. His trenchant proclamation, that everyone who 'sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile / This day shall gentle his condition' (4.3.61-3), is carefully set up by a host of other claims to brotherhood and kinship in the play, before and after the battle. Pistol might have had reason to regret that Le Fer did not scratch him first before surrendering.

The whole play is notable for the stress that it puts on differentiations in social status. From 1.2.180, where Exeter explains government by the 'high, and low, and lower' through his analogy of musical harmony, which is then amplified by the Archbishop's analogy of the bees, to Pistol's enquiry at 4.1.37-8 whether the disguised Henry is an officer or merely 'base, common and popular', the distinction between what the Chorus to Act 4 calls 'mean and gentle' is upheld consistently and emphatically. When Henry is upset before Agin-court he refers to 'lackeys' and 'slaves', the word the French nobles use when they talk of their 'gentle' daughters being raped by the English soldiers (4.5.16-17). Henry declares at Agincourt that all social distinctions must disappear. In the rest of the play, both before and after the battle, they are forcibly reaffirmed.

These social differentiations give some support to Terry Hands' reading of the play in his 1975 production for the Stratford centenary. Concerned to develop a feeling of brotherhood and battle-readiness in his actors at a time of great social dissension and danger to the national subsidised theatre, he offered a play where the English start as a divided people and only unite for Agincourt. The play, he wrote, has three battles. 'The first is Harfleur, fought from externals, revealing the deep divisions in Henry's army and consequently his country. The second is Agincourt, fought by a renewed and re-united band of brothers. Henry … abandons privilege and rank, the final offer of ransom. He awakens interdependence and trust, he speaks to all as equals, and accepts equality with them for himself … "I am not covetous for gold … All things be ready if our minds be so.'" The third battle, rather less obviously, Hands defined as Henry's courtship of Katherine, which he thought was also an equalising process.

It is true that the uniqueness of Henry's claim to brotherhood in the Crispin's Day speech is emphasised by its difference from his equivalent speech in the previous battle, at Harfleur, and by the weaknesses in the English army that are put on show at Harfleur. There the soldiers, retreating from the breach they have made, are heartened by the king's urging to return to the breach, although their renewed attack has no better effect than the previous one. Harfleur does not fall to any attack by the English. It only falls when the Governor, after listening to Henry's threats, admits that his hope of relief by the Dauphin's forces has failed. And that victory ends with Henry admitting that his forces are weak and that he must retreat to Calais. It is hardly a promising precursor for Agincourt.

Brotherhood, however, grows in importance before that battle. The Eastcheap clowns have already sworn their own pact of brotherhood and fellowship after their quarrel in 2.1. Bardolph tries to make Pistol and Nym friends with the logical plea 'We must to France together; why the devil should we keep knives to cut one another's throats?' (73-4). Like horseleeches (2.3.43-4), they must thrive on French blood, not each other's. But in 3.7.44-7 Llewellyn refuses Pistol's request to intercede for the condemned Bardolph in terms which call this easy concept of brotherhood into question. Llewellyn takes up a rank-conscious posture, upholding virtue and saying 'For if, look you, he were my brother I would desire the duke to use his good pleasure and put him to execution.' The duke, followed by Henry himself when he hears of Bardolph's punishment, does not yet have any feeling of blood-brotherhood with the vile. That must wait for the battle speech itself.

The chief difference in the Agincourt speech from the Harfleur speech is its insistence that the whole English army is a single brotherhood. Before Harfleur Henry addresses each social rank separately, speaking first to 'you noble English', and only eight lines later turning to 'you, good yeomen'. Not until Agincourt does he propose equality. First in a neat pun that puts friendship against fear he offers comradeship:

We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.


And then, fellow-feeling assured, he offers the ultimate bond, the blood that will rank the common soldier with his king:

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


It is a cohesive moment. The noble (commonly identified by a false etymology as the 'non-vile') will be united with the vile in blood. The social divisions emphasised in the Harfleur scenes, where Henry's rallying speech to the separate nobles and yeomen is followed by Llewellyn beating the Eastcheap rogues to the breach and then enjoying a violent quarrel with his fellow-captain Macmorris, distinct marks of a divided army, are now forgotten.

The grandeur of Henry's offer of brotherhood to all his soldiers at Agincourt is given a further context by the insistent acknowledgements of kin in the levels of social ranking that have gone before. In Act 1 brotherhood is exclusively royal or noble. Exeter speaks of Henry's 'brother kings', his ancestors, at 1.2.122. The French king three times calls the threatening Henry 'our brother of England' in 2.4. Henry himself is careful in the early acts to designate his nobles as 'uncle' (Exeter) and 'cousin' (Westmorland, who probably secured his position in the Fl text and was placed at Agincourt by his kinship with Henry, which Henry stresses several times: he is 'cousin' at 1.2.4 and 4.3.19). Henry specifies Gloucester as his 'brother' in 3.7, and at 4.1.3 he greets the arrival who joins him and Gloucester as 'brother Bedford'. After his argument with Bates and Williams, he acknowledges the sound of 'my brother Gloucester's voice', arousing him from prayer before the battle. Only after that does his oration before the battle make every social rank a brother.

The victory allows Henry to adjust his attitude back again to its former strong sense of the differences in degree. When Williams goes to fetch Gower to the king he eagerly predicts that it is to make him a knight (4.8.1), to 'gentle' him as Henry promised, but it is not. Montjoy at 4.7.64 renews the traditional social distinctions when he asks leave to separate the noble corpses of the French from the blood of the 'vulgar' and the mercenaries.

For many of our princes—woe the while—
Lié drowned and soaked in mercenary blood,
So do our vulgar drench their peasant limbs
In blood of princes …


This divisiveness of social rank is perhaps an understandable French attitude, but it is also Henry's. While the listing of French prisoners divides them precisely by class and 'name', deploring the mingling of bloods, so does Henry's own recital of the English dead. His list ends 'none else of name'. At 4.7.152 it is 'my brother Gloucester' again. By then Williams is a 'fellow' and no longer of the royal fellowship. Henry reaffirms the social distinctions by suggesting that the swaggerer who exchanged gloves with Williams might have been 'a gentleman of great sort' (4.7.121), of too high degree to accept the common soldier's challenge. And Williams is once again the other kind of socially lower-class 'fellow' at 4.8.51. By then even Llewellyn, technically a gentleman like all the other captains (5.1.66), can patronise him as a common 'fellow'.

Act 5 goes even higher up the social scale, renewing the claims of a purely royal brotherhood that Agin-court might have called in question. In 5.2 Henry matches the French king's formal 'our brother of England' with his own 'our brother France' (2), and his more cursory 'brother' at 83, which are met by the French 'most worthy brother England' (10), and the queen's echoes of her husband at 12 and 92. Henry invites his family, 'brother Bedford, and you brother Gloucester' (84), to negotiate the terms of the treaty while he goes on to guarantee the diplomatic and marital alliance and to arrange the succession of his own children to both crowns. Blood relations at the end of the play are a matter of marriages and dynasties, not of the blood shed by brothers in arms.

The patterning of blood kin and brothers, which makes its presence first at Harfleur, is counterpointed with the proliferation of different accents and languages. From early in Act 3 the different dialects of the four captains and the scenes spoken in alien French offer an aural challenge to the claims for brotherhood. No play of Shakespeare's makes so much use of differences in language and has more language barriers. With one entire scene in French, another half in French, and the French nobles regularly starting their scenes by making use of French phrases, plus Llewellyn's, Macmorris's and Jamy's non-standard English, Pistol's theatrical and old-fashioned quasi-verse, together with Mrs. Quickly's malapropisms, the play puts up a considerable show of non-communication. When all these communication problems are set in a play uniquely supplied with six visits by an explanatory Choric voice which regularly misrepresents what happens on stage, confusion is to be expected. From the moment when the Prologue describes itself as only 'Prologue-like', the audience's thoughts are set to piece out a lot of evident imperfections in communication.

There are several precedents for foreign speech on the popular stage in the 1590s, besides the Latin used to confuse Jack Cade in 2 Henry VI. The Wounds of Civil War (1589) and James IV (1590) both have a murderer who speaks comic franglais. Soon after the doubtfully comic Welsh of Glendower and his daughter in I Henry IV there came (if we can accept 1597 as the play's date) the certainly comic Welsh parson and French physician of The Merry Wives of Windsor. In 1598 William Haughton wrote a comedy for Henslowe at the Rose with three gulls as lovers who speak comic French, Dutch, and Italian. And in 1599 Rose audiences also enjoyed the romantic hero's pseudo-Dutch in The Shoemaker's Holiday. The Rose in the same year, not long after Henry V was first on stage, included in its parodically imitative Sir John Oldcastle a similar comic Irishman, in accent and in 'strait strossers'. With so many precedents and imitations, one of the main questions about Henry V is what specific function other than incidental comedy the language divisions were designed to fulfill.

There is no doubt that the language scenes were designed as comedy. In a play making careful use of the division of prose from verse, all the lower-class scenes and all the comic scenes are in prose. Apart from the isolated phrases in French used by the French nobles, the three French scenes, Katherine's two and Le Fer's one, are comic. The French nobles on the night before Agincourt (3.8) chat in prose. No French and no prose are used in the scenes showing the French king. The play is in part structured on a basic dichotomy. The comic scenes emphasise linguistic differences, one of the clearest evidences that the people in the play are not brothers, while in the 'serious' scenes of verse Henry lays stress on the concept of brotherhood amongst the English.

This dichotomy, the evidence for which develops through Act 3, comes to its climax and to what ought to be its dissolution at Agincourt. There Henry promises his act of union to make brothers of the English and Welsh, mean and noble, throughout his army. His purpose is still to defeat the French and so to unite them into one nation under the one English king, as he had declared at the end of 2.2: 'No king of England if not king of France'. Act 5 does make Henry a member of the French royal family, son-in-law to the king and their to his crown. Brotherhood thus seems to have replaced the alienation signalled by the different accents. The only French in 5.2 is spoken not by the French nobles but by Henry and by Katherine in her half-English attempts to meet his franglais gallantries. In reality, as the epilogue acknowledges, this union of the alien families and alien languages proved short-lived. The dichotomy prevails. Williams is no more Henry's brother than Pistol is Llewellyn's. The French do not become English brothers.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 41414

M. M. Reese (essay date 1961)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's England: Henry V," in The Cease of Majesty: A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays, Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd., 1961, pp. 317-32.

[In the following essay, Reese defends the character of Henry V against critical attack, maintaining that "Henry is an appointed symbol of majesty, and the action of the play is directed with the most elaborate care to show him doing everything the age expected of the perfect king."]

After the sustained conflicts of [King John and Henry IV], Henry V is in the main a demonstration. The hero is no longer in the toils. The end has proved the man, and his victory over himself has been much more than a personal victory. Riot and dishonour have been put to flight, reason is passion's master, and England has at last a king who can physic all her ills. Because he has proved himself a valiant and chivalrous prince, and one who acknowledges the sovereignty of law and justice, the crown comes to him 'with better quiet, better opinion, better confirmation', and all the soil of the Lancastrian achievement has gone with his father to the grave. In Henry V Shakespeare celebrates England's recovered majesty through the deeds of 'the mirror of all Christian kings'.

A formidable body of critical opinion is hostile to this view. In general it is held that, if this really was what Shakespeare was trying to do, he failed to bring it off; his natural scepticism could not help revealing the essential hollowness of this idealised and unlikely figure. Obviously there is something in this. Shakespeare was much too conscious of the human pressures that weigh on a public man to believe that a whole reign—even a short one that enjoyed God's special care— could be conducted on this rarefied level, and he has allowed the human material to be transformed by the universalising tendencies of epic. But the hostile critics have various kinds of objection to the play. They are united only in their dislike of Henry, and they find different ways of rationalising their prejudice. Purely subjective notions paralyse their judgment, and they write as pacifists, republicans, anti-clericals, little Englanders, moralists, even as arbiters of etiquette, until one is astounded at the prejudice Henry has managed to arouse. In all the canon only Isabella, in Measure for Measure, has stirred so much personal distaste. In the meantime all contact is lost with Shakespeare's purpose and achievement. Dr. Johnson wrote of the play without much enthusiasm, but at least he noted (with reference to Shakespeare's endless enjoyment of the joke about the warming properties of Bardolph's nose) that 'this poet is always more careful about the present than the future, about his audience than his readers'. The immediate effect in the theatre was what concerned him most.

Hazlitt went full-tilt at the play [in Characters of Shakespeare's Plays], branding Agincourt as a royal Gadshill and describing the Archbishop of Canterbury as a pander to riot beside whom Falstaff was only 'a puny prompter'. Henry made war on his neighbours because his own crown was doubtful and he did not know how to govern the country anyway. Hazlitt concedes that 'we like him in the play. There he is a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant', to be admired rather as one gazes at a caged panther in the zoo. But objective criticism of the play was made impossible by the writer's Francophil republicanism. He admired Napoleon but not 'this star of England'. A hundred years later Mr. John Masefield [in Shakespeare], in not dissimilar terms, found in Henry 'the knack of life that fits human beings for whatever is animal is human affairs' : a back-handed compliment at the best, but almost the only one he is willing to pay to a man whom he reckoned to be 'commonplace'. Bradley, who could not stomach the rejection of Falstaff, allowed [in Oxford Lectures on Poetry] Henry a certain coarse efficiency but thought him to be inescapably his father's son, 'the son of the man whom Hotspur called "a vile politician".' The key to the reign is therefore to be found at 2 Henry IV IV v 176-218; and presumably there is not much point in reading Henry V at all. Granville-Barker [in From 'Henry' to 'Hamlet'] found the play to be lacking in any 'spiritually significant idea': which is patently absurd, since in Shakespeare's time the wise government of states was one of the highest destinies to which God might call a man. But Chambers says [in Shakespeare: A Survey] much the same thing: 'Here you have a Shakespeare playing on the surface of life, much occupied with externalities and the idols of the forum. And with the exception of a few unconsidered words that fall from the mouth of a woman of no reputation, there is nothing that is intimate, nothing that touches the depths.'

More recently, and more soberly, Dr. Tillyard has given Shakespeare credit for good intentions but concludes that he set himself an impossible task [Shakespeare's History Plays]. Shakespeare's Hal, so warm and human, was irreconcilable with the copy-book hero of popular tradition; and Tillyard blames the sources for the fact that the king is a lesser person than the chivalrous prince who won Vernon's heart (I Henry IV IV i 97-110.) Mr. Traversi finds human flaws in Henry's total self-dedication to the business of being a king, and, like Bradley, he feels the father's influence to be still pervasive [Shakespeare from 'Richard II' to 'Henry V']. The coldly official manner masks a personal inadequacy of which Shakespeare was evidently aware.

There is no means of persuading people to like Henry if they lack the inclination, but at least we should recognise what Shakespeare was trying to do and how he set about it. Popular legend gave him a paragon, as Tillyard says. It was sufficiently potent to cause Polydore Vergil to break off his mainly critical narrative and insert a most uncharacteristic eulogy. Hall, Daniel, Drayton and Raleigh all came under Henry's spell, Hall in particular finding him the cradle of all the royal virtues: 'a king whose life was immaculate and his living without spot … a shepherd whom his flock loved and lovingly obeyed … he was merciful to offenders, charitable to the needy, indifferent to all men, faithful to his friends, and fierce to his enemies, toward God most devout, toward the world moderate, and to his realm a very father'. This was Shakespeare's feeling about him too; and it is important to remember that he did not accept the legend without examining it. In two plays devoted to the education of a prince he built up Henry's character so that men could believe in it, showing the human weaknesses as well as the dedication and conveying the magnitude of the responsibility by hinting at the personal sacrifices which it demanded. He does not allow us to think of Henry as an angle temporarily borrowed from above. The character gains its strength and conviction from all that has gone before, not from Henry IV only but from all the poet's earlier studies of kingship and society. In these studies he has shown us not only the sort of man the ideal king will be but also the roots from which he must grow; good government results from a complex of social and moral relationships, and Henry V is a play about England as well as about a single heroic man.

Is it a successful play? The proof is in the theatre; and critics who dislike the play may fairly be asked to give an honest answer to the question of what their response has been when—if they ever have—they have seen it acted on the stage. No play of Shakespeare's has such a simple, unvarying effect. It is absolutely proof against the perversity of directors. It is quite impossible to do anything 'clever' with it, and the only way of producing it is the way the author indicated long ago. Nor does it fail in its impact. In times of war and national danger men have been inspired by it; but even at ordinary times, when one perhaps goes to the theatre in no mood to be stirred by elementary heroics, the play's energy and its uncomplicated sentiment unite the audience in common surrender. In the theatre it is no longer possible to have any doubts about Henry himself. If Shakespeare had any secret reservations about the character, they are not apparent on the stage, where Henry is virtuous, strong and gay, a born leader of men. It is quite evident that Shakespeare approves of him; just as, in his own dramatic terms, he approves of Isabella and does not approve of Shylock.

Of course the play's appeal and interest are limited, and this very limitation makes its unfailing success in the theatre the more remarkable. Technically it is a considerable achievement, since Shakespeare was writing in a mode that he recognised (and he admits it often enough) to be extremely difficult. 'O for a Muse of fire.' He decided that the noble deeds of Henry V, which were of a kind to inspire wonder and imitation, could not be fittingly celebrated except through the medium of epic; and epic and drama are not naturally congenial to one another. The well-known admissions in the Prologue are not just an apology for the theatre's failure to accommodate marching armies: Shakespeare was quite ready to stage a battle when it suited him, and with no apology for the small numbers engaged in it. The Chorus was a device that he seldom used, and never so extensively as in Henry V. Its function here is to apologise for the unsuitability of any stage for the breadth and sweep of epic; but at the same time Shakespeare uses it with great boldness and ingenuity to make good some of the deficiencies he so modestly admits. He tells the story of the reign in a sequence of episodes, linking them by speeches in which the Chorus supplies gaps in the narrative and generally sets the mood for the following scene. This is a practical function of some value, as we can discover from those episodic chronicle-plays where no such assistance is supplied. But the verse of the choruses, corresponding to the passages of heightened description which a narrative poet habitually employs, has the further function of establishing the epic stature of the hero.

Properly the hero's qualities should be established through the dramatic action, and the prominence of the Chorus, like the element of rhetorical strain often detectable in the verse, is a weakness that necessarily results from the use of the epic mode: Shakespeare was trying to do something that did not wholly belong to drama. His method was to illuminate his hero in a succession of facets. Dover Wilson [in his introduction to the Cambridge edition] calls them tableaux, and they may be compared with magnificent stained-glass windows whose panels unfold a story. But tableaux and stained-glass windows do not move. Their nature is to crystallise an emotion, and it is a just criticism, so far as it goes, that the ritualistic style of the play confines the hero to certain rigid, one-dimensional attitudes. Henry's character is immediately established in the opening conversation between the two ecclesiastics, and it does not develop thereafter. Nor, despite the immense surface energy which keeps the play moving in the theatre, is there any real conflict. Henry has risen above temptation, and there is nothing to excite us in his calm pursuit of an assured destiny. Doubts assail him only twice, when his bedfellow betrays him and when ordinary soldiers question the justice of his war. But even then—so it is said—the official manner does not relax. He always seems to be speaking 'for the record', and even in soliloquy he addresses himself as though he were [at] a public meeting.

The familiar criticisms start from here. Henry is smug and hypocritical; or he exists only on the surface and is simply too good to be true. Then it is only a short step to more serious accusations, and Henry's behaviour is condemned by standards not in the least applicable to his time and state. It is easy to see how this has happened. Epic praises heroes and denounces villainy. It does not deal in light and shade, and its blacks and whites have a definition too simple for the give-and-take of ordinary life. Aeneas is always pius, Odysseus always πολ not mean to complicate the fundamental issues. So with Henry: if in the play his virtues seem to be superhuman, this does not invalidate the seriousness of Shakespeare's purpose nor, within the restrictions imposed by his medium, the success of his execution. Henry is an appointed symbol of majesty, and the action of the play is directed with the most elaborate care to show him doing everything that the age expected of the perfect king. If real life is not quite as simple as that, no matter. Human virtue is always muddied, or it would not be human; epic is the art that on special occasions transforms it into the ideal.

Shakespeare opens the play with two churchmen marvelling at Henry's recent conversion. 'His addiction was to courses vain; his companies unletter'd, rude, and shallow,' and so on; but

The breath no sooner left his father's body
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seem'd to die too; yea, at that very moment,
Consideration like an angel came,
And whipp'd the offending Adam out of him.

I i 25.

This does not mean that Shakespeare has turned his back on Henry IV. Spectators familiar with these two plays would understand the true character of the Prince and would know that there had been no unpremeditated change in him. But there is no reason why the two bishops should have known it too, and their assumption of a heavensent conversion is an effective and economical way of emphasising the reputation that Henry now enjoys. It is the reputation that matters, not the manner of it; and it would be odd if the Church did not find in it the occasion for a certain amount of professional congratulation. In any case Ely does also allude to the explanation of Henry's behaviour that had earlier been given by Warwick:

The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbour'd by fruit of baser quality:
And so the prince obscur'd his contemplation
Under the veil of wildness; which, no doubt,
Grew like the summer grass, fastest by night,
Unseen, yet crescive in his faculty.

I i 60.

They enter the King's presence and at once he raises the question of his claim to France. This is the crux of the play. Henry's detractors say that he had not forgotten his father's advice to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels, and that he was base enough to seek the clergy's blessing for a war for which he had no better excuse than this need for diversionary activity, coupled later with his personal anger at the insulting message sent by the Dauphin. The clergy, for their part, sanctioned the campaign, and even made a hand-some donation towards expenses, because there was a bill before parliament to confiscate their temporalities. If this is a just interpretation, Henry is beyond our pardon. The idea of the godly ruler fails at once, and all the later heroism and fair words and gallant comradeship in battle cannot gild the fault. Henry's reformation would be mere expediency, and Shakespeare's picture of him as the mirror of all Christian kings would be a shocking irony.

It is improbable that Shakespeare would have deliberately wrecked his play in the first ten minutes: not even in his so-called 'bitter' period was he as outrageously as cynical as that. In fact we have only to read these two scenes carefully to realise that he did nothing of the kind, and two recent editors of the play [J. H. Walter and J. Dover Wilson] have convincingly argued that, however it may appear to us today, the French war was a righteous war which a virtuous king was bound in honour to undertake. Shakespeare deliberately departs from the sources in order to make this plain. Hall's untempered Protestantism, echoed in spirit by Holinshed, seized on the opportunity to accuse the clergy of seeking to divert the attack on their property by urging the King to conduct the anti-clerical laity upon a campaign in which, if God were just, many of them would be killed. Shakespeare will have none of this. In I i Canterbury says that he has offered money to the King. It may indeed be a bribe to ward off sequestration, but that is not how Henry receives it. He gives Canterbury the most solemn warning not to twist the facts when he pronounces on the English claim to France. To consult his spiritual advisers on a matter of this gravity was the correct thing for a king to do, and it is ironical that Henry's critics should have regarded it as a brazen invitation to the clergy to consecrate commotion's bitter edge. But Henry warns Canterbury of the dreadful responsibility that rests on him:

For God doth know how many now in health
Shall drop their blood in approbation
Of what your reverence shall incite us to.

I ii 18.

Canterbury follows with his exposition of the English claim, more than 60 lines of it. It would be a remarkable audience that did not fidget, but we must remember that the English pretensions to the crown of France, for us long buried in a distant past, were by no means a dead issue when Shakespeare was writing. The loss of Calais was still in living memory, and Elizabeth had not in theory surrendered either this or any other French possession that was lineally hers. Dover Wilson believes that Shakespeare's audience would have thrilled at this reminder that their claims on France had not been abandoned but only slept; and might indeed, if the hour produced the man, one day be revived. Henry V was such a man, and Canterbury assures him that his cause is just: a point on which Shakespeare has to satisfy us if we are to believe in his conception of the King. Historically Canterbury was quite right. The Salic Law had been in the particular instance a dishonest contrivance by French jurists to deny the claims of Edward III; and in addition to these claims Henry had also inherited the rights of his own Angevin ancestors. The present century has made us suspicious of the excuses invented to countenance aggression, but in feudal law Henry's war was justified.

Even so, he will not leave until he is satisfied that the kingdom is safe from the Scots. It is Henry himself who raises this point, showing himself to be aware of his duty to protect his people from attack; and he is rewarded by Exeter's assurance of the unity of the realm.

For government, though high and low and
Put into parts, doth keep in one consent,
Congreeing in a full and natural close,
Like music.

I ii 180.

It is a wonderful evocation, especially significant in this context, of the harmonious relationship between Henry and his people, and it is followed by Canterbury's elaborate comparison between society and the hive:

  Therefore doth heaven divide
The state of man in divers functions,
Setting endeavour in one continual motion;
To which is fixed, as an aim or butt,
Obedience: for so work the honey-bees.…

I ii 183.

Its biological accuracy has been challenged but it is a classic statement of the Tudor theory of status. At its close Henry announces his decision to enforce his claims, and the French envoys are summoned to be made acquainted with it. They produce the Dauphin's gift of tennisballs, a painful reminder of carefree days in the company of Falstaff. It is absurd to pretend that the French war was a personal vendetta to avenge this trivial insult. That decision had already been made, and in his reply Henry leaves the French in no doubt of the real issues.

 This all lies within the will of God,
To whom I do appeal; and in whose name
Tell you the Dauphin I am coming on,
To venge me as I may and to put forth
My rightful hand in a well-hallow'd cause.

I ii 289.

Actors of Henry tend to go through a certain amount of foot-stamping during this speech, but the text does not seem to warrant it. Henry is sarcastic, masterful and icily determined; there is no evidence of lost control, and the chief impression given by the speech is that it is the Dauphin who is the irresponsible playboy now.

The next scene introduces us to the reprobates, but not to Falstaff. His presence was promised in the Epilogue to 2 Henry IV, 'if you be not too much cloyed with fat meat'. It seems, too, that the author went sufficiently far towards keeping the promise by including him in the original draft of the play, where it was he, and not Pistol, who ate Fluellen's leek; and where he may have had a meeting with the King in the night before Agin-court that we should dearly like to have overheard.

It has been suggested that the Cobhams, not content with getting his name altered from Oldcastle, now managed to get him off the stage altogether; and so it needed nothing less than a royal command to get him back again in The Merry Wives of Windsor. But the influence of the Cobhams in these matters tends to be overrated, and they were seemingly powerless to prevent the use of their family name of Brooke as a nom de guerre for the jealous Ford. Falstaff's disappearance is also attributed to the departure of the comedian Will Kempe, who left the company at about this time. But it is by no means certain that Kempe ever played Falstaff: the part may have been created by Thomas Pope. Moreover, Kempe was still in the company when the Globe was built during 1599, being one of the small group of actors who shared the financial risk; so it seems likely that he was available to play Falstaff if it had been required of him.

What then did happen to Falstaff? It has escaped notice that his omission may have been Shakespeare's deliberate artistic choice. The Epilogue to 2 Henry IV is suspect anyway. It contains two further paragraphs after the prayer for the Queen which should have closed the entertainment, and it is evident that there is more matter in the printed text than was ever spoken at a single performance. The promise that Falstaff should reappear seems to have been added at some time after the original performance: possibly for an appearance at court, in regard for the Queen's known affection for the character, or possibly to appease the public outcry at his most unpopular rejection. It may well be that, at the request of the company and to please the audience, Shakespeare genuinely tried to introduce Falstaff into Henry V but later abandoned him as alien to the spirit of the play.

If he had appeared in person, it would have been necessary to degrade him out of recognition—or else to diminish the conception of Henry that Shakespeare was trying to create. Shakespeare's eventual compromise is brilliant. Falstaff is present only to die one of the most moving deaths in all our literature. It is not just anyone who dies, and the emotion that this scene creates is born of our happier memories of him in his prime. It is hard to believe—and Shakespeare could not make it harder, either for himself or for us—that it is a better world in which this man has no place. The Arden editor writes that 'the "finer end" that Falstaff made changes the tone of the play, it deepens the emotion.… The play gains in epic strength and dignity from Falstaff's death, even as the Aeneid gains from Dido's death, not only because both accounts are written from the heart with a beauty and power that have moved men's hearts in after time, but because Dido and Falstaff are sacrifices to a larger morality they both ignore' [J. H. Walter]. In the England of Henry IV, Falstaff was a symbol and source of the corruption that he was confident would still prevail in the following reign, but Shakespeare allows us to forget the dishonour that now dies with him. 'Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?' There is a heavy loss in the death of so large a morsel of our common nature, and Shakespeare gives us leave to think, if we are so inclined, that there is something frigid and unnatural in the perfectly disciplined soul. He even has the audacity to allow his hero to be cursed for ingratitude, by the honest Gower as well as by the disreputable Nym. But the point is this: the better we can be induced to think of Falstaff, and the more we regret his absence, the higher is the tribute which, consciously or not, we are paying to Henry and the larger virtue that he represents.

The country's unity demands a further sacrifice before Henry sets out for France. The unmasking of the conspirators is not a comfortable episode, but that kind of thing never is. It can never be pleasant to see men bared to the soul. But the scene further illustrates Henry's kingly qualities, in his willingness to pardon the drunkard whose railing was offensive to his person but did not harm his royal office; and then in his severity to the close friend who had plotted to destroy him.

Touching our person seek we no revenge;
But we our kingdom's safety must so tender,
Whose ruin you have sought, that to her laws
We do deliver you.

II ii 174.

For the country's good he rises above personal affection and suppresses any impulse he may have to show mercy to men he had loved and honoured. Their fate shall be according to the course of law.

But this is one of the few occasions in the play when we are admitted to Henry's inner thoughts.

O! how hast thou with jealousy infected
The sweetness of affiance.

II ii 126.

This is at the heart of his grief and disappointment. Breach of trust weakens the defences of society, and even while he is publicly denouncing the traitors he is on the rack of bitter self-questioning. He is moved to dwell upon the harsh realities that may lie beneath the 'glistering semblances of piety'. The fair face of unity may conceal a thousand other treacheries in men who seem to be dutiful, free from gross passion and constant in spirit. Scroop's fault strikes him as another fall of man, because of its implicit threat to loose all the hideous forces of appetite and anarchy. The speech, Which many critics regard as an insufferable piece of sanctimonious ranting, exposes the tensions in which a king must live. The revelation of this treachery has opened up for Henry the gulf that separates his own conception of honour from the passions of the men he has to rule.

He derives genuine consolation from the thought that God has revealed the plot before it could do any actual harm, and this strengthens his faith in his mission as he leaves for France. Many things in his conduct of the war have been disliked because they have not been understood. He is a man well versed in 'the disciplines of the wars', and Fluellen's praise of him is not to be taken lightly. Where he seems to modern ideas to have been quite astonishingly insensitive, he was in fact directing the campaign according to the recognised principles of his age. Thus he begins by sending Exeter to give the French a further opportunity to avoid the whole bloody business. The justice of his cause, 'no sinister nor no awkward claim', is reasserted and France is warned to surrender.

The borrow'd glories that by gift of heaven,
By law of nature and of nations 'long
To him and to his heirs.

II iv 79.

If the warning is not heeded, the King's reply will be 'bloody constraint', and the French will be responsible for all the innocent blood that will be shed. Before Harfleur Henry in person threatens terrible destruction if the town will not surrender. It sounds the utmost in hypocrisy to call the citizens 'guilty in defence' if they try to save their town from a foreign invader, but if in justice Harfleur was his by rightful inheritance, then they would indeed be guilty of impious defiance in attempting to withhold it from him. That is what the rules of war prescribed, and the effectiveness of Henry's highly-coloured threats does succeed in preventing bloodshed, so that in the end he is able to tell Exeter to 'use mercy to them all'. At Agincourt his order to the soldiers to kill their prisoners has again been misunderstood, and Dover Wilson's analysis of the situation—which was historical—deserves to be carefully studied. Henry's action has the immediate endorsement of Gower, who was a professional. 'The king most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O! 'tis a gallant king.' This is followed, again significantly, by Fluellen's enchanting comparison of Henry of Monmouth and Alexander of Macedon, and of the fish that swim in the rivers at both these towns. Then Montjoy appears to bring the French surrender to the leader whose determination and tactical insight have averted an ugly situation.

It may well be that no amount of explanation will make these incidents acceptable to modern taste. There are many matters on which Shakespeare's thinking is so utterly different from ours that reconciliation is impossible. It never seems to have occurred to him, for instance, to question the morality or wisdom of capital punishment as a social expedient: he lived in a world where this drastic medicine was probably necessary. Warfare similarly had a code of behaviour that was found to be satisfactory for the short-season campaigning of feudal armies, and the civil war of the seventeenth century was fought broadly by the same conventions as Shakespeare accepted for Henry V.

In any case these blemishes, if they are blemishes at all, do not spoil Shakespeare's wonderful picture of the King as he leads his tiny force to victory. This is no lay figure just striking the right attitudes. The battle scenes glow with the warmth and inspiration of a man leading his people in fulfilment of a sacred trust bequeathed to him by his ancestors. Already his personality has healed the bitter wounds of civil war, and from 'that nook-shotten isle of Albion' his armies come 'as fierce as waters to the sucking of a gulf', the youth of England all on fire with his spirit. The French King fears his dreadful prowess, 'the native mightiness and fate of him' (II iv 48-64), and the scenes in the enemy camp, with their boastfulness and bickering and essential triviality, show by contrast the doom of a nation that has lost its soul. Weakened by disease and their losses before Harfleur, the English army limp through France with colours dimmed by 'rainy marching in the painful field', and here Shakespeare bids us remember the band of scarecrows that Falstaff led across the midland plain to Shrewsbury. But in the face of overwhelmning numbers the English are united by the King in that sort of fatalistic courage of which great deeds are born. In Henry's speech on the eve of battle Shakespeare rises unmistakably to the height of his epic theme.

And Crispin Crispían shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered.

IV iii 57.

The literal-minded hasten to point out that this prophecy has been disappointed: we no more remember Agincourt than we remember who Crispin was. But they are wrong. The English race have remembered Agincourt whenever the odds were long and the future dark and doubtful, and Henry superbly touches the strings that move men to be greater than themselves. 'How thou pleasest, God, dispose the day.' Almost, in such a mood, it does not matter. This is the triumphant cry of one who has done all within the reach of man.

Henry's 'band of brothers' is composed of men who are free. They are human enough to 'have no great cause to desire the approach of day', and Falstaff's Boy is not the only one who would give all his hope of fame for a pot of ale and safety. But they would not be there unless they chose to be. Henry wants no lagging spirits, and if any have no stomach for the fight, he will find their passages home to the safety of their English beds. In a heroic hour there is no place for Bardolph, whose fire is out. In the whole army only Pistol asks for greater indulgence than perhaps we ought to give him, and Shakespeare has many ways of showing the single-mindedness and quiet comradeship of the men whom Henry leads. Fluellen, an indomitable cocksparrow, is given latitude to develop a richly idiosyncratic character within the framework of the honesty and loyalty that are his most significant virtues. The interlude that he plays with Gower, Jamy and MacMorris offers, as Johnson very rightly said, only 'poor merriment', but these four men of different races are a further symbol of the unity and spirit that Henry has inspired. 'By the mess, ere theise eyes of mine take themselves to slumber, aile do gud service, or aile lig i' the grund for it.' Finally, in a lull in the action before the stirring movement of the battle, three ordinary soldiers show the true nature of their loyalty in the very act of asking themselves why they give it.

This is an important episode in several ways. It demonstrates, 'as may unworthiness define', the royal leadership promised in the fourth chorus, and we see Henry comforting his troops, 'even as men wracked upon a sand, that look to be washed off the next tide'. It is not done in a few empty phrases drawn from the cheap currency of military exhortation. Henry reasons quietly with his men, soberly admitting the dangers and conceding their right to hold the doubts and reservations they have expressed. It was a king's duty to feel his responsibility for the men he was leading into battle, and his claim on their obedience is complemented by his obligation to satisfy them that the cause is just and 'his quarrel honourable'. The relationship between king and subjects in this scene crystallises Shakespeare's idea of majesty. All know their duty. The subjects owe obedience, for 'to disobey were against all proportion of subjection'; but 'if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make'. The soldiers' blunt questioning moves Henry to a further examination of his conscience, and when he is alone he contemplates the terrible responsibilities of his office. 'Every subject's soul is his own': wherein he is luckier than the King, whose public conscience faces problems beyond the understanding of ordinary man. In Henry's speech on ceremony (IV i 250-304) Shakespeare relaxes the epic mood to sum up his earlier reflections on power and the nature of kingship. We are back in the taverns as Henry longs for the 'infinite's heart's ease' that his subjects are free to enjoy, and human feeling makes a momentary challenge to the austere disciplines of royalty. His recent conversation with the soldiers has reminded him again of the isolation which he has forgotten in the free-and-easy comradeship of the camp. But the moment of weakness passes, and Henry's acceptance of his burden is the more impressive for his admission of a personal sacrifice. His speech acknowledges the sleepless hours of care and service, and dismisses the pomps of office as the baits in which flatterers offer their deceiving poison. The scene closes with Henry committing his cause to God and praying that his father's usurpation shall not decide the issue of the coming day. In the course of some 320 lines he has shown almost every quality that Shakespeare thought to be fitting for a king.

Johnson believed that Shakespeare found himself short of material for the final Act, but Henry's wooing, so often criticised as heavy-handed and hypocritical, was in the accepted manner of the lighthearted gallant. It is important to Shakespeare's purpose to have the righteous war crowned by a peace that unites the two countries, and of this new and wider unity Henry's marriage is the fitting symbol. Burgundy's lengthy declamation (V ii 23-67) urges the need for harmony, for war is not man's right condition. This play, which shows like no other the particular virtues that war can breed, also examines its horrors with penetrating dis-illusion. It has been hailed both as a glorification of war and as an exposure of its corruption and brutality. Both views are correct. Suffering, bloodshed and cruelty are always implicit in the action; the foibles of the professional soldier are mocked, although not unkindly, in the blinkered pedantry of Fluellen; war's heroics are debunked in the response made by Pistol and his crew to Henry's speech before Harfleur; and Pistol stands also for the type of man to whom war brings the opportunity to line his pocket and acquire at the same time a bogus reputation as a hero (II iii 58-9, V i 90-4). The desolation pictured by Burgundy is a final condemnation of war as destructive and unnatural, and the signing of an honourable peace is therefore to be regarded as Henry's concluding achievement.

But only through war could Shakespeare fully express the sort of man that he wanted Henry to be. As well as frailty and weakness, war develops special qualities. Possibly they are the highest virtues, possibly not; but at any rate they are particular virtues and they are valuable. Shakespeare insists on this in Henry V. In the ordinary way we come to know many things about Henry—that he is self-controlled and dedicated, superior to flattery, pious and God-fearing, and so forth.

But war is the ultimate test of a country's unity and spirit, and the ultimate challenge to the men who rule it. This was the challenge that Shakespeare needed if he was to draw Henry in the fullness of his majesty.

It may not be a wholly convincing portrait: in the bold, bright colours of epic it is not always easy to recognise a human being. It is natural, too, to react against a surfeit of perfection, and without going to the extreme position of Henry's more implacable critics, many readers of the play have found him too coldly official for their taste. But Shakespeare's ideal king is a composite figure, and in Henry VI he found qualities of humanity and compassion that the stylised epic mode prevented him from revealing in the son. It is perhaps easier to admire Henry V than to like him. But an Elizabethan audience may not have had this difficulty, and it does not seriously weaken the effectiveness of the play that Shakespeare was intending to write. He brought his historical sequence to an end with a heartening picture of a society cured of its sickness and united under a prince whose own redemptive experience corresponded with that of his people. To an England living under the shadow of the Queen's approaching death, with all that this might mean, he offered this final assurance that under strong and disciplined leadership men had nothing to fear.

Zdeněk Střibrný (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Henry V and History," in Shakespeare in a Changing World, edited by Arnold Kettle, Lawrence & Wishart, 1964, pp. 84-101.

[In the following excerpt, Stříbrný discusses contrasting views of the king's character, career, and his relations with others.]

The Life of Henry V is hardly the greatest play in Shakespeare's cycle of ten dramas of English history. Yet it may certainly be considered as central, or at least helpful in revealing his artistic approach to politics, politicians, world-order, kingship, the people, the Elizabethan nation-state, and more generally to war and peace—in a word, to history. It has the unquestioned distinction of crowning the second, and more mature, group of his 'histories' which stretch from the very beginnings to the actual close of his writing career.…

There is no need to suppose that Shakespeare had … an extensive and neat pattern in his mind when he decided to try his hand at the English chronicle play. Nevertheless, the outcome of his endeavours was commanding enough. With the exception of King John and the late Henry VIII, all his histories are grouped in two tetralogies, culminating respectively in Richard III and Henry V. This gives these two plays a special position and perhaps a special appeal, even in our day: they are so far the only histories that have been filmed and thus brought to millions of modern spectators. Laurence Olivier's choice may also have been due to the fact that they present, in mutual contrast, supreme examples of a bad and a good king, of a tyrant, as the humanist thinkers of the Renaissance conceived and condemned him, and of an ideal ruler, aspiring to the high place awarded by Thomas More to his King Utopus, or by Thomas Elyot to his Governor.

It is a commonplace that it has always been easier for an author to create a negative character, ranging up to a thorough-going villain, than an accomplished hero. This applies even to Shakespeare who, of all the world's great writers is only the nearer to us for his normal share in our common frailties. Nobody has any doubts about the crushing impact of his Richard III. But his Henry V has been subjected to much discussion and has been both extolled and execrated with considerable vehemence.

The main attack against Henry has been launched since the nineteenth century by liberal-minded critics who have tended to see in him a jingoisi—not to say imperialist—conqueror destroying all he could not enslave. Their first, and not least effective, spokesman was William Hazlitt. Branding the historical king for his practice of 'brute force, glossed over with a little religious hypocrisy', Hazlitt enjoyed him in the play with ironic reservation as 'a very amiable monster', 'as we like to gaze at a panther or a young lion in their cages in the Tower, and catch a pleasing horror from their glistening eyes, their velvet paws, and dreadless roar' [Characters of Shakespear 's Plays, in Complete Works, 1930]. With similar half-amused and half-indignant irony Bernard Shaw, by the end of the century, could not forgive his old rival Shakespeare 'for the worldly phase in which he tried to thrust such a Jingo hero as his Harry V down our throats' [Our Theatre in the Nineties, 1948]. This brisk dismissal has been carried well on into the twentieth century by such liberal critics as Bradley, Granville-Barker, Mark Van Doren, and John Palmer, to name the most typical.

In more recent years, however, a pronounced contrary trend has been noticeable. It has crystallized in the two representative modern English editions, The New Cambridge (1947) and The New Arden Shakespeare (1954). The Cambridge editor, John Dover Wilson, writing under the immediate impact of the Second World War, was quick to appreciate the 'heroic poetry' of the play. He used all his resources of erudition and style to show Henry in his proper historical setting as a national leader, the 'star of England', outshining Marlowe's Tamburlaine in his magnanimity, justice, mercy, heroic faith, sense of humour and other human qualities which, in Wilson's view, represent the essence of an English happy warrior. With a different accent, but with no less enthusiasm in his general appraisal, J. H. Walter continued the exoneration of Henry, carrying on, in this point at least, the tradition of the old Arden edition of 1903. Walter's apotheosis rests mainly on the assumption that Shakespeare created his Henry as a 'mirror of all Christian kings', as 'the epic leader strong and serene, the architect of victory' whose remarkable self-restraint, magnificent courage, royal clemency, gay and gallant spirits and, above all, piety, can be matched only by Virgil's Aeneas.

How are we to deal with these clashing critical contradictions?

There can be no doubt that Shakespeare wanted his Henry V to become a triumphal account of the English victory against overwhelming odds at Agincourt in 1415. As the historical events, described in chronicles and sung about in ballads, afforded, apart from the battle itself, rather little dramatic matter, he was both forced and inspired to create a new dramatic genre, what we might almost call an epic drama, certainly the most epic of all his plays. Accordingly, he introduced every act by an epic prologue and closed the whole piece by an epilogue in the form of a narrative sonnet. In the opening lines of the play he invoked his Muse to 'ascend the brightest heaven of invention': the final play of his two historical cycles was to be a lavish parade of mellow poetry both epic and dramatic, of richly varied prose and of good-humoured parody on affected and outmoded dramatic styles, not excepting the 'mighty line' of Marlowe.

Stylistic analysis certainly suggests that Shakespeare was anxious to marshal and display all the formal resources he had thus far mastered. The blank verse in Henry V reaches the highest standard of his middle phase. Far from confining every idea to a single line, as is the tendency in the early plays, the verse runs majestically on, yet within a firm discipline and without breaking under the pressure of heavy thought or overflowing into the freedom of the later tragedies and final romances. It makes use of all the bold images and ornamental devices of Renaissance poetry, without piling them up or showing them off. Youthful exuberance gives way to measure, balance and harmony:

Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confin'd two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
Piece out our imperfections with your
Into a thousand parts divide one man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think, when we talk of horses, that you see
Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving
 earth; …

(I. Prologue, 19-27.)

The prose presents an even greater fullness. It ranges from passages highly rhetorical and refined in the manner of the university and court wit John Lyly (most of the speeches of the French courtiers) to passages almost naturally colloquial (e.g. Henry's discourse with the good soldiers Bates, Court and Williams) and to pieces still more homespun and spiced with farcical gags. Perhaps the best example of the latter type of prose comes up in the scene where our hostess Pistol, quondam Quickly, tells about the death of Sir John Falstaff. Already at the beginning of the second act she has prepared us for the worst by her announcement that 'he'll yield the crow a pudding one of these days' because 'the King has killed his heart'. After the contrasting effect of the ensuing scene in the King's council-chamber at Southampton, full of solemn poetry, she comes again, this time to deliver her famous comic dirge on Falstaff's end:

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 in it had been any christom child; 'a parted ev'n just between twelve and one, ev'n at the turning o' th' tide; for after I saw him fumble with the sheets, and play with flowers, and smile upon his finger's end, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and 'a babbl'd 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 hop'd 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 so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

(II. 3. 9-26.)

This old wife's tale is typical of the way Shakespeare transformed the farcical prose of his dramatic predecessors. He retained something of the clownish fooling which was expected from characters of low life when they appeared on the pre- Shakespearian stage, yet at the same time he permeated their speech with genuine popular idiom and imagination, with sharply observed comparisons, with strong epic narrative and pithy dramatic dialogue, as well as with pungent humour. Mistress Quickly's high-explosive style, compounded of convention and originality, of old cliché and realistic vision, of broad farce and unaffected feeling, was bound to give her an even stronger appeal than that of her older relative, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet.

The great variety of style, climbing from the depth of London taverns up to the flights of court poetry, is in full accord with the basic idea-content of the play. No pains are spared to present an imposing panorama of Britain's unity in arms, including every 'kind and natural' citizen, whatever his rank and his nationality, English, Welsh, Irish, or Scottish. All the sons of Mother England are called upon to do their duty, which is apportioned according to their social 'degree', yet is in each case important and responsible. Moreover, when it comes to the decisive battle, everybody who sheds his blood is gentled in his condition while any gentlemen who shun fighting must 'hold their manhood cheap'.

The English nobility of action stands in sharp contrast to the nobility of blood among the French who look down upon the English 'beggared host' as well as on their own 'superfluous lackeys' and 'peasants'. Even after their defeat they send their herald Montjoy to ask King Henry to allow them

To sort our nobles from our common men;
For many of our princes—woe the while!—
Lie drown'd and soak'd in mercenary blood;
So do our vulgar drench their peasant limbs
In blood of princes; …

(IV. 7. 71-5.)

The essential difference between the two nations is perhaps best reflected in their different conceptions of honour. The French conceive of honour in the old feudal sense as an aristocratic virtue par excellence, based on class superiority and hereditary privilege. For the English, on the contrary, honour is much more of a national ideal, attainable by all those who deserve it by their deeds. Here again the progressive social thinking of Thomas More and his humanistic circle comes to full flowering. Thus the whole conflict between France and England is presented as an encounter between the surviving feudal order and the English nationstate as it developed in Shakespeare's own time, especially during the years of struggle against the repressive power of Catholic Spain. Shakespeare lays special stress on the fact that the French lords at Agincourt refuse to lean upon their own people and rely solely on their own chivalric bravery. Whereas in the English host gentlemen fight side by side with their yeomen as one compact national army.

The leader of this 'band of brothers', King Henry, quite naturally assumes the place of a real father of his country and grows into a symbol of British unity and glory. Quantitatively speaking, he is the most voluminous of all Shakespeare's characters. As early as in Richard II he is spoken of as a young loafer who, despite his recklessness, harbours 'a spark of hope' in his bosom. The spark is fanned (not without tricky moments) in the next two plays in the cycle until, in Henry V, it bursts out into festive fireworks. We may therefore illuminate the whole play by centring our critical attention on Henry's character and career as well as on his relations both to his friends and his enemies.

One of the essential virtues of an ideal ruler, according to Thomas Elyot and other humanist thinkers, was concern for justice. Consequently, Shakespeare did not spare place or poetry to show right from the start that Henry's war against France was just and justifiable. Already at the end of Henry IV we saw him repudiate the wild company of Falstaff and choose the Lord Chief Justice for his main counsellor. In the exposition of our play another grave man, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is invited by the King to unfold 'justly and religiously', without fashioning or bowing his reading, whether the English claim to the French crown and territory is lawful. The Archbishop's answer is certainly too long-winded for our modern taste in tempo; however, Dover Wilson is probably right in assuming that not only Henry but also Shakespeare's audiences, being rhetorically minded and litigious, loved to hear a good pleader proving that France belonged to them. Only when the Archbishop and all the English peers unanimously persuade the King of the righteousness of his action, does he give the final signal for the French expedition.

At the same time he insists, and keeps on insisting during the whole campaign, that he does not forget God as the supreme judge in whose name he puts forth his 'rightful hand in a well-hallowed cause'. On the eve of the Agincourt battle he prays the Lord not to remember the sin committed by his father in compassing the English crown, and repeats for himself, and for his audience, what he has done in the way of penitence. After the miraculous victory, when he hears about the French holocaust, while English losses are only some thirty, he ascribes it all to the arm of God and forbids anybody under threat of death to boast and so to take the praise from the only One to whom it is due. Taken in all, Henry may well claim the epithet of 'the complete Christian monarch' attributed to him by J. H. Walter, since piety appears as his second cardinal virtue.

We might go on pointing out Henry's virtues for a good while longer. Most of them have been extolled by his sympathetic critics: his magnanimity, modesty, bravery, coolness and high spirits in the face of danger. His sense of humour is what every Englishman likes to think of as typically English: he can even enjoy a joke or two against his own anointed person.

To close this part of our analysis, let us consider for a moment one trait in Henry's character which has not always been fully appreciated. I mean his plainness, his soldier-like bluntness, his dislike of social pretence and his striving for simple and honest relations between himself and all his subjects. Some American scholars have observed how the blunt soldier had come to be a striking type in life and on the stage by the end of the Elizabethan period and how he was often placed in opposition to courtly fops or intriguers. Shakespeare developed and enriched this type in many of his characters, starting with the Bastard in King John and culminating tragically in Coriolanus. Surely the war-like Harry deserves to be admitted to this military brotherhood. Already his wild youth in the company of Jack Falstaff may be explained, at least in part, by his instinctive dislike of courtly falsity and foppery, because every court breeds flattery and dissimulation, and the court of Henry IV, the 'king of smiles', had been full of it. On this basis we are permitted to sympathize with Prince Hal's escapades in the less decorous yet more wholesome air of the London world, or underworld. What he learns there stands him in good stead later. Hardly any other king would be able to mix with his common soldiers as freely as Henry does the night before Agincourt. Not only does he have a reassuring chat with them. He shows himself as eager to cut through the official hierarchy by means of his disguise and to learn the plain, even bitter, truth directly from their rank-and-file point of view, without trimmings. Moreover he thinks it proper to stress right at the beginning of his discussion that 'the king is but a man' to whom the violet smells the same as it does to anybody else. The ideal monarch of the sixteenth century must base his position on some sort of sense of essential human equality.

A similar candour informs his attitude to the woman of his heart. When he comes to woo the French Princess Katharine, he does not choose to speak in the vein of a mighty conqueror, however much he would be entitled to the pomps of a Tamburlaine. Nor does he 'mince it in love' like so many sonneteering and capering courtiers. Although his courting speeches are stylistically much more deliberate and cultivated than they may seem at first sight, essentially he remains true to himself as a 'plain soldier' and a 'plain king'. Many critics have felt rather baffled, if not disgusted, when Henry playfully suggests, instead of love-lorn rhyming and dancing, that he buffet for his love, or bound his horse for her favours and 'lay on like a butcher, and sit like a jack-an-apes, never off'. However inelegant such words may sound, we should not close our eyes to the simple truth and beauty of what they really imply and lead up to:

… What! a speaker is but a prater: a rhyme is but a ballad. A good leg will fall; a straight back will stoop; a black beard will turn white; a curl'd pate will grow bald; a fair face will wither; a full eye will wax hollow. But a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon; or, rather, the sun, and not the moon—for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly. If thou would have such a one take me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king.

(v. 2. 158-66)

It is certainly to Henry's credit that he keeps his course throughout the whole play as 'the best king of all good fellows'. He detests the courtly 'fellows of infinite tongue,' that can rhyme themselves into ladies' favours' only to 'reason themselves out again'. Instead, he prefers quickly to 'leap into a wife' whom he likes in the rough but honest manner of a real soldier-king. Only such a soldier could win the sympathy and support of all the people in his national army, as well as in Shakespeare's national theatre. Only such a king could gain victory over the terrifying odds commanded by the French princes and, to cap it all, get the French princess.

So far so good. Yet there are more things in Henry V than are dreamt of in the kind of philosophy most of his eulogists go in for. However fervently Henry's ideal qualities are hammered home, they represent only half of the poet's whole truth about the King and his holy war. A deeper analysis, probing under the shining surface, will find that the highlights in Henry's pertrait are thrown into relief by dark shades.

We need not take back anything that has been said and quoted so far in Henry's favour. There is no doubt, first of all, that he is shown as a just ruler and defender of the faith and international law. At other moments, however, we may discover in his character quite different features and motives. For the first hint we may look again at the end of Henry IV where the hidden motive of his French campaign shows up. 'Therefore, my Harry, / Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels' (2 Henry IV, IV. 5. 213-15.): thus does the dying king, anxious to divert the attention of his subjects from the drops of Richard's blood which stain his crown, advise his son. And the young Harry faithfully follows this course from the very beginning of our play, being only too loyal to his dead father and his lion-and-fox policy. After all, a foreign war, as every Renaissance politician knew, has always certain advantages for rulers in difficulties at home. To camouflage his aims, Henry leaves the Archbishop of Canterbury to do most of the propaganda and goes so far as to exhort him before God to take heed how he awakes the 'sleeping sword of war'. And yet he knows better than anyone that the Archbishop has his own urgent reason for advising foreign quarrels if he is to save the better part of the Church's property from the attacks of the Commons who are striving to pass a bill against it.

It should be remembered that Shakespeare, in his usual way, based the Archbishop's warlike speech on the Elizabethan chronicler Raphael Holinshed who, in his turn, took it over from the anti-Catholic chronicle of Edward Hall, where any sign of corruption in the old unreformed Church was seized upon with great gusto. However, the remarkable fact remains that Shakespeare, in his fanfare introducing the glorious Henry, did not suppress but gave full vent to the bass tones of his French policy. When Henry succeeds in manoeuvering the Archbishop into a willing enough oath 'The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!', his typical knack of policy is completed. He always proves extremely ingenious in putting the blame for his actions on somebody else: on Falstaff, on the Archbishop, on the Dauphin, on the besieged citizens of Harfleur, on whoever comes in handy, not excluding God himself.

In this light, the second of Henry's cardinal virtues, his piety, does not emerge untarnished. The more devout the words on his lips, the more humble his glances towards Heaven, the more he falls under suspicion of hiding the bad conscience of an aggressor under constant references to God, as so many of his historical predecessors and successors were in the habit of doing. If we judge his piety not only by his words but also by his works, the result is more disquieting. It is true that he does ostentatious penance for the crime committed by his father upon Richard II. Nevertheless, the fruit of this crime, the English crown, rests firmly in his hands and is being stained by much more blood in the war against France. Now nobody would expect Henry to give up his crown in a fit of belated penitence. Such things seldom happen in practical politics and, moreover, Shakespeare had his Holinshed and the main historical facts, not to mention the position of the Tudors, to consider. Yet would it not have been much better for Henry, then, simply to leave Richard, as well as God, at rest, without taking their names repeatedly in vain? As it is, it would seem as though the poet had penetrated too deeply into the King's soul not to see there an incessant strife between political exigencies and human feelings, between the call of power and glory and the urge towards genuine simplicity and piety.

Let us recall, in this connection, what a really pious king, Henry's successor Henry VI, created by Shakespeare some eight years earlier, had to say about his father's actions:

But, Clifford, tell me, didst thou never hear
That things ill got had ever bad success?
And happy always was it for that son
Whose father for his hoarding went to hell?
I'll leave my son my virtuous deeds behind;
And would my father had left me no more!

(3 Henry VI, II. 2. 45-50.)

Shakespeare must have kept these considerations in his mind and imagination throughout both his historical cycles. Otherwise he would not have closed his fervently patriotic Henry V with an epilogue summing up unobtrusively, yet firmly, the whole historical frame and outcome of Henry's famous victories:

Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd king
Of France and England, did this king

Whose state so many had the managing
 That they lost France and made his England
  bleed; …

(Epilogue, 9-12.)

After these apprehensions, there remains the image of Henry as a hearty soldier-king to be re-examined. Again his qualities as a good mixer and blunt wooer need not be denied. Only they need to be qualified and supplemented by some less engaging features. Henry, as we know from both parts of Henry IV, had acquired the art of free-and-easy intercourse with all sorts of people while playing truant from the court and painting London red in the company of Jack Falstaff. He was well aware all that time that as soon as he ascended the throne he would have to cut out the Falstaff side of his life, including Falstaff himself. This is quite understandable, and we cannot criticize it, without blaming Henry for doing what was, for a king, politically inevitable. What we do find hard to swallow, though, is the coldly self-righteous way he chooses to reject his former boon companion and win the approval of respectable society; and it is hard to believe that an Elizabethan audience, however ardently monarchist, would not also have had divided feelings at this point. We should not be too much surprised, therefore, to find similar streaks of hypocrisy and opportunism in Henry's character during his French expedition. However friendly, even brotherly, he appears during his incognito conversation with his common soldiers, as soon as he is alone again, he complains of his 'hard condition … subject to the breath of every fool'. And he goes on philosophizing plaintively until he finds that his wretched subjects enjoy their simple pastoral lives much better than he his ceremony, because he must keep watch day and night 'to maintain the peace, whose hours the peasant best advantages'.

This does not come altogether convincingly from a king whose main aim and occupation we have seen to be the waging of war and is bound to raise some doubts about the arguments he has used to convince the soldiers of the righteousness of his cause. Coming from the home of the good soldier Schweik, I appreciate with immense relish the spirit of deflated heroism and ironic common sense entertained by Court, Bates and Williams in the face of the war hysteria shared by both the English and the French aristocrats. Not that the soldiers are afraid of fighting. They go to it lustily enough when they see no other way of defending themselves and their country. But before that they give the disguised king a gruelling time, asking him some really sticky questions about the welfare, both physical and spiritual, of soldiers who die in an unjust war. Even when in the end they seem reasonably pacified, it is not difficult to perceive that the King's answers leave much to be desired. Above all, they avoid any direct answer to the most delicate point: whether the war against France is really just or not. The contradictions within this telling scene are, in fact, not resolved by Shakespeare, only stated.

Nor are the implications of Henry's courtship of Katharine beyond criticism. Although we have clarified his offending bluffness as behaviour fit for a soldier, there is a seamy side to his wooing that cannot be so easily explained away. I mean the fact that Katharine is regarded by everybody (including herself), and by Henry in the first place, as part of the war spoils resulting from the Agincourt victory. Henry puts it again quite bluntly when Katharine coyly expresses her doubts whether it is possible for her to love the enemy of France. Says Henry in a cock-sure tone: '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. And, Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine.' (V. 2. 169-75.)

It would not be fair to take Henry's humorous love-making too seriously. His lady-killing attitude somewhat resembles the cracking of a good-humoured Petruchio's whip over another Kate. More clearly than in the early comedy we can see here the amorous play of a pair of Renaissance lovers who use the old crude farce of the taming of a shrew as a background for both concealing and surprisingly revealing their own feelings, abounding in passionate intensity and new human dignity. Also we should bear in mind the often very practical and business-like character of Elizabethan marriages in general. But for all that it has to be conceded that Henry's marriage is essentially political, with all the implications such marriages bring as their dowry, and that Shakespeare sees it as such with all his penetrating truthfulness.

Henry, in fact, unlike his creator, is often content with half-truths. He uses them with so much readiness and rhetorical convincingness that he often succeeds in persuading both his friends and his enemies, as well as, one suspects, himself. That is perhaps why he is also able to persuade so large a proportion of his modern audience.

But to less idealistic interpreters Henry reveals a less comforting but perhaps more rewarding dramatic character of a conquering king who has to pay a heavy human toll for his success. His good qualities are seen as reaching their richest and most interesting point by being both contrasted with, and dynamized by, equally potent qualities of the opposite tendency. The result is a double triumph: that of Henry and of truth. In the very act of apotheosis Shakespeare tears down Henry's godlike aureole and shows that 'in his nakedness he appears but a man'. A man with victorious laurels—and bleeding wounds.

A similar polarization may be observed in Shakespeare's vision of the French war as a whole. The most poignant contradiction here is that between the glory and the horror of war. To get an insight into the contradictory structure of the play, it is enough to compare the fiery, school-room-resounding poetry of the King before Harfleur

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once
Or close the wall up with our English dead.

(III. I. 1-2.)

with the chilling prose of Private Bates commenting upon the King's bravery on the eve of Agin-court:

He may show what outward courage he will; but I believe, as cold a night as 'tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck; and so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here.

(IV. I. 112-16.)

Still more chilling are the comments of Private Williams who reminds the King of 'all those legs and arms and heads, chopp'd off in a battle' that are going to '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. 134-40.)

The contrasting of war heroics with suffering human beings is only one of Shakespeare's strands in his realistic panorama of war. He goes further to introduce into it, against all the patriotic fervour, some very unflattering portraits of the English gentlemen-rankers out on a French spree. Lieutenant Bardolph, Ancient Pistol, and Corporal Nym, all three the brightest buds of London brothels, do very little fighting, except in their bombastic words. They are experts in quite another branch of soldiering, that of looting. Their actual leader is Pistol and their war-cry is his fustian on their leavetaking:

Let us to France, like horse-leeches, my boys,
To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck.

(II. 3. 55-6.)

Of course, they are not as bloodthirsty as all that. They know easier methods by which their 'profits will accrue'. They are extremely lightfingered with regard to all kinds of 'chattels and movables', not excepting Church sacraments. And even though Bardolph and Nym do not get away with their 'Loo! loo! Lulu! Loot!' and are hanged in the end, Pistol survives all calamities and steals back to England to steal there anew with added experience.

Finally, one more contrast appears in the complex unity of the play, being displayed again not so much perhaps out of premeditated purpose as out of true observation of reality. This is the different approach to war by the statesmen and generals, both English and French, and by the common soldiers. The statesmen, and King Henry above all, start war in great style primarily to divert internal dissension and to acquire new corners in foreign lands. The Courts, Bateses and Williamses go to war willy-nilly, with a good deal of grumbling. Yet once they are in it, they fight tooth and nail for their country and their king. To them war is not an arena for winning honour, or profit, but an altar before which they confess their love for England. And the king saves his soul and human face only when he comes to know and accept their standpoint, when he leads them as the brother and father of the whole nation.

Thus one of the essential features of Shakespeare's humanism emerges. It consists in the fusion, both in form and content, of the advanced social thinking of the sixteenth-century European humanists, who had set up the example of an ideal, though Utopian governor, with the attitudes and feelings of the English people, particularly their moral integrity and sharp sense of reality. This fusion represents one of Shakespeare's greatest achievements.

The contradictions, contrasts and fusion that we have noticed within Henry V can be understood still better if we see the play not only in the context of the tetralogy of which it is the climax but in the light of (and indeed as the expression of) Shakespeare's whole vision of history.

Professor Jan Kott has recently remarked that Shakespeare's Histories are all concerned with the struggle for power and 'always, with Shakespeare, the struggle for power is divested of all mythology, presented in its purest form', and he goes on to suggest that the image of history that emerges from the plays is one of an unchanging mechanism, a great stairway leading to an abyss.

It has a powerful impact on us, this image of history, repeated so often by Shakespeare. History is a great staircase which a line of kings endlessly ascends. Each step, each pace towards the summit, is marked by murder, perjury and treason.… The kings change. But the staircase remains the same.

[Shakespeare Notre Contemporain, 1962]

There is much that is true and telling in such an analysis, yet it surely leaves out something essential, perhaps because Kott, in his chapter on the Histories, concentrates on the Richards to the virtual exclusion of the Henries. What is left out is Shakespeare's acute realization of the emergency of the national monarchy of the Tudors as a new force which in some way or other resolves the contradictions of the English historical past.

The tetralogy consisting of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V is the nearest thing in Elizabethan literature to a realistic national epic. It is set in the past, yet more than any other group of Shakespeare's plays, it tells us what Tudor England was actually like. We watch the events of late fourteenth and early fifteenth century England and we see the England of Shakespeare's own time coming to life before our eyes.

In Richard II we witness the passing of the medieval world, a world of stable values and ceremonial actions. The structure of the play, the very language of it, reflects, not without sympathy and even a lyrical nostalgia, a past world, whose tone is set by the formal challenges and decorums of the opening scene. One might almost say that whereas the episode of the tennis balls in Henry V already points towards the modern world of popular international sport—test matches and Davis cups—the gages in Richard II look back to the sport of the medieval tournament, or even beyond. And when Richard II is deposed and conducted to prison we know in our bones that the new men are indeed new, different in some fundamental way. Bolingbroke, though a feudal baron among feudal baron belongs to a different world from Richard and will be a different king.

Henry IV, in its two marvellous parts, is in this sense a transition play. The old world, reincarnated for a moment in the chivalric Hotspur, is on the way out; but the new world has yet to be born. The crown he has usurped sits very uneasily on Bolingbroke's head: he is tormented by the past (Richard) and fears the future (Hal). And Henry IV, amidst so much else, tells us, almost in the terms of a Morality, of the making—the education and testing—of the new king who is to replace the transitional figure of Bolingbroke. Hal must defeat Hotspur (the knightly past) and understand—even, up to a point, identify himself with—Falstaff and his cronies (the Commons). Like Elizabeth herself he must get a whiff of the people, not as they ought to be but as they are.

The contradiction which Henry IV cannot solve is that he has seen the necessity of doing away with Richard, yet feels at the same time that he himself is a usurper. It is not a contradiction that can be resolved in abstract terms within the ideology and sanctities of the old world which Henry IV still accepts. Yet it has to be resolved, historically by England and the Tudors, artistically by Shakespeare the Elizabethan dramatist. And it is resolved by Henry V, though not, as we have seen, without human cost.

The sin of usurpation is forgotten and the bona fides of the new monarchy established by the act that links Henry most firmly with the future, with the Tudor state in general and in particular with the Elizabeth who has defeated the Spanish Armada. The sin which has tormented Henry IV is exorcized, not by time or argument, but by his son's victory over the French at Agincourt. Hal's education has not been in vain. Henry V is the hero of the tetralogy and able to settle its haunting problems for one reason above all—he is the new national king, the herald of the Tudor monarchy which is no longer a monarchy of the old type, but something different and necessary.

It adds to Shakespeare's greatness that he can divine, at the very moment of reaching his historical synthesis, the destructive and ultimately self-destructive nature of the new men and their new ways. This divining glimpse in Henry V points forward to some of the conflicts in the great tragedies.

G. P. V. Akrigg (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Henry V: The Epic Hero as Dramatic Protagonist," in Stratford Papers 1965-67, edited by B. A. W. Jackson, McMaster University Library Press, 1969, pp. 186-207.

[In the following essay, written in 1966, Akrigg argues that Shakespeare strove to make his epic hero dramatically convincing but never succeeded in making the character of Henry V "a living figure" in the play.]

When Mr. Langham selected Henry V for production … , he chose a play which, despite its seeming simplicity and directness, poses notable problems for any producer. At the root of these problems lies the fact that Shakespeare himself, writing the play, encountered difficulties which he was not able entirely to resolve. J. H. Walter, in his admirable introduction to the New Arden edition of this play, has indicated why these difficulties arose:

Shakespeare's task was not merely to extract material for a play from an epic story, but within the physical limits of the stage and within the admittedly inadequate dramatic convention to give the illusion of an epic whole.…

[I] propose first of all to consider the nature of of the epic material which Shakespeare took over from the historians. Then I intend to examine some of the special techniques that Shakespeare employed in his attempt to create an epic drama. Finally I mean to evaluate the degree of his final success or failure.

Behind this play of Henry V stands an actual man, the king as history knew him, an authentic hero, the genuine, bona fide article. To say this is not to say that the historical Henry was without fault. Heroes do have their faults even though their worshippers may persuade themselves otherwise. Born in Monmouth in 1387, Henry grew to manhood in an age when a Prince of Wales, once he was of sufficient years, was expected to undertake the government of his principality. He was, in a very literal sense, Prince of Wales. So it happened that Henry, while still in his teens, received a first-class military education in campaigns against Welsh rebels such as Owen Glyn Dŵr (Shakespeare's Glendower). When his father's health began to fail, Henry came to London and took over the direction of affairs in the King's Council. In the half century since Edward III had built up a massive English domain in France, the French had been recovering it bit by bit. Henry, who among his titles had that of Duke of Aquitaine, was convinced that determined military action was the only way to regain the position that England had lost. Unfortunately for him, his ailing father viewed his activities with suspicion and misgivings: he reconstituted the Council and handed over its presidency to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was committed to a much less aggressive foreign policy.

Retiring from the Council but not returning to Wales, Henry may well have spent part of his time (as Princes of Wales of a certain age are wont to do) in the company of complaisant women and entertaining hangerson. When Henry's father died in 141.3, all such diversions were laid aside. There was, in fact, a distinctly Puritan streak in Henry and his indulgences were probably never very remarkable. He was, moreover, a man with intensely held religious convictions—his surviving letters often strike modern readers as sanctimonious in tone. Henry's most recent biographer, Christopher Hibbert, does not deny that there was much that was priggish and bigoted about him.

As king, Henry lost no time establishing a programme. It contained, quite predictably, the aggressive policy towards France which he had failed to carry while Prince of Wales. Embassies began passing between England and France. When the French seemed in danger of giving Henry what he wanted, he promptly raised the ante. Henry, in fact, was bent on war and, amid these sham negotiations, was busy raising an army with which to invade France.

Nobody has ever denied that Henry V was a first-class administrator. With remarkable efficiency he and his officers mustered an army of nine thousand excellently equipped soldiers. In August 1415 these troops assembled in invasion ports along the Solent, ready to board the fleet of fifteen hundred little ships which was to convey them to France. The raising of this force had placed a major strain on the financial resources of the country; even the King's plate had been pawned to secure the necessary funds.

At this point we may note that Henry was singularly fortunate in those 'receptivities of the moment' which William James noted as indispensable for the emergence of a hero. The King of France was intermittently insane, the Dauphin was a sickly youth of nineteen, a group of royal dukes divided much of the authority among themselves and the Duke of Burgundy was conducting himself like an independent sovereign. Never was France in worse condition to meet an invader.

Henry's campaign, once he landed in France, soon ran into trouble. He had to capture Harfleur as a base from which to strike inland towards Paris, but unfortunately Harfleur, expertly fortified, well garrisoned and resolutely commanded, held out long past the date that Henry had set for its capture. When the city did capitulate, Henry's army was so ravaged by sickness that, after he had garrisoned Harfleur, he had only about forty-five hundred men (half the number that had sailed from England) to lead inland against the French. So small a force was totally inadequate. When Henry called a council of war, the overwhelming opinion was that he had better head back to England, but to do so, with only one captured city to show for the great expenditures and heavy casualties, and with the nation's high hopes all dashed, would have meant a devastating loss of personal prestige. Henry felt that he could not return home so ingloriously—he must at least have a propaganda victory, if not a real one. Despite the warnings of his captains, he decided to dash northwards through French-held territory and come out at the English stronghold of Calais. What he contemplated was nothing beyond a raid on a grand scale. Henry had his little field army stripped down so that it could travel with the greatest possible speed. He was staking everything on being able to reach Calais before the divided, ill-organized French could learn what he was up to and throw an army into the field to block his line of march. All he wanted was the appearance of a victorious march across France. The real thing, he knew, lay beyond his resources.

And so Henry headed north. However inadequate its numbers, Henry's army at least had the benefit of firm discipline. The King was a man who insisted upon good order. When on this march to Calais one of the English soldiers robbed a church, Henry had the man led bound through the army; then he hanged him from a tree and marched his men in silence past the hanging corpse to make sure they got the point of the exercise. Each evening Henry walked about the camp to make sure that his orders were all being obeyed. He had an interesting device for keeping the English camp from being pestered by the whores who are drawn inevitably to any army. Any harlot who appeared in the vicinity of the camp was warned never again to come within three miles of it. If she did, her left arm was broken. The fact that it was the left arm and not the right might be taken to show the mixture of ruthlessness and mercy which characterized Henry.

While Henry was an outstanding field commander, he was no Napoleon where military strategy was concerned. He was, in fact, consistently out-generalled by the French, right up to the final battle of this campaign. At the very beginning he made a serious mistake. To proceed by the straightest possible route from Harfleur to Calais, Henry had to have command of a ford near the mouth of the Somme. While it is true that he did order the English commander at Calais to send out a force to secure this ford, he started out with no assurance that this operation had been attended to. In fact, to his army's horror, when Henry reached the Somme he found that a French army, moving far more rapidly than he had ever anticipated, was already on the north side of the ford ready to destroy his men if they sought to cross. A more prudent commander might have headed back to Harfleur. Not Henry. Instead he turned east, travelling mile after mile after mile along the south bank of the Somme and finding himself met at every ford or bridge by the French army travelling along the north shore. Conditions grew worse and worse as the half-starved and nearly exhausted English wandered deeper and deeper into the interior of France. At last Henry reached a point where the river swung in a great loop northwards. By a forced march directly east Henry reached an undefended ford ahead of the French and got his army across. But by now an augmented French army, much larger than his own, was ready to interpose itself between him and Calais. Vainly Henry tried to save himself through negotiations. He offered to surrender Harfleur if his army were allowed to march unmolested to Calais. The French, knowing that they held all the winning cards, refused the offer. Finally on 24 October they moved in on Henry, ranging their army directly across his line of march.

The battle was fought on 25 October 1415. And now luck, which is so helpful to historical heroes, outrageously defied probability and favoured Henry. The French army was at least four times as large as the English, and it had artillery which the English did not. However, there was no French commander-in-chief. Decisions were made mostly by a group of lords with grandiloquent names and picturesque offices, often after heated argument among themselves. The French had forgotten everything they had learned at Crécy, and their battle formation provided an ideal target for the devastating flights of arrows from the English long-bows. The French, moreover, had chosen the battle-field unwisely. Two converging lines of woods protected the English flanks, forcing the French cavalry to confine themselves to direct charges which failed because of the stakes the English had driven into the ground. When the French lords advanced on foot, far too many of them, insistent upon being in the place of honour, had jammed into the front rank. As they plodded heavily across the wet grass in their fantastically heavy plate armour, the narrowing front forced them more and more in upon themselves. Coming up to the English lines, the French were so tightly packed that many could not get their arms free to draw their swords. Slipping, many died unwounded, suffocated by the sheer weight of the succeeding armoured lords who fell shoulder high on top of them.

Henry fought that day with the tremendous personal courage which always distinguished him. His English displayed equal valour and at the end, of course, they were victors of the field. But what had really defeated the French was their own lack of command, of direction and of discipline and, most of all, their utter stupidity. Not until Prince Charles Edward left his High-landers standing defenceless to be exterminated by Cumberland's gunners at Culloden, or until the British generals in World War I sent forward hundreds of thousands to be mown down by German machine-gunners, was the world to see the like of the folly of the French at Agincourt.

What the battle did for Henry's reputation was easily predictable. There is a major principle in such matters. Sidney Hook has usefully defined it in his book on The Hero in History:

There is a natural tendency to associate the leader with the results achieved under his leadership even when these achievements, good or bad, have resulted despite his leadership rather than because of it. Where many factors are at work, the fallacy of post hoc, ergo propter hoc has a fatal plausibility to the simple mental economy of the uncritical multitude.

The victory at Agincourt was attributed entirely to the heroism of Henry V, and not to the lunatic tactics of the French. The King's monumental blunder at the mouth of the Somme was utterly forgotten. Back he came to England for a hero's welcome. Nothing succeeds like success, and in 1417, when he returned to France for his Normandy campaign, carrying with him the aura of Agincourt, Caen surrendered without a blow.

Lord Raglan, making survey of the mythic process which marks the emergence of a hero, has seized upon the developing legend of Henry V as the best example of this process to be found in English history. The numerical odds at Agincourt became more and more fantastic with retelling over the years: not four or five against one, as in fact they were, but at least ten French to each of the English. The English losses became smaller and smaller with successive narrators. Subsidiary episodes attached themselves to the legend: the story of the wildcap boy who miraculously, overnight, became the greatest captain and statesman of his time, and the fiction about the tennis balls and the hero King's splendid reply. National pride thrilled again and again to the name of Agincourt, and Henry was remembered not as the cold calculating gambler who had had luck on his side, but as the great national hero. Just listen to the Tudor historians on the subject of Henry. First, Edward Hall writing about 1542:

He was the blazing comet and apparent lantern in his days; he was the mirror of Christendom and the glory of his country; he was the flower of kings past, and a glass to them that should succeed. No emperor in magnanimity ever him excelled.

And then Raphael Holinshed writing about 1577:

A majesty was he that both lived and died a pattern in princehood, a lodestar in honour, and mirror of magnificence: the most highly exalted in his life, the most deeply lamented at his death, and famous to the world alway.

Obviously historians could not be expected to keep up with such a man. A great epic poet was needed fittingly to celebrate his greatness. About 1595 Samuel Daniel, writing his Civile Wars (a work that we know Shakespeare perused), presented the ghost of King Henry lamenting that, in the days when he had performed his great deeds, England had had no great poet able to celebrate them in epic poetry:

O [cries the ghost] what eternal matter here is
Whence new immortal Iliads might proceed …
O that our times had had some sacred wight,
Whose words as happy as our swords had

And he expressed the hope that Queen Elizabeth, living in in a golden age of poetry, would detail one of her poets to write the epic that Henry deserved. Daniel plainly had challenged his fellow poets to bend the bow of Ulysses, to show what they could do in the epic line.

And so we come to the late spring or early summer of 1599 when William Shakespeare sat down to write his Henry V, making good his promise of several years earlier, at the end of Part 2 of Henry IV, to go on with the story of Henry V, 'with Sir John [Falstaff] in it and make you merry with fair Katharine of France'. It is not without significance, by the way, that Shakespeare had waited two years to tackle this final play in the Henriad. What probably impelled him to undertake it now was the immediate situation in England. All Ireland had blazed into revolt, and the Earl of Essex, accompanied by his close friend, Shakespeare's patron, the Earl of Southampton, had newly set out with an army of sixteen thousand foot and thirteen hundred horse to re-establish the English authority and bring in the rebel Earl of Tyrone, in the greatest military venture of Elizabeth's reign. Essex's army was larger than that which Henry had taken to Harfleur. Inevitably there was a mood of national and military pride, and Shakespeare deemed the moment right for a stirring war play featuring the great martial hero of the English, a play in which he would not fail to draw 'a lower but loving likelihood' between Henry V and the Earl of Essex.

Did Shakespeare really believe in heroes such as the Henry V of Hall and Holinshed? Perhaps not. A couple of years later, in Troilus and Cressida, he was to do a thorough 'debunking' job on the epic heroes of Chapman's Homer. But, even if the thought had occurred to him, he would hardly have dared to give any such treatment to Henry V, the particular darling of the Elizabethans. If Shakespeare had presented the real Henry with all his aspects, including his limitations, his occasional craftiness and slightly nauseating sanctimony, he might have provoked the most notable riot in the history of the Elizabethan theatre.

Shakespeare decided to play it straight. His Henry would be the traditional hero King. Half borrowing a phrase from Hall, he too identifies his Henry as 'the mirror of all Christian kings'.

And now we come to the question of how Shakespeare sought to make a play do the work of an epic poem. One device he employed was the use of spectacle. He wanted to give his audience great panoramic views of the English invasion fleet, 'a city on the inconstant billows dancing,' of Harfleur wreathed with cannon smoke, of the massed charges of the French chivalry against the little band of English at Agincourt. Unlike some purists, I think Shakespeare would have enjoyed the resources of technicolour and cinerama for such occasions. If they have managed to get a print of Oliver's film up to Heaven, I can imagine Shakespeare in some celestial viewing-room murmuring during the Agincourt sequences, 'Ah, that's what I wanted.' Unfortunately, as Ben Jonson had recently pointed out, the Elizabethan playhouse was ludicrously inadequate for the staging of spectacle, especially of battle scenes. Shakespeare, however, was able to provide the spectacle he wanted, using what many will think a better way, tremendously evocative phrases thrown from the prologues into the imaginations of the audience:

Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high uprearéd and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.

A prologue is, of course, a narrative not a dramatic device. Shakespeare knew as much, and in that wonderful scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream in which he has Bottom propose that Peter Quince write a prologue to bail the little company out of their difficulties with their play, Shakespeare notes how an incompetent playwright will use a prologue as a crutch when his dramaturgical skills are not enough. Nobody, however, has criticized Shakespeare for his superb prologues to Henry V. The reason, of course, is that Henry V has to be at once a drama and an epic poem. And the prologues help wonderfully to establish the epic dimension, both through what they say and through the superb sustained poetry of the saying.

Another of Shakespeare's techniques—I think Professor Dover Wilson was the first to comment upon it—was quite deliberately to make his play basically a series of tableaux exhibiting Henry as a judicious statesman, Henry as a battle leader, Henry as the brother of his soldiers, and so on.

Allied in part to this 'tableau technique' is the use of extended, formal set speeches quite in the ipse dixit manner, speeches such as that of Henry to the Dauphin's ambassador, to his troops before Harfleur, to Montjoy the French herald and to his army on the morning of Agincourt.

Let us pass from epic techniques to epic subject manner. If Shakespeare can hardly provide his hero with a miraculous birth, he at least so elaborates on the theme of sudden reformation as to give him a miraculous rebirth:

The breath no sooner left his father's body
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seemed to die too. Yea, at that very moment,
Consideration like an angel came
And whipped the offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a paradise
To envelop and contain celestial spirits.
Never was such a sudden scholar made,
Never came reformation in a flood
With such a heady currance, scouring faults.

Thus the Archbishop of Canterbury builds Henry up before he ever comes on the stage. And when he does appear, we are given demonstrations of virtue after virtue in this nonpareil among kings. He is devout and respectful, but also incisive in putting the ethical problem of war to the churchmen. He is the thoughtful statesman attending to the protection of England against the weasel Scots. He is magnificently royal in dealing with the effrontery of the miserable French. Everything about Henry is admirable. Thus Shakespeare, quite contrary to historical probability, makes Henry in no way inspired by his father's Machiavellian advice 'to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels' so as to assure peace at home. On Shakespeare goes, building his Henry up, and up and up.

Just how committed Shakespeare was to the mythic Henry is indicated in his report of the casualties after the battle of Agincourt. Shakespeare has Henry receive a paper showing that ten thousand French lie slain.

Then the King receives a second paper giving the number of English dead:

Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,
Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire.
None else of name, and of all other men
But five and twenty.

Twenty-nine English slain and ten thousand French! This is myth in its naivest form. And Shakespeare knew that it was. For in Holinshed, the quarry from which he got most of the materials for this play, Shakespeare had read:

Of Englishmen, there died at this battle, Edward duke of York, the earl of Suffolk, Sir Richard Kikelie, and Davie Gamme, esquire, and of all other not above five and twenty persons, as some do report; but other writers of greater credit affirm that there were slain above five or six hundred persons.

Somewhat similarly, though Holinshed supplied him with the real reason for the plot of Cambridge, Scroop and Grey (a desire to replace Henry with the man who they believed should have received the crown by succession from Richard II), Shakespeare excluded it and with it the suggestion that Henry like his father was a usurper. No, Henry is the perfect hero. Without defect or flaw.

This whole matter of heroes and hero worship is interesting for both the historian and the psychologist. The need of individuals and societies to find heroes when the going gets particularly rough is something which can be studied from a variety of angles. To the Freudians it is all part of the continuing search that some people conduct, even in adult life, to find a parent substitute who can give them the feeling of security that mother and father gave them in infancy. Ability to communicate a sense of security appears to be an essential part of the hero as we find him in history. Other requirements follow as a matter of course. The hero must be self-sufficient, able, as Marshall W. Fishwick has noted in his book on American Heroes, to 'turn within himself for the support and solutions he needs'. He must, also, of course, be an activist, with a programme into which he can draw those who turn to him to supplement their own deficiencies.

Sidney Hook, in the book to which I referred earlier, notes three motives which drive men to seek heroes: a need for psychological security; a tendency to seek compensation for personal and material limitations; and a flight from responsibility. Shakespeare was aware of all three of of these, and one of the interesting things about his play is, especially in the scenes just before Agincourt, the exploration he conducts of these social aspects of the hero. We see Henry V functioning as hero in the social sense when we find him giving re-assurances, crying that he would not have with him one man more from England to share the honour of the coming victory. Henry likewise gives compensation for the personal and material limitations of his followers:

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

Brother to the hero King! What further compensation could be looked for? But then we come to the third motive on the list, the flight from responsibility. And it is here that Henry rises above the hero level. Now devotion to a heroleader becomes shoddy and morbid when it becomes a device, as so many men have made it, for shedding the individual's personal moral responsibilities. Such heroworship becomes one of the faces of fascism. And Shakespeare makes Henry a hero of an exceptional kind when he has him refuse to give his followers that release which so many men crave: 'Every subject's duty is the King's, but every subject's soul is his own.'

As Shakespeare worked with his play, there was one particular danger of which he must have been aware: that in producing the epic he would lose the play. The risk lay in that element of impersonality which tends to invest an epic hero. For the epic hero tends to be great and nothing more. He strikes us as a natural force rather than as a human being. Aware of this danger, Shakespeare, once he has given us his opening demonstrations of the greatness of Henry, begins in Act II a series of moves to put us in touch with the man himself, with the human personality behind the royal facade. Accordingly, we are shown Henry in a number of very human situations. We have him as a man suffering agonies at betrayal by his closest friend. There is profound personal tragedy for Henry in Scroop's treachery; it is as if Hamlet had discovered that Horatio had secretly sold out to Claudius:

What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop? Thou
Ingrateful, savage and inhuman creature!
Thou that didst bear the key of all my
That knew'st the very bottom of my soul,
That almost mightst have coined me into gold
Wouldst thou have practiced on me for thy

Similarly we have the fine passage in which Henry speaks, though significantly in soliloquy, as a man with the needs of a man, one who knows that Ceremony with all its magnificence cannot give the sleep that the peasant gets, but that the King craves in vain. And then, again in soliloquy, on the very eve of Agincourt, we are shown a terrible gnawing worry in the heart of Henry, one that he has revealed to no man—for a hero must not reveal uncertainty—but that has haunted him all along and now becomes agonizingly intense on the eve of the battle in which he may die. Is he truly the King of England? Or has his father's sin of usurpation been inherited by him, robbing him of all authority to seek the French crown, and charging his soul with the unlawful death of those he had led into this war?

      Not today, O Lord,
Oh, not today, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard's body have interred new,
And on it have bestowed more contrite tears
Than from it issued forcèd drops of blood.
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a day their withered hands hold up
Towards Heaven, to pardon blood, and I have
Two chantries where the sad and solemn
Sing still for Richard's soul. More will I do,
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.

In these lines Shakespeare is fighting hard to make Henry a living figure for us, to make his play not only epic but dramatic.

How well has he succeeded? To judge by many of the critics, not very well. Let us listen to three of them. First of all, William Hazlitt, one of the great Shakespearian critics:

We feel little love or admiration for him.… How then do we like him? We like him in the play. There he is a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant. As we like to gaze at a panther or a young lion in their cages in the Tower, and catch a pleasing horror from their glistening eyes, their velvet paws, and dreadless roar, so we take a very romantic, heroic, patriotic and poetical delight in the boasts and feats of our younger Harry.

And here is Yeats:

He is as remorseless and undistinguished as some natural force.… Shakespeare watched Henry V, not indeed as he watched the greater souls in the visionary procession, but cheerfully, as one watches some handsome spirited horse.

Finally I quote from Mark Van Doren, whose little book on Shakespeare contains so much good sense and insight. Van Doren does not liken Henry to a panther, a lion or a horse. His verdict is more damning. The great rhetorical speeches of the king he calls 'the golden throatings of a hollow god'.

As one additional witness that Shakespeare failed essentially with Henry V, I shall cite the author himself. There is evidence that Shakespeare had a rough time writing this play. Right off we have in the prologues the constant references to the inadequacies of his theatre, not only in the opening prologue but in later ones, as in that to Act V in which the Chorus is still begging the audience

            to admit the excuse
Of time, of numbers, and due course of
Which cannot in their huge and proper life,
Be here presented.

I take this continuing restiveness about his theatre as indicative of a certain dissatisfaction with his play.

We may notice, too, that Shakespeare has some trouble getting airborne in the first act. Here we have that long, exceedingly dull speech by Canterbury on the Salic Law as invalid and consequently no bar to Henry's inherited right to the French throne. That speech goes on and on, a most uninspired paraphrase of Holinshed, even preserving uncorrected Holinshed's arithemetical error in computing the time when the Salic Law was first instituted. About the only thing we can do with this speech today is to load it with comic stage business. Some critics have sought to excuse the excessive length of Canterbury's speech by saying that Shakespeare's contemporaries were so litigious themselves that they would have followed with great interest this lengthy argument. I am inclined to dismiss this as humbug. I suspect that Shakespeare, like many another author sitting down to what he knows is a very difficult job, resolutely made his pen start moving, and kept it going on and on with the elementary opening material, while hoping to muster force for a breakthrough. Generally, of course, an author returns to cut and revise an otiose opening section. Was it one of the signs of defeat in Shakespeare that he never pruned Canterbury's speech?

I have noted how, again and again, Shakespeare tries to move in on Henry the man, to make him fully alive and immediate for us, to draw upon our sympathies for him as a man like ourselves. Superb as these passages are, the breakthrough is never really achieved. Or, if it is made, it is made only fitfully. I think it was sheer desperation in this matter that drove Shakespeare at last to that final wooing scene between Henry and Katharine. Few critics have anything good to say about this part of the play. Just recall such passages as that in which Henry tells the fastidious Princess of France: 'If I might buffer for my love, or bound my horse for her favours, I could lay on like a butcher.' As Professor Goddard has remarked, this is the very butchery of love. The most famous of all the indictments directed against this scene is, of course, Dr. Johnson's:

I know not why Shakespeare now gives the king nearly such a character as he made him ridicule in Percy. This military grossness and unskilfulness in all the softer arts does not suit very well.

Johnson could only decide that 'the poet's matter failed him in the fifth act and he was glad to fill it up with whatever he could get.' I would suggest a somewhat different answer. Shakespeare was not the first Elizabethan to attempt a play on Henry V. There survives an earlier play with which Shakespeare was obviously well acquainted. Entitled The Famous Victories of Henry V, it is a primitive thing, tuned to the taste of the groundlings. It ends with a no-nonsense offer of marriage to Katharine by plain English Harry:

Tush Kate, but tell me in plain terms,
Canst thou love the King of England?
I cannot do as these Countries do,
That spend half their time in wooing:
Tush wench, I am none such,
But wilt thou go over to England?

This is, of course, exactly the note of Shakespeare's wooing scene. I would suggest that Shakespeare, sick at his only momentary flashes of success with Henry, at the very end settled for the cheap crude success with the less critical part of his audience that had been achieved by The Famous Victories. There follows the passage in which Henry and Burgundy exchange dirty jokes like a couple of horse troopers. That Shakespeare at the end knew that in the light of his own standards he had failed is, I believe, an inescapable conclusion. Remember the words of the Epilogue:

Thus far with rough [the courting scene was
 on his conscience!] and all unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursued the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
 Mangling by starts the full course of their

And now for the final question. Why had Shakespeare failed? Various answers have been suggested. One is that the structure of the play, the prologues, the tableau scenes, the essential absence of dramatic suspense, kept the play from achieving real dramatic movement. I don't think much of this answer myself, believing that the epic devices helped more than they hindered. Professor Dover Wilson says the trouble is that Shakespeare waited too long, had gone too far into the play before beginning the process of humanizing Henry. It could be.

I myself would suggest some other answers. One deals with the very nature of the epic hero. Even in his raw, natural state, before myth has purged him of his faults, a hero is essentially an uninteresting sort of person.

Dimension, not complexity, marks the hero. The very simplicity of his character and of his responses, which is a major source of his epic strength, makes him rather unpromising material for a dramatist. An essential part of any such hero, as we have seen, is his self-sufficiency. But does not this very self-sufficiency almost inevitably mean a degree of isolation which can be fatal in the protagonist of a play? I find myself recalling what a reviewer wrote after reading Lind-bergh's autobiography, Lindbergh who in 1927 got 3,500,000 letters from admirers telling him he was a hero. The thing that impressed Brendan Gill was how hard it was to get close to Lindbergh as a human being. 'Prodigious reserves of valor, probity, temperateness, and endurance are required of such a man; and the doom of the hero is dreadful, not least because it has so little to do with ordinary human preoccupations, like happiness, and unhappiness.' Shakespeare seems to have had the same experience with his Henry V. Perhaps Shakespeare was attempting an impossible task, and by his very nature the epic hero cannot function as a dramatic hero, or at least as a Shakespearian dramatic protagonist.

There is however a further matter to be considered. Today we recognize hero-worship as essentially a feature of man's immaturity. Max Eastman, writing in Hitler's time a book he teasingly entitled Heroes I Have Known, recalled the days of his boyhood worships of the usual heroes, then went on to write:

I became an adept of that faith which so easily degenerates into the Ftihrerprinzip. I know the inner feel of this adolescent psychosis which is sweeping like a deadly epidemic through the world. I know how a growing mind throws it off.

Today surely we do regard hero-worship as something primitive and atavistic. Hero epics after all do really belong to primitive literatures. We know, of course, that we must have leaders and that society cannot function without them. But, if we are mature, we know that our leaders like ourselves will be flawed persons. For those of us who have any claim to sophistication in our thinking and in our experience of life the cult of the hero is, as Eastman says, 'an adolescent psychosis'. I would suggest that we are not ahead of Shakespeare in this. A year or so after Henry V, Shakespeare was to write Hamlet, a play that he could write with utter conviction and with a complete giving of himself. With it he made perhaps the greatest breakthrough in the history of drama. Recall, I beg you, Hamlet's words: 'I am myself indifferent honest, yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me,' and 'Use every man after his desert and who shall 'scape whipping.' We are miles beyond the naivetes of heroes and hero-worshippers here!

In short, I suggest that by 1599 Shakespeare had himself matured to the point where he simply could not believe in the sort of hero that Hall and Holinshed and the rest of them had made out of Henry V. He was incapable of the atavism required to write with complete dedication to his hero. In short, Shakespeare had progressed far far beyond the Elizabethan view of Henry V when he came to put him on the stage. He did the best he could with superb technique and wonderful poetry, but the central conviction was not there and so we have, in Van Doren's phrase, 'the golden throatings of a hollow god'. That is why theatrical history has shown that for Henry V really to succeed it needs some special aid—audiences in a patriotic wartime Britain, terrific spectacle, or even a superimposed topical parallel dealing with English- and French-Canadians.

I hope that none of you will think I have come to Mecca to hurl a stone at the Prophet. Generally where Shakespeare is concerned, I have a hard time keeping on this side of idolatry. Henry V is in so many ways full of wonderful things—the description of Falstaff's death, Burgundy's superb speech on peace, Henry's anguish at betrayal by his friend, the magnificent poetry in the prologues, all sorts of splendid little touches along the way. One could go on and on. And it all adds up to one thing, a failure of Shakespeare's is more to be prized than the success of a lesser man. 'Failure' and 'success'—what relative words they are! And one of the things most to Shakespeare's credit is his failure with Henry V. For here lies an irony. Shakespeare lamented that he could not rise to the concept of the epic hero. The truth is that the very concept of the epic hero is naive, primitive and immature in the modern world. And Shakespeare belongs with the modern world. The trouble was not that he could not rise to the level of the concept of the epic hero, but that he could not descend to it. Shakespeare does some splendid faking in Henry V. But his heart, to his credit, was not in the business. He was too far along the road to greater things.

Marilyn L. Williamson (essay date 1969)

SOURCE: "The Episode with Williams in Henry V" in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring, 1969, pp. 275-82.

[In the essay below, Williamson analyzes the character of Henry V after he assumes the throne, observing that "the quarrel with Williams shows Henry still learning to be king."]

We have been so busy deciding whether Shakespeare's portrait of Henry is satiric or heroic that we have not bothered to look closely at some of the complexity Shakespeare has put into the figure of Henry after his ascension to the throne. We know that Prince Hal is complicated by two sides of his character—the madcap and the Prince, but we tend to assume that once Henry rejects Falstaff, he has accepted his kingly role entirely and his character simply flattens out. My suggestion is that the episode in which Henry goes disguised among his troops on the night before Agin-court, the subsequent quarrel with the soldier Williams, and its eventual result after the battle need scrutiny because they yield insight into characteristics of Henry which Shakespeare develops over virtually the whole tetralogy.

One of the first things that may strike us about the Chorus's introduction to the episode, "a little bit of Harry in the night," is that the Chorus arouses an expectation that Henry's behavior never fulfills:

For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends and
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour
Unto the weary and all-watched night;
But freshly looks and over-bears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.

Going about in disguise as Harry Le Roy of Sir Thomas Erphingham's company is simply not the same as cheering your men by moving among them as their king who is confident of victory and communicates his feeling to his troops. A possible explanation of the contradiction may lie in Shakespeare's greater interest in what the subsequent scene will reveal about Henry than in squaring his behavior with the details of the official picture of him consistently presented by the Chorus. The emphasis in the scenes where the disguised Henry passes among his men is on their effect on him, rather than the reverse. His encounters present Henry with his predicament as a man who is a ruler of men, and as such they carry on the central issue of Henry IV, 1 and 2.

If we follow the suggestion of connections of this episode with the Henry IV plays, we are rewarded with several insights. We see that Prince Hal is still with us, the lover of disguises and of tricks. Twice in the earlier plays he disguises himself to trick Falstaff, and once he confronts Falstaff with the scurvy things the knight has said about him and the fat man has to use escape wit to regain good graces (2 Henry IV. II. iv).

In the earlier play the effect is simply that of two rogues joshing each other, but what Henry discovers after he becomes king is that the old tricks have new results, that instead of having the fun of discomfiting Falstaff, he himself is deeply shaken at the feelings his men reveal as they wait for the morning's battle. In his opening remarks Henry shows us that he knows a king's subjects hide their feelings from him, that Sir Thomas Erphingham would not betray to Henry how desperate he thinks the English predicament. Yet paradoxically Henry cannot resist the impulse to masquerade as "but a man." In doing so he helps us feel what it is like to be a king, something that Shakespeare has been exploring with him all along the way.

Although Henry's arguments may not entirely convince his critics, they do serve to convince his men that "every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own," but the interesting point the men boggle at is Henry's assumption that the king is a man like other men. When Henry raises the unhappy issue of the ransom (a privilege of a king) and of trusting the king's word about refusing it, Williams shows a healthy skepticism:

K. Hen. I myself heard the king say he would not be ransomed.

Will. 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.

K. Hen. If I live to see it, I will never trust his word after.

Will. You pay him then! That's a perilous shot out of an elder-gun, that a poor and a private displeasure can do against a monarch. You may as well go about to turn the sun to ice with fanning in his face with a peacock's feather. You'll never trust his word after! Come, 'tis a foolish saying.


The questions of the ransom, of paying someone off, of Henry's keeping his word are to echo through the action resulting from this quarrel. William's attitude angers Henry to the point where he agrees to a quarrel, if they both live, and they exchange gloves. It is ironic that Henry's subjects know something he cannot seem to face: that the king is not just another man, that you do not trust his word in the same way, that he has privileges you do not have. How accurate they are we find out as a result of the quarrel. If we look back to Shakespeare's portrait of Henry in the other plays of the tetralogy, we see that as Prince Hal he enjoyed just such a double role as he is assuming here. He was able to hobnob with Falstaff and company as a man among men while at the same time using his position as heir apparent whenever necessary, as when the sheriff came to the Boar's Head after the Gadshill robbery (1 Henry IV. II. iv). Indeed, Falstaff reminds us constantly of Hal as both Prince and man:

Prince. I say 'tis copper. Darest thou be as good as thy word now?

Falstaff. Why, Hal, thou knowest, as thou art but a man, I dare; but as thou art Prince, I fear thee as I fear the roaring of the lion's whelp.

(I Henry IV. III.iii. 163-167)

The quarrel with Williams shows that though Henry's old habits are still with him, they do not work in the same way.

The king's reaction to his conversation with the soldiers is the famous soliloquy on ceremony, which, though it contains some puzzling elements, fits the dramatic context better than some commentators say it does. In the first lines, for example, Henry forgets that he has talked his soldiers out of doing precisely what he now accuses them of: "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. 247-249). The contradiction, however, also reveals to us how shaken Henry is by the encounter and how sorry for himself he feels about it. We also notice that the speech carries on the idea already explored in the scene itself: the difference between the king and private men. But, we may say, many kings in Shakespeare meditate about this theme: Henry's father's famous soliloquy on sleep comes immediately to mind. And, I suggest, it should, for both the similarities and the differences in the two speeches are instructive and significant. Though the speeches have in common the emphasis on the cares the king endures which common men do not share, the focus of each is adapted to the character of the speaker. It is suitable that, like other usurpers in Shakespeare, Henry IV cannot sleep, ringed round as he is by potentially rebellious lords, to whom he has given a notable example. It is equally suitable that his son, who has spent his youth flouting royal station and the values that go with it, and who loves a masquerade, should emphasize in his soliloquy the hollowness of ceremony and the outward forms of kingship. One who has built his career on the dramatic value of an astonishing reformation is bound to be especially sensitive to the show of greatness.

One could argue that because both soliloquies end with an elaborate picture of a poor wretch who can sleep while the king cannot and because a great lover of battles mentions maintaining the peace, Henry's speech is a set piece "of detached eloquence on a subject on which Shakespeare had long meditated with interest and fervour" [E. H.W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays, 1959]. It is certainly possible that Shakespeare is simply following a similar poetic pattern appropriate to his theme rather than to the dramatic context. But I would rather explore another possibility, that the strong echo of Henry IV's speech fits with what comes shortly after the soliloquy—the prayer that refers specifically to "the fault / My father made in compassing the crown" (IV. i. 310-311). In the prayer Henry reveals that, like his father, whose sentiments he has just repeated in the soliloquy, he also is doing penance for the crime against Richard. In short, Henry is finding out how his father felt, which is another way of saying what it means to be a king. The soliloquy and the prayer form strong links to 2 Henry IV, and in doing so encourage us to recall the earlier play.

The episode does not end with the prayer, however. There remains the question of Henry's keeping his word with Williams. After the battle we witness the meeting with Williams in which Henry inquires about the gage in the soldier's hat, and Williams replies that the glove belongs to "a rascal that swaggered with me last night" (IV. vii. 130), and that he is determined to keep his oath if he can find the man alive. The implications of his angry impulse of the previous night are beginning to dawn on Henry for he asks Fluellen if the soldier should keep his oath even if "his enemy is a gentleman of great, sort, quite from the answer of his degree" (141-142). When Fluellen answers that the soldier should keep his oath if it was made to the devil himself, and it is clear that a confrontation lies ahead, Henry follows his Eastcheap habits and compounds the trick by giving Fluellen Williams's glove, telling Fluellen it is Alencon's, arranging for Fluellen and Williams to meet, while sending Warwick and Gloucester along to be certain the dupes do not injure each other. The trickery barks back to Gadshill, but as we soon see, the escape wit must be Henry's and not his victim's.

By the time Henry overtakes them, Fluellen and Williams are already quarreling, and the king finally tells Williams, '"Twas I, indeed, thou promised'st to strike; / And thou hast given me most bitter terms" (IV. viii. 42-43), and Fluellen adds, "Let his neck answer for it." Back in the Boar's Head Williams would be squirming by now, but Agincourt is not the Boar's Head, and Williams's reply makes us squirm for Henry:

Your majesty came not like yourself: you appeared to me but as a common man; witness the night, your garments, your lowliness; 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.


Whether Williams has taught Henry the lesson which we thought the Chief Justice had taught him by sending him to prison is a moot question; I believe Shakespeare implies that he did not, for Henry instantly takes refuge in a tactic that would have delighted any of the Eastcheap crowd: he pays Williams off, echoing in action Williams's words in their quarrel. The difference is that it is impossible to imagine those cronies saying to Fluellen as Williams does, "I will none of your money." And the difference between Williams and the cronies makes all the more apparent to us the fact that Henry is still operating on Eastcheap terms.

If we look at the dramatic context, it also seems that Henry's paying off Williams is an action that has significance beyond simply being an escape from a trick that has backfired. The point of argument between Henry and Williams was the question of whether Henry might ransom himself to the French, and the matter is constantly kept before us in the surrounding action by the repeated trips of the French herald Montjoy to the English camp to offer that Henry pay ransom to stop the war. Though Henry does not pay off that quarrel, he does fulfill Williams's prophecy about him in small by stopping their quarrel with payment. He does not, then, ransom his life to the French, but his oath to Williams. We may recognize that Henry had to do so, that he could not possibly have fought with Williams. But that is just the point: his initial impulse to do so shows that he is still learning to be a king, and his solution for the problem created is more suitable to Eastcheap than Agincourt, as the behavior of Williams and Fluellen implies.

Shakespeare began his portrait of Henry in Richard II when Henry IV inquires for his "unthrifty son." Percy, that flower of chivalry and foil to Hal, replies that when the Prince was told there would be triumphs at Oxford,

His answer was, he would unto the stews,
And from the commonest creature pluck a
And wear it as a favour, and with that
He would unhorse the lustiest challenger.


Our first account of Henry connects him with a travesty of chivalric custom that is amazingly like the travesty of a similar custom with which he closes our episode in Henry V:

Here, uncle Exeter, fill this glove with
And give it to this fellow. Keep it, fellow;
And wear it for an honour in thy cap
Till I do challenge it.


We seem to be dealing with very much the same characteristic in Henry as Prince and King.

One episode does not make a play, yet this one seems more than usually important because it is not only entirely Shakespeare's but also by common consent the finest small drama within a play that has had its share of detractors. If my interpretation of the episode is substantially correct, it has several implications for our view of the play as a whole. The survival of old habits in Henry should be taken to modify the official view of his reformation and the rejection of Falstaff as an absolute change of the sort the Archbishop describes. Indeed, the gradual disappearance of the Eastcheap gang throughout Henry V would suggest itself as a counter-part in dramatic action to a longer process in which old habits, like old cronies, do not die instantly upon Henry's ascent to the throne. If we recognize that Shakespeare did not jettison "the character he had created" [as J. H. Walter writes in the Arden edition of King Henry V], we may also see that Henry is a more complex and interesting character that we have thought and that if we must continue to imagine Shakespeare's creative intensity flagging as he perfunctorily finished the tetralogy, it revived splendidly in this instance.

Gordon Ross Smith (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's Henry V: Another Part of the Critical Forest," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, January-March 1976, pp. 3-26.

[Here,. Smith argues that the speeches and characters in Henry V reflect the diverse variety of political thought in the Renaissance rather than a narrow Tudor orthodoxy.]

In the absence of any external evidence as to what Shakespeare's dramatic purposes or political opinions may have been, Shakespearian criticism since it began in the late seventeenth century has been governed by premises which were usually presented as Shakespeare's but which in fact were the premises and preoccupations of succeeding ages—or critics. By the late nineteenth century this succession of anachronistic preoccupations had become evident enough to generate the desire for historical principles free of those anachronisms which had allowed each generation to assimilate Shakespeare's plays to itself in its own image. Thus so-called realist criticism came into being. Its most basic assumptions were considered to be these allegedly historical facts: (1) the audience was ignorant, credulous, illiterate, and crude; (2) the acting was crude and bombastic because necessarily adjusted to that audience; (3) there were no properties or scenery on the public stage, and only contemporary clothing for the actors; (4) there was no philosophy or psychology intended in dramatic depiction because the audience could not have comprehended either; (5) all views of life, love, politics, or the state had been lowered to the groundlings' inexplicable level and always reflected official Tudor views of those matters because (a) censorship was continual, (b) the audience could not tolerate views it was not already familiar with, and (c) Shakespeare was exclusively a man of the theater and not interested in politics, psychology, or philosophy. The major compendium of official views considered held by the populace and mandatory for Shakespeare was alleged to be the early Elizabethan homilies directed to be read in churches.

Many of the books written within this movement were worthy, and many of them reported opinions then current, since defunct, some of which can certainly elucidate portions of Shakespeare's texts. For example, Richard III tells Dorset, "Our aery buildeth in the cedar's top / And dallies with the wind and scorns the sun" (R3, I.iii.255-264). Richard is putting Dorset down—if one may still use that Elizabethan expression—but otherwise the poetic details are seemingly vague and random, unless we recall that in the great chain of being the cedar was the king of trees, as the eagle was the king of birds; we know Richard's intention to usurp, and since the tempest is a symbol of strife, and the sun a symbol of God, we can see that Richard's imagery also implies his scorn of God's will, his dalliance with murder and incitement of civil commotion. The use of such historical knowledge is indispensable to the accurate comprehension of Shakespearian texts.

The fault with "realist" criticism was that it was pseudo-historical. It posited erroneous assumptions about the theater public and the dramatists, and it neglected the ferment of opinion in those times. In 1941 Alfred Harbage [in Shakespeare's Audience] demonstrated that the Elizabethan and Jacobean public theater audience was not illiterate at all, but almost wholly bouigeois and well educated. Glynne Wickham has shown [in Early English Stages, 1300-1660, 1959-63] that costumes, properties, and scenery were employed, Marvin Rosenberg, David Klein, and John Russell Brown [in, respectively, PMLA 69 (1954); PMLA 71 (1956); QJS 39 (1953)] that the acting was naturalistic from some-time in the 1590's onward. Numerous studies of opinions of the times have shown that there existed much skepticism toward claims of the supernatural, of witch-craft, and of demonic possession, toward constituted civil authority, and toward church authorities and doctrines. The Reformation and the proliferation of Protestant sects ought to have made defiance of authority obviously a pattern of the sixteenth century, and the Puritan Revolution, of the seventeenth. Whether in the church, the state, religion, philosophy, esthetics, or science, the rejection of traditional or constituted authority was one of the most spectacular characteristics of the times. If the dramatists were necessarily catering to their publics, what was called for was a liberal diversity of opinion in their plays, not echoes of the homilies, which Thomas Fuller said later in the seventeenth century had done no good at all.

From all these considerations of Elizabethan theater history and the level of education in the theater public, it follows that the dramatist was not catering to a rabble, therefore that the plays could not have been mere spectacle in a primitive medium, and therewith the whole system of "realist" criticism falls into pieces. Even if the audience and medium had indeed been what the "realists" asserted they were, it never followed that the dramatist was bound to cater to them or to the authorities. The dramatists' catering needed to go only far enough to hold an audience, and the record of "dangerous" plays which were closed by the authorities in the decades from 1590 to 1625 indicates that such plays had enormous attractiveness for the London theater public.

To our present knowledge of Shakespeare's audience we should add consideration of the travel, wars, and book trade of those times. Wars, crusades, and pilgrimages had produced much travel in the later Middle Ages; in the early sixteenth century travel had so increased that books of road maps were published and guide books to the sights began to appear in the major art cities of Italy. Artists and intellectuals, clergymen, soldiers, and merchants alike made the pilgrimage to Italy, but people of all vocations and nationalities also went elsewhere. Fernand Braudel cites Corsicans, Albanians, Armenians, Italians, Portuguese, Spaniards, French, Germans, Poles, Russians, Flemings, Scotch, Dutch, and English as having gone not only everywhere in Europe but also in much of north Africa, the Turkish dominions, and the Near and Far East. One result for England of all this to-and-fro was that English library catalogues of the Renaissance often record the presence of more continental books than of English.

Our present knowledge of the Elizabethan theater audience and of the extraordinary extent of sixteenth-century cultural intercourse indicates that the whole intellectual world of the Renaissance was the true intellectual background which must be employed in the interpretation of Shakespearean drama. That European population of some seventy-three million harbored an extraordinary diversity of opinion, as, for example, Lorenzo Valla's notion that a prostitute was a more useful member of society than a nun, or Erasmus' assertion that while divorce might sometimes be necessary, it would be better to have bigamy. Coming from so well-intentioned a man as Erasmus, the suggestion alters the emphasis of fault in Angelica's proposal of bigamy to Juliet (Romeo, III.v.215-227). Angelica's offense would be less in proposing bigamy as such, and greater in her being so obtuse about Juliet's feelings for Romeo.

The diversity of recorded opinion in Renaissance times may occasionally have been greater than it is today because so many fantastic opinions were eliminated by the scientific revolution and the age of reason. There seems hardly anything discussed then that was not contradicted by someone else. To give another example, in England primogeniture was the law, although the injustice of it had been denounced in the Middle Ages. It was repudiated by Cardinal Pole in his Dialogue (c. 1535), by Orlando in As You Like It, by Edmund in King Lear, by John Earle in his MicroCosmographie (1628), and by the law itself in those areas where "Borough-English" conferred the farm upon the youngest son and obliged the older sons to shift for themselves. Some critics have supposed that the Elizabethan theater audience all accepted primogeniture as a sound and just principle, but since many of the apprentices were certainly landless younger sons, it would seem likely that many would have thought primogeniture legalized injustice.

Extraordinary diversity existed in opinions of the physical universe and of religious tradition. Although Galileo was obliged to recant Copernicanism as late as 1633, yet in the 1570's Copernican theory had been openly and safely expounded in England by Thomas Digges, and in 1588 John Harvey used Copernican theory to predict accurately the forthcoming eclipses of the sun and moon for the next twenty years. Doubts of the virginity of the Virgin Mary had been expressed in the Middle Ages, had been repeated by Bodin in his Heptaplomeres (1593), and appears in the Baines document upon the damnable opinions of Christopher Marlowe about the same time. The celibacy of the clergy was attacked not only by the Protestants but by such avowed Catholics as Erasmus and Montaigne. Erasmus in his colloquy upon "The Girl With No Interest in Marriage" declared that not all nuns were virginal because "there are more who copy Sappho's behavior than share her talent." Montaigne asserted that there were two things he had always observed to be in singular accord: supercelestial thoughts and subterranean conduct. Early in the sixteenth century Pietro Pomponazzi had sent shock waves across Europe by repeatedly denying the immortality of the soul, and he was followed by Zabarella, Cremonini, and Cardano. A character in Bodin's Heptaplomeres denied the possibility of physical resurrection at the Last Judgment on the ground that it was at least seventy-four million miles to the fixed stars, and if one traveled at the incredible rate of fifty miles a day, it would still take eighty thousand years to get up to heaven. Although his arithmetic is impossible and his astronomy and his travel facilities are outmoded, the principles of his observations remain valid. Physical assumption into heaven would have to cope with the necessity of an escape velocity of 25,000 miles per hour and the problems of temperature and radiation on a progress that even at the speed of light (an impossibility for a solid body), would put Adam only six thousand light years out and leave hundreds of millions of light-years more to go.

From Montaigne's to Milton's contemporaries there were writers who suggested that the birds and the beasts might also have immortal souls, and so might even stars and stones. Erasmus denounced pious frauds and relics, Guicciardini denied miracles, Cardano called faith "the sleep of the mind," and occasional writers from Lucretius to Pomponazzi to Charron declared religions were man-made and not divinely planted. Lucilio Vanini wrote that all Christian martyrs were mentally ill, that prophecy was imposture, that demonic possession was ridiculous, and that religion was used by kings to tame their people and by priests to get cash.

The complexity of European political thought in the sixteenth century was as full of irreconcilable contradiction as was the religious thought. The Great Chain was still dangling, and the homilies upon political obedience and the sin of rebellion were read regularly in the churches, but it is more sensible to think them read that often because the authorities thought the populace thought otherwise. The sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were the great age of popular revolt. That "the People's Voice is God's Voice" was both an English and a continental opinion seldom dulcet in royal ears. Spain, France, the Italian states, the German states, the Low Countries, England, Scotland, and Ireland all experienced popular insurrections and the rejection of traditional or constituted authority. During one of the many revolts of the Spanish soldiers in the Netherlands, they wrote in their manifesto (1602), "Your Highness … and the King of Spain will hardly make your heads greasy with the fat of such property as we possess." When in 1604 a cardinal threatened more revolting Spanish soldiers with excommunication, they all laughed at him heartily. Similarly in England in 1601 when Sergeant Heyle told the House of Commons that their lives and property were all the Queen's, the whole house laughed and talked and hemmed among themselves; the Speaker scolded the house, but when Heyle tried again, the house hemmed him down again. Efforts of the Spanish rulers of Sicily, Naples, and Milan to introduce the Spanish Inquisition into those realms were resisted successfully with insurrection. In England revolts and insurrections by nobles and commoners punctuated the whole sixteenth century and were the prelude to the civil wars of the seventeenth. In Scotland after the murder of Darnley, Throckmorton reported to Queen Elizabeth that it was common talk among the people that the Queen had no more right to commit murder and adultery than any common person, and Buchanan later described her son James IV, his very resilient pupil, as a true bird of the bloody nest from which he came.

So much protest and violence at the risk of life assuredly had behind it such skeptical or condemnatory attitudes towards kings as Erasmus voiced in the Ad-ages, or as Cardinal Pole asserted in Starkey's Dialogue, that the king was the fountainhead of all evil in the realm, or as Montaigne implied when he asserted at the end of the essay "Of Experience" that no matter how high a throne might be, "yet sit we upon our owne taile."

The political satires of John Donne, the poems and dramas of Fulke Greville, and the many scattered comments of Ralegh, Bacon, and Selden all indicate doubt toward royal pretensions to divine ordination and doubt that royal perspicacity could provide justification for royal power. Royal absolutism was never generally accepted in England, no matter what the Tudors and Stuarts might have said in person or through spokesmen. The dominant attitude on sovereignty appears to have been that of Sir Thomas Smith who asserted in De republica anglorum that "The most high and absolute power of the realm of England consisteth in the Parliament." His reason was that "every Englishman is entended to be there present … from the Prince to the lowest person," and therefore that the consent of Parliament was every man's consent.

What Shakespeare's relationship to the political opinions of his times may have been we have only the plays to infer from. His alleged orthodoxy has been asserted, among others, by James E. Phillips, E.M.W. Tillyard, Lily Campbell, and more recently David Bevington. The possibility of Shakespeare's having had a more liberal outlook has been affirmed, among others, by Stopford Brooke, Lorentz Eckhoff, John Palmer, and most recently, Harry Levin. In the resulting uncertainty, interpretation should avoid both a priori principles derived from undemonstrable assumptions and floating impressionism. They are, in fact, the same, however different their results. Instead we should proceed with as good a knowledge as possible of the varied intellectual background and with close attention to the text, its implications, and related data in the sources and in related Shakespearean plays.

We might illustrate with Henry V. Understanding of this greatest of all patriotic plays has been widely conditioned by Olivier's magnificent and technicolored production, made in 1944. The political and military parallels are obvious: the Nazis were threatening England in the early 1940's as the Spanish had threatened it from 1585 to 1597. The English history plays of the 1590's were full of patriotic affirmation, sometimes called "Armada rhetoric," and none more so than Henry V. Yet critics of the first third of this century have rather disliked or even despised Henry V as a character. Their reasons don't show very well in the Olivier version because that production omits, mutes, or romanticizes the details that justified those opinions. Holinshed had praised Henry V rather fulsomely as "a paterne in princehood, a lode-starre in honour," but Shakespeare was not obliged to follow that source any more than he had any other. He has his Chorus call Henry "the mirror of all Christian kings" (II.6), which phrase sounds flattering enough, but a Renaissance mirror is not necessarily an ideal, but may be merely a bad reflector, as is the mirror Richard II looks into and smashes for its dishonesty, or Hamlet's mirror held up to nature, or the title, A Myrroure for Magistrates, which describes more objectionable kings and princes than it does commendable. In Elizabethan English the mirror of something was not necessarily an image of its perfected ideal. Our only proper course is to keep in mind that arrogant authority usurping traditional rights and justifying itself through spokesmen was a widespread phenomenon that co-existed with widespread skepticism of all kinds of authority. Both attitudes were characteristic of those times.

The play opens with exposition by the Bishop of Ely and the Archbishop of Canterbury. They are not comedians, and nothing in their lines justifies comic delivery. Unless one wants to thrust their very shady motivations further into shade, the delivery should be serious, cynical and perhaps sly. Their conversation begins with their motivation: the bill then in Parliament to confiscate all church lands which the devout had willed to the church. The bill had been in Parliament in the time of Henry IV, Holinshed discussed it, together with reasons for its postponement then, and he itemized how many earls, knights, squires, and so forth, it would support, besides so handsomely improving the king's revenues, and all these details Shakespeare lifted from Holinshed directly into his play. The clergymen's problem is how this confiscation, which would "drink the cup and all," (I.i.20), is to be avoided. Their solution to the problem is for the church to finance the war against France. To that end Canterbury says he has

       open'd 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 part withal.


In brief, our two holy clergymen are depicted as attempting to forestall the royal confiscation of church wealth by financing a war against France. Holinshed had condemned this duplicity moderately, but Hall had condemned it bitterly, and we should remember that Shakespeare also used Hall. The offer of unprecedented financial contribution is repeated in the next scene, along with overheated heroic injunctions to the king to imitate his ancestors "with blood and sword and fire to win your right," (I.ii. 100-135).

The "right" of which Canterbury speaks is Henry's right to the French throne. Contrary to what Canterbury says, the Salic Law was indeed operative in France. It is impossible to say how much Shakespeare may have known about Salic Law, but the version of Charlemagne had been published by B. J. Herold at Basle in 1557. Although Germanic in origin, the Salic Franks were resident in southern Belgium and northern France; the Salic Law had been formally adopted in France in February 1317; it was observed in France and Spain more often than anywhere else. It declared a daughter could not inherit land, but it said nothing whatever about succession to the French throne, or German, or any other. According to Michele Suriano (1561), Salic Law obtained in France for both royalty and nobility, and the purposes were to keep the king always French, never foreign, and to keep the nobility rich and powerful (and not enlarging in numbers and subsiding in the power of houses). Canterbury's assertions upon the operation of Salic Law are contrary to public sixteenthcentury facts; his scurrilous allegations against German women, although out of Holinshed, remind one of the tactics of Richard III.

Canterbury's argument that no bar existed against Henry's inheriting the French throne except Salic Law is doubly ironic: first, since no claim is made that Salic Law operated in England, the legitimate heirs to Richard II were not Henry IV and Henry V but Philippa and her issue by the Earl of March. Second, if descendants of Edward HI are entitled to the French throne (through Isabella, mother of Edward HI and daughter of Philip IV of France), then those descendants do not yet include Henry V, who is son to a usurper, and a usurper himself from the then living legitimate heir. Canterbury's long argument—so impossible to follow on the hearing that it confuses even Henry (I.ii.96)—three times mentions usurpers and usurpation, as though reminding the audience of otherwise neglected facts. The remoteness of some of the genealogical details, away back to Pepin, Hugh Capet, and Charlemagne, along with the absurdly inappropriate line, "So that, as clear as is the summer's sun," are all of them straight out of Holinshed's report of Canterbury's speech. They indicate how much of the argument is trumped up, as we know from Holinshed that it is, for there as in Shakespeare it follows directly upon discussion of Parliament's confiscation bill. In the subsequent embassy of Exeter (II.iv), Canterbury's ancient pedigrees appear to have been abandoned, for Exeter denies anything "Pick'd from the worm-holes of long-vanish'd days, / Nor from the dust of old oblivion rak'd," (Il.iv.86-87), and he offers only a pedigree from Edward HI.

In spite of all these faults, Canterbury's arguments are acceptable to Henry V because they will suffice to serve his purposes. We heard at the end of 2 Henry IV that the crusade to Jerusalem was intended to forestall the idle and powerful lords from looking too closely at Bolingbroke's usurpation (2 H4, IV.v.210-212), we had heard Hal advised "to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels," in order to waste the memory of usurpation, and we had heard Prince John declare that "ere this year expire, / We bear our civil swords and native fire / As far as France." When Henry V is seated in state (by I.ii.3), he charges Canterbury not to "fashion, wrest, or bow" his interpretation, upon his conscience, for much blood may be shed by "what your reverence may incite us to," (I.ii.9-32). Notwithstanding the king's cautionary advice, the archbishop's conscience proves extremely pliable. He continues willing not only to supply a trumped-up justification but also to supply funds for this diversionary war of aggression out of his own desire to retain as much church property as he can. These Renaissance warmongering clergy who perched in the courts of princes had been indignantly described by Erasmus [in Colloquies]. As Shakespeare has portrayed them, the parts of both king and prelates in the projected invasion of France are hypocritical, not heroic; exploitative, not patriotic; predatory, not charitably or piously Christian. We are shown connivance in an unconscionable war for various corrupt reasons on the parts of the rulers of society. Appropriately enough upon the completion of Canterbury's mendacious testimony, Henry declares, "France being ours, we'll bend it to our awe / Or break it all to pieces," (I.ii.224-225).

Shakespeare's parodic commentary upon his behavior of rulers is that both Nym and Bardolph steal from the French (III.ii.44-50), and Bardolph steals a pax from a church (, Shakespeare's change from Holinshed's pyx), as Henry has stolen peace from his people and gold from the church. Nym and Bardolph are hanged (IV.iv.71-75). The fact that Henry V is extorting from the church, the legitimate heirs, his people and the French is a "plain pocketing up of wrongs," (III.ii.53-54), not in stealth but in public, in wrenched law, and under cover of the noise of patriotism. In showing justice enforced on a popular level by a monarch who is himself both the beneficiary of continuing usurpation and the aggressor in a diversionary war, Shakespeare is continuing that pattern of 2 Henry IV in which the Lord Chief Justice is shown to be totally subject to the corrupt but supreme authority.

Henry's greeting to the French ambassadors contains some of those oblique and wayward hints that characterize the early parts of his plays, reflections that come up from the bottom of the speaker's mind, much as wavering light may be reflected up the sides of a well, although the waters in the bottom that cast those reflections remain in the dark:

We are no tyrant, but a Christian king;
Unto whose grace our passion is as subject
As is our wretches fetter'd in our prisons.


This superficial claim to rationality and self-control suggests uncomfortable recollection. In / Henry VI Shakespeare had shown Mortimer, legitimate heir to Richard II, imprisoned in the Tower and had him declare in dying that he had been imprisoned, "since Henry Monmouth first began to reign" (1H6, II.v.23-25). Any line which recalls Mortimer may also fore-shadow the Southampton conspiracy; and finally, that same line, and the word tyrant above foreshadow the king's guilty feelings that will become so explicit at Agincourt. Upon receiving the dauphin's tennis balls, Henry delivers a splendidly vigorous and hard Lancastrian speech in which he lays the blame for all the deaths of the coming war upon the dauphin (I.ii.282-288, 294-296), much as just before he had laid them to Canterbury's responsibility. This also foreshadows the argument with Bates and Williams (IV.i.85-235).

Whether King Henry's "rightful hand" is being put forth "in a well-hallow'd cause" (I.ii.291-293), is next reflected upon by the introduction of the Southampton conspiracy. The conspirators have accepted French gold, the Chorus tell us, to make their attempt. Lord Scroope of Masham may be thought to bear a family grudge against the House of Lancaster, but Richard, Earl of Cambridge, was alleged by Holinshed to have had better motives, though still partly self-interested. Shakespeare reduces Holinshed's details to hints in such a way that what we have is a representation of what a public might have known at the time (II.iii.155-160). The conspiracy also indicates that busying giddy minds with foreign quarrels may not work, that some giddy minds have remarkable perseverance for minds allegedly so giddy.

The uncovering of the conspiracy and the concealment of Henry's motives is accompanied by public magnanimity—Henry's freeing of the man who had railed against the conspirators: "Touching our person seek we no revenge," (II.ii.174). Professor Goddard has called this behavior "clemency in the limelight" [in The Meaning of Shakespeare, 1951]. Erasmus had recommended royal clemency because he said it was easy for a prince to take vengeance and therefore hateful and unbecoming, and he cited Nero and Tiberius as also neglecting to prosecute lèse-majesté. Machiavelli and Guicciardini had also recommended clemency for reasons of public relations and the facts of power, not for mere magnanimity. In delivering the conspirators to the laws (II.ii.174-177), Henry appears perfectly fair and just to anyone who thinks the laws always fair and just. But laws support the structure of power which has created and maintained the laws, and constituted authority is usually safe in resorting to the legal channels. In Hall the opposition had said the executions were performed more by power than by impartial justice. Shakespeare here shows the laws being used to support and perpetrate illegal authority, and since Henry is already a beneficiary of his father's usurpation, his having the partisans of the legitimate heir executed also makes him an accessory after the fact. If Shakespeare had been trying to make Henry a faultless hero and a mirror of the best of Christian kings, he could have omitted the Southampton consipracy altogether, and all earlier or later mention of usurpation. He did not choose to do so, and it does violence to his design to deny significance to these parts on a priori assumptions.

King Henry particularly reviles Lord Scroope for so abusing their friendship, and this scene is sandwiched between two scenes of Henry's former friends, the tavern crew. The first of them ends with news of Falstaff's, sickness, that "His heart is fracted and corroborate" by King Henry's rejection (II.i.121-124). The second scene is the grotesque-pathetic account of Falstaff's death. Both scenes contain remarks by Pistol of the grafting and looting he expects to enjoy in France (II.i. l11-112; II.iii.56-57). Theft and the abuse of friendship are themes that recur later on.

Our first sight of Henry in France is heroic. "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more," with descriptions of tiger warriors, distended nostrils and rocky brows, and "On, on, you noblest English," whose mothers didn't play their fathers false: "The game's afoot: / Follow your spirit; and upon this charge / Cry 'God for Harry, England and Saint George!'" (III.i.32-34). As Henry charges out one door, Bardolph charges in at the other yelling, "On, on, on, on, on! to the breach, to the breach!" The extreme contrast turns the parallel to ridiculous parody. The three tavern antics are shortly driven out by Fluellen with, "Up to the breach, you dogs! avaunt you cullions!" (III.ii. 1-21), and Falstaff's old page concludes that "three such antics do not amount to a man." The audience is free to draw what inferences it likes.

Henry's parley with Harfleur is full of the threats of what may happen if the town does not surrender, threats that paralleled the atrocities committed by the Spanish in the Netherlands. "What is't to me," asks Henry, "when you yourselves are cause?" (III.iii.19). It had earlier been Canterbury who would be responsible for the war, then the dauphin, now the French citizenry. "Will you yield, and this avoid? / Or guilty in defence, by thus destroy'd?" (III.ii.43). Defence ought to be allowable to anyone; the overtones contradict him; if Henry is innocent, Shakespeare ought to have had him say, "Or, guilty in rebellion, be destroy'd." That's quite as matrical, and it drops the empty "thus." Perhaps the horror Henry threatens should not be believed, for Henry says later, "When lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner," (, but on the other hand, it was customary in the Renaissance when a city was assaulted and captured to allow the victorious soldiers three days to sack and loot. Harfleur capitulates because the dauphin, who had been so confident, cannot relieve it, although he brags later that he could have "rebuked" the English there (Il.iv. 14-45; III.iii.45-47; The word of Shakespearean princes remains reliably unreliable.

It is in the night before Agincourt that Shakespeare develops to its most explicit form the issues of character and politics that inform all the action of the play. Henry begins with a declaration which describes much of Shakespeare's characteristic representations of persons and events: "There is some soul of goodness in things evil, / Would men observingly distil it out" (IV.i.4-5). We can infer a converse proposition which is also usually true of Shakespearean drama. Having borrowed Sir Thomas Erpingham's cloak for warmth or a disguise, the king encounters a succession of English characters of whom the common soldiers, Williams and Bates, are the most important, for they lead Henry to himself. Henry's prose statement to them of the common humanity of a king is out of character with his royal image as a rampant lion and is inconsistent with mythical doctrines of divine election, superior faculties, and mysterious royal prerogative beyond questioning:

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 [emotions and desires] are higher mounted than ours, yet when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing.


If a royal censor questioned this passage as possible lèse-majesté, the players could always have answered that it was indeed the king himself speaking in disguise, and therefore that the "me" was royal and the speech not false to royal doctrine. Erasmus had used the protection of a comparable double-meaning in the Praise of Folly. But the Shakespearean playgoer should recall Brakenbury in Richard III, or Richard II at Flint Castle, or Lear on Dover Beach, and see the passage as a recurrent Shakespearean description. The conversation is soon switched to the war, those likely to be killed and those ransomed, and the king asserts they should be glad to die in the king's company, "his cause being just and his quarrel honourable" (IV.i.128-129). Williams' answer, "That's more than we know," is what many a conscripted soldier has thought, and for reasons already given we know he understates, but Bates leads the argument toward the authoritarian side: "If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us." Williams takes Bates' answer straight to its inescapable implication, that if the subject's duty is to obey without question, all the responsibility for the war and the war dead inevitably devolves upon those who wage war, in this case, the king, and that "if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make" (IV.i. 135-149). We have seen already that King Henry has tried to lay the responsibility for the war on Canterbury, on the dauphin, and on the French citizenry, but here are his own soldiers laying that responsibility on the king who commands them, and we have seen that this foreign quarrel was motivated by the desire to divert attention from the Lancastrian usurpation. Henry's answer is a long-spun-out tissue of rationalizations and false analogies: that a messenger's death is no fault of his master, that many soldiers are guilty of private sins, that war is God's beadle, and that the subject's soul is his own responsibility, not the king's. Such logic is what we might call "Renaissance official." It's bad logic, for if the subject's soul and its salvation is solely the subject's own concern, the subject would do well to heed John Donne and not let his immortal soul be tied to man's law, for "So perish Soules, which more chuse mens unjust / Power from God claym'd, then God himselfe to trust." This last point of Henry's opens the argument to the justification of disobedience and rebellion against even royal order if it is judged to be evil. The implications of his last point demolish all his preceding argument.

The premises of Henry's argument were two: (1) kings have the right to use, spend, or waste their subject's lives, and (2) God controls human events and therefore must be using wars for chastisement of the sinful. Both doctrines served the powerful only. Henry's declaration that war is God's beadle and is His punishment for people's sins not only echoes the opinion of Martin Luther but it also echoes sixteenth-century opinions in England. William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, preached in London at St. Paul's on February 6, 1512, that war was an evil permitted by God only to chastise the sins of princes and peoples. Considering that Henry VIII was engaging in war at the time, and considering also the subsequent fates of Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More, not to mention the wives, we can hardly consider the archbishop's pronouncements disinterested.

Quite contrary opinions were also voiced at the same time. According to letters of Erasmus, who was then in London, Colet had declared "that an unjust peace was better than the most just war," and in his Good Friday sermon of 1513 anticipated Williams by telling the Court "how difficult it is to die a Christian death, and how few undertake war except out of hatred or greed," for which audacity the king summoned him to Greenwich for explanation. Doubt has been cast upon this story, but the important point is that people did entertain such ideas in public. In the colloquy called "The Soldier and the Carthusian," Erasmus has his monk tell his soldier that "had you died in this war, I wouldn't have given a rotten nut for your soul's chances." Williams is provided with an eloquent, sympathetic, and reverberating echo of that opinion:

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. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument?


Erasmus' two chief denunciations of war, Dulce Bellum Inexpertis and the Querela Pads, were much reprinted throughout Europe. In those works Erasmus not only denounced war in the most unequivocal terms, but he especially singled out papal wars and described their justification from Luke 22:38 as "truly heretical, true blasphemies against the most sacred dogmas of Christ." Shakespeare is thus reflecting his times very accurately in having such prelates as Canterbury and Ely justifying war for their own sordid reasons and in showing the king himself justifying his diversionary war on such specious grounds. When Shakespeare chose to give these speeches to Canterbury, Ely, Henry, and Williams, he was not only depicting such people as they were, but he was also choosing to lay the full moral responsibility directly on royal and prelatic door-sills, not with God.

Upon the departure of the common soldiers, King Henry muses at length upon his hard lot. Everyone blames kings, "we must bear all":

What infinite heart's ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that privates have not
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?


We need here a short digression upon the dominant Elizabethan associations of the word "ceremony." The OED asserts it has been meant disparagingly as empty form (lb), and cites examples of 1545, 1579, and 1621. But the most frequent modern meanings, of course, are without disparagement (3,a,b,c,d). Since OED records meanings but not relative frequencies, and since disparagement is not today a commonplace overtone of the word, critics have tended to adopt modern poets" praise of ceremony and to find it in Shakespeare also.

Clues to the frequency of various uses of "ceremony" in Shakespeare's times may be had from such collections of plain, unself-conscious writers as those of Hakluyt and Purchas, and if we look there we find that "ceremony" is most often linked with a religion considered a superstition and that it almost always refers disparagingly to useless and fantastic rituals. A few examples will suffice: "The superstitious ceremonies of the Bramanes," Ralph Fitch, 1583-92; "And some of them will make their ceremonies with fifteene or sixteene pots litle and great, and ring a litle bel … and they make a circle of water round about their pots and pray … and when they have done, they goe to their gods, and strowe their sacrifices which they thinke are very holy," Fitch; "… they have many superstitious and prophane Ceremonies … Many other vaine and superstitious Ceremonies … external and ridiculous Ceremonies," Dr. Giles Fletcher, 1589; "… their Bramenes conjured with many Words and Ceremonies, otherwise it were of no vertue but whollie unprofitable, for their Idolatrous services," van Linschoten, 1583; "the greatest [Chinese] male-factors, the which to feare and keepe in awe the people, are brought into a great market place … and after many ceremonies and superstitions, … are beheaded," Richard Willes, 1565; "the Japanish mindes, blinded with many superstitions and ceremonies," Willes; of Brazilian cannibals, "they kill with great Ceremonies," anon., 1601; of Virginian Indians, "Griffin … reported unto me … the Ceremonies of their Idolatry," George Way-mouth, 1605; "The greatest Ceremonie (for Pompe and Solemnitie) which is used amongst the Turkes is that of the circumcising their children," Robert Withers, c. 1620. To the fantastic "Haire-ceremonies" of the Maldive islanders De Laval devotes four pages concluding, "all this comes of custome to them, for else they would be as sensible as we." De Laval's last chapter is devoted to "their Religion, manifold Ceremonies, and absurd opinions." Many other examples also occur in these two compilations, but with extraordinary frequency the context provides disparaging overtones and the reference is to religious ritual or senselessness. Where secular ceremonies are described, they are usually called pomp or solemnity, or are merely described.

Shakespeare's uses of "ceremony" on other occasions than those under discussion in this play show a range of meanings from the "twenty popish tricks and ceremonies" of Titus Andronicus through repeated suggestions of emptiness, as explicitly in Timon's "ceremony was but devised at first / To set a gloss on faint deeds, hollow welcomes," or implicitly, as in Laertes' "What ceremony else?" (Hamlet, V.i.248), or Richard II's "Throw away respect, / Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty." These uses by Laertes and Richard II are reflections of their characters: Laertes is a shallow, noisy, unperceptive young man who is manipulated from bravado into secret murder; Richard is an inept and self-indulgent monarch of form without essence: his preoccupation with the privileges and externals of power to the neglect of its essence of responsibility is bringing about his destruction. Shakespeare's use of "ceremony" and its derivatives almost always involves the Renaissance connotation of emptiness.

Critics who have thought Shakespeare enamored of ceremony and degree should have considered more seriously Henry's answer to his own question about what ceremony may be: "Art thou aught else but place, degree, and form, / Creating awe and fear in other men?" Nothing is said of wisdom and virtue, divinely or naturally conferred to justify place, degree, and ceremony. Ceremony is treated as a hoax that can give an ill king not even the health of a beggar's knee, although surely most beggars were not very healthy. Ceremony is especially equated with royal splendor and prerogative and the tone is one rising to indignation:

'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 world,
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


"Wretched" is an incongruous adjective for a slave so happy in not being royal, but "farced title" is doubly appropriate for a king who is a usurper. Henry alleges the slave has his own kind of bliss in a vacant mind, an assertion we may doubt, inasmuch as famine and slaughter produced fewer vacant minds than did princely courts, and we have good testimony for believing that well into the nineteenth century most men led lives of quiet desperation. The king's attitude toward himself is self-pitying, although he might have escaped his distress by giving his burdens to Mortimer. The Elizabethan censor might well approve such a speech, for who taking it at its face value would want to be a king rather than that lucky "wretched slave?"

The conclusion of Henry's ceremony speech shows well enough that it should not be taken at face value for it flatly contradicts Henry's situation, his army confronted by enemy troops in a war of his own making:

And, but for ceremony, such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil and nights with
Had the fore-hand and vantage of a king.
The slave, a member of the country's peace,
Enjoys it; but in gross brain little wots
What watch the king keeps to maintain the
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.


The audience that could not ask right there, "What peace?" were a dull and gullible lot. Henry's following prayer, that might impress some Elizabethans with his piety, is laced through with reminders of his father's usurpation and concludes with thoughts of the futility of his pentinence:

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.
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a day their wither'd hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn
Sing still for Richard's soul. More will I do;
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.


What is meant by the last "all"—all the crimes his family has committed or all the benefits he has now acquired—is not clear, and Holinshed is no help, for Henry V's conscience is Shakespeare's addition. In the prayer scene of Hamlet, written only a year or two later than this play, Claudius asserts that heavenly forgiveness is not possible so long as the criminal is still possessed of the benefits of his crime:

    But O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? "Forgive me my foul
That cannot be, since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition, and my


Even in the corrupt first quarto of Hamlet this sentiment is preserved in the king's lines, "I but still to perseuer in a sinne, / It is an act against the vniuersall power." The sentiments are commonplace western morality but neither here nor elsewhere in this play is the existence of Mortimer explicitly acknowledged. King Henry goes on to the great, heroic, and in a deceitful sense, baroque affirmations of his Crispin Crispían speech (IV.iii. 19-67), a battle oration that in all its genuine heroism conceals the sooty events that have produced the circumstances of its being.

The first we see of the fighting is between Pistol and a French soldier. "Yield, cur," yells Pistol, less than politely, and in return he is told he is un gentilhomme de bonne qualité. Profits accrue in the form of ransom, and the soldier says Pistol is the most brave, valiant, and distinguished lord of England, a description that could only fit the king, and so at least some Elizabethans were free to take this scene as a microcosm of the whole play and Pistol as a type or abstract of the king. For those who did, the impression was reinforced in the very next scene when Henry orders every soldier to kill his prisoners ( The reason given in the play is that the French had reinforced their scattered men, and the reason given in Holinshed was that and the impossibility of so few English both guarding some French and fighting others, but for whatever reason Shakespeare has omitted that detail of supposititious exoneration and stressed the massacre of French by mentioning it two more times (IV.vii.5-10; 57-67), both times giving as reason the French massacre of the camp boys. In one of these same scenes Fluellen compares King Henry to "Alexander the Pig," as though echoing Erasmus about the conquerors of the past being great raging robbers. When Gower corrects Fluellen with "Alexander the Great," Fluellen answers, "Why I pray you is not pig great? the pig, or the great, or the mighty, or the huge, or the magnanimous, are all one reckonings, save the phrase is a little variations," (IV.vii.16-19). The comedy or satire does not rest there. Fluellen goes on to tell how Alexander killed his friend Cleitus and Harry of Monmouth killed his friend Falstaff, so that King Henry is equated with Alexander the Pig, and in the ensuing ruckus over Williams and his token glove, Williams unwittingly calls the king a swaggering rascal and Fluellen unwittingly equates him with Lucifer and Belzebub (IV.vii.129-143). All these details add up to a current of condemnation thinly disguised as comedy and mistaken identity. Which of the identities is the mistaken one, the pig or the hero, is not really resolved; the audience is left free to take its choice. Agincourt ends with a Renaissance "body-count," (IV.viii.82-108), God is thanked in the manner of the times, and a Te Deum is ordered. Faults, vices, and crimes are obscured under the show of valor; patriotism and piety emerge only as fronts for deceit, just as in real life, then and now.

The role of Fluellen is an archetypal representation of Henry's indispensable supporters and a reflection of that portion of the audience which succumbs to his heroics. Both kinds of admirers find in King Henry not only the mirror of all Christian kings, but morally a pearl, their own, without a spot. Shakespeare's portrait of Fluellen shows how much gullible loyalty is seated in character and how a king uses it. Against him are balanced Pistol the proletarian miles gloriosus, and Williams, the intelligent and independent dissident.

Fluellen first encounters Pistol before Harfleur and drives him into battle (III.ii.21). In the "international scene" which follows, Fluellen laments the incompetence of Macmorris and the Duke of Gloucester for not mining the walls of Harfleur according to "the true disciplines of the wars, look you, of the Roman disciplines," although the Romans had no gunpowder, look you, and the walls have already been breached enough (III.i and iii), to bring about the town's surrender. Fluellen's emphasis upon the Roman disciplines (III.ii.77, 82, 86, 100), constitutes an adherence to military authority which was outmoded, as proved by the success of the attack. We can generalize from that specific pattern a tendency in Fluellen to accept other authority without question and to become its dupe, and hence his gullibility in general is also inferable.

We presently hear from Fluellen that there have been "very excellent services committed at the bridge," and that the "aunchient lieutenant" there "is as valiant a man as Mark Antony," (, but this hero turns out to be merely Pistol, whose name Fluellen hadn't remembered. Pistol's fustian plea for Bardolph is made in terms of fickle Fortune, but Fluellen interrupts with his hackneyed moralizing explanation which all the Elizabethan audience surely knew. He refuses to try to intervene, "for discipline ought to be used," and so begins the petty feud between Pistol and Fluellen. However, Fluellen still fails to understand Pistol and must be tutored by Gower in "round" terms: "Why, this is an arrant counterfeit rascal: I remember him now; a bawd, a cut-purse." Fluellen foolishly defends his "prave words at the pridge," which were surely fustian in King Cambyses' vein, but Fluellen mentions no actions, and Gower returns him a long and well-deserved lecture that concludes, "You must learn to know such slanders of the age, or else you may be marvellously mistook," ( Gower's opinion is accepted by Fluellen and subsequently discharged in whole volleys at Pistol himself (V.i. 16-58). Certainly Shakespeare's conception of Fluellen included authoritarian gullibility. Immediately after Gower's little lecture, the king enters and Fluellen gives a lengthy report to an apparently indulgent Henry (, and we should infer an authoritarian self-subordination in Fluellen toward the king, who with reason says of him a little later, "Though it appear a little out of fashion, / There is much care and valour in this Welshman" (IV.i.83-84).

These lines of development are tied together in the incident of the glove, and Fluellen is thereby juxta-posed to his opposite, Williams. First Fluellen makes his comparison of King Henry to Alexander the Pig, and then when Henry enters, Fluellen again talks at him in consistently longer speeches (IV.vii.94-119). We should infer from that display an authoritarian hero-worship, which toward the end of the exchange is confirmed in Fluellen's referring to God as "his grace," a little slip of blasphemy which he corrects by upgrading God to "his majesty, too," (IV.vii. l13). Fluellen is present when the king first interviews Williams, faithfully takes the second glove after Williams' exit, and consequently gets his ears boxed in the ensuing scene. His fury at Williams is immense, he must be hanged at once, "if there is any martial law," contrary to his own earlier advice (IV.vii.135-138), in which he had said the soldier should keep his oath. When the king forgives Williams, whose upright self-defence against the abuse of majesty: "take it for your own fault and not mine," (IV.viii.50-58), is the best thing of its kind in the play, Fluellen again reverses himself, aligns his opinions with the king's, and after the king's example offers Williams money. Fluellen's bad judgments, gullibility, and multiple reversals of his own stands in accordance with what he perceives to be the king's stand all together mark him as another of Shakespeare's studies of the authoritarian character, more of which were to come at intervals through his career. Fluellen has many more merits than a Pistol, and Gower's exoneration of his innocent Welsh peculiarities (V.i.73-83), is tolerant. But the merits of some aspects of authoritarianism are facets of its faults. However much one may like his individuality, Fluellen is an unquestioning supporter of a status quo, and in this play that means supporter of a usurped title and of a diversionary war. Fluellen and the king enjoy something of a symbiotic relationship, the casual exploiter and the willingly exploited. Fluellen's complete opposite is Williams, a man wholly non-authoritarian, upright and independent. Both exist between the top layer of society represented by the king and the bottom layers represented by Nym, Bardolph, and especially Pistol, who is a constant parody of the king. It is not the mere fact that he is also a soldier that makes Pistol the shadow of King Henry, but rather the parallels in words and deeds given point by their juxtaposition. The Elizabethan audience was so well trained to see a different personage under a representation, Oldcastle still under Falstaff, a figure all that bulk could scarcely hide, that it is likely many a malcontent saw King Henry under Pistol.

Taken altogether, with its king and nobles, captains, and commoners of varying merits, Shakespeare's Henry V is a public and semi-official portrait of a nation at war. The most conspicuous elements are the hot blasts of idealistic patriotism, but here and there are the unmistakable clues usually present in wartime to indicate the conflict is not all so selfless and morally one-sided as both sides proclaim, and the variety of character and event provides additional elements of verisimilitude, even though the whole be poetic drama.

A number of details in the play suggest the activities of the English troops in the Netherlands in the 1580's. The troops there under the Earl of Leicester were English, Scotch, Welsh, and Irish. The "wild Irish Kernes," some 1500 among the auxiliaries, ran about in no clothes but an apron from waist to knee. "They stalked about the fens of Zealand upon their long stilts," with no more regard for the disciplines of the wars than Macmorris had. At the siege of Doesburg "the dare-devil Welshman," Roger Williams, "persisted in running up and down the trenches 'with a great plume of feathers in his gilt morion,' and in otherwise making a very conspicuous mark of himself 'within point-blank of a caliver'." It sounds like Fluellen yelling at Gower (IV.i.79-80), and if Fluellen wears feathers in his morion, they would give more point to Pistol's tomfoolery with the leeks, which begins just before (IV.i.52-59; resumed V.i.1-71). Scotchmen were there also, and outside Zutphen an aggressive Scotch captain captured by Farnese's troops informed the enemy that the English troops were double what they were. Pistol's expectation of graft from being sutler to the camp was an example on the PX level of Norris, the English army treasurer in the Netherlands and a war-time "five-per-center" of the sixteenth century, for according to Sidney he deducted 5% for himself from every payment made the soldiers, and according to Leicester he filched—one way or another—a third of all the money sent out of England. Meantime the "poor starved wretches" in the army were so ghastly a spectacle that when eleven hundred fresh English reinforcements arrived, five hundred deserted in the first two days. In contrast we have the famous heroism of the better sort at Zutphen: Sidney, Willoughby, Essex, Russell, and their force only five hundred strong attacking three thousand veteran Spanish and Italian troops in one of the hottest fights of all the long Netherlands wars. In that engagement Lord Willoughby unhorsed George Crescia, general of the Albanian cavalry, and rolled him into the ditch. "I yield me thy prisoner," Crescia called out in French, as though to Pistol, "for thou art a preux chevalier."

Such details as these, together with Nym's and Bardolph's stealing, the threats of sacking, raping, and burning against Harfleur and the massacre of prisoners and the like combine to give a truthful picture of Renaissance warfare. Over it all breathes the spirit of heroic patriotism that can be justified only by such enormities as the Spanish Armada, but that is so often invoked for less worthy occasions. Under it breathe the stubborn and irreducible details of ulterior purpose that characterize most wars. Henry gallops apace on his fiery-footed warhorse, waves the flag, emulates the voice of Stentor, and summons his countrymen to march his way in well-beseeming ranks. But the spectator who retains his own judgment knows that Henry wages war to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels, that he does so to waste the memory of his father's usurpation, that he jails and forgets the legitimate heir, that he executes his domestic enemies who would advance the heir, that he professedly executes them not out of malice but for reasons of state, and that in secret he knows all these things are wrong. Holinshed praised him, as in the passage at the beginning of this discussion, and Shakespeare has accepted that surface reputation without relinquishing the sordid details that brought the heroic action into being. Henry V may be the mirror of all Christian kings, but how good or bad that may be depends upon one's idea of Christian kings—that of Erasmus, for example, or of Machiavelli, or of the Tudor myth. In this play as elsewhere Shakespeare appears to be holding his mirror up to nature as it was in those times.

These observations are not to deny the many and obvious merits of Henry V but only to insist that the grave and central faults of his position are obscured but not obliterated by all that technicolored patriotism. The patriotism is genuine, stirring, at times gloriously poetic in the heroic vein, but that quality is an aspect of realism in the play, for only the patriotism that moves the population makes a successful screen for pilfering of whatever kind. It is that kind of patriotism that can be so dangerous to those who feel it and to their country. Anyone can resist the waving of someone else's flag, but the profound feelings raised by one's own patriotism suspends both reason and perception. If the ulterior purposes of Henry V were clearer than they are, more pronounced and central in Shakespeare's presentation, the play would be a less realistic picture of a patriotic war, or not of a patriotic war at all. But as in "real life," the major issues that animate the war-making classes are muted because they are as self-serving and publicly inacceptable as going to war to preserve foreign investments or to escape economic depression. False issues are therefore substituted, paraded, trumpeted, and by all the Fluellens, believed. "No king of England, if not king of France!" is as much a brain-washing slogan as, "The war to end war," or "Make the world safe for democracy," or "Give us the tools, and we will finish the job!" Similarly, "God for Harry, England, and Saint George," is as bad as "Remember the Maine!" or the Alamo, or "Deutschland über alies," or "What's good for business is good for the country," or "Forward to the new conservatism," which is as much as to say, "Forward backward." Mottoes and slogans of patriotic affirmation are all insults to intelligence, the work of intelligent and predatory elites manipulating dullard populations against their own proper self-interest. The patriotic blasts of modern times are worse than those that Renaissance spokesmen employed with a parallel disingenuous calculation. One is hard put to know which specimen is the worst: the men like Henry who originate self-serving causes, or those like the prelates who in virtuous guises supply spurious justifications, or those like Fluellen who are taken in and do their bloody best, or those like Pistol who scheme to profit corruptly from corrupted causes.

W. L. Godshalk (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: "Henry V's Politics of Non-Responsibility," in Cahiers Elisabethains, No. 17, April, 1980, pp. 11-20.

[In the following essay, Godshalk focuses on Henry's tendency to evade responsibility, identifying this trait as one of political strength and personal weakness.]

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 virtu." 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 / 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 / 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 (1.1.8). 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 (1.2.224-5), 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
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 con-science 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 is fracted 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
We may as bootless spend our vain command
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 Iure 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.

(III.6.146-51, 170-1)

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 soldier-ship. 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 eloquently 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.

(IV. 1.150-63)

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, / 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 today, 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,
Imploring pardon.

(298-303, 308-11)

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 Alençon, 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 '11 consign thereto.


While Henry plays with Katherine for a kiss, the negotiations for the marriage are carried on by his surro-gates. 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!"

Gary Taylor (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: An introduction to Henry V, by William Shakespeare, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1982, pp. 1-74.

[In the following excerpt, Taylor examines the dramatic impact of some minor characters in Henry V.]

The critical subterfuge of elevating Henry V to the status of 'epic' as a prelude to damning it for being 'undramatic' justifies some scepticism about the utility of generic adjectives; but 'epic' the play self-evidently is in at least one sense: the social, national, and tonal variety of its characters. Modern discussions of the play tend to underestimate this. Typically of early nineteenth-century criticism, Hazlitt's influential attack on Henry virtually identified the play with the character of its protagonist; and though this popular recipe for mutilating plays has for the most part gone out of fashion, with Henry V it persists. Interpretation has increasingly restricted itself to what strategic theorists call a zero-sum game, which evaluates every tangent of the action in terms of its relevance to the overriding question 'For or against Henry?'

Henry of course dominates the play, but not so much as he has dominated criticism of it—or as he dominated Victorian productions. In these the century-long love-affair with Shakespeare's protagonists, combined with the self-aggrandizement of actor-managers and the fashion for scenic magnificence, reduced Henry V (like many other plays) to an historical spectacle in which minor roles were drastically abbreviated or omitted altogether in order to make room for hundreds of anonymous extras, who in turn were wholly subordinated to the leading actor,

As … he stands in that spot so prized by the histrionic mind, the exact centre of the stage, the limelight pouring upon him from the flies its most dazzling rays, and declaims speech after speech to his devoted followers. [Dutton Cook, Nights at the Play, 1882]

This particular description refers to George Rignold, who played Henry in an immensely popular production in Manchester, America, and London in the 1870s; but it reflects a tendency which persisted at least as far as the 1938 Drury Lane production by Lewis Casson, with Ivor Novello as the King [Trewin, Shakespeare on the English Stage, 1900-1964]. A review of John Coleman's 1876 production regrets 'that more attention was not devoted to the casting of the numerous small but important parts', and in 1839 Macready's distinguished company seems to have been corporately dismayed by the unappetizing parts the play offered them (including a Gower reduced to thirty lines). The play's forty-two speaking roles have sometimes, on such evidence, been labelled a dramatic liability, but in Shakespeare's own company many of the actors would have doubled two or more roles—a practice which not only encourages good actors to take small parts, but also ensures that the versatility of the performers who 'Into a thousand parts divide one man' (Prologue 24) becomes itself a source of theatrical delight, lending an unexpected and felt reality to Henry's evocation of 'We few, we happy few' (4.3.60).

The opportunities for dramatic impact in even the smaller roles has been consistently demonstrated in productions from the eighteenth century onwards. Exeter—whom Gordon Crosse in six decades of regular playgoing (1890-1952) had never seen given any individuality [Shakespearean Playgoing, 1890-1952, 1953]—was singled out for praise by reviewers of productions in the 1760s, in 1789, 1819, and 1859; Montjoy has received similar accolades in the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries. Both speak with confidence and dramatic authority, Exeter even refusing to desist when the French king rises to terminate their interview; it is to Exeter that Henry turns, after the surrender of Harfleur, for his first quiet, private speech in the play, and Exeter again who brings Henry word of the deaths of Suffolk and York. Montjoy is given the dramatic distinction of twice interrupting an exit by his own arrival; a reader might guess that his description of the French losses at Agincourt, and the subsequent admission that 'The day is yours' (4.7.65-81), can both be very moving, but other opportunities—for brusqueness in his first entrance, and later surprise at Henry's generosity; for 'a glance almost of complicity with Henry before Agincourt' that says 'We both have our jobs to do'; for a perceptible change of tone in the personal and almost regretful 'Thou never shalt hear herald any more' (4.3.128)—lend the character an immediacy more apparent in the theatre than in the library. Likewise, even the (usually young) soldier Alexander Court, who asks 'is not that the morning which breaks yonder?' (4.1.84-5) and then says nothing for 130 lines, can make an unexpectedly vivid impression, when he is roused from his silence and self-absorption to leave with Bates and Williams. Williams too earns an audience's respect and assent almost immediately, and he emerges from all three of his encounters with the King with his dignity and moral authority unshaken: the issue in Act Four is whether Henry will live up to the standard set by Williams, not vice versa. Even Bates can make a sustained impression, especially if he appears among the regulars of the English army in other scenes: in 1975 'Dan Meaden's splendid Bates … even when he was a mere figure in the crowd, remained solid, upstanding, purposeful, the very picture of what in the 1914-18 war was called an "old sweat'". Both the very names of these three soldiers—Court, Bates, Williams, rather than Wart, Feeble, and Bulicali—and the serious prose they are given to speak represent striking departures from the conventional Elizabethan portrayal of common soldiers.

Some of the other serious parts are more difficult to make much of. The three traitors have sometimes been projected back into the deliberations of 1.2, to no discrenible advantage. More successfully, the erratic profusion of anonymous French and English noblemen has almost always been rationalized, as in Q: the mute Berri and Beaumont vanish, the two-speech Bretagne of 3.5 becomes Bourbon or some other character present at Agincourt, Warwick and Westmorland fuse, one of Henry's three brothers disappears (usually Clarence, but Bedford in Q). This sensible reduction of nonentities makes it easier to keep track of the movements and reactions of a few dramatic identities. Terry Hands in 1975 tried to distinguish Henry's brothers from the other nobles by making them all, like Henry, redheaded; few but the cast seem to have noticed this. Gloucester and Clarence never achieve individuality; but Shakespeare surrounds Henry—particularly in difficult moments—with people he can quietly turn to and call 'uncle' or 'brother'. Apart from this, the general colourlessness of Henry's nobles—Exeter excepted—accurately conveys something of the feel of his reign: the solidarity of aristocratic support for Henry. Since the eighteenth century, productions have very effectively communicated this unity of purpose by dividing up among a number of voices the five speeches between Henry's 'May we with right and conscience make this claim?' and his 'We must not only arm t'invade the French …' (1.2.97-135); unfortunately Q omits most of this passage, and so we cannot know how Shakespeare's company handled it.

This English unity, which makes it difficult to exploit individual roles like Gloucester or Warwick, throws into stronger relief the bickering and self-assertiveness of the French. The night scene at Agincourt consists largely of a display of these competing French personalities—though their variety has sometimes been smothered under a generous supply of alcohol, dice, cards, and loose women, imported to illustrate the corporate decadence of the enemy. The variety is … even more apparent when Bourbon replaces the Dauphin. Removing the Dauphin from Agincourt also affects the interpretation of his character elsewhere, for though he still obviously underestimates Henry, he need not be so frivolous or conceited as 3.7 otherwise makes him seem. A stronger Dauphin in the earlier Acts would reinforce Shakespeare's elevation of Charles VI from the helpless, fitfully mad figurehead manipulated by competing factions which he found in Hall and Holinshed into the eloquent, initially cautious but eventually committed and impressive figure of 2.4 and 3.5. Harcourt Williams, in the Olivier film (as earlier in the 1937 Old Vic production) crossed himself as he spoke

And all our princes captived by the hand
Of that black name, Edward, Black Prince of


a memorable piece of business which arises naturally from the sustained religious imagery of the whole speech, and which need not be tied to Williams's own interpretation of the king as mad. In both 2.4 and 3.5 Charles begins the scene but then remains silent for some time, listening to his nobles, until himself decisively and impressively intervening: 'Think we King Harry strong' (2.4.48), 'Where is Montjoy the herald?' (3.5.36). The latter speech, the King's invocation of his army, reads lamely, but in the theatre it can be as powerful as any of Henry's great rhetorical arias.

In 1774 Francis Gentleman could say that 'If the French King and his suite are figured well, and showily habited, very slender perquisites [i.e. acting talents] are sufficient'; this no doubt underestimates the potential of some at least of the roles, but it points rightly enough to the collective impact of costuming and physical (including vocal) impressiveness. Shakespeare does not ridicule the French for their proverbial attention to attire, but there seems no reason to doubt that the French court were—as they have been in, apparently, all productions since the eighteenth century—finely, distinctively, and impressively dressed. In twentieth-century productions the French have sometimes been played, collectively or in part, by native French-speaking actors and actresses; even without such ingenuities, they easily and unmistakably form a distinct culture within the play itself, one far more preoccupied than the English with aristocratic honour and the romanticism of war.

The theatrical possibilities in the minor serious roles have sometimes been overlooked, but the differentiation of the comic characters is as extravagant as the nose on Bardolph's face. Some, like Bardolph himself, step ready-made out of previous plays. His grotesque comic face—'all bubuncles and whelks and knobs and flames o' fire'—is an essential feature of an actor's impersonation, as is the nasal enunciation which seems invited by Shakespeare's ceaseless fascination with the man's nose. As Dr Johnson said, 'The conception is very cold to the solitary reader, though it may be somewhat invigorated by the exhibition on the stage'—'somewhat' being as far as Johnson will go in admitting that 'a play read' does not always affect the mind 'as a play acted'.

Nim—who has been memorably epitomized by an actor as 'the sort of man who writes things on lavatory walls'—may also seem to the modern reader a rather cold conception. Nature has apparently given him a body as diminutive as his vocabulary, and perhaps a stutter as well; his sword, which should almost certainly be equally ridiculous, he has presumably supplied himself. Nim's affectation of the staccato-laconic has been partially obscured by the feeling that its comedy derives merely from repetition of the topical word 'humour', which has lost its meaning to modern audiences. But any meaning it had Nim labours to squeeze out of it; the meaninglessness of the repetition is its dramatic point.

I have an humour to knock you indifferently well … I would prick your guts a little, in good terms, as I may, and that's the humour of it … The King has run bad humours on the knight … he passes some humours and careers … The humour of it is too hot … These be good humours!

Nim's whole style anticipates, to a remarkable degree, the repetitiveness, understatement, incoherence, and menace now regarded as the unique preserve of the plays of Harold Pinter.

The epic measure of Nim's mind is sufficiently expressed by the object of his romantic ambitions: like the lute-case and the fire-shovel he and Bardolph will seize on as the spoils of war, the dowager of Nim's dreams hardly seems worth pursuing—and, typically, the prize (such as it is) was stolen from under his nose before he could enjoy it. Quickly, as the 1662 engraving below makes clear, fully justifies Falstaff's description of her as 'neither fish nor flesh' whom 'a man knows not where to have' (7 Henry IV, 3.3.128-9). One might add that she seems not to know where to have herself, since one of her more endearing characteristics is a genius for unintended and unperceived obscenity. This, like her other verbal trademarks—malapropism, itemizing repetition, reported speech, an insistence upon wholly irrelevant particulars—helps make her report of Falstaff's death perhaps the most moving and most widely acclaimed messenger speech in the canon.

This 'quondam Quickly' Pistol verbally transforms into 'the only she'. Pistol is probably less appreciated now than he has ever been: a modern theatre reviewer can remark in passing that the role 'is perhaps impossible', but it was prominently featured on the title pages of three Elizabethan quartos (2 Henry IV, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Henry V) and maintained its reputation into the nineteenth century. Its most famous early interpreter was Theophilus Cibber, a man born to play Pistol, being naturally endowed with all the histrionic self-importance and incompetent dishonesty the role requires; Cibber 'made more of the popgun Ancient Pistol than possibly ever will be seen again, by a laughable importance of deportment, extravagant grimaces, and speaking it in the sonorous cant of old tragedizers'.

His hat became traditional, so that later in the century a military historian could remark that 'Ever since the days of Ancient Pistol, we find that a large and broadrimmed hat has been peculiar to heroes'. Other perquisites of the role include 'a tall person, an ample stride, a thundering voice'. These physical attributes remain as common as they ever were, but for modern actors 'the sonorous cant of old tragedizers' has dwindled from a particular and recognizable grand style, capable of being taken seriously in the proper context, into a merely embarrassing, repetitive, generalized display of over-acting; as a consequence Pistol's marvellous tight-rope balancing of grandeur and incongruity too easily degenerates into unfunny and unbelievable shouting and posturing. The continuing fascination of Pistol's blend of stylized declamation and petty larceny has in fact been best demonstrated not in recent performances of Shakespeare but in the modern plays and productions of Steven Berkoff—particularly East, which in its mix of high language and (violent) low life provides the best available commentary on Pistol generally and 2.1 in particular.

Pistol has also suffered from having one of his great moments dismissed as a textual interpolation. At the end of 4.6, after Henry orders the killing of the prisoners, Q but not F gives him the last word, 'Coup' la gorge'. This can be not only or crudely funny, but powerful and even, in Pistol's absurd way, moving. After all, in capturing Le Fer Pistol stands on the brink of wealth: in killing him, he kills two hundred crowns, thereby at play's end returning to England more destitute than ever. This is, so to speak, Pistol's moment of choice, and his moment of greatness: first reacting to the King's command with a look of fiscal outrage, hesitating, eyeing Le Fer, pausing, and then with a shrug returning to the bravado of 'Coup' la gorge ' as he cuts the man's throat. Critics remark on the genius with which great dramatists enact their images, take them literally, transpose them out of imagination into the realm of the shockingly palpable: so, after the comic and unreal hyperbole of Nim's and MacMorris's and Pistol's talk of throat-cutting, it is Pistol, the high priest of literary grand guignol, who actually and before our eyes cuts a man's throat. This could be a moment at once endearing, pathetic, and terrible, when an audience chokes on its own laughter.

Like Pistol, the Boy—last of the Eastcheap five—suffers in modern performances from an evaporation of the reality to which he alludes. Not that the part is 'impossible'; on the contrary Peter Bourke, in the 1975 Royal Shakespeare Company production, created a marked and memorable rapport with his audience, something the text strongly encourages: the Boy has the play's first aside—'And that's but unwholesome food, they say' (2.3.51)—and its first soliloquy (3.2.27-51). Nor does the Boy suffer so much as Nim, Quickly, and Bardolph may from a modern audience's diminished familiarity with the earlier plays in which they appear: the Boy's role here is much larger than and wholly independent of his appearance as Falstaff's page in 2 Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor. But Bourke, like most modern interpreters of the role, was not a boy but an adolescent. Part of the theatrical appeal of 'the comic page', a popular Elizabethan character-type to which this boy belongs, depends upon the opportunities it offers for precocity and impertinence: precocity, because witty and deflating speeches are put into the mouth of a nine or ten-year-old; impertinence, because the page was still a real, common, and recognizable species of personal servant. Since pre-Restoration English drama depended on such boys to play female roles, there was always a reliable supply of them at hand. The social reality and theatrical practicability of the role have grievously suffered from the decline of child labour.

Though these five characters all begin life in other plays, Henry V identifies and discriminates them well enough for a spectator or reader so unfortunate as to be ignorant of their earlier dramatic biographies to have little difficulty in appreciating their Dickensian variety and life. Their structural significance is much more likely to elude him; for that depends in part upon their relation to Falstaff, who does not appear in the play at all. For the original audiences the sudden appearance of Nim and Bardolph, talking about Quickly and Pistol, could hardly have seemed the non sequitur it does today; that Falstaff and his adopted family would accompany Henry to France must have been merely assumed, and had in fact been promised in the Epilogue to 2 Henry IV. But Falstaff's absence from the play would have seemed more unexpected and bewildering than his presence off stage does to many today. That absence—Falstaff's death—the play unequivocally blames on Henry himself, while assuming that the affection for Falstaff which binds these five people will be shared by the audience, and that the audience will also share an almost equal affection (built up in preceding plays) for Bardolph, Nim, Pistol, Quickly, and the Boy. Without this, the characters become (as in many modern productions) merely 'grimy and generally repellent'. Postwar directors, intent on the serious political meaning of the history plays, seem sometimes to have deliberately squeezed all pleasure and spontaneity out of the comic scenes. But this degradation of his former Eastcheap cronies not only reduces our sense of what Henry has lost; it deprives the play of its first demonstrations of the farce, gaiety, and fellow-feeling which will dominate the final scenes.

Shakespeare does not produce a new set of comic characters, unique to this play, until the middle of the siege of Harfleur, and of the four characters introduced there (3.3) two appear nowhere else. No actor has been able to make much of Captain Jamy, whose individuality consists solely of a Scots accent (itself not so well conveyed as by earlier, lesser dramatists); but MacMorris has sometimes made a vivid if rather crude impression—partly because the problems of the British in Ireland have continued to lend his part the thrill of topical interest. Gower, who has a much larger and more important part than either of these, usually creates no impression at all. Recent productions have tried making him slightly pompous, or lumbering him with a peculiar moustache; this could in fact probably be taken a little further than it has Been. The tendency to play him straight creates the impression that Shakespeare sends up the Scots, Irish, and Welsh, while the sensible Englishman stands by benignly amused. Gower has been described as phlegmatic; it might be more accurate to call him slow. He bears at least a family resemblance to the 'beef-witted' Ajax of Troilus and Cressida, who realizes ('O, meaning you!') only after Achilles has left the stage what the latter meant by 'He knew his man' (2.1.125-6). Having said nothing for almost fifty lines, Gower at last intervenes, after Mac-Morris threatens to cut off Fluellen's head, to announce 'Gentlemen both, you will mistake each other'; in 3.6, after again standing silent for forty lines which degenerate into exchanges of abuse, he stirs from his torpor with the recognition, 'Why, is this the ensign you told me of?'; in 4.1 he enters calling loudly for Fluellen, and after being berated for ten lines can only answer 'Why, the enemy is loud'. Sustaining such an interpretation of the character throughout the play would require strategic pauses in the actor's delivery and care for blocking (Gower standing between Fluellen and MacMorris, or Fluellen and Pistol, his head turning from one to the other); it would depend upon the emphasis and deliberation with which he announces the obvious. But it seems the best explanation for the pecularities of the role, and would provide the best possible contrast to the intemperate, hasty, explosive Fluellen.

Armed with his pocket Tacitus or his folio Plutarch, Fluellen 'has been esteem'd (next to that of Sir John Falstaff) the best and most humorous [character], that Shakespeare ever wrote'; so at least we are told by the preface to C. P. Molloy's The Half-Pay Officers (1719), a farce concocted from wholesale theft of the characters of Fluellen and MacMorris. The deservedly popular encounter between Fluellen, Pistol, and the leek was imitated not only by Molloy, but as early as 1599, in The Life of Sir John Oldcastle; and the Welsh Captain Jenkins in Dekker and Webster's 1605 Northward Ho seems clearly derived from Shakespeare's original. Hazlitt called Fluellen the play's most entertaining character, and a century earlier Charles Gildon praised the part as 'extremely comical, and yet so happily touch'd that at the same time when he makes us laugh he makes us value his character'.

But though we undoubtedly value Fluellen, we value him to a different degree and for different reasons than we value, for instance, Williams: Fluellen inspires amused affection, Williams demands respect. We can accept Henry's trick with the gloves because the joke turns on Fluellen, not Williams, Williams, given the unusual distinction of an individual entry separate from the rest of the army, answers Henry forthrightly, keeps his word when he sees the glove in Fluellen's cap, flatly denies being a traitor, and finally stands up to the King himself—with, one feels, absolute justice. We laugh, throughout the sequence, at Fluellen: insisting with exaggerated emphasis that the man must keep his word; wildly delighted at the 'favour' Henry does him; blind to the suspicious similarity between Williams's story and Henry's; uncomprehending at Williams's first question about the glove; almost certainly bested by the bigger man, Williams, when they come to blows; insisting (with his predictable and wholly inappropriate passion for 'disciplines') that Williams's 'neck answer for' keeping the vow Fluellen himself had earlier insisted that he must keep; and all the while speaking that idiolect which renders his various enthusiasms infectiously ridiculous.

Fluellen serves the priceless structural function of allowing Henry to resolve the dispute with Williams amicably, without in the process poking fun at the man who had stood up to him. The audience gets its joke, a joke promised from the moment Henry put on Erpingham's cloak, but unexpectedly deferred; and yet the joke does not cheat of his dignity the common soldier we by now respect and demand to see respected. Williams in fact justifies and increases that respect by proving his willingness to stand up to the King when he knows it is the King he is standing up to. All this the play owes to Fluellen; to Fluellen also it owes the decisive but enjoyable dismissal of Pistol. Falstaff, Bardolph, Nim, and the Boy die, and die directly or indirectly at Henry's hands; Pistol instead is dismissed with no more than a comic come-uppance, richly deserved and farcically satisfying, but administered by one comic character to another, and in no way casting aspersions on Henry. This too is a joke we have long been expecting: Pistol's whole style holds out the promise of a crushing deflation, and from the beginning of Act Three—when Fluellen first enters, appropriately enough, to drive the Eastcheap characters off—Fluellen and Pistol have been in conflict, or juxtaposed in contrast to one another. When Fluellen and Williams clash, only Fluellen makes us laugh; when Fluellen and Pistol clash, both do; in both cases, as in his earlier comparison of Henry and Alexander, Fluellen in the aftermath of Agincourt provides the stimulus for gaiety and intellectual relief.

Fluellen and Princess Catherine between them bear the main structural burden of turning the play towards comedy and celebration after Agincourt. Catherine's first scene, her language lesson (3.4), not only provides the greatest possible contrast to the strained brutality of Henry's threats to Harfleur (3.3); it also, like the episode of the glove, makes a promise to the audience: a promise, not paid until the play's final scene, of the return of this character and this kind of comedy. To eighteenth-century critics that final scene itself seemed an indecorous irrelevance, partly because the language lesson was omitted in performance and even, in some editions of Shakespeare, debased to the bottom of the page, as an unworthy interpolation for which Shakespeare could not have been responsible; George Calvert's 1872 Manchester production restored it (with the final obscenities discreetly removed), but by placing it immediately before the wooing scene turned the entire last act into a structural non sequitur. Aaron Hill, on the other hand, in his (unsuccessful) 1723 adaptation, went to the opposite extreme: the romance of Shakespeare's final scene became the major interest of the play, Catherine having to compete with 'Harriet', Scrope's niece, whom Henry had earlier seduced but abandoned. The disadvantages of such omissions or rearrangements demonstrate once again Shakespeare's tact, the cunning with which he deploys comedy and romance in the service of a larger structure.

As both of Catherine's scenes have proved irresistible in the theatre, critical objections to them seem something of an impertinence. Dr Johnson's often-quoted feigned bewilderment—that he could not understand why Henry here reverted to such a character as he had earlier ridiculed in Hotspur—almost certainly owes less to the scene Shakespeare wrote than to the biography of the most popular Henry of the mid-eighteenth century, William ('Gentleman') Smith. Smith was chiefly famous for two roles: Henry V and Hotspur. What pretends to be a criticism of Shakespeare's play, sub specie aeternitatis, in fact only reflects the limitations of a particular actor. Likewise, one need not make such heavy weather as some recent critics have done of the fact that the marriage of Henry and Catherine is a mere political arrangement, devoid of sincerity or genuine feeling. Arranged marriages were not restricted to conquering monarchs; they were simply a fact of life in sixteenth-century England, and long after: Henry and Catherine try, as many others must have done, to create a personal relationship within the confines of a social institution—an attempt which deserves, and in the generosity of the theatre duly receives, sympathy and approval rather than moral reprobation.

In concert these individuals all contribute to our sense that what critics sometimes describe as 'Henry's war' is instead a conflict of two peoples, two nations, each containing within itself variety and division. Out of diversity the play aspires to unity, the unity of a band of brothers, of Henry and Catherine, of England and France, of politics and joy. It advances dialectically: no sooner is a unity established than we are made aware of what that unity excludes, until that too can be contained. After the divisions of the first two scenes, Henry and his court are by the end of Act One united in their common purpose—and immediately we are shown Eastcheap brawling. After Southampton, Henry can leave behind an undivided England—and we are reminded, through Falstaff and those who have loved him, of an entire world Henry has excluded. So the process continues until, after the achievement of Agin-court, in the consummation of the dialectic, Burgundy insists that the harmony must include France as well as England.

Further Reading

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Babula, William. "Whatever Happened to Prince Hal?: An Essay on Henry V." Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 47-59.

Contends that during the course of the play, Henry learns the importance of moderation, honesty, and peace, thereby attaining a maturity that he lacks at the start of the drama.

Berry, Ralph. "Henry V: The Reason Why." In The Shakespearean Metaphor: Studies in Language and Form, pp. 48-60. Totowa, N. J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1978.

Argues that Henry is no ideal king, but rather an extremely successful politician with an unusual talent for making "all that he wishes or does" appear inevitable.

Brennan, Anthony S. "That within Which Passes Show: The Function of the Chorus in Henry V." Philological Quarterly 58, No. 1 (Winter 1979): 40-52.

Details the role of the Chorus and compares the prologues with the content of each act.

Coursen, Herbert R., Jr. "Henry V and the Nature of Kingship." Discourse XIII, No. 3 (Summer 1970): 279-305.

Asserts that Henry V is an ingenious politician who, in the course of becoming a successful monarch, has lost the ability to "play the part of mere man even if he wishes to."

Erickson, Peter B. '"The Fault / My Father Made': The Anxious Pursuit of Heroic Fame in Shakespeare's Henry V" Modern Language Studies X, No. 1 (Winter 1979-80): 10-25.

Proposes that Henry V's "double roles as ideal king and ideal warrior" produce a divisive "struggle between compassion and aggression" and a conflict between his "feelings of pity and anger" that is never fully resolved.

Gurr, Andrew. "Henry V and the Bees' Commonwealth." Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production 30 (1977): 61-72.

Discusses Shakespeare's alteration of the fable of the bees as a parallel between a beehive and human society.

Hart, Jonathan. "Shakespeare's Henry V: Towards the Problem Play." Cahiers Elisabethians, No. 42 (October 1992): 17-35.

Concentrates on "the ways irony of theatre, structure and words, as well as a close examination of … Henry's debate with Bates and Williams help create the generic friction that makes this history play a problem play."

Holderness, Graham. "Chronicles of Feudalism: Richard II, Henry IV Part One and Henry V." In Shakespeare's History, pp. 40-144. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1985.

Views Henry as "a feudal overlord" rather than a Renaissance monarch and declares that the king's achievement "is not a peaceful and harmonious commonwealth, but a barren military triumph."

Manheim, Michael. "New Thoughts to Deck Our Kings: Henry V." In The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play, pp. 161-82. Syracuse, N. Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1973.

Maintains that the character of Henry is intentionally portrayed as "successful, admirable and heroic" as well as Machieavellian.

Merrix, Robert P. "The Alexandrian Allusion in Shakespeare's Henry V." English Literary Renaissance 2, No. 3 (Winter 1972): 321-33.

Analyzes "the structural and thematic relationship" of Fluellen's comparison of Henry and Alexander to the play as a whole. Merrix concludes that Shakespeare's intention was to satirize Henry by juxtaposing him with the classical figure who represented for Medieval and Renaissance writers "unbridled ambition" and "the grievous consequences of rash actions.

Pierce, Robert B. "Henry V." In Shakespeare's History Plays: The Family and the State, pp. 225-40. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1971.

Suggests that in this play such thematic issues as "the inheritance of virtue, the family as a symbol of unity, and public disorder as a threat to the family" regularly appear in the public rhetoric of the French and English leaders.

Sen Gupta, S. C. "The Second Tetralogy." In Shakespeare's Historical Plays, pp. 113-50. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

Views Henry V as a decisive man of action who seldom questions his own assumptions, analyzes the bases of his claims, or considers "the subtler implications of his conduct."

Soellner, Rolf. "Henry V: Patterning after Perfection." In Shakespeare's Patterns of Self-Knowledge, pp. 113-28. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1972.

Argues that Henry V exemplifies the four cardinal virtues which Renaissance Christian humanists held were requisite in a good man: "fortitude, justice, prudence, and … temperance."

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Fluellen's Name


Henry V (Vol. 49)

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