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Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Henry V

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 entire section is 114,657 words.)