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Henry V

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Modern scholars writing about Henry V frequently remark on its distinctiveness. Unlike Shakespeare's other English histories, it focuses almost exclusively on the protagonist. Moreover, no other play in the Shakespeare canon uses a choric figure so extensively. Henry V is the last of Shakespeare's chronicle histories, and critics have characterized it as the most morally ambiguous as well. Up until about 1975, commentary on the play was sharply divided between those who embraced the heroic interpretation articulated by the Chorus and those who read Henry V as a caustic satire exposing the hypocrisy and cruelty of military adventurers. More recently, an increasing number of critics have moved away from an either/or position. Simplistic judgments cannot be substantiated, these commentators assert, because the play offers a number of competing viewpoints from which to evaluate such issues as patriotism, national unity, and the justice of foreign conquest.

Henry V is centrally concerned with the question of whether the invasion of France is justified, but it also deals with another important issue of law and justice: Henry's possession of the crown that his father usurped. Karl P. Wentersdorf (1976) maintains that the dynastic struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster is at the heart of the Southampton conspiracy, which Henry exposes in Act II, scene i. The critic points out that the principal conspirator, the earl of Cambridge, is married to the daughter of Edmund Mortimer—the brother of Richard II and Richard's appointed heir; thus Cambridge's infant son would be in the direct line of royal succession if Mortimer had become king instead of Henry IV. Wentersdorf asserts that placing Mortimer's grandson on the throne is the real reason for the conspiracy. David Scott Kastan (1982) declares that Henry V directly challenges the Tudor version of history and dynastic succession by exposing the fallacy of Henry's unquestioning assumption of the justice of the French war. Henry is so sure of the legitimacy of the invasion, Kastan remarks, that he brushes aside all suggestions of moral or legal ambiguities—raised, for example, by the aristocratic conspirators and by the commoners Williams and Bates; moreover, he ruthlessly condemns what he sees as the unlawful resistance of the citizens of Harfleur.

The most thoroughly uncritical view of the justice of the French campaign is provided by the Chorus in his prologues and epilogue. Indeed, the role of the Chorus in Henry V, and its implications for the play as a whole, have been the subject of a growing number of commentators, most all of whom reject the notion advanced by earlier scholars that these prologues were written by someone other than Shakespeare or that they were not originally part of the play. There is no similar unanimity, however, regarding the function of the Chorus's speeches. Anthony S. Brennan (1979) contends that the Chorus, who holds an unwavering belief in the nobility of war, represents an extreme position. Brennan points out that the Chorus's sentiments are regularly—and ironically—undercut by the scenes which immediately follow his prologues and which show what war looks like from the viewpoint of the common soldiers and the low-life characters from Eastcheap. Similarly, Lawrence Danson (1983) suggests that the Chorus exists to provide "a sense of perspective" and to demonstrate that an overly indulgent assessment of the king is mistaken. In contrast to Brennan, however, Danson argues that the dramatic action complicates the Chorus's preparation rather than contradicting it, and thus we become aware of Henry's human weakness well as his greatness. Also recommending a balanced view of the king, Anthony Hammond (1987) maintains that the contradiction between the Chorus's descriptions of what will be shown on the stage and what we actually see is designed to underscore the duality that runs throughout the play. A dichotomy is built into Shakespeare's characterization of Henry, Hammond asserts, and while the play incorporates the Chorus's attitude toward the king and specific dramatic events, it also directly challenges that conception. Günter Walch (1988) relates the role of the Chorus to the play's representation of political doctrine, maintaining that the Chorus is profoundly involved in creating a national ideology. The unreliability of his information is central to the drama, Walch argues, for this exposes the illusory nature of national myths and legends, and demonstrates how they can be used as instruments of power.

Many late twentieth-century commentators have focused on the relation between power and ideology in Henry V, often from the perspectives of new historicism or cultural materialism. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (1985) contend that the play explores Henry's attempt to establish himself as the sole repository of political power. Henry's goal, they declare, is the complete suppression of all challenges to his authority, and he uses the ideological concept of national unity to achieve this. In their judgment, however, the play reveals, through numerous instances of dissension and threats of disobedience, the profound anxieties that accompany the imposition of ideological conformity on a nation comprised of diverse personal and political interests. Alexander Leggati (1988) also examines the question of how Henry V portrays national unity, asserting that it shows the concept to be a "patriotic fantasy." He points out that Canterbury's refashioning of the traditional fable of the bees' commonwealth, in which all factions of an ideal state work together harmoniously, is juxtaposed to the depiction of disgruntled soldiers, scheming prelates, and France in ruins. Audiences and readers must work out these contradictions for themselves, Leggatt recommends, for the play offers both points of view and provides no simple resolution of this discrepancy. Similarly, Graham Bradshaw (1993) recently interprets Henry V as promoting uncertainty rather than a single, reassuring response to its representation of history. He contends that although the Chorus tries to control our reaction, and while Henry adroitly offers justification after the fact for the course he has already embarked on, the play's subversive connotations would not have been missed by those who first saw the play in performance. Like Leggatt and others, Bradshaw cautions that single-minded judgments of Henry, the justice of his war, and the integrity of the play's portrayal of history are unwise and reductive.


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Anthony S. Brennan (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "That Within Which Passes Show: The Function of the Chorus in Henry V" in Philological Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1, Winter, 1979, pp. 40-52.

[In the essay below, Brennan views the Chorus as representing one side of a dialectical argument about the nature of war and national leadership. The critic believes that the Chorus's definition of war as a glorious undertaking and the grim perspective provided by the common soldiers are mediated by Henry's perception of the limitations and responsibilities of power.]

The use of the Chorus in Henry V is really central to the whole question of what Shakespeare is doing when he reminds us so deliberately of the illusory nature of the play-world. Does the Chorus speak directly for Shakespeare in lamenting that the glorious history of England can receive no fully worthy representation on a tawdry stage? It has become a commonplace of criticism that any Shakespearian character who can be termed "choric" may often be taken to be presenting the dramatist's own views on the action, inheriting the habit.Seneca gave the chorus of passing on didactic messages to the audience. How natural, therefore, to assume that we have Shakespeare's own scarcely disguised voice when he came to present a formal Chorus. We are told that Shakespeare "seems to have felt that his dramatic technique was inadequate to the subject"1 and he "confessed ultimate failure to convert history into drama."2 But surely if a writer is uncertain of success, and insecure about his technique, he does not strive to advertise his flaws and his fears throughout the play. Nor do any of the critics explain why Shakespeare felt no need of a narrator in, say, King John, which radically compresses historical time, sews several campaigns together, and bobs back and forth across the Channel like a tennis ball. Shakespeare's audience can never have expected the kind of panoply and "realism" for the absence of which the Chorus in Henry V apologizes. If they had accepted the tents of Richard HI and Richmond a few feet apart on the same stage with ghosts flitting between, they were hardly likely to feel the lack of prancing steeds and of flotillas for crossing a channel that they had been imaginatively o'erleaping these many years by means of the poet's evocative language. We must find some explanation for the function of the Chorus other than as a vent for Shakespeare's frustration at working with productions governed by severe financial limitations. The only invention that would satisfy this literalist Chorus is the movie-camera. There is no evidence elsewhere of Shakespeare as an early D. W. Griffiths manqué. What there is evidence of everywhere is Shakespeare's overwhelming confidence that the simple, bare, thrust stage of his theatre could be used to present any kind of story in any kind of world whether real or imaginary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Prologue.II. 1-4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence Danson (essay date 1983)

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

(11. 41-45)

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

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

(11. 48-53)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


I want now to take up just a few of the items of critical controversy with regard to the King, and to look at one specific scene with that choric appeal in mind. But I want to avoid, what the critical situation makes very hard to avoid, the air of an advocate answering a bill of indictment. I cannot, for gravest instance, justify the King's order to cut the throats of his French prisoners. I can try to understand the desperateness of the situation that gave rise to the order ("The French have reinforc'd their scatter'd men" []), but still I wish he hadn'T done it. The case for the prosecution is well known: Harry is bloodthirsty, devious, a bad friend, a lousy lover, and he sounds too much like Tamburlaine. The case has been made thoroughly, vigorously, and I think that in recent years it has been made more frequently than the case for the defense.11 My purpose is not to deny each item in the indictment, but to suggest how, in the spirit of the Chorus, some of them might be interpreted.

The first of the play's interpretable gaps falls right between the Prologue, with its heroic talk about "the swelling scene," and scenes i and ii, which are swollen mainly by the verbose efforts of Canterbury and Ely to forestall a bill to strip the Church of "the better half of our possessions" (1. 8). What seems most remarkable, in light of the choric preparation, is Shakespeare's decision to hew so closely to his historical sources, plunging us not into the world of brave physical combat but into the stickier world of political wheeling and dealing. If we expect our heroes pure, we will certainly be dismayed to find the King in the process of striking a deal: he will support the Church against the bill of sequestration, and in return the Church will lend its moral and financial support to the war in France. But the shock to our heroic expectation is exactly the point: this heroic King Henry does live—must, because he did live—in the real world he inherited and did not make.12 Like the actors on the stage, this actor in history is a being strictly limited by his medium. Shakespeare allows us to watch Harry's (public) act of deciding the question of war, and thus he gives us once again the option the Chorus gives us. We can reject what Harry does because he does not do all we want him to do, or we can piece out his imperfections with our thoughts.

Shakespeare quickly reminds us of the circumstances Hal inherited when he became King: the churchmen speak of "the scrambling and unquiet time" that caused the bill to be deferred in "the last king's, reign" (I.i.4, 2). Not much more needs to be said, directly, about the troublesome nature of Henry IV's reign. The danger of civil war is explicit at the beginning and the end of the play, and surely it must be intended to haunt the middle as well. The question of Harry's justification in his French war may take on a different shape if we recognize that the opposite of war abroad may not be peace but that greater horror, war at home. The King cannot know for sure, nor can we. (The creation of uncertainty is, I take it, Shakespeare's dramatic point in importing from his sources the Archbishop's interminable speech about Pharamond and Pepin and the Salic law. The attempt to establish legal certainty only creates dramatic uncertainty: the more of one, the more of the other, inevitably.) In the historical world where Harry must lead, no choice can be absolutely right. He could choose to despoil the Church for the good of the Crown. Or he could choose to invade France for the good of the Crown, making the Church his ally. My point is not that Harry makes the right choice; it is rather that we cannot know what the absolutely right choice is. Yet the theatrical circumstances force us to choose, as the historical circumstances force Harry to choose. If we reject the Chorus' positive estimation of Harry we indulge, I believe, an impossibly romantic notion of heroism. We expect omniscience and perfection in "the mirror of all Christian kings," when what we are shown is a human being trying to make the best of a bad thing.

That, according to the Chorus, is what actors do too. Perhaps it is not just the King's choice but the actorly manner of his choosing that makes us uncomfortable. It is your old stale argument against the players that they are always playing; their very virtuosity proves they are hollow men or uncanny puppets. In the second scene, with the churchmen and then the French ambassadors, the King plays his role so straight, never mugging or breaking frame, that it just might arouse one's antitheatrical prejudice. We can never know what Harry really thinks about the Salic law, only how he acts. The problem is more overt in Act II, scene ii, when Harry breaks the conspiracy of Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey. The Chorus has told us about the conspiracy in advance, and as the scene begins Bedford and Exeter remind us of it, remarking "How smooth and even [the traitors] do bear themselves" and assuring us that "The king hath note of all that they intend" (II.ii.3, 6). Thus our interest is less in the eventual outcome (of which we are assured) than in its technique, its self-conscious theatrical means. We regard Harry aesthetically, as a performer, and our ideas about theatricalism in everyday life are therefore engaged. Since the traitors are also playing roles (that is, pretending loyalty), we have here both play and counterplay, theatricalism becoming a form of craftiness in which the best actor is literally the winner. Hamlet displays one attitude toward that kind of situation, Henry V another.

My point is not simply the reverse of Miss Ellis-Fermor's. I do not claim that Harry is blameless because he is an actor. But I do claim that Shakespeare has chosen to place him in situations in which he must act (in all senses) and that he has, in part through the analogy with the Chorus/audience relationship, made sympathetic participation a more appropriate response to him than judgmental detachment. At times such sympathetic participation may evoke the joyful release of our applause; but it may also, at other times, evoke other feelings. We have seen how the Chorus prepares us for the "little touch of Harry" in the Act IV night. The Chorus there gives us our cues for response—sets a tone—-but we must still encounter Harry himself, an encounter which complicates but does not contradict the choric preparation.


The scene of Harry among his men, like the Chorus' description of it, is in icily objective close-up. Our focus is on a man under severe self-restraint. The range of his responses is strangely limited. During part of the scene he is at the periphery of the action, and even when he occupies its center—in the colloquy with Michael Bates—he remains an outsider from the larger group.13 The effect of the close-up is therefore rather baffling than otherwise, for what it reveals is a kind of irreducible opacity in the character of Harry. Harry's encounters in this night, and the soliloquy that follows them, show the obverse of the choric lesson that less can be more. For the King, burdened with a superfluity of expressive means—his star billing, magnificent costume, elaborate script, cast of thousands (all the kingly appurtenances he calls "idol ceremony")—more is less, a weight hanging upon him and, even in this scene when he moves about under the cloak of old Sir Thomas Erpingham, keeping him a man apart. The Chorus leads us to expect that we will get from Harry the same little touch his men do and pluck, like them, confort from his universal largess. Instead we see precisely what his men do not see—the effort and the cost. The effect is anything but comforting, and one possible reaction (some of the play's critics show it) is a feeling of betrayal.

The scene begins with the King in his most thoroughly histrionic mode, cheering up his officers. Here is the smiling public man, full of platitudes and over-stretched bonhommie, that has so offended critics.14

Gloucester, 'Tis true that we are in great danger;
The greater therefore should our courage be.
Good morrow, brother Bedford. God Almighty!
There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
Would men observingly distil it out.


At the very moment of his separating from this group, however, we find, in one delicate moment, the self-consciousness (hence the effort) of the pose. Erpingham departs saying, "The Lord in heaven bless thee, noble Harry!"—itself the kind of line that might give offense if we did not accede to the choric appeal for imaginative participation. And Harry replies (probably out of Erpingham's hearing, as the old man exits), "God-a-mercy, old heart! thou speak'st cheerfully" (1. 34)—a line poised at gratitude and irony, admiration and desperation.

Immediately, from the imagined dark, comes Pistol, challenging the King in the language of the enemy, "Qui va la?"—to which the King replies, "A friend" (11. 35-36). Their brief encounter is tensely comic, with the King's effort not to be recognized (hence the brevity of his responses) and with Pistol's swaggering impercipience (he takes "Harry le Roy" to be "a Cornish name"). Verbally, the encounter is dominated by Pistol. Pistol leaves and his place is taken by Gower and Fluellen engaged in a conversation the King overhears but in which he has no part; they remain unaware of his presence on stage. In a moment the King will be drawn into a conversation with Bates, Court, and Williams, and his attempt to shed kingly comforts on them will be less successful than the Chorus would have led us to believe. Indeed one of the most noticeable things about the scene, up to this point, is the readjustment of our dramatic expectations. Instead of the, "cheerful semblance and sweet majesty" the Chorus had described (IV. Chorus. 40), we find in these successively isolating encounters a Harry unable to break out of the tight circle of his self-control, a commanding figure but by that same token an unapproachable one.

The interludes with Pistol, with Gower and Fluellen, and then with Bates, Court, and Williams, reveal another way in which the King's role is analogous to the Chorus'. He is Pistol's straight-man, and their encounter ends with a choric tag-line:

Pistol. My name is Pistol called. [Exit],

K. Henry It sorts well with your fierceness.

(11. 62-63)

With Gower and Fluellen he is a silent presenter, and when their scene is over he offers, again, the choric summary: "Though it appear a little out of fashion, / There is much care and valour in this Welshman" (11. 83-84). With the three soldiers, especially Williams, his choric role is put to the greatest strain. Harry tries to tell them, as the Chorus tries to tell us, how to respond to a man playing a king ("I think the king is but a man, as I am" [IV.i.101]). His direct appeal, like the Chorus' appeal for our sympathetic participation, is dramatically intrusive but perfectly in character; and, like the Chorus' appeal, Harry's does not win universal assent. For the most part, the analogy between Choras and King has worked to illuminate the King's role; here it also works in the other direction, to illuminate the Chorus'. The King, creator of the myth of Crispin Day, though in that mythopoeic moment he may imagine its future potency ("This story shall the good man teach his son" [IV.iii.56]), discovers by the campfire on Agincourt eve an audience's critical recalcitrance. Harry has only limited control over the reception of his own story. The Chorus incurs this difficulty too. The problem for both lies partly in the mode of direct address: if you argue and tell, someone may respond, and if you invoke authority (even narrative authority) someone is bound to counter it. The Chorus' awareness of his limitation is built into his role. The players can only be "ciphers to this great accompt," and the audience is asked to "piece out [their] imperfections," for it is as easy to overthrow a Chorus and his play as it is, in a kingdom, to create civil strife.


That Michael Williams gets the better of Harry le Roy in their debate about the King's responsibilities is a truth that should not be universally acknowledged. Williams' case is a good one; it is, moreover, more attractively put than the King's rebuttal. The hypothetical scene Williams conjures is eerily evocative, passionate, with a dream-like specificity:

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.


The King's response, by contrast, is imaginatively spare, his hypothetical cases the merest legal counters:

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.i 150-63)

The most charitably disposed audience could not muster much sympathy for that father or master or (for that matter) king. But a couple of things should be said on the King's behalf, in the effort "gently to hear, kindly to judge." His argument rests on a distinction between his responsibility in the matter of a subject's death and his responsibility in the matter of a subject's damnation. A soldier dying may be damned, but not because he died for King Henry. "Every subject's soul is his own" (1. 183), and every subject must therefore bear responsibility for the state of his own soul. But a king's soul is his own, for which he bears the same responsibility as each subject bears. The King does not say, because it goes so absolutely without saying, that he accepts his proper responsibilities, which are heavy enough (God knows) without the addition Williams tries to make. Because "Every subject's duty is the king's," the subject does not sin in dying for him; but if the King dies and "the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make."

The argument between Williams and the King is a stand-off because they argue at cross-purposes. Williams himself gives the victory to the King's cause: "'Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head; the king is not to answer it" (11. 193-94). But for his muffled interlocuter the argument has gone in a different direction. For Williams, the question has been turned into that of the soldier's souls; for the King, it cannot ever be anything but the state of his own soul. The fact that Harry does not answer that latter question has seemed to some critics ironically to undermine him. It seems otherwise to me.

And this is the other simple thing that should be said on the King's behalf: that the cumulative effect of the scene on the night before Agincourt is to garner sympathy for this king whose mortal frailty is emphasized by his effort to unburden himself of the weight of his kingship and his mortality. We have seen, first, that he is unavoidably isolated from real fellowship with his men. We have seen, in the encounter with the three soldiers, that even a king (like a Chorus) cannot wholly control the text of his life. We have seen his vulnerability. And now, in the "idol ceremony" speech, his isolation and his weakness are again emphasized (both in what he says and in the understandable petulance of its saying), at the same time that they are accepted by him as his proper and unavoidable lot.

But the "idol ceremony" speech is not the scene's end. Erpingham enters with a simple line that expresses kingship's burdens as clearly as the King's own eloquent periods: "My lord, your nobles, jealous of your absence, / Seek through your camp to find you" (IV.i.291-92). It is Harry's cue for one last solitary moment and for his prayer to the "God of battles." Arguments about Harry's justification in the French war may miss the essential point that Harry himself cannot know whether he is right to undertake the war. Only its outcome can tell him that. And his prayer has all the panicky urgency of his lack of knowledge, even to the point of trying to bribe the deity. "Not to-day, O Lord! / O not to-day, think not upon the fault / My father made in compassing the crown!" (11. 298-300). This is the single most poignant utterance in a play whose emotional range is purposefully narrow. It is a play rich in comedy and pageantry and in those communal emotions that can be entrusted nowadays to a Hollywood orchestra; but it is relatively poorer in the private and singular emotions. So the "God of battles" prayer, when Harry desperately bargains (he does not quite wrestle) with his God, is, for the audience, a precious moment.

And it is interesting that at the moment when this actor-king seems most the man and least the actor, at this moment of his intensest privacy, Harry should most clearly stand in analogous relation to the Chorus. Harry's audience is his God, and he addresses that audience directly, "imploring pardon" (IV.i.311)—the Chorus' word, too—while a most embarrassingly calling attention to the fault. Both King and Chorus worry about "the sense of reckoning" (1. 297)—here, as in the Chorus' prologue, a matter literally of numbers of men, of the poverty of means. But the "reckoning" is also a matter of judgments, and both King and Chorus know that they will be judged. Harry enumerates his penitential deeds with an urgency that counterpoints the Chorus' witty attempt, in his first appearance, to make "a crooked figure . . . attest in little place a million" (Prologue. 15-16). Harry's own fearful sense of reckoning edges toward panic:

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 built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard's soul. More will I do. . . .


Only God can know the sincerity of Harry's penitence, but almost anyone can know the fear in it. It is the fear of a man about to go into battle, or of a performer about to take the stage.

The King is called:

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

During the next scene, in the French camp, we know that the actor-king is in the wings or tiring-house preparing to go on. In the Olivier film the King instantly materializes in response to Westmoreland's wish that they had "But one ten thousand of those men in England / That do no work to-day" (IV.iii.18-19). The camera meets him in his full rhetorical stride, already puffed up with the knowledge that he is doing his Crispin Day speech. But here is another instance of the theatre's less overgoing the movies' more. On stage, an entrance is a slower business; Harry cannot pop out on Westmoreland's cue. Rather, he has to be already on stage, listening to his men and being watched by us in his own (as we know it to be) fearfulness. The actor playing Harry playing king has a wonderful opportunity to enact his silent transformation from the uncertain, lonely man in the night to the inspiring leader of the day. Michael Goldman says of that leader, "We love him for his effectiveness" (p. 70). I would add that we can love him even more (though others have found it cause to love him less) because we have seen in the preceding scenes the all-too-human being out of whom the effective politician builds himself. We are moved partly by the spectacle of a man doing a difficult duty, submerging his clamorous self for the sake of a larger idea. Shakespeare allows us to doubt the validity of that idea, but his Chorus urges us to appreciate the nobility of Harry's attempt.


At the instant of Harry's transformation into the speaker of the Crispin Day speech, he reflects the Chorus' awareness that the theatre makes "imaginary puissance." As creator of the myth that unites his men, Harry is a cipher to the great accompt, working on his men's imaginary forces. We can, with some plausibility, wrench the Chorus" clear directive and find in it, for instance, "an underside of intimation that this warrior may be a crook, his followers moral zeros, and their power largely imaginary, indeed scaffold-bound."15 The man in the play, like the play itself, is at our mercy.

And both are at the mercy of history. Though Shakespeare ends the action with a marriage, he adds a metadramatic epilogue that brings us back from comic fulfillment to the contingent world that both Chorus (representative of theatrical reality) and King (representative of historical reality) inhabit. I do not think that the Chorus' last lines are, as Norman Rabkin describes them, "harsh negation" (p. 51). Rueful, yes, but not without a touch of optimism about what can be achieved in a world that is, for better and for worse, so much like a stage. The Chorus' sonnet makes the experience of loss and failure another claim on our charitable indulgence: "and for their sake, / In your fair minds let this acceptance take" (Epilogue. 13-14). The pronoun "their" can refer both to the historical figures who lost France and made England bleed in the aftermath of Henry V's brief reign and to the actors who oft have shown it on our stage. For both the King and the actors, the play's action has been "Small time, but in that small most greatly liV'd" (Epilogue. 5). As we were promised, we have been shown "the accomplishment of many years [turned] into an hourglass" (Prologue. 30-31). That compression was enforced by theatrical limitation, but it was simultaneously a source of theatrical intensity, as it was also the condition of Henry V's achievements. The Chorus' last "apology" is as sincere and as supererogatory as its apology for occupying "this wooden O" instead of "the vasty fields of France."

So 1 would like to believe that Henry V was performed in the great Globe itself, though I can imagine other possibilities.16 It is Shakespeare's celebration of theatricality, on stage and off. But it is, of course, a tempered celebration. The Chorus plays at apologizing while doing superbly well the things he claims the theatre cannot do; still, the limitations he acknowledges are indeed limitations, if the performance is not eked out in the audience's mind. The playwright cannot control the reception of his play, and the King cannot control the course of history. The play's critical history shows how risky the venture is.


1European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, trans. Willard R. Trask (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1953; Harper & Row, 1963), p. 83.

2 Herschel Baker, in The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), p. 931. More indulgent to the character of the King is J. H. Walter, ed. New Arden Henry V (London: Methuen, 1954). I quote throughout from this edition.

3Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981). Rabkin's analogy is the optical illusion in which a pictured object is both a rabbit and a duck, depending on which is seen as figure and which as ground. Henry V, he claims, must be seen in two opposite, irreconcilable ways. A similar point was made by Anne Barton, for whom Henry V is "deliberately ambiguous . . . 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." Nonetheless, Barton chooses one of the two equivalent views as the right one: Shakespeare "summon[ed] 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." ("The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History," in The Triple Bond, ed. Joseph G. Price [University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1975], pp. 102, 99.)

4The Frontiers of Drama (London: Methuen, 1945; 2nd ed. 1964), pp. 45, 47. On King Henry as role-player, see also Alvin B. Kernan, "The Henriad: Shakespeare's Major History Plays," in Kernan, ed., Modern Shakespeare Criticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1970), especially pp. 260-78; and Thomas Van Laan, Role-Playing in Shakespeare (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1978), pp. 32 ff.

5Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979), pp. 170-71. Contrast the view of Roy W. Battenhouse, "The Relation of Henry V to Tamburlaine," Shakespeare Survey, 27 (1974): "The whole English community, as Shakespeare sees the situation, is being entranced imaginatively into role-playing, and without regard for the moral meaning of the assumed roles. And Henry, by treating himself as an actor caught up in his own play, is able to blind himself to the moral implications of his action" (p. 78).

6Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972), pp. 59, 61.

7 "An Introduction to the Play," in Sally Beauman, ed., The Royal Shakespeare Company's Production of "Henry V" for the Centenary Season at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1976), p. 16.

8 In Beauman, Production, p. 56.

9 James, in Beauman, Production, p. 61; Goldman, Energies, p. 58.

10 Thus, Mark Van Doren took this self-creative speech to be "the golden throatings of a hollow god" (Shakespeare [New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1939], p. 179).

11 One of the most relentlessly pursued indictments is by Gordon Ross Smith, "Shakespeare's Henry V: Another Part of the Critical Forest," Journal of the History of Ideas, 37 (1976), 3-26. Smith is keener at scenting irony than at noticing humor or hearing poetry. He neglects the evidence of the Chorus while drawing promiscuously on historical documents that are only tangentially related to Shakespeare's play. Smith ironizes in the cause of a political ideology. For another comprehensive ironizing, in a different cause, see Battenhouse, "The Relation of Henry V to Tamburlaine," and his "Henry V as Heroic Comedy," in Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1962). David Quint argues against taking either Henry or history as exemplary in "'Alexander the Pig': Shakespeare on History and Poetry," forthcoming in Boundary 2. See also Andrew Gurr, "Henry V and the Bee's Commonwealth," ShS 30 (1977): 61-72.

12 For a sensitive discussion of the gap between the Chorus' ideal vision and the rest of the play's "historical" sense, see Edward I. Berry, "'True Things and Mock'Ries': Epic and History in Henry V," Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 78 (1979), 1-16. Also see Anthony S. Brennan, "That Within Which Passes Show: The Function of the Chorus in Henry V," Philological Quarterly, 58 (1979), 40-52. In "A Muse of Fire: Henry V in the Light of Tamburlaine," Modern Language Quarterly, 29 (1968), 15-28, Robert Egan treats "the dichotomy between conqueror and Christian" (p. 26) in King Henry's character. William Babula, "Whatever Happened to Prince Hal? An Essay on Henry V," ShS, 30 (1977), 47-59, sees a Henry who improves and matures over the course of the play.

13 Gary Taylor interestingly analyzes this scene in light of the variants between Quarto and Folio. See Stanley Wells, Modernizing Shakespeare's Spelling with Gary Taylor, Three Studies in the Text of "Henry V" (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), pp. 87-91. Taylor argues that Q is a memorial reconstruction of an abridged version of the play adapted for performance by a company of eleven actors. Thus the Chorus is absent from Q because he would require a twelfth actor.

14 Cf. van Doren's wonderfully fastidious description of him as "a mere good fellow, a hearty undergraduate with enormous initials on his chest" (Shakespeare, p. 176).

15 Battenhouse, "Henry V and Tamburlaine," p. 77. A full account of the play would have to consider the comic or subplot characters and their relation to King, Chorus, and audience. Do they function "as a foil to contrast with, and so render still more admirable, the exploits of the 'Mirror of all Christian kings'" (Richard Levin, The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama [Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971], p. 116)? Or are they "parodic commentary" showing that the king is a worse thief than Bardolph, and that Fluellen, in his "gullible loyalty," is one of "the willingly exploited" supporters "of a usurped title and of a diversionary war" (Smith, "Critical Forest," pp. 12, 24)? Obviously we can choose the latter point of view only by refuting the Chorus, or by ironizing his own choric "subplot" to a really dazzling degree.

16 Another possibility is entertained by G. P. Jones,"Henry V: The Chorus and the Audience," Shakespeare Survey, 31 (1978), 93-104. Jones conjectures that the Chorus' "cockpit" was literally the Royal Cockpit and that the choric apologies pertain to a court performance, for which the Chorus was specially written. Jones's argument involves (as mine does) the question of the Chorus' tone; he assumes that it could only have been aimed at a "sophisticated and cultured audience," which "might have been more tolerant [than a popular audience] of appeals to understand and help compensate for the technical difficulties encountered by the dramatist" (p. 97). But there is no reason to think that a courtly audience would have been more tolerant than Shakespeare's usual audience, and his own portrayals of well-heeled audiences suggest that Shakespeare had no illusions on that score: see Alvin B. Kernan, "Courtly Servants and Public Players: Shakespeare's Image of Theater in the Court at Elsinore and Whitehall," in Poetic Traditions of the English Renaissance, ed. Maynard Mack and George deForest Lord (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1982), 103-22; also see Kernan's "Shakespeare's Stage Audience: The Playwright's Reflection and Control of Audience Response," in Shakespeare's Craft: Eight Lectures, ed. Philip H. Highfill, Jr. (Carbondale: So. Illinois Univ. Press, 1982), 138-56. Kristian Smidt, Unconformities in Shakespeare's History Plays (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1982), writes that "there is good reason to believe that the 'Wooden o' referred to in the prologue is the new Globe theatre and not the Curtain" (p. 121)—assuming that the prologue is a late addition to a play written earlier and now revised. Anne Barton, "The King Disguised," asserts in passing that the play was given "in the new Globe theatre" (p. 93), but ours remains a minority opinion. (Both the New Cambridge and the New Arden editions assume first performance at the Curtain. Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe, 1599-1609 [New York: Macmillan, 1962], pp. xi-xiv, also considers Henry V a pre-Globe play.) For a careful, recent overview of many of the play's problems, see H. R. Coursen, The Leasing Out of England (Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1982).

Anthony Hammond (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: "'It Must Be Your Imagination Then': The Prologue and the Plural Text in Henry V and Elsewhere," in 'Fanned and Winnowed Opinions': Shakespearean Essays Presented to Harold Jenkins, edited by John W. Mahon and Thomas A. Pendleton, Methuen, 1987, pp. 133-50.

[In the essay below, Hammond contends that the Chorus's description of the play and its protagonist is intended to contradict what we see in other parts of the drama. Duality is essential to Henry V, the critic asserts, and its disparate perspectives force us to consider both the complexities of heroism and the question of theatrical verisimilitude.]

Among Shakespeare's plays only Henry V and Pericles employ the highly elaborated formal structure of prologue, choruses before each Act, and epilogue. Other plays employ some of these dramatic devices, but not even Pericles uses them as centrally and as structurally as does Henry V;1 nor do the other plays which violate the unities as flagrantly as it. This fact has influenced interpretation of the play, often unconsciously. Everyone knows that Henry V is a play about war, and that Henry himself is a great warrior-hero.

How do we know? Because the Chorus (that is, the character who speaks these metatextual speeches) tells us so. Honest critics, examining the play closely, have been somewhat puzzled by this, because, in fact, there are no battles, really, in the play, and because although Henry plays numerous roles in the course of the action (he is politician, outraged feudal lord, orator, anxious general, bumbling lover, and so on), warrior is not one of them. This is all very perplexing. If it is not a patriotic play about a warrior-king, why does the Chorus say it is?

The absence of choruses from Ql of Henry V has led some writers2 to speculate that they were not by Shakespeare, but were the creations of that celebrated author, Another Hand. This supposition is self-evidently absurd, and no one who could seriously believe that 'O, for a Muse of fire' could have been written by anyone other than Shakespeare need be listened to on any issue whatever. Nonetheless, the assumption that if the choruses were not authorial they could safely be disregarded saved the begetter of this notion from the intellectual difficulty posed by them, and by their relationship to the body of the play. In the same way, those who read the play as a paean of patriotic enthusiasm are apt to say that it must have been written in a hurry, to account for its episodic structure and the apparent plethora of contradictory concepts it incorporates. These intellectual difficulties are the subject of the present paper: they deserve to be encountered firmly, and I hope in the process to shed some light on some of the interpretative problems in the play which continue to elude satisfactory definition. Certainly, I hope to present a solution of these difficulties more constructive than that of Ql, whose compilers, evidently judging that the provincial audience for whom (as Gary Taylor has shown3 ) that text was prepared was less sophisticated than that of the Globe, omitted not only the choruses, but most of the rest of the controversial matter in the play, thus making it 'exactly the sort of simple patriotic play critics have often taken Henry V to be'.4

If taken whole, Henry V is not an easy text, and most certainly not a simple patriotic play. Only by cutting and/or special pleading can it be made, as Laurence Olivier made it, patriotic propaganda about one of England's greatest warrior-kings, a triumphant celebration of the fact that England occasionally won wars handsomely rather than just muddling through them. Even some quite recent writers have maintained this view. John Dover Wilson's Cambridge edition, which appeared in 1947, dedicated to Field-Marshal Wavell, really belongs like the film to the Second World War. But J.H. Walter, in the introduction to his 1954 Arden edition, was at pains to demonstrate how Henry fulfilled Renaissance writers' conceptions of the ideal hero-king. It never seemed to occur to him that Shakespeare could have included all this ideology in his play, only to leave us with a hero whose morality is persistently and pervasively equivocal: or, to put it another way, that Shakespeare just might have been able to see further than most, and in his play to reveal universal opinion to be mistaken or limited. Since Walter's edition appeared there has been Suez, the CND, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam horror, the permanent catastrophe of the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Afghanistan and Cambodia, not to mention such lesser items of tragical-comical-historical-pastoral as the Falklands and Grenada: dear God knows how many other illustrations for our time that the military way is the worst possible way for the greatest number of people. One of the consequences of this newly-appalled perception of the horror and inefficiency of war is that Henry V's condition has changed from that of honest history play to problem play. It is not, of course, the first time that this has happened; I believe that the first writer to express distrust of the military motive in the play was actually Hazlitt. 'And Hazlitt's convictions have become, for the most part, our own.'5

The essential clues to the contradictions built into the play are to be found in the choruses, and I would like to rehearse the issues in a little detail. The Chorus, in his prologue, adopts two tones of voice. First there is the heroic, which sustains some of Shakespeare's most thrilling rhetoric until line 8. In the middle of this line, the Chorus suddenly switches to an exculpatory mode:

But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that hath dar'd
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object. . . .

He continues in this vein for the rest of the prologue, apologizing for the fewness of the actors' numbers,6 and for the absence of what in our time have come to be called 'special effects': especially the lack of horses. For the remedy of these deficiencies, the Chorus urges the audience again and again to use its imagination: 'Let us . . . On your imaginary forces work'; 'Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts'; 'For 'Tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.' The Chorus to Act III is even more insistent: 'Imagin'd', 'Thought', 'Suppose', 'Play with your fancies . . . behold . . . Hear . . . behold', 'do but think', 'Grapple your minds', 'Work, work your thoughts, and therein see', 'Suppose', 'eke out our performance with your mind'. Well, goodness, we get the point. The audience is required to work for its living in Henry V along with the author and the actors.

One can scarcely refrain from recalling Theseus's defence of the mechanicals' play in A Midsummer Night's Dream: 'The best in this kind are but shadows, and the worst are no worse, if imagination amend them' (V.i.208-9). Theseus has been blamed for his seeming

inability to distinguish between a play by Shakespeare and one by Peter Quince—but the plain fact is that people are moved, often to tears, by the most awful tripe: I cite, with due deference, the people that cry their eyes out at Madama Butterfly (or the children who bawl at Bambi), or the folks whose lives revolve around the polystyrene characters of soap operas. As Hippolyta acidly responds, 'It must be your imagination then, and not theirs', and she is undoubtedly right. To be greatly moved by art that is so inferior as scarcely to deserve the name at all requires a great imaginative faculty on the part of the spectator, reader, listener, or viewer. Theseus and his court decline, in fact, to exercise this faculty during the playing of Pyramus and Thisbe—'This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard'—and so does the audience at the pageant of the Nine Worthies in Love's Labour's Lost. The royal audience of 'The Mousetrap', however, finds his imagination suddenly working overtime, and experiences what used to be called character-identification.

All these plays-within-plays are silly stuff, but Henry V is clearly not: it may be perplexing, but it is certainly not stupid. Why, then, does the Chorus insist with such iteration on the importance of the audience's imagination and the inadequacies of the company? Obviously not because he seriously means nothing more than that the author and the company are unqualified for their subject.7 On the whole recent critics have recognized the irony in the Chorus's apologies—Robert Ornstein remarks on 'The artfulness that wears so naive a guise' in them,8 and Taylor recognizes that they are not 'Reflections of a real sense of artistic dissatisfaction: rather the reverse' (1982 edn, 56). Indeed: there is something of a covert Jonsonian appeal to the understanding heads in the auditory in this process of apologizing for things that need no apology.

The Act II chorus follows the pattern of the prologue:

Now all the youth of England are
on fire, And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies: . . .

Linger your patience on; and we'll digest
Th' abuse of distance . . .

There is the playhouse now, there must you sit

The Chorus gets himself into a terrible tangle worrying about the unity of the place: 'The scene / Is now transported, gentles, to Southampton', he announces confidently, and goes on to promise safe passage across the Channel to France, only to recollect himself in the last two lines, when he remembers he has not got to Southampton yet. The lines are curious:

But, till the king come forth and not till then,
Unto Southampton do we shift our scene.

Walter complains that these lines 'Hardly agree' with lines 35-6 (which asserted roundly that the playhouse is now in Southampton), and discusses the apparent inconsistency in his Introduction,9 seizing upon a com-plex theory of revision to account for them. He seems unaware that the Chorus is saying something that on the literal level anyway is absurd and obviously untrue: the Globe is still firmly on the Bankside. Taylor in his edition provides a much more sophisticated explanation than Walter's, dismissing the idea that the concluding couplet is an afterthought, and remarking helpfully, 'Tonally, the last 12 lines of the speech lead very naturally into the comedy of 2.1.' He develops this insight further:

That the Chorus does nothing to prepare us for the scene which immediately follows is hardly surprising: the prologue does nothing to prepare us for 1.1. either. In both cases, Shakespeare arouses an expectation and then (temporarily) frustrates it, using the expectation not only as a contrast to the foreground scene, but as a means of sustaining our interest, assuring us of the main line of development, during an intermediate and subordinate action.

(Appendix B.I, 291)

This explanation actually describes Shakespeare's practice better in other plays than in Henry V: it suits very well the chorus and first scene of Romeo and Juliet, for instance. Here, the Chorus announces in a portentous sonnet the 'Misadventur'd piteous overthrows' the 'star-cross'd lovers' will encounter; the speech's solemnity is thrown into extreme contrast by the coarse comedy of sex and violence of the opening dialogue. Shakespeare seems to have enjoyed beginning his plays with a peripeteia, and this is an easy way of achieving one. It does indeed establish a tonality for the entire play which survives the less-than-heroic first few scenes, and its language is instantly recognizable when Romeo and Juliet meet in a sonnet at the Capulets' ball. Of course, there are many ways of confounding audience expectation in the opening scenes: but the prologue is clearly one of them. Among its functions is to serve as a signal for peripeteia in the opening scene. The effect is not unlike that of, say, Mozart's Thirty-Ninth Symphony, whose grave introduction with its dissonant harmonies contrasts powerfully (yet satisfyingly) with the main subject of the allegro.

This description alone, however, will not do for the Chorus in Henry V, nor, for that matter, for the prologue to Troilus and Cressida. In this, the Prologue's stately language ('princes orgulous', 'strong immures', 'Warlike fraughtage', 'Massy staples /And co-responsive and fulfilling bolts') suddenly modulates, as the 'prologue arm'd, but not in confidence /Of author's pen or actor's voice' advises his audience that the play begins in medias res, 'starting thence away /To what may be digested in a play'. This mild concession to the limitations of the drama is not as apologetic as the Chorus's lines in Henry V, but is, as it were, cousin-german to them.

The chief objection to Taylor's explanation of the Henry V choruses is that the expectation aroused by them is not temporarily frustrated: it is never satisfied by action on the stage. Ornstein's comment that the Chorus's 'Apology is as sly as it is gratuitous because Shakespeare makes no attempt in the play to represent an epic confrontation of armies',10 makes the point clear. The audience must at some point become aware that as a prophet the Chorus is a great deal less than reliable, inspiring though he may be (a common enough condition amongst prophets, come to think of it). Taylor's argument will simply not suffice for a Chorus who contrives to get, really, everything wrong.

The prologue promises military wonders: Act I comprises two of the prosiest scenes in Shakespeare, as the churchmen wonder whether the new king will tax their revenues, and subsequently defend Henry's proposed invasion of France at mind-numbing length. (I have yet to see a performance of the play in which the Archbishop's 'So that, clear as is the summer's sun . . . ' did not get a laugh.) This leisurely politicking lasts some 318 lines (nearly a tenth of the play) before the French ambassador is called in (I.ii.222), and Henry given a handy opportunity to make the quarrel formal, and the fault of the French. All very necessary stuff, no doubt, but not the inspirational things the prologue talked of. In the same way, the chorus to Act II promises us that 'All the youth of England are on fire': that the war is universally popular; and that 'Honour's thought /Reigns solely in the breast of every man'. But instead of seeing the youth of England on fire, we meet those tired old rogues, Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol, grumbling collectively; instead of finding honour in every breast, we are confronted with the treacherous conspiracy against Henry headed by the Earl of Cambridge.

This contrast is emphasized rather than contradicted by the chorus and first scene of Act III: the Chorus again lays stress on the bravery and gallantry of the expeditionary force, asking rhetorically

For who is he, whose chin is but enrich'd
With one appearing hair, that will not follow
These cull'd and choice-drawn cavaliers to France?

The chorus is followed by Henry's famous aria before the walls of Harfleur; but the dramatic point is that it is an aria, not an ensemble: while one presumes the stage to be as full of supers as the company's roster allows, the citizens are mum, say not a word. What actually does happen is that our friends Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol come on again, and Nym, for one, is not sufficiently impressed by the oratory actually to do anything until Fluellen appears and beats him off to action (and all the action must be presumed to be taking place off-stage). There promptly follows what must be the great-grandfather of all the jokes that begin 'A Scotsman, an Irishman and a Welshman . . . ', the trio of Jamy, Macmorris, and Fluellen. There is no military action whatever.

Henry's oratory proves insufficient to rouse his troops to take the town; he needs another aria, this time directed at the citizens of Harfleur. In this, Henry's language modulates surprisingly from his former heroic-mindedness to threats that would not have sounded misplaced on Tamburlaine's lips;11 in particular, as Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield remark,12 his association of himself in imagery with the tyrant Herod is surely astonishing (explain it away as Walter tries) in a king from whom th' offending Adam had, so the Church declared, been whipped. Threats against women, children, and the aged are simply not attractive. Nor is it possible to evade the fact that Henry says he cannot control his army (III.iii.22-9), whose soldiers are characterized as 'Rough and hard of heart', 'enrag'd', 'blind and bloody'—a far cry from the gentlemen-adventurers described by the Chorus. The scene has a desperate quality about it: the war has ground to a halt before Harfleur, and Henry must take the city if his campaign is to continue. The war he threatens is not pretty war; it is not heroic war, or idealized war such as the Chorus urges upon us: it rather foreshadows the total war of the twentieth century. Yet hard on Harfleur's surrender comes perhaps the most abrupt peripeteia Shakespeare ever wrote, as we find ourselves transported, gentles, to Princess's boudoir, for a scene of light comedy spiced with naughty double-entendres. The tonal lurch is almost impossible to exaggerate: it would be no more extreme to break into the middle of the last Act of Tristan und Isolde with a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song (an apt enough comparison, as even the play's language changes from English to French). Some productions choose to locate the interval between the two scenes, but such a division goes flatly against what seems to me a clearly purposeful juxtaposition of the two.

The chorus to Act IV follows the scene in which the French nobles await the Battle of Agincourt with careless impatience, and the Chorus prepares the audience's mind for the great event to come with some fine military metaphor suggesting the collective activity and anxiety that must pervade armies on the eve of battle. Shakespeare had done a good awaiting-for-battle scene before, in the fifth Act of Richard III, and it is instructive to compare the two, the most extended military sequences in the canon. That in Richard III occupies V.iii-V.v inclusive, or about 406 lines of dialogue; in Henry V, if we include the scene of the French anticipation and the chorus, Agincourt occupies III.vii-IV.viii, or no less than 1,175 lines, a third of the play and nearly three times as long as Bosworth (whose shadow, however, is cast over much of Act IV). Those of us who have seen (as who has not?) Olivier's famous film of the play will not be surprised by this figure, for he made of Agincourt one of the most memorable battle-scenes that the screen has ever achieved. But not very many of those 1,175 lines actually were spoken in the film. If we count again, and even if we exclude the scene of the French at the end of Act III, we find the extraordinary fact that 355 lines of the total are comedy, involving either Pistol and Le Fer or Fluellen and Williams. A third of the battle-scene is a joke, then, which makes us wonder again about the last lines of the chorus to Act IV: 'Yet sit and see; /Minding true things by what their mock'Ries be'. Neither Walter nor Taylor glosses 'Mock'Ries', and indeed the principal meaning, of imitation in the dramatic sense,13 is clear. But the other meaning, 'A subject or occasion of ridicule, a person, thing or action that deserves or occasions ridicule' (OED sb l.b), was well-established. The same Chorus that makes puns about wooden Os and guilt/gilt is certainly not to be automatically exempt from suspicion of a pun here.

III. vii is itself at least partly comic, as the French nobles play languid word-games with each other. The ensuing chorus to Act IV first speaks of the armies' mutual preparation, then describes the alarming weakness and fatigue of the English troops. But Henry is reported to have the situation well in hand:

For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good-morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him. . . .

And the Chorus tells us that he cheers up everyone with the famous 'Little touch of Harry in the night'. But once again the Chorus is mistaken: what Henry actually does is to borrow a disguise and go about the army in careful incognito. This entire episode is invented by Shakespeare: it does not occur in Hall or Holinshed.14 But he was not without a model for it: I at least am reminded that, before Bosworth, Richard orders Ratcliffe,

come, go with me:
Under our tents I'Ll play the eavesdropper,.
To see if any mean do shrink from me.


Shakespeare does not have Henry play the eavesdropper, exactly; but he makes him retain his incognito even when, on any reasonable grounds, we might have expected him to drop it to encourage his sensible and yet anxious troops. His own anxiety of mind is stressed by his soliloquy (IV.i.236f.)—his only serious soliloquy in the play.

We may therefore presume Shakespeare invented the scene as he wanted it, and that the apparent contradiction between the Chorus's account and what happens on stage subsequently is deliberate and purposeful. Even Taylor, who, as noted above, is more alert to the ambivalent functions of the Chorus than most editors, fudges this issue. His note on the 'Little touch of Harry' concludes: 'In performance it is hard to exclude the extra-syntactical suggestion that we too will see a little touch of Harry; but this need not imply we will witness a dramatization of the same activity described here' (IV.o.45n.). One may justifiably respond that the case is on a par with the Chorus's general tendency to describe events that are not performed, which is not the usual function of a Chorus. On the contrary, it seems to me that the contradictions are absolutely essential to the function of the Chorus in this play, and this, the most blatant refusal on the dramatist's part to satisfy the expectations his Chorus has aroused,15 is the key to understanding the nature of the entire play.

This understanding is confirmed by the final Act, whose chorus begins with further apologies and appeals to imagination, and contains eulogies similar to the earlier ones. Once again, it is followed by a scene of clownage: Fluellen's revenge upon Pistol; succeeded by a scene of political manoeuvring, followed by a scene of light comedy as Henry and Katharine come to an understanding. The Chorus concludes with an epilogue in sonnet form, which once more strikes the note of apology:

Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursu'd the story;
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.

It is difficult indeed to make a concord of this discord. The Chorus spends half of his time telling the audience of the glorious deeds that are the subject of the play, and the other half criticizing the company for their failure to achieve, in their art, the theatrical equivalent of those brave times. In the epilogue, quite clearly, he criticizes the author, in a vein that goes a good deal beyond the normally self-deprecating tone adopted for epilogues.16 One thing he does not do is criticize the company for not performing what he said they were going to: I marvel that he left it out.

One way of dealing with the problem is to declare roundly that Shakespeare could not have written the choruses. We have dismissed that, but it affects a lot of critical thinking on the subliminal level: Consider, for instance, these remarks by John Wilders: 'The Chorus, who overlooks many of the subtleties in Henry V' and 'The piety of Holinshed's portrait has found its way into the play (in the attitude of the Chorus, for example)'.17 These observations really sound as if Wilders was bemused into thinking that the Chorus was a creatively independent entity from the 'Shakespeare' who composed the rest of the play. Perhaps it was just his way of putting it; but a text which encourages such apparently confused description from such an intelligent critic needs special care.

As I see it, there are two problems in Henry V which need to be treated separately, but which are ultimately part of a single issue. The first problem is that the Chorus seems to be describing a play he has heard about, but which is not the one that actually takes place. The second is the problem of the morality of Henry's behaviour. I have already said something about both problems, and propose now to try to summarize them. Let us take the second first. Many modern critics would like Henry to show some awareness of the ambivalent moral dimensions of the actions he undertakes. Partly, the absence of any such awareness arises from deliberate choice on the dramatist's part: Shakespeare gives Henry no opportunity to react to Falstaff's death. But his general coldness is often remarked upon: for instance, he shows no signs of feeling when Bardolph must be executed. Wilders, among others, rightly rejects Walter's learned defence of Henry on the basis of the rules of warfare: 'Shakespeare makes us think of the virgins and infants of Harfleur, not of the rules of warfare. These vivid details are, incidentally, Shakespeare's; they do not appear in Holinshed.'18 He might have added that the 'Rules of warfare' are made to look pretty silly anyway by Fluellen's absurd devotion to them. All these criticisms, and many more, must be conceded by those who admire Henry.

But those who find him dislikable must also concede that Shakespeare gives him two of the finest battle orations ever written, must concede his humility, his piety, and his refusal of the opportunity for self-promotion that Agincourt provides, and finally must concede that the play stoutly resists any attempt to play it in any sense hostile to Henry: if the production works at all, it will work by making the play more like the one the Chorus describes than most sceptical readers would be prepared to believe or, perhaps, prefer. Taylor confirms this with his observation that those who hold that Shakespeare himself disliked Henry, and tried to convey this to the audience, are faced with 'The fact that productions of the play apparently never succeed in communicating this message' (1982 edn, 1); indeed, most of us who have our reservations about Henry's morality will find these reservations at least temporarily silenced by the effect of a great, self-confident production.

The only intelligible conclusion is that the duality is built into the play: Henry is a great hero, and a cold, conniving bastard. Something similar can be said of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, who is a great, poetic, imaginative spirit, and an absolute idiot as well. There are other examples, none perhaps as extreme as these two, in plays of the period which suggest that a unified character was not necessarily the dramatists' goal, and that contradictory feelings can not only be accommodated, but are even the purpose of some plays.19 The ambivalences one feels towards other Shakespearian characters such as Shylock, Othello, Macbeth or, at a different level, Bertram or Claudio, are not the same thing: these are characters who reveal complex aspects of the single personality, some likable and admirable, some decidedly otherwise. But for Henry V we are holding two contradictory things in our minds: the Henry in the theatre who is a hero; the Henry whom we think about subsequently, or whom we read in the script, and whom we find objectionable. They cannot, as experience has shown, coexist on the stage, but they are both encoded into the text, and can be decoded on different occasions: their contradictions will jostle uncomfortably in our minds. That uncomfortable jostle is, perhaps, the true central experience of this particular play. The inconsistencies force us to think, not perhaps always comfortably, or comfortingly, about what it is that being a hero actually means. Ideology is challenged. And the Chorus forces us into awareness of the dichotomy by talking about only one of the Henries.

I find it useful here to draw upon Stanley Fish's concept of the disruptive text, that fails to fulfil the expectations it generates, thus challenging the reader to confront problems, difficulties, and questions which cannot readily be resolved into an easy and reassuring harmony. Fish calls this a 'dialectical' rather than a 'Rhetorical' text, and comments further:

A dialectical presentation . . . is disturbing, for it requires of its readers a searching and rigorous scrutiny of everything they believe and live by. It is didactic in a special sense; it does not preach the truth, but asks that its readers discover the truth for themselves, and this discovery is often made at the expense not only of a reader's opinions and values, but of his self-esteem.20

The 'Rhetorical' text, by contrast, satisfies its readers or, to put it another way, endorses ideology. Another recent critical term can be helpful in understanding Henry V: Northrop Frye's elegant phrase, 'Myth of concern'—the enunciation in imaginative writing of something that is held by the public to be believable.21 In the 1590s there was a substantial ideology extant concerning Henry V, the last successful warrior-king in English annals. He was thought to have been one of the lads in his youth, but to have succeeded to the throne in gravity and then upon the field of battle to have become the 'star of England' the Chorus speaks of. This ideology became revitalized when the ageing Queen and the young Earl of Essex started playing out their dominance games.

Few would deny that the compliment to Essex that is woven into the chorus to Act V is an expression of this ideology, and that the play as a whole is a myth of concern, in which the ideology surrounding Henry is in part transferred to the current young hero, in a mixture of hope, optimism, and unspoken but apparent anxiety. That Henry did not need to invade France, and that Elizabeth could perfectly well have left the Irish alone, are irrelevant either to the ideology or the myth of concern: indeed the two come close together in this, as in most discussions of military activities.

The Chorus proposes a 'Rhetorical' play, in Fish's terms: a myth of concern which will give expression to ideology: a drama which will reiterate Henry's greatness, and urge the military motive and its ideology as an ideal. What we are given, however, is a 'dialectical' play, which incorporates the Chorus's ideology and intentions, to be sure, but much more besides; it indeed is disturbing (as any challenge to ideology must be), and requires its spectators/readers to discover the truth for themselves, at the expense of their opinions and values, and possibly their self-esteem too. So Henry V, by insisting upon being taken plurally, by resisting any attempt to incorporate these contradictions which are so vital to its structure into a single reading, interprets and challenges ideology at once. It is, and is not, patriotic; it is, and is not, an attack on militarism.

Although it is seldom possible to transfer neatly critical concepts evolved for one literary form to another, a distinction drawn by Tzvetan Todorov may be useful to elucidate further the role of the Chorus in this process: 'The individual who says I in a novel is not the I of the discourse. . . . He is only a character. . . . But there exists another I . . . the "poetic personality" which we apprehend through the discourse.'22 Critics of the drama will not be amazed at this revelation, since for them the problem of dissociating the 'Implied author' (Wayne Booth's phrase) from the first-person statements of the dramatic characters has always been-evident. Yet even such alert critics as John Wilders and Robert Ornstein have been misled by the implied special status of the Chorus into treating his pronouncements as if they were those of Todorov's 'poetic personality'.23 In fact, they are the statements of a character in a play, a play which is a larger and more complex discourse than the play that the Chorus himself describes, or than Henry V without the Chorus would be. A three-dimensional sphere can look like a two-dimensional circle, but only if you restrict yourself to looking at it in two dimensions (as in a photograph). The range of discourses that exist in Henry V without the Chorus is indeed two-dimensional and, I suspect, inexplicable without further alteration of the text. With the Chorus, the 'poetic personality' in its plurality starts to make three-dimensional sense, a sense which is dependent on the seemingly contradictory meanings imposed upon it, as it were perpendicularly to all its other dimensions, by the Chorus. Thereby, the play transcends both ideology and the myth of concern, by making their contradictions apparent, and thus producing new meanings.

We have still to relate the Chorus's persistent concern with the limitations and deficiencies of theatrical representation to the play itself. To do so I would like to return briefly to A Midsummer Night's Dream, the wonderful scene in which Peter Quince's company invent, independently of Brecht, the Verfremdung-seffekt. Precisely for the purpose of alienation, Bottom proposes that Quince

Write me a prologue, and let the prologue seem to say we will do no harm with our swords, and that Pyramus is not killed indeed; and for the more better assurance, tell them that I, Pyramus, am not Pyramus, but Bottom the weaver.

(III.i. 15-20)

Epic theatre can seldom have been so concisely achieved. The terror of the lion is likewise deconstructed, and then the technical realistic difficulties of staging such perplexing features as the moonlight and a wall are pondered. In both cases the solution is the same: realistic, non-theatrical means are rejected: the idea of allowing the literal moonlight to shine into the chamber is canvassed, only to be dismissed in favour of a theatrical way of achieving the effect. Such effects as can be emblematized by the actors themselves are preferred.

The difficulties with the moon and the wall are very much those faced by the company in staging so great an object as Henry V's French wars. Even today, producers seem to puzzle themselves more about how to bring in the walls of Harfleur (as the fatally over-elaborate RSC production of 1984 demonstrated) than how to make the actors interpret their lines intelligently and intelligibly. In fact, it is very curious how companies flatly disregard the Chorus's apologies: as Taylor says, 'nineteenth-century theatres found the Chorus an embarrassment because they actually did their damnedest to cram within their wooden Os the exact number of casques that did affright the air at Agincourt' (1982 edn, 57). What the stage struggles to do, film achieves with ease,24 and Olivier's Henry V was very much a play about the Battle of Agincourt, with enough horses for a thousand Westerns. Splendid and stirring though this was, and odd as it may seem to say so, it suggests that Sir Laurence had a lesser grasp of the essential nature of the theatre than did Bottom and Peter Quince.

Be that as it may, Bottom and Quince and the Chorus of Henry V are approaching the problem of theatrical verisimilitude with the same criteria in mind. Quince and Co. are afraid first that the effect of their play will be so lifelike that the audience will no longer be able to distinguish fiction from reality, and will fall into panic; and secondly that their resources do not admit of their staging their play adequately. On the first point, they are happily self-deluded, but this does not mean that they are mistaken in their belief that people do confound art and life, and the means Quince and his actors adopt to ensure that this does not happen are a delightful anticipation of Brecht's solution. More relevantly, their second concern leads them with equal sureness to purely theatrical solutions; in their innocence, they do not see the absurdity of their proposed devices. The Chorus to Henry V, however, is well aware of the limitations that restrict any theatrical action; far from fearing that the company's account of Henry's campaigns will generate panic in the audience, he is concerned that they will fail (in Coleridge's justly celebrated phrase) willingly to suspend their disbelief, and urges upon the audience the need for them to employ their own imaginations to help the enterprise out. But the Chorus's attitudes are not ipso facto the author's, the company's, or ours: in fact merely by introducing the question of the suspension of disbelief the Chorus ensures that an audience will be aware of the artifice of the theatre. He, too, of course, is a Verfremdungseffekt.

It does not always work: grumpy old Ben Jonson remained firmly unconvinced that an emblematic staging was worthwhile; and there are always those who rebel at anything other than realistic (that is, illusionistic) staging: Johnson wouldn'T have liked Peter Brook's Midsummer Night's Dream either. The point is that both Quince and the Chorus are alert to the limitations of the theatre, and each, in their several ways, proposes to seek solutions within the theatrical frame, solutions which in the end are not so very different. The man who must say he is the man in the moon is not so very distant from the Chorus who asks us to 'Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them /Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth'; the difference is that it does not occur to Quince to think his solution problematic; the Chorus is only too aware that his is, and that all depends upon the willing imaginary powers of the audience. Not the willing suspension of disbelief, but the active employment of imagination.

Shakespeare seems to have been very actively interested in the theory of dramaturgy at this stage of his career: the early plays, with their showy demonstrations that he had mastered the techniques of rhetoric and the styles of earlier dramatists, give way to the more complex creations of the later 1590s, with their constant harping on what it is that drama does, and how it does it. Unlike John Dryden, Shakespeare never put into a non-imaginative, essay form his thoughts about artistic creation. Yet dull would he be of soul that would deny that these plays are centrally about the imagination and how it works. This is unmistakably crucial to the comedies As You Like It, A Mid-summer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night at the least. In such a context, the appeals of the Chorus of Henry V for imagination are more than conventional apologetics, and must be read or heard intertextually for their true force to be perceived.

Some have thought that because the Chorus apologizes for the limitations of the stage Shakespeare was really embarrassed by them. On the contrary, as we have seen, the Chorus's apologies are clearly ironical; what they are saying is not how the theatre has failed, but how it has triumphed:25 and so it has, provided that the production has the nerve to accept the limitations of its nature and realize that what the Chorus 'Apologizes' for are precisely the parameters of its imaginative options. In the same way, the appeals for imagination from the audience are the verso of a leaf whose recto is the glorious imagination of the poet and his company. 'Such tricks hath strong imagination': what Shakespeare has given his audience in Henry V is a play where imagination functions and demands at all sorts of levels. First we are asked to watch a history play, which accepts in ways that the younger Shakespeare would have found difficult that politics is a complex and often immoral business, whose choices play a bitter counterpoint to the brazen glory of military music. Henry V is an extended theatrical experience, which is not switched on at the rise of the curtain (as it were), and switched off at its fall, but something that continues to provoke and challenge its audience to grapple indefinitely with its plurality. The same, no doubt, can be said of all serious drama, but Henry V is somewhat different: its mimetic action attempts to end in closure, but the Chorus's epilogue denies the finality of that closure, and challenges the myth of concern by stressing the transitory nature of Henry's achievement. The only way this extended action will work is if we, the audience, indeed stretch our imaginations, not in the ways that the Chorus ironically fusses over, but to meet the challenges of the complexity of the moral action. It is, finally, not simply your imagination, or theirs, but both, which are the essence of the expression of this text.


1 In any event, the question of the authorship of Gower's choruses in Pericles remains open. Throughout this paper I distinguish the Chorus, the character who speaks, from the chorus, the text spoken by that character.

2 For instance W.D. Smith, 'The Henry V choruses in the First Folio', Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 53 (1954), 38-57.

3Modernizing Shakespeare's Spelling (by Stanley Wells) with Three Studies in the Text of Henry V (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), pp. 72-123.

4 ibid.,p.103n.

5 Gary Taylor,ed., Henry V (Oxford: Clarendon, 1982), p. 3.

6 Not as few as played the Quarto version, which, as Taylor has shown, was intended for a total cast of no more than nine or ten adults and two boy actors: thrift, thrift, good Horatio.

7 I say 'Obviously', yet heads as wise as those of Bullough and Whitaker have missed the point: see Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 3 (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), p. 349, and Shakespeare's Use of Learning (San Marino: Huntington, 1964), p. 131.

8A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 176.

9 J. H. Walter, ed., King Henry V (London: Methuen, 1954), pp. xxxvi-xxxvii.

10 Ornstein, p. 176.

11 As John Dover Wilson noted, King Henry V (Cam-bridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947), p. xxvi.

12 'History and ideology: the instance of Henry V', in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), p. 226.

13OED sb 2: 'Mimicry, imitation' (not then pejora-tive), citing this line.

14 Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (London: Methuen, 1977), says the episode may have been suggested either by The First English Life of Henry the Fifth or by Tacitus's account of Germanicus (111).

15 See Anthony Brennan, 'That within which passes show: the function of the Chorus in Henry V', Philological Quarterly, 58 (Winter 1979), 40-52: 'The Chorus' version of Henry's tour among his soldiers is deliberate misdirection, a lack of preparation for the scene as Shakespeare writes it' (48).

16 There is, of course, no evidence whatever for Dover Wilson's romantic notion that Shakespeare himself played the Chorus.

17The Lost Garden: A View of Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays (London: Macmillan, 1978), pp. 52, 58.

18 ibid.,p. 58.

19 It is not within my brief to go into this in detail in this paper. But the characters of Webster's The White Devil, especially Vittoria, Flamineo, Brachiano, Monticelo, and to a lesser extent Francisco, seem to have been evolved with some such dramatic purpose.

20Self-Consuming Artifacts: The Experience of Seventeenth-Century Literature (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), pp. 1-2.

21The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983), pp. 8-9.

22 'Language and literature', in The Structuralist Controversy, ed. R. Macksey and E. Donato (Baltimore, Md: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), p. 132.

23 Ornstein says, 'In his Epilogue, Shakespeare medi-tates' (p. 202). Dover Wilson explicitly equates the two (xiii).

24 Brennan remarks, aptly enough, 'The only invention that would satisfy [the] literalist Chorus is the movie-camera' (41).

25 Brennan again remarks justly: 'When Shakespeare points our attention to the theatrical he does not weaken its hold over us, he strengthens it' (41).

Günter Walch (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Henry V as Working-House of Ideology," in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearian Study and Production, Vol. 40, 1988, pp. 63-8.

[In the following essay, Walch argues that the Chorus helps us distinguish the political ideology represented in the play from the protagonist and the play itself Far from being an objective reporter of events, the critic contends, the Chorus is a propagandist who underscores the discrepancy between mythology and history, and highlights the use of ideology as a mechanism of power.]

Among the features specific to the text of Henry V its apparent property of giving rise to particularly acrimonious division of opinion has often been noted. To say that there are two camps sharply opposing each other is indeed almost a commonplace of critical literature, the one camp fervently applauding what they see as a panegyric upon, indeed a rousing celebration of, 'The mirror of all Christian Kings"1 and most successful English monarch of all the histories; and the followers of the other camp deriding with no less conviction the exaltation of a machiavellian conqueror in a rapacious and, after all, senseless war. Little wonder, then, that in 1939 Mark Van Doren should have thought even Shakespeare's genius baffled vis-à-vis such hopeless material;2 that E. M. W. Tillyard should have consid-ered Henry V, remarkably enough at the time of the Second World War, a dramatic failure on account of its puerile patriotism and lack of form;3 or that Moody E. Prior should consider the play 'A theatrically handsome fulfillment of an obligation, performed with skill but without deep conviction'.4 Puzzled by such an unprecedented attack of Tudor apologetics suffered by an author almost simultaneously engaged in composing Julius Caesar (1599) and Hamlet (1599-1601), scholars have since suggested readings of the text assuming either that 'The play is full of ironies, most of which challenge the legend, well-established at the time the play was written, of Henry the "mirror of all Christian Kings" '5 or of disparate presentations co-existing in unbridgeable contradiction: Henry as ideal ruler and brutal conqueror for instance;6 or as a politically strong monarch and weak human being;7 or Harry as model ruler saddled with a nation sadly deficient in moral virtue,8 to give just a few examples.

I am not quarrelling with interpretations of this kind which add inscriptions which can enhance our understanding of the text. But one of the things that seem to have happened in the process of an intensifying search for implicit ironies is that the dramatic character of the protagonist has dwindled in stature. He has been reduced even from Hazlitt's 'Amiable monster' to a rather commonplace person, at times intensely unpleasant, occasionally a neurotic, compulsively circumnavigating the pressures of having to make decisions,9 and so forth.

I'd better say at this point that this is not my view of the protagonist, not the image suggested to me by the text, and even less by its representations on the stage. For on the stage the young king appears to have a knack of capturing audiences by his youthful and intelligent vitality even against their will, as it were, in spite of all reservations, triumphing sometimes over directors whose sympathy he does not seem to enjoy. In fact, Harry on the stage seems to wrest sympathies from audiences understandably reluctant to embrace the ideological tenets, the Tudor orthodoxies, and above all the warmongering with which he must be associated. From that derives the point I wish to make. As Robert Egan has shown, negative as well as positive reactions to the text have, encouraged by the Chorus, usually been produced by identifying both the central character and the play as a whole with the ideological material represented in it.10 But that is just what the text carefully sets out to avoid. That is why the general poststructuralist objection to all representation as establishing or reinforcing authority can be seen not to apply: Shakespeare does not reinforce authority by representing or re-writing or inscribing in the text an interpretation of an historical personage agreed upon in advance. As I shall argue, the dramatist does far more in the text than write a pageant, at best ambiguous—but ambiguity will not solve our problem—, about the audience's favourite ruler. He creates, through his text, the score for a theatricalization of that material, and in the process turns the text—if I may vary one of the Chorus's invigorating appeals to our imagination—into a 'quick forge and working-house' (5, Chorus, 1. 23) of ideology.

The history of Henry V in the theatre and the other more recent mass media shows distinctly, more clearly perhaps than is the case with most Shakespearian plays, that the play's reputation has depended heavily on its political and ideological contexts. Since the Second World War theatres in many countries seem to have been somewhat wary of a text that in times of national crisis was put to superbly efficient use as a patriotic morale booster. Sir Laurence Olivier's war-time film, naturally always referred to in this connection, demonstrates this kind of significant use of the text, always keeping in mind some 1700 lines cut and others added by the filmmakers.

I am not quarrelling over violations of some presumed sanctity of the play's text, let alone of a text with a single fixed meaning. I share the interest in the text as an interest in the history of social uses of—in this case—dramatic material, uses without exception historically and socially specific. And I also believe that texts cannot be reduced to successive inscriptions during the course of history, but that accounts of the moment of the original production of a text, although rightly no longer privileged, are far from irrelevant.11Henry V is so pertinent to that kind of historical ap-proach because it is not only, like all art, ideological in the sense of generally being part of the process of social consciousness. This text is rather special among Shakespeare's works in parading, or even flaunting, the ideology—in the narrower sense of the term—represented in it. This is the major function of 1.2, with the state's top dignitaries engaged in ideological preparation for the war against France. Thus the scene offers a rich choice of official thinking, culminating, first, in Canterbury's famous legalistic dispensation, and, second and even closer to the heart of authority, in the same speaker's no less renowned sermon on the commonwealth of the honey-bees, the lesson of which had been so well rehearsed by Shakespeare's audience in a lifetime of church attendance.

Although it would now be probably harder than it used to be to find romantic believers in Shakespeare's unqualified acceptance of the doctrine of Order and Degree and absolute ideological Obedience, the actual aesthetic significance of the dramatist's inclusion of such weighty contemporary ideological material is still widely underrated. Canterbury's disappearance from the play after that scene may tell us that he has done the job assigned to him within the plot, but certainly not that the rest of the play is unconcerned with ideology. On the contrary, concern with the consequences of, and the historical problems inherent in, the doctrine placed so obtrusively in the text, and all it stands for, is central to the play as a whole.

That this concern was felt to be disturbing or at least irritating may be inferred from 'The apparent modesty of its early success'12 in striking contrast to much later exhilarating celebrations of the hero and hence of the play. A look at what the very first social uses of the text have to tell us can be quite revealing, even allowing for its somewhat hypothetical character. For if we do not confine ourselves to considering only the practical side of the genesis of the First Quarto of 1600 as 'A cut form of the play used by the company for a reduced cast on tour in the provinces',13 but also, as the editor of the new Oxford edition suggests and as I think we should, the ideological quality of those cuts, we can indeed see that nearly all 'difficulty in the way of an unambiguous patriotic interpretation of Henry and his war'14 have been removed: all references to the Church's mixed motives for, and its financial support of, the war; to Henry's personal responsibility for Falstaff's fate; to motives beyond bribery for the conspiracy against Henry; to Henry's 'savage ultimatum' and the devastation wreaked by him on France; MacMorris and some of the choruses.15 In other words, it was not only that the touring company had to make shift with its casting. Profiting from the experience of the play's original performances, we may assume, they also saw to it that technically necessary textual reductions were employed to make the text less recalcitrant to meeting the conventional audience expectations of a dashing hero confirming their own superiority.

That recalcitrance is not restricted to isolated passages but deeply structures the text as a whole. To give at least an indication of this, I shall isolate the character of the Chorus as a means which, although behaving in a deceptively epic way as a character, can be shown, I believe, to have an essential dramatic function within the context of the work. This consists in playing with the audience's conventional expectations in a number of intricate ways. The Chorus titillates those expectations nurtured by the illustrious 'gentles all' (Prologue, 11. 8, 11) in the abjectly decried 'cockpit', but raised also by previous triumphs prepared by Shakespeare's 'Rough and all-unable pen' (Epilogue, 1. 1) for 'This unworthy scaffold' (Prologue, 1. 10) which are then fulfilled grudgingly or not at all. The Chorus as Prologue promises battle scenes the grandeur of which the audience will have to use their 'Imaginary forces' (Prologue, 1. 18) to enjoy properly, while the gentles remember very well previous battles—Bosworth Field, Angiers, Shrewsbury—'Which oft our stage hath shown' (Epilogue, 1. 13) so magnificently. The Chorus conjures up, or deplores the absence of, a super-cinemascopic verisimilitude the humble author and his platform stage never dreamt of supplying, or indeed had any need of.

The Chorus thus theatricalizes the whole problem of representation on the Elizabethan stage, only to use what is in effect a brilliant defence of Shakespeare's non-naturalistic aesthetic to lead the audience into assuming, from their previous experience and expectation, that they know very well what they can expect to see happening on the stage. In a puzzling way, they are both confirmed in this—as far as the manner of representation is concerned—and disappointed, concerning the matter of representation. Thus, for instance, while the 'Muse of fire', the 'casques' and the 'proud hoofs' of Agincourt are invoked by the Prologue, in contrast to previous history plays this one does not show us a single actual battle scene. The only scene set during the battle has the cowardly and greedy clown Pistol taking an equally scared Frenchman prisoner, a parody of heroic combat.

We are gradually made aware, by the way the Chorus operates, that he cannot be relied upon to be always talking of what is actually represented on the stage. On somewhat closer scrutiny, he does not seem to be operating innocently 'As a peculiar feature, connecting and explaining the action as it proceeds' at all, as he was thought to do by Charles Kean16 and a majority, it seems, of scholars since. In fact, the Chorus seems quite far from 'describing and connecting the quick succession of events, the rapid changes of locality; and the elucidating passages which might otherwise appear confused or incongruous . . . '17 We are made to stumble on such incongruity, created rather than elucidated by the Chorus, when the very first dialogue opens, and when after the Prologue's eulogy the very first line deals, not with patriotism, as we've been promised by the Prologue, but with ecclesiastic financial transactions, something nowhere hinted at in the Chorus. Equally, we certainly do not see the French 'Shake in their fear', even though evidently they should, and our expectations of seeing 'This grace of kings' (2, Chorus, 11. 14, 28) foil the heinous attempt on his life by the conspirators, whose sole motive he says is money (although 'crowns'—'crowns imperial, crowns and coronets' are given prominence as 'Promis'd' to Harry's 'English Mercuries' earlier on in the same Chorus; II, Chorus, ll. 7-11), our expectations are at least delayed because we are first introduced to the down-and-out Cheapside gang. About these, however, and the common soldiers so prominent in the play, the Chorus is conspicuously silent. They are mentioned only once, collectively, 'Mean and gentle all', presumably flattered as joint recipients of 'A little touch of Harry in the night' (4, Chorus, 11. 45, 47), obviously for propaganda purposes. Again, contradicting 4, Chorus's announcement of a forth-going Harry 'Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent' visiting and cheering up 'All his host' (ll. 30-33), Harry is actually shown as rather isolated throughout all the acts except the last. At least in the Folio text he does not approach the soldiers. They approach him, and what follows is the long, tortuous discussion, verbal fighting within his own camp taking the place of armed combat in that of the enemy. In the Quarto text, the dialogue has been changed drastically.18 Here, Henry does approach the soldiers and speaks to them first, reversing the Folio situation and thus bringing it into line both with the Chorus and with audience expectations based on it and on Prince Hal's behaviour of yore. Just as 2, Chorus ('Honour's thought / Reigns solely in the breast of every man', 11. 3-4), 3, Chorus, also announces the splendid readiness of the whole nation to achieve heroic deeds of war ('For who is he, whose chin is but enrich'd / With one appearing hair, that will not follow / These cull'd and choice-drawn cavaliers to France?' ll. 22-4). But we are made aware of a majority back home in England safely tucked up in bed.

The function of the Chorus cannot, then, possibly be confined to the epic one of providing information. The information provided by him is, in the first place, for the most part superfluous, for we learn nothing from it about the plot, about Harry and his world that we do not learn much better from the dialogues. Since 2, Chorus eagerly tells us how the traitor scene will end, obviously the structure and meaning of the events are meant to be more important than their mere course (the verdicts had been drawn up before the trial in any case).

This interpretative dimension of the Chorus has been appreciated both on the stage, for example by Mrs Kean's representation of the Chorus as Clio, the muse of history, but operating typically as 'The presiding charm'19 of the play; and in Eamon Grennan's description a few years ago of the Chorus as a commissioned historiographer who shows his royal subject making history.20 But if he is a historiographer, he is characteristically not merely recording events. He is bent on presenting his subject, the king, in the most glaringly idealized colours, and his war invariably in the rosiest of tones. He is much more than a functional epic device, neutral observer and reporter. He is a deeply involved maker of ideology. And while he is intent on convincing us that Harry is achieving the great victory virtually single-handed, and that with God's assistance he is thus making history as a Great Man of History, we are made to understand, through the different components of the complete play's text, that Henry, just as his historiographer and propagandist, is actually busy creating his, Harry's, legend.

The Chorus in Henry V is thus, in my understanding of the play, not a later addition, but indispensable to its functioning. The Chorus is an integral part of Shakespeare's strategy not in spite of his information being unreliable, but because it is unreliable, and because what he does not tell us is more important than what he does tell us. Shakespeare thus creates a unique dramatic structure in his last history play in order to do something completely different from what he had been doing in his previous histories. The genetic context with Julius Caesar and Hamlet, which now appears anything but a non sequitur on the part of Shakespeare, can actually further our understanding of the play's relation to the other histories, in particular to Richard II. By this new structure, by emphasizing not the events but the functioning of ideology, the conspicuously ancient theatrical device is made to ask, through the means of its art, completely new and shocking questions concerning the function of the monarch himself ('O hard condition! / Twin-born with greatness'; 'Thou idol ceremony', 4.1.239-40, 246). By showing the young king not shining in the world of the Chorus' creation but living in the world of history Henry becomes a complex character. Moreover, the play's questions are addressed to problems concerning the nature of history, its motivating forces and the ideological function of its representation. The Chorus can make the Elizabethan audience aware of the political significance of these questions by highlighting the discrepancies between the orthodox historical legend perpetuated by those in power and the ideology connected with it on the one hand, and the actual movement of history on the other, and thus shows the official ideology up for what it has become: an illusion effectively used as an instrument of power.


1 1, Chorus, 1. 6. All references to Henry V (henceforth in the text) follow The Arden Shakespeare, edited by J. H. Walter (1954).

2 Cf. Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York, 1939), p. 179. For a brief summary of divergent criticism of Henry V see my 'Tudor-Legende und Geschichtsbewegung in The Life of King Henry V: Zur Rezeptionslenkung durch den Chorus', Shakespeare-Jahrbuch (East) 122 (1986), pp. 37f, notes 2-17.

3 E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (1944), pp. 304-314.

4 Moody E. Prior, The Drama of Power. Studies in Shakespeare's History Plays (Evanston, 1973), p. 341.

5 John Wilders, The Lost Garden. A View of Shakespeare's English and Roman History Plays (1978), p. 141.

6 Valentina p. Komarova, 'Heinrich V und das Problem des idealen Herrschers', Shakespeare-Jahrbuch (East) 115 (1979), pp. 98-116.

7 W. L. Godshalk, 'Henry V's Politics of Non-Responsibility', Cahiers Elisabéthains, 17 (1980), 11.

8 Prior, p. 272.

9 Cf. Godshalk, passim.

10 Robert Egan, 'A Muse of Fire: Henry V in the Light of Tamburlaine', in Modern Language Quarterly, 29 (1968), p. 15. Egan does not, however, follow up his own conclusions but reduces his analysis to another opposition of the kind mentioned before, that of conqueror and human being; cf. p. 19.

11 Cf. Francis Barker and Peter Hulme, 'Nymphs and reapers heavily vanish: the discursive con-text of The Tempest', in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (1985), p. 193.

12Henry V, ed. Gary Taylor, The Oxford Shakespeare (Oxford, 1982), p. 12.

13 Walter, p. XXXV.

14 Taylor, p. 12.

15 For the details see Taylor, pp. 12, 20.

16 Charles Kean (ed.), Shakespeare's Play of 'King Henry the Fifth', Arranged for Representation at The Princess's Theatre, with Historical and Explanatory Notes. As first performed on Monday, March 28, 1859 (n.d.), p. vi.

17 John William Cole, The Life and Theatrical Times of Charles Kean, F.S.A. Including a summary of The English Stage for the Last Fifty Years, and a Detailed Account of the Management of the Princess's Theatre from 1850 to 1859. 2 vols (1859), vol. 2, p. 342.

18 Cf. Taylor, p. 43.

19 Cole, vol. 2, p. 342. Also quoted by Taylor, p. 57.Kean considered the idea of casting his wife as a female Chorus, which set a trend in productions of the play in England, very frankly and practically as 'An opportunity . . . to Mrs. Charles Kean, which the play does not otherwise supply, of participating in this, the concluding revival of her husband's management' of the Princess's Theatre. See Kean, p. vi.

20 Eamon Grennan, '"This Story Shall the Good Man Teach His Son": Henry V and the Art of History', Papers on Language and Literature, 15 (1979), 370-82.

Law And Justice

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Karl P. Wentersdorf (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: "The Conspiracy of Silence in Henry V," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 3, Summer, 1976, pp. 264-87.

[In the essay that follows, Wentersdorf explores the reasons why none of the principals on stage in Act II, scene i refers to the real motive behind the Southampton conspiracy: to make Cambridge or his son king of England. The critic points out that all the assembled nobles know that Cambridge's title to the English crown is as strong as Henry'sand at least as justifiable as Henry's right to the throne of Francebut it's not in the self-interest of any of them to raise this issue.]


In spite of the episodic nature of the materials out of which Shakespeare created Henry V, the drama, in the eyes of most critics, is notable for its unity of action and tone. There has been considerable disagreement, however, as to the precise nature of that tone. For some, the play presents the story of an ideal monarch and glorifies his achievements; for them, the tone approaches that of an epic lauding the military virtues. For others the protagonist is a Machiavellian militarist who professes Christianity but whose deeds reveal both hypocrisy and ruthlessness; for them, the tone is predominantly one of mordant satire.

The series of episodes giving rise to this controversy begins with the post-coronation episode at the end of 2 Henry IV. Confronted by Falstaff outside of Westminster Abbey, the newly crowned Hal banishes his erstwhile tavern companion from the court and announces to "the world" that he will abandon altogether his former dishonorable way of life. Is this the praiseworthy action of a man righteously turning his back on a shameful past, or is it the act of a crafty politician, who has merely pretended to lead a riotous life in order to capitalize on the banishment of his "misleaders"? As is often the case with such controversies, the truth lies somewhere between the extremes. Hal's association with Falstaff is partly a matter of inclination—Falstaff's wit is entertaining—and partly a matter of political calculation: it suits the long-range plans of the prince. He never participates wholeheartedly in the "riots" and is never more than a patronizing acquaintance of the fat knight; Falstaff's belief that Hal is a personal friend is a blind spot in the old man's psychological makeup. Far, therefore, from feeling the shame of a prodigal son and an unfaithful friend, Hal experiences a sense of triumph when he moves, just as he had promised himself, from the obscurity of the tavern atmosphere into the brilliant spotlight that plays on the throne.

One need not overemphasize Falstaff's overweening folly in approaching the new king with "a fool-born jest" during a solemn ceremony, nor should one exaggerate Hal's heartlessness in silencing and banishing him with what has seemed to some critics like undue harshness. The speech and the action are precisely what would have been expected from a serious monarch by the "world" he pointedly refers to in the rejection speech; they are the necessary proof of the "reformation" he planned long ago and now demonstrates publicly. Even Falstaff comments that the king "must seem thus to the world" (V. v. 83),1 failing to realize that the new royal stance is more than an official pose. It is ironic that Henry IV should have thought it necessary to lecture his son on the art of political one-upsmanship—telling how he, as Bolingbroke, had led a secluded life in King Richard's day and thereby impressed the people favorably on the rare occasions when he did appear in public. In matters of politics, there is little that Hal needs to learn from his father. His success in persuading the English world of his "reformation" is the first major political achievement of his reign. His image-building is no more hypocritical or ruthless than that of twentieth-century politicians, even if it is no more endearing.

A similar difference of opinion exists regarding Henry V's foreign policy. In the Institutio principis (1516), a much admired, cited, and imitated treatise on the nature of a Christian monarchy, Erasmus argued that the ideal king should be learned and well versed in theology, but also that he should allow himself to be counseled by wise men; and while he should always act to defend and preserve his country, he should also consider his responsibility—if he goes to war—for the deaths of many innocent people. How, then, is Henry to be judged in the light of his revival of Edward Ill's claim to the French throne and his invasion of France?

For some critics, the king is legally entitled to reopen the question and morally justified in using military force.2 Does he not consult the spiritual leaders of the English Church, and is it not the primate himself who urges the new king to take the field in pursuit of his inheritance (Henry V, I. ii. 100-114)? In requesting and accepting advice from the Church, and in moving to attack England's ancient enemy and restore justice, Henry exemplifies his humility, his wisdom, and his concern for the state, as well as honor, courage, and an impeccable sense of rectitude. In every respect, according to this view of Henry, his public demeanor justifies the description of him put into the mouth of the Chorus: "the mirror of all Christian kings" (II. Chor. 6).3

To other critics, the king is a cold-blooded opportunist, acting on the advice given by his dying father: "Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels," so that these activities will wipe out memories of the Lancastrian usurpation (2 Henry IV, IV. v. 214-16). Instead of ostentatiously planning a crusade to the Holy Land, as his father had done, Henry embarks upon an imperialistic "foreign quarrel"—a war that is more promising of immediate and tangible dividends, not merely for himself and his nobles but also for common soldiers like Pistol (see Henry V, II. iii. 56-58), and one in which many innocent people on both sides are bound to be killed. From this critical standpoint, the description of Henry as "the mirror of all Christian kings" is a sobering piece of dramatic irony.4

At the opening of Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury is quite obviously motivated by more than legal and ethical considerations in offering to support the planned invasion of France with an unusually generous subsidy from the coffers of the Church (I. i. 1-81). The primate's public speech in defense of the English claim to the French throne (I. ii. 33-95), assuring Henry pontifically that he may proceed "with right and conscience" (I. ii. 96), is a masterpiece of ambiguous prolixity, and it astonishes as much by the information it omits as by the arguments it contains. Nowhere does it explain the basis for Edward Ill's original claim to be the rightful ruler of France through descent in the female line.5 As for positive arguments in vindication of Henry V's similar claim, the Archbishop cites the cases of three French kings from long bygone times who had similarly claimed the crown through female descent; but he oddly undercuts the effect of his own arguments by characterizing two of those kings as usurpers and the third (the son of one of the usurpers) as a ruler troubled by an uneasy conscience.6 And after a bellicose reminder of Edward Ill's victories in France (I. ii. 101-4), Canterbury concludes his advice by urging Henry to prosecute his rights "with blood and sword and fire" (I. ii. 130-31).

Is Henry, then, merely the victim of the sophistry of a cynical prelate? It has been argued that in developing the character of Henry V, Shakespeare jettisoned his earlier concept of Prince Hal—an independent person who goes his own way and thinks for himself—and introduced into the final Lancastrian play a pious young man given to action rather than thought, who seeks advice from others and acts upon it.7 To accept this view is to fall into the dramatic fallacy. If Hal's thoughts and actions as Prince of Wales are any guide at all, there is no reason to believe that his public pronouncements and actions after his accession will be any less carefully calculated than those of his father. It is true that at the end of 2 Henry IV, before the whole court, the new king adopts the Lord Chief Justice as a surrogate father and announces his intention to let himself be guided by the latter's wisdom (V. ii. 102-21). So also at the beginning of Henry V, he publicly asks Canterbury for advice in the realm of foreign policy, urging him to present the truth impartially and implying that he will accept the Archbishop's judgment (I. ii. 9-32). In both instances, the young king is obviously concerned, partly if not primarily, with building up his public image as a righteous monarch, earnestly devoted to justice and prudently willing to accept advice from his competent and more experienced elders.

As far as the invasion of France is concerned, there can be no doubt that war is being prepared for long before Henry arranges for the discussion of his claim to the French crown in the presence of the English court. Even as the coronation procession is moving away from Westminster Abbey, Prince John is wagering that the English will be fighting in France before the year is out (2 Henry IV, V. v. 111-14), and one of Henry V's first official acts is to submit to the French government a formal claim to "certain dukedoms" (Henry V, I. ii. 246-48). It is conceivable that Henry has not decided, prior to the open discussion in I. ii, whether to revive his great-grandfather's claim to the whole of France. Even so, however, it could not be seriously contended that Henry personally needs episcopal coaching regarding the historical background to his larger claim: what he does need, in addition to the public support of the great lords temporal, is the public blessing of the Church, whatever the precise goal of the invasion. In the persons of Canterbury and Ely, the Church gives its blessing to the larger claim; and in their turn, the nobles, represented by Exeter and Westmoreland, speak out in favor of fighting for the whole of France, a policy which Henry V thereupon pronounces to be a "well-hallowed cause" (I. ii. 293). But to argue that the king is indulging throughout this episode in diplomatic rhetoric is not to imply that he is simply a hypocritical villain. He might have been convinced of the justice of his claim to the French crown and still have desired public backing from what would seem to be a morally impeccable source—backing that would help to silence any opposition, existing or potential, to the planned war.

That there is some opposition, aided and abetted by the French themselves, becomes clear when the English preparations for war are described. To stop the invasion, the French have suborned three English leaders to assassinate Henry at the port of Southampton. The plot is mentioned in some detail in the prologue to Act II (Chor. 20-35), and it forms the subject matter of the second and longest scene of that act. When the scene opens, the king is already aware of the existence of the plot; he exposes the traitors publicly, denounces the enormity of their offense, and sends them off to execution without delay.

The Southampton conspiracy has called forth the same kind of widely differing responses as the earlier episodes regarding Shakespeare's attitude toward the materials he is using and his concept of the protagonist, but there has been much less discussion of this aspect of the controversy. Understandably-enough, the critics who believe that Shakespeare thought of Henry V as a model Christian king see in this episode a further demonstration of Henry's virtues. The ideal monarch, Erasmus had argued, should establish justice in his kingdom, but he should show clemency to offenders and not decree punishment out of personal revenge. Does not Henry follow this policy when he denounces the evils of ingratitude and treachery, administers the law strictly but fairly, and energetically metes out the traditional capital punishment, not so much because his own life has been threatened as because the conspiracy has jeopardized the welfare of the whole country? At the other end of the critical scale, there are those who, without denying the guilt of the conspirators, regard Henry as being callous in playing a cat-and-mouse game with men he is about to send off to execution, brazen in accusing them of ingratitude (is it not his own ingratitude that brings on Falstaff's death of a broken heart?), self-righteous in claiming that he does not seek personal revenge, and hypocritical in holding forth about the enormity of a crime similar to the one of which his own father had been guilty—a crime of which he himself was still enjoying the fruits.8

Does Shakespeare's concept of the king's character and motivation in this episode lie once again somewhere between the critical extremes? More important, since the scene in which the plotters are exposed (unlike the discussion episode of I. ii) does not advance the main action, does it serve primarily as a mirror-scene reflecting ironically on the major problem of the play as a whole—the justice of the French war?9 These questions call for a closer examination of the Southampton episode.


The Chorus at the beginning of Act II has already identified the "three corrupted men" by name, though with no indication of their role in affairs of state. Indeed, from the offhanded mention of their leader as "One, Richard Earl of Cambridge," it might be gathered that he was a relatively insignificant nobleman rather than a prince of the blood royal. The nature of the plot is spelled out briefly and with seeming clarity: the three noblemen have accepted "treacherous crowns" from the fearful French to kill "this grace of kings" and thus "divert the English purposes" (II. Chor. 12-35). The scene in which the plot is exposed can therefore begin in medias res.

From the opening remarks of the king's brother Bedford and his uncle Exeter—"His grace is bold, to trust these traitors" and "They shall be apprehended by and by" (II. ii. 1-2)—it is evident that the king is biding his time, for some reason best known to himself. When Henry V enters with the traitors, who accompany him expecting to receive documents confirming their recent appointment as royal commissioners, the reason slowly becomes apparent: Henry intends to create a situation in which, once exposed, the traitors will be seen in the most unfavorable light. He speaks to the conspirators with great affability ("my kind Lord . . . my gentle knight"), questioning them about the prospects of success in the coming campaign and about the attitude of the English people toward his French policy. Cambridge replies that none of Henry's subjects is unhappy under his rule, and Grey elaborates by asserting that even the enemies of Henry IV are now serving his son zealously, having steeped their galls in honey.10

Henry then announces his decision to pardon a man who has been jailed for railing against the king while in his cups; the nature of his dissatisfaction with the king or the royal policy is not mentioned. All three conspirators, anxious to prevent any suspicion that they might countenance disloyalty, swallow the bait and urge that the man be punished. The king reacts with heavy irony:

Alas, your too much love and care of me
Are heavy orisons 'gainst this poor wretch!
If little faults, proceeding on distemper,
Shall not be winked at, how shall we stretch our eye
When capital crimes, chewed, swallowed, and digested,
Appear before us? We'll yet enlarge that man,
Though Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey, in their dear care
And tender preservation of our person,
Would have him punished.

(II. ii. 52-60)

Now that they have spoken out against showing mercy, even to a minor offender who has been under the influence of wine, the king hands them documents revealing that their plot has been discovered and asks them sarcastically why they blanch. The three immediately confess their guilt, asking for mercy, but the king replies that they have forfeited it by the advice given to him in the matter of the drunken railer (II.ii.71-80).

The king then sets forth his case against "these English monsters." First, he turns to the assembled princes and peers and denounces the Earl of Cambridge:

You know how apt our love was to accord
To furnish him with all appertinents
Belonging to his honor. And this man
Hath, for a few light crowns, lightly conspired,
And sworn unto the practices of France,
To kill us here in Hampton.

(II. ii. 86-91)

Next, Grey is dismissed in a couple of lines as one who is no less indebted to the king than Cambridge (II. ii. 92-93). Henry then turns to the third conspirator and addresses him directly in one of the most powerful speeches in the whole play:

What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop? Thou cruel,
In grateful, savage, and inhuman creature!
Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,
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 use,
May it be possible that foreign hire
Could out of thee extract one spark of evil
That might annoy my finger?

(II. ii. 94-102)

The king continues in this vein for a total of fifty lines: he insists on the devilish nature of Scroop's treason, comments at length on the traitor's hitherto virtuous way of life, and likens his revolt to "another fall of man" (II. ii. 140-42).

After the three have been formally charged with high treason, they again plead for mercy. Cambridge and Grey even profess to be glad that the assassination has been prevented. Henry then repeats his charge:

You have conspired against our royal person,
Joined with an enemy proclaimed, and from his coffers
Received the golden earnest of our death.

(II. ii. 167-69)

He adds that the plot has threatened the whole kingdom with servitude and desolation. Denying that he is personally interested in revenge, he points out that as it is his duty to watch over the safety of his country, he has no choice but to have them executed.

There are various strange things about the episode. In the brief discussion of the affair by the top-level advisers of the king, immediately before he comes on, there is an allusion to the conspirator who had been the king's close friend—"the man that was his bedfellow, / Whom he hath dulled and cloyed with gracious favors" (II. ii. 8-9)—but no mention at this time of the man who was the leader and presumably the instigator of the plot, the Earl of Cambridge. Nowhere in the episode is there any reference to the fact that two of the plotters were men of authority as well as rank in the kingdom: Scroop was the Lord Treasurer, and Grey (a cousin of Hotspur) was a member of the Privy Council. Even more noteworthy is the almost complete failure of the conspirators to offer any justification for their treason. In both parts of Henry IV and in other histories, rebels are at great pains to present their activities in a favorable light. In Henry V, the plotters content themselves with swift confessions of guilt; they utter less-than-convincing protestations of joy at the detection of their plot; and with the exception of Cambridge, they accept without demur the repeated implication that they had acted on the basest of motives—the greed for money. Cambridge admits that he has received French gold but denies that the money was an end in itself: he accepted it, he says cryptically, in order "the sooner to effect what I intended" (II. ii. 155-57). Since he would hardly need French crowns to hire common assassins of the type who served Richard III, the intention of Cambridge (if his speech is to make sense) must have been more complex than the removal of Henry V for the benefit of England's foes. Finally, there is the strangeness of the king's own silence on this point. He has much to say, and what he says is interesting and rhetorically effective; but what he leaves unsaid is much more striking, as becomes apparent when the conspiracy is viewed in the wider context of the dynastic struggles in fifteenth-century England.


The Southampton conspiracy was but one of a long series of plots generated by disputes over the succession to the English throne. In October 1399, Henry Bolingbroke, heir to the Duke of Lancaster (fourth son of Edward III), was crowned king as Henry IV, after having deposed his cousin Richard II, heir to the Black Prince (first son of Edward III). The immediate opposition to the new Lancastrian line, the Oxford conspiracy of January 1400, provided Shakespeare with material for the concluding episodes of Richard II. A group of nobles and prelates plot to kill the newly enthroned Bolingbroke and restore Richard; their leader is Aumerle, elder son of the Duke of York (fifth son of Edward III). When the plan accidentally becomes known to York, Aumerle anticipates his father's denunciation of the plot to Bolingbroke, confesses his guilt to the new king, and obtains his promise of mercy. Ex-king Richard's other supporters are captured and executed by friends of Henry IV.

The next revolt against the Lancastrian government provides the basic material for 1 Henry IV. The men most instrumental in helping Bolingbroke to the crown, the Earls of Northumberland and Worcester, realize that Henry is mistrustful and fear that he will turn against them. With the aid of the Scots and the Welsh, therefore, the Northern Earls conspire to replace Henry IV by Edmund Mortimer, fifth Earl of March, who—through his grandmother Philippa—is the great-grandson of the Duke of Clarence (third son of Edward III). Since the second son of Edward III had died without heirs, Richard II, before leaving England on his Irish expedition, had proclaimed Mortimer heir-presumptive to the throne.11 But although Mortimer, under the law of primogeniture, has a stronger right to the crown than Henry IV,12 there is little popular support for his cause. Furthermore, neither the Welsh nor Northumberland himself appear at the climactic confrontation near Shrewsbury in July 1403. In Shakespeare's play, the rebels charge the king with perjury, regicide, and failure to ransom the true heir to the throne from captivity. To these charges, Henry IV has no better rejoinder than that such arguments appeal only to "fickle changelings and poor discontents." With Prince Hal's unexpected offer to save bloodshed by fighting North-umberland's son Hotspur in single combat, attention is distracted from the moral and legal points at issue. In the ensuing battle, the rebels are decisively beaten; Hotspur is killed, Worcester captured and executed.

In 2 Henry IV, Northumberland seeks revenge by conspiring with Archbishop Scroop of York, an uncle of the Lord Scroop who will participate in the Southampton plot. Scroop and his confederates are captured and executed; Northumberland is defeated in battle. There is no mention of Mortimer in this play.

These setbacks to the enemies of the Lancastrians did not remove all danger to the throne. After the death of Henry IV in 1413, it was rumored that Richard II was still alive in Scotland, and this rumor was probably a major consideration in Henry V's decision to reinter the murdered king. Nevertheless, domestic dissension plays a relatively minor role in Henry V. The real significance of the abortive Southampton conspiracy of January 1415 is overshadowed by the spectacular invasion of France, which effectively diverts attention from political problems at home and focuses it on an international dynastic dispute. The overwhelming victory of the English at Agincourt is followed by a treaty in which the defeated French ruler disinherits his son and heirapparent, the Dauphin Charles, agrees to the marriage of his daughter to Henry V, and solemnly recognizes Henry V as the true heir to the French crown.

The hollowness of Henry V's military and diplomatic victories becomes apparent when he dies in 1422, before his son Henry is one year old, and the rule of his territories passes into the hands of à council of ambitious and quarrelsome nobles. The quarreling takes place within the boy-king's immediate family as well as between the Lancastrian and Yorkist branches of the Plantagenet dynasty. The dissension undermines the English rule of France and threatens the domestic peace of England. The heir of Henry V turns out to have none of his father's abilities as a leader: in France, his right to rule is successfully challenged by the disinherited Dauphin, and at home his authority is questioned and finally rejected by the Yorkists.

The head of the house of York in 1 Henry VI is Richard Plantagenet, son of the executed Earl of Cambridge. Confronted with the weakness of Henry VI, he is as ambitious as Bolingbroke had been in the time of Richard II. His immediate aim is to regain his family's honors and possessions; and since he is also the heir to Edmund Mortimer, he intends, when the time is ripe, to revive in his own person Mortimer's claim to the throne itself. He achieves the first step toward his main goal when young Henry VI, displaying a greater sense of justice than hard-headed political wisdom, restores him to his father's earldom and at the same time equitably invests him with his deceased uncle's dukedom of York.

The first move by the new Duke of York in his campaign to obtain the crown is made in 2 Henry VI with the private announcement of his ambitions to some powerful friends. Later in the play, he accepts the command of the English forces in Ireland; but before departing, he persuades a Kentish soldier named John Cade to impersonate Mortimer and raise a revolt against Henry VI—a rebellion which reveals considerable opposition to the Lancastrian rule before it is suppressed by the king's forces. Seizing the opportunity created by the disorders, York returns to England with an army, allegedly to suppress Cade but in reality to "pluck the crown from feeble Henry's head." He soon finds a pretext for denouncing the king's impotence and publicly proclaims his own right to the crown. With this challenge, the Wars of the Roses get under way.

At the beginning of 3 Henry VI, York appears in parliament and calls on Henry to abdicate: the king weakly agrees to make York his heir, provided that he will swear to keep the peace and let Henry remain on the throne for life. Though York takes the oath, the supporters of both leaders are dissatisfied with the agreement, and war breaks out again. When York is captured and killed, his rights devolve upon his eldest son, Edward, Earl of March. After further fighting, the direct Lancastrian line is wiped out; and Edward, grandson of the Earl of Cambridge, establishes the Yorkist dynasty on the English throne.


This brief review of Shakespeare's treatment of fifteenth-century rebellions against the Lancastrian kings makes it clear that the Southampton conspiracy in Henry V is part of a much larger dynastic struggle, which begins with the Oxford plot to kill the usurper Henry IV and restore Richard II. The ranking conspirator in that plot, Aumerle, is forgiven by Henry IV (partly, at least, because he does not represent a dynastic threat to the new king) and permitted to inherit the dukedom of York when his father dies; he himself falls, leading the English vanguard, at Agincourt (Henry V, IV. viii. 108). When Henry V succeeds to the throne and history repeats itself with the Southampton plot of 1415, the ranking leader this time is Aumerle-York's younger brother, the Earl of Cambridge. Now Cambridge is not only a cousin of the king,13 as well as heir-presumptive to his brother York (the latter being married but childless); he is also the husband of Anne Mortimer, sister and heir-presumptive to the Edmund Mortimer who had been designated heir to the throne by Richard II. Furthermore, by Anne Mortimer, Cambridge is the father of Richard Plantagenet (born 1411), who later, after having been created Duke of York by Henry VI, would revive the Yorkist opposition to the Lancastrian usurpers.

The most striking aspect of Shakespeare's treatment of the Southampton plot is the conspiracy of silence among the characters regarding the family ties and political motives of the Earl of Cambridge. In the other history plays, there is ample explanation of the genealogical connections behind the various dynastic claims being made and the actions taken. But nowhere in Henry V is there any reference to the obvious interpretation to be placed on the motives of the plotters in accepting help from France. According to Holinshed, Cambridge wanted to replace King Henry by Edmund Mortimer:" "Diverse write that Richard earle of Cambridge did not conspire with the lord Scroope & Thomas Graie for the murthering of king Henrie to please the French king withall, but onelie to the intent to exalt to the crowne his brother in law Edmund earle of March. . . ."14 There was, of course, more than mere altruism behind this intention: Mortimer was not only without children but "for diverse secret impediments, not able to have issue." The role played by Cambridge must therefore be interpreted as a move toward his own acquisition of supreme power, either as king in the right of his wife Anne or as regent on behalf of his young son by her. As Shakespeare's source put it, "the earle of Cambridge was sure that the crowne should come to him by his wife, and to his children, of hir begotten."15

In view of the silence in the play regarding this crucial aspect of the historical conspiracy, would the dynastic circumstances be apparent at all to an audience? Goddard argues that "the long shadow that the incarcerated Mortimer casts across this play is not visible from a seat in the theater."16 This observation is unde-niably true of today's audiences as well as of today's readers who know only Henry V. Even modern playgoers who have seen the other plays in the Lancastrian-Yorkist cycle are unlikely to have a clear grasp of the genealogical details and are therefore apt to fail to realize the significance of the status and actions of the Earl of Cambridge. It would be wrong, however, to make any such assumptions about Shakespeare's audiences, at least about the historically-minded persons in those audiences. The Wars of the Roses and their origins were of special interest to the Elizabethans—witness the popularity of chronicles like those of Halle and Holinshed, not to mention epics like Samuel Daniel's monumental poem, The Civil Wars (1595, revised 1609), which ran through several editions.17 And Shakespeare's eight plays on the subject, writ-ten between ca. 1589 and 1599, were among the most successful of his dramas, both with theatre audiences and with the reading public.18

In the course of this Shakespearean history cycle, the basic facts regarding Mortimer and Cambridge are introduced several times. Early in 1 Henry IV, Hotspur clashes with the king over the question of ransoming his brother-in-law Mortimer, who has been taken prisoner while leading English forces against the Welsh under Owen Glendower. Henry IV vehemently denounces Mortimer as a traitor who betrayed his own troops and then compounded the treachery by marrying Glendower's daughter; for these reasons, the king refuses to ransom him. Later, when Hotspur comments—presumably with exaggeration—on the king's fearful reaction at the mention of Mortimer, Worcester says that he cannot blame the king: "Was not [Mortimer] proclaimed / By Richard that dead is the next of blood?" When Northumberland confirms the truth of this, Hotspur's response seems, at first, to be out of character: "Did King Richard then / Proclaim my brother Edmund Mortimer / Heir to the crown?"19 It is impossible to imagine that he would have been ignorant of Mortimer's royal descent; but since Shakespeare's Hotspur is a very young man, he might well have been unaware of Richard's proclamation some years earlier. I would argue that Shakespeare makes Hotspur ignorant of it in order to obtain the necessary dramatic emphasis on this point. Finally, Worcester suggests that the Northern earls join forces with Mortimer, Glendower, and the Scots, for the purpose of overthrowing their mutual enemy. In this powerful episode of three hundred lines (I. iii), the position of Mortimer on the national scene is the major topic. Subsequently in the play, Lady Percy guesses that her husband is taking the field because her "brother Mortimer doth stir / About his title" (II. iii. 84-85), and Mortimer does in fact participate with the other rebels in planning the tripartite division of the kingdom (III. i). Shortly before the battle of Shrewsbury, Hotspur informs the royal envoy of the rebels' charges against Henry IV; not only was he responsible for the deposition and death of Richard II, but

To make that worse, suffered his kinsman
[Mortimer, Earl of]
March, Who is, if every owner were well placed,
Indeed his king, to be engaged in Wales,
There without ransom to lie forfeited.

(IV. iii. 90-96)

As it happens, Mortimer and Glendower are both absent from Shrewsbury when Hotspur and Worcester are defeated by the king.

Mortimer reappears as a character in 1 Henry VI. In this play, he is presented as a prisoner in the Tower of London, dying of old age and sorrow after having been held in "loathsome sequestration" ever since Henry V came to the throne (II. v. 23-25). Modern historians note that the Tower episode is fictitious; Mortimer was imprisoned by Henry IV but not by his successors. Holinshed implies, however, that he died after a long confinement: "Edmund Mortimer, the last Erle of Marche of that name (whiche long tyme had been restrained from his liberty, and finally waxed lame) disceased without issue, whose inheritaunce discended to lorde Richarde Plantagenet. . . ."20 Shakespeare goes even further: his Mortimer says that he had been imprisoned "all [his] flowering youth / Within a loathsome dungeon" (II. v. 55-57).

Just before introducing Mortimer, Shakespeare brings on his nephew Richard Plantagenet and other nobles in a scene at the Temple Garden (II. iv. 80-120). During an argument over an unspecified point of law, Somerset calls Plantagenet a yeoman. Warwick rejects the insult, drawing attention to Plantagenet's royal descent: "Spring crestless yeomen from so deep a root?" Somerset justifies the affront by pointing out that since the late Earl of Cambridge was executed for treason, his son has been ipso facto "attainted,. . . . and exempt from ancient gentry," and that until the family titles are restored to him, he will remain a yeoman. Plantagenet intervenes with a legal quibble: "My father was attached, not attained." And after his enemies have left the scene, he is encouraged by Warwick's hope that the blot on his family will be wiped out during the next parliament.

Plantagenet thereupon visits Mortimer in the Tower and (in the most poorly motivated introduction of genealogical information in all of the histories) asks the dying man to tell him why Cambridge was put to death, "for I am ignorant and cannot guess." Mortimer explains in detail how his own claim to the throne was stronger than that of the usurper Henry IV. He then tells how the Northern Earls had wanted to advance him to the throne, and how in their "haughty great attempt . . . to plant the rightful heir" he lost his liberty and they their lives (II. v. 51-81). He concludes his story with an account of the Southampton conspiracy itself:

. . . When Henry the Fifth,
Succeeding his father Bolingbroke, did reign,
Thy father, Earl of Cambridge, then derived
From famous Edmund Langley, Duke of York,
Marrying my sister, that thy mother was,
Again in pity of my hard distress
Levied an army, weening to redeem
And have installed me in the diadem:
But, as the rest, so fell that noble Earl
And was beheaded.

(II. v. 82-91)

As Mortimer has no issue, he names Plantagenet his heir. When the latter angrily denounces the execution of Cambridge as "nothing less than bloody tyranny," Mortimer cautions him to be silent and politic, feeling that it would be futile to attempt to unseat the "strong-fixed" house of Lancaster (II. v. 92-103). Wishing his nephew prosperity, Mortimer dies; and Plantagenet hastens away to the parliament at which he is in fact "restored to his blood" and also created Duke of York (III. i. 149-77).

In 2 Henry VI, when York appeals to Salisbury and Warwick as potential supporters of his future bid for the throne, the genealogical situation is once again set forth in pedestrian fashion. The sons of Edward III are named, Bolingbroke's usurpation is denounced, and the point is made that there is no surviving issue of the first and second sons. York then presents his case. Through his father he is descended from York, the fifth son; but he is also heir to Clarence, the third son, through his mother Anne Mortimer: "By her I claim the kingdom." He then repeats the details of Anne Mortimer's descent from Clarence and concludes: "If the issue of the elder son / Succeed before the younger, I am king." Warwick agrees that York's claim is better than that of Henry VI (descended from the fourth son of Edward III), whereupon he and Salisbury acknowledge York to be England's true monarch (II. ii. 1-82).

The final allusion to the Southampton plot occurs in the opening episode of 3 Henry VI. York seats himself on the royal throne and is challenged by Exeter: "For shame, come down. He made thee Duke of York." And when York replies, "'Twas my inheritance, as the earldom was," Exeter reminds him: "Thy father was a traitor to the crown" (I. i. 77-79). In this exchange, York is referring to his uncle's earldom of March, and Exeter is adverting to the conspiracy. Shakespeare evidently felt that at this point the basic facts were sufficiently well known to make another detailed discussion of the genealogical issue unnecessary.

The interest taken by the public in Shakespeare's histories is reflected in the production by the rival Admiral's Men of Sir John Oldcastle, late in 1599.21 Written as a counterblast to the slur on the memory of the Lollard leader in Henry IV (the character Falstaff was originally named Oldcastle) and staged only a few months after Henry V was first acted,22 the play of Oldcastle offers a more elaborate version of the Southampton plot and makes the dynastic aspect quite explicit. First, Cambridge explains his interest in the throne to Scroop, Gray, and Chartres, a French envoy. After presenting genealogical data comparable to those in Shakespeare's Henry VI, he argues that his wife Anne "ought proceede, / And take possession of the Diademe / Before this Harry. . . . " His listeners agree that the cause is just: the murder of Richard II must be avenged, and Harry must resign or die (III. i. 1-65). The conspirators then approach Lord Cobham, formerly Sir John Oldcastle, counting on his assistance. But Cobham is loyal to the king, in spite of persecution on account of his religion; he therefore pretends to support the plotters and persuades them to give him a signed statement of their aims (III. i. 66-201). Later, he hands over the incriminating document to King Harry (IV. ii. 121-37). Finally, the conspirators are overheard by the king while discussing the best way to murder him. Scroop opts for poison and volunteers his services ("I am his bedfellow"), Cambridge favors a public assassination, and Gray offers to kill him in the council chamber. At this point, the king reveals himself, comments sardonically on the practicability of their proposals, and orders them dragged to their deaths (V. i. 1-52).


There is, in short, abundant contemporary evidence for the familiarity of Elizabethan theatregoers with the story of the Mortimers under the Lancastrians. But why does Shakespeare refrain from any mention of that story in Henry V? Dover Wilson acknowledges that the real motivation of the Southampton plot was dynastic and comments: "it seems odd that Shakespeare did not make it more explicit, until we remember that he must avoid anything that casts doubts on the legitimacy of Henry V."23 But is it Shakespeare who must avoid this, or Henry himself? Matthew agrees with Wilson, believing that "no patriotic Elizabethan, lost in admiration for the usurper's son, would care to hear" a word in defense of the rebels.24 In my view, this argument is specious. There were undoubtedly many visitors to the Globe who thrilled uncritically to the near-epic treatment of the national hero's deeds; but there were also others, politically more sophisticated, who were interested in the problem of legitimate succession (a problem still of grave concern in the year 1599) and who would soon have become aware of the ironic contrast between the rhetoric of the characters and the realities of the action. For such playgoers, whether they sympathized with the Lancastrians or the Yorkists, the silence on the dynastic issue might well have been a more intriguing tour de force than a historically unfounded public dispute.

Since the background of the Southampton conspiracy was generally known, some at least in Shakespeare's audience would have noted the weak points in the rhetoric of Henry's oversimplified explanation of the would-be assassins' motives. But how would they have interpreted the curious absence of any reference whatsoever to the background? Is the conspiracy of silence adequately motivated in terms of the overall action? Why is it that the accused noblemen remain unresponsive when the king alleges that their treachery has sprung from the most sordid of motives—the desire for gold? Why is it that the Earl of Cambridge does not offer a rebuttal, dignified or outraged, that would explain the dynastic basis for his role in the plot—a rebuttal comparable, perhaps, to Hotspur's defense of the Northern Earls' rebellion and of Edmund Mortimer's right to be king? And why does Cambridge fail to point out that if Mortimer and his heirs are to be denied their rights to the crown on the ground that Mortimer is descended from Edward HI in the female line, Henry V can scarcely proceed in conscience with his war to obtain the French crown on the basis of a claim likewise through descent in the female line?

The answer to these questions lies partly in the circumstance that the three conspirators, unlike Hotspur at the time of his defense, are already in the hands of the king; but the overwhelming reason for the conspirators' silence is the nature of the punishment meted out to those found guilty of treason. Traitors lost not merely their lives: their titles and possessions were also forfeited to the crown. This meant that the widow and children of an executed traitor were left destitute and stripped of all the rights and privileges to which the dead man's rank in society had entitled him and his family. In such a situation, it would be folly of the worst sort for the plotters to antagonize the king still further by reminding the "world" that he is the son of a usurper, and that Cambridge's young son has a clearer legal claim to the throne than the incumbent. The conspirators remain silent on this point because they do not want to jeopardize the survival of their families: they hope that the king will acknowledge their restraint by mitigating the almost inevitable suffering of their innocent wives and children.

Justification for this interpretation of their failure to come to their own defense is explicit in Shakespeare's prime source for the play and implicit in the Temple Garden episode of 1 Henry VI. "These prisoners," Holinshed reports, "upon their examination, confessed, that for a great summe of monie which they had received of the French king, they intended verelie either to have delivered the king alive into the hands of his enimies, or else to have murthered him before he should arrive in the duchie of Normandie."25 After recounting this public confession, however, Holinshed gives a detailed account of the main reason for the conspiracy—a reason evidently not touched upon at the public examination of the three men: their object, with French aid, was to place Edmund Mortimer on the English throne,26 the throne that would ultimately pass, since Mortimer was "not able to have issue," to the son and heir of Anne Mortimer and the Earl of Cambridge. The chronicler then comments on the motive behind the public confession made by Cambridge: "And therefore (as was thought) he rather confessed himselfe for need of monie to be corrupted by the French king, than he would declare his inward mind, and open his verie intent and secret purpose, which if it were espied, he saw plainlie that the earle of March should have tasted of the same cuppe that he had drunken, and what should have come to his owne children he much doubted. Therefore destitute of comfort & in despaire of life to save his children, he feined that tale, desiring rather to save his succession than himselfe. . . . "27

When the traitors beg Henry V to pardon them, then, what they have in mind is not an act of mercy that would save them from death: Cambridge implies, while Scroop and Gray state explicitly, that they are ready to pay for their fault with their lives (II. ii. 151-65). The pardon which they request is for their families. The fears of Cambridge are not unjustified: the family was to remain stripped of its titles and rights for many years. Even in adulthood, the earl's heir, Richard Plantagenet, is taunted publicly with being a mere yeoman; and this incident, invented by the dramatist to highlight the dynastic situation, takes place shortly before the pious son of Henry V restores Plantagenet to his family's titles and possessions.

As for the silence of Henry V himself regarding the real motives of the conspirators, how could he mention the plotters' intention to make Mortimer king without drawing attention gratuitously to the weak legality of his own claim to the crown?28 His problem is to distract attention from the potentially explosive political situation, and he approaches the problem with a rhetorical skill that is little short of masterly. First he displays great affability in order to prepare the onlooking nobles and courtiers for subsequent reminders of his past favors to the three men, and to bolster the anticipated revulsion at the thought of their ingratitude. For the main thrust of his attack, he chooses to concentrate on the charge that they were motivated by French bribes, knowing that the conspirators will have the good sense not to challenge it. Then, in place of a detailed denunciation of the ringleader, the king launches into a long tirade against Lord Scroop of Masham—the Lord Treasurer, a trusted counselor, and for many years a close personal friend of the king. After expressing surprise that "foreign hire" could tempt a man of Scroop's sterling character to participate in such a "savage and inhuman" deed, Henry goes on to offer an explanation for such incredible behavior:

. . . whatsoever cunning fiend it was
That wrought upon thee so preposterously
Hath got the voice in Hell for excellence.
All other devils that suggest by treasons
Do botch and bungle up damnation
With patches, colors, and with forms being fetched
From glistering semblances of piety.
But he that tempered thee bade thee stand up,
Gave thee no instance why thou shouldst do treason. . . .

In short, the "demon . . . with his lion gait" that influenced Scroop must have been the Devil himself (II. ii. 102-25). In the light of Scroop's upbringing and temperament, Henry asks in effect, what other explanation is conceivable?

. . . . Show men dutiful?
Why, so didst thou. Seem they grave and learned?
Why, so didst thou. Come they of noble family?
Why, so didst thou. Seem they religious?
Why, so didst thou. Or are they spare in diet,
Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger,
Constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood,
Garnished and decked in modest complement,
Not working with the eye without the ear,
And but in purged judgment trusting neither?
Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem.

Not even the best endowed are safe from suspicion any longer, for Scroop's revolt is like "another fall of man" (II. ii. 127-42). If the rebellious Scroop is Adam, then Henry V is God; and this is no mere hyperbole. Henry is subtly reminding all present that whatever the background of the current dynastic situation, he is their anointed monarch and thus (as the Bishop of Carlisle said of Richard II) "the figure of God's majesty."29

This striking tour de force is no unpremeditated outburst. The king's words and tone are partly a genuine expression of strong feelings, partly a clever piece of histrionics, foreshadowed by his play-acting in the discussion of the drunken railer, and calculated to quash doubts regarding a political challenge by stimulating horror at a personal betrayal. Like his earlier pronouncements as monarch, the "fall of man" philippic is a public speech artfully developed for the maximum rhetorical effect. The conclusion which Henry reaches is often taken at its face value. For instance, in a recent discussion of the episode, Scroop's participation in the plot is said to have resulted from "a disposition to rebel without any apparent reason" and to be "explainable only figuratively by reference to demonic influence"; he "is possessed by the spirit of Cain as is no other character in the tetralogy."30 From the stand-point of Henry V's supporters, there would have been validity in the comparison of Scroop's crime with the fall of Adam; and it may be that the theatre audience was intended to think of Henry as carried away by his own arguments. To deduce, however, that Shakespeare himself conceived of Scroop's offence in the same terms as some of his dramatis personae would be to fall once again into the dramatic fallacy.

It seems more likely that when Henry proclaims his inability to understand the motivation for such a crime, he is speaking in character, as an astute politician, keeping the discussion away from the embarrassing heart of the matter. It is very convenient for him to advance the simple explanation that Scroop must have been deceived by the Devil, and it is also politic for everyone else to accept this uncomplicated solution to the puzzle. But most if not all of those present at the exposure of the plot are aware of the inescapable fact that Cambridge and Scroop are challenging Henry V's right to the English throne on grounds at least as convincing as those justifying Henry's challenge to the French king. To them, the king's assertion that Scroop had no impelling motive—"no instance why thou shouldst do treason"—must sound, whatever their sympathies, somewhat hollow.

The problems raised by the Southampton conspiracy are more complex than those surrounding the revolts in other plays—as regards both the circumstances and the personalities. Henry V is not a widely detested tyrant, like Richard II and Richard III; nor, technically speaking, is he a usurper, like Richard HI. Though he is the son and beneficiary of a man guilty directly of usurpation and indirectly of regicide, he himself, as his father assures him, is personally untained (2 Henry IV, IV. v. 184-202). Nevertheless he remains uneasy in his conscience because he enjoys the proceeds of his father's crimes (Henry V, IV. i. 309-22). There is no knowing how many of his subjects are likewise uneasy; but it is a fact that some of them are willing to risk death by supporting the claim of Mortimer and his Yorkist heirs, not only in 1415 but on several other occasions in the decades to come. And though many of the Yorkist sympathizers are probably actuated by the hope of rewards in the form of wealth or power, some may be idealists with a desire to see justice done, akin in spirit to the self-sacrificing Bishop of Carlisle.

If Henry V is no Richard II, Scroop is no Earl of Worcester (whose defection while one of Richard II's ministers is recalled in 1 Henry IV, V. i. 34-38). Lord Scroop—and the point is emphasized by Holinshed—had always been a man of impeccable character. In cataloging the fallen man's virtues, the king may at first sight seem to be exaggerating a little, but he would be creating a credibility gap if the portrait he gives were not known to his nobles to be substantially true. Moreover, Scroop has indeed been, as Henry states, a close and trusted friend on whom he has relied for advice in important matters. What explanations can there be for the defection of such a man? The possibility that he has been corrupted by French gold, a charge directed against the conspirators as a group, is quite unconvincing. The theory that his deed is an ultimately inexplicable example of devilish malignity is conceivable only if the background of the conspiracy is left out of consideration. The one explanation that makes sense in the case of Scroop is that Shakespeare conceived of him as a political idealist, and this is an explanation that Henry V quite understandably ignores.

Unless Henry V is an extraordinarily bad judge of character, Scroop is a virtuous man to whom the very thought of betraying a friend and murdering a king must have been abhorrent. Only considerations of the utmost gravity could have led him to participate in treason. Whether or not he has any scruples concerning the invasion of France is impossible to tell. In any case, he has been worked upon by the adherents of Mortimer and persuaded that justice should be done to the claimant to the throne who, as is made clear in the earlier plays, is not merely denied his royal rights but is being held prisoner by Henry V in a loathsome dungeon. To judge from his long association with Henry, Scroop can hardly be as certain of the rights and wrongs of the situation as Carlisle is when he denounces Bolingbroke's usurpation; it can only have been with great reluctance that Scroop switched his allegiance to Mortimer.

In support of this interpretation, it is pertinent to note that the subject to which Shakespeare probably turned after writing Henry V was the assassination of Julius Caesar, and the major theme of the new play was misguided political idealism. The description of Henry, returning victorious from Agincourt, as a "conquering Caesar" (V. Chor. 28) may indicate that Shakespeare was already thinking about his next play before the final act of Henry V had been completed. The new work was to be the tragedy not of Caesar himself but of Marcus Brutus, a politically naive but patriotic nobleman who agrees to join the conspiracy against Caesar only after he has been persuaded that the assassination is a necessity for the ultimate good of the state. The portrait of Brutus could thus be regarded as a full-length study in naive political idealism, influenced or possibly even prompted by the briefly sketched role of Scroop—an attempt to deal in depth with the psychological problem which Henry V professes to find unfathomable.

The similarities between Scroop and Brutus are noteworthy. Each is publicly respected as a man of great probity and self-control. Each deservedly enjoys a high reputation for patriotism and piety. Each is held in great affection by the man he agrees to kill, and both rulers react to the treachery with incredulity. Henry V has no counterpart to the episode in Julius Caesar in which the altruism of Brutus is finally acknowledged even by his enemies (V. v. 68-79); but then Scroop is not himself a dynastically significant figure. Furthermore, Brutus is eulogized only after he and his co-conspirators have been totally destroyed, whereas the deaths of Scroop and Cambridge do not eliminate the danger to the house of Lancaster from the heirs of Mortimer—the danger which ultimately overwhelms the Lancastrians.

Scroop was a man, says Holinshed, who "represented so great gravitie in his countenance, such modestie in behaviour, and so vertuous zeale to all godlinesse in his talke, that whatsoever he said was thought for the most part necessarie to be doone and followed."31 It is not inconceivable, then, that Antony's sentiments regarding Brutus come close to epitomizing the truth about Scroop:

All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy . . .
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.

(V. v. 69-72)

At the very least, it must be recognized that Scroop's motives in turning against his friend are as ambiguous as those of Henry V in invading France. Even if Scroop is not the mirror of all Christian patriots, neither is he a diabolically possessed opportunist. He is a perplexed man who has been convinced that he had compromised his honor by allowing the claims of personal friendship to outweigh the demands of political justice, and who has joined Cambridge in a belated attempt to right an earlier wrong.32 The bib-lical elements in Henry's rhetoric are obviously intended to suggest that the exposure of the conspiracy is proof of God's adverse verdict on the justice of Scroop's decision to support the Mortimer family. The irony is inescapable: Shakespeare's audience knows that the verdict will be reversed when Mortimer's heirs overthrow the Lancastrian dynasty and establish the Yorkist line on the throne.33


The role of the Earl of Cambridge and his supporters in attempting to overthrow the established monarch is analogous to that of Henry V and his noblemen in challenging the French. The difference in method—an underhanded assassination as opposed to a courageously fought hand-to-hand combat—should not be permitted to obscure the similarities in motivation and goal, especially in the complexity of the legal and moral aspects of the two bids for justice. Henry V asserts that the conspirators have no compelling reason for their conspiracy; might not precisely the same be said regarding his invasion of France? He denounces them for hiding behind "semblances of piety"; is not this what he himself is doing, in asking for the approval of ecclesiastics whose motives are mercenary and political? He claims that the plotters would have sold Englishmen to "oppression and contempt, / And . . . desolation" (II. ii. 172-73); what else is he bringing to the people of France, as he himself admits, but "waste and desolation . . . heady murder, spoil, and villainy" (HI. iii. 17-32)? Henry is by no means the monster he has seemed to some critics, witness his appeal to the French king to spare his subjects the horrors of war (II. iv. 102-9); given the exigencies of the military situation, the threats made to the Governor of Harfleur are not the expression of a blood-thirsty delight in death and destruction for their own sake, but rather an effective piece of psychological warfare. On the other hand, however, Henry is not the saintly leader of a crusade. He is a soldier-adventurer engaged in war for shrewd political motives that have as much to do with potential troubles at home as with territorial gains abroad.

It is not by chance, therefore, that the successful invasion of France is capped by a series of striking dramatic ironies. During the wooing of the French Princess Katherine, Henry roguishly boasts that he and his wife-to-be will together breed a warrior son "that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard." Can this have sounded anything but laughable to those who recalled that the son born to them would one day sit on a hilltop sighing for a hermitage, while his doughty wife leads his army in battle? When the French king is compelled to disinherit his son the Dauphin and adopt Henry V as his heir, what historically-minded playgoer would not have reacted with the sobering thought that the weakling Henry VI will also have to face a warlike challenger and will likewise be compelled to disinherit his son? Above all, there is the French king's pious hope that the peace treaty between England and France will plant "Christianlike accord / In their sweet bosoms": is this a genuinely felt expression of hope, or is it nothing but a platitude, the face-saving rhetoric of a king trying to justify his inglorious surrender? In any case, it is belied only minutes later by the gloomy predictions of the Epilogue.34

In the course of writing his great history cycle, Shakespeare had become increasingly aware of the difficulty of arriving at an objective view of major historical events, and of the ease with which the truth can be misrepresented. The play of Henry V completes his exploration of the true role played by the house of Lancaster in precipitating the Wars of the Roses. Nowhere are the problems in the way of understanding that role more strikingly illustrated than in the controversial nature of the French war, and in the episode which mirrors the ambiguities of that war—the Southampton conspiracy.


1 The text cited in this paper is that of G. B. Harrison, Shakespeare: The Complete Works (New York, 1952).

2 In his edition of King Henry V (New Arden Shakespeare; London: Methuen, 1954), J. H. Walter argues, p. xxiii, that if Shakespeare believed Henry's claim to be justified, he was in agreement with Alberico Gentili, "the greatest jurist of the sixteenth century," who in his De iure belli (1588, 1598) expressed the view that the claim was legal; Walter does not point out, however, that Gentili was writing while a refugee in England and is not necessarily an impartial witness.

3 For some modern views of Henry V as an ideal monarch, see John Dover Wilson, The Fortunes of Falstaff (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1943), pp. 60-81, 114-28; J. H. Walter (1954), pp. xiv-xxiv; M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty (London: Edward Arnold, 1961), pp. 319-23; R. Berman, "Shakespeare's Alexander: Henry V," CE, 23 (1962), 532-39; G. W. Keeton, Shakespeare's Legal and Political Background (New York: Humanities Press, 1968), p. 282; F. P. Wilson, Shakespearian and Other Studies (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1969), pp. 41-42.

4 Notable among critics who believe that Shakespeare presents Henry V and his foreign policy in an unfavorable light are Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York: H. Holt, 1939), pp. 170-79; J. Palmer, Political Characters of Shakespeare (London: Macmillan, 1945), pp. 221-44; H. C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951), pp. 218-26; H. Matthews, Character and Symbol in Shakespeare's Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1962), pp. 51-65; R. Battenhouse, "Henry V as Heroic Comedy" in Essays on Shakespeare . . . in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. R. Hosley (Columbia, Univ. of Missouri Press, 1962), pp. 169-80; H. M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays (New York, 1967), pp. 184-96. That the problem is an acute one is evident from the commentary of E. K. Chambers—Shakespeare, A Survey (London, 1925)—who asserted that Henry is "the ideal king, the divinely chosen representative and embodiment of the spirit of England" (pp. 137-38) and yet recognized in him "the prototype of the blatant modern imperialist" (p. 143); the discrepancy is noted by Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 177.

5 After King Philip IV of France had been succeeded by his three sons, each of whom in turn died without issue, the French then chose as their ruler the son of Philip IV's younger brother. The new king was challenged by Edward III, the son of Philip's only daughter Isabella, on the ground that the law of primogeniture gave him a prior claim to the French throne. For an Elizabethan dramatic treatment of this claim and the ensuing war, see Edward III, repr. in The Shakespeare Apocrypha (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1908), pp. 67-101; the pertinent genealogical details are presented in I. i. 1-50, pp. 69-70. It is interesting to note that The Famous Victories of Henry V, a play well known to Shakespeare, likewise makes it clear that Henry V's claim to France came to him through Edward Ill's mother, Isabella.

6 The illogic of citing the example of the French usurp-ers is noted by Goddard (p. 221) and Battenhouse (pp. 173-74).

7 Thus, E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London, 1944), pp. 309-11.

8 For views that Henry's handling of the situation demonstrates his kingly qualities, see Walter, pp. xvi-xxv; Reese, p. 327; Keeton, pp. 282-83. Unfavorable views of Henry's treatment of the conspirators are expressed by Goddard, pp. 228-31; Matthew, p. 55; Richmond, pp. 181-82.

9 A brief example of the mirror technique is provided by the scene in which Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym—thieves in England and looters in France—are dawdling near the walls of the besieged city of Harfleur. Their intention in France, in Pistol's words, is to act "like horse-leeches, my boys, / To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck" (II. iii. 58-59). The scene begins with Bardolph's ineffectual exhortation to his companions, "On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach" (III. ii. 1-2); it ends with their boy's comments on the utter dishonesty of the three men (III. ii. 29-57). Coming as this does right after the blood-tingling speech which Henry V makes to his troops at the same siege, "Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more" (III. i), the mirror-scene can hardly fail to reinforce doubts as to the propriety of Henry V's presence in France.

10 The image has ironic implications, since honey soon cloys. It is precisely this that Henry IV has in mind when he reproves Hal and likens him to Richard II as a self-indulgent man who, "being daily swallowed by men's eyes, / They surfeited with honey and began / To loathe the taste of sweetness" (/ Henry IV, III. ii. 70-72).

11 Shakespeare's source, Holinshed's Chronicles (2nd ed., 1587), mistakenly says that Edmund Mortimer was proclaimed "heire apparant"; see Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. G. Bullough (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1962), IV, 184. In point of fact, the man proclaimed heir-presumptive was Roger Mortimer, fourth Earl of March. The error is unimportant: when Roger died before King Richard, his rights as heir-presumptive passed to his son Edmund.

12 For recent discussions of the Elizabethan view that orderly succession to the crown went by primogeniture, see Sigurd Burkhardt, Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1968), pp. 167-68; Keeton, pp. 251-57.

13 It is strange that modern editors of the play, in listing the dramatis personae, identify York (who speaks a mere two lines) as "cousin to the king," but list Cambridge separately and without a similar description. Strictly speaking, York and Cambridge were first cousins to Bolingbroke and thus second cousins to Henry V.

14 Bullough, IV, 386. The real motive is noted briefly by various editors, including J. D. Wilson and J. H. Walter.

15 Bullough, IV, 386.

16 Goddard, p. 229.

17 According to Tillyard, p. 238, Daniel "was in high repute just before Shakespeare began his second historical tetralogy. . . . " Daniel sets forth Cambridge's motivation—the replacement of Henry V by the childless Earl of March, thereby assuring that the crown would descend to his own heirs—in Book IV, st. 26-38 (or Bk. V, st. 24-36 in the edition of 1609). See The Civil Wars of Samuel Daniel, ed. Laurence Michel (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1958), pp. 183-87.

18 Abundant evidence of this popularity is provided by the numerous quarto editions of the histories, both pirated and legitimate, as well as contemporary allusions: for the latter, see E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1930), II, 188, 205, 233, 326-27.

19 The captive Edmund Mortimer (married to Glen-dower's daughter and brother-in-law to Hotspur) was actually an uncle of the Edmund Mortimer who was Earl of March and heir to the rights of the Duke of Clarence. Holinshed confuses the two, and Shakespeare follows suit; but again, the error is dramatically unimportant.

20 Bullough, III (1960), 47.

21 See E. K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1923), III, 306-7. The play was revived in 1602; quarto editions appeared in 1600 and 1619. The text is reprinted in The Shakespeare Apocrypha, pp. 127-64.

22 That the authors of Oldcastle were writing with Henry V (as well as Henry IV) in mind is indicated by some unmistakable echoes in their counterblast: for example, the passage in which Harpoole makes the Sumner eat the Bishop's warrant (Oldc, II. i. 56-86) imitates that in which Fluellen makes Pistol eat the leek (V. i); the pre-battle gambling scene where King Harry, in disguise, argues with Sir John of Wrotham (Oldc., IV. i. 51-152) parallels the pre-battle scene where Shakespeare's disguised king disputes with Williams (IV. i); and the denunciation of Cobham as a traitor by the Bishop and King Harry (Oldc., IV. ii. 54-84) recalls the denunciation of Scroop by Shakespeare's king (II. ii).

23King Henry V, ed. J. Dover Wilson (New Cambridge Shakespeare; Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1947). p. 140.

24 Matthew, p. 35.

25 Bullough, IV, 384-85.

26 Ibid., 386. That the Yorkist Earl of Cambridge accepted aid from the French in his abortive bid to unseat the king is hardly surprising: so did the Lancastrian Earl of Richmond, in his successful attempt to overthrow the last Yorkist monarch (Richard III, IV. iv. 523, V. iii. 315-36). Furthermore, like Cambridge (on behalf of the Yorkists), Richmond claimed the throne in virtue of descent from Edward III in the female line.

27 Bullough, IV, 386.

28 Battenhouse believes, pp. 174-75, that Henry is "blindly" unaware of the weakness in his position—unaware that in claiming to inherit through the female line in France, he is undermining his position in denying Mortimer's right to inherit through the female line in England; but to assume that Henry is really blind, rather than diplomatically so, is to deny his obviously high degree of intelligence.

29 Bolingbroke's deposition of Richard II is likewise characterized, by the Queen, as "a second fall of cursed man" (R2, III. iv. 73-77), and Richard identifies himself with Christ when he talks of being delivered to his sour cross (IV. i. 239-42).

30 Robert L. Kelly, "Shakespeare's Scroops and the 'Spirit of Cain'," SQ, 20 (1969), 79. Earlier in the essay, p. 73, Kelly argues that Scroop and his uncle, the Archbishop of York in 1 and 2 Henry IV, "stand for Satanic evil under an appearance of piety. . . . The evil symbolized by these men, having no apparent source in motives of greed, ambition, or vengeance, is ultimately inexplicable[!], and all the more difficult to detect and root out."

31 Bullough, IV, 384.

32 The sinfulness of supporting the Lancastrian usurper is emphasized not only in Richard II's public and admittedly partisan denunciation of the heinous offense committed by North umberland and other adherents of the new regime (Richard II, IV. i. 232-42) but also in Hotspur's private admission that the supporters of Bolingbroke share in his crime of "murderous subornation" (7 Henry IV, I. iii. 160-79).

33 For a brief discussion of the evidence that Shakespeare himself believed in the justice of the Mortimer-Yorkist claim, see Keeton, p. 257.

34 Erasmus (cited by Walter, p. xvii) notes that it is good for a Christian monarch to marry, but points out that marriage for the sake of an alliance is liable to create further strife.

David Scott Kastan (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "'The King is a Good King, but it must be as it may': History, Heroism, and Henry V" in Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time, University Press of New England, 1982, pp. 56-76.

[In the essay below, Kastan argues that Henry's moral certitude prevents him from questioning the justice of his cause or permitting anyone else to challenge it. The critic maintains that the king is convinced that God is on his side and that the war against France is legally as well as divinely sanctioned, and so he ignores or suppresses any suggestion of moral ambiguity or complexity.]

As Spenser and Milton understood so well, the reformation forced a significant revaluation of the traditional ideas and images of heroism. Human strength must be a problematic virtue in a world shaped by and charged with the will of God, but even more so when faith rather than deeds is understood as the source of justification. The Pelagian thrust of heroic action was countered by St Paul's insistence that

by grace are ye saued through faith, and that not of your selues: it is the gifte of God, Not of workes, lest any man shulde boaste him self.

(Ephesians 2:8-9)

In Book I of The Faerie Queene, Spenser sounds the Pauline theme, warning against the 'boasts of fleshly might', since

If any strength we haue, it is to ill,
But all the good is Gods, both power and eke will.


Similarly, Milton's Gabriel reminds Satan of the true nature of creatural power:

I know thy strength, and thou know'st mine,
Neither our own, but giV'n; what folly then
To boast what Arms can do.

(Paradise Lost, IV. 1006-8)

Both poets, however, see that Protestantism demands not a repudiation of heroic ideals but a redefinition, and each succeeds in re-establishing the claims of heroic achievement. Spenser's poem records and rehearses the heroism of fallen man struggling to be re-educated 'In the virtues which he lost with the Fall',1 while Milton's celebrates 'The better fortitude / Of Patience and Heroic Martyrdom' (IX.30-1). The heroic image is validated and revitalized by locating it firmly within a matrix of Christian history. The 'Adventurous act' may occasion wonder and admiration, but it has significant meaning only in a world where God's love of man—the grace that can authenticate and guarantee heroic value—and man's love of God—the faith that can animate and direct heroic energy—are each axiomatic.

In the world of Shakespeare's history plays, however, grace and faith are not axiomatic. Their open-ended structures, as I have argued, stand as dramatic challenge to the providential assumptions of most Tudor historiography. Here history demands to be understood as secular history—history denied any participation in the economy of salvation. In such a world, heroic energy and moral purpose necessarily lack authority and direction. The achievements of 'The righteous Artegall', in book five of The Faerie Queene, are limited, vulnerable to irony and time; yet, for Spenser, even in an age of iron, the sanctions upon which action rests are simple and unambiguous: 'All creatures must obey the voice of the most high' (V.ii.40). The histories, however, mute 'The voice of the most high', and therefore the ground of human action is uncertain and insecure. The Bastard in King John provides the perfect emblem of man in Shakespeare's history plays:

I am amazed, methinks, and lose my way
Among the thorns and dangers of this world.


In Henry V, Shakespeare examines the claims of heroic achievement as they appear 'Among the thorns and dangers of this world'. He satisfies our desire and need for the heroic image at the same time he allows us to see its costs and limitations. Henry is indeed a hero, but he is so only because of his willingness to deny the character of the time that mocks heroic achievement. (However, the appeal of the heroic image need not be diminished by this fact. If the destructive action of time frustrates heroic attainment, it also insures the value of the heroic image. Against the flux of time, the heroic image functions as an at least psychologically necessary assertion of human dignity and worth.) Henry proceeds always as if he acts on a stage filled with sacred time and purpose—that is, as if he has succeeded in 'Redeeming time' (7 Henry IV, I.ii.205)—but the open ends of the play themselves declare his presence in a more secular theatre. Time charged with the will of God is benign and restorative, but the open-ended history play frames the time only of 'This breathing world' (Richard III,I.i.217)—a time that continues relentlessly, denying men 'surety', 'Hope', and 'stay'.2 Though England under Henry reaches its greatest medieval glory, his reign, as Shakespeare so clearly realizes, brings no lasting changes. Interestingly, this is the judgment of most modern historians. A. R. Myers writes that 'He won unity for his realm and glory for himself at the price of immediate misery for France and eventual confusion for England'.3 And Harold Hutchison, who allows that Henry provided 'A heroic myth for generations to come', condemns 'The barrenness of his glory and the futility of his achievement'.4

Unlike their modern counterparts, historians in the sixteenth century were willing to isolate the victorious acts of Henry V from the temporal context in which they occur. From such a vantage point, they saw only the peerless warrior-king, and it is their uncritically heroic conception of Henry that informs the voice of the Chorus. Echoing the language of Hall and Holinshed, the Chorus sees Henry as 'The mirror of all Christian kings' (II.cho.6) and the 'star of England' (epi.6). Even scholars who are sharply critical of Henry recognize the Chorus' celebration of 'This grace of kings' (II.cho.28). Indeed, the irony that they find in Shakespeare's treatment is located precisely in the disparity between the heroic promise of the Chorus and the action delivered by the play. 'Through the Choruses', writes Harold Goddard, 'The playwright gives us the popular idea of his hero. In the play, the poet tells the truth about him.'5

Yet the dynamics of Shakespeare's multiple focus are more complex than Goddard suggests. Shakespeare does not so simply play off the myth and the man, for the 'Truth' about Henry includes though certainly is not identical with the heroic conception of popular account. Shakespeare acknowledges this partial truth in the lines of the historical plot, giving the history of the reign virtually mythic shape and significance essentially by virtue of three omissions from the chronicles' narrative.6 First, the anti-Lancastrian rebellions and the Lollard activity that dominated the first eighteen months of Henry's reign are ignored in Shakespeare's play, replacing the reality of a divided and distrustful country with the illusion of a unified England unquestioningly committed to the will of its king.7 Second, the events of the French war are selected and compressed in such a manner that the great victory at Agincourt leads directly to the peace at Troyes, omitting the intervening four years of intensive campaigning that brought about a peace in 1420. Finally, the peace settlement in Shakespeare's play concludes the fighting and looks toward a time of 'Christian-like accord' (V.ii.337). Holinshed, on the contrary, writes of the Dauphin Charles'8 refusal to accept the peace terms, forcing Henry to return to France. This subsequent invasion was not as successful as the first, and in 1422 Henry died, having failed to subdue the stubborn Dauphin.9

Thus, the broad outline of Shakespeare's dramatic version of the military history shows England's Harry leading a small band of loyal and brave soldiers against a much larger force of arrogant and decadent Frenchmen. The astounding victory at Agincourt ends the threat from France and confirms England's military and moral pre-eminence. The formulation is undeniably a cliché of propagandistic plotting, but it serves perfectly to reveal the play's transformation of history into patriotic myth.

Shakespeare, however, forces an audience to recognize the instability of the shape of this restructured history. Certainly we are allowed (in fact, made) to see and glory in the great military and political successes of Henry's rule—and no reading of the play will suffice that does not respond to these as significant and substantial achievements—but the mythic outlines dissolve in the more complex temporal (and moral) context that the play provides. We are made to feel the scope and appeal of Henry's famous victories, but we see simultaneously what D. A. Traversi calls 'certain contradictions, human and moral, inherent in the notion of a successful king'.10 We see Henry as a hero, but we see more clearly than ever Henry does exactly what this means.

After the Chorus disingenuously laments the inadequacy of artistry and stage that prevents more perfect realization of 'This great accompt' (I.cho.17), the scene reveals not the anticipated heroic posture of the English king but the political manoeuverings of a worldly church. The Bishops of Ely and Canterbury, concerned lest they 'Lose the better half of [their] possession' (I.i.8), search for ways to 'Resist' the enactment of a bill that would give to the king 'All the temporal lands which men devout / By testament have given to the church' (I.i.9-10). An audience not familiar with the chronicles must wonder what this has to do with the promised confrontation of 'Two mighty monarchies' (I.cho.20). Holinshed, for his part, makes it clear that the impetus for the French war emerges from the desire of the churchmen to prevent the Leicester parliament from enacting the confiscatory law:

they thought best to trie if they might moue with some sharpe inuention, that he [Henry] should not regard the importunate petitions of the commons wherevpon on a daie in the parlement, Henrie Chichelie, Archbishop of Canturburie, made a pithie oration, wherein he declared, how not onelie the duchies of Anjou and Maine, and the countrie of Gascoigne, were by undoubted title apperteining to the king, as to the lawfull and onelie heire of the same; but also the whole realme of France, as heire to his great grandfather king Edward the third.11

Apologists for Henry have argued that Shakespeare does not follow the pattern indicated by Holinshed. 'It is clear from his text', writes Dover Wilson, 'That before the Archbishop takes any hand in the affair at all, not only has the whole question of Henry's title in France been broached' but the king has 'Long since decided for an invasion. . . . It is not the Archbishop who sets the king awork, but the king the Archbishop'.12

Yet if this account is accurate one may well wonder why the scene exists at all. At best it is irrelevant, and at worst it leads to a serious misvaluing of the action that follows. Wilson, however, has in fact overstated the differences between Shakespeare's account and that of Holinshed, for we can find in the first scene of Henry V indication that, as in Holinshed, the French war is strategically urged by the churchmen to prevent passage of the expropriation bill.13 Ely's question about the king's inclination towards the bill elicits Canterbury's revealing reply:

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,
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.

(l.i.72-81, emphasis mine)

The king, at least in the archbishop's account, sways to the churchmen's part because of ('For'—the conjunction that Jonson calls the 'cause renderer')14 the 'Offer' to finance an operation which the Archbishop himself has 'Opened to his grace at large / As touching France'. Though this discussion between the king and the Archbishop of Canterbury has taken place in the undramatized time before the events which open the play, we cannot say with Dover Wilson that the question of Henry's title has been raised 'before the Archbishop takes any hand in the affair at all'. Certainly, Canterbury's refutation of the Salic law merely sanctions a course of action that Henry already favours, but an audience has been made aware that earlier negotiations have taken place. What remains unresolved (and unresolvable) is the issue of whether Henry's 'Thoughts concerning us and France' (l.ii.6) occasion or are occasioned by the bishops' offer to finance the war. In either case, the scene seems designed to prevent an audience from feeling unreserved patriotic emotions. Shakespeare deliberately complicates our response by evoking this undramatized past. Our search for the ground of action is frustrated. The play makes us aware of the difficulty of recovering motives from 'The dark backward and abysm of time' (The Tempest, l.ii.50).

The objection may be raised that too much importance is being placed on verbal subtleties not evident in performance, yet the reply must be that dramatically no other interpretation seems possible. In The Famous Victories, well before the archbishop ever speaks, an audience hears of the king's 'embassage' to tell France that 'Harry of England hath sent for the Crowne, and Harry of England will have it' (ll. 723-5). Similarly, the temporal ordering of Holinshed gave Shakespeare the opportunity to follow the heroic promise of the opening Chorus with Henry's passionate defiance of the Dauphin, for in the Chronicles the insult precedes the convocation of the Leicester parliament of 1414.15 Shakespeare chooses instead to ignore the precedents and to place the scene with the calculating bishops between the Chorus and Henry's decision to go to war. The logical fallacy, post hoc ergo propter hoc, is often a dramatic truth, and the interposed scene can only serve to raise doubts about 'The well hallowed cause' that motivates the war.

The lustre of the celebrated war will certainly be tarnished if it is understood not 'On the high moral grounds of righting lost wrongs and regaining lost rights'16 but as the self-serving device of a Church desperate to retain its wealth. The contrary has, of course, been argued by those who hold that the archbishop's sanction itself establishes that the war has been righteously undertaken;17 but the archbishop's confirmation of Henry's right should not provide much comfort to Henry's uncritical supporters. If an audience loses the thread of the labyrinthine speech, the archbishop's assurance that the complex proof is 'As clear as is the summer's sun' (I.ii.86) must seem a laughable effort to rescue the argument from the appearance of sophistry which it almost inevitably assumes. If, on the other hand, an audience closely follows Canterbury's argument, Henry fares little better. Once the principle of 'claiming from the female' (I.ii.92) is affirmed, Henry's right not only to the throne of France but also to that of England itself can be challenged, for Mortimer's descent from Philippa (daughter of Lionel, Duke of Clarence) has undeniable primacy in the line of Edward III from which both claims originate.

In either case, Canterbury is of demonstrably insufficient moral stature to fulfil the role that many would thrust upon him. He is an all-too-worldly prelate whose opposition to the bill of confiscation reveals his repudiation of such traditional church responsibilities as the 'Relief of lazars' and the establishment of 'Alm-shouses right well supplied' (I.i.15,17). Henry may 'Hear, note, and believe in heart / that what you [i.e. the archbishop] speak is in your conscience washed/ As pure as sin with baptism' (I.ii.30-2), but an audience, having witnessed the first scene, will of necessity be more critical.

One might argue that Henry is in no way tainted by these considerations. Indeed Charles Barber claims that 'The churchmen may have politic reasons for encouraging the war, but for the king all ulterior motives are excluded'.18 Yet if this is true then Henry is no more than an unwitting pawn of the bishops' policy, scarcely an appropriate role for one who Barber maintains is intended to 'Represent the aspirations of the Tudor monarchy'.19 And if Henry is not used by the bishops but in fact is using them, certainly we are no closer to the 'Ideal monarch' that Barber seeks in the play.

J. H. Walter, like Barber uncritical in his praise of Henry, would rescue the king from this skeptical line of argument by asserting that 'To portray Henry as the dupe of two scheming prelates, or as a crafty politician skillfully concealing his aims with the aid of an unscrupulous archbishop is not consistent with claiming at the same time that he is an ideal king'.20 Surely he is right; one cannot reconcile a view of Henry as pawn or politician with a view of him as an ideal king. Nevertheless, what must be reconsidered is not the first part of his formulation, as Walter would have it, but the second. Shakespeare's Henry is not an ideal king at all, merely a successful one.

This is a distinction that perhaps is foreign to the conqueror drama of the 1580s, where soldier-kings commonly glory, as Othello once did, in 'The big wars / That make ambition virtue' (III.iii.349-50). In these plays the ethic of heroic achievement blurs the differences between the ideal and the successful. For Shakespeare, on the other hand, the differences are always clear and crucial. Though shadowy creatures such as the gracious Edward in Macbeth or the virtuous Richmond in Richard III appear to suggest ideal patterns of kingship, they do not so much exist in as exist in spite of the historical world Shakespeare depicts. The histories consistently reveal his awareness of the matrix of human fallibility in which all political action is grounded. Indeed, in Henry V, it is by allowing an audience to see the uncertain genesis of the famous victories that Shakespeare begins his exploration of the necessarily imperfect man that lies beneath Ceremony's 'Intertissued robe of gold and pearl' (IV.i.248).

The opening scenes of the play insist upon the exercise of a moral pressure that the Elizabethan conqueror drama suppresses. We are made to ask, with a rigor greater than Henry's own, whether he may 'With right and conscience make this claim' (I.ii.96); and though the play's self-conscious evocation of anterior time prevents us from answering with any real assurance, it at least forces us to recognize the inadequacy of Henry's answer in his characteristic idiom of moral certainty. He may be confident of 'His cause being just and his quarrel honorable', but we must agree with the soldier Williams that 'That's more than we know' (IV.i. 120-2). Almost never do wars begin where the 'Wrongs' of one party alone give 'edge unto the swords / That makes such waste in brief mortality' (I.ii.27-8); and surely the French war, justified by a genealogical claim that has but questionable applicability to Henry and which Edward III had himself relinquished in the terms of the treaty of Bretigny (1360),21 is not the rare exception.

Henry, however, does not wish to be confronted with ethical considerations that might give pause to his heroic energy. He wants to be assured that the war is but the extension of his 'Rightful arm in a well-hallowed cause' (I.ii.294), yet the moral probity that he apparently seeks is perhaps less an indication that he is Shakespeare's ideal king than that he is Shakespeare's idealistic king. His vision of the world is marked by an insistent moral idealism in which the truth of almost every issue 'stands off as gross / As black and white' (II.ii. 103-4).

Recognition of this tendency suggests a possible solution to a long-standing puzzle. Critics have often wondered about Henry's silence at Cambridge's confession that

the gold of France did not seduce,
Although I did admit it as a motive
The sooner to effect what I intended.

(II.ii. 155-7)

They gloss the traitor's actual intent easily enough by reference to the historical events that Shakespeare recalls in 1 Henry VI (II.v.63-92). There he writes that Cambridge 'Levied an army, weening to redeem/ And have installed [Mortimer] in the diadem'. For his rebellion Cambridge 'Was beheaded. Thus the Mortimers/ In whom the title rested, were suppressed'. Yet though Cambridge's allusion is easily enough annotated, the reason why Henry should fail to respond to this hint of the dynastic controversy or even why the hint is given at all has been more elusive. Surely it is inadequate to argue that Henry's silence shows Shakespeare's unwillingness to raise the issue of the Lancastrian usurpation.22 If this were so, there could be no reason (and much reason not) to have Cambridge admit to any motive other than 'The gold of France'. However, as it stands the episode accurately reveals the existence and limitations of Henry's idealism. The absolutism of his moral vision is achieved and maintained only by radical simplification of experience. If he does not react to Cambridge's allusion, it is because to do so would be to allow complexity and contradiction to intrude into his universe.

Cambridge's treachery, which might serve to remind Henry of the weak foundation on which the Lancastrian succession rests, never troubles the English king. The abortive 'Revolt' seems unequivocal in its implications—indeed to Henry it seems 'Another fall of man' (II.ii. 142). Henry ignores the disquieting reminder in Cambridge's confession, for in it rests a challenge to the heroic posture he adopts. Having worked to assure himself of the unambiguous moral character of his undertaking, Henry will not even hear the words that must qualify the moral authority he claims. Heroic action demands unconditional moral supports, and Henry allows nothing to affect his assertive spirit.

Whatever surprise and disappointment the treachery occasions quickly fades before Henry's certainty of the 'glorious' future before him:23

We doubt not now
But every rub is smoothed on our way.

(II.ii. 187-8)

For Henry, the plot against his crown is merely an obstacle inconveniently 'Lurking in our way/To hinder our beginnings' (II.ii. 186-7). Now that it has been exposed, more than ever is he confident of the justice of his cause and the success of his 'enterprise':

We doubt not of a fair and lucky war,
Since God so graciously has brought to light
This dangerous treason.

(II.ii. 184-6)

Rather than disturbing his conscience, as well it might, the incident as Henry understands it confirms his moral certitude: God has seen fit to reveal the treachery, therefore God must approve of the war.

The simplistic moral assurance that Henry takes from this episode is precisely that which gives rise to the discomforting excess of his speech at Harfleur. Convinced of the sanctity of his undertaking, Henry can only see the resistance of the city as blasphemous opposition to his legitimate presence. Harfleur is 'guilty in defense' (III.iii.43) and thus deserves to suffer all that he threatens.

What is it then to me if impious war,
Arrayed in flames to the prince of fiends,
Do with his smirched complexion all fell
feats Enlinked to waste and desolation?
What is'T to me, when you yourselves are cause . . .


The destruction of the city is of course avoided as Harfleur yields, and Shakespeare, ignoring Holinshed, has Henry order Exeter to 'use mercy to them all' (Ill.iii.54).24 Yet even without its fulfilment, the imaginative force of the threat is profoundly disturbing. Modern editors have attempted to justify the speech by reference to contemporary military practice and the authority of Deuteronomy 20,25 but such extra-literary explanations ignore the moral index provided by the poetry. The Deuteronomic law-giver maintains that a city 'If it wil make no peace' may be besieged and sacked after its deliverance:

thou shalt smite all the males thereof with the edge of the sworde.

Onely the women, and the children, and the cattel, and all that is in the citie, euen all the spoile thereof shalt thou take vnto thy self, and shalt eat the spoile of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hathe giuen thee.

(Deuteronomy 20:13-14, Geneva translation)

This, however, is far from the apocalyptic fury of Henry's threat. 'Look to see', Henry warns the citizens of Harfleur,

The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,

And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen.


The ferocity of the minatory outburst unquestionably disturbs the received idea of Henry's heroic stature. He threatens literally to out-Herod Herod, and the speech manifests the same blustering sadism and self-righteousness of the Herod of the Corpus Christi play.

Shakespeare's procedure here is, to say the least, unusual. He suppresses Holinshed's mention of the plunder of Harfleur, replacing it in the play with Henry's order for leniency. Yet equally unmindful of his source, Shakespeare places the savage threats in Henry's mouth instead of following Holinshed's account of the chivalrous conduct of the English before the city.26 The effects of these manipulations of the source seemingly cut in two opposing directions. On the one hand, Henry's order to 'use mercy' works to confirm his own account that he is 'no tyrant, but a Christian king' (I.ii.242), but the speech at the city's gates suggests precisely the reverse. Both the brutal speech and the merciful treatment of Harfleur must be viewed together, however, and both may be seen as behaviour consistent with a man supremely confident of his moral authority. The terrible threats are not evidence that Henry 'does not see the horrors of war feelingly',27 but evidence that he does not see the moral complexity of this war at all. Convinced of his legitimacy and thus of the unlawfulness of the city's resistance, Henry can do no other than enter the city or reduce it to 'Ashes' (III.iii.9). 'France being ours', says Henry earlier, 'We'll bend it to our awe/Or break it all to pieces' (I.ii.225-6). When Harfleur's governor yields to Henry's 'soft mercy' (HI.iii.48), the vision of the English king is confirmed. 'It is pointless even to wonder', as Michael Manheim writes, 'Whether Henry would carry out his threats at Harfleur. It never crosses his mind or anyone else's that the citizens would resist his challenge.'28

Henry's confidence, complete however reductive, in his moral authority also dominates the scenes at Agincourt. He is unshaken by the observation of the soldier Michael Williams that 'If the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make' (IV.i. 127-8), for he has been assured that his cause is indeed 'good'. Yet oddly he fails to provide the answer that Williams seeks. He might have asserted, as Richmond does at Bosworth, that 'God and our good cause fight upon our side' (Richard III, v.iii.241), but instead he evades the direction of the soldier's probing:

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.

(IV.i. 139-46)

The analogies fail to convince, for what Henry takes for granted, 'The business of the master', is precisely that which Williams questions.

Williams will readily agree with Henry that 'every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head—the king is not to answer it' (IV.i. 176-7), but this is not the thrust of the soldier's questioning. Williams has asked not about the king's responsibility for 'The particular endings' of his fighting men but about the king's responsibility for the justice of the cause for which they fight. But to this Henry has no answer.29 Uncritically committed to the absolute probity of his undertaking, Henry will not permit a thorough hearing of this issue. Just as he did with the traitor Cambridge, Henry responds selectively, and what might frustrate his heroic energy remains unaddressed. Here he speaks not to the question of the king's terrible responsibility but to those concerns which are to his mind more immediate to a fighting man about to enter battle: 'Every subject's duty is the king's, but every subject's soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed—wash every mote out of his conscience' (IV.i. 166-70).

The 'Little touch of Harry in the night' (IV.cho.47) primarily serves to reveal Henry's unwillingness to confront the moral challenge his soldiers offer, and the soliloquy that follows indicates how deeply internalized that evasion is. The speech 'Upon the king' gives no more evidence than the interview with Williams and Bates of serious moral struggle.30 It is a rather conventional account of the 'polished perturbation' and 'Golden care' (2 Henry IV, IV.v.22) which, as prince, Henry recognized in the crown, exceptional perhaps only in the splendour with which Henry invests the very 'Ceremony' he derides.31 Henry laments that the burdens of kingship deny him the easy rest of even the most 'Wretched slave' (IV.i.254), but no moral dilemma contributes to these burdens. Even in this rare moment when we see and hear the private man that exists behind 'Thrice-gorgeous ceremony' (IV.i.252), Henry reveals the same radically simplified moral perspective that marks his public behaviour. 'The terrible responsibilities of his office' for Henry do not stem from any recognition of the moral demands it makes. His uneasy sleep results only from the constant 'Watch the king keeps to maintain the peace' (IV.i.269).

He is able to deny the office the tragic moral complexity that Shakespeare so clearly sees. If he knows that 'His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man' (IV.i.101-2), he finds neither contradiction nor ambiguity arising from the dislocation between the private man and the public mask he wears. For Henry, although kingship imposes awesome obligations, its moral claims are remarkably uncomplicated. He must 'Maintain the peace', and, almost incredibly yet entirely characteristically, he sees no tension between this charge and his presence in France at the moment he speaks the words.32

Were it not for the soliloquy, our twentieth-century political sensibilities might lead us to praise Henry as a realistic and pragmatic ruler who, if not an example of kingship such 'As it should be', is at least an example of kingship 'As it might best be' given the nature of fallible humanity and the political world in which he must function.33 Indeed several recent critics have seen Henry as 'A Machiavel conceived of in the happiest terms Shakespeare knows',34 successful because of his ability to create images of authority that obscure his human weaknesses. Yet, were Henry intended to be this Machiavellian monarch, the soliloquy should reveal a mind conscious of the trade-off of moral excellence for effective political leadership. In fact this moment of self-revelation suggests something quite different. Though some have argued that Henry's 'Moral sense is the servant of his policy',35 the soliloquy discloses the exact reverse: Henry's policy is always the servant of his unconditional moral sense. He is not the pragmatist willing to accept the moral loss that must accompany political success but the idealist who, in conceiving of his responsibility as no more and no less than the maintenance of peace, tries to deny that any such loss takes place at all.

Nowhere is this more clear than in Henry's prayer before Agincourt, for his petition to the 'God of battles' (IV.i.275) indicates no awareness of the moral vulnerability of his position. He has not been led by Williams' skeptical argument to re-examine his 'Right and conscience'. Certain that both are untainted, he asks only that God 'Think not upon the fault/[his] father made in compassing the crown' (IV.i.279-80). The justice of the war in France remains unquestioned, as Henry piously catalogues his acts of expiation for his father's sinful disruption of the Angevin line fifteen years earlier.

Yet if Henry's prayer reveals his unchanged confidence in the moral propriety of his presence in France, his speech to Westmoreland reveals significantly less confidence in the military consequences of that presence. He perceives the desperate situation of his outnumbered forces, although, perhaps surprisingly, he is unwilling to take comfort, as Richard II does, in any thought that 'God omnipotent/Is mustering in his clouds on our behalf/Armies of pestilence' (Richard II,III.iii.85-7). To make such a claim is to risk the very examination of the justice of his cause that Henry has worked so hard to prevent anyone—even himself—from undertaking. Perhaps to preclude any such inquiry or merely because he knows that 'The Goddes do help the doers',36 he appeals to the pride not the piety of his small band of Englishmen:

gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.


Led by their inspiring leader, the English soldiers, of course, win a decisive victory. When, asks Henry, 'Was ever known so great and little loss/On one part and on th' other?' (IV.viii. 105-6). Indeed, Shakespeare presents the English achievement at Agincourt as little short of miraculous. Chronicles and play agree that this was the great military achievement of medieval England, but the chronicles, unlike the play, emphasize that success was in part gained by 'A politike inuention'.

He [Henry] caused stakes bound with iron sharpe at both ends of the length of fiue or six foot to be pitched before the archers, and of ech side the footmen like an hedge, to the intent that if the barded horsses ran rashlie vpon them, they might shortlye be gored and destroied.37

In The Famous Victories of Henry V, the same fact is given prominence. Henry is shown ordering the stakes deployed, and this strategy is the only aspect of the battle that elicits comment from John Cobler and Robin Pewterer:

John: But, Robin, didst thou see what a
pollicie the king had? To see how the
french-men were kild with the stakes of the trees!
Robin: I, Iohn, there was a braue pollicie.38

Shakespeare, on the contrary, omits all reference to this 'braue pollicie'. His Henry pointedly claims that victory came

without stratagem
But in plain shock and even play of battle.

(IV.viii. 103-4)

The defeat of the French against the 'Fearful odds' (IV.iii.5) that the English face would perhaps be explicable if mention were made of the superior military tactics of the 'Happy few', but Shakespeare seems deliberately to emphasize the improbable nature of the victory.

The casualty report reinforces the miraculous aspect of Agincourt. The French, as in the chronicles, are said to have lost ten thousand men, while the English lose only

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.


This is almost an exact transcription from Holinshed, but it omits the rest of the sentence where Holinshed writes that this is only 'As some do report'.39 Hall, even more incredulous, adds to a similar account, 'If you will geue credite to suche as write miracles'.40 Both historians are well aware that 'Other writers of greater credit affirme, that there were slaine aboue fiue or six hundred persons'.41

Even at the larger figure the victory is of enormous proportion, and Shakespeare's adoption of the report of least credit (along with the omission of the fact that the English made use of the sharpened stakes) suggests that probability is here being deliberately eschewed. The credible is rejected in favour of the miraculous; the historical logic of probable cause, in favour of the poetic logic of giant-killing.

Henry, of course, claims no personal credit and is quick to acknowledge God's agency. Five times in eighteen lines he rings changes on the theme,

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


This is the exact attitude of the historian Hall, who writes that God

sent to [Henry] this glorious victory, whiche victory is almost incredible if we had not redde in thee booke of kynges that God likewise had defended and aided them that onely put their trust in hym and committed themselues to his gouernaunce.42

Henry has put his trust in God, or, more accurately, he at least assumes that God has put His trust in Henry.

Clearly his professions of piety are not the conventional shows of modesty that Renaissance manuals of military conduct advise,43 yet neither are they compelling evidence of a profound and mature Christianity. Henry is unquestionably sincere, but his piety after the battle reflects his characteristic moral stance. Before Agincourt Henry does not invoke God's authority, but now he can praise God comfortably without fear of raising troublesome moral issues, for the outcome, to Henry's mind, is powerful testimony to the justice of his cause. To attribute the victory to God is to confirm the sanctity of his enterprise, and the psalms which Henry orders sung appropriately serve the moral absolutism of his vision. The sheer reiteration of Henry's claim 'That God fought for us' (IV.viii.115) may itself suggest that Shakespeare holds up Henry's piety for critical examination, but if not, certainly Fluellen's scarcely convincing, or convinced, agreement with Henry must:

Yes, by my conscience, he did us great good.


Henry has begun the campaign by taking assurance from the archbishop that he may 'With right and conscience make this claim', and he ends by taking assurance from God Himself that this is so. All that might contradict or even complicate such confidence Henry relentlessly suppresses. 'Knowledge', in Nietzsche's apothegm, 'Kills action', and Henry carefully forestalls the death. The ironies of the archbishop's speech, the hint of dynastic controversy in Cambridge's confession, the skeptical thrust of Williams' questioning are all ignored as Henry marches swiftly and triumphantly through France. If he is Shakespeare's most successful king, he is so precisely because his uncritical moral intelligence forges the unambiguous moral environment that heroic action demands.

In King John, the Bastard's political and military success results from his complete awareness of the problematic moral character of time; Henry's success in this play results from his refusal to acknowledge that character. 'The scambling and unquiet time' (I.i.4) of Henry V has moral contours no less indistinct than those of King John, but Henry wilfully denies them. His heroic posture is animated and maintained by a restricted moral vision that creates images of simple and certain moral oppositions.

For this very reason, Moody Prior argues that 'Henry V fails us because whereas the preceding [history] plays are permeated with the ambiguities and harsh dissonances of the political world, the king in this one is separated from them and is presented as politically uncontaminated'.44 But Henry V does not fail us, because it is not the play that separates the king from 'The ambiguities and harsh dissonances of the political world' but the king himself. Henry V, not Henry V, seeks to deny the heavy moral price that political success exacts. His unconditional moral vision does not admit the tragic implications of kingship that Shakespeare explores in all the histories. Shakespeare knows well that the fallible humanity of even this 'Mirror of all Christian kings' makes large the gap between the ideal and the real. 'The king is a good king', as Pistol says, 'but it must be as it may' (II.i.121).

The final scene, however, tempts us to assent to Henry's own vision. The peace with France and the marriage with Katherine provide potent images of comic resolution. Eugene Waith observes that 'The pattern of romance asserts itself powerfully here in preparations for a marriage to reward the efforts of a hero and to symbolize the attainment of harmony'.45 Yet clearly this is less Shakespeare's vision than Henry's own. The greatest English king sees his reign as a romance, but the greatest English playwright makes us see it as a history.

Henry knows that 'nice customs curtsy to great kings' (v.ii.260), and in the final scene he would have the nice custom of royal marriage sanctify and guarantee his conquest. Marriage indeed might serve as a powerful image of healing and harmony, as in Hall's account of 'The union of Matrimony celebrate and consummate betwene the high and myghty Prynce kyng Henry the seuenth and the Lady Elyzabeth his mooste worthy Quene'. In that marriage, Hall claims that 'Al men'

may apparantly perceiue, that as by discorde great thynges decaie and fall to ruyne, so the same by concorde be reuiued and erected. In likewise also all regions whiche by deuision and discension be vexed, molested and troubled, bee by union and agrement releued, pacified, and enriched.46

Only Henry is 'enriched' by this marriage, however, and his territorial drive is too naked for the promised wedding to authenticate the harmony it would effect. Not God's will but Henry's dictates the marriage. 'I am content', he says imperiously to Katherine's father, 'so the maiden cities you talk of may wait on her. So the maid that stood in the way for my wish shall show me the way to my will' (v.ii.312-14). The absence of all but enforced 'concorde' prevents this union from serving as a symbol of restoration and a promise of renewal. As prince, Henry could 'drink with any tinker in his own language' (1 Henry IV, II.iv. 18), but as king he cannot even speak with his intended wife in hers.

If we are troubled, however, Henry is not. He insists upon the romance ending that Shakespeare would disrupt. Always to Henry time appears unthreatening and providential,47 and he has no reason to doubt that it shall bring fulfilment of the French Queen's prayer:

God, the best maker of all marriages,
Combine your hearts in one, your realms in one!
As man and wife, being two, are one in love,
So be there 'Twixt your kingdoms such a spousal
That never may ill office, or fell jealousy,
Which troubles oft the bed of blessed marriage,
Thrust in between the paction of these kingdoms
To make divorce of their incorporate league;
That English may as French, French Englishmen,
Receive each other! God speak this Amen!


But God does not 'speak this Amen' (unlike the 'Amen' He does speak to Richmond's prayer at the end of Richard III). If, as Exeter says, Henry 'Weighs time /Even to the utmost grain' (II.iv. 137-8), the sand he measures is of a character different than he thinks. Time reveals not the restorative action of romance but the destructive action of history. Henry himself, the epilogue tells us, is granted but 'small time' (epi.5), and his son, who Henry prophesied should 'go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard' (v.ii.203), becomes that unfortunate monarch,

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

(epi. 11-12)

Time in the histories is inescapable and relentless. When Henry is concerned that Katherine should not love him, he is assured by Burgundy that 'Maids well summered and warm kept are like flies at Bartholomew-tide. . . then they will endure handling which before would not abide looking on' (v.ii.296-300). Henry replies to this with a wisdom greater than he knows:

This moral ties me over to time and a hot summer.


He is indeed tied to time. The open ends of the play powerfully declare this bond and declare the failure—even as they establish the appeal—of his heroic effort to deny the moral and chronological loss that existence in time demands.


1 Maurice Evans, Spenser's Anatomy of Heroism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970) p. 29. See also Paul J. Alpers, The Poetry of The Faerie Queene (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967) pp. 334 -69.

2King John, V.vii.67-9.

3England in the Late Middle Ages (8th ed.; Baltimore: Penguin, 1972) p. 122.

4Henry V (New York: John Day, 1967) p. 225.

5The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) p. 218.

6 The anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry V, makes these same omissions in dealing with the reign.

7 The treason of Grey, Scroop, and Cambridge is here the exception that proves the rule. Cambridge's enigmatic hint of a 'Motive' other than the 'gilt of France' is left undeveloped, the dynastic controversy is ignored, and the treason is viewed as a military device of the French designed solely 'To hinder our beginnings' (II.ii. 187).

8 Historically, three sons of Charles VI, Lewis, John, and Charles, successively became Dauphin during the period covered by the play. Shakespeare compresses all three into a single, nameless 'Dauphin'.

9Chronicles, 3. Sig. 318 -3K2 .

10Shakespeare: From Richard II to Henry V (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1957) p. 177. We must also notice that these contradictions are (as the edited text for Olivier's film version of 1944 makes clear) present in the play itself and not merely the result of considering Henry V in the light of the Henry IV plays. Cf. Moody Prior, The Drama of Power (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973) pp. 314-17.

11Chronicles, 3 Sig. 3Gl .

12Henry V, ed. Dover Wilson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1947) pp. xx-xxi.

13 This reading of the first scene was advanced over sixty years ago by Gerald Gould, 'A New Reading of Henry V', The English Review, 29 (1919) 42-55.

14Ben Jonson, i. 550. C. H. Hobday notes that 'That word for is decisive' in his 'Imagery and Irony in Henry V', Shakespeare Survey, 21 (1968) 110.

15Chronicles, 3, Sig. 3Gl . In Hall, as in Shakespeare, the Dauphin's insult occurs at the opening of the Leicester parliament.

16 Campbell, Shakespeare's Histories, pp. 263-4.

17 In addition to Campbell, pp. 270-1, see also Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare, p. 187; M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty, p. 324; Dover Wilson's New Cambridge Henry V, p. xxiii; and J. H. Walter's New Arden Henry V (London: Methuen, 1954) pp. xxii-xxiii.

18 'Prince Hal, Henry V, and the Tudor Monarchy', The Morality of Art, ed. D. W. Jefferson (London: Routledge, 1969) p. 73.

19 'Prince Hal, Henry V, and the Tudor Monarchy', p. 72.

20 New Arden Henry V, p. xxii. Ralph Berry's chapter on Henry V in The Shakespearean Metaphor (London: Macmillan, 1978) pp. 48-60, effectively challenges this view.

21 Holinshed, Chronicles, 3, Sig. 2D3 v.

22 See, for example, the comment of Dover Wilson in the New Cambridge Henry V: 'It seems odd that Shakespeare did not make it more explicit, until we remember that he meant to avoid anything that casts doubt on the legitimacy of Henry V (p. 140n). See also Karl P. Wentersdorf's 'The Conspiracy of Silence in Henry V, SQ 27 (1976) 264-87, which looks closely at the political issues raised by the scene.

23 For an alternative reading of this scene, see James Winny, The Player King, pp. 184-6. Winny argues that the rapid 'Transformation of outlook' from Henry's 'shocked depression' to his 'Happy assurance' of success indicates a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the play. Norman Rabkin sees these contradictions everywhere, sees them indeed as the very pattern in the carpet. In 'Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V, SQ 28 (1977) 279-96, he argues that the play serves as an example of 'complementarity' in which the contradictions reveal that the 'Inscrutability of Henry V is the inscrutability of history'.

24 Holinshed reports that 'The souldiors were ransomed, and the towne sacked, to the great gaine of the Englishmen' (3, Sig. 3G3v).

25 See Dover Wilson's New Cambridge Henry V, p. 150n; and J. W. Walter's New Arden edition of the play, p. 66n.

26 Holinshed writes that Henry sent word to Harfleur 'That except they would surrender the towne to him the morrow next insuing, without anie condition, they should spend no more time in talke about the matter. But yet at length through the earnest sute of the French lords, the king was contented to grant them truce until nine of the clocke the next sundae, being the two and twentith of September; with condition, that if in the means time no rescue came, they should yeeld the towne at that houre, with their bodies and goods to stand at the kings pleasure'. Chronicles, 3, Sig. 3G3v.

27 See Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage, p. 189.

28The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play, p. 175. Manheim, however, views the speech not as evidence of Henry's moral absolutism but as evidence of his profound Machiavellianism. It is a bit of 'play-acting' designed to create an 'Image for himself which if he keeps in fact will assure his success' (pp. 175-6). For a criticism of this view, see pp. 69-70.

29 Henry Kelly, in contrast to the position I take, argues that perhaps we are not meant to be disturbed by Henry's evasion. Williams, he writes, 'speaks as if Henry has completely answered his argument, and we are perhaps to assume that the objection which Henry answered was implicit in Williams' mind at the close of his speech' (Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories, p. 239n). The assumption that Henry is a mind-reader seems, however, far less convincing than the assumption that he deliberately chooses to answer a different argument than Williams presents.

30 The contrary, of course, has usually been argued. See for example M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty, p. 330; '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'.

31 See Robert Ornstein's A Kingdom for a Stage, p. 196.

32 Shakespeare obviously needed no source for Henry's factitious use of 'peace' in the speech, but he could have found in The Annales of Tacitus, which did serve as a source for Henry V, the complaint against the Romans under Agricola: 'To take away by maine force, to kill and to spoile, falsely they terme Empire and gouernment: When all is waste as a wildernesse, that they call peace' (trans. Richard Greneway, London, 1598, Sig. R5v).

33 The quoted phrases are used by Spenser in his letter 'To the Right noble, and Valorous, Sir Walter Raleigh knight', The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser, ed. J. C. Smith (1909; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964) 486.

34 Manheim, The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play, p. 169. In addition to Manheim's chapter (pp. 167-82), see also Robert B. Parker, 'The Prince and the King: Shakespeare's Machiavellian Cycle', Revue des Langues Vivantes, 38 (1972) 241-53; and Michael Goldman (though he does not explicitly invoke Machiavelli), Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972) pp. 58-73.

35 S. C. Sen Gupta, Shakespeare's Historical Plays (London: Oxford University Press, 1964) p. 146. Herbert R. Coursen, Jr. also claims that 'Morality subserves policy', in 'Henry V and the Nature of Kingship', Discourse 13 (1970) 288.

36 Erasmus, Proverbes or Adagies, trans. Richard Taverner (London, 1569) Sig. G6r.

37 Chronicles, 3, Sig. 3G5 r.

38 11. 1168-73. Chief Pre-Shakespearean Drama, ed. J. Q. Adams (Cambridge, Mass.: Houghton Mifflin, 1924) p. 616.

39Chronicles, 3, Sig. 3G6 r.

40The Union of the Two Noble . . . Families, Sig. d2 r.

41 Holinshed, Chronicles, 3, Sig. 3G6 . See also Hall, Sig. d2 r.

42The Union of the Two Noble . . . Families of Lancaster and York, Sig. d2r-v.

43 See Paul Jorgensen, Shakespeare's Military World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956) pp. 89-90.

44The Drama of Power (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973) pp. 340-1. See also Joanne Alteri, 'Romance in Henry V, SEL 21 (1981) 223-40.

45Ideas of Greatness (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1971) p. 103. More skeptical responses to the final scene may be found in Marilyn Williamson's 'The Courtship of Katherine and the Second Tetralogy', Criticism 17 (1975) 326-34; and Ornstein's A Kingdom for a Stage, pp. 198-9.

46The Union of the Two Noble . . . Families, Sig. Alr-v.

47 Even when Henry is aware of time's passage he finds no significant loss. The body may fail, he tells Kate, but 'A good heart . . . shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly' (v.ii. 157-63). And in his claim of being unhandsome, he concludes that 'The elder I wax the better I shall appear', since 'Old . . . age can do no more spoil upon my face' (v.ii.222-4).

Politics And Ideology

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 19957

Alexander Leggatt (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Henry V," in Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and The Roman Plays, Routledge, 1988, pp. 114-38.

[Below, Leggatt considers possible readings of the play, its depiction of war, and its portrait of political authority. He invokes the need for audiences to be engaged as well as skeptical, particularly with respect to appraising Henry, whom the critic sees as a man motivated by obediencethe same virtue that Canterbury cites as the means of keeping all parts of an ideal nation working in harmony for a common purpose.]

Henry V presents the anatomy of a war. We see the causes and the aftermath, the leaders and the common soldiers, the heroism that lives in legend and the grumbling, sickness, and petty crime that generally do not. Only strategy and tactics are underplayed. Shakespeare is more interested in the feelings and imaginations of his characters than in the way they move on a map—just as in Richard II he was more interested in the mentality that led the King to abuse his office than he was in the abuses themselves. The play's function as anatomy is connected with its episodic quality. We are not so much following an action as looking all round a subject, often in a discontinuous way. This includes not only characters and events but attitudes towards them, even ways of dramatizing them. Henry V provides evidence that can be used in a wide variety of readings, from romantic celebration to ironic satire. In that way it anatomizes not only its subject but the possible responses of its audience. In criticism and performance it becomes, perhaps more obviously than any other play of Shakespeare's, a way of revealing the biases of its interpreters.

As a patriotic pageant it gives a view of the past very different from the view in previous history plays. When York attacked Richard II for betraying the standards of his grandfather, Edward the Black Prince, the moment was typical in its contrast of a heroic past and a diminished present (Richard II, II. i. 171-85). Early in Henry V, on the other hand, Canterbury exhorts Henry:

Look back into your mighty ancestors:
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire's tomb,
From whom you claim; invoke his war-like spirit,
And your great-uncle's, Edward the Black* Prince.

(I. ii. 102-5)

Edward can be revived; he is no longer a lost hero but an inspiration to achievement in the present. In the process, the dynastic problem created by Bolingbroke's usurpation is forgotten. Ely, supporting Canterbury's exhortation, does not examine the lines of Henry's family tree in any detail. The blood is the same; that is enough:

You are their heir, you sit upon their throne,
The blood and courage that renowned them
Runs in your veins.

(I. ii. 117-19)

The continuity that matters lies in the office and the tradition of valour Henry has inherited. We are close to Henry VI's description of Richmond as framed by nature to be England's king.

Even the knockabout comedy of the scene where Fluellen forces Pistol to eat a leek ends with an assertion of the importance of the heroic past. Gower draws the moral as a lesson to Pistol to respect 'An ancient tradition, begun upon an honourable respect, and worn as a memorable trophy of predeceased valour' (V.i. 73-5). Henry represents that 'predeceased valour' come to life again. Recalling the terrible achievements of the Black Prince at Crécy, the French King warns his nobles, 'He is bred out of that bloody strain / That haunted us in our familiar paths' (II. iv. 51-2).1 England itself becomes a magic kingdom. Scotland, Ireland, and Wales send representatives to support it;2 even traitors profess delight at being caught (II. ii. 161-4). The divisions we have seen in previous plays are replaced, as at the end of 2 Henry IV, by a common purpose: 'So may a thousand actions, once afoot, / End in one purpose' (I. ii. 211-12); 'Therefore let every man now task his thought, / That this fair action may on foot be brought'.(I.ii.309-10). It is, we note, action that brings England together. England is unified not by what it is but by what it is doing: 'They sell the pasture now to buy the horse' (II. Chorus, 5). The land itself, a garden in Richard II and a suffering body in 2 Henry IV, has become simply a resource to feed the action. The national imagination has been fired to the point of ecstasy: even before the war begins, the hearts of Henry's followers 'Have left their bodies here in England / And lie pavilion'd in the fields of France (I. ii. 128-9). The French make their contribution to this patriotic fantasy. In Henry VI and King John the French, like all sensible people, speak English. In Henry V, especially when alarmed or excited, they break into French; and it seems to be Princess Katharine's native language. This sense of the Frenchness of the French has an initially comic effect, especially in Pistol's scene with Monsieur le Fer, but it also gives them a quality of otherness. Bickering and leaderless on the eve of Agincourt, they greet their first setback with 'The devil take order now!' (IV. v. 22), and the next we hear they have attacked the boys and the luggage. The contrast with the unity and control of the English under a strong leader is obvious. Against Henry's promise—

he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile
This day shall gentle his condition.

(IV. iii. 61-3)

—we set the concern of the French Herald Montjoy to separate the corpses into classes: 'For many of our princes—woe the while—/ Lie drown'd and soak'd in mercenary blood' (IV. vii. 77-8). At certain points the French seem to be comic-book villains who make satisfyingly foreign noises when defeated. At others they display dignity and intelligence (this is true especially of the King and the Constable), but these qualities are clearest at moments when they show their respect for Henry and his followers.

Part of the excitement of Agincourt is the contrast between the small, tattered English army, 'Warriors for the working-day' (IV. iii. 109), and the vastly greater numbers of the French, gorgeously overdressed and arrogant: 'Let us but blow on them, / The vapour of our valour will o'erturn them' (IV. ii. 23-4). This is the eternal satisfaction of watching Jack kill the Giant. War is also the Great Game. Henry responds to the Dauphin's present of tennis-balls by challenging him to a set that 'Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard' (I. ii. 263), and tells his men at Harfleur, 'I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, / Straining upon the start. The game's afoot' (III. i. 31-2). Excitement is not the only feeling to be played on. The deaths of York and Suffolk are frankly sentimental: 'The pretty and sweet manner of it forc'd / Those waters from me which I would have stopp'd' (IV. vi. 28-9). The French are allowed epic dignity when their King goes through a roll-call of the nobility, and the names themselves produce a sudden charge of excitement (III. v. 40-7).3 The dignity turns sombre when Henry reads the names of the dead at Agincourt (IV. viii. 82-114). The disproportion in the casualties—10,000 French to 29 English—produces a feeling of shock even in the victors. Henry's immediate reaction is to ascribe the victory to God, and there seems (on the evidence of the play) no other explanation. In Richard II God seemed deaf to all invocations, and York concluded bitterly, 'Comfort's in heaven, and we are on the earth' (II. ii. 78). Here, at a time of violent action, God seems to have drawn suddenly close to human affairs, and Henry, whose earlier invocations may have sounded perfunctory, is not just gratified but stunned:

be it death proclaimed through our host
To boast of this or take that praise from God
Which is his only.

(IV. viii. 116-18)

The campaign ends with a formal celebration of God's action: 'Do we all holy rites: / Let there be sung "Non nobis" and "Te Deum"' (IV. viii. 124-5).

Fairy-tale excitement, epic dignity, religious awe: the play gives us all of these, drawn together in the myth of the hero-king. But we also see the grubby reality. The unglamorous side of the war is evoked in the stage direction 'Enter KING HENRY . . . and his poor soldiers' (III. vi. 89SD). Sickness spreads through the army (the historical Henry would die of camp fever), and Grandpré's gloating over the English includes a memorable description of their sick horses (IV. ii. 46-52). Faced with the prospect of carnage, Henry cleverly turns it into a threat that the smell of English corpses 'shall breed a plague in France' (IV. iii. 103), but in doing so he evokes a real horror, the stench of a battlefield when the game is over. France has its revenge in a small way when Doll dies 'i' the spital / Of malady of France' (V. i. 85-6); the nationality of the pox is an old joke, but in this case it connects the spread of disease with the war. Army surgeons do not just deal with wounds. The play also reminds us that between the crises of a war there are long, dreadful periods of waiting: the night before Agincourt seems to stretch for ever, and the French and English are equally on edge. The French while away the time with a convincing barrack-room conversation whose principal themes are sex and horses. The rhetoric of war in the largest sense includes not only patriotic speeches like Henry's great battle orations but a good deal of swearing and grumbling.4 For every utterance on the level of 'Once more unto the breach' there must be thousands on the level of 'By Cheshu, I think a' will plow up all if there is not better directions' and 'By Chrish, la! tish ill done: the work ish give over' (III. ii. 67-8, 91-2). On this level of war, official history is generally silent; Henry V is not.

But at least Fluellen and Macmorris, authors of the complaints just quoted, are committed to the war. Pistol and his companions are in it for their own reasons, delicately suggested in Pistol's 'I shall sutler be / Unto the camp, and profits will accrue' (II. i. 111-12). But though Pistol exhorts his friends, 'Let us to France; like horse-leeches, my boys, / To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck' (II. iii. 56-7), they seldom rise above the level of stealing lute-cases and fire-shovels (III. ii. 44-9). The Boy has an even better idea: 'I would give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety' (III. ii. 12-13). In Henry IV the low life of Eastcheap went its own way till the final disaster. In Henry V the Eastcheap characters are more directly touched by history, enlisted in the great national enterprise. But they keep their own interests and voices. They died off one by one, as though history is determined this time to crush them slowly and thoroughly; but Pistol remains. Like Parolles in All's Well That Ends Well and Pompey in Measure for Measure, he is a survivor:

Well, bawd I'Ll turn,
And something lean to cut-purse of quick hand.
To England will I steal, and there I'Ll steal:
And patches will I get unto these cudgell'd scars,
And swear I got them in the Gallia wars.

(V. i. 89-93)

The grubby life of the underworld not only survives but retains its power to mock respectability. Pistol settles into a parody of the boasting old veteran of the St Crispin's Day speech.

As he did in Richard II and will do again in Coriolanus, Shakespeare gives us early in the play a set piece describing the ideal state. In each case the vision of perfection is at odds with the intractable human reality shown by the play as a whole. Appropriately for a play that presents an anatomy, the state is seen by Exeter as a body: 'While that the armed hand doth fight abroad / Th'Advised head defends itself at home' (I.ii. 178-9). Exeter's concern with the state in action, each part in harmony with the others, leads into Canterbury's extended description of the bees' commonwealth:

Therefore doth heaven divide
The state of men in divers functions,
Setting endeavour in continual motion;
To which is fixed, as an aim or butt,
Obedience: for so work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer's velvet buds;
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor:
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-ey'd justice, with his surly hum,
Delivering o'er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone.

(I. ii. 183-204)

The emphasis on action is characteristic of the play; everyone is doing something, and the penalty for doing nothing is death. The key word, isolated at the beginning of a line, is 'Obedience', for this is what such order depends on. The issue of obedience will return, however, in Henry's debate with his soldiers on the eve of Agincourt, and we shall see that it is not so simple a virtue for men as it seems to be for honeybees. As the speech progresses, its tone becomes increasingly light and jocular, crossing the border from a serious political lesson to a comic fantasy like Mercutio's Queen Mab speech. The comedy does not, as in Menenius' fable of the belly, sharpen the lesson; it seems more a decoration, even a distraction. The fantasy is not the serious fantasy of Gaunt, taking us to a higher level of imagination. Like Drayton's Nimphidia it has about it a disconcerting touch of Walt Disney. In theory this speech presents a working model of the ordered, effectively functioning state that is the play's ideal for England; but when ranked with equivalent speeches in other plays—Gaunt's England, Cranmer's prophecy of Elizabeth—this is the hardest to take seriously.

Looking at the speech with twentieth-century eyes, we note that the bees are (as we would say) exploiting their environment. But pillaging the countryside is part of a system that includes creativity in town, 'The singing masons building roofs of gold'. There is no disturbance here. The play's second set piece about a kingdom, Burgundy's lament for France, gives us only ruin:

Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart,
Unpruned dies; her hedges even-pleach'd,
Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair,
Put forth disorder'd twigs; her fallow leas
The darnel, hemlock and rank fumitory
Doth root upon, while that the coulter rusts
That should deracinate such savagery.

(V. ii. 41-7)

The suggestion of human breakdown is developed in what follows:

Even so our houses and ourselves and children
Have lost, or do not learn for want of time,
The sciences that should become our country,
But grow like savages, as soldiers will
That nothing do but meditate on blood,
To swearing and stern looks, diffus'd attire,
And every thing that seems unnatural.

(V. ii. 56-62)

The picture of the disordered garden we saw in Richard II has become a larger picture of destruction embracing the land and the people. Henry has done what the Gardener wanted: he has ordered the garden of England—including, in the arrests at Southampton, some necessary pruning. But the result is that he has ruined the garden of France. In each case the effect of the set piece is not to summarize but to disturb, one by implication, the other directly. Canterbury's formula is too neat to account for our responses to the likes of Pistol and Bardolph, not to mention the late Sir John Falstaff, who would surely be executed as drones in this commonwealth—as some of them are in Henry's. Burgundy's speech disrupts our enjoyment of the English victory by reminding us that the French are people with a land and culture of their own, which the war has ruined.

The celebration of order is jocular and leaves us detached; the vision of ruin, taken by itself, is sombre and persuasive. Yet Burgundy has to compete with the charm and glamour of the victorious Henry. His speech, no less than Canterbury's, is challenged by its context. This throws the problem out to the audience: what is our final judgement of the war? Is Burgundy's speech a minority report, to be listened to respectfully and then shelved, or does it overturn the play's apparent satisfaction at Henry's achievement? The problem of interpreting the play, of judging between the heroic and the realistic visions, comes down to the question of how we put things together. It appears at the end—how do we relate Henry to Burgundy?—and it appears, most strikingly, at the very beginning, as we examine the cause of the war. After the stirring invocations of the Prologue, the play opens unexpectedly with a bit of backroom politicking by two very worldly sounding bishops. They are threatened with a bill that will strip the church of a large part of its possessions, applying the proceeds to such unchurchly ends as the King's honour and the relief of the poor, aged, and sick. They see their best hope in the favour of the King, who is not only 'A true lover of the holy Church' (I. i. 23) but has received an offer of massive clergy support for his war with France (I. i. 79-83). Through the bland ecclesiastical manner we glimpse the eternal cynicism of the backroom politician: they assume the King can be bought. Yet in the following scene, when Canterbury expounds the Salic law to assure Henry he has a valid claim to France, there is no mention of the bill against the clergy. Holinshed makes the connection, telling us that in the excitement of war preparations the bill was set aside;5 Shakespeare leaves the issue hanging. How, then, are we to judge Canterbury's encouragement of the King? Is it simply a piece of political jobbery? Or do we accept the legal argument as valid, dismissing his motives for putting it forward as secondary to the main question? This is bound up with the problem of the Salic law speech itself. It presents two perfectly clear arguments: that the Salic land is not France, and that French kings have in the past taken inheritance through the female line as valid. Put as baldly as this, the case is simple; but the speech is so overlaid with incidental detail that it sounds confusing, and the line 'So that, as clear as is the summer's sun' (I. ii. 86) seems to invite the laugh it usually gets. Which quality should be uppermost, clarity or muddle? Finally, what do we make of the fact,6 never mentioned in the play, that if inheritance can pass through the female line then Henry has no right to the throne of England?

The play's episodic quality leaves us to make connections for ourselves, and leaves us wondering which connections to make. In theatrical tradition the Boy is killed onstage; but in the text he tells us at the end of IV.iv that he is going to guard the luggage, and Gower announces in IV. vii, ''Tis certain there's not a boy left alive' (IV. vii. 5). We have to make the connection ourselves. This case is relatively easy. But does Henry's order to kill the French prisoners mean that Pistol (who in the Quarto greets the order with a cry of 'Couple gorge!' but is not even on stage in the Folio) kills Monsieur le Fer? Assuming he does, Gary Taylor takes it as a surprising insight into his character, for in killing his prisoner Pistol is losing ransom money that would have set him up nicely; having exercised the play's key virtue of obedience, he returns to England destitute.7 What do we make of the fact that Henry's attack on Scroop is framed by the two scenes of the death of Falstaff? What Robert Ornstein makes of it is that Quickly's affection for the man who mocked and cheated her shows up very well against Henry's unforgiving tirade.8 Do we connect Henry's promise, in the St Crispin's Day speech, that the survivors will have something to boast of with his later order that boasting will be punishable by death (IV. viii. 116-18), and so accuse him of hypocrisy? Or do we conclude that Henry was not expecting a victory that was so obviously the hand of God, and that circumstances alter cases?

As the last two examples show, the more we put things together, the more critical and satiric the play becomes. The patriotic reading means being swept along by the flow of the play, taking each moment as it comes; the critical reading means stopping and speculating, ferreting in the cracks between scenes, noting silences and omissions—like the conspicuous absence of the Dauphin in the last scene, when his inheritance is being given away. (Or is it conspicuous? Do we even think of him?) The whole play can be made decisively ironic by making a connection back to 2 Henry IV, seeing Henry as taking his father's advice to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels. On this reading, the fact that this motive is never mentioned only makes the cynicism deeper. There is also the question of how the comic characters function. There is a mischievous juxtaposition between the departure of Pistol and his comrdes for the war and the opening of the next scene with the French King's announcement, 'Thus comes the English with full power upon us' (II. iv. 1). But if there is satire here it is not clear whether the English or the French are its targets. When Bardolph opens III.ii with On, on, on, on, on! to the breach, to the breach!' (1-2), we may take this as a parody of Henry's speech in the previous scene, or as a sign of that speech's power to inspire even the basest of Henry's troops. Other parallels between high and low life are equally uncertain in their effect. As Henry unifies England, Bardolph reconciles Pistol and Nym so that they can go to France as 'Three sworn brothers' (II. i. 12). As at Harfleur, we wonder whether Henry's achievement is being parodied or confirmed by its low-life shadow. Fluellen admires Pistol's eloquence (III. vi. 64-5), as Canterbury and the audience admire the King's. But he is quickly disillusioned. Should we take this as simply a sign that Pistol's rhetoric and the King's are not to be compared, or should we take the parallel to its logical conclusion?

The play not only persists in raising such questions but at one point actually dramatizes the problem—possibly for our guidance. Fluellen's comparison of Henry with Alexander the Great may be a parody, as T.J. B. Spencer suggests, of the historical method of parallel lives Shakespeare found in Plutarch.9 But it also plays on the whole critical activity of parallel-hunting, and the initial effect is ludicrous: 'There is a river in Macedon, and there is also moreover a river at Monmouth . . . and there is salmons in both' (IV. vii. 27-32). Just as we are relaxing—and, if we have been doing this kind of thing throughout the play, starting to laugh at ourselves—Fluellen compares Alexander's killing of Cleitus with Henry's turning away of the old fat knight whose name Fluellen cannot remember. But we remember instantly. And, while our memories are working, Gower's apparently sensible objection, 'Our king . . . never killed any of his friends (IV. vii. 42-3), is answered by the voice of Mistress Quickly, earlier in the play: 'The king has killed his heart' (II.i.88). Minutes before this, Henry has ordered the killing of the French prisoners, a desperate and controversial act that Shakespeare could easily have omitted if he had wanted our view of the King to be simple. The human cost of Agincourt is related to the human cost of the self-fashioning that has made Henry what he is. If this scene is a clue for the audience—and I think it is—what it tells us is that while the critical activity of making connections between unlike things may occasionally look silly it is always worth risking. We must discriminate, and be on the lookout for forced and arbitrary parallels; but our memories were given us for a purpose, and in watching this play we are meant to use them. Quite simply, the lapse in Fluellen's memory—'I have forgot his name'.(IV.vii.52)—makes us aware of the functioning and the value of ours.

The Chorus also makes the audience self-aware, as we find ourselves comparing our readings with his. If we really are concerned with making connections, as I think we should be, we find him at times surprisingly unreliable. His claim that the French 'Shake in their fear, and with pale policy / Seek to divert the English purposes' (II. Chorus, 14-15) is too simple an account of the French response, which includes intelligent military preparation and over-confident boasting. The Chorus's announcements of what is coming are often baffled by events: he leaves us unprepared for the first bishops' scene, the first eastcheap scene, and the leek-eating scene, all of which come immediately after he has told us (incorrectly) where the play is going next. The Chorus to Act II is particularly odd, with the announcement, 'The scene / Is now transported, gentles, to Southampton' (34-5), followed by clumsy second thoughts: 'But, till the king come forth, and not till then, / Unto Southampton do we shift our scene' (41-2). We find ourselves in Eastcheap. Granted that Shakespeare himself may have changed his mind in the course of writing, the effect of a crude patch-up could have been avoided so easily that we wonder if it is deliberate.

More overtly, the Chorus makes us compare what we are told to imagine with what we actually see, and thus alerts us to the inadequacies of the theatre:

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?

(Prologue, 11-14)

Agincourt itself, he complains, will be fought with 'Four or five most vile and ragged foils' (IV. Chorus, 50). As in Richard II, theatre degrades. It also omits. The Chorus talks of things we cannot see—a fleet in the Channel, Henry's return to England, the opening of peace negotiations. Some of this we have no particular desire to see, and the Chorus to Act V especially makes us feel we are examining the chippings on the floor of a sculptor's studio. Some of it we see anyway, through the Chorus's words, and here his more positive function comes into play. The passages that work best—the descriptions of the fleet and of the two camps the night before Agincourt—do so because they fire our imaginations in response. The Chorus's function is not just to complain of the inadequacies of the theatre but to enlist us in the effort to overcome them: 'Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts . . . For 'Tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings' (Prologue, 23, 28). He works on us as Henry works on his men.10

In the Chorus to Act III we are asked not only to imagine the English expedition but to join it:

Follow, follow!
Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy,
And leave your England.


The Chorus goes on to appeal like a recruiting sergeant to the audience's pride and manhood (20-4). Then, by a stage trick, the charm seems to work, and imagination begets reality:

the nimble gunner
With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,
[Alarum, and chambers go off
And down goes all before them. Still be kind,
And eke out our performance with your mind.


As Hippolyta puts it, it must be our imaginations and not theirs. But their stage effects, simple though they are, co-operate to make us believe that our imaginations are working, our minds and the performance are becoming one.

This is very different from the critical detachment, the standing back to put two and two together, that is, I have argued, an important part of our experience of the play. The Chorus's role as patriotic spokesman is connected with his technical function of sweeping us along, filling in the gaps between acts, precisely those gaps where our questions occur. A full reception of the play demands both engagement and questioning; and the common factor is that we are aware, as in Richard III, of our activity as audience. The play in a sense is about us—our judgements, our imaginations. The first tetralogy ended with the emergence of a great mythic figure. So does the second, but the differences are crucial, and they are not just the differences between villain and hero. Both are figures of considerable scale, and both are great manipulators. But while Richard III was stylized and simplified, and subject to a clear judgement from within the play, which included our own withdrawal from him, Henry is varied and elusive, and while the judgement of the play seems to go all one way—'Praise and glory on his head!' (IV. Chorus, 31)—the judgement in the audience's mind is allowed to be more open and questioning. In Henry IV we found both Hal and his father hard to read, hard to judge. Here our difficulties are compounded, for the play is so thoroughly Henry's story that the problem of interpretation affects every area of it. To a degree unusual even for him, Shakespeare is setting the material before us, leaving its contradictions intact, and inviting us to make of it what we can. This effort must be centred on Henry himself.

The Chorus tells us that, if Shakespeare had a kingdom for a stage and princes to act,

Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment.

(Prologue, 5-8)

This is the superhuman figure we hear of at the opening of 1 Henry VI: 'His brandish'd sword did blind men with his beams: / His arms spread wider than a dragon's wings' (I.i. 10-11). But this is precisely the figure the stage cannot and will not show. On 'This unworthy scaffold' (Prologue, 10) there has to be an ordinary, life-sized actor. Shakespeare accepts—more gladly, I think, than the Chorus does—that to put Henry in the theatre is to make him human. The limits of time are also important. Henry commits himself to a single action, all or nothing:

or there we'll sit,
Ruling in large and ample empery
o'er France and all her almost kingly dukedoms,
Or lay these bones in an unworthy urn,
Tombless, with no remembrance over them.

(I. ii. 225-9)

The myth Henry hopes to create concerns not his office but himself. Richard II was concerned with being a king; Henry is concerned with winning or losing a war. He will be, according to the outcome of his own efforts, a hero or a forgotten man.

Richard's range of performances was limited: the Lord's anointed and the suffering victim. He showed an actor's versatility only in his prison soliloquy, for him a nightmare of indecision. Henry is naturally, endlessly versatile. Canterbury describes him as a man for all occasions:

Hear him but reason in divinity,
And, all-admiring, with an inward wish
You would desire the king were made a prelate:
Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs,
You would say it hath been all in all his study:
List his discourse of war, and you shall hear
A fearful battle render'd you in music:
Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter; that, when he speaks,
The air, a charter'd libertine, is still,
And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears,
To steal his sweet and honey'd sentences.

(I. i. 38-50)

What Canterbury emphasizes is the King's eloquence; he always has the right words. Like Tamburlaine, he conquers not just with his sword but with his language. But, while Tamburlaine was obsessed and single-minded, Henry is flexible. Tamburlaine swept across the map as an irresistible force; Henry works on different people in different ways. We have evidence of his ability to make just the right impression when Canterbury describes his reaction to the bill against the clergy:

He seems indifferent,
Or rather swaying more upon our part
Than cherishing th'exhibiters against us.

(I. i. 72-4)

The appearance of sympathy, but no real commitment—Henry is canny. And Fluellen might note that while Alexander cut the Gordian knot Henry unties it.

Arresting the conspirators at Southampton, he contrives a little morality play (recalling the scene with the Lord Chief Justice), which uses theatrical trickery and surprise to highlight his mercy and justice and their unworthiness. He insists there is nothing personal in it; he is doing what law and the kingdom's safety require (II. ii. 174-7). His most bloodthirsty utterances are controlled by the demands of the occasion. His response to the Dauphin's insulting gift of tennis-balls may sound like a tantrum, but it is shaped by the wit of the tennis analogy and ends with an acknowledgement of the rights of ambassadors: 'So get you hence in peace' (I. ii. 294). His notorious threat to Harfleur, in which the fine fighting animals of 'Once more unto the breach' become murderous thugs who will run wild if the town does not surrender, is followed, once the surrender has been achieved, by Henry's command to Exeter, 'Use mercy to them all' (III. iii. 54), and his weary recognition of his real position: 'The winter coming on and sickness growing / Upon our soldiers, we will retire to Calais' (III. iii. 55-6). The terrible cruelty of the speech is introduced by Henry's statement of his role, 'As I am a soldier, / A name that in my thoughts becomes me best' (III. iii. 5-6), and switched off as soon as it has served its purpose. With Montjoy Henry plays, attractively, the gallant underdog, not glossing over his difficulties but putting the best face on them. His tribute to the herald, 'Thou dost thy office fairly' (III. vi. 145), is the greeting of one professional to another.11

Responsible statesman, bloody conqueror, good fellow—Henry plays them all. His most surprising and controversial performance is his last. Wooing Katharine, he presents himself, eloquently and at length, as a plain blunt man with no command of language. The last feat of eloquence, of course, is to make itself disappear. But this time we are more aware than usual of the pressure of a contrary reality behind the performance. With self-effacing charm Henry begs Katharine to accept him; but he has the whip-hand, and they both know it. The man who declared in the first act, 'France being ours, we'll bend it to our awe / Or break it all to pieces' (I. ii. 224-5), is now in a position to make that boast good. We see the true relations between Henry and the French when the French King, trying to preserve a shred of dignity, holds out on a small but significant piece of protocol, the addressing of letters. He will yield, he says, if Henry asks him to; the unspoken message is that it would be gracious of Henry not to ask. Henry's reply is soft but firm: 'I pray you then, in love and dear alliance, / Let that one article rank with the rest' (V. ii. 363-4). The disparity between the true relations of victor and vanquished and Henry's pose as wooer is made clear from the outset:

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

Q. Isa. She hath good leave.
[Exeunt all but King Henry, Katharine, and Alice.

K. Hen. 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?

(V. ii. 95-101)

This time we cannot miss the connection. The words 'capital demand' start an undercurrent that runs through the scene. In reply to Katharine's question, 'Is it possible dat I sould love de enemy of France?', Henry is cheerfully frank: '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' (V. ii. 174-80). Katharine's replies are for the most part guarded—'I cannot tell wat is dat'; 'I cannot tell'; 'I do not know dat' (V. ii. 183, 203, 221)—and when she pays Henry a compliment it is somewhat backhanded: 'Your majesté 'Ave fause French enough to deceive de most sage damoiselle dat is en France' (V. ii. 229-30). Actresses can play the Princess as charmed, attracted, even flirtatious; the words will allow that. But all the bare text conveys at her moment of surrender is a recognition of political reality combined with Canterbury's virtue of obedience:

K. Hen. . . . wilt thou have me?
Kath. Dat is as it shall please de roi mon père.
K. Hen. Nay, it will please him well, Kate;
it shall please him, Kate.
Kath. Den it sall also content me.

(V. ii. 260-4)

Her surrender is sealed with a significant gesture. Henry refuses to respect the French custom that unmarried ladies do not kiss; with the words 'Therefore, patiently and yielding' (V. ii. 291) he kisses her on the mouth, and she is silent for the rest of the play.

Why did Shakespeare choose to end Henry's career in this way? The scene can look flat on the page, and critics frequently see it as a sad and puzzling let-down. But in the theatre, played by a witty and attractive actor, it is often the climax of the evening. It is not just the last in a string of Henry's performances; in a number of important respects it is special. Nowhere else in the play does the actor have so many chances to get laughs; this draws the audience to the character more directly than before, as we feel his control working on us.12 At the same time we see more fully than ever that it is a performance: the disparities between role and reality are, I have suggested, unusually clear. On both counts it is an effective way of summing up the public Henry: a performance, but a powerful one. It is also an effective way of summing up the war with France. The Chorus has complained that the theatre cannot do battles properly; and in fact we never quite see Agincourt. At the centre of the great battle sequence in the Olivier film is a single combat between Henry and the Constable, in which Henry's victory stands for the English victory as a whole. Shakespeare could not give us anything like Olivier's cavalry charges and flights of arrows; but he could give us, as he did in Richard III, something like that scene. Instead, Henry sets out to battle, there are alarums and excursions, then Pistol captures Monsieur le Fer, then we see the French in panic and disarray—and we realize with a shock that Pistol and le Fer stand for the great English victory.13 Our imaginations, we feel, may have to work overtime on this one. There are more alarums, and there is a certain amount of confusion. In one of the play's most realistic touches, Henry does not realize he has won until Montjoy tells him so (IV. vii. 85-8). He has barely started to savour his victory when he has to be polite to Fluellen, who is rattling on about the good service the Welsh did at Crécy (IV. vii. 94-119).14 We see the tension before the battle, and the aftermath of victory; we never quite see the victory itself.

Where we see Henry win France is in V. ii, at the moment when he plants a kiss on the lips of the French Princess. The connection is suggested when Henry's victory at Harfleur is followed by a scene in which the Princess decides she had better learn English—'Il faut que j'Apprenne à parler' (III. iv. 4-5)15—surveying the parts of the body and ending with bawdy puns on 'Le foot et le count' (III. iv. 57). Henry has listed the rape of virgins among the atrocities he will unleash at Harfleur; after the town falls, the French complain that their women are threatening to 'give / Their bodies to the lust of English youth' (III. v. 29-30). Bourbon tries to rally his fellows after the first disaster at Agincourt:

And he that will not follow Bourbon now,
Let him go hence, and with his cap in hand,
Like a base pandar, hold the chamber-door
Whilst by a slave, no gentler than my dog,
His fairest daughter is contaminated.

(IV. v. 12-16)

Conquest and disgrace in battle have their sexual conterparts; and in V. ii. itself the word-play on 'Maiden cities' that 'War hath never entered' (V. ii. 344, 340-1) encourages us to see the connection. Having conquered France, Henry conquers Katharine; the second event stands for the first, and is easier to show in the theatre. The peace is cemented by treaty, and Henry will marry Katharine, not rape her; yet we have seen an element of enforcement in both cases, and while there is much talk at the end of a marriage of kingdoms (V. ii. 366-86) the bride and groom, like Mortimer and his wife, do not speak the same language. The fact that the wooing is conducted mostly in English suggests the usual fate of a conquered people.

Henry impresses us, then, through a series of performances; and his climatic performance, like the opening performance of Richard of Gloucester, is a wooing scene, an act of persuasion. This also suggests something about the nature, and the means, of his victory. We hear little of the technicalities of war. Henry's principal strategy is summed up in the words 'All things are ready, if our minds be so' (IV. iii. 71). His petition to God is 'steel my soldiers' hearts' (IV. i. 295). His address to them at Harfleur reads like instructions to an actor, including a strong sense of decorum, of what is proper to the occasion:

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage.

(III. i. 3-8)

The ferocity of the fighting man is a disguise, something laid on top of his ordinary nature. He expects of his men something of his own capacity to behave as the situation requires; and he knows that, if ferocity were to be man's normal state, life would sink to the level of horror described in Burgundy's speech. Agincourt presents a different problem, and requires Henry to inspire his men in a different way. Here the overwhelming odds and the fear of certain death pose a threat to morale. While Hotspur at Shrewsbury roused his fellows with the cheerful cry, 'Doomsday is near; die all, die merrily' (1 Henry IV, IV. i. 134), Henry asks his men to imagine themselves back in England, enjoying the 'pot of ale, and safety' the Boy longed for at Harfleur:

He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, 'Tomorrow is Saint Crispían':
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say, 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day'.
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day.


Henry's phrasing implies a realistic admission that not everyone will survive; without that the speech would not be so persuasive. But its main effort is to make the idea of survival concrete. The scene is domestic and familiar, a far cry from the heroics of Harfleur, and the old veteran is made more convincing by Henry's joking suggestion that he will exaggerate a little. But like the scene at Harfleur it shows Henry's awareness that his principal task is not the arrangement of his soldiers on the field but the preparation of their minds.

Henry asks his men to imagine themselves as something different: tigers, greyhounds, old men. He asks of them, in other words, the versatility he shows himself. That versatility prompts the question: is there an essential Henry? Is there a man behind the public performances? One of his conversations with Fluellen raises the problem with special urgency:

Flu. . . . the duke hath lost never a man but
one that is like to be executed for robbing
a church: one Bardolph, if your majesty
know the man: his face is all bubukles, and
whelks, and knobs, and flames o'Fire; and
his lips blows at his nose, and it is like a
coal of fire, sometimes plue and sometimes
red; but his nose is executed, and his fire's out.

K. Hen. We would have all such offenders so
cut off: and we give express charge that in
our marches through the country there be
nothing compelled from the villages,
nothing taken but paid for, none of the
French upbraided or abused in disdainful
language; for when lenity and cruelty play
for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

(III. vi. 103-18)

As in his scene with the Lord Chief Justice, Henry stands for the principle of law, and he adds to it a principle of the conduct of war. But we feel like shouting at him, 'Dammit, it's Bardolph!' Of that fact, Henry shows not a flicker of recognition. Though Fluellen himself does not know it, his words 'If your majesty know the man' are a direct challenge. We know the importance of our memories; how good is Henry's?

As Hal, he joined in the jokes about Bardolph's face that we are now hearing for the last time. Actors may fill in the moment with recognition of one kind or another;16 what Shakespeare gives us is a deliberate silence, a refusal to acknowledge private life. Henry's own account of his self-control suggests it is enforced: 'Our passion is as subject / As is our wretches fetter'd in our prisons' (I. ii. 242-3). But the control is so complete that no effort actually shows. There seems to be a formal surrender of private life in Henry's attack on Scroop. Scroop appeared to be the ideal friend—dutiful, grave, learned, noble, and, like Horatio, no slave to passion (II. ii. 127-37). Scroop was also, Henry declares, a man who knew him intimately: 'Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels, / That knew'st the very bottom of my soul' (II. ii. 96-7). The breaking of this ideal friendship is for Henry 'Like / Another fall of man' (II. ii. 141-2). Throughout the play as a whole, Henry has no relationships; all his encounters with other characters are exemplary, designed to illustrate a point. Is Henry's relation with Scroop any different? The answer, I think, is no. Its sheer formality makes it hard to feel there was ever a real friendship to be betrayed; Scroop is not so much a man as an example. The scene is framed by the death of Falstaff, as though to remind us of a much fuller relationship, one whose course and end could not be seen so reductively.

We need to look for the private Henry, assuming there is one, on the eve of Agincourt. On the edge of action—'Brother John Bates, is not that the morning which breaks yonder?' (IV. i. 85-6)—Henry tries to snatch a few minutes' solitude, and we realize that we have never seen him alone: 'I and my bosom must debate awhile, / And then I would no other company' (IV. i. 31-2). But solitude does not come easily; he keeps running into other people. Nor can he really shed his identity, despite his borrowed cloak. His encounter with Pistol may suggest a reversion to his Eastcheap past, but not if we remember that Hal and Pistol never met. When Henry introduces himself as 'Harry le Roy' we realize (assuming our French is better than Pistol's) that his present identity and public role are very much in place. Even his attempt to assert the King's common humanity is equivocal: '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' (IV. i. 101-6). Only in that last touch, when he comes down to Lear's bare forked animal, does he see the King as simply 'A man'. But that is to go from one abstraction to another, from the role to the species. If somewhere in this process there is an individual, we have missed him. This apparently private scene only confirms that Henry is the King, and that his life consists in dealings with others. Those dealings involve a necessary distance, as we see when Williams speculates that the King will allow himself to be ransomed:

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.

(IV. i. 202-5)

Henry imagines that a common subject can pass judgement on a monarch, and the common subject finds the notion ridiculous.17 The later development of the two men's relations confirms this distance: the glove trick is a practical joke conducted by remote control, and ends with Henry giving Williams a substantial tip.18 The soldier's refusal of Fluellen's much smaller tip (IV. viii. 70) is in all likelihood the defiance he would like to utter to the King but knows he cannot.

The true relations of king and subject are authority and obedience. For Bates this is a comfort: 'If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us' (IV. i. 133-4). We see here that obedience is an equivocal virtue, freeing underlings from moral responsiblity. Williams takes the argument a stage further, insisting that all responsibility for the carnage of war finally falls on the king: 'If the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make' (IV. i. 135-6). The subject may be free, but the king is trapped. At last Henry is touched on a nerve, and a number of other moments fall into place around this one. Throughout the play Henry is touchy on the question of responsibility, always trying to shift the burden—to Canterbury, for inciting him to war; to the Dauphin, for sending him the tennis-balls; to the French King, for resisting his claim; to the citizens of Harfleur, for presuming to defend their town (I. ii. 18-28; I. ii. 282-4; II. iv. 105-9; III. iii. 1-43).

His occasional deference to God (I.ii.289-90) may be another way of easing the burden. Henry has taken so much on himself that the thought of an authority above him may console him as it does Bates. Yet the burden of responsibility cannot finally be shifted; it can only be limited. Henry cannot, and does not, refute Williams's insistence that he is responsible for the war; he only jibs at the further implication that he is responsible for the souls of men who do not die in a state of grace: 'Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own' (IV. i. 182-4). In the great doom picture that opens his speech, Williams imagines the soldiers as suffering victims with bereaved families, guilty only of the violence that war has made them commit (IV. i. 135-46). Henry imagines them, or some of them, as escaped criminals whom God will punish, using war as an opportunity to make good the lax judgements of men (IV. i. 163-74). Each man's view has its own narrowness; there is, as we see elsewhere, a distance between them. Williams's view is from the streets, Henry's from the bench. And their debate is conducted in general terms that make it seem, like Henry's other encounters, an illustration of a principle. But the fact that Williams has touched on something personal is hinted by the illustration Henry uses to begin his argument: 'So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea . . . ' (IV. i. 150-1). The mercantile image is part of the Bolingbroke style we remember from Henry IV; but why son and father, not just master and servant? Is it because Henry himself has been sent on a dangerous errand by his father, who instructed him to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels? Or is the mission his father gave him kingship itself? The recognition of Henry as not just king but son flickers only for a moment, and very lightly; it will return at the end of the scene.

Finally alone, Henry complains bitterly of Williams's attempt to put everything on him:

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition!
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing.

(IV. i. 236-42)

The echoes of Williams's speech (IV. i. 135-49) are direct, and his reference to Williams as a self-centred fool is bitter and unfair; Henry is giving way for once to an anger that makes him unreasonable. But he does not say this time that Williams is wrong. He goes on to complain that the only compensation for his burden is ceremony. Richard II saw the symbols of his office as essential signs of its divine sanction. Henry sees them as external trappings: 'The intertissued robe of gold and pearl, / The farced title running 'Fore the king' (IV. i. 268-9).19 He complains of ceremony, as Falstaff did of honour, that it hath no skill in surgery: 'Canst thou, when thou command'st the beggar's knee, / Command the health of it?' (IV. i. 262-3).20 Like his father, he protests that the common people can sleep better than he does. All this is fairly generalized; but what follows is startlingly particular:

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 built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests

Still sing 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.

(IV. i. 298-311)

This man who keeps shifting responsibility to others is himself haunted by the guilt of a crime he did not commit. The lineal succession he boasted of at the end of 2 Henry IV included more than the crown. On the eve of his great victory his mind goes back to the past, and he reveals that the problem created in Richard II has not been solved and may be insoluble. It seems to bother no one else in the play; but it bothers him. Why does Henry connect his inherited guilt and his War with France? He does not say explicitly, but we may make the connection ourselves. Kingship can never again be the sacred office it was for Richard; the best it can be is a vehicle for worldly achievement, and on those limited but real terms Henry is determined to restore it, to undo the damage his father did—if only the guilt incurred when the office was desanctified does not hold him back.

The look back to Richard II is the furthest reach of the play's historical vision. The furthest reach of its personal vision is the discovery of Henry's spiritual isolation. He is convinced that the ceremonies of prayer, like the ceremonies of kingship, are in his case worthless. To the official loneliness of a king is added the more terrible spiritual loneliness of a man convinced that his prayers are not being heard. Whatever he achieves in the world must be set against this. Surrounded by the praises of men, Henry is finally aware of the silence of God. Yet the routines of prayer go on, and Henry promises, 'More will I do'. At the end of the scene we have our final insight into him, when his brother Gloucester calls him: 'I know thy errand, I will go with thee: / The day, my friends, and all things stay for me' (IV. i. 313-14). He finally accepts, as calmly as his father accepted the role of scapegoat, that the whole burden of his kingship falls on him. There is none of the plaintiveness of Hamlet's 'The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right' (I. v. 196-7). He has faced his pain, complained of it, found it incurable, and accepted it. This is what lies behind the panache and high spirits of his public performances: a man who has seen through his life to a point at which another man might despair, and is determined to carry on. He carries on alone; his own brother is merely a voice calling him to duty. Like Hotspur's last speech, his prayer ends with an incomplete line, but this time there is no one to finish it for him. The scene as a whole has insisted that Henry's kingship is inescapable; even the private man is defined by it. While Henry envies the life of the peasant, his own imagination—throwing up images like 'vacant mind' and 'distressful bread' (IV. i, 275-6)—tells him he could never live it. His father's references to 'smoky cribs.' and 'Loathsome beds' (2 Henry IV, III. i. 9, 16) show a similar realism; neither man sentimentalizes the life of the poor as Henry VI does. But of course the question goes deeper than class. Richard II's kingship was unremovable because of its sanctity; Henry's is unremovable because it is a lifelong duty. Like his subjects, he is a man under obedience.

As a hero who brings English history to a moment of triumph, he is like Richmond, but of course we never see into Richmond in this way. Nor does Richmond seem subject as Henry is to the workings of time. Shakespeare carries over from Henry IV the sense of time as ultimately ruinous, making any achievement provisional and temporary. Even at Agincourt the first flush of victory simply means new effort: 'Well have we done, thrice-valiant countrymen: / But all's not done; yet keep the French the field' (IV. vi. 1-2). We go to the deaths of York and Suffolk, the order to kill the prisoners, and the attack on the luggage. The follow-up to the first excited realization that the English are doing well is by turns painful, brutal, and squalid. When Henry himself jokingly claims a Falstaffian immunity to decay, the effect is to remind us of his mortality: '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' (V. ii. 240-3). It didn'T. Not long after his marriage to Katharine, he was dead. His achievements died with him. His astonishing victory at Agincourt may or may not be a sign that God has answered his prayer and released him from his father's guilt; it is one of those connections we are not sure whether to make. What is clear is that there was to be no release for England. Cambridge's hint of a deeper reason for his treachery than the gold of France (II. ii. 155-7) is a cryptic reference to the unsolved dynastic problem that will surface again in the Wars of the Roses. Later in the play, faint but deliberate memories of Henry VI are stirred. Henry's list of the heroes of Agincourt, 'Bedford and Exeter, / Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester' (IV. iii. 53-4), is also a list of names familiar from the earlier plays. Henry's dream of reviving the crusade, another inheritance from his father, produces the sharpest irony of all: '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?' (V. ii. 215-18). Henry, we notice, does not offer to go on a crusade himself; perhaps he senses that he has done all he can, and it is not for him to make John of Gaunt's dream a reality. But the boy they compounded was Henry VI. The marriage, technically a comic ending, produces a child who will preside over disaster.

One thing Henry envies in the peasant life is the simplicity of its relations to time:

next day after dawn,
Doth rise and help Hyperion to his horse,
And follows so the ever-running year
With profitable labour to his grave.

(IV. i. 280-3)

Like a Book of Hours, this sees country labour as a matter of regular cycles. For Henry time is more urgent. Exeter describes him as weighing it 'To the utmost grain' (II. iv. 138), as though he knows how little he has; the French King complains that he forces the pace (II. iv. 145-6). Carpe diem is one solution; another is to include posterity in the audience Henry is playing for: 'Our history shall with full mouth / Speak freely of our acts' (I. ii. 230-1). He combines this with the idea of cyclical time in his prediction that

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. 57-9)

The secular achievement will go into the calendar as a saint's day, just as the day of the Queen's accession became an annual festival in Elizabethan England. In a way, Henry gets what he asks for. The play itself, less regular then a religious feast but still recurring, is a guarantee of his survival. That is why we are constantly aware, in Henry V as in none of the other histories, of the play as play. The Chorus began by complaining of the narrowness of the medium in which the great subject had to be confined. But when he declares, 'Small time, but in that small most greatly liV'd / This star of England' (Epilogue, 5-6), 'small time', in the movement of the speech, seems at first to refer to the brevity of the play rather than that of Henry's life. Finally, of course, it means both. The Chorus accepts that as a short life was enough for Henry, who weighed time to the utmost grain, two hours or so were enough for Shakespeare. As Henry has accepted his role, so the Chorus has finally accepted his medium, now that the play has demonstrated what it can do. The Epilogue is in the form of a sonnet, the form Shakespeare used elsewhere to insist on the permanent achievements of art.21

The Chorus also claims, as the Sonnets do, that only art survives:

Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd
King Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing,
That they lost France and made his England bleed:
Which oft our stage hath shown.

(Epilogue, 9-13)

If our memories stretch back—as they are now invited to—to the earlier plays, we may conclude that this is where we came in: a disunited group of nobles squabbling over the body of a hero who was 'Too famous to live long' (7 Henry VI, I.i.6). History, which we normally think of as a straight line moving through time, turns back on itself and forms a circle, an image not of perfection but of futility. We keep coming back to the same point: loss and ruin. That is what Shakespeare's art shows us of our life in history. But the Chorus adds, 'And, for their sake, / In your fair minds let this acceptance take' (Epilogue, 13-14). Who are 'They'? The clearest reference seems to be to the cast of Henry VI; but perhaps they stand for all time's subjects as the history plays have shown them. And what is 'This' we are to accept? Henry V, and (I think) the whole historical vision that lies behind it. We are to accept the play, as Henry accepted his unrewarding role and the Chorus his imperfect medium. That is the last of our many responsibilities as audience. Our acceptance is our way of recognizing that the fusion of the hero with the art that creates him—however we may judge the imperfections of either—offers a chance to protect human achievement from the erosion of time. Taken together, Henry's prediction about Saint Crispin's Day and the Chorus's prediction about England's future imply that as history darkened again men would still remember this light from the past. As Henry VI shows, they did. The business of Henry V is to keep that memory alive through art, in a future even Shakespeare could not have imagined.


1 In Laurence Olivier's film version, Harcourt Williams delivers this speech with a shudder of superstitious dread.

2 Jamy's loyalty in particular is a striking contrast to the traditional enmity of 'The weasel Scot' (I. ii. 170) which concerns Henry in the first council scene.

3 The power of the speech was shown in Michael Langham's 1956 production at Stratford, Ontario: Gratien Gelinas, who played the French King as a bewildered invalid confined to a chair, rose to his feet during the speech and began unsteadily to walk, electrifying his court and the audience.

4 In the preface to his Great War book In Parenthesis David Jones complains, 'I have been hampered by the convention of not using impious and impolite words, because the whole shape of our discourse was conditioned by the use of such words' (New York: Viking Press, 1963), p. xii.

5 See Geoffrey Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. 4 (London: Routsledge & Kegan Paul, 1962), p. 380.

6 Anyone who has seen Tony Church's brilliant reading of the speech in the LWT series Playing Shakespeare knows it is possible—if only just—for a skilled actor to capture both qualities.

7 Introduction to the Oxford edition of Henry V (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 65.

8 Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 188.

9 T.J.B. Spencer, Shakespeare: The Roman Plays (London: Longmans, Green, 1963), p. 16.

10 See Michael Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 59.

11 One of the most attractive touches in the Oliver film is the mutual liking of the two men, which creates a separation between their private feelings and the business they have to do.

12 Herbert Whittaker, reviewing the 1956 Stratford, Ontario, production, wrote, 'In this last scene, [Christopher] Plummer held his audience . . . in the hollow of his hand, capping an evening of slowly-mounting triumph': 'French, English-speaking actors are united', Globe and Mail, 18 June 1956.

13 See William Babula, 'Whatever happened to Prince Hal? An essay on Henry V, Shakespeare Survey, 30 (1977), 55-6.

14 In this scene in the 1964 Royal Shakespeare Company production, jointly directed by John Barton, Peter Hall, and Clifford Williams, Henry (Ian Holm) was kneeling and trying to pray; Fluellen (Clive Swift) was at his elbow, distracting him.

15 In the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1975 production, directed by Terry Hands, the wall that represented Harfleur sank down to reveal Katharine standing on the stage. See Gary Taylor, Moment by Moment by Shakespeare (London: Macmillan, 1985), p. 118.

16 Ian Holm allowed a flicker of pain to show on his face and turned aside to cross himself, seen only by the audience. Douglas Rain (in Michael Langham's 1966 production at Stratford, Ontario) pointedly showed no recognition, though the body of Bardolph was dumped at his feet. In Adrian Noble's 1984 Royal Shakespeare Company production, Henry (Kenneth Branagh) was forced to watch in growing discomfort as Bardolph was slowly garrotted before his eyes; the extravagance of the effect made one appreciate the economy of Shakespeare's version. Alan Howard, who played Henry in the 1975 Royal Shakespeare Company production, said of the execution of Bardolph, 'That he doesn'T do that coldly, and without a struggle, can be seen in the ramblings, the indecision, the contradictions of his speech to Montjoy immediately after Bardolph's death': quoted in Sally Beauman (ed.), The Royal Shakespeare Company's Production of Henry V for the Centenary Season at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1976), p. 57. The use of Bardolph's death to show Henry's commitment to justice may go back to the fact that it was in a dispute over Bardolph that Hal struck the Lord Chief Justice.

17 See Marilyn L. Williamson, 'The episode with Williams in Henry V, Studies in English Literature, 9 (1969), 277.

18 See Anne Barton, 'The king disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the comical history', in Joseph G. Price (ed.), The Triple Bond (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975), p. 101.

19 See Philip Edwards, 'Person and office in Shakespeare's plays', Proceedings of the British Academy, 56 (1972 for 1970), 104.

20 See Norman Rabkin, 'Rabbits, ducks, and Henry V, Shakespeare Quarterly, 28 (1977), 287.

21 See Ornstein, op. cit., p. 202.

Graham Bradshaw (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "The Historical Challenge," in Misrepresentations: Shakespeare and the Materialists, Cornell University Press, 1993, pp. 46-63.

[In the following excerpt from a chapter in which he challenges historicist and materialist readings of Henry V, Bradshaw argues that members of an Elizabethan audience would have responded in a variety of ways to the play's presentation of history. Depending on their principles, their personal interests, and their political sympathies, the critic contends, some would have embraced the Chorus's version of events and Henry's justifications of the war, but others would have noticed the play's skeptical questioning of the "official" account.]

Critics have argued at length about Henry's motives for going to war with France, and whether he is right or wrong to do so. Such arguments usually polarize into pro-Henry and anti-Henry readings, in which the critical assumption that we need to establish what view the play "really" takes produces incompatible readings; old and new historicist interventions often depend on assumptions about what view (not views) the Elizabethan audience would have taken. But then history never tells us what Henry's motives were, because it can'T; in this simple but important sense a history play that pretended to make Henry's motives clear would be historically irresponsible.

Holinshed does indeed tell us, in a very interesting passage with no parallel in Hall, that when Henry was dying he was especially anxious to have it understood that his motives were of the best:

And herewith he protested unto them, that neither the ambitious desire to inlarge his dominions, neither to purchase vain renowne and worldlie fame, nor anie other consideration had moved him to take the warres in hand; but onlie that in prosecuting his just title, he might in the end atteine to a perfect peace, and come to enjoy those peeces of his inheritance, which to him of right belonged: and that before the beginning of the same warres, he was fullie persuaded by men both wise and of great holinesse of life, that upon such intent he might and ought both begin the same warres, and follow them, till he had brought them to an end iustlie and rightlie, and that without all danger of Gods displeasure or perill of soul.21

But of course what this also tells us is that other, less favorable accounts of Henry's motives were circulating, so that he found it necessary to "protest." It evidently told Shakespeare as much, since his play is historically responsible, both in its ultimate reticences and in its habitual way of exposing the Chorus's hagiographic account of "the Mirror of all Christian Kings" to other, competing interpretative possibilities. Whether Henry was right or wrong to go to war with France is a question that depends not only on whether the "title" was "iust" but on whether one is taking what Edward P.owell's book on Henry V calls a "king's-eye view" or, say, the view of the French king, or of a dead conscript's widow, or of Shakespeare's Michael Williams, or of Archbishop Chicheley. In other words, the historiographical challenge involves what Shakespeare's King of France calls seeing "perspectively," and the challenge corresponds with the poetic-dramatic framing of opposed or discrepant perspectives.

Any argument that the play presses us toward one single, inclusive judgment deflects the historiographical challenge and (what is really the same thing) smothers the play's interrogative, skeptical, and exploratory energies. To suppose that the play "addresses its audience as a collectivity" short-circuits its dramatic thinking, in which the challenge is that of seeing "perspectively." The Chorus does indeed keep calling for some such collective or communal response in accord with his own "king's-eye view," which in turn steadily and sturdily assumes that the interests of a nation continually and happily coincide with those of its ruler or ruling class. Even in the first Prologue, which is often taken as an engagingly modest and indirect authorial appeal, the Chorus is richly characterized and anxious in interesting ways. To address the mixed audience as "Gentles all" is strategic precisely because they are not all "Gentles." It flatters, and appeals to, the audience in the very same way that Henry will appeal to his straggling army:

let us sweare,
That you are worth your breeding: which I doubt not:
For there is none of you so meane and base,
That hath not Noble luster in your eyes.


The Chorus is right to fear that neither the play nor the audience can be relied upon to become "Cyphers" to the "great Accompt" (line 18). "Into a thousand parts divide one Man," he appeals, even as he seeks to bond the audience and make them as one. He withdraws, asking us "Gently to heare, kindly to judge," but without in any way preparing us for the play's first jolting, ungentle probing of competing interests—when we find ourselves eavesdropping on a necessarily private conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. This descent is moral as well as stylistic; doubt and division thrive.

As the bishops consider the danger posed by the Crown's claim on the Church's "temporali lands"—that is, those properties not used for strictly religious purposes, which make up "the better halfe of our Possession" (1.1.8)—they are not concerned to consider whether anything might justify or give credence to the Crown's claim. In Canterbury's indignant summary, almshouses and the needs of the lepers and indigent take their place alongside Henry's wish to provide for fifteen earls, fifteen hundred knights, over six thousand esquires, and the King's own "Coffers":

Cant. And to reliefe of Lazars, and weake age
Of indigent faint Soules, past corporali toyle,
A hundred Almes-houses, right well supply'd:
And to the coffers of the King beside
A thousand pounds by th' yeere. Thus runs the bill.
Ely. This would drink deepe.
Cant. 'Twould drink the cup and all.
Ely. But what prevention?
Cant. The King is full of grace and fair regard.
Ely. And a true lover of the holy Church.


That break in the meter, when Ely puts his practical question, orchestrates a small but significant adjustment:22 now Canterbury reminds Ely that to resolve the practical problem, which is already in hand, will require a very different style of public performance. The guileless bluntness of Ely's question is no more spiritually becoming than Canterbury's near-blasphemous joke about drinking the cup; the worldlywise must know when and how to seem unworldly. Ely responds at once, like a commedia dell'Arte player recognizing his cue to improvise; to lean on the phrase a little, these men are not bishops for nothing. So we have that sudden, seemingly inconsequential duet on the King's miraculous virtues: the man who wants to "strip" the Church to fill his "Coffers" is now praised as "a true lover of the holy Church." The subtext to this hymn of praise is that the miraculous reformation is unbelievable: "Miracles are ceast," after all—"And therefore we must needes admit the meanes, / How things are perfected" (lines 67-69). We have entered a world where role-playing is crucial, and a world of which the Chorus knows nothing. He believes that Henry is "the Mirror of all Christian Kings," whereas these bishops know when to say such things—so that the printer's abbreviation of "Canterbury" to Cant seems, in its fortuitous way, singularly happy. In his unholy worldliness, Canterbury resembles Pandulph in King John: he is not the man to represent "right and conscience," so that when Henry deferentially speaks as though he is, it is hard to know who is using whom, or whether the two are functioning as accomplices in a more or less cynical public routine. Since Canterbury also reveals that he has had a private meeting with Henry which was interrupted by the ambassador's arrival, it is worth asking why Shakespeare chose not to stage it so. The most plausible answer, I suggest, is that this first scene is busily working to promote—not resolve—uncertainty about Henry's motives for going to war with France.

To hear Canterbury argue why Henry should go to war is still more unsettling and divisive. Here it's worth emphasizing that there is no reason to doubt that individual members of an Elizabethan audience would have responded in very different ways. Some would have seen how the argument is contrived, both as a tactical diversion to ensure that the bishops retain "our possession" and in its substantive claims: as the New Arden editor observes, Pharamond was the "legendary king of the Salían Franks," and the "Salic Law was actually a collection of folk laws and customs and had nothing to do with the right of succession" (15). Some would have seen how the biblical text that Canterbury cites to establish the right of succession on the female side ("When the man dyes, let the Inheritance / Descend unto the Daughter") is certainly to the point but produces a potentially catastrophic difficulty: accepting this argument would destroy Henry's claim to the English throne, so that he, like King John, would be no more than a de facto king.23 For others, who are only thinking about the claim to the French throne, Canterbury's argument might seem good enough on its own quasi-legal terms. But then these terms are also being exposed to scrutiny, and here the argument's remoteness figures as an important part of its dramatic effect. Even as the speech ponderously tracks back through centuries to revive and give weight to the seventy-year-old dynastic claim entered by Henry's great-grandfather Edward III, it summons a sense of France's historical, geographical, and cultural separateness. This is also why it matters in this play that the French frequently speak French, and make their own appeals to "God"; as Alexander Leggati remarks, in "Henry VI and King John the French, like all sensible people, speak English," but in Henry V they have a curious habit of breaking into French, "especially when alarmed or excited."24 And when Canterbury goes on to recall the thrilling "Tragedie" played out "on the French ground" when Edward HI "Stood smiling, to behold his Lyons Whelpe / Forrage in blood of French Nobilitie," his jubilantly bloody-minded celebration of what our boys once did and might still do to "the full pride of France" emphasizes the traditional enmity between these countries and cultures. (Here Canterbury's lines on the Black Prince are so close to those of the King of France (2.4.53-62) as to suggest what could be, and perhaps was, gained by giving both parts to the same actor, who would then deliver the two passages with a wholly different emotional emphasis.) It is clear enough that the historically remote and self-aggrandizing dynastic claim makes war not love, as Henry's brutal joke in the final scene also reminds us: "I love France so well, that I will not part with a Village of it: I will have it all mine." This war is obviously not being undertaken for France's good—but then whom, among the English, could it benefit? The dynastic ambitions and interests of a particular royal family are utterly remote from the concerns and interests of the Williamses of this world. "Unckle Exeter," "brother Lancaster," "brother Clarence," and the others who eagerly join with Canterbury in urging the King to press his claim can at least hope, like the King, to fill their Lancastrian "coffers." To say that the burden of deciding whether to go to war falls on the king is only another, more "mystifying" way of saying that he can choose not to—whereas in Henry's reign, as in Elizabeth's, a conscripted common soldier had no choice, little prospect of profit and none of ransom, and would be lucky to survive. So, Henry very solemnly reminds Canterbury that he must, "in the Name of God, take heed," since

never two such Kingdomes did contend
Without much fall of blood, whose guiltlesse drops
Are every one, a Woe, a sore Complaint,
'Gainst him, whose wrongs gives edge unto the swords
That makes such waste in brief mortalitie.—


Here Henry himself is exposing that moral can of worms which Williams's speech will open. The crucial difference is that Henry always takes for granted the coincidence between his family and caste interests and those of the common weal, whereas Williams needs more convincing.

So will members of the audience who notice what the dramatic sequence tells us about Henry's way of pressing his claim. Henry IV had finished with Prince John's prediction of war:

I will lay oddes, that ere this yeere expire,
We beare our Civili Swords, and Native fire
As farre as France. I heare a Bird so sing,
Whose Musicke, to my thinking, pleas'd the King.

In Henry V we then hear Canterbury regretting that, since his preliminary private meeting with the King was interrupted,

there was not time enough to heare,
As I perceiV'd his Grace would faine have done,
The severalls and unhidden passages
Of his true Titles to some certaine Dukedomes,
And generally, to the Crowne and Seat of France.


However, there evidently was time (first things first) to float the financial deal:

As touching France, to give a greater Summe,
Then ever at one time the Clergie yet
Did to his Predecessors part withall.


The more alert will wonder how this could have found "good acceptance of his Majestie" before any discussion of the justice of the claim. The next scene picks up and develops that quietly suggestive irony. As soon as we see the King, we hear him piously emphasizing his need to "be resolV'd" (1.2.4) before he sees the French ambassadors. Apparently, no decision will be taken before the Archbishop's judgment of what "Or should or should not barre us in our Clayme":

And God forbid, my deare and faithfull Lord,
That you should fashion, wrest, or bow your reading . . .
For God doth know, how many now in health,
Shall drop their blood, in approbation
Of what your reverence shall incite us to.

Therefore take heed how you impawne our Person,
How you awake our sleeping Sword of Warre.

(1.2.13-14, 18-22)

Only after being "well resolV'd" that he can indeed "with right and conscience make this claim" will Henry call in the French ambassadors—or so it seems. But then we learn from the ambassador's speech that Henry has already claimed "some certaine Dukedomes" (the phrase is repeated) as one of his first actions on becoming king:

Your Highnesse lately sending into France,
Did claime some certaine Dukedomes, in the right
Of your great Predecessor, King Edward the third.
In answer of which claime, the Prince our Master
Sayes, that you savour too much of your youth.

(lines 246-50)

This dramatic revelation becomes the pivot for the whole stunningly structured scene, and for that very reason it's worth emphasizing how there is nothing like this in the chronicles. True, Holinshed's report of the Archbishop's oration is preceded—characteristically, without comment—by an account of the clergy's anxiety about the threat to its properties. But then his narrative becomes very diffuse, spanning large distances and periods of time. We learn that "during" the same parliament, "there came to the king ambassadors, as well as from the French king that was then in the hands of the Orlientiall faction, as also from the duke of Burgognie, for aid against that faction," and that Henry then sent Exeter, Grey, and others to the French king who "receiued them verie honorablie, and banketted them right sumtuouslie" (Chronicles, 67). In time, Henry's ambassadors tell the French king that if he will "without warre and effusion of christian bloud, render to the king their maister his verie right and lawfull inheritance, that he would be content to take in marriage the ladie Katharine, daughter to the French king, and to indow hir with all the duchies and countries before rehearsed"; the French ask for time to consider, promising to "send ambassadors into England," whereupon Henry—evidently dissatisfied with that stalling—determines to make war and set forth. The Chorus in Shakespeare's play would be happy with a versified dramatic version of this and, if he noticed how the account raises questions, would certainly not want to see them pressed.

Shakespeare presses them and shows how the whole court scene is being staged by Henry himself. If we understand the significance of the ambassador's revelation, it affects our sense of everything that happens in this richly equivocal, and richly dramatic, scene. We now see that the claim was entered before Canterbury's ponderously prepared speech "inciting" the King to war and taking "The sinne upon my head"; but now Canterbury can see that too, and a good production might let us see him seeing that—as any doubt about which man was using the other is resolved. We now see that Henry had already made his claim when he declared his need to be "resolV'd" and spoke so solemnly of the horrors of war; but the court can now see that too, and it is neither critical of the King nor any less determined to go to war. Once we know that this claim is what provoked the Dauphin's insult, the moment—a few lines earlier—when Henry declared himself "well prepar'd to know the pleasure / Of our faire Cosin Dolphin" seems wonderfully or appallingly insouciant; having heard him add, with regal casualness, "we heare, / Your greeting is from him, not from the King," we might reflect that nobody seems concerned to wait for the King of France's reply. We can also now see why the discreet ambassador offered to deliver the Dauphin's message to the King "sparingly," and why it was politically shrewd of the King to prefer to be insulted before his court. First he can affirm, stirringly, "We are no Tyrant, but a Christian King." Then, once the insult has been received, it—rather than the Archbishop's superfluous nihil obstat—can be treated as the incitement to war:

tell the pleasant Prince, this Mocke of his
Hath turn'd his balles to Gun-stones, and his soule
Shall stand sore charged, for the wastefull vengeance
That shall flye with them: for many a thousand widows
Shall this his Mocke, mocke out of their deer husbands;
Mocke mothers from their sonnes, mock Castles down:
And some are yet ungotten and unborne.
That shal have cause to curse the Dolphins scorne.
But this lyes all within the will of God,
To whom I do appeale, and in whose name
Tel you the Dolphin, I am comming on,
To venge me as I may, and to put forth
My rightfull hand in a wel-hallow'd cause.
So get you hence in peace: And tell the Dolphin,
His Jest will savour but of shallow wit,
When thousands weepe more then did laugh at it.

(lines 281-96)

Henry's adroitness in providing himself with retrospective justifications for what he has already determined to do is characteristic; we will see it again when Henry makes the slaughter of the boys a justification for the order he has already given, to cut the French prisoners' throats. The speech to the ambassadors is another powerful imaginative summons to consider how the horrors of war will devastate the lives of so many, including those who "are yet ungotten and unborne"; but as soon as the ambassadors leave with that "merry Message," the merry Harry England can urge his loyal lords to "omit no happy howre" in preparing for "this faire Action."

Henry and his army will already be at Harfleur when we learn, in the Chorus's prologue to Act 3, that

th'Embassador from the French comes back,
Tells Harry, That the King doth offer him,
Katherine his Daughter, and with her to Dowrie,
Some petty and unprofitable Dukedomes.
The offer likes not: and the nimble Gunner
With Lynstock now the divellish Cannon touches,
Alarum, and Chambers goe off
And down goes all before them. Still be kind.

(lines 29-34)

And here, once again, the dramatic sequence exposes troubling questions that the Chorus's official hagiography doesn'T acknowledge, let alone consider. Those critics (like Leonard Tennenhouse) who suppose that the marriage to Katherine is the crucial "article" in the English attempt to dominate France all too often fail to notice how Henry could have achieved that merely by accepting the King of France's offer—without risking his soldiers' lives and the nation's safety, and without making "such waste in briefe mortalitie." Characteristically, the play includes the evidence for this damaging line of argument, but without ever suggesting that Henry himself ever considers that rushing to war might have been imprudent or wrong; Shakespeare's Henry seems no less convinced than Holinshed's that he is "prosecuting his iust title," "without all danger of Gods displeasure or perill of soul." No less characteristically, the dramatic sequence is exposing the Chorus's loyally royal version of history to scrutiny: just as we see how the Chorus's rousing "down goes all before them" is followed by a scene showing the English army in retreat, we see what is unthinking in the Chorus's simple, too automatic assumption that this mirror of Christian kings is right to dismiss the French king's attempt to prevent war.

Of course, to say "we see" begs a question: not everybody does see, or would have seen, what is there to be seen. Yet we can be perfectly sure that the play's (various) subversive implications were not lost on some members of the original audience—precisely because the Elizabethan audience wasn'T a monolithic entity, as old historicists liked to suppose.25 The representational complexities in this first act suggest a sure knowledge of how mixed that audience's responses would be: the play plays to—sifts, and explores—such differences, and it is a measure of the power of that extraordinary second scene that the responses of individual spectators are also likely to be mixed or divided. To take one instance: once we are at last in a position to see how the King has been several steps ahead of Canterbury, do we approve or disapprove? Given the detonating force of the ambassador's revelation on our sense of all that we have seen so far, it is perfectly possible that we will be more engaged by other issues. It is also possible that we will be both relieved that the king—or, shifting the emphasis, the theatrical protagonist—is too clever to be used, and uneasy that Henry as prince and king is so adept at using others and exploiting any occasion. Much depends on whether the actor playing Canterbury is more or less formidable; on whatever we are bringing to the show, in our own attitude to the (Catholic) church and ecclesiastical politicians, or to the horrors of war, or to the French; and on our intellectual adequacy to issues raised by Canterbury's speech on the Salic law. The challenge to think is directly related to the play's refusal to tell us what to think.

As for the original audiences, we can be sure that they included some who agreed with Michael Williams, along with others who did not; those whose approval or disapproval of Henry's French expeditions reflected their attitude to the contemporary French, Spanish, and Irish expeditions; those who admired the way in which Henry forbids looting, and those who glumly observed the workings of a double code that allows only the well-born their pickings; those who knew from their reading of the chronicles what really happened after the surrender of Harfleur,26 and others who hadn'T read the chronicles or couldn'T read; those severe "morallers" who thought the king right to make no exception for Bardolph and Nym, and those who were disgusted by such glacial firmness; those who were as patriotic as the Chorus, and those who were terrified of being conscripted and forcefully wrenched from their families and livelihoods; those who were profiting from the contemporary wars—from monopolies, patents, and other court perks—and those who were being crushed by the ever-increasing burden of taxation during the last years of Elizabeth's reign (when, to take one example, the Irish establishment cost nearly two million pounds); those groundlings who felt a bit lost and fidgety while Canterbury is insisting that "the Art and Practique part of Life, / Must be the Mistresse to this Theorique," elders who nodded sagely, and clever irreverent young men from the Inns of Court who reflected that, far from showing how praxis is the mistress to theory, Canterbury's own actions, words and motives show how theoretical principle is a willing whore to practical self-interest.

Here it is worth noticing that the Chorus's dramatic function is sometimes to remind the audience of pressing perplexities and provokingly contemporary issues that the Chorus would prefer to deny or ignore. So, although the play might seem to be prudently silent on the dangerously topical matter of conscription, the loyally flagrant lie in the second Chorus is also a dramatically devious reminder that both Henrician and Elizabethan actualities were very, very different:

Now all the Youth of England are on fire,
And silken Dalliance in the Wardrobe lyes:
Now thrive the Armorers, and Honors thought
Reignes solely in the breast of every man.

(Prol. 2, lines 1-4)

As a stirring fantasy this is superb; the Chorus similarly asks, in Prologue 3 who "will not follow / These cull'd and choyse-drawne Cavaliers to France." Yet Edward Powell's study of criminal justice in Henry's reign gives a somewhat different picture, for instance when Powell remarks that "the muster-roll of the earl of Arundel's retinue at the siege of Harfleur . . . reads like a catalogue of those indicted in king's bench."27 The historical' Henry V followed Edward I's practice of giving criminals, including rapists and murderers, pardons (and military training) in return for military service. Of course Shakespeare's Henry leads a very different kind of army—if we are to judge from "Once more unto the breach" or the Crispin's Day speech; but then Henry's speech before Harfleur summons a much more familiar and terrifying vision of the "blind and bloody Souldier" whose "licentious Wickednesse" can only with difficulty be restrained from "Murther, Spoyle, and Villany." As for culled and choice-drawn cavaliers, Elizabethans were likely to know what the studies by C. G. Cruikshank and Lindsay Boynton amply confirm: although an Elizabethan army would usually include a few "gentlemen volunteers" (not all of them on fire with honor's thought) and a few ordinary volunteers who joined up as privates, by far the largest part of the army consisted of conscripts of two kinds—honest men taken away from steady employment (which was not often waiting for them when and if they returned), and "the unemployed, rogues, and vagabonds."28 Cruikshank's study concluded with this somber account of those years in which the second tetralogy was written and staged:

The nation became more and more war-weary. . . . The evasion of military service by one device or another became more frequent. Burghley sadly exclaimed that the country was weary of the ceaseless expenditure of money and life in foreign service. The Privy Council became apprehensive at the hostile attitude of the people. By the end of the century it was well-nigh impossible to raise money for troops.


Peter Clark's magnificently detailed study of English provincial society presents an even more somber picture of social and economic crisis.29 After the returns on land had been driven down in the early 1590s by unusually bountiful harvests, a run of ever more disastrous harvests produced a crisis in the food supply; increases in recruitment, taxation, and indirect levies like patents and purveyance all contributed to the severe economic recession. There was a great increase in crime, vagrancy, poverty, and disease, and severe outbreaks of bubonic plague drove the mortality levels still higher. The government could neither resolve nor delegate all the problems posed by the destitute families of dead soldiers and by the returning soldiers who were maimed, diseased, and unable or unwilling to find employment. Clark's account of town suburbs that were infested with emaciated soldiers raiding houses and terrifying the inhabitants reminds us that, whatever his medieval credentials, Pistol was a thoroughly contemporary figure and not so bad as some. Yet in all this misery a voice was heard: "Now all the Youth of England are on fire, / And silken Dalliance in the Wardrobe lyes."

This is to say that the Chorus has his work cut out, in relation to both audience and play—and, up to a point, knows it. His conviction that everybody should respond as he does to the inspiring "Story" about "the Mirror of all Christian Kings" if only the play can do justice to the "great Accompt" is, on a sympathetic view, naive but decent. On a less sympathetic view it resembles the conviction of so many politicians that opposition to their policies cannot be opposition to their policies but must be attributable to some reparable breakdown in public relations or "presentation." Having real horses is not the answer, although those who admire [Kenneth] Branagh's jejune travesty are unlikely to see that joke. But then the Chorus also betrays intuitive anxieties that, as often happens, are more obviously justified than his passionate convictions: he is quite right to fear that the dramatic representation won'T be adequate to his view of history, and right to fear that the mixed audience's "imaginary forces" may not function in a docile, unremittingly obedient fashion as mere "Cyphers to this great Accompt." When the Chorus worries that the play's make-believe won'T be adequate to the glorious history, the play's eruptive, complicating energies break in and expose the element of make-believe (or make-them-believe) in the Chorus's own attempts to collectivize and control the audience's responses, as well as the inadequacy of the Chorus's approach to the problems of "doing" history. What the Chorus would unite the play divides: so, after each eloquent choric attempt to bond the audience in a single, stirringly eloquent vision, the play uncovers those divisions and conflicts of principle, interest, or sympathy which the Chorus would prefer to edit or suppress and which speak to and explore the differences and divisions within the audience itself. So far as the audience is concerned, the Chorus thinks like Greenblatt while the play behaves like Brecht.

In Prologue 2 the Chorus's troubles begin even before he has finished. His dream of England ("O England!") as a "little Body with a mightie Heart," in which "Honors thought / Reignes solely in the breast of every man" collides with the facts (some values are more fact-laden), while the hasty explanation that the "Traitors" were seduced by "the gilt of France" is later contradicted by Cambridge's own dark claim that "for me, the Gold of France did not seduce" but was merely another "motive, / The sooner to effect what I intended"—that is, the Yorkist attempt to make Edmund Mortimer king (2.2.155-57). Before that, we see Pistol and Nym resolving to go to France not from thoughts of "honour" but from the hope that "profits will accrue" (2.1.107)—just as the Chorus's wistfully rhetorical question in Prologue 3, "who is he, whose Chin is but enrichi / With one appearing Hayre, that will not follow / These cull'd and choyse-drawn Cavaliers?", is no less wistfully answered by the Boy's feelings about the war in which he will soon be slaughtered: "Would I were in an Ale-house in London, I would give all my fame for a Pot of Ale, and safety" (3.2.10). Such effects douse the Chorus's noble dream with cold splashes of reality.

But then, although the relation between whatever the Chorus says and what the play shows or suggests is so challengingly interrogative, this doesn'T mean that the Chorus's thoroughly pro-Henry views only make an anti-Henry view more compelling. The "Henriad" nowhere suggests that any of the rebel leaders and factions are less inclined than the monarchs to identify their own interests with those of the common weal.30 This might prompt bleak thoughts about power and history, or a more positively pragmatic sense of Henry's relative merits, but it doesn'T make an anti-Henry view more compelling; if anything, it suggests why indulging a narrowly characterological judgment is simplistic and reductive, a form of social unrealism that (like Joyce's Mrs. Mooney in Dubliners) deals "with moral problems as a cleaver deals with meat."

The final act brings another, more perplexing but climactic collision between the Chorus and the play. The Chorus is historically correct when he reminds "those that have not read the Story" that Henry and his army returned to London after Agincourt, and that five years passed between the battle of Agincourt and the Treaty of Troyes, which is represented in the play's final scene. To the extent that this protest against "abridgement" seems in place, in a straightforwardly historical sense, it might appear to be an unequivocal example of the way in which—as Herbert Lindenberger assumes—"Shakespeare awkwardly excuses himself through the Chorus, recognizing that "the modest theatrical piece he has created can at best supply a few hints about the glory it purports to depict."31 For A. P. Rossiter, who wrote so superbly about "ambivalence" in the history plays, Henry V is an exception, a "propaganda-play on National Unity"—the sort of play the Chorus would certainly prefer; Sigurd Burckhardt similarly supposes that in this play Shakespeare "knowingly chooses a partial and partisan clarity" so that we hear his "epic," rather than his "dramatic," voice—which, once again, is just what the Chorus would wish, although he certainly wouldn'T agree with Burckhardt that this amounts to taking "a rest."32 Yet when the Chorus asks "such as have read" the "Story" to,

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

(Prol. 5, lines 3-6)

something more complicated, and deviously intricate, is happening, which should—if we ourselves are not taking a rest—render far more suspect the idea of a self-deprecatory Shakespeare apologizing through the Chorus.

First, we might notice how the Chorus's use of the word "Story" unleashes ironies he certainly does not intend. As a late Elizabethan who prides himself on his knowledge of history, he takes for granted that his own "king's-eye" version of the "Story" is the truth. This precludes any concern with the way in which a historical narrative is constructed and shaped, like any fictional story, by the narrator's sense of how best to make sense of events and lives. Just as the Chorus is entirely untroubled by historiographical doubts, he is entirely innocent of any positive conception of dramatic and narrative form, and complains about what the play cannot do without ever registering what it does do. Pistol would have no place in his "great Accompt," but then, far from considering what the "low" characters and episodes are doing in the play's version of the "Story," the Chorus never even acknowledges their existence: he always speaks about the play he so nervously inhabits as though they weren'T there, and as though he himself weren'T a part of it either. Here, as ever, he places himself between the play and its audience and apart from both, while worrying whether either will measure up to his "Story." Clearly he is apart from the dramatic action, which spans the period from April 30, 1414 to May 20, 1420; Fluellen is the amateur historian within the play's action, and still another fervently loyal, take-me-to-your-leader historian. So, as Anthony Brennan nicely observes, Fluellen provides "a comic parody within the plot of the homage to tradition that the Chorus presents outside it."33 But to reflect on the relation between the Chorus and Fluellen as amateur historians is to respond to the play's very different way of presenting the "Story" and to see how, although the Chorus is apart from the play's action, he is very much a part of its dramatic thinking. Seeing himself as a judiciously detached and wholly authoritative commentator who can appraise, correct, and (in his own account of the king's triumphal return) supplement the play, he cannot see how he is assimilated into it, or how the play's irony enfolds his own nonironic use of the word "Story." When he apologizes for the play's inability to present things in their "huge and proper life" the play eats him, smiles expansively, and suggests why his own ideal version of the "Story" is so small and proper.

His version is more like Branagh's, not just in having real horses and more than four or five vile and ragged foils, but in altogether suppressing scenes like 5.1—which, as Branagh himself explains, isn'T even very funny.34 The Chorus wants a linear, annalistic account of what the high and mighty did from one year to the next, which keeps closer to the chronicles while carefully excluding anything like Holinshed's "some say" or "others allege," since such things let on that the "Story" hasn'T been universally received as the Truth. Although seemingly unstructured, this ideal version would be forcefully structured or "abridged" by its automatic omissions and "proper" suppressions, and by the Chorus's unwavering assumption that the truth about how it really was—Ranke's wie es eigentlich gewesen—can and must be "presented" in a unified and uniformly "high" or "epic" fashion. In the Chorus's terms 5.1 is doubly offensive: the already displeasing, historically inaccurate "abridgement" makes room for another "low" and irrelevant comic scene or side-show thrown in for those groundlings who are incapable of responding to the "Story" like true "Gentles." But in that case what is 5.1 doing in Shakespeare's play?

Far from being apologetic, Shakespeare builds in another teasing, wittily defiant provocation. For as soon as the Chorus leaves the stage, 5.1 gives the contrary impression that the army has never left France, that barely any time has passed between 4.8 and 5.1, and that the victorious Henry proceeds directly from the battlefield to the French court. True, the King's final words in Act 4 referred to the return to Calais, then England; but that token gesture toward getting the "Story" right, in the Chorus's sense, has little dramatic weight if set against the impression of continuity. Act 5 abruptly opens in "France. The English camp," and in the course of a further conversation between Fluellen and Gower, which we pick up as the latter remarks, "Nay, that's right: but why weare you youre Leeke to day? / S. Davies day is past." Fluellen replies, "There is occasions and causes why and wherefore in all things," and explains that he is looking for "that rascally, scauld, beggerly, lowsie, pragging Knave Pistoll, which you and your selfe, and all the World, know to be no petter then a fellow, looke you now, of no merits" (5.1-5.8). It is at once clear that this is unfinished business. In 4.1 Pistol had assured the disguised king that he would "knock" Fluellen's "Leeke about his Pate upon S. Davies day," and now the angry Fluellen reports the insult he received "yesterday," when Pistol "prings me pread and sault yesterday, looke you, and bids me eate my Leeke: it was in a place where I could not breed no contention with him; but I will be so bold as to weare it in my Cap till I see him once againe, and then I will tell him a little piece of my desires" (lines 9-13). We have just heard the Chorus telling us of the years that passed between 4.8 and 5.1, but, as we readjust to the play's quite different way of telling the "Story," who counts the number of times St. Davy's day must have passed?

Here, instead of supposing that Shakespeare is "awkwardly excusing himself by ventriloquizing through the Chorus, we should notice how he is engineering this exuberant collision between the Chorus and the play's different ways of "doing" history. So far as the "abridgement" of time is concerned the Chorus is right, and 5.1 is wholly irrelevant to the kind of play or dramatic "chronicle" this play makes its Chorus want and expect. Why conclude the play and the second tetralogy in such a fashion? Dr. Johnson was famously dismissive, commenting that "the poet's matter failed him in the fifth act, and he was glad to fill it up with whatever he could get."35 Yet an alternative possibility, to which that climactic, finely engineered collision points, is to consider the fifth act as a highly organized design or poetic-dramatic conceit, in which the two final scenes make up an ironic diptych of "low" and "high" conclusions framed by the Chorus's protesting prologue and still more discontented epilogue. Act 5.1 may not be very funny in Branagh's sense, but it is a remarkably witty and disconcerting example of Shakespeare's dramatic rhyming. . . .


21 Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, 6 vols. (London, 1808), 3:132-33. As Phyllis Rackin usefully emphasizes in her important study Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (London and New York: Routledge, 1990), the chronicles are the product of collaborative effort in which we hear a "plurality of voices": they "included the work of many writers—predecessors whose work was incorporated, successors who augmented the narratives after their authors' deaths, and collaborators at the time of their production" (23). See F. J. Levy's pioneering work, Tudor Historical Thought (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1967).

22 See George T. Wright's comments on "squinting lines," which "produce an effect that no manner of printing so far devised can make clear to the reader"; Wright, Shakespeare's Metrical Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 103.

23 For an excellent discussion of these issues, see Karl T. Wentersdorf, "The Conspiracies of Silence in Henry V," Shakespeare Quarterly 27 (1976): 264-87, especially 265-68, 280, 283. As Wentersdorf observes: "If Mortimer and his heirs are to be denied their rights to the crown on the ground that Mortimer is descended from Edward III in the female line, Henry V can scarcely proceed in conscience with his war to obtain the French crown on the basis of a claim likewise through descent in the female line," while "Cambridge and Scroop are challenging Henry V's right to the English throne on grounds at least as convincing as those justifying Henry's challenge to the French king."

The King John analogy is particularly interesting, in relation to Sigurd Burckhardt's arresting claim in Shakespearean Meanings (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1968) that "what King John presents us with is a world in which authority is wholly untrustworthy" (138), and in which "he that holds his kingdom holds the law" (132). Several essays in Deborah T. Curren-Aquino, ed., King John: New Perspectives (London: Associated University Presses; Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1989) take up that challenge, as does David Womersley, "The Politics of King John," Review of English Studies 40 (November 1989): 497-515. But Burckhardt himself suggested that the latter history plays became "a kind of holding operation, with the work of discovery going on beneath the surface" (143); as far as Henry V is concerned, the important question is whether (as Marsha Robinson's essay in King John: New Perspectives assumes) the later play disregards the earlier play's challenging "discovery," and in this sense goes backward. This is what Annabel Patterson seems to think happened even between the Folio and Quarto versions of Henry V, since the Quarto eliminates so much of what I have called the historiographical challenge in the Folio; see Patterson, "Back by Popular Demand: The Two Versions of Henry V," in Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford and New York: Blackwell, 1989), 71-92, and the earlier version of this chapter in the 1989 volume of Renaissance Drama. However, since we do not know why these cuts were made, Patterson's argument reinforces the authority of the Folio text as the Shakespearean Henry V.

24 Alexander Leggati, Shakespeare 's Political Drama (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), 115.

25 "Thou art a blessed fellow to think as every man thinks," Hal wryly observes to Poins. "Never a man's thought in the world keeps the roadway better than thine" (2H4, 2.2.56-59). I do not want to deny that there were roadways; yet we should not assume that Shakespeare and every member of his audiences kept to them, or that establishing what they were and where they ran is a straightforward matter of consulting official maps—that is, discovering what those in authority said people should believe.

Would Elizabethans, for instance, have been repelled by the "incestuous" marriage of Claudius and Gertrude? Although nobody in Hamlet apart from the Ghost and Hamlet seem troubled enough to mention it, Harold Jenkins admits no doubt in his edition of Hamlet (London: Methuen, 1982): the relationship was incestuous, and repellent, because the Leviticus-based Elizabethan law condemned such unions. He doesn'T explain why the other relevant biblical text considers the question when an unmarried brother should marry a deceased brother's widow; chap. 7 of John Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1968) provides a magisterial account of the significance of these conflicting texts (Lev. 18.16, 20.21; Deut. 25.5) in relation to Henry's busy marital itinerary. As it happens, the corresponding Scottish law was, until very recently, still based on Leviticus: like the Elizabethan law, it made no distinction between sleeping with one's sister and with one's sister-in-law. The law was finally changed, since many Scots thought there was a difference, and thought it important; but Jenkins's argument about "the" Elizabethan audience would also oblige him to deny that contemporary Scots could think any such thing—until that moment when the law was changed, and suddenly they all thought and felt differently!

26 See Christopher Hibbert, Agincourt (London: Batsford, 1975), 33, and the telling discussion in Graham Holderness, Nick Potter, and John Turner, Shakespeare: The Play of History (London: Macmillan Press; Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1988), 63-67. Holinshed records that "soldiers were ransomed, and the towne sacked, to the great gain of the Englishmen," and warily mentions that others have made "mention of the distresses whereto the people, then expelled out of their habitations, were driven" (73-74); two thousand of the town's poor and infirm were expelled, and each was allowed to take no more than a small bundle and five sous.

Shakespeare's departure from his historical source material at this point is admittedly problematic. Some see it as evidence of a hagiographical determination to idealize power. In that case it's hard to understand why Shakespeare made Henry's speech so ruthless—and followed it with the governor's dignified and deflating speech, where the reason given for the surrender is the failure of reinforcements to arrive at the expected time. My own view is that the change is being assimilated to a long-range exploration of ends and means. The "Henriad" exposes short memories: many who would defend the Harfleur speech by arguing that Henry wanted to save lives would balk at defending Prince John's treacherous treatment of the rebels at Galtree, which also saves the lives of loyal soldiers. Moreover, in having Henry forbid looting, Shakespeare suggests the disquietingly ironic view that (as Hibbert's study confirms) the spoils of war were being reserved for the rulers and officers. Someone like Williams gets nothing at all, unless he accepts what the King and Fluellen give him; Pistol has to accept Fluellen's groat, but his obedience in butchering Le Fer means destitution. As ever, Shakespeare allows a view from the ranks—and a very topical one, since the frequently appalling situation of returning soldiers was something Cecil himself frequently bewailed, without being able to remedy it.

27 Edward Powell, Kingship, Law, and Society: Criminal Justice in the Reign of Henry V (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 233-34.

28 C. G. Cruikshank, Elizabeth's Army, 2d ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968), chap. 2; Lindsay Boynton, The Elizabethan Militia (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967), chap. 6.

29 Peter Clark, English Provincial Society from the Reformation to the Revolution (Brighton: Harvester Press, 1977).

30 A similar pragmatic point might be made about The Tempest if, instead of basing our response on whatever general position we take in response to "post-colonial" critiques, we consider the particular characters who would dominate this particular island: Prospero, who will leave the island with no trace of regret once it has served his purpose, yet who is not simply an imperialist villain; Trinculo and Stephano, who have no sponsors; and Caliban, who cannot be considered merely as a dispossessed and much wronged "native" when he wants to rape Miranda and paunch Prospero with a stake.

31 Herbert Lindenberger, Historical Drama: The Relation of Literature and Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 78. The assumption that Shakespeare is speaking through the Chorus persists, for example in Dollimore and Sinfield's essay on this play (Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, "History and Ideology: the Instance of Henry V," in John Drakakis, ed., Alternative Shakespeares [London and New York: Methuen, 1985], 206-27), but it has also been challenged in several good discussions of the Chorus's role. See Anthony Brennan, "That Within Which Passeth Show," Philological Quarterly 59 (1980): 40-51, and Brennan's more recent chapter on Henry V in Onstage and Offstage Worlds in Shakespeare's Plays (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), 173-208. See also Eamon Grennan, "This Story Shall the Good Man Teach his Son," Papers on Language and Literature 15 (1979): 370-82; Gunter Walch, "Henry V as Working-House of Ideology," Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988): 63-68. As Walch observes, "The Chorus is an integral part of Shakespeare's strategy not in spite of his information being unreliable, but because it is unreliable, and because what he does not tell us is more important than what he does tell us" (67).

32 A. P. Rossiter, Angel with Horns, (London: Longman, 1961), 57; Burckhardt, Shakespearian Meanings, 193; Lindenberger quotes these critics in Historical Drama.

33 Brennan, Onstage and Offstage Worlds, 189.

34 Kenneth Branagh, Shakespeare: Henry 5 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1990), 11. Branagh declares the scene "resoundingly unfunny," without considering what the resonances might be if Shakespeare's complex design were regarded as anything more than a vehicle for the ego of actors with a crippling Olivier complex.

35 Quoted in Lindenberger, Historical Drama, 78.

Further Reading

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Ayers, P. K. " 'Fellows of Infinite Tongue': Henry V and the King's English." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 34, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 253-77.

Relates Henry V's mastery of diverse modes of speech to the complex pattern of historical and theological issues raised by the play. Ayers believes that the king's verbal strategy has several different purposes: to reshape his public and private personas, erase the objective past, and obscure his own sins.

Babula, William. "Whatever Happened to Prince Hal?: An Essay on Henry V? Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 47-59.

Asserts that Henry V is concerned with the same theme as the two parts of Henry IV: the education of a ruler. Babula contends that Henry slowly but gradually progresses from a rash youth who avoids responsibility and whose speech is highly artificial to a mature, plainspoken monarch who fully appreciates the values of peace and moderation.

Barton, Anne. "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, pp. 92-117. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1975.

Argues that in Henry V Shakespeare employed the popular motif of a disguised monarch's encounter with his subjects—a recurring feature of medieval ballads and late sixteenth-century history plays—to show that a sovereign is, by virtue of his office, no ordinary mortal but rather an emotionally isolated man.

Battenhouse, Roy. "Henry V in the Light of Erasmus." Shakespeare Studies XVII (1985): 77-88.

Views Henry as a pseudo-pious monarch who violates many of the norms set forth in Erasmus's Praise of Folly and The Christian Prince. Battenhouse holds that just as Erasmus satirizes rulers and their associates who adhere to pagan rather than Christian notions of kingship, Shakespeare's perspective on Henry's notions of justice and public welfare—and on Canterbury's as well—is deeply ironic.

Black, James. "Shakespeare's Henry V and the Dreams of History." English Studies in Canada 1, No. 1 (Spring 1975): 13-30.

Considers how Henry tries to meet the expectations of those who hold chivalric dreams of the past while at the same time shaping a new image of heroism for himself. Black distinguishes enthusiasm for epic wars and illustrious conquests—expressed by the Chorus and many others—from what he sees as Henry's workmanlike approach to war, which emphasizes shared fame and fellowship rather than personal glory.

Dean, Paul. "Chronicle and Romance Modes in Henry V." Shakespeare Quarterly 32, No. 1 (Spring 1981): 18-27.

Proposes that the Nym-Bardolph-Pistol subplot has a double function, serving as both a dramatic foil to the main plot and a subversive critique of Henry. Dean also comments on elements in the play derived from conventional "romance histories, particularly the episodes in which Henry appears in disguise and when he plays the role of lover."

Dollimore, Jonathan, and Alan Sinfield. "History and Ideology: the Instance of Henry V." In Alternative Shakespeares, edited by John Drakakis, pp. 206-27. New York: Routledge, 1985.

Provides a materialist analysis of ideology and power in Henry V, focusing on the play's treatment of national unity and internal conflict.

Gurr, Andrew. "'Henry V and the Bees' Commonwealth." Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 61-72.

Examines the various motivations for war as well as Henry's conduct as a Christian monarch. In Gurr's judgment, Henry V demonstrates that a commonwealth is typically made up of a variety of self-interested persons who must be brought together to achieve a common goal—in this case the conquest of France. The critic also believes that Henry is principally driven by his need to achieve personal distinction and secure an untarnished title to the English throne.

Herman, Peter C. "'O, 'Tis a gallant king': Shakespeare's Henry V and the Crisis of the 1590s." In Tudor Political Culture, edited by Dale Hoak, pp. 204-25. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Contends that in Henry V Shakespeare challenges the validity of the Tudor view of history by articulating late sixteenth-century skepticism of established authority. Herman asserts that Bates and Williams's mistrust of royalty, Pistol's critical demeanor toward authority, and the consistent undermining of the Chorus's "official" view of Henry all contribute to a subversive questioning of Tudor propaganda and the myth of Henry as a paragon of virtue.

Hodgdon, Barbara. "'A Full and Natural Close, Like Music': Henry V" In The End Crowns All, pp. 185-211. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Assesses possible readings of the quarrel between Fluellen and Pistol, the prologue and epilogue to Act V, and the wooing scene. Hodgdon also describes the contradictory ways these passages were represented in three late twentieth-century stage productions and in Olivier's 1944 film adaption, and she considers the question of whether the play ends with a harmonious resolution of its discordant perspectives on history.

Holderness, Graham. "Henry V." In Shakespeare: The Play of History, edited by Graham Holderness, Nick Potter, and John Turner, pp. 62-82. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987.

Argues that the discrepancy between historical reality and theatrical representation in Henry V calls into question the ideology of national unity. Holderness maintains that despite the play's protestations regarding equality and a united kingdom, Henry suppresses the issue of civil dissent with his victory at Agincourt, and the values of chivalry and feudal aristocracy remain in place at the close.

Mossman, Judith. "Henry V and Plutarch's Alexander." Shakespeare Quarterly 45, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 57-73.

Suggests that Shakespeare made significant use of Plutarch's Life of Alexander in developing the structure and characterization of Henry V. Although Mossman sees Henry as "a more virtuous version of Alexander," she concludes that they are both complex figures—epic heroes who must contend with the duties, challenges, and tribulations of kingship.

Paris, Bernard J. "Henry. V." In his Character as a Subversive Force in Shakespeare, pp. 91-109. Rutherford, N. J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1991.

A psychoanalytic appraisal of the disparity between the play's idealistic rhetoric and its realistic portrayal of Henry. Noting that the rhetoric celebrates Henry as an exemplary king and superlative military hero, Paris argues that the protagonist is actually a contradictory character: convinced of the justice of his cause but also violently aggressive, self-effacing yet compulsively ambitious, and a perfectionist who frequently doubts his worthiness.

Ross, A. Elizabeth. "Hand-me-Down-Heroics: Shakespeare's Retrospective of Popular Elizabethan Heroical Drama in Henry V." In Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre, edited by John W. Velz, pp. 171-203. Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval & Renaissance Texts & Studies, 1996.

Contends that in Henry V Shakespeare challenges Elizabethan literary ideals of the epic and the heroic. Ross is principally concerned with the many parallels and contrasts between this play and Marlowe's Tamburlaine—especially the choric figures, the function of rhetoric, and the use of irony and ambiguity—but she also evaluates Act IV, scene i in terms of the conventions of heroic ballad plays.

Taylor, Mark. "Imitation and Perspective in Henry V." Clio 16, No. 1 (Fall 1986): 35-47.

Focuses on the way two episodes—the exposure of the English nobles' conspiracy and Henry's justification of his cause to Williams, Bates, and Court—highlight the king's attempts to manipulate others. On the first occasion, Taylor maintains, Henry successfully projects his point of view onto the conspirators so that they applaud their own death warrants; on the second occasion, however, the common soldiers maintain their own perspectives and thwart Henry's efforts to substitute his personal version of reality for theirs.

Tucker, E. F. J. "Legal Fiction and Human Reality: Hal's . Role in Henry V" Educational Theatre Journal 26, No. 3 (October 1974): 308-14.

Evaluates the question of Henry's moral transformation in terms of the Elizabethan concept of the King's Two Bodies. In Tucker's judgment, the scenes leading up to Agincourt show Henry struggling with—and ultimately accepting—the need to sacrifice his personal schemes so that he can fulfill his public responsibilities.

Vickers, Brian. "'Suppose you see': The Chorus in Henry V and The Mirror for Magistrates." In Shakespearean Continuities: Essays in Honour of E. A. J. Honigmann, edited by John Batchelor, Tom Cain, and Claire Lamont, pp. 74-90. London: Macmillan, 1997.

Proposes that the Chorus's appeals to the audience's imagination represent Shakespeare's witty reminder of the collaborative nature of theater—in which author, actors, and spectators share responsibility for the success of a performance. Vickers also suggests that the prose prefaces in The Mirror for Magistrates may be a model for the Chorus in Henry V.

Wilcox, Lance. "Katherine of France as Victim and Bride." Shakespeare Studies XVII (1985): 61-76.

Regards Katherine as serving two dramatic functions: to represent the victims of military and sexual aggression, and to temper our view of Henry as a ruthless conqueror. Wilcox argues that although the wooing scene is designed to redeem Henry's image by showing him as a gracious lover, this episode fails to soften the grim portrayal of the king as a brutal invader.

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