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Henry V

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The final play of Shakespeare’s second historical tetralogy, Henry V is a portrayal of one of England’s most beloved heros and has long been considered a great patriotic play. However, modern critics have emphasized the ambiguous way in which Shakespeare portrayed King Henry and his military exploits. Scholars are divided over whether Shakespeare intended to characterize Henry as an ideal king whose war with France is justified, or as a brutal leader whose military endeavors are condemnable. Many recent critics agree that although ambiguous, Shakespeare’s depiction of Henry was likely intended to be a patriotic valorization of a national hero. Scholars often examine Shakespeare’s sources in order to gain more insight into Henry’s character and his reputation among Elizabethans. These sources include Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548), and The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, an anonymous play from the 1580s. Shakespeare's Henry V is centrally concerned with England’s invasion of France during the Hundred Years War. Critics have noted that the conquering of France is described in language that likens the conquest to the sexual assault of a woman, a fact which has inspired some commentators to explore the play's treatment of gender issues. Scholars are also concerned with Shakespeare’s treatment of “foreignness” in Henry V, and have examined his depiction of the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and French. Performances of the play, notably the film adaptations directed by Laurence Olivier in 1944 and Kenneth Branagh in 1989, also examine such issues as Henry's character and the nationalistic elements of the play.

Shakespeare's characterization of King Henry is both complex and morally ambiguous, as some critics have observed. William Babula (1977) centers his study of Henry on the king's gradual maturation throughout the course of the play. Babula contends that the “education of the prince” theme, explored earlier by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, is revisited in Henry V, and argues that although the king repeatedly refuses to accept moral responsibility for his actions, in particular for attacking France, he ultimately becomes a man of peace. Lance Wilcox (1985) comments on Henry's character through an analysis of Katherine, demonstrating how Katherine's personality and role within the play are used to salvage Henry's image. Wilcox contends that in Katherine's attempt to learn English, and through her interaction with Henry as he attempts to woo her, Katherine is depicted as a collaborator in Henry's “conquest” of her. Wilcox states that this collaboration, combined with Henry's “oddly chivalrous treatment” of Katherine, is meant to soften our view of the warrior-king. Zdeněk Stříbrný (1964) contends that Shakespeare presented Henry as a “father of his country” and as a “symbol of British unity and glory.” Even so, Stříbrný observes that while the war against France is depicted as a just one, Shakespeare also showed that Henry often shifts the blame for his actions onto other persons or parties. Additionally, the critic comments that Henry's repeated invocation of God calls into question his piety, and that Henry's rejection of his old friend Falstaff, while politically necessary, is done in a way that is overly cold and self-righteous.

Another area of critical interest is the play’s treatment of gender issues. Katherine Eggert (1994) observes that the play was written late in Queen Elizabeth's reign, when debate over who should succeed the heirless monarch was fierce. Eggert demonstrates the way in which Henry V reflects a contemporary disparagement of female rule, and finds a praise of patriarchal rule in Shakespeare's glorification of a “dauntingly masculine monarch.” In addition, Eggert notes that Henry characterizes the taking France as the victory over a woman. Likewise, Karen Newman (1991) reviews Henry's speech at the walls of Harfleur, pointing out that the expansionist objectives of England are “worked out on and through the woman's body.” Not only is the conquering of France described in terms of a sexual assault of a woman, Henry informs the people of Harfleur that their women will actually be assaulted if his men are directed to attack. Furthermore, Newman notes, Katherine is appropriated as a sexual object to be exchanged.

In discussions of gender relations the female is often viewed in terms of her “otherness.” Likewise, foreigners are similarly characterized in Shakespeare's plays as “the Other.” Lisa Hopkins (1997) demonstrates that France's position as “the Other” is portrayed in ambivalent terms throughout Henry V, commenting that France and the French, while still a place and a people to be conquered, are discussed by Henry as known and familiar, not strange or foreign. David Womersley (1995) investigates the topical significance of Shakespeare's complex and ambiguous treatment of the French in Henry V. Womersley locates the source of this ambiguous portrayal in the “high-political rumours” regarding Henri IV, the French king who was believed to be the probable candidate for the English throne. Henri IV was disliked by many Elizabethans, and Womersley discusses several reasons for the English disapproval of him, such as the French king's rejection of Protestantism in favor of Catholicism. Christopher Ivic (1999) focuses his study of Shakespeare's treatment of foreignness on the way the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish are depicted in Henry V. Ivic contends that the conflict portrayed in the interaction among Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and English characters emphasized the fragmented nature of the nation. The critic further explains that England's anxiety concerning its national and cultural identity is symbolized in Shakespeare's King Henry.

Just as Shakespeare utilized his historical sources in order to explore Henry's kingship and issues of national identity, filmmakers have appropriated Shakespeare's text for similar purposes. Stephen M. Buhler (1995) studies the treatment of Catholicism and British national identity in Laurence Olivier's 1944 film adaptation of Henry V. Buhler argues that in the film, Olivier sought to use both Catholic ritual and Shakespeare's text as sources of national strength and unity. Robert Lane (1994) examines a 1989 film version of Henry V, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. Lane compares Branagh's treatment of history to Shakespeare's, and contends that Branagh softened the elements of class conflict and concerns regarding the justifiability of war that appear in Shakespeare's play. Lane also contends that Branagh excised text from the play that would alert the audience to Shakespeare’s manipulation of historical material, a manipulation that Branagh's film itself embodies.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12521

SOURCE: Hart, Jonathan. “Shakespeare's Henry V: Towards the Problem Play.” Cahiers Élisabéthains 42 (October 1992): 17-35.

[In the following essay, Hart contends that Henry V contains many aspects found in Shakespeare’s problem plays, most notably its unstable genre, which includes elements of tragedy, comedy, and satire.]

When in the 1890s Frederick Boas first called attention to problems in some of Shakespeare's plays and laid the critical groundwork for the debate on the problem plays or problem comedies was he uncovering a division in Shakespeare's mind or representation or in the audience of the modern period?1 C. S. Lewis and E. M. W. Tillyard in England and W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley in the United States debated the authority of the author's intention decades before the advent of reception theory, which argued for the importance of the role of the reader.2 Possibly, the rise of irony as a critical and theoretical concept in the past two centuries has contributed to the destabilization of the text and its meaning.3 Drama complicates the complex relation between author and audience because it is a literary and theatrical text, is written and oral. The audience is singular and plural. Psychoanalytical criticism has made us more aware that literary and dramatic texts are complex interactions of the conscious and unconscious.4 It is difficult to understand the reader's interpretation of the text, even if it is translated into a full written response, as well as the relation of reader and auditor. To state the division between author and reader in terms familiar to the Renaissance: rhetoric is the relation between speaker and audience, writer and reader. This rhetorical relation can involve communication and persuasion, a sharing of common assumptions or a manipulation of one party by another. Rhetoric was at the centre of the education of writers like Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton and existed well before Aristotle helped codify its rules, so that its importance to poetry and criticism is as great as it is to politics and the law.5 Although no text can be hermetically sealed from history and is as much a product of social and historical forces as those of personality, for the purposes of exploring Henry V as leading to the problem play, this essay will assume that a dramatic text involves a representation in language and a reception that is complex and not easily reducible.

Broadly speaking, all texts represent the problems that exist between the author and audience, but problem plays draw attention to that debate as well as to the difficulties of genre, of representation itself. Whether Shakespeare was divided in his representation of the reign of Henry the Fifth, as the culmination of that of the previous divided reigns in the Second Tetralogy, or whether readers, especially in our century, are divided in their reception of the way Shakespeare represents history, patriotism, love and war, becomes a dilemma that is, perhaps, unanswerable. If we cannot reconstruct Shakespeare's intention with any certainty, we cannot dismiss Boas and his followers by saying that others before them had not seen the critical problem and thus it does not exist because to do so would be to advocate the abandonment of all fields that have been thoroughly considered such as classical and Shakespearian scholarship. Contrary to the wish of theorists like E. D. Hirsch and Terry Eagleton, that we should give up criticism for the former's authorial authority or the latter's idea of rhetoric, each generation reinterprets the past in terms of itself and the converse.6 Whether Shakespeare used the Chorus in Henry V as a proto-Brechtian alienation effect, so that his audience would experience its distance from the civil wars of an earlier era as well as from the stage and the history play, the Chorus does sometimes distance the present from the past, the world from the theatre. The present can only use its own language, no matter how much derived from the past, to speak about past events, as the previous sentence implies. This essay will, then, assume that the text represents signs that can be interpreted and will discuss the problems Henry V represents rather than deciding what may be undecidable: what is the cause of the problem.

Problems also occur in the earlier plays of the Second Tetralogy. If Richard II tends towards tragedy but extends that tragic fall from the individual to the state and includes the comic episode of the Aumerle conspiracy; if 1 Henry IV develops the comic communal element but also contains the germs of satiric isolation and self-criticism in the tavern parodies of Hotspur and Glendower as well as in the division between Hal and Falstaff; if 2 Henry IV represents the negative discipline, blind fallenness and increasing incommunication of satire because Hal and Falstaff meet seldom but also includes a mixture of the tragic and the comic as well as a crisis in the relation of fiction and history in the rejection of Falstaff; Henry V continues this generic friction that is characteristic of the problem play, its crisis being especially apparent in the disjunction between the comic marriage of Henry and Katherine and the tragic fall that the Epilogue describes.

In part, Henry V attempts to sum up the earlier plays of the second group of histories. It represents the problems of unity and division, offering a problematic ending to the Second Tetralogy, attempting to give its manykinded histories a unified shape.7 The history play is an unstable genre, partly because history is a continuum of time and therefore hard to capture within the limits of a work of art, and partly because the history play is always tending towards something else or, at least, is always incorporating other genres—such as tragedy in Richard II, comedy in 1 Henry IV and satire in 2 Henry IV. Although each of these plays contains less prominent aspects of other genres in them, it is Henry V that balances or, rather, makes the different genres collide more equally. By doing this, it pushes out the boundary of its genre in a way that many critics would agree to be a primary feature of the ‘problem play.’8 Critics mix the terms ‘problem comedies’ and ‘problem plays,’ admitting the difficulty of defining them, and do not always concur on which plays come under these headings. Even though some critics include Hamlet (1600-01), Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07) and Timon of Athens (1607-09), the usual ‘problem’ triad is Troilus and Cressida (1601-02), All's Well That Ends Well (1602-03) and Measure for Measure (1603-04). Shakespearian scholars recognize several other aspects—which I take to be subsidiary to pressing at the bounds of the genre—that characterize problem plays.9 These elements are numerous. Incongruities of generic conventions and structure, especially endings that are theatrically achieved or do not answer the ‘problems’ the play poses; the relation of appearance and actuality or reality, often illustrated through acting and disguise; an involved and intellectual language and discussion in which the debate and probing of ideas (often about the relation between sex and war or politics) are conducted apparently for their own sake; and the raising of complex problems that do not have easy answers—all contribute to the vexed enigma of the problem plays. As William Witherle Lawrence says, these plays demonstrate that “human life is too complex to be so neatly simplified” and show an anti-heroic, dark and critical side to life and to human nature in ways that perplex the audience.10 Irony has already been used to cause the audience perplexity in the earlier plays of this tetralogy by showing the black humour of tragedy and the dark sides to comedy and satire in a complex view of history. Henry V goes beyond its predecessors in this respect and is the play in the Second Tetralogy that most resembles a problem play.

Although no critic seems to have developed an interpretation of the strong elements of the problem play in Henry V, a few scholars have pointed to 1 and 2 Henry IV as containing the origins of the problem play, or at least some of its effects.11 Closer inspection shows, however, that Henry V pushes much more radically at the bounds of the history play, for in this work tragedy, comedy and satire collide with one another, the language of debate appears to exist for itself or, perhaps, to emphasize the problems of the play as in the clerical debate on Henry's claim to France in I.ii or the debate between Henry and his soldiers at IV.i, the anti-heroic and heroic constantly qualify each other, the relation of sex to war is uneasy, the public and private personalities of the king seem to lack integration, the ‘tragic’ death of Falstaff, Henry's violent sexual imagery, and the satire on war (especially the objections of Bates and Williams and Burgundy's description of devastated France), all serve to modify the heroic king and his comic marriage to Katharine. Other subsidiary resemblances to the problem plays also occur in Henry V. Like Troilus and Cressida, this play shows the seamy side of war and questions the kind of heroism that had been exalted since classical times—Fluellen comically likens Pistol to Mark Antony (III.iv.15). Some problem elements in Henry V also anticipate those in All's Well That Ends Well, most notably the relation of sex to war and a theatrically achieved ending to what begins and proceeds well into the play as a tragic action. Troilus also explores sex and war whereas Measure for Measure looks at the relation of sex and government. Measure, too, has a theatrically achieved ending and although not comic, the ending of Troilus also appears unable to resolve the proceeding action with satisfaction. Like the Duke in Measure, Henry is a disguised ruler who manipulates other characters, but by doing so is brought to a more profound idea of his own responsibility.12 The audience and critics of Henry V are as divided and perplexed over its forms and ideas as they are over similar matters in the problem plays.

The complicating irony of Henry V is compatible with its ‘problem’ elements.13Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV all reveal aspects of the generic friction that characterizes the problem play but it is the last play of the tetralogy where that friction reaches its highest pitch. The fall of Richard creates problems and the fall of Falstaff creates more. Other falls over the course of these plays also represent the difficulty of a human redemption of history. Multiplicity in Henry V complicates the lines between appearance and actuality, heroism and anti-heroism, conscious and unconscious motive, intention and profession, so that this play ‘ends’ the Second Tetralogy ironically by pushing the history play in the direction of the problem play, extending or bursting (depending on one's view) the bounds of the genre itself.

By inverting, reversing, contrasting and blending tragic, comic and satiric conventions and tones, Shakespeare also raises questions about the multiple, ambiguous and, therefore, ironic nature of history itself. Henry the Fifth would be the hero Richard was not but he cannot achieve unmitigated heroism. Henry's own violent thoughts and Shakespeare's ironic use of imagery and theatricality and the juxtaposition of comic marriage and tragic Epilogue modify the king's heroic part. In the end is the beginning. As in Finnegans Wake, the cycle of history begins again, ‘falls to’ again, for the informed audience knows the fate of the Henry the Fifth before Richard II begins, and if the playgoers do not, the Epilogue tells them, thereby shaping the meaning of the action of the Second Tetralogy (including Richard's fall) and looking ahead to the reign of Henry the Sixth (who falls, and after whom Richard the Third also falls), which Shakespeare had already shown on the stage in the First Tetralogy. The irony in Henry V represents the history play as problem play because it depicts the problem of writing history not only in this play but also in the Second Tetralogy (with hints back to the First Tetralogy). This irony has implications for writing and for writing history generally, for the complex relation and interpenetration of history and fiction. As in the earlier plays of the tetralogy, multiplicity in Henry V extends beyond the established limits of the genre to which each history play is most closely related—in this case the problem play—and explores the study of history and historiography as well as the nature of the history play itself. Although the problem element cannot include all the implications of Henry V, it is important for an understanding of the play. More specifically, we should turn to the ways irony of theatre, structure and words, as well as a close examination of IV.i (Henry's debate with Bates and Williams) help create the generic friction that makes this history play a problem play.


The Chorus in Henry V elaborates self-conscious theatricality in the earlier plays of the tetralogy. He examines the relation of theatre and world, history play and history so much that he raises the audience's awareness of the problems of representing history on stage. That the main action and the Chorus qualify each other also raises questions about the relation of narrative and represented action in the history play. The Chorus to Act Three asks the audience to ‘Suppose,’ ‘Hear’ and ‘behold’ the men and scenes in his description as actually existing on stage. He challenges the playgoers to do the literally impossible so that they exercise their imaginations as fully as possible. They become part of the meaning of the play and of history. The Chorus realizes the complexity of historical shaping.14 Repetition becomes a reaching or amplification for the Chorus, who, armed with the modest accomplishment of the theatre, at the opening of Act Four, commands the audience to behold, as may unworthiness define, Henry among the troops at night, the disgrace of four or five most vile and ragged foils representing the armies at Agincourt. In addition to this distancing synecdoche, the Chorus also attempts to draw the audience into illusion through the mimetic and onomatopœic descriptions of the busy hammers of the armourers and the French playing for the English at dice. The Chorus to Act Five repeats the view that the play is unable to express actual historical events.15 The repetition draws attention to itself and stresses the problems of the history play, limiting the genre as being inferior to the world but, at the same time, raising it above the chaos of the world with strong and precise description, ordered couplets and the assumption (from the author's point of view at least) that poetry is more lasting than the memorials of princes. The Chorus also dispels the notion of a monolithic Elizabethan audience, promising to prompt ‘those that have not read the story’ and asking pardon of those who have because this play is a poor copy of life. Shakespeare displaces a conceit and humility on to his Chorus to this history: this play is more or less than its sources and than the world.

Other aspects of the irony of theatre complicate Henry V. Through a character's use of theatrical terms, Shakespeare convey's that character's awareness of ‘acting’ to an audience watching an actor playing the part. A subsidiary element in this problem play is this self-referential role-playing, so that once again the irony of theatre shows the close relation of Henry V to that kind of drama. The other histories, however, also show this characteristic, but this self-conscious sense of theatre supplements in Henry V a choric presence that is stronger than anything in the previous plays. For instance, according to Canterbury, the Black Prince play'd a tragedy for the French in battle and the Boy says that Nym and Bardolph were much more valorous than Pistol, this roaring devil i' the old play (I.ii.105-06; IV.iv.69-74). Most importantly, through the Boy, Shakespeare reminds the audience of morality plays in which the devil is beaten and makes Pistol (not just any old actor) a devil whose vice Fluellen beats out of him with a leek rather than a wooden dagger. Even if the characters refer to role-playing and to early English drama, they cannot understand the application of these references as much as the actors, audience and playwright. This dramatic irony reminds us that this history is dramatic.

Shakespeare's theatrical irony shows that deceit is another disguise, revealing with it the problems of private and public and of government. The history plays especially share this concern with Measure and to a lesser extent with All's Well. In Henry V deceit and disguise test Henry as a ruler (or potential ruler for that matter) more directly and more critically than in 1 and 2 Henry IV. Shakespeare ensures that the playgoers will appreciate the dramatic irony of the condemnation by Scroop, Cambridge and Grey of a man who insulted the king when, unknown to them, Henry knows that they want to murder him (II.ii). The king is self-consciously theatrical. In order to punish the rebels most and to achieve the greatest effect so that he may appear just when sentencing these men, Henry pretends to reward them with commissions when he hands them a list of their crimes. By way of this dramatic irony, Shakespeare links Henry with the audience and thus appears to seek its approval of the king. Deceit and disguise, such as Pistol's deceit and Henry's disguise, relate closely to each other. The ancient's great voice and seemingly ‘gallant service’ fool Fluellen until Pistol curses the Welsh captain for not intervening to prevent Bardolph's death and until Gower remembers Pistol as an arrant counterfeit rascal. Henry the Fourth had dressed counterfeits in battle to protect his life, so that kings and knaves are not always so different in their theft and deceit. According to the English captain, the ancient will pretend to be a war hero, learning his part, playing the ‘roles’ of other soldiers and describing the ‘scenes’ of the battles to be convincing ( To compare and contrast this deceit ironically with Henry the Fifth's disguise, the playwright has Henry assume a part among his soldiers before Agincourt and interweaves the incidents of the gloves and the leek. After encountering Bates and Williams, private soldiers, the king complains about the burden of the public man and the irresponsibility of the private man (IV.i). This problem of the relation of public and private lies at the heart of kingship from Richard II to Henry V. With the help of the Boy, Pistol, who did not recognize the disguised king, deceives the French soldier (as Falstaff did to Colevile in 2 Henry IV) into thinking him a great warrior. In a soliloquy the Boy exposes Pistol's empty acting to an already suspicious audience (IV.iv). If Pistol is a hollow man, is Henry? Later, Shakespeare shows Henry ‘playing’ with Williams as Fluellen does with Pistol, so that the playwright once more compares king and Welsh captain and complicates the ironic connections between characters. Henry shares the dramatic irony with the audience at the expense of Williams as well as Fluellen, who is equally ignorant (like Pistol) of the king's earlier disguise and the exchange of gloves and whom Henry asks to be a proxy in a fabricated quarrel with a friend of Alençon, which is an actual disagreement with Williams (IV.vii, viii). Shakespeare uses disguise and deceit so extensively that Henry V seems to foreshadow Measure.

Even though Henry complains about the trials of kingship, he uses his ‘directorial’ powers, like Duke Vincentio and Prospero, to arrange events and manipulate others. After Henry's good-natured fun is over and Williams and Fluellen have stopped fighting (each having the other's glove), the king rewards Williams, who claims that Henry is at fault for having disguised himself and for not having expected abuse in that guise but who then asks pardon of the king (IV.viii.1-74). It is Henry's power as king that keeps the conflict over the glove from getting out of hand. Whereas the king pretends to be less than he is, Pistol feigns that he is more. The glove gives way to the leek. The hyperbolic and out-of-fashion Fluellen punishes the boasting and antique-tongued ancient. Although Pistol likens himself to a horse-leech and is called vicious, on stage he does little to warrant the punishment he receives, except that, if the Boy is to be believed, he is a devil from the old morality plays and must be beaten.16 In any event, the Welsh captain is less merciful than the king, who, nonetheless, may not have learned as much from Williams as he might have. The taverners continue to raise questions about the nature of kingship and about Henry's dilemmas as king, but they also reveal their own limitations. Henry's tricks as an ‘actor’ and ‘director’ show that he is still enraptured by the robes of office even if he sometimes sees the shortcomings of pomp and protocol.

If, most importantly, the irony of theatre in Henry V reveals Shakespeare's problematic use of the Chorus, consciously making the audience aware of the limitations and potentialities of the theatre and history play, it also represents other subsidiary elements from the problem plays—theatrical ending, debate and disguise. Henry V often uses these aspects in ways that recall their occurrence in Richard II and 1 and 2 Henry IV as well as looking ahead to their use in the problem plays. Although the irony of theatre affirms the close relation of history and the problem play in Henry V, it also shows that comparisons that are too close are odious. For instance, the disguised Henry is much like the disguised Duke, but Vincentio is more allegorical and shadowy, more of a god out of the machine than Henry is. On the other hand, Henry must deal with a wider range of public and historical experience and his directorial side (although central to his character) is only one part of a complex character who seems to taste blood, feel desire and laugh more readily than the illusive Duke. Theatrical irony raises our awareness of the problems of the history play and so is a problem play with a difference.


The structure of Henry V is ironic and displays affinities with the problem play.17 A choric envelope modifies the heroic feats of Henry the Fifth in the main action, for the Epilogue shows that he cannot control the future as his son, born of the marriage to Katharine, lost France and then England. Shakespeare makes structural use of debates, such as the clergy's consideration of Salic law (among themselves and with Henry), the discussion between the king, Bates and Williams about the nature of warfare and of kingship; and the conversation between Henry and Katharine about love, marriage and politics. The main action ironically qualifies the patriotism, optimism and hero worship of the Chorus, and the ways in which the ‘lowlife’ scenes modify the words and deeds of Henry and his party. In other words, a friction occurs between Chorus and main action. The worlds of the captains and of the French also provide other ironic perspectives in a complex play. An investigation of the ironic relation of some scenes in Henry V to the first three plays of the tetralogy casts the eye of the audience backwards, making it an historian, enabling it to observe a modified Henry and to find that in one regard history appears as fallen as humanity, a circle more like the wheel of fortune than the circle of perfection. Henry the Fifth is more like Richard than he would like to think. People change but also stay the same and—relying too much on similarity between past, present and future—find themselves caught by and in time. Shakespeare uses references to the past structurally to create an irony that shows the many limited views of people, the collision of worlds, the forgetfulness and ignorance of characters regarding the past as they move in the unstable present into the uncertain future.

The general structure of Henry V represents an ironic reversal. The play begins with the prologue telling a tale of warlike Harry and the glory of Agincourt and ends with an Epilogue that speaks of the loss of France and the return of England to civil war. This choric envelope qualifies the rising fortunes Henry experiences in France during the main action. Although Shakespeare did not divide the play into acts and scenes, the choruses punctuate the play in such a way as to suggest that a brief examination act by act of the friction in the structure might be helpful. Each act begins with the Chorus, whose simple patriotism becomes modified by complex scenes.18 For instance, in Act One the mixed motives of the clergy about the war in France, in Act Two the dishonorable nature of the English taverners and traitors as well as Henry's possible and partial responsibility for Falstaff's death, in Act Three Henry's apparent relish in destruction, and the gentleness of Katharine (and she is French!), in Act Four Bates' and Williams' criticism of the king as well as Henry's admission of the dubious Lancastrian claim to the ‘English’ crown and of his family's mistreatment of Richard, and in Act Five the King of France's treatment of his daughter and (not in the main action but in the Epilogue) time's defeat of Henry's glory, all complicate but do not negate the patriotic view of the Chorus.

The structure of Henry V reveals aspects of the problem play but also the characters' special concern with the nature of time and history. The design of the play emphasizes an ironic treatment of problem elements—extensive debate about love, marriage and politics, an especially self-conscious tension between appearance and actuality and between the heroic and the anti-heroic, the theatrically achieved ending that does not seem to answer the play. After the Prologue's examination of the relation of history and drama, the first two scenes display a prolonged interest in debate itself. Canterbury complicates the question of how just the war is when he gives a detailed interpretation of the history of the Salic law, which shows that Henry is the rightful King of France. Through irony, Shakespeare qualifies Canterbury's position. Henry the Fourth recommended this foreign war to his son, Lancaster had predicted it, the Prologue in Henry V confirms it with patriotism, and Exeter and Westmoreland call for war, so that the clergymen are not the only war-hawks and should not be held solely responsible for the designs on France (I.ii, see 2HIV, IV.v.212f.; V.v.105-10). Debate is very important to Canterbury and Henry as a means of justifying the invasion, but the war becomes a tangle. If Henry's advisors are corrupt, the unjust war qualifies the heroic stance; if the invasion is just, Henry's inability to acknowledge that he makes, and is answerable for, the ultimate decisions of government modifies his heroism in France. Shakespeare calls Henry's judgement into question, raising the problem of measure for measure that occurs in Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV as well as in Troilus, All's Well and Measure. Although nearly identical to its representation in the problem plays, this problem has a history in the Second Tetralogy and, consequently, also becomes a problem of time and succession. On the whole, Henry V examines judgement from a more public point of view than do the problem plays. If reports of earlier actions or the earlier plays in the tetralogy, especially at the end of 2 Henry IV, provide one part of the context for Act One, the subsequent acts in Henry V and even the pretext but postscript of the First Tetralogy furnish the other part.

Acts Two through Five show a similar pattern. The problem elements in Act Two occur mostly in Nym's and Pistol's qualification of the Chorus—who praises Henry as the mirror of all Christian kings, extols England and denounces the traitors—when they are involved in verbal combat because the treacherous ancient has stolen Nym's betrothed, Mistress Quickly, who says the king has killed Falstaff's heart (II.i, iii). The king is a modified mirror. Henry's judgement of the conspirators in II.ii may be just but it is also reminiscent of his rejection of Falstaff. By bracketing Henry's judgement of the conspirators with the taverners' discussion of Falstaff's death and the king's responsibility for it, Shakespeare emphasizes the wider implications of Henry's ‘trials.’ The ironic structure of Act Three particularly emphasizes the relation of sex and war, but brings out the tension between private and public more fully than the problem plays. Troilus reduces the public to the private. All's Well and Measure look at the public domain in personal terms. Achilles sulks in his tent and would make war a personal act of revenge. Bertram escapes to the wars to leave Helena, his unwanted wife. Angelo turns government to lust and Duke Vincentio would make marriage the culmination of his experiment in justice and government. The Chorus begins Act Three by saying that Henry rejects as insufficient the French king's offer of his daughter and a few petty dukedoms. Shakespeare qualifies Henry's heroic call to his men into the breach at the opening of III.i with the savagery before Harfleur in the opening lines of III.iii where Henry once again threatens the French in violent images, likening the siege of the town to the rape of its women. What makes this verbal assault even more uneasy is the introduction of Katharine, who is innocently learning a new language (III.iv). In III.v Shakespeare further complicates the relation of men and women, private and public when he represents haughty Frenchmen, including their king, as insulting the English partly as a result of the French women thinking the French men effeminate. Act Four continues to qualify heroism, showing the complexity of war and human nature. The playwright makes the problem element a part of his representation of an historical event and, therefore, asks the audience to avoid oversimplifying history. He also uses the motif of the disguised ruler that occurs in Measure. The Chorus extols Henry for bravery, warmth and generosity, but the disguised king soon encounters the criticism of Bates and Williams, who try to make Henry responsible for the justice or injustice of the war, a responsibility that he has attempted to shirk from the opening of the play. Other problems arise. When Fluellen reports that the enemy has killed the defenceless boys, the French lose the sympathy of the audience. On the other hand, Henry has already ordered the killing of the French prisoners because they are reinforcing their scattered men, a cruel action although Gower praises him for ordering these killings as a repraisal for the slaughter of the boys (, vii.1-11). The reason for the order is ambivalent. Even if the audience perceived the Boy's portentous words that the other boys and he will guard the luggage and that ‘the French might have a good prey of us if he knew of it,’ the playgoers only know that this event occurred and not its relation to the king's order (see IV.iv.76-80). Even though the audience probably cannot untangle this problem, it witnesses a king who may think that he has to be ruthless in defending his outnumbered army or prefers revenge to turning the other cheek. Henry's action tempers the sympathy of the audience, keeping it off-balance and focusing its attention on the king and his problems.

The problem elements that irony stresses in Act Five are appearance and actuality and a theatrically achieved ending. In a charming part of V.ii, Henry woos Katharine, so that if he seemed like a basilisk in war, he appears to be a shy lover in peace (7, 99f.). Nonetheless, the marriage is a theatrical solution, a public and political union under the guise of an entirely personal love, that cannot mend the animus between England and France.19 Henry is the actor still, for, having spoken so eloquently throughout the play, he now plays the ‘plain king,’ unless he is fluent in war and halting in love: this difference or discontinuity of roles makes it difficult to read his personality (V.ii.121-73). Amid this awkward tenderness, other ironies arise. Even an heroic king can be sadly wrong in his predictions or grimly foiled in his hopes. Henry says to Katharine: Shall not thou and I … Compound a boy, half French, half English, that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard? shall we not? (V.ii.216-19). This wish for a crusade is as ironic as the similar desire of Henry the Fourth. The last question—shall we not?—which is a negative acting as an intensive affirmative, provides an answer to the king's hopes: Henry and Katharine will not produce such a conqueror. Even though Henry claims modesty, he breaks custom and kisses Kate. The Epilogue reminds the audience of the fall again into ruin in the reign of Henry the Sixth, which Elizabethan playgoers have already seen on stage in the First Tetralogy.

As Henry V is like a problem play, it shows incongruities of generic conventions and structure, especially in an end that is theatrically achieved and does not respond to the problems that the play poses. The sheer amount of discussion about the legitimacy and responsibility of kingship, much of it for its own sake, threatens to frustrate the historical action of the play and the very survival of the genre itself, pushing it into new regions (the First Tetralogy and beyond) and into new problems—such as when a representation can properly end, and, if history is in part circular (for Henry V also turns back to Richard II), how it can end at all. One of the major problems of Henry V is that its ending threatens to explode the play and therefore the Second Tetralogy as a whole and also the Shakespearean history play as a genre because of this tension between centrifugal and centipetal forces. Like theatre and words, structure is a measure of time, of the diachronic and synchronic. Each author represents the problems of time in a different way.20 Here, Shakespeare chooses to look at origins and ends differently, using irony of structure to represent a relation of past, present and future that strains between order and chaos.

Some of the scenes in Henry V show a close affinity to others in Richard II and 1 and 2 Henry IV, so for the audience that sees these plays in succession, the irony of the scenes in Henry V becomes more complex in light of the earlier scenes. The idea of judgement arises out of an intricate ironic pattern between different scenes in these plays, an intertextuality, and is both important to the histories in their assessment of kings, kingship, succession, order and rebellion and to the problem plays, especially in All's Well and Measure, in which human judges are shown to be so fallible, particularly in personal relations, that they compromise their public duty or office. The audience, but especially readers, directors and critics, will find another vantage from which to judge, to understand, Henry's treatment of the conspirators in II.ii if it compares his judgement with Richard's sentencing of Bolingbroke and Mowbray, with Bolingbroke's handling of Bushy, Greene, Richard, Aumerle and the conspirators, with Henry the Fourth's condemnation of Vernon and Worcester, and with Lancaster's ‘trial’ of Scroop and the rebels (RII, I.i, iii; III.i; IV.i; V.iii, v; 1HIV, V.v; 2HIV, IV.ii). The primary irony of these scenes is that a human judge may be judged as he judges others. Henry the Fifth self-righteously condemns rebels though his father was an insurgent and his brother used treachery to condemn Scroop, a relative of the man Henry vilifies most. The execution of Nym and Bardolph, petty thieves, can be viewed in relation to Bolingbroke's theft of the crown and summary execution of Bushy and Greene as well as Henry's use, then rejection, of Falstaff. Even if Fluellen's argument for military discipline were entirely convincing (and it does show merit), Henry forgets that his father's illegal actions did not meet with capital punishment. The rules of the game are ad hoc, discontinuous, and serve those who have power to enforce them. For a moment, if we assume that time is a continuum, we might judge judgement in Henry V a little differently, although it resembles the judging in earlier plays in the tetralogy as well as in the problem plays, which come after it. On these grounds of interpretation, Henry is breaking the same rules that his father did and for which he feels insecurity if not shame. He punishes others for the faults he shares with them. But discontinuity persists with continuity: the judgement in this play also differs from the problem plays because it occurs in the context of history in which it participates with Richard II and 1 and 2 Henry IV.

An ironic use of structural references to the past invites us to look at the nature of history in these plays, individually and as a group, not in the temporal isolation of a ‘pure’ problem play. In the opening scene Ely and Canterbury praise Henry's reform from a wild youth and Canterbury also refers to the titles in France that Henry derives from Edward the Third—the king's private and public histories. It becomes apparent from Canterbury's historical account of the Salic law that wars, depositions and usurpations characterize the history of France as much as of England. By telling Henry to go to the tombs of Edward the Third and the Black Prince to gain inspiration from classical times to the present, Canterbury provides moral exempla. Ironically, the Black Prince was the father of Richard, whom Henry's father had deposed, so that this reference can also remind us that Henry's claim to the English crown is tenuous, let alone to the French crown. Characters use history selectively. Gaunt had invoked the spirit of Edward the Third to shame Richard into better government (RII, II.i.104-08). Even if Canterbury invokes the glorious past of England, his motives are not clear—how much does he want to protect the church from taxation? Interpretations of history affect present actions and they can be as mythical as factual. Henry, Canterbury, Ely and Exeter debate past strategies of fighting the French and the Scots that seem to affect both Henry's decision to invade (or at least give him a rationale for it) and the manner in which he will do it (I.ii). There is a part of Henry's personal past that comes to a close: Falstaff is dead (II.iii.5). The king has forgotten the clown, for the audience never knows whether he is aware of the death as he never refers to it on stage. This is a past, if the taverners can be believed, that qualifies Henry's heroic nature. Henry, like his father and the rebels, interprets Richard's role in history as a way of coming to terms with his own part. The memory of Richard is a locus for Henry's doubt and assertion over his own authority and the idea of kingship.

The irony of structure shows the history as problem play, for the fall of England once more at the end of Henry V and the failure of the English to reach a lasting heroic age (even in fallible human terms) create a crisis in history because such an instability in human events threatens to defy or render false any principle of artistic order or any genre applied to (or perhaps imposed on) the chaos of human time. The playwright is caught between a view of his task as supplement to nature, something that fills the gap between humanity and nature after the Fall, and as a reflection or representation of the fallen world. Whatever the solution, it is symbolic because the word can never be the world. It seems, however, that history demands a representational muse because there is a tradition that the language and structure of history conform more closely to conventions of what was long called realism and because there is a supposition that historical representation relates directly to past events and an outside world. Shakespeare explores the relation between invented speeches, characters and events—the actions of Pistol, Bardolph, Williams, Fluellen—on the one hand and those taken from the chronicles, from ‘real life’—Ely, Henry the Fifth, Katharine—on the other. Through irony of structure, Shakespeare represents temporal instability and temporal patterns, shapes and unshapes history, asserts and questions the existence of history. It is the unresolved tensions between unity and dissolution, between history and fiction, heroism and scepticism that make Henry V difficult to interpret but that ultimately give the play its interest and vigour.


Henry's violent images and Burgundy's description of France as a ruined garden most clearly show Henry V pressing at the bounds of the genre of the history play, for they reveal a qualification of the comic marriage at the end and modify Henry's heroism. Besides developing aspects of the problem play in Henry V, the irony of words complicates such historical patterns as the question of time, much as verbal irony has done in Richard II and the Henry IV plays. The problem and historical elements overlap.

Ironic images of war and peace best illustrate the problematic attributes of the play. The major speech that modifies Henry's gentleness in war is the threat against Harfleur (III.iii). Both in love and in war Henry uses violent images. Katharine becomes a sex object and joke about siege and rape (V.ii.309-47). Even the imagery of peace involves strife and ruin as can be observed in Burgundy's image of France as a ruined garden (V.ii.23f.). If this personal violent language spills over into Henry's public conduct of the war and makes his kingship more problematic, references to time also call attention to a crucial question for the history play: how can we best represent and recreate time?

In exploring the problem of representing history in historical drama, we shall concentrate on the views of time expressed by the Chorus and other characters in Henry V, although they share many ideas with characters in the first three plays of the tetralogy and although we shall also glance at Henry's Crispin Crispian speech. These shared problems help unite the tetralogy even if the difference in ironic emphasis and in treating problem elements also distinguishes each play. Once again, irony creates a tension between centrifugal and centripetal forces in a history play. In addition to the Chorus' conscious references to history, the views that the characters hold of the past spur them to ironically limited actions. When the Prologue asks the audience to make leaps of imagination, to turn the accomplishment of many years / Into an hour-glass: for the which supply, / Admit me Chorus to this history, he offers to act as an intermediary in presenting the history play, especially in making the audience aware of the difference between ‘historical’ and ‘dramatic’ time (PR, 30-2). For the Prologue, then, the telescoping of time is important enough to mention at the beginning, suggesting that the representation of this historical period or, more specifically, a play about this reign demands a radical selection of events and swift representation through narrative foreshortening.

The views of time reflect or refract a divided and fallen world. Shakespeare qualifies the triumph of time that the Chorus proclaims and raises questions about the nature of history. When the Chorus invites the audience to help recreate a specific time, each production creates a novel relation between the eve of Agincourt, the performances of 1599 and their references to Essex, and each new audience (IV, V: CH). The words of the Chorus take on different meanings as time passes. If the playgoers take up the invitation to use their historical imaginations, to participate, they will involve themselves in the interpretation of history (which, with past events and the author's representation, is history) and in the change of history, not as it happened but as people perceive it to have happened. The Chorus talks about other written representations of history and asks the audience, with some irony, to accept the limitations of the theatre in representing historical time (V.CH.1-9). The audience can admire the representation of Agincourt, while realizing that it is not the battle as it happened but an interpretation of it. Playgoers can extrapolate for this limitation the shortcomings of their own interpretations. Paradoxically, Shakespeare's interpretation of the reign of Henry the Fifth is for many the only or primary representation of that period even if it calls attention to its limitations. Henry V resembles the Sonnets that are aware of the desolation and constraints of time while defying time with a representation that will survive its human subjects.

Shakespeare modifies the Epilogue's praise of the glory of Henry's ‘Small time.’ The playwright helps achieve multiplicity by creating a tension between the form, rhythm and musical time of the sonnet that the Epilogue speaks with the ruin he must announce for time ahead. The sonnet is also a coda in a score that not only sings the praises of Henry but also criticizes him. Shakespeare's ironic use of time shows the problems of the genre of the history play, especially in the relation between Chorus and the main action, but, perhaps above all, reveals a common ground between the four plays by representing their shared concerns about human limitations in time.

Nor is history one-sided. For the French, unlike for Henry and Fluellen, Cressy represents the memorable shame that Edward inflicted on them at the height of his power and reminds them of Henry, Edward's descendant, who now threatens France (II.iv.53-64). Although the French king states a particular lesson of history—that the Dauphin should learn to respect the English—he later does not follow it himself and rejects Henry's ‘memorable’ pedigree that would give him the French crown (II.iv.88). Memory also fails the characters. It takes Gower a while to remember that Pistol is a bawd, a cut-purse ( Here, Shakespeare causes an “unhistorical” character to judge another like him as if to complicate history through the supposition of how things might have been. To inspire his own soldiers in the Crispin Crispian speech, Henry reminds them that although as old men they will forget other events, they will remember this great day, each man recalling his own feats with exaggeration, passing on the story of English honour to his son, who will teach his son, so that Crispin Crispian will never be forgotten until the ending of the world (IV.iii.40-66). Henry shows a subtle understanding of subjectivity, embellishment and myth-making, of the difficulty of keeping history from becoming an epic or romantic narrative, and of the advantages to his situation and to heroism that the difficulty allows. Oral history is important to Henry for reasons of self-interest, patriotism and heroism even as he understands its departure from fact and truth. For Henry, as for many of us, the truth is never plain and rarely simple. The truth of fiction and the fiction of truth interact to the very end of the tetralogy. Irony of words helps reveal the problem play in Henry V, which presses at the bounds of its genre, including from more problematic ‘images’ such as those of war and peace as well as more commonly historic ones like ‘time.’21


This scene represents appearance and actuality, acting and disguise and a friction between heroism and anti-heroism, all of which are problematic and complicate the idea of history in Henry V. It is a scene that looks at the relation of religion and politics, which helps bind together the plays of the Second Tetralogy. For the sake of time and space, our analysis will focus on the debate that Henry has with his soldiers and with himself. The debate between Henry and Bates and Williams raises problems about the responsibility and legitimacy of the king. Henry also admits his doubts about his relation to Richard and regal succession and authority.

It is ironic that in a godlike disguise Henry finds even his humanity questioned. Disguised as a captain serving under Erpingham, Henry, who is playing yet another role, answers Bates that Erpingham should not tell ‘the king’ his despairing thought, for the monarch—and here Shakespeare wrings the dramatic irony for all its worth—is but a man, as I am: the violet smells to him as it doth me; the element shows to him as it doth to me. This speech of Henry's echoes Richard's musings on the “death of kings” after he learns that Bolingbroke has not only invaded the country but has also executed Bushy, Green and Wiltshire: I live with bread like you, feel want, / Taste grief, need friends. Like Richard, Henry wants others to see the man beneath the regal ceremony (99-106, cf. RII, III.ii.171-7). It is ironic that Henry still faces the problem of the king's two bodies that Richard experienced and that he is drawn to talk about it in the same terms. In light of Bolingbroke's deposition of Richard, irony also arises when Henry expresses this tension in an image of rise and fall. The memory of Richard throughout the tetralogy affects the action and the characters' notions of kingship. Although the king's affections are higher mounted than ours, yet when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing (106-08). This description can be applied to both Henries as well as to Richard, for Bolingbroke was ‘base’ in deposing his predecessor and Henry descends from and not only maintains a stolen crown but seeks to mount a new throne in France. From a self-interested English vantage, Henry the Fifth is most successful because he helps stop civil war and exports strife to France.

The debate with Williams and Bates brings kingship and the Shakespearean history play to another crisis, for Henry the Fifth, the hero at the culmination of the Second Tetralogy, finds his judgement and policy questioned and wins a limited and not entirely convincing battle over his soldiers. In the meantime, Henry admits that a king must be an actor, hiding his fears from his men so that they will not be disheartened. His acting is political and recalls his father's dissembling more than Richard's histrionics of self-expression. Bates takes to task one of the king's favourite topics throughout the play—the difference between the inward and the outward man—saying that no matter what courage Henry ‘shows’ the world, the king wishes himself home in England (e.g. cf. V.ii). Inside and outside often interpenetrate. In another reminder of dramatic irony, Shakespeare has the disguised king speak the conscience of the king and to say that Henry would wish himself only in France. ‘Conscience’ is also an important word in the king's view of responsibility and of the inward and the outward (cf. 8, I.ii). Having shaken Henry, Bates shakes him some more. He says that the king should be fighting alone so that he might be ransomed for sure and might save the lives of innocent men, a statement that Henry answers with another intense moment of dramatic irony: methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the king's company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable. Williams grumbles: That's more than we know. As in a dark night of the soul, Henry must reexamine his assumptions, for here are men who view war with France in an opposite way to his position or to the one he professes.

Like Richard, who plays many roles and none contented, the judge is being judged. Henry's example has not resurrected the spirits of the soldiers but has, instead, caused Williams to use the image of the Resurrection against him (135f., cf. 18-23). Whereas Henry had tried Falstaff and the conspirators, he is now on trial himself (2HIV, V.v; HV, II.ii). Whereas Bates says that, owing to the obedience of the soldiers, the king will assume the responsibility for the crime if the war is unjust, Williams describes the dismembered bodies of the soldiers in battle crying at the Day of judgement when Henry will answer if the war was wrong, for the soldiers fought as obedient subjects doing their duty whether their monarch was right or wrong. The literally dismembered body politic takes on theological as well as teleological meanings. The play and the group of history plays are also in danger of flying apart as its own unity is the multiple questioning of kingship. Interpretations clash. Human judgement and design are fallible. Playing at God is a game no human can win, but without trying to achieve a god's eye view, people, including playwrights and audiences, can slip into solipsism and lapse into incommunication. Where Henry has found a righteous crusade in Christianity, Williams finds pacificism: I am afeared there are few die well that die in battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing when blood is their argument? (143-46). Nor will the king accept this accountability although he used a similar argument to remind Canterbury that his conscience is answerable to God (cf. I.ii.14-32). It appears that Henry's response shows false logic for Williams because he does not share the same premiss as Henry, that the war in France is just. A son sent to sea on business who dies in a sinful state is not the same as a man fighting an unjust war who dies in his sins, for only when the business is criminal and unjust is the case the same. But in Henry's public thoughts the war is just, although in his private meditations he is not so sure. Even as the father is not responsible for the state of sin in which the subject dies, he is answerable for the death, if one places the problem in the context of the play and the tetralogy, which is at least in part Christian. Eschatology is at the centre of a central debate in the Shakespearean history play. The question of what is criminal and what is just is not such a simple one and to live by the logician's rule is not easy. The king does not give the voyage or the boy a bad cause or at least a cause that doubts its own justice even when it might be just and so creates a narrative that is more reflective of the complexity of the king's bodies, motives, politics and psychology. A general knows that the probability of death for his soldiers is greater in battle than in peace even if he does not ‘purpose’ their deaths. The king is evading the point. Bates had said that the monarch assumes the crime of the wrong cause and not the personal sins of the men (see 131-33). But then the king is playing a role and, like a playwright, with the part. For the sake of the unwanted discussion, (the king had wanted to walk alone unengaged in the night), Henry has played one of Erpingham's captains, and is and is not the king.22

In this self-consciously theatrical situation, the king continues his line of argument. He says that even a king with a spotless cause in war will be fighting with some vicious soldiers, whose violent crimes Henry enumerates, including the seduction of virgins, an image (like that of rape) he appears to repeat if not relish in his unconscious if not conscious mind. Henry may be no better than the spotted soldiers in his example (cf. III.iii.20-21, 35; V.ii.318-19, 330-32, 343-47). The king continues to talk about men who have committed violent crimes, saying that if they outstrip human justice they have no wings to fly from God for whom war is a vengeance against such sinful men. The confident appeal to God characterizes the public king, even in disguise. Henry also neglects to consider the good men who perish in an unjust war or to think about the justice of his cause: he wants to have it both ways—Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own. Returning to the idea of individual ‘conscience,’ Henry argues that the soldier should prepare his soul for God because if he dies so, he gains a life in Christ, and if he lives, he has benefitted from such a spiritual exercise (135-92). If in our interpretations of this and the other plays of the tetralogy, we cannot entirely escape Tillyard and cannot neglect Shakespeare's Christian and medieval heritage as well as his increasing use of debate and discontent with genre and form that leads to the problem plays.

Williams and Bates concede the argument, but Williams continues to take exception to Henry's words. This time he does not believe that the king will be ransomed. Shakespeare plays the dramatic irony for all it is worth as Henry replies that if the king is ransomed, I will never trust his word after. He is a king and no king. Nor can Williams tolerate the pomposity of the caped soldier, scorning that ‘perilous shot’ from a pop-gun, that impotent private displeasure against a monarch, that vain peacock's feather trying to turn the sun of the king to ice with fanning. Williams seems to be getting to Henry. Although there may be some truth in what Williams says soldier to soldier, Henry appears to be taking offence as a king. When Henry expresses ‘potential’ anger, Williams says that there will be a quarrel between them, and then they exchange gages. As Henry's answers are problematic, the comic resolution of this challenge in IV.vii and viii should perplex the audience. The glove incident is resolved comically, but rather than cowering before the king, Williams appeals to decorum. The king, Williams says, came disguised as a common soldier and was answered as one. Williams did not offend the king but asks pardon still, his reward a glove full of gold crowns as well as a royal pardon. Even though the resolution shows Henry's sense of humour, power, generosity and ‘mercy’ and catches the aggressive Williams, who boasts like the French, in a dramatic irony, it does not remove the difficult problem of responsibility in war and makes the comic ending of the plot an uneasy one. Like the theological, political and military debates in the first two scenes and like the debates on military history in which Fluellen finds himself, this debate resolves itself in the English victory but with the irresolution of dissent and fallen nature.

Shakespeare now represents Henry's private considerations of the nature of kingship. After Bates and Williams exit, Henry is finally ‘alone with his thoughts,’ but they are now more disturbed than before (193-235). In a soliloquy the king speaks about the burden of kingship as Richard and Henry the Fourth had before him (RII, III.ii.155f., 2 HIV, III.i.4f.). Even though Henry had described the king as a just man speaking with Bates and Williams, he now differentiates between the king and private men, particularly fools who feel nothing but their own ‘wringing’ or pain, especially intestinal.23 Like Richard, whom Bolingbroke soon deposes, Henry the Fifth curses ‘ceremony’ for its emptiness. Both Richard and Henry wrestle with the tension between the private and public aspects of kingship. Whereas Richard said, throw away respect, / Tradition, form, and ceremonious duty, Henry apostrophizes ceremony, recalling the nought, the O, the nothing in something that the Chorus conjures. Henry would personify his troubles and doubts and blame them, calling the inside out and censuring it for not being inside, for its alienation. He also apostrophizes the king's two bodies, Twin-born with greatness, and personifies thrice-gorgeous ceremony in a moral allegory of king and man and vilifies it for being pompous and for being a royal burden a common man does not have to endure. Henry asks ceremony, Art thou aught else but place, degree and form, / Creating awe and fear in other men? He questions the very order he has asserted. Although he also discovers the same kind of flattery Richard did, he has more might than Richard, is able to suppress rebellion and can be more concerned with the fear that power causes and how the powerful thus grow unhappy (cf. RII, IV.i.305-10). Like his father before him, Henry also apprehends the idea that Gaunt tried to teach Richard: a king has limited power because he cannot improve the health of another man (262-63, cf. RII, I.iii.226; IV.i.302f.; V.iii.78). Just as his father spoke about the cares and troubled sleep of kingship, so too does Henry (cf. 2HIV, III.i.4f.). Neither the regal clothes nor the titles nor the tide of pomp / That beats upon the high shore of this world make the king sleep as soundly as the wretched slave. The tidal imagery may reveal Henry's recognition that time waits for no man. Henry also implies that the king is like Phoebus who rises to light the world whereas the private man, like a lackey, bears no responsibility for the rise and fall of the fortunes of governments and nations. The king, a little Christ here, illuminates the world and keeps the peace for men. If, as Henry told Bates and Williams, each man must show the king duty but answer for his own soul, then no king should be over-burdened. To rise or fall, a king needs private men, so that they are more important than Henry says and suffer more than he admits in his idyll of the common man. Subjects can suffer exile, death in battle, and poverty. Although Henry inveighs against royal power, he does not mind using it to advantage with Williams, Fluellen, Katharine and the French king (see IV.vii; V.ii, iii).

In private Henry now doubts his relation to God whereas in public he proclaims his special status. After Erpingham enters, tells Henry that his nobles want to see him and leaves, the king speaks a second soliloquy in which he prays to the God of battles to keep the hearts of his men from fear and from counting the superior numbers. Henry would take from them their sense of ‘reckoning,’ which can also mean judgement, as if the soldiers would judge Henry harshly. After all Henry's echoes of Richard's thoughts, Shakespeare seems to be showing that the heroic king is losing his confidence in his special relation with God, asking God's pardon for his father's fault in acquiring the crown and telling what penance he has done for Richard. Lastly, Henry promises to do more penance he has done for Richard's death, but realizes this repenting—imploring pardon—comes after all (or ill as Taylor reads the text). Depending on the reading of the word ‘all’ or ‘ill,’ the meaning is either that the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons or that having himself done ill, Henry the Fifth's penitence is worth little. The asking of forgiveness, if deeply felt, is the first step to absolution. How sincere Henry is, we can only wonder. We may be willing to grant him his new understanding of his own limitation or ask why he waits such a long time to pray that God not punish him, Not to-day, O Lord! / O not to-day, why he is so concerned about the day of battle, why he implies that punishment is something that he can only stave off, and whether he is, like Everyman and Mankind, trying to bargain with God (231-311). This scene follows the patriotic and adulatory Chorus and precedes the French denunciations of the English, so that the context displays the ironic qualification I have been speaking about throughout. Here are different views of history modifying one another. The problem elements of disguise and debate and the historical aspects of time and interpretation are in constant and creative friction. Perhaps most of all, the collision of official and unofficial history, of private and public selves (and other roles that challenge this opposition) make us aware of how much strain persists in the genre of the history play. The idea of kingship helps relate this scene to the rest of the play and the tetralogy. Irony, here especially, creates a situation for the history play and the Second Tetralogy that mediates between unity and disunity without resolution.


It would be foolish to forget the heroic aspects of Henry's character. Irony qualifies and complicates but does not undercut his personality. Henry V possesses the chief attribute of the problem play: it pushes at the boundaries of its genre, in this case of the history play. The Aumerle conspiracy especially represented comedy ab ovo in the tragic history of Richard II. The promises of Hal to redeem time at the expense of others like Falstaff and Sir John's and his parodies in 1 Henry IV, mainly a comic history, begin the satire, with its attendant isolation that predominates in 2 Henry IV. In Part Two the rejection of Falstaff stresses the problems of kingship that Richard's fall began and looks forward to the problem play in Henry V. Although in the last play of the Second Tetralogy different types of irony reveal many of the same problems, irony of structure stresses the tension between the Chorus that praises heroism and the main action that is partly anti-heroic; irony of theatre particularly calls attention to Henry's uses of disguise and acting and to the Chorus' emphasis on the problems of writing and viewing a history play; irony of words uniquely uncovers the images of war and peace that modify Henry's heroic character, a heroism that has been amply documented by Tillyard and others; the examination of IV.i looks at the combination of these ironies and especially the problematic debate between Henry, Bates and Williams. These kinds of irony, as well as the analysis of the representative scene, reveal common subjects among the four plays, such as kingship (right, responsibility and succession) that help mould these plays into a tetralogy. Paradoxically, the problems of the history play serve not only to perplex the audience and induce a crisis in understanding history, but also to unite the plays in a coherent pattern. Apparently, the tetralogy and the history play represent diversity in unity and unity in diversity. Henry V is the most self-critical and self-reflexive of Shakespeare's histories.


  1. Frederick Boas, Shakspere and his Predecessors (New York: Scribners, 1899), p. 345.

  2. C. S. Lewis and E. M. W. Tillyard, The Personal Heresy, cited in W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley, “The Intentional Fallacy,” in Critical Theory Since Plato, ed. Hazard Adams (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971), p. 1015; see Wimsatt's and Beardsley's view, pp. 1015-22. For reader response theory, see, for instance, Roman Ingarden, The Literary Work of Art (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973) and Reader-Response Theory, ed. Jane Tompkins (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980). For discussions of the relation of theatre audience and reader, see Keir Elam, The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama (London: Methuen, 1980), esp. pp. 208-10 and Marvin Carlson, Theories of the Theatre (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1984), pp. 454-515. Carlson calls attention to many relevant works on this relation such as the following special issues: Études littéraires 13:3 (1980) and Poetics Today (1981).

  3. See, for example, J. A. K. Thomson, Irony: An Historical Introduction (London: Allen & Unwin, 1926); D. C. Muecke, The Compass of Irony (London: Methuen, 1969); Lilian Furst, Fictions of Romantic Irony (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984).

  4. See B. A. Farrell, The Standing of Psychoanalysis (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1981) and Elizabeth Wright, Psychoanalytic Criticism: Theory in Practice (London: Methuen, 1984).

  5. See T. W. Baldwin, William Shakspere's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke, 2 vols. (Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1944); Alexander Sackton, Rhetoric as a Dramatic Language in Ben Jonson (New York: Columbia UP, 1948); Donald Clark, John Milton at St. Paul's School: A Study of Ancient Rhetoric in English Renaissance Education (New York, 1948).

  6. E. D. Hirsch, Validity in Interpretation (New Haven: Yale UP, 1967) and Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983), esp. 194-217.

  7. Although I find Norman Rabkin's view provocative, I think that Henry V is a both/and play rather than an either/or play. Richard Levin's views also contribute to the debate but he thinks of irony too much as undercutting. Unlike Levin, I would say that William W. Lloyd's view of irony (1856) is ironic. See Rabkin's, “Rabbits, Ducks and Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly, 28 (1977), 279-96 and his “Either/Or: responding to Henry V,” in Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981), pp. 33-62. See Levin's New Readings vs. Old Plays (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1977), esp. pp. 4-5, 90-142 and his “Hazlitt on Henry V, And the Appropriation of Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 35 (1984), esp. 138. For other views, see John Jump, “Shakespeare and History,” Critical Quarterly, 17 (1953), 233-44; Zdenek Stribrny, “Henry V and History,” in Shakespeare in a Changing World, Essays on His Times and His Plays, ed. A. Kettle (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1964), pp. 84-101; Pierre Sahel, “Henry V, Roi Idéal?” Études Anglaises, 28 (1975), 1-4; Gordon R. Smith, “Shakespeare's Henry V: Another Part of the Critical Forest,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 37 (1976), 3-26; E. W. Ives, “Shakespeare and History: Divergencies and Agreements,” Shakespeare Survey, 38 (1985), 19-37; Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, “History and ideology: the instance of Henry V,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. J. Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 206-27; Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance authority and its subversion, Henry IV and Henry V,” in Political Shakespeare, ed. J. Dollimore and A. Sinfield (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985), pp. 18-47. All citations and quotations from the primary texts will be from the New Arden Shakespeare.

  8. William W. Lawrence, Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (1931; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960), p. 24; Peter Ure, William Shakespeare: The Problem Plays (London: Longmans & Green, 1961), pp. 7-8; R. A. Foakes, Shakespeare: The Dark Comedies to the Last Plays: From Satire to Celebration (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971), p. 61; Richard P. Wheeler, Shakespeare's Development and the Problem Comedies: Turn and Counter-Turn (Berkeley: U of California P, 1981), pp. 1-2; Northrop Frye, The Myth of Deliverance: Reflections on Shakespeare's Problem Comedies (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1983), pp. 8, 61-63.

  9. In addition to these problems of structure and genre, critics have often stated the difficulty of defining a problem play or problem comedy. For instance, see E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Problem Plays (Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1949), p. 1; Ure, Problem Plays, p. 7; Ernest Schanzer, The Problem Plays of Shakespeare: A Study of Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure and Antony and Cleopatra (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), pp. ix, 5-6.

  10. For the incongruities of structure, see the references listed in note 8. For the relation of appearance and actuality, see A. P. Rossiter, “The Problem Plays,” in Angel with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures, ed. G. Storey (London: Longmans, 1961), pp. 117-20; Terence Hawkes, Shakespeare and the Reason: A Study of the Tragedies and Problem Plays (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964), p. 73; Frye, Deliverance, p. 63. For the difficult language of these plays, see Ure, Problem Plays, p. 8; Foakes, pp. 61-62; Frye, Deliverance, p. 63. For views of the complexity of the problem plays and their effect on the audience, see Lawrence, pp. 21-22; see also Boas, p. 345; Rossiter, p. 128; Schanzer, p. 5; Wheeler, pp. 1-2. The critics of the problem plays have mentioned the anti-heroic, brooding and dissatisfied nature of these plays. See Kenneth Muir and Stanley Wells, eds. Aspects of Shakespeare's “Problem Plays” (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1982).

  11. Lawrence, p. 28; Tillyard, p. 6; Rossiter, pp. 124, 128; Frye, Deliverance, pp. 70-72.

  12. Tillyard (Problem, pp. 6-7) thinks that two common attributes of the problem play are: a young man gets a shock and the shock or “business that most promotes the process of growth is transacted at night.” The young king, Henry the Fifth, gets such a shock at night when he debates with Williams and Bates.

  13. Rossiter, who elsewhere views Henry V as a propaganda play, almost equates ambivalence in the history plays with the definition of the problem play; see Rossiter, “The Problem Plays,” pp. 126-28. Frye thinks that Troilus stresses a fallen world and fails to deliver its audience from it and connects the division and the collision of different worlds in the Henry IV plays, Troilus and Antony; Frye, Deliverance, p. 72; see Hawkes, Reason, p. 73.

  14. The complexity of Shakespeare's history plays can be seen in the diverse response to them in detailed discussions from Thomas Courtenay's Commentaries on the Historical Plays of Shakespeare (1840; New York: AMS P, 1972) through E. M. W. Tillyard's Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1944) to Graham Holderness' Shakespeare's History (New York: St. Martin's P, 1985).

  15. For an examination of temporal crisis, see, for instance, John W. Blanpied, Time and the Artist in Shakespeare's English Histories (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1983).

  16. Fluellen exposes Pistol as a “counterfeit”: V.i.69, cf.

  17. For another view, see Brownwell Solomon, “Thematic Contraries and the Dramaturgy of Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly, 31 (1980), 343-56. For an analysis of satire in the play, see Allan Gilbert, “Patriotism and Satire in Henry V,” in Studies in Shakespeare, eds. Arthur D. Matthews and C. M. Emery (1953; New York: AMS P, 1971), pp. 40-64.

  18. For act and scene division, see J. H. Walter, Introduction, King Henry V (London: Methuen, 1954, rpt. 1977), p. xxxv. For other views of the Chorus, see Anne Barton, “The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History,” in The Triple Bond, ed. Joseph G. Price (University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1975), p. 92; G. P. Jones, “Henry V: The Chorus and the Audience,” Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978), 93-105; Lawrence Danson, “Henry V: King, Chorus, and Critics,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 34 (1983) esp. 27-33. For a more general article, see Jean-Marie Maguin, “Shakespeare's Structural Craft and Dramatic Technique in Henry V,Cahiers Elisabéthains, 7 (1975), 51-67.

  19. Laurence Olivier's film captures the theatricality of the courtship and plans for marriage by drawing the scene back from the “fields of France” to the stage. For Olivier's consciously patriotic interpretation, see his “Henry V,” in On Acting (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), pp. 90-105.

  20. For more general views on time and ending in fiction, see Frank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending (New York: Oxford UP, 1967), esp. pp. 76-89 and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Poetic Closure (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1968). For a different view of parts of the structure, see Marilyn Williamson, “The Episode with Williams in Henry V,Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 9 (1969), 275-82 and her “The Courtship of Katherine and the Second Tetralogy,” Criticism, 17 (1975), 326-34.

  21. For the first systematic ironic reading of the language of this play, see Gerald Gould, “A New Reading of Henry V,English Review 29 (1919), 42-55. See also C. H. Hobday, “Imagery and Irony in ‘Henry V’”, Shakespeare Survey 21 (1968), 107-13.

  22. Henry V, ed. Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1982), p. 208.

  23. Taylor, p. 217; Walter, p. 102.

William Babula (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8003

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

[In the following essay, Babula studies the maturation process Henry undergoes in Henry V. The critic notes that as Henry progresses his language moves from artifice to honesty.]

E. M. W. Tillyard is right in his assertion that Shakespeare in Henry V was ‘jettisoning the character he had created’ in the Henry IV plays.1 The Hal that developed out of those earlier histories is not present at the opening of Henry V. This does not mean that Shakespeare has now accepted a Henry ‘who knew exactly what he wanted and went for it with utter singleness of heart …’2 Nor has he, as Mark Van Doren would have us believe, stretched a hero ‘until he struts on tiptoe and is still strutting at the last insignificant exit.’3 Nor, on the other extreme, is Henry the ideal humanistic hero, ‘conceived of as beyond the limitations of nature, able to impose the order of philosophy on the protean world of history.’4 Rather, as H. M. Richmond notes, Henry in this play begins as a ‘clever young hero masquerading as the ideal king’, and ends as ‘a mature man’.5 Thus the process of growth that Henry undergoes in the play is crucial.6 While this process may render the second tetralogy inconsistent, it gives a marked consistency to the play Henry V as it stands alone. For in it Shakespeare has decided to dramatize again the maturation of a ruler. He is repeating, for the purposes of effective drama—the play is meant to be presented by itself—the pattern of the education of a prince shown in the previous Henry IV histories.7 Critical confusion arises when this Henry is expected to be identical to the Henry who rejects Falstaff in Henry IV. Rather, the king is a character very much like Hotspur as the play begins. The main difference, however, is that Henry can learn moderation. He can do so because he is dealing with the realities and limitations of territorial acquisition; he should do so because he is a king. Hotspur cannot because he covets the limitless abstraction honor; he would not because he is a rebel.

The play opens with a Chorus that provides part of the context in which the audience sees Henry. In typical epic fashion the poet through his Chorus presents the invocation: ‘O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention …’ (Prologue, 1-2).8 It sounds as if we are going to see the epic hero many have seen in Henry V. And there is no reason to doubt this notion as the Chorus turns apologetic:

                                                  But pardon, gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

(Prologue, 8-14)

The theme is presented as epic but the audience is also reminded that they are seeing an illusion created by art. The Globe, the ‘scaffold’, this ‘cockpit’, this ‘wooden O’ are to be transformed into the vastness of France. A perfect apology for the limitations of the Elizabethan stage? If so, every play would require it to some degree.9 Or perhaps Shakespeare is introducing the audience to one of his major concerns: the distance between art and reality. In this case it applies to the theatre. It will come to apply, however, to the distance between the art, the words, the rhetoric of Henry and the reality of his actions. There is an art that covers reality in the political world as well as in the playhouse.

As the play proper opens the audience hears of what it is going to see and hear of so much in Henry V: the quarrel. In this case the Parliament is contemplating a bill that will strip the Church of its wealth. As Canterbury comments, ‘If it pass against us, / We lose the better half of our possession’ (I, i, 7-8). The pivot upon which this question rests is the king. Canterbury then begins to heap praise upon this king—a character we have not yet seen in this play. Henry, no longer the riotous prince, is now like a ‘paradise’. He can ‘reason in divinity’, ‘debate of commonwealth affairs’, and cut ‘the Gordian knot’ of policy—a reference to Alexander the Great that will rebound ironically later in the play. Yet all of this idealized language can be explained rather cynically. When the Bishop of Ely asks which side is Henry on, Canterbury replies that the king is ‘rather swaying more upon our part …’ (I, i, 73). And certainly it is difficult to miss the suggestion of a bribe when Canterbury explains the king's favor—note the ‘for’ in particular:

For I have made an offer to his majesty,
Upon our spiritual convocation
… to give a greater sum
Than ever at one time the clergy yet
Did to his predecessors part withal.

(I, i, 75-6, 79-81)

Could Henry make an unbiased choice?10 All of the grand-sounding language by which Canterbury describes the king sounds like the epic and idealizing language of the Prologue. In fact it sounds as if the bishop would cover the limitations of the king just as Shakespeare would disguise the limitations of his playhouse. But beneath the language there is an inescapable reality of person and platform.

In the second scene Henry appears for the first time. He sends for Canterbury and requires of him:

My learned lord, we pray you to proceed
And justly and religiously unfold
Why the law Salique that they have in France
Or should, or should not, bar us in our claim:
And God forbid, my dear and faithful lord,
That you should fashion, wrest or bow your reading …

(I, ii, 9-14)

One critic has commented: ‘To consult his spiritual advisers on a matter of this gravity was the correct thing for a king to do …’11 Yet the audience knows that the bishop, to protect Church property, must have the war in France; it is hard to imagine that this politic king does not know the same thing. What he seems to want are the words that will legalize aggression. He also wants to abdicate his responsibility for any of the slaughter to follow.

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

(I, ii, 18-20)

Verbally Henry pretends to have little to do with what will happen; the active verb ‘incite’ is given to the bishop—whatever happens will be his fault. It is not a very pleasant situation for Canterbury. This is indeed a politic king but not necessarily an epic hero.

Canterbury then launches upon a 62-line defense of Henry's right to the French throne. No audience simply hearing this complicated and twisting explanation could have much idea what it means. In terms of stage action the king himself seems confused. After he has been told in Canterbury's involved speech that he is the proper heir, he still has to ask: ‘May I with right and conscience make this claim?’ (I, ii, 96). He does not really understand the basis of his claim and neither could the audience.12 The bishop assures him, however, by reference to ‘the book of Numbers’. The search for authority seems rather desperate. One would hardly think of the book of Numbers as providing ‘unhidden passages’ through which an English king could claim a French throne.

When Henry resolves to claim the throne, before the French ambassadors enter, he states: ‘France being ours, we'll bend it to our awe, / Or break it all to pieces …’ (I, ii, 224-5). It is the absolute demand of the immature man, the kind of demand we would expect from Hotspur. But when the ambassadors come in and tell Henry the Dauphin rejects all of his claims and has sent over some ‘tennis-balls’ instead, Henry projects himself as an epic hero—but note how his self-glorification reminds us of Richard II, another sun-king:

… I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France.
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.

(I, ii, 278-80)

It sounds impressive, but Richard II sounded impressive, too. Henry pretends this insult has resolved him when he had already made up his mind to claim France.13 Also, Henry does to the Dauphin what he did to Canterbury; he takes responsibility from himself and puts it on another. It is the Dauphin who ‘hath turn'd his [tennis] balls to gun-stones’ (I, ii, 282). It is the Dauphin whose soul ‘shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance / That shall fly with them …’ (I, ii, 283-4). If the audience has put aside the Hal of the Henry IV plays, it is seeing a clever, but not necessarily attractive, immature man.

Act II begins with a Prologue that verbally presents an idealized English army as the opening Chorus had presented an idealized Henry who was the equal of Mars:

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 …

(II, Prologue, 1-4)

Yet there is ambiguity in this Chorus as well. The young men are compared to ‘English Mercuries’ as Henry was compared to Mars. Obviously the reference is in part to the speed with which they will move to France, but Mercury is also the god of thieves. All may not be so honest in this attack upon France. Also among the nobility, three sold out to France and plot to kill Henry.

Thus the reality of these heroes is quite different from the description the Chorus provides. What we heard from the Chorus does not match what we see on the stage. In II, i, we have the third quarrel of the play, this one between two of these ‘English Mercuries’, Nym and Pistol. While Henry and the Dauphin quarrel over who shall possess France, these two quarrel over who shall possess Nell Quickly—once engaged to Nym but now the wife of Pistol and previously accused of running a ‘bawdy house’. The two men meet and almost begin to duel. They also employ a rhetoric that parodies that of the angry king. Pistol, for example, warns as Henry warned the Dauphin:

O braggart vile and damned furious wight!
The grave doth gape, and doting death is near;
Therefore exhale.

(II, i, 63-5)

The entire argument takes a turn downward when Pistol states to Nym:

O hound of Crete, think'st thou my spouse to get?
No; to the spital go,
And from the powdering-tub of infamy
Fetch forth the lazar kite of Cressid's kind …

(II, i, 77-80)

Pistol tells him to marry a prostitute suffering from venereal disease. The parallel between this argument and the argument over France is not lost on the audience. Once more Henry's quarrel seems a bit tainted, or what even may be worse, useless. This argument, however, is settled by Pistol's paying a ‘noble’ to Nym. The idea of prostitution is reinforced by the suggestion of sale, and the passing of money reminds us how the first quarrel of the play—that between Church and Parliament—was settled: by a ‘mighty sum’ from Church to Henry.

The next scene picks up the further degeneration among the ‘English Mercuries’ noted by the Chorus. Henry sets a trap for Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey when he asks them whether he should free a man ‘who rail'd against our person’. They argue against mercy and thus when their treachery is revealed Henry can respond to their pleas of mercy: ‘The mercy that was quick in us but late, / By your own counsel is suppress'd and kill'd …’ (II, ii, 79-80). Their own words condemn them, but the same sort of self-condemnation will return to haunt Henry later in the play. He too will be sorry for what he said earlier. There is also irony in that at least one of the conspirators, Cambridge, was out to do what Henry seems to be doing, to place a man, Edmund Mortimer, on the throne because of his descent through the female line.

Yet, in terms of stage action, the idea of deposing this monarch is shocking both to Henry himself and the audience. And as he condemns the three he comments on the fall of these ‘English monsters’:

Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem:
And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot,
To mark the full-fraught man and best indued
With some suspicion.

(II, ii, 137-40)

The king's advice should be heeded by the audience as well. For Henry is the ‘best indued’ man of this play and yet it would be wise to watch him and his quarrel ‘with some suspicion’. Indeed, a suspicious eye should be cast on the words of patriotic exhortation with which Henry closes the scene: ‘Cheerly to sea; the signs of war advance: / No king of England, if not king of France’ (II, ii, 192-3). The words and attitude seem to belong to the discredited Hotspur of 1 Henry IV who commented as he prepared to challenge the army of Henry IV: ‘Doomsday is near; die all, die merrily’. Henry V is not the ideal monarch that he seemed to be in the words of the Chorus: ‘the mirror of all Christian kings’.

In the following scene Pistol gives his wife advice in words that parallel Henry's:

Trust none;
For oaths are straws, men's faiths are wafer-cakes,
And hold-fast is the only dog, my duck …

(II, iii, 52-4)

His comment reiterates Henry's statement that all must be watched ‘with some suspicion’. Pistol's words certainly apply to the three traitors of the previous scene, but they also seem to apply to Henry. It is in this scene that Falstaff's death is announced, and earlier Nell had said of Jack: ‘The king has killed his heart’ (II, i, 92). While Falstaff may have no place in the new order of things, yet it is hard to imagine that Shakespeare is trying to cast a favorable light upon Henry by such references to his former friend. Indeed, as Goddard has argued, we may feel that the words Henry applies to Scroop: ‘Ingrateful, savage and inhuman creature’ (II, ii, 95), reflect upon Henry and Falstaff.14 And the next few lines that Pistol adds to his speech above, also parody Henry's comments to his lords: ‘Now, lords, for France; the enterprise whereof / Shall be to you, as us, like glorious’ (II, ii, 182-3). Pistol urges his cohorts: ‘Let us to France; like horse-leeches, my boys, / To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck’ (II, iii, 58-9). Henry's glorious enterprise may not be much better.

Yet as Shakespeare carries his audience to France once more, Henry is created verbally as the hero. The Constable informs the doubting Dauphin that Henry only covered ‘discretion with a coat of folly’ (II, iv, 38). The French king himself says they must fear ‘the native mightiness’ of Henry. Certainly such language used by the enemy creates a favorable impression of Henry upon the audience. Yet it seems difficult not to see the demand he makes through Exeter as anything less than absurd and blood-sucking:

… when you find him evenly derived
From his most famed of famous ancestors,
Edward the Third, he bids you then resign
Your crown and kingdom, indirectly held
From him the native and true challenger.

(II, iv, 91-5)

In fact, every reference to ‘ancestors’ reminds the audience of the weakness of Henry's claim to the English throne. Also, as the threats follow, we hear another example of Henry avoiding responsibility. Exeter says that if you do not deliver up the crown, Henry is

                                                                                … on your head
Turning the widow's tears, the orphans' cries,
The dead men's blood …

(II, iv, 105-7)

So it is the French king's fault; so the bishop was the incitor of this war. No audience, heeding Henry's own warning to be suspicious of everyone, can take very much of this verbal chicanery.

The Chorus then returns to tell the audience to imagine the ‘well-appointed king’ sailing in epic splendor to France. And quite properly to the epic tone Henry will not accept a compromise with the French; he is not satisfied with the king's daughter Katharine and ‘some petty and unprofitable dukedoms’. Instead, the cannon will fire and the siege of Harfleur will continue. Yet even in this epic-sounding Chorus there are certain ambiguities. Is it a positive act for Henry to have left England, ‘Guarded with grandsires, babies, and old women’ (III, Prologue, 20)? The reference to the cannon by the Chorus seems clearly ironical: ‘And down goes all before them’ (III, Prologue, 34). It is just not true. Harfleur is not coming down. Once more words are found quite distant from the reality of the situation.

As the scene shifts to before Harfleur the audience hears the rhetorical Henry exhorting his men: ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; / Or close the wall up with our English dead’ (III, i, 1-2). It may be a compelling statement, but as Richmond notes the attacks repeatedly fail.15 Also, Henry's own language suggests the distortion of human nature required to carry on these brutal acts:

Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews; summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye terrible aspect …

(III, i, 6-9)

The words in italics all suggest an unnatural making-over of man for war.16 Yet Henry sees in these men, these ‘English dead’ a ‘noble lustre’. What such a lustre comes to is quite apparent in the scene that follows.

Once more Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol represent the English army. The cowardly Bardolph immediately parodies Henry's exhortation: ‘On, on, on, on, on! to the breach, to the breach’ (III, ii 1). But these soldiers, these ‘noblest English’ are not interested in any of it. For Nym ‘the knocks are too hot’ and the Boy wishes he ‘were in an alehouse in London’. The result is that no one moves until Fluellen enters and repeats Henry's resounding but ineffectual phrase: ‘Up to the breach, you dogs! avaunt, you cullions’ (III, ii, 21). They must be forced just as Henry's language of ‘imitate’, ‘stiffen’, ‘disguise’ suggested they would have to be. While Henry termed his men the heirs of ‘so many Alexanders’ (III, i, 19), what we see on the stage is, as Fluellen calls them, a collection of dogs and rascals.

While these characters are driven up to the breach the Boy manages to stay behind and describe his companions: Pistol ‘hath a killing tongue’. So we might feel do Henry and the Chorus. According to the Boy: ‘They will steal any thing, and call it a purchase’. They can use words to call a crime by a better name. Once more we may think of the bishop, the Chorus, and Henry himself. Then the Boy comments that they would corrupt him as well, but he would rather find a ‘better service’ for:

                                                                                … if I should take from
another's pocket to put into mine … it is plain
pocketing up of wrongs. I must leave them …

(III, ii, 53-5)

It is hard not to see in this moral criticism of these thieves—now operating in France—a moral criticism of Henry as well.

Absurd quarrels begin to reappear. As the Boy exits, Fluellen, Gower, Macmorris and Jamy come on stage. In rather confusing Welsh, Irish, and Scotch dialects an argument breaks out concerning ‘the disciplines of the Roman wars’. The subject itself certainly seems unrelated to the present action. At the same time the confusing language affects the audience just as Canterbury's description of the Salic laws: the audience is not sure what the quarrel is about. Indeed, it seems to be over nothing. Yet, in this case, it leads to such things as Macmorris' threat to Fluellen: ‘I will cut off your head.’ Meanwhile, in a situation that parallels Henry's, Fluellen is defending the ‘derivation of my birth’. Yet on stage the whole scene looks and sounds like a senseless quarrel. With such a context, it is quite easy to examine the quarrel that Henry has raised with France with ‘suspicion’.

The scene then shifts back to the central quarrel. Incredibly, Henry, as he speaks to the Governor of Harfleur, is denying responsibility for what will happen in the city. He describes in detail the terrors that will befall Harfleur if it does not surrender, then warns the Governor: ‘… you yourselves are cause …’ (III, iii, 19). He also terms the Governor ‘guilty in defense’. This is just too much from Henry.17 Shakespeare makes his own attitude clear when he compares through Henry the war the king is ready to unleash ‘to the prince of fiends’. It is a devil that Henry brings. Even more pointed is the irony in Henry's calling his soldiers ‘Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen’ (III, iii, 41). It is impossible to take the allusion as a compliment. More and more the doubts about the validity of Henry's quarrel are growing. Yet, for the first time something seems to be changing. Harfleur surrenders because the Dauphin cannot aid it. But as Henry accepts his prize—consider the rhetoric he employed a moment ago—he seems somewhat deflated and his language reflects this change: ‘The winter coming on and sickness growing / Upon our soldiers, we will retire to Calais’ (III, iii, 55-6). For the first time Henry stops sounding like an epic hero and starts sounding like an honest man. Rhetoric is put aside. Henry trapped in a discredited war is beginning to mature.

As Henry exits, Katharine, already mentioned in the Prologue to act III as a possible wife for the king, comes on stage with her maid and attempts to learn some English. Perhaps indicative of her interests, she first wishes to learn the English words for parts of the body. Her introduction at this point, and the puns that develop from English words that sound like French obscenities, relate this scene to the earlier argument between Nym and Pistol over Nell Quickly. The audience, presented with something they can see on the stage, may begin to consider her as the prize. Indeed, the theme of the battle over women was suggested by Henry's reference to the threatened virgins of Harfleur: ‘… pure maidens [who will] fall into the hand / Of hot and forcing violation’ (III, iii, 20-1). This idea is reinforced by the Dauphin's comments in the next scene about Frenchwomen:

Our madams mock at us, and plainly say
Our mettle is bred out and they will give
Their bodies to the lust of English youth
To new-store France with bastard warriors.

(III, iv, 28-31)

All of these arguments recall the foolish quarrel over Nell that was finally settled with money.

The parallels that Shakespeare set up early in the play between Henry and the low characters do, however, begin to break down. Bardolph, the English soldier, has been condemned as Pistol relates: ‘For he hath stolen a pax, and hanged must a' be’ (III, vi, 42). In Holinshed the stolen object is said to be a pyx, the vessel that contained the sacred host. The reason for the change to the pax, a plate, is not to make the crime less shocking but to parallel Bardolph's crime with Henry's, which was to steal the pax or peace.18 But even while the audience may be associating the two crimes, it begins to see a Henry who is becoming a man of peace rather than of war. When he is told Bardolph has been condemned for his crime, he agrees, but for apparently commendable reasons:

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 … for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

(III, vi, 113-20)

There was no ‘gentler gamester’ before Harfleur.

When the French ambassador enters in the same scene it is he who fills the air with the rhetoric of war: ‘Our voice is imperial: England shall repent his folly …’ (III, vi, 31-2). Instead of reacting in kind, as he did when he received the tennis balls, Henry simply asks him to leave the country:

                                                                                                    Turn thee back,
And tell thy king I do not seek him now;
But could be willing to march on to Calais
Without impeachment …

(III, vi, 148-51)

Henry is asking for peace. But almost more important is his rejection of the epic art associated with the opening prologues. It is, as Henry notes, foolish to admit your weakness to your enemy. But Shakespeare seems to want to make it clear that Henry is no longer covering reality with words. So while the statement may be illogical from a strategical point of view, it is dramatically logical as it shows Henry's maturation. Thus in honesty, without artifice, he comments:

                                                                      … to say the sooth,
Though 'tis no wisdom to confess so much
Unto an enemy of craft and vantage,
My people are with sickness much enfeebled,
My numbers lessen'd …

(III, vi, 151-5)

This is not the Henry who reminded the audience of Hotspur in the opening scene.

In fact all of the disagreeable elements that Shakespeare associated with the English earlier now begin to pass over to the French. At the moment it is Henry who is seeking peace. Also the petty quarrels are now French petty quarrels. In III, vii, the Constable of France, Orleans, and the Dauphin argue about their armor and their horses. Going the furthest, the Dauphin says of his horse:

It is the prince of palfreys; his neigh is like the bidding of a monarch and his countenance enforces homage.

(III, vii, 29-31)

This is too much for Orleans but the Dauphin will not be stopped. He declared: ‘I once writ a sonnet in his praise and began thus: “Wonder of nature”’ (III, vii, 42-3). In fact the Dauphin states: ‘My horse is my mistress’ (III, vii, 46). The argument begins to parallel that of Nym and Pistol over Nell; only now the question is far more absurd. The mistress in question now becomes a horse. It is the French who are being presented as absurd.

Instead of Henry's rhetoric, the audience hears the bragging of the French who are all impatient for the day when ‘by ten / We shall have each a hundred Englishmen’ (III, vii, 168-9). Yet it will be the English who will be out on the field of battle first. And now instead of Henry it is the Dauphin who is looked at with suspicion. When he exits the Constable of France calls the Dauphin a braggart who can never do harm. When Orleans says that the Dauphin is valiant, the Constable ironically agrees, for ‘he told me so himself’ (III, vii, 117). If the audience is watching for parallels it can see one between Pistol and the Dauphin. Gradually Henry is moving away from the unattractive elements in the play. Shakespeare is shifting them to the French.

Yet, petty quarrels continue to plague the English camp. Henry disguises himself with a cloak as a ‘gentleman of a company’. Soon he runs into Pistol and though the king shows restraint he does provoke an argument with him when he tells Pistol he is Fluellen's kinsman. It all ends with Pistol's ‘The figo for thee, then!’ (IV, i, 60). As Henry continues through the camp he meets the positive parallels to Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol in Bates, Court, and Williams. When Henry says, however, the king's cause is ‘just and his quarrel honourable’ (IV, i, 133), Williams replies, ‘That's more than we know’ (IV, i, 134). In fact he then goes on to hold the king responsible if the cause is not just:

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place …’

(IV, i, 140-5)

Once more a raw nerve is struck in Henry and in a speech that covers 42 prose lines (IV, i, 154-6), the audience hears him denying responsibility again. He avoids the central issue of the just cause and presents such statements as: ‘Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own.’ On stage, though Williams and Bates agree, the speech is hard to follow—recall Canterbury's treatment of the Salic laws. And it just does not answer the question of responsibility that Williams posed. Henry is not yet free of his rhetoric.

In fact, the soldiers continue cynical when Henry tells them the King has said he would not be ransomed. As Williams says:

Ay, he said so, to make us fight cheerfully: but when our throats are cut, he may be ransomed, and we ne'er the wiser.

(IV, i, 204-6)

This exchange leads to another foolish quarrel and Henry and Williams exchange favors so that they can recognize each other and fight at a more appropriate time. Oddly, it is not Henry, but Bates who stops the quarrel: ‘Be friends, you English fools, be friends …’ (IV, i, 239). As the soldiers exit, Henry in soliloquy, upset by Williams' remarks about the king's responsibility, comments:

Upon the king! let us our lives, our souls
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children and our sins lay on the king!

(IV, i, 247-9)

Yet the war is his responsibility. It is hard to miss Shakespeare's irony when Henry laments: ‘… in gross brain little wots / What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace …’ (IV, i, 299-300). It was Henry who, like Bardolph, stole the pax or peace. While Henry is still confined by his rhetoric, he is growing more honest. He is ready to admit that not only is there some doubt about his claim to the French throne, but there is doubt about his right to the English crown. As the scene ends, referring to the murder of Richard II, he prays:

          Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!

(IV, i, 309-11)

The process may be taking a long time, but Henry is maturing.19

I spoke above of the parallel between the Chorus's admission that it was covering a limited stage with devices of art and our sense that Henry may have been doing the same thing in his role as epic king. In the Prologue to Act IV, the Chorus now apologizes for the battle scene:

          … O for pity!—we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt.

(IV, Prologue, 49-52)

But this apology does not nearly come up to the apology required. In the Prologue to the play, the Chorus asked the audience ‘into a thousand parts divide one man’ (l. 24) and thus imagine the large battle. Another apology for technical limitations? Hardly. None of this prepares us for what we are going to see in the only actual battle scene where French and English meet: IV, iv. What Shakespeare has asked us to do is to divide Pistol the coward and a more cowardly Frenchman into a thousand parts to represent the monumental English victory at Agincourt. Pistol takes him prisoner and says he will cut his throat. The Boy translates the French soldier's reply:

He prays you save his life: he is a gentleman of a good house; and for his ransom he will give you two hundred crowns.

(IV, iv, 47-9)

The offer satisfies Pistol, who states: ‘As I suck blood, I will some mercy show’ (IV, iv, 68). His words recall his earlier intentions as he left for France: ‘To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck’ (II, iii, 58). Shakespeare is not limited by his theatre, he has chosen to present Agincourt in the worst way possible. The only hero we see on stage is one whom, as the Boy comments, ‘Bardolph and Nym had ten times more valour than …’ (IV, iv, 74).

As the French begin to sense defeat, Bourbon urges them on in terms that recall the argument over Nell, the reference to Frenchwomen giving ‘their bodies to the lust of English youth …’ (III, v, 30) and Henry's references to the rape of virgins as he stood outside Harfleur. Orleans says he who will not follow him into battle is

Like a base pandar, [who will] hold the chamber-door
Whilst by a slave, no gentler than my dog,
His fairest daughter is contaminated.

(IV, v, 14-16)

Then the battle, if possible, becomes even less attractive. Exeter describes in pathetic terms the deaths of York and Suffolk. Henry is moved almost to tears. But at this very moment Henry learns the French are regrouping and he commands: ‘Then every soldier kill his prisoners: / Give the word through’ (IV, vi, 37-8). Immediately juxtaposed to this act is the French act of brutality: they have slaughtered the boys who were with the luggage. For this, Fluellen explains, ‘The king, most worthily, hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O, 'tis a gallant king!’ (IV, vii, 10-11). The irony seems inescapable. Just as Henry decided to attack France before the insult of the tennis balls, Henry now ordered his massacre before the French carried out theirs. Pistol and the French soldier are not bad ‘ciphers to this great accompt’. Once more the reality of the battle has been quite different from the promises of the early Choruses. If we are going to admire the Henry that was maturing before the battle, Shakespeare must extricate him from this degrading turmoil.

But it is not time yet. Fluellen and Gower compare Henry who could ‘cut the Gordian knot’ and Alexander the Great who comes out in Fluellen's Welsh distortion of big as Alexander the Pig. Both epic heroes are being trimmed down to size. The audience may imagine, however, that Shakespeare is going to compare Henry's victory with Alexander's conquests. But this is hardly the case. There is a comparison, however, as Fluellen states:

If you mark Alexander's life well, Harry of Monmouth's life is come after it indifferent well … Alexander … did, in his ales and his angers, look you, kill his best friend, Cleitus.

(IV, vii, 34-6, 39-41)

When Gower objects that Henry never killed any of his friends, Fluellen responds with Falstaff:

Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgments, turned away the fat knight …

(IV, vii, 49-51)

The comparison with Henry presented as cold-blooded, can hardly be to his advantage.20

In fact, as he enters immediately after this passage he threatens the French prisoners once more: ‘We'll cut the throats of those we have …’ (IV, vii, 66). Yet when the French surrender Henry can take a new tone: ‘Praised be God, and not our strength, for it!’ (IV, vii, 90). In contrast to his earlier bragging, in contrast to the French bragging, his tone and attitude seem refreshing. But another quarrel, much less important, must be settled as well. Williams and Henry are to meet after the battle. But to avoid insult to the royal person, Henry gives the favor that marks him as Williams' enemy to Fluellen. He is careful, however, that nothing serious should pass and he sends certain lords to ‘follow, and see there be no harm between them’ (IV, vii, 190). Yet we see on stage another quarrel as Williams recognizes the favor and strikes Fluellen. The audience must by now desire peace on stage. Henry enters to settle the quarrel and tells Williams that he had insulted the king the night before the battle. Williams defends himself, however, by saying it was Henry's fault:

… what your highness suffered under that shape, I beseech you take it for your own fault and not mine …

(IV, viii, 56-8).

And as Henry rewards this fellow the audience feels he is finally beginning to take responsibility. It was his fault. Yet Fluellen's advice to Williams at this point can apply to Henry as well:

I pray you to serve God, and keep you out of prawls, and prabbles, and quarrels, and dissensions …

(IV, viii, 69-70)

The Prologue to act V presents the conqueror Henry in rather unheroic terms. That is, Henry is no longer a braggart. What follows is his reaction to a triumphal procession:

                                                                                                    … he forbids it,
Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride;
Giving full trophy, signal and ostent
Quite from himself to God.

(V, Prologue, 19-22)

It is easy to be cynical about this pose, yet it does present us with a Henry who is more humble than the character we experienced at the beginning of the drama. He also becomes more attractive to us when the Chorus, ignoring real time, now carries Henry back to France—only now he is there for peace and not for war. His new role is juxtaposed to the roles his soldiers still play. The audience watches while the English soldiers continue to argue among themselves. Fluellen, in terms of stage action, had just condemned ‘quarrels and dissensions’ but now he is ready for another meaningless argument with Pistol about the Welsh and the symbol of their pride, the leek (V, i). Once more there is confusion and dissension on stage when the audience is weary of this kind of thing. We have been overwhelmed with quarrels, debates, and wars; everything should be over. No wonder Henry looks so good in the final act when he brings peace to a play that is itself in turmoil.

Indeed, Henry is removed from the conflicts that take place on stage. Fluellen beats Pistol on the stage for mocking the Welsh, a punishment well earned. In fact, Pistol has been driven out of the army as the worst aspects of Henry's character seem to have been driven out of him. Now Pistol, whom we will hear of no more, comments:

Old do I wax; and from my weary limbs
Honour is cudgelled. Well, bawd I'll turn,
And something lean to cutpurse of quick 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, 89-94)

He will continue to be a thief, an occupation that Henry has now apparently disavowed. Also throughout the play Pistol's boasting served to parody the epic language of the king and the Chorus. Pistol is going to continue to boast and swagger like a ‘turkey-cock’—he is going to present himself as a soldier wounded in the wars—while the audience will see in the next scene a Henry who has put off such swaggering language. Thus Pistol who served in the play as a parallel to Henry, reminding us of the king's limitations, now serves as a contrast to a matured king. Having shown us what Henry is not going to be, he departs forever from Shakespeare's stage. It is the perfect moment to dismiss him.

This time Henry has come not to suck the blood of France but for peace. Yet even this late in the play we are reminded of an earlier Henry. The king tells Burgundy that peace is the French King's responsibility: ‘Well then the peace, / Which you before so urged, lies in his answer’ (V, ii, 75-6). Will the king accept Henry's ‘just demands?’ Once again he is avoiding responsibility. But there is a difference. He is now ready to compromise, something a Hotspur could never do. He tells his negotiators:

… take with you free power to ratify,
Augment, or alter, as your wisdoms best
Shall see advantageable for our dignity,
Anything in or out of our demands
And we'll consign thereto.

(V, ii, 86-90)

He is much more concerned with wooing Katharine.

Indeed it is in this action, as they are left alone on stage (except for Alice), that the audience really sees a new Henry.21 The change in Henry is particularly signified by the change in his language. He once spoke in epic rhetoric concerning war, he now speaks in simple prose as he pleads his love. In fact he insists upon an honesty of style; he is not covering anything with art. This is certainly different from the Henry we saw before and from the Chorus who admitted covering reality with art. Now Henry woos:

But, before God, Kate, I cannot look greenly nor gasp out my eloquence, nor I have no cunning in protestation; only downright oaths …

(V, ii, 146-9)

Though love is certainly different from war, the audience does see and hear a Henry who seems to have rejected the deceptive arts of rhetoric. For the first time we may be having a fully positive reaction to him. There is no longer a distance between words and reality, a distance we felt so keenly between the words of the Chorus and the realities of the action. No longer does he need the confusing legal language of the bishop; no false claims are being covered up by words. Also all of the imagery of the rape of Frenchwomen, which certainly reflected upon Henry's purposes in attacking France, now only serves as a contrast to his honorable proposal of marriage.

Thus the quarrel is finally resolved with the marriage of Henry and Katharine—the ending reminds one of the conclusions of various comedies. Peace is the value stressed. Yet there is one final irony that obviously affected the Elizabethan audience. If more and more the audience felt as it watched this play the futility of all ‘dissensions’, what more support could it require than the Epilogue?22 Henry dies and leaves both France and England to his son. But the Chorus—now like Henry in the last scene, speaking without art or rhetoric—tells us honestly that:

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

(Epilogue, 9-12)

Thus, with no cover of art, the audience is reminded of the uselessness of the entire glorious action. The reality of war is no longer disguised; the Chorus presents it as accomplishing nothing.

Thus the play presents several positive elements in its conclusion. If it began in war, it suggests the value of peace at the end. If it begins with a foolish king, it seems to end with a mature one. If it begins with an artificial language, it ends with an honest one. Thus process and development must be recognized if the play is to be understood. It is as if Shakespeare had decided to redo the education of a prince presented in 1 and 2 Henry IV. Any inconsistency that Shakespeare may be charged with is historical. That is, he begins in Henry V to write about a monarch who resembles the earlier character Hotspur. This is a new play in which a rash, rhetorical, young and foolish king will learn a lesson in moderation. The audience can follow his development as it responds to his language and the language of the Chorus. At the end of the play both king and Chorus eschew the rhetorical language with which they disguised facts. Art has been stripped off and the reality remains. At the close of the play Henry is honest and peaceseeking; he has matured as monarch and man. Thus in Henry V we simply do not have Hal. Shakespeare repeats the theme concerned with the education of a prince, but it is a different prince. Overlooking this fact has led many a critic astray who could not locate the Hal of the earlier plays in this one. He is not there. Thus the unity of Henry V is internal and does not depend upon a tetralogy for justification. Henry V must stand alone if its dramatic unity is to be appreciated.


  1. Shakespeare's History Plays (New York, 1946), p. 306.

  2. Ibid., p. 313.

  3. Shakespeare (New York, 1939), p. 1970.

  4. Ronald Berman, Introduction to Twentieth Century Interpretations ofHenry V’ (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1968), p. 10.

  5. Shakespeare's Political Plays (New York, 1967), p. 200.

  6. Tillyard ignores the process. He argues that Shakespeare is creating an inconsistent character to satisfy ‘the requirements both of the chronicles and of popular tradition’ (Shakespeare's History Plays, p. 306). The result is not development but a ‘patchwork character’ (ibid., p. 308).

  7. In his introduction to the Arden edition (1954), p. xxx, J. H. Walter comments upon Henry's character: ‘At the outset of the play his virtue after his conversion, complete though it may be, is yet cloistered …’ For Walter, Hal has been baptized before the play begins (pp. xvii-xxi). This is quite the opposite of maturation and education.

  8. All citations in my text are to Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Hardin Craig, revised David Bevington (Glenview, Ill., 1973).

  9. Michael Goldman in Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton, 1972), p. 59, comments on the Chorus: ‘Nowhere else does he use it to call attention to the inadequacies of his stage, which is of course no more inadequate to this story than to the material of the other histories.’

  10. Walter (pp. xxiii-xxviii) and the New Cambridge editor J. Dover Wilson (pp. xix-xxiv) argue against this view. For them the French war was justified by feudal law.

  11. M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty (New York, 1961), p. 323.

  12. The same point is made in Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951), p. 211.

  13. Walter points out the change that Shakespeare has made from his sources in Hall and Holinshed where the tennis balls arrive before Henry has decided upon war. But oddly Walter argues: ‘It makes no difference to the issue. Shakespeare uses it to show Henry's Christian self-control’ (p. xxiii).

  14. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare, p. 230.

  15. Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays', pp. 182-3.

  16. The italics are mine but my reading is indebted to that of Derek A. Traversi in An Approach to Shakespeare (New York, 1956), p. 39.

  17. Walter comments, however: ‘Henry's threats to Harfleur sound horrible enough, but he was … following the rules of warfare’ (p. xxv).

  18. See Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays, p. 184 and C. H. Hobday, ‘Imagery and Irony in Henry V,’ in Shakespeare Survey 21, (Cambridge, 1968), p. 111.

  19. In contrast Una Ellis-Fermor argues that Henry's prayers are an attempt to ‘bargain with his God like a pedlar’, in The Frontiers of Drama (1948), p. 47.

  20. Walter (p. xxi) finds great praise for Henry in the comparison to Alexander. Reese (The Cease of Majesty, p. 328) similarly finds it to be an ‘enchanting comparison’. But see Robert P. Merrix, ‘The Alexandrian Allusion in Shakespeare's Henry V,’ English Literary Renaissance, 2 (Autumn 1972), 321-33 for an extensive treatment of the satiric implications of the reference.

  21. This scene, and indeed, all of act V has often been criticized. Dr Johnson, whom Van Doren cites (Shakespeare, p. 175) wrote: ‘The truth is that the poet's matter failed him in the fifth act …’ Van Doren (ibid., p. 176) elaborates: ‘The figure … collapses here into a mere good fellow, a hearty undergraduate with enormous initials on his chest.’ The scene, however, has had its recent defenders. Walter (p. xxviii) argues from Renaissance conceptions of the ideal king that the Christian prince to complete his virtues must be married. Reese (The Cease of Majesty, p. 331) comments: ‘Henry's wooing, so often criticized as heavy-handed and hypocritical, was in the accepted manner of the light-hearted gallant.’ In contrast, though he defends the scene, Robert Ornstein in A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Mass., 1972), p. 198, finds ‘Harry less attractive as a lover than as a soldier … because the conqueror of Agincourt cannot, even in his “passion”, forget his royal self …’

  22. Robert B. Pierce, however, in Shakespeare's History Plays, The Family and the State (Columbus, Ohio, 1971), p. 234, argues that the Epilogue only gives us a ‘vague consciousness’ of the coming collapse.

Lance Wilcox (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6482

SOURCE: Wilcox, Lance. “Katherine of France as Victim and Bride.” Shakespeare Studies 17 (1985): 61-76.

[In the following essay, Wilcox comments on Henry's character through an analysis of Katherine, demonstrating how Katherine's personality and role within the play are used to salvage Henry's image.]

Criticism of Henry V has long concentrated on two issues: the “epic” structure of the play and the moral character of Henry himself. The latter has provoked critical attacks and rebuttals of remarkable stridency since Hazlitt first raked the king in 1817.1 Henry has been viewed as everything from a ruthless, irresponsible military adventurer to the model Christian prince.2 Henry so dominates the play, and his actions are so morally ambiguous throughout, that it becomes almost impossible to discuss any thematic implication of the work without passing some sort of judgment on him. By the same token, no discussion of any other character in the play can pretend to completeness without considering that character's function as a foil to the king. In this essay I consider the personality and situation of Princess Katherine of France and how these help to illuminate aspects of Henry.

Shakespeare's inclusion of Katherine in his Henry V pageant was inevitable. His audience's anticipation of a scene depicting the king's courtship would have been too strong for Shakespeare to omit it. Katherine's attraction for the playwright's audience stems in part from her position as a direct female ancestor of their own Queen Elizabeth's. His audience furthermore would have expected her appearance after seeing her not ten years before in The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, the source of much of Shakespeare's dramatic material. Finally, if the force of legend and the precedent of the Famous Victories were not enough, Shakespeare had already promised her to his audience in the epilogue of 2 Henry IV: “Our humble author will continue the story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katherine of France.” That Shakespeare should mention Katherine in the same breath as Falstaff in the advertisement for his sequel suggests how central to the Harry Monmouth legend she had become.

Despite her importance for the Elizabethans, however, the critics have generally ignored her. The reason is not far to seek. Shakespeare did not create in Katherine a character of any great profundity or power. She is an attractive girl, but her appeal is entirely and somewhat simplemindedly aesthetic, as opposed to moral or intellectual. She is no Lady Macbeth and she is hardly Rosalind. In style she is eminently French—the “sprightly, Gallic Katherine” Rose Zimbardo calls her3—although she does not share the clownish arrogance of the Dauphin and his compatriots. Larry Champion dismisses her as the “rather pallid and acquiescent Katherine, whose primary dramatic value is her difficulty in pronouncing the King's English.”4 Marilyn Williamson, on the other hand, notes Katherine's “healthy skepticism” in the face of Henry's flattery, and what Champion sees as acquiescence Williamson interprets as the “realistic acceptance of her role” as a political creature.5 To be sure, though, there is little of the grand or heroic about her. For whatever reason, Shakespeare has created in Princess Katherine practically the stereotype of an Englishman's fantasy of a French debutante.

So why has Shakespeare portrayed Katherine as a bubbly, girlish Parisienne? How does she change over the course of the play? What sort of light does she reflect back on Henry? And why, after four vigorous and heraldic plays concerning medieval politics and warfare, does Shakespeare choose to conclude his work with a scene of giddy romance more befitting the early comedies than the Wars of the Roses? In order to answer these questions and to come to some understanding of the princess, we must first consider certain themes recurrent throughout the play, particularly those dealing with sexuality and war.

Rarely has any author dwelled so insistently on the evils that befall a civilian population visited by war as Shakespeare does in Henry V. This is not a favorite theme for the chronicler of military exploits, particularly when the chronicler's hero is the leader of the invading army. We, nevertheless, find Shakespeare in this play portraying realities of such sordid ugliness that not even Tolstoy was willing to record them. It is more surprising still that Shakespeare should make Henry himself the principal mouthpiece for this mature and brutal realism. Henry's understanding of these realities is first evident in his response to the Dauphin's gift of tennis balls:

And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin's scorn.


On his arrival in France he bids the French king:

                                                            … take mercy
On the poor souls for whom this hungry war
Opens his vasty jaws; and on your head
Turning the widows' tears, the orphans' cries,
The dead men's blood, the privèd maidens' groans,
For husbands, fathers, and betrothèd lovers
That shall be swallowed in this controversy.


Nor is Henry alone in his knowledge. One of Henry's soldiers, Michael Williams, powerfully expresses the meaning of war not only for the soldiers but for the civilians left behind in the homeland of the invading army.

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.


The strongest statement of this theme comes in the last act from the Duke of Burgundy, who has called Henry and the king of France together to negotiate an end to their struggle. He opens the talks with a lengthy ode to peace, which nicely counterpoints the glittering, romantic speeches of the chorus, as well as Henry's stirring military rhetoric. Burgundy describes a France, once the “best garden of the world,” now overgrown with weeds, ugly and useless from want of care, “corrupting in its own fertility.” Nor have the civilians escaped war's baleful influence:

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, diffused attire,
And everything that seems unnatural.


These speeches provide a dark, chaotic, frightening background against which to portray any creature of such innocence and delicacy as the princess. Katherine is a kind of hothouse orchid poised before this devastated garden. This contrast provides our first clue as to Katherine's thematic function in the play. To appreciate her full significance, however, is to confront yet one more of the ugly realities of war presented in Henry V, and this perhaps the most appalling—that is, war as the occasion for massive sexual aggression; in essence, war as rape. This theme Shakespeare develops both literally and figuratively. Widespread sexual violence not only represents one of the commoner afflictions of war on a civilian populace; it comes to stand as a symbol for invasion itself.

The literal fact is announced in the gaudiest terms in Henry's speech before the walls of Harfleur. Henry, having besieged the city, now offers the citizens one last opportunity to surrender before he launches his attack. He informs them of what they have to look forward to, if he should be forced to do this.

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fair fresh virgins and your flow'ring infants.
.....What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
.....Take pity of your town and of your people
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command,
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O'erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil, and villainy.
If not—why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters.


This speech is characterized by Goddard as a “verbal orgy of blood lust” and a “picture of violence and licentiousness let loose such as would be hard to duplicate in Shakespeare.”7 His description is none too strong. Henry would maintain, of course, that he is merely forecasting, as it were, his soldiers' behavior if they should riot out of his control, and that no blame can attach to him for their actions. Furthermore, although Henry's penchant for dodging responsibility for his actions has long been noted, certain critics would doubtless sustain him in this.8 But it requires a very short memory to be taken in thus. Only minutes before, we heard Henry exhorting his soldiers to “Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood / … set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide” and “imitate the action of the tiger.” If his soldiers were to riot and rape after such a speech, it would be, in Williams's words, a “black matter for the king that led them to it.”

The theme of rape appears in a metaphorical version during the battle of Agincourt. The French nobility, bemoaning the drubbing they are receiving at Henry's hands, declare:

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


To stand idly by while the bestial English overrun fair France is no less than to abet the rape of one's own daughter. The English are compared by implication to the slave performing the “contamination”; the invasion itself, to sexual violation.

The symbolic equivalence of war and rape is established definitively by the king of France when he refers to “maiden cities,” so called because “they are girdled with maiden walls that war hath never entered” (V.i.308-09). The corollary, of course, is that cities such as Harfleur that have had their walls broached in battle are no longer “maidens”: The invasion constitutes a sort of military deflowering. The comparison is particularly suggestive when one remembers that such “deflowering” is accomplished either by cannon (“murdering basilisks”) or by battering ram. With this system of imagery in mind, Henry's cry of “unto the breach” takes on both military and sexual overtones, as do its various burlesque repetitions.

Now, none of this, to say the least, reflects well on Henry. Henry brought these men to France, knowing full well his army harbored not only many potential rapists but others already guilty of “beguiling virgins with the broken seals of perjury” (IV.i.153). He set them on with his “action of the tiger” speech. And he has no scruples about using the threat of general sexual assault in his negotiations with the citizens of Harfleur. It is not too much to say, then, however strong the expression may sound, that if Henry is indeed the “king of good fellows,” he is no less the king of rapists. Not only is this true in the plainest literal sense, but as I have indicated, it is true symbolically as well. Rape is a metaphor for invasion; and all the Salic Law rigmarole aside, this is emphatically Henry's war.

Where does this leave Princess Katherine? Simply as the flesh-and-blood representative of the civilian population whose suffering is throughout the play so painfully recorded. For all we hear of the miseries of the noncombatants, we see only soldiers, generals, and royalty. Katherine, though royalty herself, represents the “innocent bystanders” whose lives are darkened and destroyed by Henry's conquests. Her first appearance onstage underscores this role. Henry stands at the gates of Harfleur, indulging in his obscene rhapsody on the impaling of infants and the hot and forcing violation of virgin daughters, and then—enter Katherine! At a moment when the most militant Englishman must ache at the ravages to be visited on the French by Henry's soldiers, Shakespeare presents us with this image of Gallic femininity and childlike grace. Like a lightning rod, the girl draws to herself all our troubled concern for the citizenry of France and provides a potential concrete instance of the sordid violence Henry portrays.

The relationship between Henry and Katherine thus appears to us as that between assailant and victim, predator and prey. And here lies, I believe, the central strategic problem the playwright faces in this work: How can Shakespeare reconcile the twin roles of king of good fellows and king of rapists and have Henry emerge as the white-hatted hero he presumably intends him to be?

A clue may lie in the reported threat of the French women to “give / Their bodies to the lust of English youth / To new-store France with bastard warriors” (III.v.29-31). This suddenly sounds much less like the sordid sexual aggression of Harfleur than like mutual attraction, or even outright seduction by the women. If the erstwhile victims of the sexual assault were to become the willing partners of the aggressors, there could hardly be said to have been any aggression or violation in the first place. It is by engineering just such an arrangement that Shakespeare contrives to cast a certain legitimacy, even a certain poetry, over Henry's military cum sexual conquest. When is a rapist not a rapist? When he's a husband. In short, Katherine does her part to redeem Henry's image by apparently collaborating in his conquest of her; and Henry in part redeems himself by his oddly chivalrous treatment of the princess, once she is indisputably his prize.

Katherine's first appearance, while it establishes her credentials as the symbolic French victim, sets her at the same time on the path to becoming Henry's legitimate queen. From her first words, she is following an itinerary that can lead her only one place: to Henry's royal bed. Such a progress could well represent no more than the symbolic rape discussed above; Katherine could be merely one of the spoils of war. On the other hand, it could also represent a romance worthy of the early comedies, and Shakespeare attempts to brighten it with just such colors. While Henry is marching toward Agincourt and eventually Paris, Katherine is conducting her own campaign, if you will, toward Henry. Shakespeare indicates Katherine's progress by changes in her linguistic facility and her development as a sexual being from her first scene, in the aftermath of Harfleur, to her wooing by Henry at the end of the play.

In this section I will be examining where Katherine stands with respect to both language and sexuality at her first appearance, in the language-learning scene (III.iv). In the section following, I will examine where she has come to in each by the time of her courtship by Henry in the wooing scene (V.ii). In the final section, besides tying up a few loose ends, I will assess the effectiveness of Shakespeare's strategy in controlling our reactions to the king himself.

A thorough examination of the different dialects and speech patterns in Henry V would be a rich and interesting study in its own right—particularly because, aside from a few moldy jokes about English soldiers botching their French, there is none of this sort of thing in the Famous Victories. It is all Shakespeare's original contrivance for whatever dramatic purpose. For the present, however, we need only notice Katherine's curious ignorance of English, given the easy mastery of the language by the rest of the French aristocracy. In the Famous Victories all the French, the princess included, spoke fluent English; in Shakespeare's version, all do except the princess and her serving woman. Instead, Shakespeare goes out of his way to show us the princess learning her first handful of words in the new language, and this almost immediately after she has been offered to Henry as his bride (III.Ch.29-31). This offer, along with Henry's subsequent victory at Harfleur, establishes his momentum toward the French crown. In the light of it, Katherine's sudden urge to learn the aggressor's language seems an almost conscious design to meet him halfway.

The first stirrings of Katherine's sexual awareness are implied in certain incidents in the language-learning episode. As if it were not enough merely to show Katherine learning the aggressor's language, Shakespeare contrives (again, in the shadow of Harfleur) that she draw attention to the parts of her own body. This is, to be sure, a convenient way to stage a language-learning sequence, particularly to an audience knowing only one of the languages involved. And, as R. C. Simonini, Jr., points out, the popular language texts of the day generally began with just such material.9 But Shakespeare does not stop there. Before she is through, the princess stumbles over English words suggestive of French sexual terms and reacts with playfully shocked innocence and a resolute decision to press on in spite of her embarrassment. More than anything else, it is this decision to go on learning the erotically charged words that indicates her developing sexual sophistication. She is ready to begin facing her sexuality to some degree at least, and the vehicle for the change just happens to be the language of her conqueror and future husband.

Both Brownell Saloman and H. M. Richmond draw attention to this implied sexual development in their treatments of the language lesson. Saloman writes:

Even the Princess' blushing allusions to the obscene words that are the French sound-alikes of the English words foot and gown are more than instances of local humor. They are dramatic expressions of the Princess' sexual awareness, and by extension her nubility, which will have important social implications in the play's final scene.10

Richmond believes the sexual innuendo indicates Katherine's conscious anticipation of her ultimate destiny: “While she pretends disgust at the sexual association of some of the English words, this physiological awareness itself unmistakably indicates that she rightly expects, one way or another, to be exposed to the embraces of the English.”11 Richmond's gently sinister phrase captures with precision Katherine's impending fate by this point in the play. She will “one way or another … be exposed to the embraces of the English.” The phrase suits her equally as a victim and as the future queen. Her “physiological awareness,” however, suggests that her reaction to such embraces may prove yet another mere pretense of disgust rather than the genuine article. Two of the effects of the erotic puns, in any case, are to modulate the ferocious sexual themes of the Harfleur speech to a gentler, more attractive key and to prepare both the princess and the audience for the meeting of the representative aggressor and victim later in the play.

This meeting takes place, of course, in the final episode of Henry V, the much debated “wooing scene.”12 This is Shakespeare's last opportunity to present a mature mutuality in the relationship between Henry and Katherine, rather than the predator-prey relationship established in Act III. Having started Katherine on her way by incipient changes both linguistic and sexual in that act, Shakespeare now presents us with a princess far more sophisticated in both departments.

The most striking change in the princess from the first words she utters is, of course, her greatly increased facility with English. She is hardly fluent; but from struggling to remember a half-dozen simple nouns, she is now able to frame full sentences. Her first line establishes nicely her present competence in the language: “Your majesty shall mock at me. I cannot speak your England” (V.ii.101-02)—two clear, correct English sentences, however short, with the exceptions of the substitution of “England” for “English” and the textbook use of “shall” for the more idiomatic “will.”

Throughout the scene, Shakespeare represents Katherine as comprehending English more readily than she speaks it, and although she doubtless misses much of what Henry says in his long, involved digressions on his own incompetence, she follows him closely enough to know when she is being shamelessly flattered and when his double-talk threatens to obscure her position as the daughter of his enemy. When the conversation proceeds slowly and steadily, Katherine answers Henry in mixed English and French (“Your majestee ave fausse French enough to deceive de most sage demoiselle dat is en France” [V.ii.212-13]). But when something excites or alarms Katherine, such as Henry's proffered kisses, her English gives way immediately to a flood of rapid French, and her waiting woman Alice is left to pick up the conversational pieces.

Henry, for his part, moves to meet Katherine halfway from the beginning of their dialogue. His first words to the princess are a request for another “language lesson” of a sort, this time with Katherine as the instructor and Henry the student:

                    Fair Katherine, 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?


Despite his invitation to her to play the teacher, Katherine moves instinctively into the subservient role, the role of the conquered subject, the bested enemy suing for peace. She assumes immediately that any conversation between them must be carried on in Henry's language—although the necessity of this is far from obvious—and begs him not to laugh at her lack of fluency.

Henry's response to this is curiously two-sided. He takes for granted as unhesitatingly as Katherine that the language to be spoken between them is his, not hers. He has earned his position of power by overcoming the most difficult and dangerous of hardships, and he manifestly enjoys having the advantage of his old enemy in negotiations both political and amorous. But then, having quietly confirmed his advantage, he tactfully offers several concessions on the matter of fluency and articulateness itself. As Samuel Johnson noted, we very nearly forget in this scene that this man is Hal—Hal of the court and tavern, of Lancaster and Cheapside, master of blank verse and bawdy prose. Throughout this scene Henry insists ad nauseam on his clumsiness with words.

I' faith, Kate, my wooing is fit for thy understanding. I am glad thou canst speak no better English; for if thou couldst, thou wouldst find me such a plain king that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my crown. I know no ways to mince it in love but directly to say, “I love you.” Then, if you urge me farther than to say, “Do you in faith?” I wear out my suit.


As Harbage notes in his introduction to Henry V, “Never has anyone advertised his inarticulateness with such loquacity.”13 Given what we know of Henry, both in this play and previous ones, this self-deprecation is absolute balderdash, and no one knows it better than he. To a certain extent, all this merely reflects Henry the actor enjoying his own performance in a role he has marked out for himself, just as he did earlier before the bishops, with the three conspirators, and while roaming incognito on the eve of Agincourt. More importantly, however, I think it can only be properly appreciated as an act of courtesy, a “condescension” in an obsolete but attractive sense of that word. He is deliberately disarming himself to meet the princess on her own level of fluency, and the success of the maneuver depends wholly on the convincing thoroughness with which he carries it out.

Henry also moves to put Katherine at ease about her English by carrying on the dialogue for a few lines in French. This, like his pretended inarticulateness, is a means to divest himself of the intimidating aura attaching to his position without compromising his position. He is not moving the dialogue in any real sense into her language, but he is making a deliberate point of revealing his insufficiency therein. Unlike his inarticulateness in English, however, his lack of fluency in French seems genuine enough. Like Katherine, he comprehends more in the foreign tongue than he can express, and any hurry or excitement sends him scurrying back into English. Indeed, Shakespeare has contrived to present the king and princess as possessed of almost identical degrees of competence in each other's language. But although Henry deliberately tips his hand with respect to French, the obliging Katherine again bids for the subservient role: “Sauf vostre honneur, le François que vous parlez, il est meilleur que l'Anglois lequel je parle.” But Henry graciously and correctly evens the balance: “No, faith, is't not, Kate. But thy speaking of my tongue, and I thine, most truly-falsely, must needs be granted to be much at one” (V.ii.184-88).

For Katherine and Henry to be “much at one,” a kind of sexual parity will have to obtain between them no less than this linguistic one. Insofar as Katherine remains immaculate, she remains the symbolic “fair fresh virgin” of Harfleur as well, and Henry stays trapped in his role of sexual aggressor. A marriage contracted and forced under these conditions would hardly satisfy either Henry or the audience. The only option left open to Shakespeare is to develop Katherine into at least a subdued version of the women willing to “give / Their bodies to the lust of English youth.” Thus, after presenting this pristine creature amid images of mass rape, prostitutes, and venereal disease, Shakespeare must now render her sexual development without compromising her refreshing purity. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare allowed the nurse, more reminiscent of Nell Quickly than of anyone else in the present play, to forecast Juliet's sexuality, which she does with a warm, beguiling, Chaucerian bawdiness, delightful in itself, and tending to leave wholly untarnished the idealistic passion of the lovers. An erotic coloring is cast over Juliet without cheapening or coarsening her. Here the task falls to the lewd, smirking Burgundy and to Henry himself, with no such pleasing results.

Henry draws out the sexual dimension of Katherine's character in part through a species of suggestion. He makes repeated reference to the two of them as a mated couple, a sexually procreant pair, before the combined courts of France and England. “Shall not thou and I, between Saint Denis and Saint George, compound a boy, half French, half English?” (V.ii.200-202). Henry already imagines himself and Katherine producing heirs and moves to suggest the notion to the princess. Now Katherine is hardly in a position to repulse his advances, and yet anything short of vigorously rejecting these suggestions must inevitably be seen as avouching similar fantasies of her own.

Henry follows these lines with attempts to kiss Katherine's hands and lips. This time she does try to fend him off, by telling him it is not the custom for an unmarried couple in France. But Henry is not one to take no for an answer, and kiss her he does. Katherine's reluctance, coupled with her statement about the significance of kissing in France, makes the kiss itself seem just that much more intimate than it otherwise would have been. Katherine has again been cornered into public behavior bound to establish her in everyone's eyes as Henry's wife and lover.

Finally, however, it is the coarse bawdry between Burgundy and Henry that proclaims most bluntly Katherine's sexual potential.

If you would conjure in her, you must make a circle; if conjure up love in her in his true likeness, he must appear naked and blind. Can you blame her then, being a maid yet rosed over with the virgin crimson of modesty, if she deny the appearance of a naked blind boy in her naked seeing self? It were, my lord, a hard condition for a maid to consign to.
Yet they do wink and yield, as love is blind and enforces.
They are then excused, my lord, when they see not what they do.
Then, good my lord, teach your cousin to consent winking.
I will wink on her to consent, my lord, if you will teach her to know my meaning; for maids well summered and warm kept are like flies at Bartholomew-tide, blind, though they have their eyes; and then they will endure handling which before would not abide looking on.
This moral ties me over to time and a hot summer; and so I shall catch the fly, your cousin, in the latter end, and she must be blind too.


Here is the ultimate guarantee of Katherine's readiness for Henry's bed. The king awaits happily the “hot summer” when he can catch Katherine, the “fly,” in “the latter end.” Why is he so confident? Because, as he tells Burgundy, “love is blind and enforces”—a phrase that spookily recalls the Harfleur speech. In this case, however, the daughter, far from shrieking shrilly, will rather “wink and yield” (that is, “give her body to the lust,” and so forth). In the language-learning scene, Shakespeare intimated Katherine's erotic potential through a couple of mildly off-color puns. Here he indulges in bawdry in a much franker and cruder vein. This increase in the raunchiness of the humor reflects Katherine's advance in sexual maturity; she has become, evidently, the sort of woman about whom one says these sorts of things. Managed with even a little tact, this might have added a comic, earthy, even romantic touch to what is otherwise a rather chilly political union. As it is, however, the exchange, particularly coming from Henry, is too crass and demeaning to produce this effect.

To summarize my argument briefly: Shakespeare establishes in Henry V, both on a literal and a figurative level, a close relationship between military invasion and sexual assault. Henry figures in this equation as the veritable king of assailants and Katherine as the very princess of victims. To bring his play to a happy conclusion, Shakespeare is obliged to metamorphose this relationship from one of predator and prey to that between two mutually romantic partners. This he attempts principally through carefully managed developments in Katherine's command of Henry's language (and vice versa) and in her sexual maturation, although the latter is rather suggested than rendered. He attempts to soften a tale of military and sexual conquest with the colors and trappings of romantic comedy and ends the play, like any good Elizabethan love story, with a marriage. Rabkin explains the significance of this:

The point of the stock ending of romantic comedy is, of course, its guarantee of the future: marriage secures and reinvigorates society while promising an extension of its happiness into a generation to come. Like A Midsummer Night's Dream, Henry V ends in a marriage whose blessing will transform the world.14

Just as sexual aggression has been throughout Henry V a dark symbol for the English military expedition, so the wedding between Katherine and Henry promises political concord between the two realms. In her prayer for their future happiness, the queen of France draws this parallel in no uncertain terms:

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 blessèd marriage,
Thrust in between the paction of these kingdoms
To make divorce of their incorporate league.


I have tried to demonstrate how Shakespeare uses Katherine to control the audience's reaction to Henry himself. Shakespeare's success in this venture depends on his ability to evoke and gratify two contradictory impulses in the reader: one, aggressive lust; and two, a sort of protective, even parental, anxiety.15 To whatever degree we have vicariously enjoyed Henry's conquests, our satisfaction should be complete at the promise of Katherine's gracing the monarch's bed. Our troubled concern for Katherine's welfare, on the other hand, along with that for the French people generally, should be somewhat assuaged by the events of the final act. Katherine accepts Henry as her suitor with no great unwillingness. And Henry, having like Theseus won his love with his sword, nevertheless woos and flatters her as if all rested on her decision alone.16 From his gallantry toward Katherine, I think we are meant to infer a certain humanity and liberality in his treatment of the vanquished French as well.

But we are finally obliged to face one further question, and that is: Does it come off, this gambit? How satisfied are we by the frothy ending to this otherwise grimly realistic play? Do the comedy and romance succeed in frosting over the accounts of “heady murder, spoil, and villainy”? Rabkin, for one, does not seem won over; writing of the infamous Harfleur speech, he notes: “its sexual morbidity casts a disquieting light on the muted but unmistakable aggressiveness of [Henry's] sexual assault on Katherine in the fifth act.”17 Godshalk is even more emphatic:

While Henry gains his kiss, the thoughtful reader may well remember his harsh question to the citizens of Harfleur: “What is't to me … / If your pure maidens fall into the hand / Of hot and forcing violation?” The memory undercuts Henry's boyish exuberance in the scene. My reaction is a faint disgust.18

For myself, Shakespeare's gambit constitutes a near miss: a shrewd maneuver and a bold one, but not finally successful. There is no real pleasure for me in seeing Katherine head down the aisle with the man who can speak so glibly about blind and bloody soldiers defiling the locks of shrill-shrieking daughters. Nor does Henry's crass joking during his actual wooing of Katherine do much to endear him to me, although on the whole I must admit I find the wooing scene more charming than otherwise. Shakespeare's failure to accomplish his whitewashing may, however, reflect a more important artistic success. The courageously honest and powerful portrait of the conqueror in the earlier, grislier scenes proves too impressive for the charming but shallow conclusion ever to conceal entirely.


  1. William Hazlitt, Characters in Shakespeare's Plays (London: J. M. Dent & Sons, 1906), p. 291.

  2. The history of this controversy could fill a volume in itself. In brief, the arguments break down roughly thus: The “anti-Henryites,” on reviewing the king's actions in the play, find them intrinsically brutal, duplicitous, and destructive, however glossed over with Homeric military glamour: Henry's defenders maintain that such an assessment results from applying twentieth-century notions of morality to a sixteenth-century work, and that the villainizing of Henry is, consequently, based on a fundamental misreading of the play. The most thorough and suave attack on Henry is, to my mind, that by Harold C. Goddard in The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951); the sturdiest defense, that by John Dover Wilson in the introduction to the Cambridge edition of Henry V (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1947).

    More recently, a third position has developed between the original two. Norman Rabkin, for one, believes the moral ambiguity of the portrait of Henry is deliberate on the part of Shakespeare; see his “Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly, 28 (1977) 279-96. John Palmer describes Henry as essentially Shakespeare's picture of the successful political animal. In his view, Henry is neither a monster nor a hero but simply the sort of dynamic, scruple-free political technician who naturally rises to power in every era. See his Political and Comic Characters in Shakespeare (London: Macmillan, 1965).

  3. Rose Zimbardo, “The Formalism of Henry V,” in Anne Paolucci, ed., Shakespeare Encomium (New York: City College Papers I, 1964); rpt. in Michael Quinn, Shakespeare: Henry V: A Casebook (London: Macmillan, 1969), p. 168.

  4. Larry Champion, Perspective in Shakespeare's English Histories (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1980), p. 152.

  5. Marilyn Williamson, “The Courtship of Katherine and the Second Tetralogy,” Criticism, 17 (1975), 331.

  6. All quotations are from Alfred Harbage, The Pelican Shakespeare Henry V (Middlesex, U.K.: Penguin, 1966). Hereafter references to this work appear in parentheses in the text.

  7. Goddard, p. 237.

  8. W. L. Godshalk thoroughly examines Henry's penchant for dodging responsibility for his actions in “Henry V's Politics of Non-Responsibility,” Cahiers Elisabethains, 17 (1980) 11-20. For characteristic defenses of Henry at this juncture see either Wilson, p. xxvi-xxvii, or J. H. Walter, introduction to the new Arden Henry V (London: Methuen, 1954).

  9. R. C. Simonini, Jr., “Language Lesson Dialogues in Shakespeare,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 2 (1951), 322.

  10. Brownell Saloman, “Thematic Contraries and the Dramaturgy of Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly, 31 (1980), 348.

  11. H. M. Richmond, Shakespeare's Political Plays (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 177.

  12. The theatrical quality of this scene (V.ii) has been as hotly debated as the moral character of the king himself. Curiously, those who admire Henry tend to despise his wooing, and vice versa. Samuel Johnson, a stout defender of the king's, declared, “The great defect of this play is the emptiness and narrowness of the last act, which a very little diligence might have easily avoided.” See Samuel Johnson, Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Walter Raleigh (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1908), p. 133. Hazlitt, on the other hand, having furiously damned Henry as a vulgar military tyrant, goes on to say he likes the scene “exceedingly.” See Hazlitt, p. 291. Rabkin and Tillyard, both of whom offer at least qualified praise for the king, pan the scene. See Rabkin, p. 292, and E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1961). Goddard feels the scene “is indeed delightful.” See Goddard, p. 263. “What is Pyramus? a lover, or a tyrant?” asks Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream; if the answer is “both,” perhaps it is inevitable that those who admire the one will abhor the other.

  13. Alfred Harbage, introduction to the Pelican Henry V, p. 22.

  14. Rabkin, p. 288.

  15. Readers of Freud will recognize these as drives of the id and superego, respectively.

  16. A somewhat more sinister interpretation of Henry's gallantry is offered by Williamson, who, in brief, interprets Henry's wooing of the hapless princess as representing one of several manifestations of the king's compulsive need to manipulate others into justifying his own decisions. By his pretense of passion for the princess, Henry hopes to maneuver her into playing the role of the courted lady, thereby justifying his demand of her as his wife on something other than the crassly political grounds evident to everyone.

  17. Rabkin, p. 292.

  18. Godshalk, p. 18.

Robert Lane (review date 1994)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11274

SOURCE: Lane, Robert. “‘When Blood Is Their Argument’: Class, Character, and Historymaking in Shakespeare's and Branagh's Henry V.ELH 61, no. 1 (spring 1994): 27-52.

[In the following review, Lane attempts to show that Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version of Henry V softened the elements of class conflict and concerns regarding the justifiability of war that appear in Shakespeare's play.]

That [these events] had a real truth in history, sharpens the sense of pain, while it hangs a leaden weight on the heart and the imagination … [W]e think that the actual truth of the particular events, in proportion as we are conscious of it, is a drawback on the pleasures as well as the dignity of tragedy.

—William Hazlitt1

Premised on the antagonism between history's “real ground” and the imaginative pleasures of tragedy, Hazlitt's meditation reveals a tension that underlies much discussion of Shakespeare's history plays. Hazlitt's polarizing of history and pleasure is echoed in Shakespeare's Henry V when the Archbishop extols Henry's rhetorical gifts:

List his discourse of war, and you shall hear
A fearful battle rend'red you in music.


The pleasures Canterbury indicates rhetoric can induce by transforming gruesome historical events becomes in Hazlitt the balm for “the sense of pain” endured in grappling with the “actual truth” of history: “All the beauties of language and all the richness of the imagination … relieve the painfulness of the subject.” However seductive, the invitation to modulate this play's history into delight may not be so easily accomplished, history comprising as it does, in Annabel Patterson's words, “both [the play's] content and its context.”3 The impulse, however, testifies to that history's fragility, the recurring need to recapture the matrix of sociopolitical dynamics, especially those of class, that are integral to the drama's significance. The commoners in the play are pivotal in this regard. As the king's interlocutors (4.1) they articulate a probing skepticism that exposes the evasions required to dampen the class resentment war incites. In doing so, they crystallize important political problems from the play's present (the late 1590s) that were constituents of the government's military policy. They also provide disturbing reminders of Henry's own seemingly irrepressible past. Finally, these figures prompt us to take seriously the Archbishop's injunction—“List his discourse of war”—to examine the rhetoric surrounding Henry's military enterprise, disrupting it as they do by the clash of styles and perspectives they inject. The sense of dissonance and unease evoked in all these ways contravenes the pleasure offered by Henry's “sweet and honeyed sentences” (1.1.50), inhibiting the audience from taking that language at face value.4 Instead, the play sets in motion what Bakhtin called “unresolvable dialogues” over the meaning to be given to Henry's martial enterprise.5 In an audience constantly exhorted by the Chorus to exercise its intelligence on the performance, those dialogues prompt critical reflection on war as well as on the character of political leadership incident to it—“confining mighty men,” as it were, “in little room” (Epi. 3).

To sharpen the sense of how differently Shakespeare's play registers when its history is muted I will examine Kenneth Branagh's movie Henry V, both because it is the best-known contemporary interpretation of Shakespeare and because it puts into cinematic practice one contemporary critical perspective on the playwright's work. Through his own act of history-making—the re-shaping of Shakespeare's text—Branagh alleviates the discordance the original play enacts, replacing the “irrevocable ills” of its history (Hazlitt's phrase) with a reassuring confirmation of Henry and his military exploits.


When in 2 Henry IV the new king rejects Falstaff, he acts on the expectation that segregation will protect him from the contamination of disreputability (“I banish thee … Not to come near our person by ten mile” [5.5.63, 65]). Henry's position as monarch depends upon the social distance, imaged here as geographical distance, between him and the commoners who were once his compatriots. His relationship to them encapsulates dynamics of solidarity and difference that, while personal to Henry, also characterize class interaction in Elizabethan society.

These dynamics come to the fore in Henry's confrontation with the soldiers in Henry V 4.1, where Shakespeare (who may well indicate his own allegiances in this scene by naming the primary interlocutor “Will”) turns the convention of the disguised king into a vehicle for interrogating the moral and rhetorical conditions under which Henry's war is fought.6 The device allows the playwright to dramatize the exchange in contentious terms, without a frontal assault on the conventions of deference that ordinarily regulated conversation with the king.7 In particular the scene allows for the expression of misgivings by those who, lacking any say in the instigation or conduct of wars, are nonetheless called upon to fight them. The image of political dialogue this episode embodies is incompatible with the insularity from its subjects claimed by absolutist monarchy, summed up in Henry's words: “The King is not bound to answer” (4.1.155). There is here a challenge, albeit oblique, to the claim of executive privilege asserted by political leaders (whether royal or presidential) who are pressed with demands for accountability.8 Binding the king to answer exposes royal rationales to the objections of the soldiers and the scrutiny of the audience.

The overriding question in war is that of responsibility, dramatized in this play by recurring images of the victims: “The guiltless drops [of blood and] … waste in brief mortality” Henry admonishes the Archbishop with (1.2.25, 28); the widows, childless mothers, and orphans the English blame the French for (1.2.284-88 and 2.4.105-9); the “fair virgins,” “flow'ring infants,” and old men who will be sacrificed if Harfleur does not surrender (3.3.14, 20-21, 36-40); and the dismembered soldiers so graphically described by Williams in this scene (“all those legs, and arms, and heads, chopp'd off in a battle” [4.1.135-36]). The task for political leaders who urge war is to sanction this carnage, and secure obedience to marching orders, while disclaiming personal responsibility: in official rhetoric war is never a private project, subjectively motivated, but thrust upon the leadership by the most compelling of external circumstances, typically the insupportable conduct of the enemy in violation of the rights of the nation or its allies.9 The soldier's dilemma, on the other hand, grows out of the compulsory character of his participation: either criminal disobedience to the king who conscripted him, or damnation for unlawful homicide. “I am afeard,” Williams says, “there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument?” (4.1.141-43). The king's initial response is disingenuous, comparing the innately murderous enterprise of war with accidental death while traveling. He then deflects attention to the pre-existing, sinful condition of his soldiers, ignoring the moral cloud that hangs over war itself since, as Williams has pointed out, the conduct required of soldiers so squarely violates the ethical code for acceptable social behavior. Finally, Henry audaciously grafts his military enterprise onto a scheme of divine justice: “War is [God's] beadle, war is his vengeance” (4.1.169). But the utopian picture of war as the instrument for meting out justice is contradicted both by the repeated incantations of the slaughter of innocents noted above, and by the outcome of this battle itself: the young (and unarmed) boys are treacherously killed.

Though Williams is momentarily persuaded that the soldier is personally answerable, he is immediately at odds with the king again, over royal rhetoric:

K. Hen.
I myself heard the King say he would not be ransom'd.
Ay, he said so, to make us fight cheerfully; but when our throats are cut, he may be ransom'd, and we ne'er the wiser.


His response is another reminder that the skeptical soldiers are quite capable of resisting the blandishments of the king, treating his speeches as strategies to secure their compliance and Henry as willing to sacrifice the truth to do so.

Henry tries to recuperate the king's position with personal endorsement (“If I live to see it, I will never trust his word after” [4.1.195-96]), but this only prompts Williams's ridicule:

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


The personal relationship Henry's declaration envisions is only appropriate among those of his same class—aristocrats in his inner circle. For commoners his threat is, as Williams rightly recognizes, a futile fantasy, its impotence signifying in particular the lack of any effective means of redress for subjects who are lied to by their king, and, more generally, the great political gulf between Crown and commoner. That gulf is hinted at again in the conclusion to Henry's encounter with his soldiers. Not only does he fail to establish with them the fraternity he extols, his conversation with Williams ends in a quarrel that is renewed after the battle, when Henry makes this sympathetic figure the butt of his joke. Anticipating Williams's understandable resentment, Henry then tries to buy him off with money (4.8.39-61). But this soiling of Henry's triumph persists with the presence of the bitter Williams on stage throughout the body count that certifies the English victory.

The distance between Crown and subject played out here is a double-edged sword. While the king's power rests on the social and political difference that rank embodies, undue emphasis on inequality will undermine the consent necessary to peaceful and orderly government even under a relatively absolutist monarchy. Even those without privilege or power must be given to feel they have some stake in the system, a feeling the rhetoric of rank, with its emphasis on distinction, cannot engender but only erode. Hence the potency of the concept of divinely ordained hierarchy as an image of the sociopolitical order. It conferred dignity upon each person, whatever his/her location in the scheme (through the concept of place and the doctrine of vocation). It also provided a vision of solidarity through shared participation in a common order, even while it reinforced with religious authority the difference that was at the heart of that order.

During war the tension between solidarity and distinction is especially acute, because of the numbers of the non-elite required to mount an effective campaign. The unequal allocation of burden and danger according to class rank threatens to discredit the legitimacy of the entire structure, engendering the skepticism reflected in the soldiers' arguments.10 The anxiety over these class dynamics is an important impulse behind the rhetoric of unity so prominent in act 1, providing as it does imaginative visions of difference forged into harmony. It is obedience, after all, that is the glue of the honeybees' social fabric in the Archbishop's vision, ultimately issuing in “a thousand actions [that] … / End in one purpose” [1.2.211-12]).11

Henry's own language, vacillating between the rhetoric of fraternity and that of disparity, reflects the stresses of class that the war brings to the surface. When alone, Henry voices “a self-justifying complaint,” painting a derogatory picture of “the wretched slave” with “gross brain” who sleeps soundly while the king keeps watch “to maintain the peace” (4.1.268, 282-83).12 This “wretch,” however, bears no likeness to the troubled, articulate men he has just encountered, who are more likely to have sparked his annoyance at being “subject to the breath / Of every fool” (4.1.234-35).13 Henry's insights into the theatrical character of power do not have the levelling effect they might in other mouths. Instead, he uses those insights to draw yet another distinction between those who govern, who understand the nature of power, and their subjects, who do not, and thus are consigned to the role of passive spectators before the “ceremony” of authority, which “creates [in them] awe and fear” (4.1.247).14

In contrast, when Henry addresses his men, the rhetoric of solidarity dominates. The fraternal image that climaxes his Crispin Day speech—”We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.60-62)—attempts to inoculate the common soldier against the corrosive effects of class tension. In an effort to level status differences Henry first figuratively ennobles the soldiers (“be he ne'er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition” [4.3.62-63]), then abases their social superiors (“And gentlemen in England, now a-bed, / Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here” [4.3.64-65]). The class-based distribution of the hazards of war proves a recurring problem that military commanders must address, evidenced by the strikingly similar appeal in the Persian Gulf war, tailored to fit the composition of an all-volunteer army. A U.S. tank commander concluded his call to arms by focusing on the class issue:

Like I told you before, this is not the Izod, Polo-shirt, Weejuns loafers crowd. Not a whole lot of kids here whose dads are anesthesiologists or justices of the Supreme Court. We're the poor, white, middle-class and the poor black kids from the block and Hispanics from the barrio.

We're just as good as the [expletive deleted] rest, because the honest thing is that's who I want to go to war with, people like you.15

The status that participation in war confers, however, is compensation for the soldiers' inferior class position in the society back home and lasts only as long as that participation is required. Shakespeare's play pointedly registers the transitory quality of this psychic reparation in his allusions to the underclass of returning soldiers, as we will see in a moment, as well as in the alacrity with which Henry himself abandons the expedient after the battle. Recounting the dead, he reinstitutes class discrimination: nobility and gentry are specifically identified, while the other casualties are dismissed with “None else of name” (4.8.105).16 The “fellowship of death” (4.8.101) offered in war is revealed as yet another privilege reserved to the upper class. The short-lived quality of class fluidity serves to confirm the soldiers' skepticism about Henry's appeals.


The most prominent of the commoners in the play, Pistol, who survives the battle to return home, registers a facet of warmaking all too recognizable to the Elizabethan audience: returning veterans.17 The most visible problem on the home front flowing from the military posture of the late Elizabethan state was the condition of the returning soldiers, most of whom were “sick, starving, and penniless,” forced, like Falstaff's men, “to beg during life” (1 Henry IV 5.3.38), or, like Pistol, to steal.18 For many of the veterans such a way of life was not altogether novel, as they had been vagrants or criminals before they were impressed. Their poor character was not, however, an incidental side-effect but a deliberate government policy. In the eyes of the regime, drafting ne'er-do-wells was an especially efficient way of filling the ranks, because, as the Privy Council opined, it afforded “great ease and good to the country to be ridd of those kinde of people,” people “whoe otherwyse wilbe a burthen to the country.”19 Thomas Nashe's dictum, “If they have no service abroad, they will make mutinies at home,” was close to the government's heart.20

The policy, however, like the soldiers, came back to haunt the regime. Most ominous in the government's view was the veterans' political potency, in their own right and as part of the growing numbers of vagrants swelled by the economic crises of 1594-1598.21 Repeated proclamations and the institution of martial law were just as ineffectual in controlling them as Parliamentary relief acts were in alleviating their poverty.

The all-too-visible presence of the soldier on the Elizabethan landscape highlighted the ambivalent but immutable connections between foreign policy and domestic conditions. From 1588 to the end of Elizabeth's reign, England was in a continuous state of war, drafting more than 100,000 men for service overseas, almost a third of these in the years 1596-1599, the period of most intense military activity.22 The increasing demands for men and money integral to the escalating militarization imposed substantial burdens on the people, leading to significant, and ominous, resistance.23 The returning veteran at once evoked uneasiness over the costs of militarization in terms of expanding state authority and financial burdens, and registered apprehension over the government's failure to alleviate a deteriorating domestic situation. More than any other single figure he crystallized the intense concern over the questions of governance so pervasive in the England of the late 1590s. These tensions suggestively intrude on Henry's military campaign, both before and after battle. Gower castigates Pistol at length as “a gull, a fool, a rogue, that now and then goes to the wars, to grace himself at his return into London under the form of a soldier” (3.6.67-69), but in doing so draws attention to the domestic after-effects of the war policy.24 In his final speech Pistol reiterates the human costs:

Old I do wax, and from my weary limbs
Honor is cudgell'd. Well, bawd I'll turn,
And something lean to cutpurse of quick 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.


In the very act of seeming to fulfill all the worst accusations of Gower, Pistol still engenders sympathy as a result of his humiliation (and beating) at the hands of the Welsh captain, Fluellen, who is intemperately inflamed by ethnic pride.25 And, placed in the frame of the loss of his wife and source of income, a life of theft becomes not, as it was for the government, an occasion for moral declamation, but something the audience could understand, even momentarily identify with.

The sympathy elicited should not obscure the disturbing effect of this speech in the context of the play. Though Pistol is an enthusiastically loyal subject—“from heart-string / I love the lovely bully” he says of the king (4.1.47-48)—the historical conditions he echoes undermine Henry's rhetoric of glory with an account of postwar conditions readily recognizable as the social reality.26 Coming well after Henry's victory is certified, Pistol's speech serves as a sharp reminder of what the war does not resolve, what Elizabeth's wars did not resolve, what, in fact, these wars brought with them: returning soldiers roaming the margins of society reputedly posing a potential threat to its center. Even a battle successful by the count of bodies imposed stresses on the social fabric that victory could not obscure. Those stresses would, for many in Shakespeare's audience, not just inhibit reflexive celebration of Henry's project, but spawn a questioning attitude toward it. The soldiers' challenges would find fertile ground in the audience's own history.


Most of the soldiers, of course, are not just any commoners, but Henry's erstwhile associates, living representatives of his past. Much criticism views the play as the progressive diminution of the commoners' role in this respect, measuring Henry's development by his repudiation of them. Derek Traversi sees them as “survivors from another order of things … out of place in th[e] new order” of this play, while Branagh makes their rejection a test of Henry's will: “He must forget Falstaff and Bardolph and his old cronies.”27 The Archbishop anticipates these views, wishing at the very outset to see these “companies unletter'd, rude, and shallow” (1.1.55) as a feature of Henry's history, which, like “his wildness … / Seem'd to die too” (1.1.26-27). His premature recital, replicated by later critics, evinces the desire to banish these figures and soften the effects they produce in the play. That is, however, palpably difficult for the audience to do. The alienation of these figures from Henry is not an adequate benchmark of their impact in the play. Indeed, their persistent presence in the face of his rebuff signals that Henry is not the unequivocal center of this work critics often take him for. The remarkable staying power of Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, and the Boy is a hint of the extent to which their role in the play overgoes (though it is firmly linked with) their social station.

Their unruly, disruptive effect contaminates the king's vaunted rhetoric, of which they provide a perverse measure by showing its ineffectiveness. His exhortation before Harfleur (“Once more unto the breach” [3.1.1]) is deflated by the failure of his eloquence to move these men. Faced with the “hot knocks” of war they are pointedly unimpressed with stirring speech, counted among “the millions of common men” George Orwell describes, “to whom these high sentiments make no appeal.”28 And, hard on the heels of his Crispin Day speech in 4.3, the only confrontation between the forces we actually witness in Shakespeare's play is Pistol's ransom scene (4.4), a “clownesque” rendition of the battle “fought by two cowards and a child.”29 The tenor of Henry's speeches is contradicted by the action on stage.

The commoners' rhetoric also poses a challenge to the efforts by the king's circle and the Chorus to dominate the way the war is perceived. Though the king warns of “much fall of blood” (1.2.25) the war will bring, the rhetoric of Henry and his circle consistently runs to the euphemistic: the natural innocence of honeybees that “[m]ake boot upon the summer's velvet buds” (1.2.194); the clever punning on the Dauphin's feebly insulting gift, diverting the bloodletting of the imminent war to witty “mocking” (1.2.285-86); and the harmonious concord even in a society threatened with the added burdens of war, “[c]ongreeing in a full and natural close, / Like music” (1.2.182-83).30 The Archbishop's desire to hear historical realities rendered as pleasing musical harmonies is reiterated in official speech.

But the commoners' earthy language (“Let senses rule” is Pistol's motto [2.3.49]) implies a wholly different orientation to the war than this official optimism. Take Pistol's own ringing call to arms:

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


His earthiness works to distance the war effort from the moral gloss Henry tries to put on it. Juxtapositions like this, singular instances of Bakhtin's “unresolvable dialogues,” refuse royal rhetoric the preeminence it at once presumes and aspires to. But it is not just that Pistol's “antiheroic echo” punctures Henry's rhetoric of noble seriousness by putting the war in a comic and bluntly material frame.31 The commoners' appropriation of the war for frankly personal interests also infects the “high” motives implied by that rhetoric: their exuberant larceny calls those motives into question, rendering that “discourse of war” vulnerable to critical reassessment.32


Announcements of the commoners' demise are inapt even concerning the deceased Falstaff who, “[a]live or dead,” according to David Quint, “haunts the play from the wings.”33 His brooding presence brackets Henry's triumph, striking an insistently sour note. When he reveals the traitors' plot, Henry saves his most bitter invective for Scroop (“his bedfellow,” who seemed “[c]onstant in spirit, not swerving with the blood” [2.2.8, 133]) for betraying their intimate relationship. But personal disloyalty, for rejecting Falstaff, is just what Henry himself stands accused of by the commoners: “The King has kill'd his heart,” and “hath run bad humors on the knight” (2.1.88, 121-22).34 Sandwiching Henry's discovery and denunciation of the traitors between these insinuations and the extended account of Falstaff's death in 2.3 invites the audience to make associations, even draw parallels, between the traitors' sedition and Henry's own rejection, parallels that raise disquieting questions about his character.

On the verge of the English victory Falstaff rears his unruly head again, reviving the issue of the king's responsibility for his death. Fluellen, the embodiment of an antiquarian attitude toward history, starts out his analogy between Alexander and Henry (4.7.22-53) in characteristically pedantic fashion, adducing the topographic similarity in their birthplaces. That raises no alarm because the comparison with Alexander seems comfortably complimentary (Fluellen and Gower agree on Alexander's greatness), with the “figures” all moving toward the similarity between the leaders (“the situations, look you, is both alike” [4.7.26]). But when Fluellen touches a nerve, recalling that Alexander “did … kill his best friend” (4.7.37-38), Gower sounds the alarm, declaring “Our King is not like him in that” (4.7.40). The momentum toward likeness is so strong, however, that Fluellen's effort to alter its course is in vain. Instead, he digs himself in deeper, trying to contrast Alexander's mental state—“being in his ales and his cups” (4.7.45-46)—with Henry's—“[b]eing in his right wits” (4.7.46-47). This is a curious defense, giving Alexander as it does a plausible excuse for his action, while locating Henry's fault squarely in “his good judgments” (4.7.47). But even this distinction is immediately eroded when Henry reenters, demonstrating precisely the choler Fluellen just disparaged Alexander for (“I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant” [4.7.55-56]), with the same murderous result: his order to kill the French prisoners. Fluellen here not only keeps alive the spectre of Henry's rejection of Falstaff, but in doing so demonstrates the hazards, or the unexpected fruitfulness, of drawing inferences from historical materials. The past, like Falstaff and the other commoners, has an ungovernable quality that resists appropriation for special pleading.35


Kenneth Branagh's movie is typically compared, not with Shakespeare's play, but with Lawrence Olivier's 1944 film, the consensus holding with Branagh that he presents “a much darker world” than the earlier film, rendering Henry as more complex.36 But the comparison with Olivier overlooks the fact that Branagh has altered Shakespeare's work in a way that portrays the king and his war in a far less uncomfortable, more approving light.37 His excisions from Shakespeare's text work to divert attention from Henry as enmeshed in the “irrevocable ills” of history Hazlitt laments, to Henry as historically disembodied, his actions solely expressions of his personal temperament and the demands of his role as king. The film signals the shift from the complex relationships in Shakespeare's play to character both by eliminating allusions to those relationships (as in the case of the dynastic ambitions of the “traitor” Cambridge), and by simply pruning the other figures' roles, especially those who, like the commoners, might impinge on or question the narrative of the king's maturation.38 Branagh uses the cinematic techniques available as well, continually directing the eye to focus on the king, not as part of an ensemble (as he would be on stage), not even as party to a conversation. What others say in the film is decidedly secondary, their diminished function as approving audience underscored by the persistent pattern of reaction shots to Henry's speeches—shots of nobles, common soldiers, and especially of the French herald Montjoy. Uniformly positive, these shots display appreciation of, respect for, and deference to Henry (especially from one who is his enemy), cuing the audience to what its reaction should be.39 Through these devices Branagh not only excites the pleasures Hazlitt extols, but confers on Henry an authority immunized from the discomforting echoes of other characters' language or action.

It is worth noting briefly how Branagh's rendition mutes the commoners' disquieting role, by:

1) eliminating Pistol's “suck, suck” lines and his advice to his wife, hard on the heels of Falstaff's death, that “oaths are straws, men's faiths are wafer-cakes” (2.3.51);

2) eliminating the whole of Fluellen's historical analogy of Alexander and Henry that revives Falstaff's ghost (4.7);

3) substantially shortening Henry's disclaimer of responsibility for his soldiers' ends (4.1), including his audacious claim that God will use Henry's war to mete out just punishment (4.1.169);

4) cutting the whole of Pistol's ransom scene (4.4) that provides a ludicrous contrast to the seriousness of the official rhetoric;

5) cutting the Boy's complaint over the injustice of Pistol's survival when Bardolph and Nym were hanged (4.4.70-74)—in the movie Nym's death is not, as it is in Shakespeare, a comment on Henry's military discipline, but a mini-morality play, occurring while Nym is stealing on the battlefield;

6) shortening Williams's rebuke of Henry (4.1.197-201) and cutting the scene in which Henry bullies Williams over the latter's challenge (4.8) then tries to buy him off—in the movie Henry returns the glove with an unspoken air of bonhomie, suitably impressing Williams with his modest restraint.

Virtually all the dialogic effects are erased by these cuts. Without the perverse echoes of the official rhetoric, and the indecorous and disjointed responses to Henry's speeches, the audience is deprived of either the impulse or the frame for responding critically to that language. In its place Branagh has inserted a set of flashbacks to Henry's prior friendship with the commoners, which are geared not to raise questions about his disassociation, but to show that throughout his relationship with them he was consistently forthright about his intentions. Their disillusionment is rendered as a function of their own self-deception, not Henry's disloyalty or guile; no question about his character even arises.40

Adopting a perspective that is prominent in contemporary criticism of Shakespeare's play, Branagh shapes the film into a “bildungsroman,” “a trial by combat,” in Peter S. Donaldson's words, “of the young king's personality.”41 Branagh himself described the plays as “a journey toward maturity” by the end of which Henry “has learned about true leadership.”42 As presented by those Shakespeare critics who share this view, the often discomfiting social and political constitutents of Henry's situation are subordinated to character: “The problem of the state,” in Derek Traversi's words, “becomes … that of the individual at its head.”43 The narrative traces the progressive adaptation of the individual to the demands of office: “In the process of becoming a ruler,” Alvin B. Kernan says, “his personal self, the essential ‘I,’ is lost forever as the man disappears into the role his work demands.”44 In accordance with tragic conventions, the personal sacrifice the character endures distinguishes him from others (Branagh wanted to “emphasize Henry's growing isolation”), but it also endows him with “the dignity of tragedy” so important to Hazlitt, what Branagh calls “moral gravitas.45 In the economy of this narrative, it is the necessary correlative of Henry's maturation: his accommodation is his triumph.46 Henry's “heroism depends,” according to Donaldson, “on his capacity for self-suppression and [his] personal growth is fostered by inward assent to the necessary evils of politics, war, and courtship.”47 Working off the neo-romantic conception of the sociopolitical as the arena not of freedom and empowerment, but of constraint and compulsion, this version is infused with the aura of tragedy by substituting intractable political reality for fate as the hero's antagonist.48 It is precisely the “irrevocable ills” of history that Henry must conquer.

Whatever loss he suffers in doing so, the experience is seen as conferring on Henry an enhanced awareness, in particular a maturer comprehension of war. His superior discernment makes Branagh's Henry the perfect commander to lead his country into battle. That leadership, emerging from his “hard-won,” painful awareness, redeems his war from several threats accented by Shakespeare: 1) the cynicism and doubtful legality that infected its initiation; 2) the deflation of its noble rhetoric by the commoners; and 3) the questions about Henry's own character which the Falstaff allusions persistently raise.49 Recognizing the role played in Branagh's rendition by Henry's renovated consciousness allows us to see how tragic knowledge itself serves as yet another instrument for legitimizing military enterprise. This theme, too, is echoed in the Gulf War. When Norman Schwartzkopf claimed that “I am certainly antiwar,” whatever weight his claim carried derived from the assertion of the same knowledge Henry attained: “I know what war is.”50 The tragic resonance this acute knowledge carries (Branagh's “moral gravitas”) lends to its subject a kind of heroism. As one reviewer declared of Henry, “Though you still feel he's a hero, it's not so much because he's won as because he knows the cost of the victory.”51

It is because of the focus on Henry's tragic knowledge that the film's realistic presentation does not in any simple way add up to a negative attitude toward war. Reviewers quite rightly respond to its “grimly authentic, bloody spectacle,” its “down-to-earth” depiction of war, the “muck of reality” and “bloody horror” it displays.52 But the bloodiness of its spectacle does not make its message antiwar, anymore than the heaps of gore displayed in some contemporary films automatically engender revulsion over the violence that produced them.53 To the contrary, its grittiness finally celebrates Henry and his exploits by energizing the sense of tragedy. It is worth repeating that the only battlefield confrontation Shakespeare actually depicts is Pistol's comic extortion. In contrast, the prolonged, graphic portrayal of battle in Branagh's film intensifies the test of leadership Henry undergoes (an “ordeal by combat” one critic calls it), heightening his heroic status for having endured it.54

The narrative of maturation endows Henry with an aura of detachment that works to inoculate him against the moral stigma of having caused the violence. Nowhere is this dynamic so well dramatized in the film as in Henry's panoramic march across the battlefield, as sole pallbearer for the slain Boy (whom he carried “like a cross,” according to one reviewer), accompanied by the swelling chorus of a hymn.55 This procession is wholly Branagh's invention; in Shakespeare's play Henry himself gives no indication at any time that he is even aware of the murder of the boys by the French.56 As an “elegaic summation of everything that has been suffered in the movie,” according to one reviewer, this scene “bring[s] an undertone of near-tragic solemnity.”57 This comment captures the climactic, cathartic function of Henry's march, but we need to be far more precise about its registration. Though the tone is mournful, there is no hint of remorse in Henry. Branagh, instead, presents the Boy's death as a sacrifice, a martyrdom that, through appropriation (by Henry as surrogate parent), the king at once acknowledges and disavows any role in bringing about.58 The Boy's innocence, with his blood, spills over onto the king.

The martyrdom sanctions the royal enterprise by provoking moral repugnance toward those who would commit such a barbaric act and the consequent validation of those who oppose them.59 The revulsion over the Boy's murder thus works to fix the difference between “civilized war” and the simple savagery from which it must always and can never be cleanly distinguished.60 Henry's march proclaims his immunity from the disposition of those, soldiers and nations alike, who (borrowing from his own threats to the people of Harfleur) in “liberty of bloody hand” commit “headly murther, spoil, and villainy” (3.3.12, 32).


The Manichaean division between the civilized and the barbaric this shot in Branagh's film works to institute, together with the aura of Henry's detachment that reinforces it, are both carefully thwarted in Shakespeare's text. The “lamentable slaughter” (Holinshed's phrase), not of the boys, but of the French prisoners, ordered by Henry, bears out Hazlitt's dictum that “No reader of history can be a lover of kings.”61 Expunging this material from the film, as Branagh does, not only works to salvage Henry's “dignity,” it also eliminates an incident that would warn the audience against precisely the kind of manipulation of historical material that Branagh's alteration itself represents.

The first of Henry's two orders to kill the prisoners is precipitated by the news Henry recites that “[t]he French have reinforc'd their scatter'd men. / Then every soldier kill his prisoners” (4.6.36-37).62 Although Henry does not know of the boys' deaths, Gower, in his absence, links that event tightly to the king's order:

'Tis certain there's not a boy left alive, and the cowardly rascals that ran from the battle ha' done this slaughter … [W]herefore the King, most worthily, hath caus'd every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O, 'tis a gallant king!


When Henry reenters fulminating (“I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant” [4.7.55-56]), Gower's apology has led the audience to expect his anger to be directed against the boys' murder, which is exactly the response Branagh has reconstructed. In Shakespeare, however, Henry so intensely resents the refusal of the French who linger on the field to concede (“they do offend our sight” he says [4.7.59]) that he repeats his order to execute the prisoners: “We'll cut the throats of those we have” (4.7.63).64 The audience's surprise that this, and not the boys' deaths, is the provocation, draws us back to Gower's brazen historical revision, revealing its fabricated quality: the loyal captain was not reporting, but inventing a connection, supplying a mitigating motivation where none existed to rehabilitate the monarch's record. Branagh's own juggling—refashioning Henry's dubious indignation into “righteous” anger—bears out Shakespeare's acute recognition of the persistent penchant to sanitize the history of those who wield power.65

There is, however, an even darker strain running through the prisoners episode that is also excised from Branagh's retelling. In Shakespeare Henry first issues the order to kill the French captives immediately after Exeter's emotional rendition of the deaths of two of Henry's nobles:

Suffolk first died, and York, all haggled over,
Comes to him where in gore he lay insteeped,
And takes him by the beard, kisses the gashes
That bloodily did yawn upon his face.
He cries aloud, “Tarry my cousin Suffolk!
My soul shall thine keep company to heaven …”
So did he turn and over Suffolk's neck
He threw his wounded arm, and kiss'd his lips,
And so espous'd to death, with blood he seal'd
A testament of noble-ending love.

(4.6.11-16, 24-27)

The scene so moved Exeter that it “forc'd” tears from him (4.7.28). The king is similarly moved, but works to suppress his tears, so that his order to kill the French prisoners, which follows immediately, comes at a moment of intense, but unwelcome, emotion for Henry.

This richly suggestive episode serves to amplify the issues of class and character I have discussed by providing a discomforting glimpse into the way masculine identity is shaped. Prominent in this passage is the insistence on the erotic quality of the contact between the dying noblemen (especially the repeated kisses [13 and 25]). But the anxiety the scene records is not provoked by the physical intimacy displayed, which is lovingly affirmed by Exeter's narrative. That anxiety, instead, accompanies the tearful reaction by Exeter and Henry, and is bound up with the conspicuously gendered terms in which that reaction is rendered (to which I will return in a moment). The absence of any hint of revulsion over the manifest homoerotic quality of this moment suggests that, despite the vehement denunciations of “sodomy” in Elizabethan England, it was not the homoerotic per se that was stigmatized.66 The specific environment surrounding such contact must be attended to in order to discern those other elements whose presence shaped the way male bonding was perceived and represented.

The element of class is vital here. The fact that the bond forged is carefully confined to noble-men (men “kept together in [their] chivalry” [4.6.19]) works to shelter homoeroticism from moral censure. The observance of class propriety immunized the encounter from the charge of sexual impropriety, for, as Jonathan Goldberg points out, the reaction to homosexual contact turned largely on whether or not it was “conducive to maintaining social hierarchies and distinctions.”67

The aristocratic character of the encounter points toward the tension between male camaraderie and class differentiation that runs through the play, a tension virtually silenced in Branagh's rendering. In the Crispin's Day speech, for instance, it is the force of the former (“we band of brothers”) that is offered as overriding class distinctions. With supportive reaction shots and swelling music Branagh visually presents the occasion as achieving the comradeship it professes.68 Similarly, in Shakespeare Henry's rejection of Falstaff punctuates the superior force of class divisions, but Branagh's film works against the importance of class as governing homosocial relations by treating Henry's relationship with Falstaff and company as motivated by personal integrity rather than socioeconomic dictate.69 Male conviviality also obscures the force of class dynamics when Branagh reconstructs Henry's relationship with Williams to end on a note of genial bonhomie rather than smoldering resentment with Williams unappeased by Henry's effort to bribe him for his loyalty. Finally, there is Henry's climactic march across the battlefield with the body of the Boy, a tableau that denies the significance of class with a visual image uniting the social extremes of prince and pauper in poignant male fellowship.

The simplistic terms of Branagh's camaraderie are revealed when compared to Shakespeare's critical probing of the way the martial enterprise—the other contextual element that sanctions homoerotic contact—shapes masculine identity. The relationship achieved by Suffolk and York is “sealed by blood” (4.6.26). Their shared project of violence helps insulate their frankly sexual display from the taint of either immorality or effeminacy. “Blood” certifies their masculinity, individually and “together in … chivalry.”70 Thus those who forego participation in combat find their manliness questioned—“their manhoods held cheap” (4.3.66)—in the presence of veteran soldiers.

But the blood is threatened with dilution by tears, Exeter complaining of how the scene of Suffolk and York “forc'd”

Those waters from me which I would have stopp'd,
But I had not so much of man in me,
And all my mother came into mine eyes
And gave me up to tears.


In rendering tears as the diminution of the male by the feminine, Exeter affirms a view of manhood that “founds masculinity on the resistance to effeminization.”71 In this perspective military enterprise, premised as it was at this time on the exclusion of women, was an important crucible for forging male identity. In contemporary commentary it was nearly a cliché to oppose martial enterprise to debilitating femininity. “This is no life for men-at-arms to live,” Achate complains of Aeneas in Marlowe's Dido Queen of Carthage:

Where dalliance doth consume a soldier's strength,
And wanton motions of alluring eyes
Effeminate our minds, inured to war.(72)

The irony in Shakespeare's account is that the military context has solicited the very quality whose exclusion was its premise. The male camaraderie that war engenders (in both senses) produces a feminized emotional response at odds with the martial context, initially banished from it as a condition for establishing that camaraderie in the first place. This “return of the repressed” is not confined to the personal level in the play, however. The masculine world Shakespeare's work constructs, especially the royal power it anatomizes, is haunted by the woman. Henry's claim to France originates in and is grounded on his relationship to his female forbear, and in the end, confirmed and consolidated by his marriage to a princess.73 The so-called “wooing scene” highlights the severe ambivalence of the militarized masculine towards the feminine, an ambivalence that Branagh effaces.74 He puts aside Henry's political motives, playing him as a clumsy but charming young man courting a bemused but finally captivated woman whose reticence is cast as nothing more than wily coquetry. The climactic kiss becomes a sign of mutual consent, their love a warrant for the murderous conflict that has brought them together. In Henry's character the warrior and lover mesh in genial compatibility.

To play the scene this way, however, requires Branagh to omit those lines in which Henry himself acknowledges Katherine's resistance to his blandishments: “I cannot so conjure up the spirit of love in her” (5.2.288-89). Her coldness provides the occasion for another revealing episode of male comradeship, this time grounded in sexual conquest complete with bawdy puns (5.2.292-99, 307-14). The analogy of courtship with military siege (5.2.320-27) marks the extent to which heterosexual relations are here assimilated to the martial masculine culture, while the bargain struck over Katherine's betrothal (5.2.343-47) between erstwhile enemies underscores her status as Henry's “capital demand” (5.2.96), framing the scene in the political context.75 The scene's conclusion undoes Henry's pose as ingenuous inamorato; whatever there is of lover is subsumed by the warrior.76

The final, most shocking element of the masculine culture that Shakespeare presents is revealed in the abrupt reversal of Henry's emotions in reaction to the Suffolk/York episode: moved to the verge of tears at one instant (4.6.33-34), then immediately, hearing of French reinforcements, ordering the French prisoners executed (37-38). This moment embodies the troubling suggestion that the sentiment spawned by the intense male comradeship in war harbors within it a savagery, that the potential for tears is just as apt to produce blood. The masculinity whose lapse is threatened by the effeminacy those tears represent can only be recuperated with violence: blood, “the machismo of slaughter” “saving manhood,” purging from it the debilitation signified by tears.77 The sentiment that accompanies homosocial intimacy is redirected, fueling the violence that in war secures the masculine from the danger, not of the male enemy, but of the indigenous feminine.

Branagh eliminates these troubling implications, reversing the complexity and doubt Shakespeare evokes about masculinity in war. He cannot resist the seductive visual feast that battle affords the camera, the opportunity for spectacle, however “gritty” and “realistic.” His battle shots climax with a series of slow motion close-ups of various individual soldiers, focusing on their faces in the midst of mortal combat. None show any trace of fear. Instead, the slow motion style underscores the intensity of their effort, portraying them at the very limits of their capacities. Especially striking is the series' random mixing of French and English soldiers whose nationality, because of the mud, cannot be identified. As the battle has progressed, the national identity of the participants has waned in importance, replaced by the shared quality of their ordeal, the mortal threat and the material obstacles of rain and mud that all endure together. Combat thus takes on the character of a joint and communal enterprise.78 Friend and foe having become indistinguishable, the common—male—character of the conflict becomes ascendant.79

Whatever the “bloody horror,” Branagh confers on this masculine experience a beneficent force. The extremity of the combatants' situation provides the opportunity for heroic exploit. In it the soldiers tap their full potential, registered in the epic effort depicted in the close-up shots of their faces. Branagh uses the Dauphin in particular to demonstrate how combat can ennoble a man, empowering him, as the U.S. Army tells us in recruiting advertisements, to “be all [he] can be.” Up to now he has been nothing but a brash braggart, seemingly incapable of making good on his taunts. In Shakespeare, in the face of imminent French defeat, with the French army in disarray, he falls into despair, advocating suicide (“Let's stab ourselves” [4.5.7]). But Branagh cuts this fatalism, giving him instead the climactic lines of the scene, taken from another character in Shakespeare, to have him express courageous resolve:

The devil take order now! I'll to the throng;
Let life be short, else shame will be too long.


Soon thereafter, Branagh (but not Shakespeare) has him confront Henry on the battlefield and match him in combat. By drawing out qualities we would not have suspected from this blowhard, the film displays armed conflict in the full force of its redemptive power.

Abandoning Shakespeare's probing examination of the problematic origin and product of male comradeship in war, Branagh instead reinforces the cinematic spectacle's rehearsal of the timeworn notion that warfare provides the optimal occasion for men to achieve their highest fulfillment. He thus allows Henry and us—the audience—to evade the full force of Burgundy's warning that when men “nothing do but meditate on blood,” they “grow like savages” (5.2.60, 59).


  1. William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespeare's Plays (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1845), 159, referring to Shakespeare's King John. Unless otherwise noted, all the quotations from Hazlitt are from this page.

  2. All references to the plays are from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974). I have silently deleted Evans's brackets.

  3. Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Cambridge: Basil Blackwell, 1989), 72.

  4. Rather than negating the audience's enjoyment, the dissonance enhances it: its pleasure does not flow from its immobilization in “mute wonder” (1.1.49), but from accepting the invitation to “[w]ork, work your thoughts” (3.Ch.25) on the play's engagement with “the infuriating stubborness” of history (Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought [New York: Viking Press, 1968], 241).

  5. M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, ed. Michael Holquist (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 1981), 291.

  6. See Patterson (note 3), 88.

  7. When he rebukes Williams—“Your reproof is something too round” (4.1.203)—Henry himself tries to re-introduce into the debate the very conventions he has foregone by his concealment.

  8. On the question of war in the Low Countries Elizabeth herself proceeded in the same fashion as Henry, seeking the assent of the people to her policy while denying that she was legally or ethically compelled to do so:

    Although Kinges and Princes Soveraignes, owing their homage and service onely unto the Almightie God the king of al kings, are in that respect not bounde to yeeld account or render the reasons of their actions to any others but to God their only Soveraigne Lord: yet … wee are notwithstanding this our prerogative at this time specially mooved … to publish not onely to our owne naturall loving Subjectes, but also to all others our neighbours, … what our intention is at this time, and upon what just and reasonable grounds we are mooved to give aid to our Neighbours the naturall people of the lowe Countries … (quoted in Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy [San Marino: Huntington Library, 1963], 272)

  9. See Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays (New York: Routledge, 1988), 133. The disclaimer of Henry's personal interest runs through his rhetoric, most plainly expressed in the traitors scene: “Touching our person, we seek no revenge, / But we our kingdom's safety must so tender” (2.2.174-75).

  10. The disparity is evoked by Falstaff's pithy image of conscripts as “food for powder, food for powder” (1 Henry IV 4.2.65-66).

  11. The vision is regularly contradicted by the conflicts enacted on stage, most of which involved commoners: Nym against Pistol and Bardolph against both (2.2); Fluellen against all three (3.2); Pistol against Fluellen and Gower (3.6); and Will and Pistol each separately in conflict with Fluellen (4.8 and 5.1). There are also the traitors (2.2), of course, and the ethnic conflict within the army (3.2).

  12. Patterson (note 3), 91.

  13. The play reiterated this condition, rendering the king “the subject of the attention and judgment of an audience of subjects” (David Scott Kastan, “Proud Majesty Made A Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 [1986]: 461), the debate on stage in 4.1 dramatizing the “impudente famyliaritie with theire betters” that theater provoked in the eyes of many of its opponents (Kastan, 462, quoting the rationale of the Merchant Taylors School for suspending plays).

  14. Hazlitt [note 1] similarly emphasizes the “power [and] splendor” of kings that “dazzle[] the imagination” (158).

  15. “A Tank Commander Lectures His Troops on War and Fear,” The Raleigh News and Observer, 24 February 1991, 8J.

  16. See Harold C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951), 255.

  17. Phyllis Rackin pits the commoners' “theatrical” nature against “history,” the record of kings found in sixteenth-century prose historical works (Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990], chap. 5). But the self-definition of Shakespeare's own history plays suggests that the line between history and drama was not so definitive. Much of the commoners' impact flows precisely from their character as recognizably “historical,” simultaneously a part of Henry's history and Elizabeth's.

  18. Lindsay Boynton, “The Tudor Provost-Marshal,” Economic History Review 77 (1982): 444. “The end of a war,” according to C. G. Cruickshank, citing a contemporary commentator, “meant the beginning of beggary and calamity for many a poor soldier” (Elizabeth's Army [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966], 36).

  19. Acts of the Privy Council, vol. 27 (1597), 290; vol. 29 (1598), 62. In one month of 1596 alone 1,000 vagrants were conscripted from London (Roger B. Manning, Village Revolts: Social Protest and Popular Disturbances in England, 1509-1640 [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988], 184). There was occasional indication of official disapproval of the practice, but the predominant pattern is one of the Crown's continuing and increasingly unequivocal endorsement (Cruickshank [note 18], 26-30).

  20. Thomas Nashe, Pierce Penilesse, His Supplication to the Divell, ed. G. B. Harrison (New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1966), 85. The regime's policy gave a very practical twist to Henry IV's advice to “busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels” (2 Henry IV 4.5.213-14), busying as well the bodies of potential malcontents.

  21. These fears were not misplaced, as the vets, in the manner of the Bonus Marchers of 1932, demonstrated in 1592 for back pay, and “played a conspicuous part in riots” both that year and in the more serious disorders of 1595 (Manning [note 19], 194, 203).

  22. Paul A. Jorgensen, Shakespeare's Military World (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1956), 130.

  23. In order to raise the army it wanted the government illegally violated the immunity of county militia from service abroad, prompting protest that threatened a full-blown constitutional crisis (see Lindsay Boynton, The Elizabethan Militia, 1558-1638 [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967], 165-89; Cruickshank [note 18], 1-16; and Penry Williams, The Tudor Regime [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979], 398-99). See also John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 379-80, 385-86; Penry Williams, 75-78; and E. P. Cheyney, A History of England From the Defeat of the Armada to the Death of Elizabeth, Vol. II (New York: Peter Smith, 1948), 28. The corruption in the system of conscription, reflected in 1 Henry IV 4.2 and 2 Henry IV 3.2, aggravated the antagonism, contributing to the “profoundly uncooperative attitude” of soldiers caught in the system (Cruickshank, 289). Similar opposition was voiced to the increasing burden of financing military enterprise, as the Crown, in addition to raising taxes, shifted much of the cost to localities, prompting complaint, challenges, and that time-honored citizen riposte to taxes, evasion (see Wallace MacCaffrey, “Parliament and Foreign Policy,” in The Parliaments of Elizabethan England, ed. D. M. Dean and N. L. Jones [Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990], 83-87; and Penry Williams, “The Crown and the Counties,” in The Reign of Elizabeth I, ed. Christopher Haigh [Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985], 125-46).

  24. It is not surprising that Gower confuses actual veterans, as Pistol would be, with those who, in the words of one Royal Proclamation, beg “upon pretense of service in the wars” (Tudor Royal Proclamations, Vol. III: The Later Tudors (1588-1603) [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1969], 196). The government itself regularly if tacitly discredited returning soldiers by blurring the distinction, in part because it was blurred in reality by vagrants who played on public sympathy by pretending to be vets. But denominating veterans as vagrants also removed any sanction they would have by reason of military service, and, in the linguistic calculus that distinguished deserving and undeserving poor, minimized any responsibility the government would have for their plight.

  25. Branagh cut out the antagonism between Fluellen and Pistol, finding it “resoundingly unfunny” (quoted in Robert F. Willson, Jr., “War and Reflection on War: The Olivier and Branagh Films of Henry V,Shakespeare Bulletin 27 [1991]: 28).

  26. See Leggatt (note 9), 118. The reference to the “malady of France” (5.1.82) that killed Pistol's wife punningly reinforces the connection between domestic conditions and foreign expeditions.

  27. Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: From Richard II to Henry V (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1957), 176. Branagh quoted in Benedict Nightingale, “Henry V Returns As a Monarch For This Era,” New York Times, 5 November 1989, II. 18.

  28. Quoted in James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1990), 172.

  29. Terry Hands, Director, in The Royal Shakespeare Company's Production of Henry V for the Centenary Season at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, ed. Sally Beauman (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1976), 25.

  30. After the traitors are captured Henry further mitigates the reality of war's afflictions, calling the battle to come “a glorious enterprise,” “a fair and lucky war,” to which “every rub is smoothed on our way” (2.2.183, 184, 188).

  31. Rackin (note 17), 243.

  32. Thus the Chorus' oblique acknowledgment of personal gain—“With crowns imperial, crowns and coronets, / Promis'd to Harry and his followers” (2.Ch.10-11)—is exposed by Pistol's avowal as a stately euphemism designed to deflect attention from an embarassing truth about the impulse driving this enterprise. The commoners' role as what Larry Champion calls “a foil to Henry's glorious exploits,” spurs the audience to exercise political judgment, requiring them to re-evaluate Henry's conduct (Larry Champion, “The Noise of Threatening Drum”: Dramatic Strategy and Political Ideology in Shakespeare and the English Chronicle Plays [Newark: Univ. of Delaware Press, 1990], 127-28).

  33. David Quint, “‘Alexander the Pig’: Shakespeare on History and Poetry,” in William Shakespeare's Henry V, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988), 64.

  34. Leggatt (note 9), 131-32.

  35. This episode is only one of several instances in which historical references introduce a problematic element, either uncovering a chink in Henry's ideological armor, or revealing the difficulty of relying on history to affirm the legitimacy of his action. The references in 1.2 to Henry's “mighty ancestors” who fought the French, capped by Ely's ringing reassurance that “You are their heir, you sit upon their throne” (1.2.117) would have struck a discordant note with Shakespeare's audience, familiarized as it was with Henry's own history (through Shakespeare's works as well as others'). Henry was decidedly not the “heir” of Edward the Black Prince, but the son of the man who deposed the Black Prince's rightful heir. The point was subtly underscored by Canterbury's citation of usurpers as legitimate “ancestors” (historical precedents) for the heir of a usurper (1.2.33-95). Henry's doubtful dynastic position is touched on again when Cambridge acknowledges that “the gold of France did not seduce” him (2.2.155), a reference to his own dynastic ambitions, which rested on the claim of his wife that was superior to Henry's. Any defence Henry would have had to her title based on her gender was barred by the very argument Henry relied on to establish his own right to France. That is, the same claim Henry made to justify his title to the French throne undermined his claim to the English one. (See Goddard [note 16], 222, and Karl P. Wentersdorf, “The Conspiracy of Silence in Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly 27 [1976]: 264-87). There is an additional problem of citing history as a precedent to justify a later course of action, as Henry's circle does with the Crécy campaign. Imitation is not the only relationship to be forged between the past and the present. The same history carried just as much authority for the French, but as admonition not prototype. For them Crécy was not to be emulated but corrected; history was to be reversed not repeated (compare 1.2.105-10 with 2.4.53-64).

  36. Michael Billington, “A ‘New Olivier’ Is Taking On Henry V on the Screen,” New York Times, 8 January 1989, H21; see also Nightingale (note 27), 17, 18.

  37. Branagh “adapted” the script from Shakespeare, directed, and starred as Henry.

  38. The modern audience's ignorance of Lancastrian history is of course a problem for all modern productions, though Branagh does nothing to work against it. The plans to use a voice-over to provide pertinent material, as Orson Welles did in his film Chimes at Midnight (reciting passages from Holinshed's Chronicles), were dropped (Billington [note 36]. Branagh also eliminates most of the references that present history-making as a potent but controversial enterprise, including Fluellen's historical analogy in 4.7, the references to Henry's “mighty ancestors” whose purported “heir” Henry is, the French treatment of the same history, and the dispute over past Scottish invasions (1.2).

  39. Branagh's screenplay emphasizes how “impressed” Montjoy is by Henry (Kenneth Branagh, William Shakespeare, Henry V, A Screen Adaptation [London: Chatto and Windus, 1989], 27, 75 and 100). To underscore the Herald's favorable assessment, Branagh rewrites another Frenchman's ironic lines before battle—“That island of England breeds very valiant creatures: their mastiffs are of unmatchable courage” (3.7.140-42)—excising the reference to English dogs and along with it the sarcasm. Instead, he has the Herald deliver the remaining line as a serious evaluation of the English, one that, in Branagh's words, has “a strange power” because Montjoy knows the English (3.7.78). In Shakespeare Montjoy is not even in the scene.

  40. The excision of virtually all of the prelates' discussion of Henry's miraculous change (and the causes for it) from 1.1.25-53 and 60-69 helps keep these questions at bay.

  41. See, for example, Alvin B. Kernan, “‘The Henriad’: Shakespeare's Major History Plays,” William Shakespeare: Histories and Poems, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986), 211-43, and Anne Barton, “The King Disguised: The Two Bodies of Henry V,” William Shakespeare's Henry V (note 33), 5-20. Peter S. Donaldson, “Taking on Shakespeare: Kenneth Branagh's Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 68, 61.

  42. Billington (note 36), H18, H21.

  43. Traversi (note 27), 166.

  44. Kernan (note 41), 243.

  45. Nightingale (note 27), 18. Branagh's phrase “moral gravitus” is quoted in Players of Shakespeare 2, ed. Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1988), 100.

  46. This is how Branagh handles the execution of Bardolph. Kenneth S. Rothwell cites this scene in the movie as showing that Henry can “subordinate his own inclinations to a higher sense of duty” (Kenneth Branagh's “Henry V: The Gilt [Guilt] in the Crown Re-Examined,” Comparative Drama 24 [1990]: 175).

  47. Donaldson (note 41), 61.

  48. See, Traversi (note 27), 9, and 166-98.

  49. John Simon, “Swords and Bullets,” National Review, 19 March 1990, 57.

  50. Edward Barnes, “Holding the Line,” Life, October, 1990, 25.

  51. Stuart Klawans, Nation, 11 December 1989, 725. Just how politically potent the painful character of this knowledge can be is suggested by President Bush's recounting to the Convention of Southern Baptists how he cried about starting the war. The audience responded to his emotional retelling of this event “with a prolonged standing ovation” (“Baptists See Bush Shed Tears,” Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1991).

  52. Tom O'Brien, “Heroism Without Glamour,” Commonweal, 23 February 1990, 116; Vincent Canby, “A Down-to-Earth ‘Henry V’ Discards Spectacle and Pomp,” New York Times, 8 November 1989, sec. 2, 19; Stanley Kauffman, “Claiming the Throne,” New Republic, 4 December 1989, 28; and Pauline Kael, New Yorker, 27 November 1989, 105.

  53. Kael (note 52) believes Branagh was “trying to make it into an antiwar film” (105), and H. M. Geduld believes he succeeded, calling it “a strong anti-war statement” (Humanist, July/August 1990, 43).

  54. James L. Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard II to Henry V (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979), 155.

  55. O'Brien (note 52), 116. While the hymn, “Non Nobis Domine” (from the first verse of Psalm 115: “Not unto us, O Lord … but unto thy name give glory”), accords God the credit for the victory, the unwaveringly central position of Henry in this lengthy shot diverts it to him.

  56. Presumably he knew at some point, which makes his failure to ever mention it (in the blush of victory the boys are completely forgotten in the roll call of the dead) all the more significant: it does not seem to have been important to him.

  57. Klawans (note 51), 726.

  58. This phrase as well as some of the ideas in this section are drawn from Vincent P. Pecora's excellent talk at the 1990 MLA convention, “Conrad's Heart of Darkness: Who Speaks For Whom?” (forthcoming in Conradiana).

  59. A similar effect was utilized in the Gulf War by demonizing Iraq's leader as a new Hitler, the symbol of unfathomable and irredeemable evil, an analogy so fixed in conventional wisdom that the New Republic could doctor a cover photo of Saddam Hussein to look more like Hitler without informing its readers (EXTRA!, November-December 1990, 3). Challenging the analogy was hazardous. One journalist, Warren Hinckle of the San Francisco Examiner, was forced to take an involuntary leave of absence for doing just that in a column entitled, “If Saddam is Hitler, Then Bush is Tojo” (EXTRA!, May 1991, 15).

  60. In his essay “Killing Civilians” George Orwell attacks the effort to do so: “War is of its nature barbarous, it is better to admit that. If we see ourselves as the savages we are, some improvement is possible, or at least thinkable” (reprinted in Current Issues and Enduring Questions: Methods and Models of Argument, ed. Sylvan Barnet and Hugo Bedau [Boston: St. Martin's Press, 1990], 103). The political dynamics of the civilian/combatant distinction were played out in 1988 when the U.S. Navy destroyed an Iranian airliner, creating a serious public relations problem for the government that in 1983 had denounced the Soviet Union for the identical act (see Seymour M. Hersh, “The Target Is Destroyed”: What Really Happened to Flight 007 and What America Knew About It [New York: Random House, 1986]). In his defense of the official U.S. position then Vice-President and presidential candidate George Bush declared to the U.N. that the U.S. had “never willfully acted to endanger innocent civilians” (New York Times, 15 July 1988, A8). The political pressure the civilian/combatant distinction exerts is revealed in the desperate lengths to which his statement goes to immunize the U.S.: a misreading of history that is appallingly breathtaking in its scope.

  61. Hazlitt (note 1), 158.

  62. While he refers to this development as “new,” Henry knew at the outset of the scene that the French still held their place on the battlefield (4.6.2).

  63. Though trying to justify the king, Gower's logic of reprisal backfires. By linking the two acts he tacitly equates them, putting Henry's in the same category of slaughter as the boys', thereby extending Fluellen's condemnation of the latter to the king's own action: “'Tis expressly against the law of arms. 'Tis as arrant a piece of knavery … as can be offert” (4.7.1-3). The discordance of Gower's inapt praise for Henry at his cruelest (a “gallant king!”) only highlights the king's culpability.

  64. The barbarity of these orders is intensified by the presence on stage in both instances of the defenseless French prisoners themselves. It is possible their murder was acted out before the audience's eyes.

  65. This episode gives a more ominous meaning to the statement by Henry's father that “nothing can seem foul to those that win” (I Henry IV 5.1.8).

  66. The passage provides support for Jonathan Goldberg's argument that the perception of homosexual contact in Elizabethan England was considerably more complex than the denunciations would lead a modern reader to believe; that, in fact, a careful reading of important Renaissance texts shows a much more frank acknowledgment and even affirmation of homoerotic desire and conduct (Sodometries: Renaissance Texts, Modern Sexualities [Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1992]).

  67. Goldberg (note 66), 163. See his incisive discussion of Marlowe's Edward II (114-26).

  68. Branagh enthusiastically celebrated the homosocial element in the play: “There's tremendous adrenaline, tremendous bonding, tremendous camaraderie” (Nightingale [note 27], 18).

  69. The Archbishop registers the scandal of Henry's companions when he describes them as “unletter'd” and “rude,” part of the “popularity” (1.1.55, 59).

  70. On the importance of combat to the cult of chivalry see Malcolm Vale, War and Chivalry (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1981) and Richard C. McCoy, The Rites of Knighthood (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1989).

  71. Goldberg (note 66), 137. Goldberg points out that “effeminacy was more easily associated with, and was a charge more often made about, men who displayed excessive attention to women than taken as an indication of same sex attraction” (111).

  72. Quoted in Goldberg, 133. Sir John Smythe's criticism of the Egyptians sums up his view of failed empires: it was “because [they] were grown effeminate, without any orders and exercises military [that] they came to be … subdued and conquered” (Certain Discourses Military, ed. J. R. Hale [Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1964], 8). Thomas Nashe regarded the record of military exploits provided by history plays as “a sharp[] reproofe to these degenerate effeminate dayes of ours” (Nashe [note 20], 87).

  73. See Rackin (note 17), 167-68. Alan Sinfield traces how masculinity serves as an organizing principle of royal power in the play (Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading [Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992], 127-37).

  74. The label itself situates the scene in the genre of romantic love, displacing the political dynamics at its heart.

  75. The verbs used to describe courtship here—“enforces” (301) and “handling” (310)—apply the coercive economy of martial masculine culture to this heterosexual encounter. What Goldberg (note 66) says of Hotspur applies to the betrothal: “[T]his is the masculinity founded in the exchange of women that solidifies ties between men” (167).

  76. Christopher Pye sees the scene, and the play itself, as “lay[ing] bare the erotic contradictions underlying power” and as such “a reflection of the single, overriding, contradiction of England's political condition in the era—the fact of the female prince” (The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle [New York: Routledge, 1990], 33).

  77. Robert Jay Lifton, Home From the War (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), 44. The phrase “Saving manhood” is taken from 4.8.33-34.

  78. Richard Corliss calls it a “brutal fellowship of death” (Time, 13 November 1989, 120).

  79. On the French Herald's last visit in the film, just after Henry discovers the dead boys, Henry's response starts as a physical assault but ends in something much closer to an embrace, replicating the progression of the battle as a whole.

I am grateful for the very helpful responses to earlier versions of this essay by my colleagues Jim Morrison and John Thompson and by the readers for the journal.

Stephen M. Buhler (review date 1995)

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SOURCE: Buhler, Stephen M. “‘By the Mass, our hearts are in the trim’: Catholicism and British Identity in Oliver's Henry V.Cahiers Élisabéthains 47 (April 1995): 55-70.

[In the following review, Buhler studies the treatment of Catholicism and British national identity in Laurence Olivier's 1944 film adaptation of Henry V. Buhler argues that in the film, Olivier sought to use both Catholic ritual and Shakespeare's text as sources of national strength and unity.]

As every viewer recalls, Laurence Olivier's film of Henry V initially and literally stages its version of the playtext in a reconstructed Globe Theatre. The first scenes present unruly spectators entertaining themselves at the expense of the actors—most notably those portraying the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. We are also meant to see in these early sequences the severe limitations of the stage, especially the Elizabethan variety. Olivier wanted the audience not only to feel superior toward the actors (an attitude which helps make the comic treatment possible) but also to empathize with the poor players, to share their and Shakespeare's own supposed frustration at being constrained within the girdle of these walls. Olivier aimed at a sense of release in moving, after the scene with Pistol and company, from the Globe to the stylized set representing Southampton:

I wanted the film audience to get a restless feeling of being crabbed and confined in the Globe's wooden O, irritated by the silly actors speaking in their exaggerated way, so that when we at last leave the place, with a flourish of William Walton's music, and I speak my lines beginning with ‘Now sits the wind fair, and we will aboard’ realistically and with a modern tone, there's a tremendous feeling of relief and anticipation.1

In the imagined salt air of a Denham Studios soundstage, both the film's audience and the play's language gain a kind of freedom from the director, just as the King announces that he will release ‘the man committed yesterday / That railed against our person’ (2. 2. 40-1).2 The clerics and the Church they represent receive a similar dispensation as they shake off the strictures of anti-Catholic sentiment. The scene opens with the last strains of a plainsong benediction; Canterbury, the celebrant, then moves directly behind the King. After insisting he will be merciful, Henry expresses faith that ‘every rub is smoothed on our way’ (2. 2. 188) directly to the Archbishop. Already, the director begins to link notions of Henry's worthiness—and the worthiness of his cause—with the ceremonies and formulas of the Old Religion.

The film's focus on the clergy here suggests that it is not primarily engaged in justifying Britain's involvement in the Second World War. Since the film's first release in 1944, critical response has often focused on its propagandistic function for wartime audiences.3 But the conflict had, even by the time of the film's genesis, taken on for the British the dimensions of a war for survival. Olivier's primary audience scarcely required a high-culture version of Why We Fight. Despite the currency of the term, I am no longer certain that Olivier's Henry V is best described as a ‘war-effort’ film. It is useful, nevertheless, to re-examine Olivier's interpretation of the play as propaganda, to reconsider the ideological orientations of what Olivier hopes to propagate. As Dudley Andrew notes, Henry V ‘responds to the realities of a democratic country which nevertheless is obsessed with royalty’.4 The film tries to reaffirm monarchial values within a populist and democratic context, in part by enacting an audience's initial resistance to such values and ultimate acceptance of them.

Olivier's motivations in this project, more often than not, are biographical as much as political, but all have some basis in the crisis of Anglo-Catholicism in the context of the Second World War. As intently as Evelyn Waugh would do in Brideshead Revisited, Olivier provides a complex apologia for both the Old Religion and the English version of l'ancien régime; both works begin by acknowledging the suspicion and derision those antique orders can inspire.5 Olivier further complicates matters by responding to the ‘Irish question’ operative both in the Shakespearean text and in the contemporary scene. Olivier takes pains to diminish any threat Catholicism might present to those dubious of its adherents' loyalties—a doubt sustained over the centuries by the traditional observance of Guy Fawkes' Day and heightened by the immediate example of Catholic Ireland's neutrality. But Olivier, as film-maker, also takes pains to commemorate and to celebrate Catholicism whenever possible: he enlists Shakespeare as an ally in reestablishing a reverential attitude toward ritual and in holding out ritual, with the Bard, as a once-and-future basis for British unity and identity. Shakespeare's work, not incidentally, is meant to benefit from this atmosphere of increased reverence. In Olivier's presentation, the Elizabethan stage is limited by its dependence both upon verbal audition and upon the audience's unpredictable suspension of disbelief. He assumes that twentieth-century film, on the other hand, allows the playtext to be more fully experienced—more deeply heard, seen, and felt—by its audience, which can be swept along by the medium's imagistic potential for checking skeptical irreverence.

The unruly behavior of the groundlings in Olivier's representation of the Globe Theatre is here disrespectful both of the clerics and the Bard. Even the day of the performance, as originally conceived in the shooting script, invites a sense of combined reverence toward the play and, ultimately, toward the religious figures it depicts. Olivier's film begins with a playbill first filling the screen and then soaring aloft as the camera establishes a panoramic shot of Elizabethan London. While the film version announces that the performance occurs on May Day, 1600, the shooting script's date is April 23—not only the traditional observance of Shakespeare's birth, but also the Feast of St. George, the patron saint of England invoked by the King at the gates of Harfleur.6 Olivier had intended early on to solve the theatrical challenges of the ‘Salic Law’ passage by playing much of the scene for laughs, but it is not at all clear that he wanted the crowd to jeer at the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely from the very start. The shooting script gives several detailed instructions for such audience reaction in scene two, but only on occasion in scene one. Instead, the first appearance of the actor portraying Ely provokes hooting and the lines about the financial impact of the parliamentary bill under discussion (‘'Twould drink deep.’ ‘'Twould drink the cup and all.’) prompts a derisive response that the quick pacing only partly obscures. The extras serving as the Globe's audience apparently took control of the tone—perhaps they knew from watching rehearsals of the next scene that balletic slapstick was to follow and simply read that humor back upon the earlier scene.

Olivier later claimed that he had indeed wanted his filmgoers to laugh with the groundlings: he wanted to ‘get the film audience used to the language, and let them laugh its excesses out of their systems before the story really begins’.7 But if the initial mockery aimed at the clerics was instead an unintended response, it replicated a painful moment in Olivier's war-time stage career. While a member of the Fleet Air Arm, he regularly appeared before troops in all branches of service, often as King Henry. On such occasions, clad in full armor, he gave a series of the character's most stirring speeches—the ‘great arias’, Olivier calls them.8 One time, though, as he urged his comrades in uniform to follow him ‘Once more unto the breach’, Sub-lieutenant Olivier was greeted with laughs and catcalls, ‘his words punctuated throughout with ribald comments’.9 The early hilarity of the extras on the set also led to an unfortunate moment later in the filming of the Globe scenes when a slip of the tongue during the King's answer to the Dauphin's gift provoked a similar response. Albert Meltzer, who served as an extra in several scenes, recalled that during one take Olivier's King ‘threatened revenge on the Dauphin with the line: “When we have matched our rackets to his balls.”’10 Not surprisingly, the extras exploded with laughter. In trying to explain their ‘unprofessional’ and ‘outrageous’ behavior, Meltzer noted that many of the extras for these scenes were deserters, ‘American, Australian, and English soldiers on the run from the military police’. Olivier, then, had been jeered by both dedicated combatants and scofflaws alike—an experience not unlike Henry's own on the eve of battle.11

Olivier also found himself in a situation analogous, at least in his recollection, to one that had been experienced by his father. By the son's account, Gerard Kerr Olivier, eager for advancement in the ranks of the Church of England, had left a comfortable parish in Dorking for what amounted to a ‘mission’ in the slums near Notting Hill. Father Olivier's high-church approach may have instilled a deep love of ritual—and, the actor would later argue, for the stage—in his son, but the local parishioners were not so moved. The elder Olivier was reassigned and the family had to relocate, all ‘for a matter of principle’, as Olivier recalls his father's words.12 More to the point, it was a matter of changing and then losing control of one's audience. As Olivier moves Shakespeare from the relative security of the modern theatre to an uncertain response from the general cinematic audience, he strategically uses the theatricality of the stage as a foil for the illusionistic potential of film.13 Olivier senses that the place of the stage can be almost inescapably subversive, since the openness of its fictions tends to reveal the fictive nature of other social constructs. Conversely, naturalistic cinema generally obscures its own processes and therefore has the power to resacralize what theatricality demystifies; the screen can reconstruct what the stage taketh away. The crucial term, though, is generally, since Olivier's filmmaking delights in showing off the technical as well as the representational powers of cinema. The realism of the battle sequences in Henry V may tend to conceal ‘the work of perceiving meaning behind the mask of a “naturally, obviously” meaningful image’, as Bill Nichols phrases it. But those sequences are framed by others in which both theatrical and filmic artifice are foregrounded: Olivier may be one of the better illustrations for Stephen Heath's caveat that one should not presume there has been a ‘simple commitment in the mainstream development of cinema to the effacement of the marks of cinematic practice in favour of a transparent presentation of “reality.”’14 In the cultural exchange that Olivier oversees, film has a kind of authenticity conferred upon it in comparison with what he presents as theatre's ‘insufficiency’. Beyond this, ancient ritual may, in turn, gain additional power to compel assent in comparison with the novelties of cinematic technology.

For Olivier, giving the Globe audience freer rein in their resistance both to high-church and high-culture utterances is merely an opening gambit. The filmic audience will have its resistance to ritual and to Shakespeare effectively worn down, and even the Globe audience will be shown cheering the performers, the play, and the representatives of Church and Crown the play represents. Ritual and the Shakespearean text are offered as, literally, common ground, as sites for national unity transcending ethnic and religious differences, reconciling class and cultural enmities. Olivier recalls the travails and joys shared by the cast and crew while producing the film in terms of common identity: ‘We were inspired by the warmth, humanity, wisdom and Britishness just beneath the surface of Shakespeare's brilliant jingoism’. In a parenthetical aside, he tries to demonstrate the breadth of this British identity by listing examples of ethnic and gender differences, the play's ‘Welshman and Irishman, too, as well as the former Mistress Quickly’.15 Trying to emulate and overgo the monarch he portrays, Olivier aims for an imaginative union surviving after the conflict against a common enemy is won; he hopes to arrest the disintegration reported in the play's Epilogue.

Using the play to guide public reaction to contemporary events and concerns is as old as its earliest performances: Henry V seems to have been written and staged, at least in part, in response to the Wars of Pacification the English were waging in Ireland. The Prologue to Act Five makes clear reference to Essex's attempt to quell Tyrone's Rebellion. While describing Henry's triumphant return to England after the ‘Famous Victory’ at Agincourt that the audience was implicitly promised by history and by rival plays, Shakespeare's Chorus explicitly hopes for a contemporary parallel, for another fulfilled promise:

As, by a lower but a loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious Empress
(As in good time he may) from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit
To welcome him!

(5 Prologue 29-34)

Joel B. Altman suggests certain emotional—as well as overtly political—connections were intended. He reads the play in performance as a ritualized means of relieving the shame, loss, and uncertainty attendant upon any war. This relief, though, depends upon dramatic and linguistic enactments of war's violence and ambivalence.16 The audience, as in a liturgy, participates in the ritual action; it is reassured by claims to the justice of the action, and by the success, honor, esteem, and reward attendant upon participation—both symbolic and physical.

Shakespeare's audience, though, is also invited to evaluate the accuracy of these claims and, further, the costs of such a course of action and its consequences. At the very first performance, as Norman Rabkin memorably conjectures, it is likely that members of ‘Shakespeare's best audience’, his most attentive auditors, ‘knew uneasily that they did not know what to think’ of this monarch.17 King Henry is a deft avoider and manipulator of consequence, and the historical upshot of his enterprise makes for a profoundly ambivalent dramatic conclusion: the Epilogue reminds us of Henry's early death and the imminent dissolution of the Pax Brittanica, both external and internal. We are reminded of Henry's death just seven years after Agincourt and two years after the Treaty of Troyes and the marriage with Catherine of France. Our hero leaves this empire to his newborn son:

Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned 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.

(Epilogue, 9-12)

When one considers the constraints, psychological and otherwise, of producing both a propaganda and a commercial film during wartime, one is impressed at how scrupulous Olivier is in at least considering—if hastening to resolve—many of those tensions. But this part of the Epilogue which reminds us of the troubled succession after warlike Harry's passing was omitted from this film version, since Olivier hopes to avoid a complete reenactment of past events in contemporary history.

Another factor in this textual suppression could well have been the British Government's indirect support and strong encouragement of the production. The kind of ambivalence the playtext's conclusion provokes is, perhaps, intolerable when the Prologue's ‘peaceful city’ becomes the seat of Mars itself. A sense of London as battlefield haunts the opening and concluding panoramas of the Elizabethan city: we fly through sunlit skies over an unravaged town, tending naturally toward Bankside and Southwark.18 This is, of course, the site of the Globe and the other great theatres on the south bank of the Thames, but it is also the site of some of the greatest devastation visited by the Blitz. By way of compensation (or even revenge), an awareness of the Blitz adds to the exhilaration of the first flight of arrows let fly at Olivier's Agincourt, as this time the deadly missiles soar away from the viewer.

Partly and understandably because of the life-and-death struggle in which his fellow citizens were engaged, Olivier is often tentative in his exploration of the divisions and competing interests that would lead again, in history and in Shakespeare's Histories, to civil war. Instead, Olivier's version presents a vision of comprehensive British unity or, at least, a singleness of purpose ideally shared among Britons. Ethnic differences are noted and effaced. Even the outcry of the Irish officer, Macmorris—‘What ish my nation?’ (2.2.122-4)—does not exclude the character from full fellowship in Olivier's film. As in the playtext, the film's Gower testifies to Macmorris being a ‘very valiant gentleman’ (2.2.67); while Fluellen disagrees with this estimation, his later capacity for taking Pistol at face value shows him to be no sure judge of character. Also, the movement in Olivier's staging of the scene softens the conflict in the comedy just as deliberately as Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version heightens the conflict to the extent that virtually all sense of the comic vanishes.19 In Olivier's shooting script and film, Gower sympathetically pats Macmorris' back; Captain Jamy is indulgently amused at Macmorris' melancholic response to his work being interrupted and at Fluellen's baiting of the Irish officer. In both shooting script and the film version, all four officers cheer the news of the parley as a sign of victory.20 An inspired use of punctuation helps the scene to allude to Irish neutrality in the contemporary conflict. Macmorris' question ‘What ish my nation?’ is followed not by an angry outburst but by another question: ‘Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal?’ Here, Macmorris wants clarification of what ‘Irishness’ means to his interlocutors. In response, Jamy and Fluellen both shake their heads as if to say, no—we're not suggesting that Irish and the other epithets Macmorris lists are equivalent terms. As the film goes on, Olivier suggests that in time, once the Irish ‘know themselves’, they will choose the proper side. The model of Henry's own wild ‘younger days’ being redeemed by later action is applied to Macmorris and his countrymen. A pattern of intentionally disarming condescension is also evident in the character being referred to as ‘Mac’ throughout the shooting script, the only character whose name is abbreviated. Macmorris will prove himself ready, worthy, and loyal at Agincourt, and to solidify this point Olivier intended to show all four of the ‘ethnic’ captains intently listening to the Saint Crispin speech and all in readiness just before the battle itself.21 The film does show Henry serving as a visual mediator between Macmorris and Fluellen as he delivers the lines, ‘Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars / And say “These wounds I had on Crispin's day”’ (4. 3. 47-8).

Similar in conciliatory effect, Pistol's prejudice against the Welsh captain, Fluellen, receives due come-uppance—although Robert Newton's waggish defiance at the end may also proclaim allegiance with the ‘shirkers’ who play his character's most appreciative audience at the Globe. In the film version, ethnic prejudice is the only reason left, besides Pistol's surface bellicosity, for his animus against Fluellen: in the film version, Bardolph is not hanged for disobeying an order against looting, so Fluellen cannot refuse Pistol's desperate plea for him to intercede on Bardolph's behalf. While this may seem an instance of Olivier suppressing the darker aspects of Shakespeare's character (and has been widely interpreted as such), it is primarily an instance of Olivier soft-pedaling his concern with religion and ritual. Ace Pilkington was among the first to observe that the original treatment by Olivier and his textual editor, Alan Dent, included the full scene showing Pistol pleading with Fluellen, and that the scene survived into the shooting script. Pilkington is right, I think, to argue against this deletion being considered merely a whitewash on Henry's behalf.22 In the dramatic and ideological economy of the shooting script, Bardolph's sacrilegious looting of a church is not just inherently worthy of punishment, but also threatens to taint the English cause with irreligion and impiety. Bardolph's proto-Protestant iconoclasm—as Olivier sees it—must be contained, lest it strain the bonds that hold Britons together or, at the very least, erupt into the unruly anti-clericalism (and philistinism) of the groundlings. So as late as the shooting script Olivier too ‘would have all such offenders so cut off’ (3.6.107).23 In the actual film, the director instead retreats from the more retributive position of the Anglo-Catholic church militant, and allows Pistol's ethnic divisiveness and the popular anti-Catholicism with which he is aligned to be chastened in a far less drastic way.24

While some class differences are noted and effaced, especially in the softening of the language of strict degree which operates in Henry's rallying speeches, others—like the association of potentially divisive anti-Catholicism with the apprentices and tradesmen—are reinscribed. Some factional differences are utterly evanescent, as the nation unites against a common, external enemy. Olivier reassigns some of Canterbury's and Ely's speeches urging their monarch into battle to the attending nobility, repressing the sense of competing interests that animates the playtext.25 There is little room even for personal envy and betrayal among the nobles, as the would-be traitors seized on the eve of embarcation—Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey—simply disappear from the script. The parallel scene with Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph at each other's throats remains, though, much to the (now ironic) delight of the Globe audience.

Despite the absence of the betrayers and the deletion of the spectacle that the King crafts from their discovery, some sense of the costs of Harry's ascendancy and success as king is communicated, most notably in the scenes depicting the death of Falstaff, which follow the King's now-uncomplicated magnanimity toward the soldier who ‘railed against’ his person. The hardships, deprivations, and grief encountered daily by the original, wartime audience of the film would demand some acknowledgment of the costs, though the point would scarcely need to be labored. For example, the omnipresent realities of war likely prompted Olivier to change Shakespeare's count of the English dead after Agincourt: revising the original play's and the shooting script's outrageous claim that, in addition to the few fallen nobles and gentlemen, Henry's troops lost ‘but five and twenty’ (4.8.106), Olivier discreetly adds the slightly more believable ‘score.’26

The acknowledgment of transience and mortality also serves to contain the grief over lives to be lost in the impending campaigns into France, both Henry's and that of the Allies. Falstaff's death scene, even with all its unsettling resonances, finally serves as a reiteration of Prince Hal's admonition to his companion at Shrewsbury near the end of Henry IV, Part One: ‘We owe God a death’ (5.1. 26). In Henry V, Falstaff finally pays that debt—to make, as he does, the pun he and Shakespeare find irresistible. He therefore cannot wittily counter, with a sardonic meditation on honor, Hal's implicit message that since we must die anyway we should die to good purpose. The immediate context of the film's production, amidst the horrors of the Blitz, shapes the interpretation of the play: with carnage all around, one searches for a reliable means by which one may derive meaning from and in death. One means is, of course, patriotism. As one looks for significance in dying, the Prince's drift goes, one should recall that dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. I deliberately use the Horatian tag—‘It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country’—because the film effectively uses the Latin language to suggest another source of significance. In the film, dulce et decorum est is left an implicit message, since the cause of Britain's survival suffices. Dignum et justum est—‘It is right and just’—is an explicit message, one that serves to justify its textual and ritual origins as much as its apparent referent, the war. Using the language of the central Roman Catholic rite again presents the Old Religion as a mediating term for national strength and identity.

Dignum et justum est is the liturgical response which launches the Latin mass into the Consecration, the ritual reenactment of Christ's suffering, death, and atonement for human sinfulness. It is also the phrase heard on the soundtrack of Olivier's film, just before Henry's drastically shortened invocation of the ‘God of battles,’ and the rigorously choreographed and virtually bloodless violence at Agincourt. Sir Thomas Erpingham appears, after the King's meditations on the ‘idol Ceremony,’ and informs Henry that his disappearance has concerned the nobles. In the film, though, between the King's kindly greeting, ‘Good old knight,’ and his order to assemble the knights together, Olivier adds some crucial business:

Henry V turns and walks up to the camp, followed by Erpingham. Track with them, as we hear prayers being chanted from a tent.

Henry V pulls back the tent flap and sees a service in progress. The chanting has stopped and prayers are being read. Track with the king as he walks on. An ‘Amen’ is chanted and more prayers are spoken from a second tent.

The King stops and turns to Erpingham.27

Altman's study of forms of participation in Henry V uses the language of the Catholic liturgy in ways that have been highlighted by Olivier's film and even more in the shooting script, not only by the text of the play. Two of Altman's section headings are ‘Communion’ and ‘Ite, Missa Est’—go, the mass is ended—and denote the parts of the ceremony which follow the Consecration. Olivier, in the film, deliberately expands upon Shakespeare's use of the central mystery of this ritual. Shakespeare's King is presented, albeit problematically, in terms of a God-Man.

Henry's divinity appears in his function as king, upon whom is set the burden of his subjects' lives, souls, debts (that pun again), wives, children, and sins. His humanity is apparent in his (and our) realization that, but for ceremony, he is indistinguishable from the most wretched slave in his kingdom. He is perhaps all-too-human in his resentment of responsibility and his envy of what he imagines as the ‘infinite heartsease’ of subjects untroubled by the cares of state. He then undergoes his own agony in the garden, by pleading with the Almighty to let the cup of retribution for his father's ‘fault’ in seizing the throne to pass from him, at least for now. Barbara Hodgdon has described the scene as a ‘secularized version of Gethsemane’28; I suggest that the move from the sacred to the secular is to some degree reversed in Olivier's presentation. He later offers himself and his remains—‘these my joints’ (4.3.123)—in sacrifice as the only ransom France could ever receive.

Olivier's Henry avoids some of the problematization, but loses, in the process, much of the text which supplies the royal mystery in Christic parallels. He is untroubled by any doubts regarding his claim to the crown, and so need not bargain over the consequences of Henry the Fourth's offense. But in this simplification the parallel to Gethsemane—another site of negotiation involving parents, offenses, and consequences—necessarily fades. The film repairs this loss by showing the King taking on the burdens of his subjects and, literally, by the Mass, in ways that work against the scene's very Protestant skepticism toward ceremony.29 The horrific vision of the soldiers' dismembered joints is assigned not to Michael Williams, portrayed here with insouciant cynicism by Jimmy Handley, but to a very young Alexander Court, as played by Brian Nissen. After hearing Court verbally purge himself of the horror, and subsequently receive the disguised king's reassurance that his ‘soul's his own’, the film's viewers see Court settle down to sleep and become the wretched slave who, in the subsequent soliloquy, sleeps in Elysium at the king's own cost.30 Here is a military and political atonement indeed, especially when we recognize that Court's brogue marks him as Irish.31 Similar to the strategy at work with Macmorris' character, present neutrality is symbolically explained as a matter of national immaturity. The vision of ‘the latter day’ becomes less threatening because it now stems from the fears of an untested and fatigued young warrior, and the refusal of the nascent Republic to choose any side in the conflict can be safely ascribed to a kind of youthful recalcitrance. Along the way, some of the ‘suspiciousness’ accruing to Catholicism, as well as to Ireland, is contained.

The aural and visual fragments of the Mass complete the restoration of a sacramental view of kingship to this scene, and extend the film's project of letting the old religion and the old political and social orders redeem each other. The inclusion of a sung response from the Mass accords with the collaborative homage paid by Olivier and William Walton, composer of the filmscore, to the stage practices of the earlier century. Charles Kean's 1859 production of the play, building upon an effect realized in William Charles Macready's archaeological staging, concludes Act 4 by having hymns of thanksgiving for the victory at Agincourt sung in response to Henry's call for them. Kean's published acting script bears the notation, ‘The curtains of the Royal Pavilion are drawn aside, and discover an Altar and Priests.’32 Olivier may have moved the stage business in order to mark the end of a sequence. The very next scene in the film takes the audience out of the soundstage in which nineteenth-century theatre is recreated (as the French chevaliers prepare to mount for battle) into the open countryside for a more realistic and naturalistic approach to film making (as they, and we, are led by a herald to the horses).

The actual words of the Mass that we hear are not specified in any surviving early script or in published versions of the screenplay. Nonetheless, the shooting script does indicate that Olivier intended ‘the sounds of the Mass’ to emanate from both tents.33 The specific prayers go far in cementing a mutually validating relation between Church and Court, between ritual and policy. The audience is told, reassured, that this relationship is dignum et justum. The preceding prayer (Gratias agamus Domino Deo nostro—Let us give thanks to the Lord, our God) and its response are sung for greater emphasis, but the singing also suggests that the service is a missa solemnis. This is appropriate enough dramatically, if questionable from a liturgical standpoint. The murmured prayers which follow, though, rightly begin the Consecration of the Mass and help to reestablish the King as both Priest and Sacrifice. The sung Amen that we hear from the second tent not only provides transcendent approval of English policy, but signals another way in which Olivier's film compensates for textual cuts. The subsequent prayer, which quickly fades into the soundtrack, is the final Oratio which precedes the blessing of the congregation. In full:

Placeat tibi, sancta Trinitas, obsequium servitutis meae: et praesta, ut sacrificium, quod oculis tuae Majestatis indignus obtuli, tibi sit acceptabile, mihique et omnibus, pro quibus illud obtuli, sit, te miserante, propitiabile.34

(May the homage of my service please you, holy Trinity: and grant that the sacrifice which I, though unworthy, have offered in the sight of your Majesty may be acceptable to you, and that it may, through your mercy, be pleasing to you for my sake and the sake of all for whom I have offered it.)

Olivier's Henry need not bargain at length with his God, for the Mass has already determined that ‘all [the King] can do is nothing worth’ (4.1.303) outside of divine estimation. In addition, Olivier's Henry need not remind God of the ‘Two chauntries, where the sad and solemn priests / Sing still for Richard's soul’ (4.1.300-01): only in masses for the dead is the final Oratio preceded by Amen, rather than the more familiar Deo gratias. In Olivier's version, the Catholic custom of intoning prayers for the souls of the departed in Purgatory—in this case, ‘for the intention’ of Richard II—is observed at the dawning of Saint Crispin's day.

This is not the only invocation of the Mass in either the shooting script or the finished film. The shipboard prayers sung as ‘the scene / Is now transported … to Southampton’ (2 Prol 34-5) are also specified as the ritual's conclusion, at the same moment that the film begins the resacralization of the Church and its clergy. As the shooting script describes the scene: ‘we see [the] celebration of Mass being completed. The Archbishop is standing in front of a rough alter [sic] giving a benediction. Ely is at his side.’35 The King's first words after the benediction suggest that faithful observance of the ritual can insure divine favor. ‘Now sits the wind fair,’ he declares, and as further insurance is careful to invite both the Archbishop and Ely ‘to follow him’.36 If the final film had followed this description, the audience might have identified the priest in the first tent at Agincourt as Ely. The tonsure of the celebrant is still strongly reminiscent of the one upon the head of Robert Helpmann, who portrays the bumbling Elizabethan actor saddled with that prelate's role. Certainly the Archbishop of Canterbury's appearance officiating over the nuptial mass that solemnizes the marriage between Henry and Katherine at the conclusion of Olivier's film cements a mutually legitimating function between Church and Crown.

Olivier also makes use of virtually all of Shakespeare's mild oaths involving the rite, including Jamy's ‘By the mess, ere these eyes of mine take themselves to slumber, ay'll do gud service’ (3.2.114).37 The most notable invocation, of course, occurs in the King's response to Mountjoy's final offer of capture and ransom:

Our gayness and our gilt are all besmirched
With rainy marching in the painful field,
And time hath worn us into slovenry:
But by the Mass, our hearts are in the trim. …

(4. 3. 110-11, 114-15)38

The cheering of the English soldiers at this (specified in the shooting script and obvious in the final film) seems to celebrate not only Henry's faith in their readiness but also his faith in the ceremony which makes believers one body. In the shooting script, Olivier included the after-battle moment shared between Fluellen and the King, staging it as a kind of eucharist.39 Only after they serve each other wine were we to hear Fluellen's impassioned outcry, ‘By Jeshu, I am your majesty's countryman, I care not who know it!’ (4.7.111-12) Not only is this a statement of pride in the former Prince of Wales, born in Monmouth; it is a profession of allegiance, of national identity. If Olivier had included this scene as he had first intended, we could have seen Fluellen, through his own ‘good service’ in battle (an unmistakable echo of Captain Jamy's resolution at Harfleur) and his sharing in the cup, join the mystical body-politic of Britain. In the final film, though, the Latin texts of Non nobis and Te deum are used instead as validators of victory and its costs in the aftermath of Agincourt.40

Who, though, in the original audience of Olivier's version would receive the full reassurance of the chanted and spoken Latin before and after battle? Interestingly, both the products of the old schools and, in addition, the marginalized Catholics of 1940s Britain could be expected to recognize the words and their significance. This could indeed be seen either as an ideological maneuver worthy of Evelyn Waugh, linking the aristocracy and the old religion, or as another kind of atonement: this time, for the broad, anti-Catholic slapstick of the reconstructed Globe staging of Act One, scenes one and two. But even the comedy in the earlier scene serves to render differences less threatening, less destabilizing, since it undercuts any sense of Machiavellian policy. These clerics could not possibly succeed in distracting the king from anti-clerical policies by encouraging him to prosecute a foreign war: they are far too much the fools ever to be effective knaves. So still more of the ambivalence towards the ‘just cause’ Henry adopts which is palpable in Shakespeare's play—but profoundly unsettling in the context of a war for survival—is staved off. Members of the audience without familiarity with the Latin language or Roman ritual could nevertheless receive general senses of piety and divine sanction from the chanted prayers just before the dawn. The other prayer heard clearly is that resounding, comforting ‘Amen’—so be it. And, for these members of the audience as well, the earlier, disarming foolishness linked to the old religion helps to diminish any threat Catholicism might present. It is a measure, though, of Olivier's consistency here that the primary target of the groundlings' derision is not ritual, but the word. Not only the disorganized legal documents through which the Archbishop deconstructs France's denial of Henry's pretensions to their throne, but even an oversized Bible is used as a semi-comic prop, as Canterbury quotes from the Book of Numbers in response to Henry's urgent question, ‘May I with right and conscience make this claim?’ (1.2.96) Even this point of distinction between Catholic and Protestant is elided in the comedy, though, which persists even through sarcastic applause at the King's interruption. Instead, the issue of religious sectarianism is raised only to be set aside in the interests of tapping religion's power to erase distinctions within a diverse fighting force, and of tapping its ability to sustain feelings that victory is deserved and, ultimately, inevitable. The claim to victory is strengthened, in the shooting script, by respecting the sanctity of church rites.

While the English are depicted in the earlier version duly punishing Bardolph for his impiety, the French are depicted as tolerating—with the notable exception of the Dauphin—far worse sacrilege. The French, then, are shown as unworthy of divine favor and therefore of victory. One preparation for their eventual abasement is a simple transference of a speech from one character to another: here, Orleans rather than the Constable exclaims ‘Dieu de batailles!’ (3.5.15) in response to continued English successes.41 Olivier was sensitive to the phrase's parallel with the King's invocation of the ‘God of battles.’ His own sense of the sacramental dimensions of that later scene and his contextualization of it prompted him to place as much distance between the adversaries as possible. In utter contrast to King Henry and his respect for the Mass, Orleans becomes the principal architect of the raid behind English lines and he is not content to ‘Kill the poys and the luggage,’ as Fluellen puts it. The slaughter is specifically directed at the boys' and priests' participation in the sacrifice of the Mass. The shooting script carefully establishes this:

We describe an 180 degrees arc and discover two or three tents with boys, wounded men and priests. People are moving in the direction of camera left. Finally at the end of the pan is discovered a tent from which singing is heard. Camera Tracks into the interior of the tent from which pages are looking out.

At the end of the scene camera looks forward and Pans up close to the cross on the altar. …

Inside the tent the priest is still kneeling at Mass when a sword is seen to cut through the tent from the outside from right to left. A horse, upon whose back Orleans may be seen, plunges through the gap, upsets the altar, and the priest and others in the tent fall away towards the camera. Blackout. …

The priest is lying dead in the tent and through the opening we see the horsemen galloping away from left to right into the distance.42

The film memorably realizes that last shot, but Olivier chose to focus, as the playtext does, on the death of the boys attending the warriors. As audience, we instead find ourselves ‘inside a tent on fire with a dead Boy. Through the tent opening, French knights are seen to ride away.’43 But throughout the shooting script, Olivier uses a character's attitude toward the sacred—especially the Catholic version of the sacred—as an indicator of worthiness and of unity. Although the film's Dauphin is frequently a target of scorn, he is shown (and explicitly described in the shooting script) as feeling shame at the atrocity. He rides away not in cowardice but in disgust, deepening the divisions on the French side and weakening their chances for victory.44

With the instant hindsight that history can provide, audiences could hear promises of inevitable victory in the music Walton composed for the film's final sequence and closing credits. As he does elsewhere in the film, Walton appropriates from early music, this time including lyrics in both the sacred and the vernacular languages. In this, he reinforces Olivier's synthesis of the ecclesiastical and the political, seen not only in the plaudits that the Globe audience directs toward the actors playing the King, Katherine, and the Archbishop, but also those aimed upward to the boy choir conducted by the actor playing Ely. Their song ascends, as does the camera which returns to the panorama of Elizabethan London, and segues into a fifteenth-century commemoration of King Henry's famous victory.45 The ‘Agincourt Carol’ responds again to the King's call for ‘all holy rites’ in thanksgiving, and Walton uses its burden (‘Deo gratias, Anglia, / Redde pro victoria’) and, especially, its first verse in earnest of Allied successes on the Continent:

Our king went forth to Normandy
With grace and might of chivalry;
There God for him wrought marv'lously
Wherefore England may call and cry: Deo gratias.(46)

This, too, derives in part from Kean's extravaganza. After the victory and its religious celebration at the end of Act 4, Kean staged—in spectacular fashion—the triumphal celebration in London that the Prologue of Act Five describes (and hopes will be replicated in honor of Essex). Kean's musical director, a Mr. Isaacson, led a boy choir in the ‘Agincourt Carol’ as revived in W. Chappell's influential Victorian compendium The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time.47 But in the film, this song looks forward as well as back in history: Walton finished the composition of the score in March and April of 1944, months before the D-Day Invasion; the music was recorded in April (the final session on April 23, significantly) and mixed from May through July.48 By the time the film was released in November, Walton's rousing finale must have seemed prescient, if not as downright visionary as the blending of English language verses and Latin refrain intimates.

While the lyrical blending achieves an inspirational integrity, Olivier apparently doubted his ability to convince fellow Britons and others—whether they identified themselves as Anglo-Saxon or Celtic—that the Catholic Mass could indeed serve as an unproblematic center for the appreciation of Shakespeare and for the construction of traditional ‘Britishness’ generally. For the actual film, he chose not to connect this idealized national identity as directly as he first intended with that transcendent, but historically troubled and troubling ritual. Nevertheless, Olivier continued to invoke the Mass not only as a basis for military success and political solidarity, but also for his own cinematic achievement. Through the references that survive in the completed film, he confirmed the intersection of the sacramental and the theatrical that he believed was the basis not only for his ‘vocation’ as an actor, but also for drama itself.49 He took considerable pride in what he achieved with Henry V, finding in it some compensation for the comradeship in arms he never quite enjoyed as an airman:

I appealed to a new public, to those who had thought that Shakespeare was ‘not for the likes of them.’ When actor and audience communicate well, the sense of freedom is unbelievable. It is like flying together … Henry was a box-office success. Shakespeare had been given to the people. He was no longer for a small band of the select.50

King Henry (and, behind him, Shakespeare) ably invokes the exclusionary idea of ‘we happy few, we band of brothers’ (4.3.60) in the Crispin's Day speech the better to establish a more inclusive sense of martial solidarity among his auditors. So too Olivier wanted to expand the notion of the cultured as well as the patriotic and nationalistic ‘select.’ Through the changes from script to film, Olivier's shifting emphases on Catholic ritual replicated that speech's movement from sacred Holy Day to secular festival.


  1. Laurence Olivier, On Acting (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1986), p. 188. In the film, Olivier delivers only the first half of the line, since the King soon steps ashore.

  2. All references to Shakespeare's works are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

  3. See, for example, James Agee's reaction to the film's 1946 release in the United States; it is quoted by Harry Geduld, Filmguide to ‘Henry V’ (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1973), p. 69. The critical tradition has informed productions, including Kenneth Branagh's, mounted in response to Olivier's. Sara Munson Deats sees the difference between the two films in terms of war-time propaganda vs. skeptical response; see her ‘Rabbits and Ducks: Olivier, Branagh, and Shakespeare's Henry V’, Literature/Film Quarterly 20.4 (1992): 284-93.

  4. Dudley Andrew, Film in the Aura of Art (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), p. 147.

  5. One of Olivier's last major roles was in the Granada Television dramatization of Waugh's novel. He played the apostate Lord Marchmain who undergoes a deathbed re-conversion to Catholicism after an adult lifetime of rebellion against his adopted faith.

  6. Laurence Olivier (and Alan Dent), ‘Henry the Fifth’ Shooting Script, p. 1. I have worked with the mimeographed copy in the Folger Shakespeare Library collection.

  7. Olivier, On Acting, p. 187.

  8. Olivier, On Acting, p. 61.

  9. John Cottrell, Laurence Olivier (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1975), pp. 183-4.

  10. In the film, Olivier flinches slightly upon delivering the troublesome line, then stands in defiance of the Dauphin's message while gesturing toward the ‘tun of treasure’.

  11. Cottrell, p. 195. Anticipatory laughter from the crowd can still be heard just before Henry's reply, ‘We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us’. In On Acting, p. 194, Olivier presents the scene differently: he recalls that the first line, rather than the pause, got the laugh.

  12. Cottrell, p. 14. An alternative version of these events emerges in Donald Spoto's recent book, Laurence Olivier: A Biography (New York: Harper Collins, 1992), pp. 7-8. Spoto presents the move to London as part of a campaign for ‘a more prestigious curacy’, not as a result of a missionary zeal. What is important here, though, is the construction Olivier placed on the series of dislocations: for him it must have been a matter of religious controversy. A similar, if wrier, application of church ritual to the past is evident in not only the title of Olivier's memoirs, Confessions of an Actor (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982), but its epigraphic introductory page (xiii, unnumbered). Headed ‘Confiteor’, it borrows liberally from the opening formulas of the sacrament of Penance (known now as Reconciliation): ‘Bless me, Reader, for I have sinned. Since my last confession, which was more than fifty years ago, I have committed the following sins …’.

  13. Olivier even describes some of the play's scenes as ‘frustrated cinema’; see On Acting, p. 186. Peter S. Donaldson discusses how Olivier takes the Prologue's apologies for ‘this unworthy scaffold’ literary in Shakespearean Plays/Shakespearean Directors (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990), pp. 2-3. Donaldson's psycho-biographical approach to the film complements my own.

  14. Bill Nichols, Ideology and the Image (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), p. 35. Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), p. 15. Yet another complicating factor is Olivier's concern with proving himself in his directorial debut in film.

  15. Olivier, On Acting, p. 190.

  16. Joel B. Altman, ‘Vile Participation: The Amplification of Violence in the Theatre of Henry V”, Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 3-4.

  17. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1981), pp. 44.

  18. See Barbara Hodgdon, The End Crowns All (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 208, on the contribution made by the view of an ‘intact’ London to a sense of closure.

  19. Branagh deletes the phrase ‘a very valiant gentleman’ and his Gower delivers the line ‘altogether directed by an Irishman’ with obvious disgust; for the printed version of his screen adaptation, see Kenneth Branagh, ‘Henry V’ by William Shakespeare (London: Chatto and Windus, 1989), p. 57. While this is clearly part of Branagh's strategy to underscore the ethnic rivalries at work, it may also serve as a touch of self-deprecating humor aimed at his own first efforts as a film director.

  20. Olivier, Shooting Script, p. 52; see also Laurence Olivier, ‘Henry V’ by William Shakespeare (London, Lorrimar, 1984), p. 40.

  21. Olivier, Shooting Script, pp. 94 and 102.

  22. Ace G. Pilkington, Screening Shakespeare from ‘Richard II’ to ‘Henry V’ (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1991), p. 105.

  23. Olivier, Shooting Script, p.66.

  24. Olivier did not want to lose the point about Fluellen's initial misjudgment of Pistol and Gower's more accurate view, since it reinforces the sense of Macmorris as indeed ‘valiant’. When the argument over Bardolph's fate was cut, Olivier carefully moved Gower's dismissal of Pistol as ‘a gull, a fool, a rogue’ to the later scene. Branagh's Fluellen is never fooled by Pistol and therefore his ability to judge character—including Macmorris'—is not called in question to the same degree.

  25. Olivier, Shooting Script, pp. 15-16; see also Olivier ‘Henry V’, pp. 12-13.

  26. Olivier, ‘Henry V’, p. 77. Deats, p. 220, suggests that the numerical change is a veiled homage to the 537 Allied fliers lost in the Battle of Britain. This would accord nicely with the film's opening dedication to ‘the Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain … the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempted to recapture’. David L. Middleton has suggested, in an unpublished paper, that throughout the film Olivier tries to atone for both his earlier pacificism and his ineptitude as a flier in the Fleet Air Arm.

  27. Olivier, ‘Henry V’, p. 62. A transcription of the Rank Organization ‘release script’ also appears in George P. Garrett, et al., eds., Film Scripts One (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1971), with the prayer scene appearing on p. 103.

  28. Hodgdon, p. 189.

  29. I am indebted to Paul Whitfield White for this point.

  30. Olivier, ‘Henry V’, p. 59.

  31. Both Donaldson, p. 18, and Hodgdon, p. 195, also make this identification.

  32. Shakespeare's Play of ‘King Henry V’, notes by Charles Kean (London: John K. Chapman, and Company, 1859; rpt. London: Cornmarket Press, 1971), p. 74. See also Hodgdon, pp. 194-5, for the ideological significance of Olivier honoring this theatrical tradition.

  33. Olivier, Shooting Script, p. 88.

  34. The 1474 Missale Romanum, which may be the first printed edition of the missal, shows the prayer was established well before the Council of Trent. The final oratio remained, generally, a part of the liturgy until the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. I have used the Henry Bradshaw Society reprint of the Missale Romanum, ed. Robert Lippe, 2 vols. (London: Harrison, 1899), I, 211.

  35. Olivier, Shooting Script, p. 29.

  36. Olivier, Shooting Script, p. 30; see also Olivier, ‘Henry V’, p. 24.

  37. Olivier, Shooting Script, p. 51; see also Olivier, ‘Henry V’, p. 39.

  38. Olivier, Shooting Script, p. 99; see also Olivier, ‘Henry V’, p. 68.

  39. Olivier, Shooting Script, p. 126.

  40. By way of deliberate reply, Patrick Doyle's musical setting for Non nobis in Branagh's version is intended to serve as an ironic anthem.

  41. Olivier, Shooting Script, p. 61; see also Olivier, ‘Henry V’, p. 44.

  42. Olivier, Shooting Script, p. 111; see also Olivier, ‘Henry V’, pp. 114-15.

  43. Olivier, ‘Henry V’, p. 73.

  44. Olivier, Shooting Script, p. 116.

  45. See Donaldson, pp. 19-25, on the autobiographical sources of this scene and of the film's overall approach to the Elizabethan practice of casting boys in women's roles.

  46. See The Chester Books of Madrigals, volume 7, Warfare, ed. Anthony G. Petti (London: Chester Music, 1986), pp. 2-3.

  47. Shakespeare's Play, p. vii. See also The Ballad Literature and Popular Music of the Olden Time, W. Chappell, ed., 2 vols. (London, 1859; rpt. New York: Dover, 1965), I, 39.

  48. Michael Kennedy, Portrait of Walton (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 125.

  49. Confessions of an Actor, pp. 11-12, for the influence of Father Geoffrey Heald, choirmaster of All Saints, on the incipient performer. In On Acting, p. 7, he writes: ‘I think that in the beginning group acting was bound up with religion. That was the original theatre …’. See Cottrell, p. 18, for the perceived importance of ritual on Olivier, Laurence Naismith, Ralph Richardson, and John Gielgud.

  50. Olivier, On Acting, p. 185; emphases mine.

Zdeněk Stříbrný (essay date 1964)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6933

SOURCE: Stříbrný, Zdeněk. “Henry V and History.” In Shakespeare in a Changing World, edited by Arnold Kettle, pp. 84-101. New York: International Publishers, 1964.

[In the following essay, Stříbrný maintains that while Shakespeare's depiction of Henry V reveals the king's hypocrisy and opportunism, Shakespeare nevertheless intended to portray Henry's war against the French as justifiable and the English victory at Agincourt as a triumphant overcoming of tremendous odds.]

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

For a clearer understanding of its place among these national historical plays a list of all of them, in the order in which they were probably written, may be useful:1


3 Parts of Henry VI (written about 1590-2)
Richard III (written about 1592-3)
King John (about 1595-6)


Richard II (about 1595-6)
2 Parts of Henry IV (about 1597-8)
Henry V (1599)
Henry VIII (about 1612-13).

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

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

The main attack against Henry has been launched since the nineteenth century by liberal-minded critics who have tended to see in him a jingoist—not to say imperialist—conqueror destroying all he could not enslave. Their first, and not least effective, spokesman was William Hazlitt. Branding the historical king for his practice of ‘brute force, glossed over with a little religious hypocrisy’, Hazlitt enjoyed him in the play with ironic reservation as ‘a very amiable monster’, ‘as we like to gaze at a panther or a young lion in their cages in the Tower, and catch a pleasing horror from their glistening eyes, their velvet paws, and dreadless roar’.2 With similar half-amused and half-indignant irony Bernard Shaw, by the end of the century, could not forgive his old rival Shakespeare ‘for the worldly phase in which he tried to thrust such a Jingo hero as his Harry V down our throats’.3 This brisk dismissal has been carried well on into the twentieth century by such liberal critics as Bradley, Granville-Barker, Mark Van Doren, and John Palmer, to name the most typical.

In more recent years, however, a pronounced contrary trend has been noticeable. It has crystallized in the two representative modern English editions, The New Cambridge (1947) and The New Arden Shakespeare (1954). The Cambridge editor, John Dover Wilson, writing under the immediate impact of the Second World War, was quick to appreciate the ‘heroic poetry’ of the play. He used all his resources of erudition and style to show Henry in his proper historical setting as a national leader, the ‘star of England’, outshining Marlowe's Tamburlaine in his magnanimity, justice, mercy, heroic faith, sense of humour and other human qualities which, in Wilson's view, represent the essence of an English happy warrior.4 With a different accent, but with no less enthusiasm in his general appraisal, J. H. Walter continued the exoneration of Henry, carrying on, in this point at least, the tradition of the old Arden edition of 1903. Walter's apotheosis rests mainly on the assumption that Shakespeare created his Henry as a ‘mirror of all Christian kings’, as ‘the epic leader strong and serene, the architect of victory’ whose remarkable self-restraint, magnificent courage, royal clemency, gay and gallant spirits and, above all, piety, can be matched only by Virgil's Aeneas.5

How are we to deal with these clashing critical contradictions?

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

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

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

(I. Prologue, 19-27.)

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

Nay, sure, he's not in hell: he's in Arthur's bosom, if ever man went to Arthur's bosom. 'A made a finer end, and went away an it had been any christom child; 'a parted ev'n just between twelve and one, ev'n at the turning o' th' tide; for after I saw him fumble with the sheets, and play with flowers, and smile upon his finger's end, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and 'a babbl'd of green fields. ‘How now, Sir John!’ quoth I. ‘What, man, be o' good cheer’. So 'a cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him 'a should not think of God; I hop'd there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So 'a bade me lay more clothes on his feet; I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.

(II. 3. 9-26.)

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

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

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

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

(IV. 7. 71-5.)

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

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

One of the essential virtues of an ideal ruler, according to Thomas Elyot and other humanist thinkers, was concern for justice. Consequently, Shakespeare did not spare place or poetry to show right from the start that Henry's war against France was just and justifiable. Already at the end of Henry IV we saw him repudiate the wild company of Falstaff and choose the Lord Chief Justice for his main counsellor. In the exposition of our play another grave man, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is invited by the King to unfold ‘justly and religiously’, without fashioning or bowing his reading, whether the English claim to the French crown and territory is lawful. The Archbishop's answer is certainly too long-winded for our modern taste in tempo; however, Dover Wilson is probably right in assuming that not only Henry but also Shakespeare's audiences, being rhetorically minded and litigious, loved to hear a good pleader proving that France belonged to them.6 Only when the Archbishop and all the English peers unanimously persuade the King of the righteousness of his action, does he give the final signal for the French expedition.

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

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

To close this part of our analysis, let us consider for a moment one trait in Henry's character which has not always been fully appreciated. I mean his plainness, his soldier-like bluntness, his dislike of social pretence and his striving for simple and honest relations between himself and all his subjects. Some American scholars7 have observed how the blunt soldier had come to be a striking type in life and on the stage by the end of the Elizabethan period and how he was often placed in opposition to courtly fops or intriguers. Shakespeare developed and enriched this type in many of his characters, starting with the Bastard in King John and culminating tragically in Coriolanus. Surely the warlike Harry deserves to be admitted to this military brotherhood. Already his wild youth in the company of Jack Falstaff may be explained, at least in part, by his instinctive dislike of courtly falsity and foppery, because every court breeds flattery and dissimulation, and the court of Henry IV, the ‘king of smiles’, had been full of it. On this basis we are permitted to sympathize with Prince Hal's escapades in the less decorous yet more wholesome air of the London world, or underworld. What he learns there stands him in good stead later. Hardly any other king would be able to mix with his common soldiers as freely as Henry does the night before Agincourt. Not only does he have a reassuring chat with them. He shows himself as eager to cut through the official hierarchy by means of his disguise and to learn the plain, even bitter, truth directly from their rank-and-file point of view, without trimmings. Moreover he thinks it proper to stress right at the beginning of his discussion that ‘the king is but a man’ to whom the violet smells the same as it does to anybody else. The ideal monarch of the sixteenth century must base his position on some sort of sense of essential human equality.

A similar candour informs his attitude to the woman of his heart. When he comes to woo the French Princess Katharine, he does not choose to speak in the vein of a mighty conqueror, however much he would be entitled to the pomps of a Tamburlaine. Nor does he ‘mince it in love’ like so many sonneteering and capering courtiers. Although his courting speeches are stylistically much more deliberate and cultivated than they may seem at first sight, essentially he remains true to himself as a ‘plain soldier’ and a ‘plain king’. Many critics8 have felt rather baffled, if not disgusted, when Henry playfully suggests, instead of love-lorn rhyming and dancing, that he buffet for his love, or bound his horse for her favours and ‘lay on like a butcher, and sit like a jack-an-apes, never off’. However inelegant such words may sound, we should not close our eyes to the simple truth and beauty of what they really imply and lead up to:

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

(V. 2. 158-66.)

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

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

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

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

In this light, the second of Henry's cardinal virtues, his piety, does not emerge untarnished. The more devout the words on his lips, the more humble his glances towards Heaven, the more he falls under suspicion of hiding the bad conscience of an aggressor under constant references to God, as so many of his historical predecessors and successors were in the habit of doing. If we judge his piety not only by his words but also by his works, the result is more disquieting. It is true that he does ostentatious penance for the crime committed by his father upon Richard II. Nevertheless, the fruit of this crime, the English crown, rests firmly in his hands and is being stained by much more blood in the war against France. Now nobody would expect Henry to give up his crown in a fit of belated penitence. Such things seldom happen in practical politics and, moreover, Shakespeare had his Holinshed and the main historical facts, not to mention the position of the Tudors, to consider. Yet would it not have been much better for Henry, then, simply to leave Richard, as well as God, at rest, without taking their names repeatedly in vain? As it is, it would seem as though the poet had penetrated too deeply into the King's soul not to see there an incessant strife between political exigencies and human feelings, between the call of power and glory and the urge towards genuine simplicity and piety.9

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

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

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

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

Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown'd king
          Of France and England, did this king succeed;
Whose state so many had the managing
          That they lost France and made his England bleed; …

(Epilogue, 9-12.)

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

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

Nor are the implications of Henry's courtship of Katharine beyond criticism. Although we have clarified his offending bluffness as behaviour fit for a soldier, there is a seamy side to his wooing that cannot be so easily explained away. I mean the fact that Katharine is regarded by everybody (including herself), and by Henry in the first place, as part of the war spoils resulting from the Agincourt victory. Henry puts it again quite bluntly when Katharine coyly expresses her doubts whether it is possible for her to love the enemy of France. Says Henry in a cock-sure tone: ‘No, it is not possible you should love the enemy of France, Kate, but in loving me you should love the friend of France; for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine. And, Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine.’ (V. 2. 169-75.)

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

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

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

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

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

(III. 1. 1-2.)

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

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

(IV. 1. 112-16.)

Still more chilling are the comments of Private Williams who reminds the King of ‘all those legs and arms and heads, chopp'd off in a battle’ that are going to ‘join together at the latter day, and cry all “We died at such a place”—some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left.’ (IV. 1. 134-40.)

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

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

(II. 3. 55-6.)

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

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

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

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

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

It has a powerful impact on us, this image of history, repeated so often by Shakespeare. History is a great staircase which a line of kings endlessly ascends. Each step, each pace towards the summit, is marked by murder, perjury and treason. … The kings change. But the staircase remains the same.10

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. The list can only be tentative because the chronology of Shakespeare's plays is a vexed problem of long standing. For our purposes, however, there is no need to go into the innumerable discussions of Shakespearian scholars. Two important and sound views are presented in E. K. Chambers' William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems (Oxford 1930), I, 243-74, and in James G. McManaway's ‘Recent Studies in Shakespeare's Chronology’, Shakespeare Survey 3 (1950), 22-33.

  2. W. Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespear's Plays, in Complete Works (London 1930), IV, 285-6.

  3. G. B. Shaw, Our Theatre in the Nineties, Standard edition (London 1948), II, 128.

  4. Introduction to King Henry V, New Cambridge edition (Cambridge 1947), vii-xlvii.

  5. Introduction to King Henry V, Arden edition (London 1954), xi-xxxiv.

  6. New Cambridge Henry V, xxiv.

  7. This observation already appears in the classic book of the American historian, E. P. Cheyney, A History of England from the Defeat of the Armada to the Death of Elizabeth, 2 vols., (1914, 1926). It has been developed by the literary historians, notably by Lily B. Campbell Shakespeare's Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino 1947), P. A. Jorgensen Shakespeare's Military World (Berkeley and Los Angeles 1956), and H. J. Webb.

  8. E.g. Samuel Johnson, or, to give a modern instance, E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London 1944). Dr. Tillyard considers Henry's speech to Katharine to be ‘a piece of sheer writing down to the populace’ (309). Later on he adds a highly sophisticated speculation: ‘The coarseness of Henry's courtship of Katharine is curiously exaggerated; one can almost say hectic: as if Shakespeare took a perverse delight in writing up something he had begun to hate.’ (313).

  9. Derek Traversi, in his recent monograph, Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V (Stanford University Press 1957), arrives at somewhat similar conclusions: ‘The inspiration of Henry V is, in its deeper moments (which do not represent the whole play), critical, analytic, exploratory. …’ (197-8).

  10. Jan Kott, Shakespeare Notre Contemporain (Paris 1962), 17.

Karen Newman (essay date 1991)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5484

SOURCE: Newman, Karen. “Englishing the Other: ‘Le tiers exlu’ and Shakespeare's Henry V.” In Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama, pp. 95-108. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Newman analyzes the way language is used to represent social and gender differences in Henry V.]

At his departure in search of a northwest passage, the English explorer Martin Frobisher was exhorted by Queen Elizabeth to bring back some of the native peoples he encountered on his voyage. Elizabeth betrayed her characteristic ambivalence toward colonial enterprise: she desired to see the “spectacle of strangeness” but at the same time ordered Frobisher not to compel the Indians against their wills. In his account of the voyage (1577), Frobisher reveals that despite Elizabeth's warning he laid hold of his captive forcibly. Worried about the well-being of his “strange and new prey,” he also took a woman captive for his prisoner's comfort. Here is the account of that meeting:

At their first encountring they beheld each the other very wistly a good space, without speech or word uttered, with great change of colour and countenance, as though it seemed the griefe and disdeine of their captivity had taken away the use of their tongues and utterance: the woman at the first very suddenly, as though she disdeined or regarded not the man, turned away, and began to sing as though she minded another matter: but being againe brought together, the man brake up the silence first, and with sterne and stayed countenance, began to tell a long solemne tale to the woman, whereunto she gave good hearing, and interrupted him nothing, till he had finished, and afterwards, being growen into more familiar acquaintance by speech, they were turned together, so that (I thinke) the one would hardly have lived without the comfort of the other. And for so much as we could perceive, albeit they lived continually together, yet they did never use as man & wife, though the woman spared not to doe all necessary things that appertained to a good housewife indifferently for them both, as in making cleane their Cabin, and every other thing that appertained to his ease: for when he was seasicke, she would make him cleane, she would kill and flea the dogs for their eating, and dresse his meate. Only I thinke it worth the noting the continencie of them both: for the man would never shift himselfe, except he had first caused the woman to depart out of his cabin, and they both were most shamefast, least any of their privie parts should be discovered, either of themselves, or any other body.1

This remarkable description of the Eskimos' domestic relations is of interest as much for what it reveals about the captors as for its description of the Eskimos themselves. The English found the Eskimos particularly troubling because they were both savage and civilized: they wore sewn leather clothing, unlike their southern counterparts; they “dressed” their meat, that is, prepared and cooked it; their complexions were as white as those of many Englishmen. But they were also savage: they sometimes ate raw flesh washed down, according to contemporary observers, with ox blood; they lived underground in caves or burrows with holes for doors; they were nomads, “a dispersed and wandering nation … without any certaine abode.” Frobisher's account demonstrates the English attitude; he and his men watch their captives as if they were animals in a cage.

But Frobisher not only constructs the alien; he fashions the Eskimos into an English man and wife. She is chaste, silent, and obedient, blushing modestly at first sight of her fellow, listening in silence to him speak, a good housewife in attending to “house” and “husband.” Frobisher marks the man as speaking first, in monologue, “with sterne and stayed countenance,” sublating the woman's initiative in breaking silence with her phatic singing. The man is comically helpless, almost pompous; the woman cares for him in sickness and prepares his food. Both show what for the English sailors seems a surprising sexual continence and modesty: Frobisher is amazed that being “turned together … they did never use as man & wife” and betrays his incredulity with expressions of doubt—the qualifying “I think” and “for so much as we could perceive.” However willing the English are to see the strangeness of Eskimo customs—domiciliary, dietary, sartorial—heterosexual relations are always the same. For the English explorer, gender—and particularly womanhood—is a given of nature rather than a construct of culture; it is transhistorical and transnational, to be encountered by Englishmen in their colonial travels the world over.

In Frobisher's account, ethnography is domesticated: he constructs the Eskimos' relations as an English marriage—domestic, naturalized, immanent. In doing so, he suppresses the Eskimos' strangeness not only for the Elizabethans but for modern readers of Renaissance texts as well, and thereby obscures the contingency of gender and sexuality. In his brilliant analysis of Renaissance culture and its response to the other, “Strange Things, Gross Terms, Curious Customs: The Rehearsal of Cultures in the Late Renaissance,” Steven Mullaney casually remarks that Frobisher “brought an Eskimo couple back from his second voyage,” though Frobisher's own account makes the status of the two Eskimos' relation perfectly clear.2 Mullaney observes that “difference draws us to it; it promises pleasure and serves as an invitation to firsthand experience, otherwise known as colonization.” But as Mullaney's elision of the Eskimos' relation suggests, the pleasures of sexual difference invite essentialist assumptions about gender and heterosexuality.

The early modern English fascination with the strange and alien has been widely documented. Explorers who returned from their voyages with native peoples often turned their captives to account, as Stephano and Trinculo plan to do with Caliban. Ostensibly brought back to be Christianized and to learn English language and customs so as to return one day to “civilize” their fellows, new world peoples were displayed like freaks and wild animals for viewers willing to pay a few pence for the sight. Ballads, almanacs, pamphlets, travelogues, and plays record not only the English interest in the other but the conflation of various discourses of difference—gender, race, class or degree, the nation state—in representations of difference. In Tamar Cam (1592), for example, there is an entry of “Tartars, Geates, Amozins, Negars, ollive cullord moores, Canniballs, Hermaphrodites, Pigmes,” a series that witnesses how the English set themselves off from their many others—sexual, racial, social. English culture defined itself in opposition to exotic others represented as monstrous but also in opposition to its near neighbors on which it had expansionist aims, the Welsh, the Irish, the Scots. As Mullaney observes, “learning strange tongues or collecting strange things, rehearsing the words and ways of marginal or alien cultures, upholding idleness for a while—these are the activities of a culture in the process of extending its boundaries and reformulating itself.”3

That extension of boundaries is often represented in drama linguistically, and nowhere more than in Shakespeare's Henry V. M. C. Bradbrook, C. L. Barber, Robert Weimann, and Steven Mullaney, Shakespeareans who approach the plays from widely varied perspectives, have all demonstrated how Shakespeare's language and stagecraft preserved or consumed the customs and voices of other cultures. The play is notable for what Bakhtin has called heteroglossia, its various voices or linguistic sociality.4 According to Bakhtin, language is stratified not only into dialects in the linguistic sense but also “into languages that are socio-ideological: languages of social groups, ‘professional’ and ‘generic’ languages, languages of generations and so forth.”5

Unlike the earlier plays in the tetralogy, the social voices of Henry V are not represented only in the taverns but on the battlefield and in the palace. Its wealth of dialects, its proverbs and folk sayings, are in the mouths not only of Bardolph, Pistol, and the Hostess but of respected soldiers of the “middling sort,” and even the elite, as in the contest of proverbs between Orleans and the Constable of France. The linguist M. A. K. Halliday's distinction between dialect (language determined by who you are, your socioregional origins) and what he terms register (language determined by use and expressing the social division of labor) provides a useful schema for analyzing the way in which the play represents both social and gender difference linguistically.6

According to Halliday, register is affected by a number of variables including role relationships, social situations, and symbolic and ideological organization. Henry moves among a variety of speakers, situations and modes of speech; he can vary his linguistic register according to context. Whereas the soldiers are limited by their dialects and by sociolects of degree, Henry is represented by a flexible linguistic register: he speaks with the voice of monarchical authority and the elite at one moment, with the voice of a common soldier at another. With his bishops, his nobles, and the French he speaks a highly rhetorical verse that indicates his status as king and is marked by mythological and scriptural allusion, the royal “we,” the synecdochic figuration of the king's two bodies, and references to his genealogy and elite pastimes. With his soldiers on the field he speaks in another register, a prose of mercantile allusion, proverbial and colloquial.

Henry's linguistic flexibility and virtuosity enables him, unlike the other characters of the play, to move among and seemingly to master varied social groups. That seeming mastery is perhaps nowhere more prominent than in those speeches in which the king presents himself as constrained by “ceremony” rather than empowered by “place, degree, and form” and their appropriate rhetorics.7 Paradoxically, perhaps, Henry's self-conscious manipulation of linguistic register is in part what undermines the play's glorification of the monarch and has prompted recent ironic readings.8

A dialectical speaker is quite different; his language limits his status, role and mobility. Fluellen, MacMorris, and Jamy all demonstrate not simply the variety of Englishmen on the battlefield at Agincourt and their unity under Henry, as has so often been noted, but speech and behavior governed by socioregional variables. An early modern illustration of the kind of linguistic determinism Halliday posits would be the annexation of Wales in 1536 that “permitted only English speakers to hold administrative office.”9 The non-elite, then, are presented as linguistically disadvantaged by dialect or, in the case of Princess Katherine, excluded from English altogether by her mother tongue.

The English lesson between the Princess and Alice at III, iv, the only scene in the play that takes place in a private, domestic space, powerfully represents Katherine's linguistic disadvantage. The dialogue locates and confines her not even to the comprehensible if comic dialect of the mother tongue spoken by the captains and soldiers but to a strange disfigured tongue and body. It is preceded by Henry's speech before the walls of Harfleur, often described as a generalized “disquietingly excessive evocation of suffering and violence,” but in fact suffering and violence rhetorically enacted on the aged, the helpless, and especially on women—their bodies, the products of their bodies, and the ideological positions they occupy in the family and the commonwealth.10 In these notorious lines, the expansionist aims of the nation state are worked out on and through the woman's body. Henry speaks to the men of Harfleur by means of transactions in women: violation and the rape of “fair, fresh virgins” and the slaying of mothers' “flow'ring infants.” The speech ends with a vision of familial destruction:

                                                                                                    look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
[Desire] the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dash'd to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confus'd
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen.

(III, iii, 33-41)11

In Henry's speech, the power of the English army is figured as aggressive violence against the weak, and particularly as sexual violence against women. In the dialogue between Katherine and Alice that follows, the “English” also conquer the woman's body. The bawdy of the lesson, the Princess's helpless rehearsal of gross terms, as Steven Mullaney calls it, confines woman discursively to the sexual sphere.12 The “lesson” moves from sexually unmarked, if potentially eroticized, parts—the hand, fingers, nails, neck, elbow, chin—to sexually specific puns that name the sexual act and women's genitals. Katherine is dispersed or fragmented not through a visual description of her body as spectacle, as in the blason and its variants in Renaissance love poetry, but through an o/aural wordplay that dismembers her. Nancy Vickers suggests that this synecdochic mode of representing woman as a fragmented body was disseminated in Petrarch's Rime Sparse.13 She outlines a history of such modes of representing woman and her body, from Latin love elegy to the novel and contemporary film. The most powerful theorization of this mode of representation has been articulated in contemporary film theory describing a fetishized female body, scattered, fragmented, and mastered—by a male gaze.14 In drama, which lacks the mastering perspective of the look (cinematic or authorial), spoken language—and particularly the variable register—becomes the means of mastery, a linguistic command imposed not on, as in cinema or in Petrarch, “the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer of meaning” but on woman as speaker. The dialogue at III, iv, literally “Englishes” Katherine and her body, constituting her as a sexual object that, as the final scene demonstrates, will be disposed of in a sexual exchange, another form of communication that binds men to men, England to France.

The sexual exchange at Act V is framed by Burgundy's speech representing France as a rank, wild, and overgrown garden (V, ii, 23-67). Peace, personified as a poor, naked woman has been chased from “our fertile France,” and through a slippage in pronouns, France itself is feminized, a fitting figure for the following courtship scene resulting in the marriage of “England and fair France.” Henry tells Burgundy quite clearly that “you must buy that Peace / With full accord to all our just demands” (V, ii, 70-71). Though most modern editions shift to lower case in Henry's response, thereby expunging the personification of Peace as a woman, the Folio extends the figure. Gender and the “traffic in women,” as Gayle Rubin has dubbed it, have already a figurative presence before the wooing scene proper even begins.15 Henry, called England in this scene in the Folio, continues, “Yet leave our cousin Katharine here with us: / She is our capital demand” (V, ii, 95-96).

Henry's wooing participates in a long tradition, dating at least from the troubadours, that conflates courtship and pedagogy: it stages an erotic education. Though the king begins by asking Katherine “to teach a soldier terms / Such as will enter at a lady's ear / And plead his love-suit to her gentle heart,” she is his pupil throughout. Henry speaks the same prose to the princess he uses with his captains and regulars, his social inferiors. He talks bawdily of “leapfrog,” of taking “the Turk by the beard,” uses colloquialisms like “jackanapes,” and refers to himself proverbially as the “king of good fellows.” Eleven of his eighteen speeches addressed to her end with questions to which he prompts her responses. He enumerates the tasks “Kate” might put him to for her sake, only to refuse them and substitute his own. His refusal to use the conventional language of love and his self-presentation as a plain king who knows “no way to mince it in love” are strategies of mastery, for they represent Henry as sincere, plain-spoken, a man of feeling rather than empty forms. He renames her “Kate” and finally teaches her to lay aside French manners for English customs—specifically, the kiss. The wooing scene replays the conventional female erotic plot in which a sexual encounter transforms the female protagonist and insures her destiny.16

In Henry V, Henry systematically denies Katherine's difference—her French maidenhood—and fashions her instead into an English wife. He domesticates her difference, refashioning the other as the same. When Burgundy reenters, he asks, “My royal cousin, teach you your princess English? … Is she not apt?” At the end of this second language lesson, Katherine is not only “englished” but silenced as well by the witty banter at her expense between Henry and Burgundy that excludes her from the dialogue.17 When Henry asks the French king to “give me your daughter,” he responds:

Take her, fair son; and from her blood raise up
Issue to me; that the contending kingdoms
Of France and England, whose very shores look pale
With envy of each other's happiness,
May cease their hatred, and this dear conjunction
Plant neighborhood and Christian-like accord
In their sweet bosoms, that never war advance
His bleeding sword 'twixt England and fair France.

(V, ii, 366-73)

As this passage makes clear, the giving of Katherine to Henry in marriage insures relations among men, or in Lévi-Strauss's often quoted formulation: “The total relationship of exchange which constitutes marriage is not established between a man and a woman, … but between two groups of men, and the woman figures only as one of the objects in the exchange, not as one of the partners.”18 For Lévi-Strauss, the exchange of women and the male bonds it constitutes are the origin of social life. Feminists have pointed out two related consequences of Lévi-Strauss's claims. First, Julia Kristeva has debunked the seeming centrality of woman as desired object: “site of occultation or valorization, woman will be a pseudo-center, a center latent or manifest that is blatantly exposed or modestly hidden … in which man seeks man and finds him.”19 Luce Irigaray has looked not at the woman in this system of exchange but at the male bonds it insures:

The exchanges that organize patriarchal societies take place exclusively between men, … [and if] women, signs, goods, currency, pass from man to man or risk … slipping into incestuous and endogamous relations that would paralyze all social and economic intercourse, … [then] the very possibility of the socio-cultural order would entail homosexuality. Homosexuality would be the law that regulates the socio-cultural economy.20

For Irigaray, the traffic in women is revealed in its coarsest aspect, deromanticized, mercantile, hyperbolic. She eroticizes the ties between men Lévi-Strauss posits to point out a continuum—which she expresses through her pun “hom(m)osexualité”—that encompasses an entire array of relations among men from the homoerotic to the competitive to the commercial. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has appropriated the term “homosocial” from the social sciences to describe “the whole spectrum of bonds between men, including friendship, mentorship, rivalry, institutional subordination, homosexual genitality, and economic exchange—within which the various forms of the traffic in women take place.”21

In contemporary analyses of systems of exchange, woman's status as object is hypostasized: she is goods, chattel, substance. The category of object, and conversely that of subject—the partners in the exchange (men)—is unquestioned, despite theoretical challenges to a unified subjectivity. Feminist literary readings of exchange systems are too frequently, to parody current literary parlance, always already read. But more disturbing, such readings may reinscribe the very sex/gender system they seek to expose or change. Such a crude confrontation between subject and object betrays a naive realism: the communication between men, what Sedgwick has called homosocial relations, does not always work smoothly but is often “pathological” in ways that disrupt the traffic in women.

In his essay on the Platonic dialogue, Michel Serres explores the “pathology of communication,” in which what he terms noise or the phenomena of interference—stammerings, mispronunciations, regional accents, as well as forms of technical interference such as background noise, jamming, static—become obstacles to communication. He notes that Jakobson and other theoreticians of language have described dialogue as a sort of game in which the two interlocutors are united against phenomena of interference and confusion. In such a conception of dialogue, the interlocutors are in no way opposed, as in the traditional notion of dialectic, but

are on the same side, tied together by a mutual interest: they battle together against noise. … To hold a dialogue is to suppose a third man and to seek to exclude him; a successful communication is the exclusion of the third man. The most profound dialectical problem is not the problem of the Other, who is only a variety—or a variation—of the Same, it is the problem of the third man. We might call this third man the demon, the prosopopoeia of noise.22

I want to call this third man a woman and to reconsider Serres's model of pathological communication in terms of sexual difference. Noise, in such a revision, the phenomena of interference, is not only dialects and mispronunciations, static and backgound noise but specificities, details, differences. Within a sex-gender system in which woman is the object of exchange, dialogue is homosocial, between men, and woman is the “tiers exclu” or what in a later extended meditation on this problem Serres calls “le parasite.”23 What makes Serres's model of the “tiers exclu” useful in a discussion of gender and systems of exchange is that it complicates the binary Same/Other that dominates analysis of sex/gender systems and recognizes the power of the excluded third.24 For as Serres insists, “background noise is essential to communication”; the battle against the excluded third “is not always successful. In the aporetic dialogues, victory rests with the powers of noise” (67, 66).

Katherine's speech, with its mispronunciations, consistently deflects Henry's questions and solicitations. In response to his request that she teach “a soldier terms / Such as will enter at a lady's ear / And plead his love-suit to her gentle heart” (V, ii, 99-101), Katherine responds, “I cannot speak your England.” When the king asks “Do you like me, Kate?” she answers “Pardonnez-moi, I cannot tell wat is ‘like me.’” When he plays on her response, saying “An angel is like you, Kate, and you are like an angel,” she must ask Alice “Que dit-il? que je suis semblable à les anges?” And at her “Oui, vraiment” and his “I said so, dear Katherine, and I must not blush to affirm it,” she returns, “O bon Dieu! les langues des hommes sont pleines de tromperies” (115). Throughout the scene, Henry ends his speeches with questions: “What sayest thou then to my love?” and “Canst thou love me?” and Katherine responds equivocally “Is it possible dat I sould love de enemy of France?” “I cannot tell wat is dat” and “I cannot tell.” Finally in response to his reiterated question “Wilt thou have me?” she responds “Dat is as it shall please de roi mon père.” Assured he is so pleased, she acquiesces only to allow “Den it sall also content me.” Their dialogue represents a pathological communication in which phenomena of interference both thwart the exchange and at the same time enable it. Shakespeare, unlike his analogue, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fift, represents Katherine at a linguistic disadvantage: she speaks not only French but a comically accented English and a similarly comical macaronic version of the two; but that very disadvantage becomes a strategy of equivocation and deflection.

Many readers have noted the troubling ironies generated by Henry's public justifications and private meditations, and by his military threats and disguised sojourn among his common soldiers; but his relations with Katherine, which, after all, produce the play's sense of closure, have received scant attention. Since Dr. Johnson claimed that “the poet's matter failed him in the fifth act,” critics have lamented the “comic” scenes and particularly the play's ending, describing it as an “anti-climax” and Henry's wooing as “ursine.”25 Readers who bother to justify the fifth act do so with the lame defense that the ideal hero must marry and Act V is therefore the completion of Henry's character.26 More often than not in recent “political” readings of the play, the scenes with Katherine are ignored or used to show that Henry V is a falling off from the earlier plays of the tetralogy. Mullaney, for example, suggests that the comic scenes exemplify Marx's “notorious” proposal “that the major events of history occur twice, once as tragedy, and again as farce”27 and reiterates the well-worn claim that the language lesson was “borrowed” from French farce (though it certainly owes more to the popular and cheap French phrase books fashionable in socially mobile late sixteenth-century London).28 Political readings tend to ignore the scenes altogether, thereby falling prey to the conventional assumptions of an outmoded political history that excludes social relations and gender from the domain of politics.29

Banishing the women's dialogue to the margins of critical discourse on Henry V, whether as a footnote to literary borrowing, a coda to the discussion of Falstaff and popular culture, or an absence in the “socio-political perspective of materialist criticism” is to erase gender as an historical category.30 Gender is also the missing term in Bakhtin's enumeration of heteroglot voices.31 Commentators have claimed that what Bakhtin terms “carnivalization” collapses hierarchic distinctions. Role reversals and the evocation of the body/bawdy are said to turn the world upside down, collapse distinctions between high culture and low, king and soldier, domination and submission. But the world turned upside down, the exchange of positions, absolute reversal, “the phase of overturning,” is not enough. Reversal preserves the binary oppositions that ground sexual and social hierarchies: “the hierarchy of dual oppositions always reestablishes itself.”32 The disfiguring power of wordplay in the women's language lesson enables gender hierarchies, mastering the female body by dismembering it; but at the same time that very instability of linguistic meaning, the interference of noise, the o/aural dispersal of the female body, threatens linguistic mastery and successful communication not by means of reversal but through dissemination—of the body and of words.


  1. R. Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations, Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation (1600), ed. Walter Raleigh (Glasgow, 1903-5), VII, 306-7.

  2. Steven Mullaney, “Strange Things, Gross Terms, Curious Customs: The Rehearsal of Cultures in the Late Renaissance,” Representations 3 (1983): 40-67. We know from other records that these two “Eskimos” eventually did “use as man & wife” because a child was born to the couple in England.

  3. See Mullaney's The Place of the Stage (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 82.

  4. In Bakhtin's formulation, heteroglossia is only possible in the novel and certain other genres from which it developed because of the dialogic organization of novelistic discourse, the presence of an authorial or narrative voice in dialogic relation to the many-voicedness of characters and genres. In drama, Bakhtin complains, “there is no all-encompassing language that addresses itself dialogically to separate languages, there is no second plotless (nondramatic) dialogue outside that of the (dramatic) plot.” Though the dramatic immediacy of theatrical representation obscures the fact that the audience watches a constructed world, theatrical representation on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, so different from the naturalistic “fourth wall” bourgeois theatre that Bakhtin seems to have in mind, provides a formal equivalent to an authorial voice, to a narrator, and particularly in Henry V with its choral preludes that remind the audience of the conventions of theatre. The conventions of the Elizabethan theatre, including acting styles, transvestism, prominent use of rhetoric and of micro-generic intrusions—from the novella to letter writing—establish a dialogic relation with the characters' voices and prevent what Bakhtin calls the domination of “unitary language.” M. M. Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination, tr. Michael Holquist and Caryl Emerson (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 266.

  5. Bakhtin, 272.

  6. M. A. K. Halliday, Language as Social Semiotic (London: Edward Arnold, 1978), 35.

  7. J. H. Walter, ed., Henry V (London: Methuen, 1954, rpt. 1984), IV, i, 250-55. All references are to this edition, which relies primarily on the Folio text.

  8. See, for example, Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 33-62. But as Stephen Greenblatt observes, “the very doubts that Shakespeare raises serve not to rob the king of his charisma but to heighten it, precisely as they heighten the theatrical interest of the play. … prodded by constant reminders of a gap between real and ideal, facts and values, the spectators are induced to make up the difference, to invest in the illusion of magnificence, to be dazzled by their own imaginary identification with the conqueror”; “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance authority and its subversions, Henry IV and Henry V,” in Political Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (London: Methuen, 1985), 43. Greenblatt assumes too easily this imaginary “identification with the conqueror,” thereby ruling out contestatory voices and producing a monolithic audience, marked here by the definite article—ungendered, unclassed. The female spectator is faced either with a kind of specular masquerade in which she dons a masculine subject position and identifies with the conqueror, or alternatively, masochistic identification with the doubly subject Katherine, woman and synechdochic representative of a conquered France.

  9. Cited in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, “History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V,Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), 224.

  10. Dollimore and Sinfield, “History and Ideology,” 226.

  11. Rowe emended the Folio's “desire” to “defile,” which Walter accepts in the Arden edition. Though “defile” is, of course, consistent with “dash'd” and “spitted,” the Folio's “desire” stresses the sexual violence against women I am emphasizing here.

  12. Mullaney, “Strange Things,” 87.

  13. Nancy Vickers, “Diana Described: Scattered Woman and Scattered Rhyme,” Critical Inquiry 8 (1981): 265-80.

  14. Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16 (1975): 6-18; Paul Willemen, “Voyeurism, the Look and Dwoskin,” Afterimage 6 (1976), esp. 44-45.

  15. Gayle Rubin, “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex,” Toward an Anthropology of Women, ed. Rayna Reiter (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1975).

  16. On female destinies and the erotic plot, see Nancy Miller, The Heroine's Text (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980).

  17. Kathleen McLuskie observes of Shakespeare's plays generally that “sex and sexual relations” are “sources of comedy” and “narrative resolution” rather than part of the conflict or the serious business of war and politics. See “The Patriarchal Bard: Feminist Criticism and Shakespeare: King Lear and Measure for Measure,Political Shakespeare, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), 92.

  18. Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship, tr. James Harle Bell, John Richard von Sturmer, and Rodney Needham (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), 115. For a fuller discusion of exchange and feminist theory, see my “Directing Traffic: Subjects, Objects and the Politics of Exchange,” differences 2 (1990): 41-54.

  19. Julia Kristeva, Texte du roman (The Hague: Mouton, 1970), 160.

  20. Irigaray, Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un, 189, my translation. …

  21. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Sexualism and the Citizen of the World: Wycherley, Sterne and Male Homosocial Desire,” Critical Inquiry 11 (1984), 227. See also her Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985).

  22. Michel Serres, “Platonic Dialogue,” Hermes, Literature, Science, Philosophy, ed. Josue V. Harari and David Bell (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), 67.

  23. Michel Serres, Le Parasite (Paris: Grasset, 1980).

  24. Serres's notion of dialogue and the tiers exclu in particular helps to make sense of that final moment in The Elementary Structures of Kinship when Lévi-Strauss admits women “could never become just a sign and nothing more, since even in a man's world she is still a person, and since in so far as she is defined as a sign she must be recognized as a generator of signs … in contrast to words, which have wholly become signs, woman has remained at once a sign and a value,” 496.

  25. Walter, xxviii; Herschel Baker, The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 931.

  26. Walter, xxviii.

  27. Mullaney, The Place of the Stage, 87.

  28. The “source” of this attribution of influence is M. L. Radoff, “The Influence of French Farce in Henry V and The Merry Wives of Windsor,MLN 48 (1933): 427-35. The cornerstone of his argument is the pun on “con,” which turns up in contemporary French farces and “would seem a highly improbable … mere coincidence,” 435. He neither cites the farces nor gives evidence they were available in England. More importantly, puns on “con” are ubiquitous. James Bellot's French phrase book, published during the Huguenot immigrations to England, offers several clear correspondences with the phonetic renderings of Katherine's accented English, “dat” for “that,” “de” for “the,” “den” for “then,” “wat” for “what,” and “fout” for “foot.” Familiar Dialogues (London, 1586), unique copy at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

  29. An exception is Walter Cohen, in Drama of a Nation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985), who is interested in precisely the problem of the incompleteness of the generic kinds, “romantic comedy” and “national historic drama.” He notes that “the basic fallacy of the history play is to assume that politics is everything and consequently to minimize the impact on national affairs of social relations between the aristocracy and other classes,” 220.

  30. Dollimore and Sinfield, “History and Ideology,” 214.

  31. For Bakhtin's formulation of carnival, see Rabelais and His World, tr. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984); see also Critical Inquiry 10 (1983), a forum on Bakhtin. See also Wayne Booth's discussion of Bakhtin's work on Rabelais, “Freedom of Interpretation: Bakhtin and the Challenge of Feminist Criticism,” Critical Inquiry 9 (1982): 45-76.

  32. Jacques Derrida, Positions, tr. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 41-42.

Katherine Eggert (essay date 1994)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 12153

SOURCE: Eggert, Katherine. “Nostalgia and the Not Yet Late Queen: Refusing Female Rule in Henry V.ELH 61, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 523-50.

[In the following essay, Eggert asserts that Henry V is an example of the way the Elizabethan stage was used to support patriarchal power.]

Within the last decade, Henry V has assumed a surprisingly prominent place not only in Shakespeare criticism, but in wider critical debates over the relations between literature and hegemonic political power. Prompted by Stephen Greenblatt's widely influential consideration of the Henriad in his essay “Invisible Bullets,” various critics have staked out Shakespeare's only real “war play” as their own battlefield for contesting, as Jean Howard puts it, “how and why a culture produces and deals with challenges to its dominant ideologies.”1 Whatever their ideological stance, however, these critics have largely left untested Greenblatt's crucial assumption that, in the Henriad's counterpoint between hegemony and subversion (or at least imagined subversion), hegemony resides with and emerges from the Elizabethan monarchy, and subversion (even if illusory) resides with and emerges from the Elizabethan stage. In this essay I want to contend that Henry V is a Shakespearean experiment in exercising precisely the reverse relation between throne and theater. If we fully consider this play's historical moment—its production late in the reign of not simply a monarch, but a queen—then Henry V's association between theatrical enterprise and the enterprises of a dauntingly masculine monarch grants theater not the power of subversion, but rather the power of patriarchy, which is asserted over and against the waning and increasingly disparaged power of female rule.

I wish, then, to begin by addressing the first long speech in Henry V, and one of the longest in the play: the Archbishop of Canterbury's disquisition on Salic law, the French tradition that kingship may never be claimed via descent from a woman. The mercenary motives behind Canterbury's speech, and their influence on how we view Henry's decision to fight for dominion of France, have been much debated; nevertheless, most critics have found it difficult to construe this speech itself as anything but a throwaway, a purely legalistic discussion that merely gives Henry the excuse to act.2 But I will argue that in fact Henry V is deeply concerned with Salic law, and—the Archbishop to the contrary—interested in how the English might safely take the French side of the Salic-law issue: that is to say, how an English king might legitimately claim political power without having derived any of that power from a woman. If monarchical power in Henry V is indeed intimately bound up with theatrical power, the play's concern with the ruler's gender also becomes one of characterizing dramatic power as wholly and properly male.

Salic law is never again mentioned in the play after this early scene; but we may begin to investigate its submerged importance by following Leah Marcus's lead in her study of 1 Henry VI, and asking ourselves why Salic law might be an issue topical to the writing of Henry V.3 The far more obviously topical reference in Henry V is the one that pinpoints the date of the play to an unusually precise degree: that is, the Chorus's allusion to the Earl of Essex, “the general of our gracious empress,” and his anticipated triumph over the Irish (5.Chor.29-34). These lines, described by Gary Taylor as “the only explicit, extra-dramatic, incontestable reference to a contemporary event anywhere in the [Shakespearean] canon,” locate the play as having been written in the late spring or early summer of 1599.4 But this same allusion—in its chronological specificity, in its naming of Essex, and in its hopeful (if cautious) projection of male conquest—also serves to locate the play firmly in that time of increasing speculation over who should rule when England's now-aged gracious empress would be gone. Essex himself was deeply embroiled in the controversy, as he and Elizabeth's Secretary Robert Cecil in turn sought favor from James VI of Scotland, Elizabeth's likely but by no means guaranteed successor. The Jesuit polemicist Robert Parsons's 1594 Conference about the next succession to the crowne of Ingland, even while advocating a Catholic successor to the throne, is dedicated to Essex, because “no man [is] like to haue a greater part or sway in deciding of this great affair. …”5Henry V's uniquely topical reference thus circles back, via Essex's ambition to influence royal succession, to the play's Salic law speech: Parsons's tract, like others produced in the succession debates of the 1580s and 1590s, mentions Salic law as a precedent for measures that might promote only desirable candidates to the throne.6

Behind the generally respectful pleas to Elizabeth to name a successor—pleas provoked by Parsons's tract—lay an anxiety about what the succession controversy might mean: not simply the hope of having a ruler after Elizabeth, but rather the desire to have a ruler instead of Elizabeth. Joel Hurstfield describes how Bishop Godfrey Goodman, writing during the reign of Charles I, remembered of this time that “the people were very generally weary of an old woman's government.”7 Testimony in the 1598 trial of one Edward Fraunces, accused of attempting to seduce an Elizabeth Baylie, revealed that Fraunces had remarked “that the land had been happy if Her Majesty had been cut off 20 years since, so that some noble prince might have reigned in her stead.”8 The 1599 crisis in government later precipitated by Essex's Irish failure, a failure caused in part by his lack of support from either Cecil or his always-cautious queen, seems to have marked a watershed in the increase of the people's discontent. When Oxford's Regius Professor of Divinity Thomas Holland “printed in 1601 his accession-day sermon of two years earlier, … [he] found it necessary to preface it with ‘An Apologetical Discourse’ against those who opposed the celebration of 17 November [Elizabeth's accession day] as a Holy Day.”9 Perhaps most telling of all is the bill passed by Parliament in 1601 “to prohibit the writing and publishing of books about the title to the Crown of this realm, and the authority of the Government thereof, subjects being thus led into false errors and traitorous attempts against the Queen, into private factions, unlawful bonds, & c.”10 This injunction may have prevented the publication of manuscripts like that of the Lincolnshire rector Henry Hooke, who in 1601 or 1602 wrote of his desire “that what corruptions in iustice, what blemishes in religion, the infirmitie, and inconueniency of woemanhead, would not permitt to discouer and discerne, the vigor, and conueniency of man sytting as king in the throne of aucthoritie; maye diligently search out, and speedylie reforme.”11

Such grumblings about the queen indicate a partial turn from the anti-gynecocratic sentiments of the beginning of her reign, whose obsession had been the possibility of a “female nature” overtaking its bounds when it took over a country, her sexuality ruling both her actions and her nation.12 Later writings of a less “theoretical” nature, polemically directed against either Elizabeth or Mary Queen of Scots, had continued in this same vein: their ire, which came to a head in the circumstances surrounding Mary Queen of Scots's 1587 execution, had focused on the dissipation of these two women's bodies, their lust for power commingling itself with physical venery. These invectives had imagined the indirection into which a queen's realm is led as a wild, careening path governed only by the whims of a woman's pernicious sexual desire—making her country into a “cuntry,” as the expatriate Cardinal of England William Allen pointedly spelled the word.13 In the 1590s, in contrast, England for the first time also considered its queen's body as a decaying body, and her rule as one that would lead the country nowhere at all. J. E. Neale identifies the late-Elizabethan “sense of ennui … stealing over court and country” as having been caused by “a credulous desire of novelty and change, hoping for better times, despising the present, and forgetting favours past.”14 In 1602, as England waited ever more impatiently for Elizabeth to hand over both state and succession to a king, her godson Sir John Harington wrote, “I find some less mindful of what they are soon to lose, than of what they may perchance hereafter get.”15 Carole Levin has studied how late Elizabethan unrest over the state of its monarchy prompted the revival of rumors from Mary Tudor's time—rumors that Edward VI, Mary and Elizabeth Tudor's brother, had not died in 1553 but was about to return as savior of his people.16 If such desires could be attached to the figure of a less than mythic boy-king who had reigned only six years, the fantasy of the return of legitimate male rule must indeed have been powerful.

The wish for the return of a king who had been dead some forty years is eerily echoed in Henry V. Of course, the entire second historical tetralogy broods upon as well as enacts the movement of royal succession: from Richard II's sneer at Bolingbroke, “Here, cousin, seize the crown,” to Henry IV imagining “th'unguided days / And rotten times that you shall look upon” when his son will replace him as king, these plays ponder what qualifies a man to succeed to the throne. Theatrical precedent for Henry V—at least two versions of the story had preceded Shakespeare's to the stage, one entitled the Famous Victories of Henry V—might have led Shakespeare to supply an untroubled answer to the question of who shall be next to rule, an answer granting England the forward national motion of military triumph.17 But this question as it is first posed in Henry V indicates that matters will not be quite so straightforward. Canterbury's Salic law speech first brings up succession in regard to France, not England; and his determination of who ought to rule there is initially based on a recitation of who has ruled there in the past. Because previous French kings have claimed the throne through descent from a female, so might Henry. Moreover, as Canterbury goes on to assert, Henry's English forefathers, Edward III and Edward the Black Prince, conquered France; it is from them that Henry should take his inspiration. Though no one in the play will ever again discuss Salic law, several speakers will return to this backward-looking temporal argument as prescriptive. Forward-moving, decisive action is to be had by recalling, even replicating the past; Henry will be victorious when he imitates his great-grandfather, Edward III.

But in the slippage between the two prongs of Canterbury's argument—his debunking of Salic law, and his invocation of Edward III—resides the issue with which Henry V must grapple, both in terms of England's edginess about its elderly queen and in terms of the gender affiliations of the theater itself. In a late Elizabethan context, this slippage is equivalent to a shift between first upholding Elizabeth's reign (via defending a woman's place in royal lineage), and then abandoning this loyalty to look forward, by looking back, to a restored male rule. Even more interesting for theater, however, is the altered tone that accompanies the shift. The stirring phrasing of Canterbury's reference to mythic Edward and his son, especially after the dry, convoluted, even specious recital of the French monarchy's derivation, has the immediate effect of associating male rule with compelling theater—unlike female rule, which remains embedded in dull chronicle. Canterbury's imagery serves to reinforce his rhetorical pitch, as he describes an heir to the English throne who exercises consummate dramatic control:

                                                            Edward the Black Prince,
Who on the French ground play'd a tragedy,
Making defeat on the full power of France;
Whiles his most mighty father on a hill
Stood smiling to behold his lion's whelp
Forage in blood of French nobility.


But if Henry is to recapitulate Edward III's blend of high drama and English triumph, he must himself enact the shift in Canterbury's declamation, and leave behind the contingencies of female rule upon which he ostensibly bases his royal claim. The image of theatrical success Canterbury employs, moreover, hints that Henry V's sense of its own triumph will involve an analogous rejection of any female ingredient of theatrical effectiveness. This hint has already been developed in the play's opening lines—by the Prologue, whose level of anxiety about whether the stage can evoke belief leads us to examine more closely the gender affiliations of the theater, of the audience, and of the theatrical creation itself. As David Willbern notes, the Prologue's claims of theatrical inefficacy are coupled with its portrayal of the theater as an essentially female space: a pregnant, womblike, crammable O that is expected to bring forth heroes of the past full-blown.18 Although the Prologue's reference to “this swelling scene” might be interpreted as phallic as much as gestatory, further lines develop the theater as a scene of feminine reproduction, as the “cockpit” that both holds (“girdles”) and brings forth the theatrical scene. Given the way female or feminized characters in Shakespeare's previous history plays (Joan La Pucelle, Margaret of Anjou, Mortimer's Welsh wife, and especially Falstaff) typically disrupt epic male intentions, we might suspect a feminized theater to obstruct the presentation of “the warlike Harry.” The Prologue both recalls and goes some way toward recuperating this dilemma. The continuing metaphor of the actors as little “O's” themselves, “ciphers to this great accompt,” remembers Joan and Falstaff by construing the actors as enacting a theatrical seduction in which the audience acts as the passive partner: “Let us … on your imaginary forces work” (1. Pro. 17-18). But the introduction of the word “forces” signals a shift in the erotic energies of this proposed imaginative encounter. If the “forces” at hand belong to the audience, not the stage, then the scene is changed from one of theatrical seduction to one of theatrical conception; the audience is no ravished victim, but rather the Aristotelian male whose imagination imposes form upon the staged matter: “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts; / Into a thousand parts divide one man, / and make imaginary puissance” (23-25).19 This refiguration of a feminine theater into a site of dramatic inability hence ironically proves to be an enabling maneuver for Henry V. For if the theater is female only insofar as it is a womblike container, then the heroes it reproduces, like the audience response that gives them life, may be characterized as males untainted by feminine seductive skill. Henry V declares the stage female only to turn attention away from that stage, so that it can propose male authority as the sole, unassailable, authority—both kingly and dramatic.

The high stakes of this realignment of theatrical gender become encoded throughout Henry V, as the play's action, language, and imagery are equally bent on purging England and the English of all that is feminine. In fact, the play seems highly devoted to affirming a kind of Salic law of its own, contrary though that may be to Henry's legal justification for action: by the end of the play, as we shall see, Canterbury's initial repudiation of Salic law is so far forgotten that it is easy for us too to forget what side Henry initially took. First of all, the play's language continues insistently to derive Henry's ancestry as solely patrilineal. Even in Canterbury's opening scene with Ely, before he has showcased his explication of Salic law, he promises to recall Henry's descent from Edward III for him by revealing “The severals and unhidden passages / Of his true titles to some certain dukedoms, / And generally to the crown and seat of France, / Deriv'd from Edward, his great-grandfather” (1.1.86-89). In the ensuing rehearsal of the reasons by which Salic law may be discounted, as Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield have noted, Henry's genealogy is never traced further back than this single shining male forebear.20 In historical fact—which Shakespeare knew from Holinshed, not to mention from the Shakespeare-apocrypha play The Reign of Edward III, published in quarto in 1596 and 1599—Edward III's own claim to France was derived through his mother, Isabella of France (daughter of the French king Philip IV and wife of the ill-fated English king Edward II); but the play never so much as mentions this Isabella, the Frenchwoman whose womb bore England's great king.21 Her name appears in this case only as a distant echo in Canterbury's genealogy of the French monarchy, as a different, more distant Isabella, the French “fair Queen Isabel” from whom “King Lewis the Tenth” derived his claim to the French throne (1.2.76-82). (Later, she is reincarnated as the queen of France, whose name “Isabel” appears in the Folio stage directions heading act 5, scene 2.) The language of the play therefore manages to deflect all matrilinear contingencies from the English onto the French: apparently only the French, not the English, claim their rule through the female, reversing what ought to be the two countries' historical positions on Salic law.22

Moreover, this reconfiguration of Henry's ancestry joins with England's imperial designs upon France to solidify the English monarchy's final identification with the male: if France is posited as female, Henry can then attribute phallic qualities to both England and its king. Henry imagines that his mere appearance will strike fear into the hearts of his enemies, blinding/castrating the Dauphin, the only man who seems to stand in the way of his conquest: “I will rise there with so full a glory / That I will dazzle all the eyes of France, / Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us” (1.2.278-80).23 The Dauphin's challenge brings relief in the form not only of a final excuse for invading France, but also of a welcome reassignment of England's gender identity: a country that is not the invaded, but the invader; led not by an indecisive group of squabbling nobles, but by a king who promises to replicate 1 Henry VI's memorial reconstruction of him as fabled hero, whose “sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire, / More dazzled and drove back his enemies / Than mid-day sun fierce bent against their faces” (1 Henry VI, 1.1.12-14).24 Not that France, upon Henry's arrival, assumes a female role without protest: signs of male-male struggle initially remain, not so much (oddly enough) in the scenes surrounding battle, but rather in the rivalry between Henry and the Dauphin, whose language begins by resisting an English accumulation of all male and patrilineal identity. The Dauphin characterizes the two countries' contest as one between French fathers who have been careless about spreading their seed, and their English sons, now eager to “out-spirt” their progenitors.

O Dieu vivant! shall a few sprays of us,
The emptying of our fathers' luxury,
Our scions, put in wild and savage stock
Spirt up so suddenly into the clouds
And overlook their grafters?


Both Walter and Taylor gloss “spirt” as “sprout,” one of the word's sixteenth-century meanings; but in so doing they gloss over another sense available to Shakespeare, the one now spelled “spurt.”25 If we compound the English sprouting with their spurting, the Dauphin's objection to the English seems to be that they are attempting an ejaculation contest with their fathers. Hence, his description of the French-English rivalry points interestingly at a fact the English seem carefully to repress—that their remoter forefathers were not English heroes, but Norman conquerors who at their will ravished English women. Here is an account of English ancestry that subverts the national gender distinctions Henry is trying to enforce—but it is an account not allowed any free play in Henry V. Instead, France is eventually reconceived on all fronts as matching the English image of it. Even as the Dauphin himself is increasingly portrayed as laughably effeminate, a soldier more absorbed with praising his horse—which is a “palfrey,” a lady's horse (3.7.28)—than with encountering the English in pitched battle, the rest of the French often anticipate and thus seem to accept the feminization of their homeland and its openness to English ravishment. When the French king refers to Henry's ancestry, he describes not Henry's Norman forefathers, but rather the Edward III whose memory the English also enshrine, and who saw his “heroical seed” make hay of the seed of French fathers. With Henry as the “stem” of this “stock,” whatever contest of virility there may be between the French and the English seems already decided:

The kindred of him hath been flesh'd upon us,
And he is bred out of that bloody strain
That haunted us in our familiar paths;
Witness our too much memorable shame
When Cressy battle fatally was struck,
And all our princes captiv'd by the hand
Of that black name, Edward, Black Prince of Wales,
Whiles that his mountain sire, on mountain standing,
Up in the air, crown'd with the golden sun,
Saw his heroical seed, and smil'd to see him,
Mangle the work of nature, and deface
The patterns that by God and by French fathers
Had twenty years been made. This is a stem
Of that victorious stock; and let us fear
The native mightiness and fate of him.


Edward III had a French mother, but she is forgotten in the recollection of this “mountain sire's” triumph.

As Henry's army advances into France, England's military conquest becomes even more baldly intertwined with England's own patrilineal identity and France's hapless effeminizing. Henry's most thrilling martial speech, his exhortation to his troops to plunge “once more unto the breach,” is famously thick with images of stiffening and arousal, images that become inextricable from an insistence upon the paternal heritage of Henry's “dear friends.” The maternal is present only as a caution to the negative: if a soldier is not hardened, he proves his mother unchaste. “Dishonour not your mothers; now attest / That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you” (3.1.22-23). In addition to guaranteeing sexual prowess, martial arousal also purges one's family of any uncertainty contingent on the female; these are “noblest English! / Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof” (3.1.17-18). And by the time Henry threatens the siege of Harfleur, he unmistakably poses military conquest as the English violation of a French woman: first metaphorically, as he menaces the “half-achiev'd Harfleur” with the prospect of “the flesh'd soldier, rough and hard of heart” (3.3.7, 10); then literally, as he tosses off a prediction of the townswomen being raped by English troops.

Immediately upon the closure of this scene—a closure in which Harfleur's governor earns mercy by inviting Henry to “Enter the gates” of his now thoroughly feminized city (3.3.49)—Katharine of France makes her first appearance. She will, by the end of the play, embody what Henry has come to France to achieve: not just a female France, but France in the person of a female. And as sweetly amusing as her “language lesson” scene may be, it contains extraordinarily dark hints of how Henry's conquest of her will come to replace a purely military rape of France. Contrary to what one might expect from having played this “naming game” with a child, Katharine does not begin her instruction with the obvious features of the face—eye, nose, mouth, and so on. Rather, the words she learns echo, either directly or indirectly, earlier language pertaining to the invasion of her country. The word hand recalls the “bloody hand” and “foul hand” of English soldiery with which Henry has just threatened Harfleur; she also learns fingers, nails, arm, and elbow, words that serve to give an image of that hand its full shape and extension. She learns neck, a word reminiscent of the throats Pistol and Nym longed to cut (2.1.22, 92); chin, which reminds us of the barely bearded chins of those who followed Henry to France; and foot, another echo of Pistol and Nym's contentious exchange (“thy fore-foot to me give” [2.1.67]).26 And, as C. L. Barber and Richard Wheeler remark, the foot and count that so embarrass her invoke for us both the besieged walls of France's violated cities, and the soon-to-be-won Princess herself.27 Even the mistakes Katharine makes serve to substitute military terms for the words she is supposed to be learning. Instead of nails she says mails; instead of elbow, bilbow—which can refer either to a type of sword, or to iron fetters (like the fetters of arranged matrimony in which the Princess will soon find herself). All her bobblings of the language, then, are directed toward her upcoming part in Henry's project of conquest: as she learns English, her own speech absorbs the English military and sexual might that is being brought to bear on her country.28

Henry's peacemaking and wooing activities in act 5 are therefore not romantic or comedic incongruities, as Samuel Johnson grumpily contended, but rather part and parcel of successfully reassigning English and French national gender.29 First of all, the Dauphin—last seen in 4.5 cursing the conquering English—is unaccountably absent in the treaty scene (5.2); and second, the language of this scene follows up previous imagery of masculine invasion with resultant imagery of fruition. The queen of France's hope is for a generative “happy issue” of “this gracious meeting” (5.2.12, 20). And Burgundy speaks at length of France as a female garden that needs to be properly husbanded, asking

Why that the naked, poor, and mangled Peace
Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births,
Should not in this best garden of the world,
Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage?
Alas! she hath from France too long been chas'd
And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps,
Corrupting in it own fertility.


Henry, for his part, does not separate these two discourses, the art of husbandry from the art of military conquest: he is eager to establish the language of love as a male, soldierly language, in which he need relinquish none of his armor and none of his aggression. Even in his attempts to “woo” the French princess, and under pretense of loverlike surrender, he continues to make her precisely equivalent to the cities he has conquered: “For I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it; I will have it all mine: and Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine” (5.2.178-82). As Katharine's language lesson anticipated, accepting Henry means barely transposing the martial into the marital:

If I could win a lady at leap-frog, or by vaulting into my saddle with my armor on my back, under the correction of bragging be it spoken, I should quickly leap into a wife. Or if I might buffet for my love or bound my horse for her favours, I could lay on like a butcher and sit like a jack-an-apes, never off.


Henry is not so different here from the Dauphin, whose mistress was his horse—except that Henry has before him the woman who will take the horse's place. His language of romance proves to be of a piece with his language of conquest; both win for him a female France.30

Henry has also been engaged since his Prince Hal days with languages other than his own directed speech of warfare—with the languages of Eastcheap and of his own multi-accented army, as well as of his bride. But as both Steven Mullaney and Stephen Greenblatt have argued, Henry ultimately seeks not to partake of these alternative and potentially troublesome languages, but rather to negate their effectiveness, in a process that Greenblatt calls “the recording of alien voices” and that Mullaney describes as ritually purifying all that is base and gross in those voices.31 If we associate this project with Henry's project of gender purification, of sifting all that is female out of England and recording it as French, then we see that Henry will also be obliged to establish his very language as purely masculine, as worthy of a king, not a queen. And in his efforts to do so, we also find the development of a masculine language for the theater, one that draws upon the Prologue's desideratum: to project into others' minds what cannot be physically shown. However, Henry goes beyond even the Prologue's precedent in yoking this projective theatrical technique to a complex of epic paradigms—not only epic's depiction of masculine warfare, of arms and the man, but also epic's obsession with epochal continuance. With the Prologue, the hope for epic was confined to invoking the presence of soldiers the stage could not hold; but Henry projects onto the stage a vision that overgoes not only the limits of physical space but also the limits of time. As he speaks, Henry creates upon the stage he occupies a legend of himself that spans a continuum from the ancestral past to the distant future: in himself, he recalls the puissance of his forebears, and in his language he projects that glory into the time to come.

In short, Henry is the creator of epic theater because he is concerned not only with the immediate future of winning battles and conquering France, as some ordinary hero would be, but also with an extended future in which Henry and his army will be remembered as the “happy band of brothers” that did these heroic deeds. And in a radical break with Aristotelian norms, Henry's rhetorical endeavors to become part of cultural memory cumulatively propose that epic action can remain culturally alive only through recognizably theatrical means. We may begin investigating this proposition by examining a passage in which Henry once again figures victory over France as victory over a woman, and muses on the alternative if such a victory is not forthcoming. Not triumphing means not being remembered; and not being remembered means that no tongue will tell one's tale:

France being ours, we'll bend it to our awe
Or break it all to pieces: or there we'll sit,
Ruling in large and ample empery
O'er France and her almost kingly dukedoms,
Or lay these bones in an unworthy urn,
Tombless, with no remembrance over them:
Either our history shall with full mouth
Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave,
Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,
Not worshipp'd with a waxen epitaph.


As in the Prologue's speech, the problem here is one of sufficient “attesting” to the deeds that Henry and his men will perform. For the Prologue, if those deeds were not attested to—if the actors and audience did not together do their imaginative duty—those “flat unraised spirits” would have no life. Here, the opposition drawn is analogous: the living voice, the “full mouth,” of historical memory staves off the silent effacement, the “tongueless mouth,” of the grave.

From this speech alone, we could perhaps assume that the “history” to which Henry refers his future is a written one, and that its “full mouth” is only metaphorically able to “speak freely.” But as the play progresses, and as Henry's concern with inculcating his epic into his culture's memory increases, the “history” he has in mind turns out to require embodiment and reenactment. As he rouses his troops, his intent proves itself not one of erecting a textual monument of or to himself, but rather one of assuring his everlasting reanimation in the form of popular remembrance—in the form of a story that will always be replayed, carved on living bodies and in living minds:

He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, “To-morrow is Saint Crispian”:
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. 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.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered.


The confidence of Henry's projections for the future causes his vision to override the theatrical shortcomings raised by the timorous Prologue.32 His pronouncements of what shall be remembered enact both the appearance of the epic scene and its subsequent legendary status, in a way the Prologue protests it cannot. Whereas the Prologue throws up its hands at the idea that a cockpit might hold the vasty fields of France, Henry declares those fields to be already present, the site of a battle immediately recognizable as historic.

What is this castle that stands hard by?
They call it Agincourt.
Then call we this the field of Agincourt,
Fought on the day of Crispin Crispianus.


Henry continues to install himself in history in this way, referring to his own story as something that will be known, recited, and compared “with advantages” to other well-known stories. With advantages, because his version is a dramatic one: not Holinshed but Henry V, not a history but a history play. “When,” he asks after hearing the numbers of the battle-dead, “without strategem, / But in plain shock and even play of battle, / Was ever known so great and little loss / On one part and on th'other?” (4.8.110-14). Never, the audience is obliged to answer; for it knows his feats even as he recalls them for it. Henry here makes of himself a “famous memory,” one that will carry him for all time—as if built into his character is an awareness of his being staged, over and over again, as the king who is England's savior.

But this desire for epic extension in the theater brings Henry back to the issue of Salic law and its attendant concerns of gender and genealogy. For Henry is engaged in making history not only by being himself eternally remembered, but also by extending his male lineage into the future. As with The Faerie Queene's genealogical shorings-up of the Tudor myth, epic in Henry V is as much a matter of fictionalized patrilineal descent as it is a matter of heroic action. Act 5 thus hangs Henry's epic hopes, as well as England's masculinity, on his conquest of the French princess: Henry's wooing speech is directly concerned with the male offspring that he and Katharine will produce; and in his phrasing, Katharine's part in this process is minimized, so the fact that the woman will be a part of the family tree is suppressed as much as possible. It is almost as if Henry himself, with the help of the soldier-saints Denis and George, can produce an heir, one who will finally carry out the crusading dream of Henry's father: “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?” (5.2.215-18).

The extent to which Henry's effort at epic posterity is plausible, however, also depends on the power of his theatrical vision, since to be persuasive, Henry's projection of the future must convincingly rewrite that future—a future already known to a theater audience that had witnessed in the early 1590s the turmoil of Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy, the Henry VI plays and Richard III. As Christopher Pye remarks, “The sequence of the history plays makes Henry V the one king who returns from the grave.”33 Only by writing the two tetralogies in reverse historical order—the earlier segment of history after the later—could Shakespeare make this revision possible: in the theater's version of history, Henry V succeeds Henry VI. This reversal further enables the erasure of the female from the English monarchy. With Henry V, the first tetralogy's rule of ravishing women and a monstrous man is finally succeeded by that of a glorious king, who promises to live on both in cultural memory and in his male progeny. Marjorie Garber's account of Richard III provides an instructive contrast: if the deformed Richard III equally deforms history to suit himself, as Garber asserts, then Henry's revision of history strikes us as corrective, for it counteracts the deformity of which Richard III was the apex.34

We might call this retrospective revival of kingship nostalgic, since it looks to England's heroic past for an antidote to more recent troubles—unwon wars, unrevivified kings. But it is more than nostalgic, for nostalgia, in its reiteration that things aren't what they used to be, presupposes that the past can never come again. As Exeter in 1 Henry VI put it, “Henry [the Fifth] is dead and never shall revive” (1.1.18). Henry V, in contrast, gives voice to the fantastical, irrational desires to which nostalgia, when intensified to the point of supersaturation, gives way: that the past may return, that the dead are indeed alive, that historic heroism may replace the feminine chaos and decay that are the audience's more recent memory—both their memory of what has happened in Shakespeare's first historical tetralogy and, increasingly, their memory of what has been happening in the English monarchy of the late 1590s. Surely Henry V itself has a great stake in what we might term this “supernostalgia”; for, as the Prologue demonstrates at the play's very beginning, only when the stage gives way to Henry's self-staging does the theater convey its object. Although the Prologue bemoans the lack of a genuine monarch—a “warlike Harry” who, “like himself,” will “assume the port of Mars” (1.Pro.5-6)—in the progress of the play we witness a Henry who self-consciously does just that, taking on the bearing of a soon-to-be-mythic hero.

And yet there is also a certain tension, as well as symbiosis, between the play's creation of Henry and Henry's creation of himself, a tension that keeps alive the question of whether the epic mode is entirely possible, or even desirable, for theater. I wish now to return to the play's affiliations with the feminine, and how they force Henry V to stand at a certain uneasy distance from Henry V and his Salic-law visions of male perpetuity. For once the stage has limited itself to being a womblike space that only contains, and does not disrupt, male epic activity, it raises doubts about its own ability to match Henry in his supernostalgic task, bringing forth a King Henry who will take his place in history. The Prologue identifies Henry as one of the “mighty monarchies” who are “now confin'd” in the playhouse, “within the girdle of these walls”; but what if, after this pregnant image, the theater's confinement does not bring a living Henry into the world? As the Chorus reappears at the beginning of acts 2 and 3, these fears begin to insinuate themselves deeply into its rhetoric, resulting in something more than traditional, offhand protestations of theatrical inadequacy. In act 2, the Chorus's unsettling transformation of womb imagery to intestinal imagery hints that its presentation of Henry will not be so easy: “Linger your patience on; and we'll digest / Th'abuse of distance; force a play” (2.Chor.31-32). And the Chorus's excessively pleading, insistent tone in act 3 reinforces the difficulty of the audience's meeting its obligations in the act of theatrical engendering: in urging the audience to “O do but think,” “follow, follow,” “grapple,” and “work, work,” the Chorus takes on the tone of an extremely demanding lover, who hopes past all hope that her partner will provide the heat necessary for conception, since she cannot (3.Chor.17-18, 25).

Even the Chorus's act 4 speech, which seems to offer a chance at faith in theatrical generativity, ultimately corrodes any such confidence. A momentary glimpse of dramatic attainment comes about primarily because the Chorus applies the imagery of a womb-like space not solely to the walls of the theater building, as a “girdle” that holds the actors, but rather to “the wide vessel of the universe” that holds the opposing armies of the English and the French. With this transfer of images, the space of the theater expands to become coequal with the space of all creation; and Henry and his band are alive, in the world, and on the verge of triumph. We are truly watching the living Henry as the Chorus petitions us, “O, now, who will behold / The royal captain of this ruin'd band / Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent, / Let him cry, ‘Praise and glory on his head!’” (4.Chor.29-31). But if act 4's Chorus refers to “the wide vessel of the universe” as one container for its hero, it also mentions “the foul womb of night” as another; and this image of a malevolent womb, with the force of female Nature behind it, calls into question the Prologue's notion that a womb, theatrical or not, can and ought to be imagined as a neutral “vessel”—as an artificed container that cannot influence its own contents. In act 5 the epic vision contained in the theater's womb is shown in several ways to be far from impervious to forces from without. We might first divine the error of epic complacency from Burgundy's speech about France as a garden requiring husbandry. As Burgundy describes her, France is far from infertile even when not “husbanded”; rather, she is grotesquely fertile, since it is not the masculine scythe or coulter that has made her so:

                                                                                          Her fallow leas
The darnel, hemlock, and rank fumitory
Doth root upon, while that the coulter rusts
That should deracinate such savagery;
The even mead, that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green clover,
Wanting the scythe, all uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burrs,
Losing both beauty and utility.


Here the female is hardly a passive vessel of reproduction: when she is left to her own devices, the result is a kind of female parthenogenesis, where nature's prickly products grow in the absence of men's tools.

Katharine of France herself, the particular Frenchwoman on whose womb Henry's epic project will depend, does not display this extremity of willfulness; but she does evince a skepticism that in itself chips away at Henry's epic plans. While Henry is engaged in spinning out a vision of himself as soldier-wooer and his son as triumphant Crusader, Princess Katharine remains reserved and unbelieving. In a single line she forces historical awareness upon the audience, in case Henry's hermetically sealed projection has caused them to forget their history. When Henry asks her what to him no doubt seems a rhetorical question, whether they shall “compound a boy, half French, half English, that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard” (5.2.215-18), she answers, with all the knowledge of a woman who has already seen Shakespeare's Henry VI plays: “I do not know dat” (5.2.221). One member of Henry's audience, at least, excuses herself from participating in what Joel Altman calls Henry's “national sacrificial ritual.”35

The remainder of the play reinforces the princess's unbelief by continuing to strain at a Renaissance audience's awareness of a future, both historical and dramatic, quite different from the one Henry believes he is forging. First of all, as Dollimore and Sinfield remind us, the play itself has argued for the improbability of a French king (as Henry's son will be) being man enough to take the Turk by the beard.36 Moreover, after the French and English monarchs close their treaty the French queen makes a speech that, in its forced insistence on the two countries' future amicable relations, violates even the sketchiest grasp of Anglo-French history since Henry V's time. And finally, the Chorus closes the play with multiple reminders of the coming evaporation of this proposed ideal kingship. One of these reminders comes about with the Chorus reverting to imagining the theater itself as a womblike space, “In little room confining mighty men, / Mangling by starts the full course of their glory” (Epi.3-4). The image is a grisly one: this is a womb that maims its progeny, even as it convulsively, “by starts,” attempts to bring them into the world. Here the earlier, frenetic tone of the Chorus, begging us to work, work our thoughts, changes to one of failure, as pregnancy results in stillbirth. The image of truncated epic—of a theater that cuts off glory's “full course”—is borne out by the Chorus's last speech, which reverses the salutary effects of the second tetralogy's erasure of the first tetralogy. In this final chorus, Henry V is for the first time inalterably placed in the past tense: “Small time, but in that small most greatly lived / This star of England” (Epi.5-6). And the audience is reminded, to its regret, that what Henry projected as his epic destiny—his foundation of an ever-victorious male dynasty—cannot, and did not, take place in history. In fact the audience may have itself witnessed the unravelling of Henry's achievement:

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.


And yet the Chorus's references to what is to come—or to what has come already, if we think of the audience's familiarity with the Henry VI cycle—are not fully revelatory. The audience is asked to remember the dissolution of powerful male rule under Henry VI; but does it remember the increasing dominance in the Henry VI plays of female rule? I would argue instead that Henry V is, in the end, eager to maintain a certain momentary, if fragile, integrity of masculine rule, to rewrite history so that what we continue to desire is the triumphant resolution, however denied to us, of King Henry. For not only does the Chorus at the play's conclusion omit any reference to the ravishing women who will plague Henry VI's reign, it also neglects to address the future of the woman who has come to symbolize Henry V's fruitful posterity: his queen, Katharine of France. Shakespeare knew what happened to Katharine, as would any Elizabethan who had read the account in Holinshed's Chronicles of Henry VI's reign:

This woman, after the death of king Henrie the fift hir husband, being yoong and lustie, following more hir owne wanton appetite than freendlie counsell, and regarding more priuate affection than princelike honour, tooke to husband priuilie a galant gentleman and a right beautifull person, indued with manie goodlie gifts both of bodie & mind, called Owen Teuther [Tudor], a man descended of the noble linage and ancient line of Cadwallader last king of the Britains. By this Owen she brought forth three goodlie sonnes, Edmund, Jasper, and another that was a monke in Westminster. … which Edmund of Margaret daughter and sole heire to John duke of Summerset begat Henrie, who after was king of this realme, called Henrie the seuenth.38

In other words, Katharine of France lived to become the great-great-grandmother of Elizabeth I.

At first it seems odd that a playwright would let slip this chance to refer to the illustrious lineage of his gracious queen; like Spenser, Shakespeare might have made much of Holinshed's tracing of the Tudor line from Elizabeth back through Owen Tudor to King Arthur himself. The omission seems even odder when we consider that Henry V's only allusion to Katharine of France's subsequent attachment is an oblique and not particularly flattering one, when Pistol tells Fluellen he would not eat the proffered leek “for Cadwallader and all his goats” (5.1.29). Yet the reasoning for the exclusion becomes clearer with reference again to Holinshed; for in tracing Katharine's future, Shakespeare would have had to confront both her indelible presence in English monarchical lineage—indelible unlike Henry's, whose line died with his son—and her changed nature. She proved to become not simply the regrettably necessary female component of Henry V's progenitive project, nor even the skeptical commentator on his soldierly rhetoric. Rather, the Katharine of the Chronicles became the forerunner of Joan La Pucelle and Margaret of Anjou, ravishing Frenchwomen all: all young, lusty and following more their own wanton appetites than friendly counsel, and regarding more private affection than princelike honor. Had the Henry VI plays extended her story, these associations would inevitably have been drawn.

But so, too, would the association have been drawn between Katharine of France and Elizabeth Tudor herself, an association not only of blood, but of temperament. Elizabeth's “wanton appetites” continued in the 1590s to provide fodder for Catholic propagandists, who painted her as even more unnaturally lascivious because of her age.39 Even more importantly, Elizabeth's independent will increasingly frustrated the members of her council, who were all by this point at least one generation younger than she, and were highly impatient at her stubborn refusal to follow their advice and chart a purposeful course. In its extreme their frustration led to comments like that of the ambitious Earl of Essex—the same Essex whose triumph the play anticipates—who once remarked that the queen's mind had become as crooked as her carcass.40 Obscuring Katharine of France's subsequent career thus serves to seal Henry V's refusal of female rule. Exemplifying as it does those traits that England most feared in its queen, Katharine's completed story would incurably compromise the play's presentation of a successful male conquest. Hence Henry V in the end does, in the largest sense, impose Salic law. By excluding Katharine's Tudor marriage, the play effectively cancels the woman's part in English succession, and instead hails Henry V as the sole shaper of kingship. In this way the play proposes its own very real, and arguably hegemonic, alternative to late Elizabethan authority—an alternative that may be not only preferred, but witnessed and believed in. Even if the play does not erase all memory of the first tetralogy's female rule, it does succeed in erasing Elizabeth, first by shaping England as an entirely male dominant body with France as its female victim, then by eliminating Katharine of France as Elizabeth's female forebear.

Henry V therefore rehearses and resolves English involvement with female authority on several fronts: politically, since through its silence on Katharine's future it finally asserts that both authority and its familial succession ought to be an entirely male purview; and dramatically, since with its choice of hero it counters the antitheatricalist anxiety that theater, feminine in itself, effeminizes its audience.41 In 1592 Thomas Nashe had brought up an earlier dramatic treatment of Henry V to contend, against the antitheatricalist writers, that theater can in fact correct national effeminacy—first simply by providing men an alternative to visiting whorehouses, but second by bringing England's male ancestry back to life:

Nay, what if I prooue Playes to be no extreame; but a rare exercise of vertue? First, for the subiect of them (for the most part) is borrowed out of our English Chronicles, wherein our forefathers valiant acts (that haue laine long buried in rustie brasse and worme-eaten bookes) are reuiued, and they themselues raised from the Graue of oblivion, and brought to pleade their aged Honours in open presence: than which, what can be a sharper reproofe to these degenerate effeminate dayes of ours?42

In Nashe's terms, Henry V would encourage the late Elizabethan theater audience to follow Henry's Salic-law model and purge the feminine from themselves, and from their country. Nostalgia for patrilineage revives patriarchy out of its “grave of oblivion”: Shakespeare's history declares the degenerate authority of queenship to be not subverted, but overcome.43

I wish to follow this seemingly resounding assertion of patriarchal authority, however, with a qualification. (If we have learned anything from the critical debates to which readings of Henry V have contributed, it is that authority is always qualified.) At the beginning of this essay I suggested that Henry V is a Shakespearean experiment—an experiment that, I believe, itself demonstrates its own unrepeatability. In the end, the extreme, insistent quality of Henry V's corrective revival of male authority exposes that revival as an undesirable model for theater. Henry V's commitment to epic requires theater to marginalize and neutralize its identification with the feminine; but in that case, the theater runs the risk of disenabling or at least limiting its own power. For what if the audience does not believe? What if the play's protestations of being an inadequate womb prevail? If the play convinces, then its cancellation of female authority survives. But if the illusion does not succeed, and Henry V is still-born, then the theater has disabled its own enterprise rather than discontinuing the waning enterprise of England's queen. For Shakespeare's resolution of this problem, we can only speculate on the fact that Henry V remains sui generis in the canon: Shakespeare undertook no other history play until he redefined history as romance in Henry VIII; nor did he so thoroughly conflate dramatic authority and masculine rule until The Tempest, a play that stages long before its epilogue the unraveling of that rule.

Norman Rabkin's notorious formulation about Henry V is that he is patterned like the Gestalt drawing that may be seen as a rabbit or as a duck, but never as both at the same time: Henry is either an exemplary monarch, or a notorious Machiavel.44 My version of this conundrum involves theatrical rather than moral considerations: not whether Henry is a good king or a bad king, but whether theater should or should not attach its being and its success to a burgeoning kingship. The play raises unallayed anxieties about the achievability of Henry's heroic project at the same time that it registers a deep and abiding desire for that project. In this way Henry V situates itself most poignantly not as the play that most celebrates the Tudor myth, but as the play that most commemorates the approaching end of a Tudor queen. The looked-for exclusion of female authority leaves both nation and theater anxiously peering into the past, looking there for a recording of their own destiny: Henry V translates its culture's memory of a triumphant historical king into expectation for the future—and yet at the same time adulterates that expectation with anticipated disappointment.


  1. Jean E. Howard, “The New Historicism in Renaissance Studies,” English Literary Renaissance 16 (1986): 39. The first version of Greenblatt's essay appeared in Glyph 8 (1981): 40-61; the most recent is included in his Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), 21-65. Another notable and influential treatment of Henry V's strategies of ideological containment has been Jonathan Dollimore's and Alan Sinfield's essay “History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V,” originally published in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), 206-27, an extended version of which appears as “History and Ideology, Masculinity and Miscegenation” in Sinfield's recent book Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992), 109-42. Further references to Dollimore and Sinfield will be to the Faultlines version. Carolyn Porter's essay “Are We Being Historical Yet?” (South Atlantic Quarterly 87 [1988]: 743-86) is typical in its treatment of “Invisible Bullets” as paradigmatic of New Historicist theories of hegemonic political and literary forces; see also her extension of that essay's argument, “History and Literature: ‘After the New Historicism,’” New Literary History 21 (1989-90): 253-72.

  2. In his edition of Henry V (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982) Gary Taylor, in contrast, defends the Salic law speech as not all that obscure to an Elizabethan audience, which would have been far more familiar with its historical references: “The speech's reputation for tedium has become such a critical commonplace that reports of its obscurity have been greatly exaggerated” (35). Phyllis Rackin is among the few critics who do not simply pass over this speech; in Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), she argues that this recitation of genealogy, like Henry's winning of the French princess in act 5, signifies “the appropriation of the indispensable female ground of patriarchal authority” (168). It will become clear below that I both agree and disagree with Rackin's point: I contend that Henry wishes to appropriate feminine authority without associating himself with what is feminine about it. My argument in this regard parallels that of Dollimore and Sinfield (note 1), who in the Faultlines version of their essay “History and Ideology” describe the Salic-law speech as part of Henry V's fractured ideological attempts to banish the female and the feminine (127-42).

  3. Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1988), 51-105.

  4. Taylor (note 2), 7. For the dating of the play, see J. H. Walter's New Arden edition (London: Methuen, 1954), xi-xiv, and Taylor, 3-7. (All citations from Henry V in this essay are taken from Walter's edition; further references to act, scene, and line will appear parenthetically in the text.) To summarize critical commentary on the dating of this allusion, I refer to Joel Altman's concise note in his essay “‘Vile Participation’: The Amplification of Violence in the Theater of Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 2, n.5: “The Essex allusion in the fifth chorus, which places the performance of the Folio version between 27 March and 28 September 1599, is no longer seriously disputed; see however, Warren D. Smith, ‘The Henry V Choruses in the First Folio,’ Journal of English and Germanic Philology 53 (1954), 38-57, for the view that it refers to Essex's successor [Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy].”

  5. R. Doleman (pseudonym for Robert Parsons [or Persons]), A Conference about the next succession to the crowne of Ingland (“N” [Antwerp? St. Omer, France?], 1594; rpt. Menston, Yorkshire: Scolar Press, 1972), A3r. J. E. Neale describes Parsons's work as “an important and disturbing book, repudiating the doctrine of divine hereditary right, placing election alongside birth as a way to the succession, and by implication arguing that Parliament could take away the King of Scots' right to the English throne” (Elizabeth and Her Parliaments, 1584-1601 [New York: St. Martin's Press, 1957], 262). It is hardly likely that Essex solicited Parson's dedication; nevertheless, its comment on Essex's involvement in the succession question is telling. For James's late-Elizabethan correspondence and intrigues with Essex and Cecil, see David Harris Willson, King James VI and I (New York: Henry Holt, 1956), 149-57. Essex in fact intended one of the results of his rebellion to be Parliament's recognition of James as Elizabeth's successor. Cecil, whose influence prevailed upon James after Essex's arrest, rightly urged caution: if James would flatter Elizabeth rather than press her for a decision, he would be assured of the throne. See also Joel Hurstfield, “The Succession Struggle in Late Elizabethan England,” Elizabethan Government and Society, ed. S. T. Bindoff, J. Hurstfield, and C. H. Williams (London: Athlone Press, 1961), 392-94.

  6. Even Thomas Wilson's fairly casual The State of England, Anno Dom. 1600 (Camden Miscellany 3d series, vol. 52, no. 1 [London: Camden Society, 1936], 1-43) begins by discussing the succession, mentioning Parsons, and then undertaking a refutation of Salic law: “The Lawe is that if a man decease without heyre male haveing many daughters, his lands shall be parted equally among them all, but in the succession of the Crowne the eldest shall inheritt all” (7).

  7. Hurstfield (note 5), 370. Hurstfield cites Godfrey Goodman, The Court of King James I, ed. John Sherren Brewer, 2 vols. (London: R. Bentley, 1839), 1:97.

  8. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1598-1601 (1869; rpt. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus, 1967), 136-37; cited in Carole Levin, “Queens and Claimants: Political Insecurity in Sixteenth-Century England,” Gender, Ideology and Action: Historical Perspectives on Women's Public Lives, ed. Janet Sharistanian (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 59. Fraunces's felonious remark was prefaced in his seductive technique by the argument “that the best in England, i.e. the Queen, had done so, and had three bastards by noblemen of the Court” (136-37).

  9. Hurstfield (note 5), 370.

  10. Calendar of State Papers, Domestic Series, of the Reign of Elizabeth, 1601-1603, (1870; rpt. Nendeln, Liechtenstein: Kraus, 1967), 115-16.

  11. Henry Hooke, Of the succession to the Crowne of England, dated “Anno regni Elizabethae 43” (British Library Royal MS. 17 B XI, fols. 1-19). The manuscript includes a dedication to James I, apparently added after his accession to the English throne. Hooke evidently found favor with the new king, as attested to by the publication of his sermon “Jerusalem's peace” under the title Sermon preached before the King at White-hall, the eight of May. 1604 (London, 1604). The printed version of this sermon reiterates publicly what Hooke had, during Elizabeth's reign, been able to declare only privately: “[God] hath made broad signes, that all the world might see, especially his elect might hope, that what was not possible for a woman to effect, man should be both able and industrious to performe” (C4r). (I am grateful to Lindsay Kaplan for this second reference.)

  12. In his virulent First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, for example, John Knox writes with horror that “women are lifted up to be heads over realms, and to rule above men at their pleasure and appetites” (The Political Writings of John Knox, ed. Marvin A. Breslow [Washington: Folger Books; London: Associated University Presses, 1985], 46). Christopher Goodman, Knox's equally fervent compatriot in Geneva, accuses Queen Mary Tudor's councillors of having no other goal but to seek “how to accomplishe and satisfie the ungodly lustes of their vngodly and unlawful Gouernesse” (How Superior Powers Oght to Be Obeyd of their Subiects: and wherein They May Lawfully by Gods Worde Be Disobeyd and Resisted [Geneva, 1558], C1v). For accounts and analyses of the 1550s debate over women's rule see especially Paula Scalingi, “The Scepter or the Distaff: The Question of Female Sovereignty, 1516-1607,” Historian 41 (1978): 59-75; and Constance Jordan, “Woman's Rule in Sixteenth-Century British Political Thought,” Renaissance Quarterly 40 (1987): 421-51.

  13. An admonition to the Nobility and People of England and Ireland Concerninge the Present Warres (Antwerp, 1588), B2r. For an invaluable compendium of 1570s and 1580s propaganda for and against Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots, see James E. Phillips, Images of a Queen: Mary Stuart in Sixteenth-Century Literature (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1964).

  14. J. E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I (1934; rpt. New York: Doubleday, 1960), 403. Neale is quoting an Elizabethan source that he does not identify.

  15. John Harington, Nugae Antiquae, ed. Henry Harington, 2 vols. (London, 1769), 1:321.

  16. Levin (note 8), 53-57.

  17. For the existence and the presumed 1590s dates of these earlier plays, see Walter (note 4), xxxiii-xxxiv.

  18. David Willbern, “Shakespeare's Nothing,” in Representing Shakespeare, ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), 255-56.

  19. For the Aristotelian model of conception and its employment in Renaissance medical theory, see Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1990), 25-113. Joel Altman (note 4) also analyzes Henry V's Prologue as a sexualized exchange; though Altman dwells on the Prologue's aspect of whorelike solicitation, he also mentions those “solicitings as invitations to violent appropriation,” that is, rape, on the part of a presumably masculinized audience (20). Indeed, it seems difficult even to describe the Prologue's operations without entering into its sexualized phrase-world; Robert Weimann, for example, uses the Prologue to illustrate how an audience provides the stage spectacle with what he unself-consciously calls “performative thrust” (“Bifold Authority in Shakespeare's Theatre,” Shakespeare Quarterly 39 [1988]: 413).

  20. Dollimore and Sinfield (note 1), 129.

  21. Edward III opens with a Salic-law discussion that is very similar to Henry V's, with the notable difference that Edward III's mother Isabel is prominently named. In response to Edward's question about whether his “pedigree” grants him the succession to the French throne, Robert of Artois makes the matter crystal clear:

    Who next succeeded Phillip of Bow?
    Three sonnes of his, which all successefully,
    Did sit vpon their fathers regall Throne:
    Yet dyed and left no issue of their loynes.
    But was my mother sister vnto those?
    Shee was my Lord, and onely Issabel,
    Was all the daughters that this Phillip had,
    Whome afterward your father tooke to wife:
    And from the fragrant garden of her wombe,
    Your gratious selfe the flower of Europes hope:
    Deriued is inheritor to Fraunce.

    (The Raigne of King Edward the Third: A Critical, Old-Spelling Edition, ed. Fred Lapides [New York: Garland, 1980], 86.)

  22. Karl Wentersdorf similarly points out that Henry's descent from Isabella had been made clear in two earlier Elizabethan plays, The Famous Victories of Henry V as well as Edward III (“The Conspiracy of Silence in Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly 27 [1976]: 266, n. 5). Wentersdorf also explains how Shakespeare suppresses the part female descent played in Scroop's rebellion: Cambridge, one of the plotters, historically claimed the throne through his wife Anne Mortimer's descent from Edward III's third son. Anne Mortimer's and Cambridge's son was the Richard, duke of York who challenged Henry VI's rule (274-75). As Phyllis Rackin (note 2) reminds us, “The Yorkist claim … hovers at the edge of consciousness, lending a suppressed irony to Henry's reliance on female inheritance to justify his claims to France” (168).

  23. For comments on the sexual rivalry between Henry and the Dauphin, see Peter Erickson, Patriarchal Structures in Shakespeare's Drama (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1985), 60-61; and Dollimore and Sinfield, (note 1), 132-33.

  24. All quotations from 1 Henry VI are from the New Arden edition, ed. Andrew S. Cairncross (London: Methuen, 1962).

  25. Taylor (note 2) rejects a modernization of “spirt” to “spurt,” calling it misleading because it obscures the sense “sprout” (180, note to 3.5.8); but dismissing “spurt” similarly obscures the sense “to issue in a jet,” a meaning available, according to the OED, in the 1580s (see OED spirit vi, 1 and 2a).

  26. The Chorus asked rhetorically at the beginning of act 3, “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?” (3.Chor.22-24).

  27. See C. L. Barber and Richard Wheeler, The Whole Journey: Shakespeare's Power of Development (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1986), 219. Taylor (note 2) preserves the Quarto spelling cown, which better conveys the bilingual pun achieved through Alice's mispronunciation, gown-con. But count retains the suggestion of the obscene pun on feminized nationhood, cunt/cuntry, that was commonly used in diatribes against Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots, or the institution of queenship in general. In “The French Garden: An Introduction to Women's French,” ELH 56 (1989): 19-51, a fascinating essay on Peter Erondell's 1605 French phrasebook, Juliet Fleming demonstrates how the entirety of the Princess's language lesson is “actually a lesson in talking dirty”:

    The first two words that she asks her teacher to translate, le pied and la robe, were used in England to mean respectively one who commits buggery (from pied, meaning variegated), and a female prostitute. … D'elbow sounds like dildo, neck and nick were synonyms for vulva, and sin was a euphemism for fornication. Finally, excellent had lewd connotations, and was especially associated with buggery, as was assez, understood to mean ass-y enough.


  28. Altman (note 4) connects the Princess's “litany of dismemberment” with the play's efforts to make King Henry's battle present to the audience, and hence to offer the audience the satisfaction of illusory participation in the battle, of not being “gentlemen in England now a-bed” (18-19).

  29. “The truth is, that the poet's matter failed him in the fifth act, and he was glad to fill it up with whatever he could get; and not even Shakespeare can write well without a proper subject” (Selections from Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Bertrand H. Bronson [New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1986], 205). For a history of the critical debate instigated by Johnson's remark, see Taylor (note 2), 70-72; Walter (note 2), xxviii-xxix; and Marilyn Williamson, “The Courtship of Katherine and the Second Tetralogy,” Criticism 17 (1975): 326-34.

  30. For an account of the princess's scenes similar in many respects to mine, see Lance Wilcox, “Katherine of France as Victim and Bride,” Shakespeare Studies 17 (1985): 61-76. Wilcox, however, makes an effort to prove that Henry's wooing of the princess is satisfyingly mutual: “Anything short of vigorously rejecting [Henry's] suggestions must inevitably be seen as avouching similar fantasies of her own” (71)—an assertion tantamount to blaming a rape victim for not screaming loud enough. And yet Wilcox's views seem to be shared by modern directors of Henry V, all of whom (to my knowledge) have staged Henry's exchange with Katharine as mutually romantic. (Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film of Henry V is symptomatic; by casting his wife, Emma Thompson, as the princess, Branagh effectively forestalls any but a romantic conclusion to Henry's courtship.) Wilcox, moreover, is less enthusiastic about Henry's sexual conquest than many other critics are; see, for example, George L. Geckle's remark that the princess's “bawdy English lesson about ‘de foot et de coun’ … [proves] that she too is a normal young woman in her private life and worthy of England's finest” (“Politics and Sexuality in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy,” Romanticism and Culture: A Tribute to Morse Peckham and a Bibliography of His Works, ed. H. W. Matalene [Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1984], 134). In a complex, if somewhat elusive, consideration of theatrical and monarchical power in Henry V, Christopher Pye, in The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle (New York: Routledge, 1990), 29-33, suggests that Salic law itself generates the erotic energies by which Henry woos and claims the Princess. As a “female bar” (1.2.42) to male occupation of the throne—a bar that both does and does not impede Henry's progress—Salic law is embodied in the contradictions of Henry's erotic desire: the Princess must be wooed, but in Henry's and Burgundy's subsequent bawdy repartee (5.2.298-337), she seems always already to have surrendered.

  31. Steven Mullaney, “Strange Things, Gross Terms, Curious Customs: The Rehearsal of Cultures in the Late Renaissance,” Representations 3 (Summer 1983): 40-67, and Greenblatt (note 1), 48. For another analysis of the relation between Henry's language, kingship, and theater, see James L. Calderwood, “Henry V: English, Rhetoric, Theater,” Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: Richard II to Henry V (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979), 162-81.

  32. Several critics have noticed that Henry's tone and the Chorus's are similar. Michael Goldman remarks, for example, that the king rousing his troops sounds very like the Chorus “rousing the audience to cooperation and excitement” (Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama [Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1972], 61). See also Lawrence Danson, “Henry V: King, Chorus, and Critics,” Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983): 27-43. The difference between Henry and the Chorus is, of course, that Henry never displays any doubt that his troops will arise.

  33. Pye (note 30), 19.

  34. See Marjorie Garber, “Descanting on Deformity: Richard III and the Shape of History,” Shakespeare's Ghost Writers: Literature as Uncanny Causality (New York: Methuen, 1987), 28-51. In another essay, Garber notes the two tetralogies' reversal, remarking that “in [Henry V's] epilogue the audience is invited, not to imagine, but to remember—and specifically to remember Shakespeare's Henry VI plays … as well as the historical events contained in them” (“‘What's Past Is Prologue’: Temporality and Prophecy in Shakespeare's History Plays,” Renaissance Genres: Essays on Theory, History, and Interpretation, ed. Barbara Kiefer Lewalski [Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1986], 324).

  35. Altman (note 4), 29.

  36. Dollimore and Sinfield (note 1), 140.

  37. Edward I. Berry sees this historical disruption of epic as the play's primary mode: see “‘True Things and Mock'ries’: Epic and History in Henry V,Journal of English and Germanic Philology 78 (1979): 1-16. For further commentary on how Henry V both sustains and deflates a Tudor fantasy of absolute state power, see also David Scott Kastan, “Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 459-75.

  38. Raphael Holinshed, The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 3 vols. (London, 1587), 3:615.

  39. See the tirades published in the wake of Mary Queen of Scots's 1587 execution, cited in Phillips (note 13), 171-97.

  40. Walter B. Devereux, Lives and Letters of the Devereux, Earls of Essex in the Reigns of Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I, 2 vols. (London: J. Murray, 1853), 2:131; quoted in R. B. Wernham, The Making of Elizabethan Foreign Policy, 1558-1603 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), 93.

  41. For the fullest account of this anxiety, see Jyotsna Singh, “Renaissance Antitheatricality, Antifeminism, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra,Renaissance Drama 20 (1989): 99-121; see also Katharine Eisaman Maus, “Horns of Dilemma: Jealousy, Gender, and Spectatorship in English Renaissance Drama,” ELH 54 (1987): 561-83.

  42. Pierce Peniless, his supplication to the divell, in The Works of Thomas Nashe, ed. Ronald B. McKerrow, rev. ed. F. P. Wilson, 5 vols. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1958), 2:212.

  43. To assert that Henry V only shores up Elizabethan monarchical authority, then, is to disregard the monarch's gender. Leonard Tennenhouse, for example, argues that Shakespeare's history plays maintain the unity of the king's two bodies in the face of late-Elizabethan anxiety over the queen's decaying corporeal body; see Power on Display: The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York: Methuen, 1986), 76-88. But only if Tennenhouse does not identify that queenly body as female can he continue to associate Elizabeth with Henry V rather than with the feminine selves that Henry consistently either repudiates or identifies as entirely other, absolutely not English. In Rewriting Shakespeare, Rewriting Ourselves (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1991), near the beginning of his interesting analysis of how All's Well That Ends Well's accommodation of female authority remains uncomfortable and disturbing, Peter Erickson briefly suggests the formulation of authority in Henry V that I am proposing:

    Henry V … is both chivalric warrior and monarch, and his dual role displaces Elizabeth as a specifically female ruler. This effect is confirmed by the way subsequent dramatic events assert male domination in Henry V's high-handed appropriation of Katherine: Henry V in the most decisive manner reverses Essex's subordinate position.


  44. Norman Rabkin, “Either/Or: Responding to Henry V,Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1981), 33-62.

David Womersley (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Womersley, David. “France in Shakespeare's Henry V.Renaissance Studies 9, no. 4 (December 1995): 442-59.

[In the following essay, Womersley investigates the topical significance of Shakespeare's complex and ambiguous treatment of the French in Henry V.]

‘Messires, what newes from Fraunce, can you tell! Still warres, warres.’ John Eliot, Ortho-Epia Gallica. Eliots Fruits for the French (1593), sig. A3r

In 1559, when it seemed likely that England would find itself at war with France, John Aylmer urged his countrymen to take heart:

what people be they with whome we shall matche: are they Giaunts, are they conquerours, or monarks of the world? No good Englishe man they be effeminate Frenchmen: Stoute in bragge, but nothing in dede. They be such as you haue alwayes made to take their heles. They be your slaues and tributaries: whose Castels, Cyties, and townes, you haue possessed, whose armies you haue not ones but. 500. tymes discomfited, whose noble men you haue manfully killed, spoyled their countrey, brent their cities, taken their kynges, and crowned your owne, in the chiefest cytie of their dominion, as their owne histories do testifie. Remember our auncettors victories at Grauantum, at Vernolium, about Amias, in the borders of Normandy, at Cressiacum, at Dagincourt, when some tyme they killed. 2000. some tyme. 3000.1

It is tempting to imagine that this strain of anti-French sentiment was a constant presence in early modern England; hence, in the eighteenth century, Chesterfield's weary dismissal of ‘that silly, sanguine notion … that one Englishman can beat three Frenchmen’.2

However, the impression of constancy is illusory. Just as political relations with France during the reign of Elizabeth were volatile, so was the literary representation of France various.3 The ebb and flow of the religious conflicts which ravaged France from 1562 until 1593, and in which English forces from time to time saw action, demanded diplomatic agility as the securing of English interests was advanced or set back. Moreover, the French Wars of Religion had the effect, in the field of literary representation as in that of political reality, of jeopardizing the national unity of France. The death in 1584 of Henry III's heir-presumptive, the Duke of Alençon, greatly improved the prospects of the Protestant leader, Henri of Bourbon, King of Navarre and later Henri IV of France. However, its immediate effect was to deepen the division of France into two factions: that of the League, committed to the Catholic interest of the House of Guise and supported by Spain, and that of Navarre, Protestant in religion and supported by England. As a result of these political developments the image of France was polarized.4 The plentiful stream of pamphlets on French affairs which issued from the London presses of men such as John Wolfe, Edward Aggas, William Wright and Richard Field depicted France as, on the one hand, the home of ‘that viperous brood of Hispaniolized Leaguers’, a garden laid waste by ‘that haughty and aspiring house of Guyse’.5 But it was also the land where the Englishman's co-religionists were fighting an apocalyptic war of succession, in which were foreshadowed England's likely troubles on the death of the queen, as well as the coming of ‘the time of the Lord’.6 So it was that ‘the afflictions of France, may be Englands looking Glasse, and their neglect of peace, our continuall labour and studie how to preserue it’.7

The consequences of this figural linkage between the two nations were predictable, although they cannot but be surprising to those who lightly assume a perpetual hostility between France and England. Because the Huguenot cause was, at least as reported in England, the cause of French nationalism (as opposed to the Spanish affiliations of the League and the House of Guise), a strain of comradely fellow-feeling for the French is to be found in writing on France of the early 1590s. John Eliot avowed that ‘Surely for my part, France I love well, French-men I hate not, and vnto you I sweare by S. Siobe cap de Gascongne, that I loue a cup of new Gascon or old Orleans wine, as wel as the best French of you al …’8 A pamphlet published by John Wolfe in 1589, A Politike Discourse most excellent for this time present, celebrated ‘the kindely amitie that is betweene these two nations’.9 The purpose of the pamphlet was to argue that the English were more eligible allies for the French than were the Spanish. To that end, it noted that the French and English were ‘of one stocke’, and remarked ‘howe straightly the Frenchmen are vnited with the Englishmen, and what show of friendshippe they haue made at all times, the one vnto the other’. It also asked rhetorically: ‘And which is (I pray you) the people in the worlde, which hath iuster cause to loue vs than the Englishmen? who is so allyed to vs in bloud, conformable in conditions, and brotherlike in vertuous inclinations?’10 The consequence of such publications was that, in the 1590s, Englishmen had the opportunity to be well informed about French affairs, and their information was delivered from a standpoint of discriminated affinity. The tone of Edwin Sandys's Europae Speculum (first printed in 1629, but a ‘View or Svrvey of the State of Religion in the Westerne Parts of the World, Anno, 1599’) suggested both familiarity and sympathy as it touched lightly on a distressing but well-known subject: ‘Of Fraunce, how much the better it is knowne unto us at home, so much the lesse shall I need to speake much in this place.’11

This positive conception of the French was not confined to the pamphlet literature devoted to the French Wars of Religion. On the stage, we need only bring to mind The True Chronicle Historie of King Leir (1605; perf. c. 1594), in which the audience was invited to view approvingly a French invasion of England, and in which the French king takes the lead in the comic romance subplot, to appreciate that the image of France in the Elizabethan theatre was not uniformly hostile. The reflection is important, because once we have grasped that in the 1590s disparagement of France was neither necessary nor automatic, negative portrayals of the French demand to be understood as something more complex than simple xenophobia. It is no longer possible to see such portrayals as merely the unthinking gratification by a playwright of the ingrained prejudice of his audience. The potential for hostility against the French, as against any foreign nation, was surely present throughout society. But it was there to be either inflamed or calmed through drama, and as the interests of patrons dictated. In the theatre the image of France might thus be shaped in obedience to conscious and deliberate decisions. Elements within the range of possibilities for presentation of the French (a much wider range of possibilities than we might casually suppose) could be underscored, or veiled.

If we consider Henry V in the light of these general considerations, we can see that Shakespeare's depiction of the French is both complex and unusual. Shakespeare combined respect, and even compassion, for the French, with moments of scorn which were both more offensive, and aimed with greater precision, than anything in a precursor such as The Famous Victories of Henry V. Investigation of the high-political rumours current during the play's moment—the summer of 1599—allows us to explain this distinctive enfolding of aggression within appeasement by reference to the likely interests of the Essexian faction the play seems designed to serve.

A speech in Henry V without an apparent source in either Holinshed or Famous Victories is Burgundy's lament for the effects of war on France:

                              … let it not disgrace me
If I demand before this royal view,
What rub or what impediment there is
Why that the naked, poor, and mangled peace,
Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births,
Should not in this best garden of the world,
Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage?
Alas, she hath from France too long been chased,
And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps,
Corrupting in it own fertility.
Her vine, the merry cheerer of the heart,
Unpruned dier; her hedges even-plashed
Like prisoners wildly overgrown with hair
Put forth disordered twigs; her fallow leas
The darnel, hemlock, and rank fumitory
Doth root upon, while that the coulter rusts
That should deracinate such savagery.
The even mead—that erst brought sweetly forth
The freckled cowslip, burnet, and green clover—
Wanting the scythe, withal uncorrected, rank,
Conceives by idleness, and nothing teems
But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burs,
Losing both beauty and utility.
And all our vineyards, fallows, meads, and hedges,
Defective in their natures, grow to wildness,
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, diffused attire,
And everything that seems unnatural.(12)

Although there is no parallel to this speech in the historical and dramatic sources of Henry V, the play's first audiences would not have found it unprecedented. Burgundy's complaint that peace ‘hath from France too long been chased, / And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps, / Corrupting in it own fertility’ would, for an Elizabethan audience, have brought to mind the very recent past more vividly than the early fifteenth century. ‘The miseries of civil war’ was a distinctive minor genre in the pamphlets of French news published in the 1580s and 1590s. Although these pamphlets for the most part offered high-political narratives, diplomatic analysis and reports of military engagements, they at times broke off from those topics to lament the ‘disorders, violence and miseries of warre’.13 When they did so, they frequently anticipated the pastoral emphasis and vocabulary of Burgundy's speech. His vision of France's melancholy transformation from ‘this best garden of the world’ to a wilderness was a particularly common topic: ‘It is woonderfull … to see the miseries of Fraunce, and as miraculous to compare our present estate in the contrary, she hauing beene called the Garden of the world for pleasure, and we (now so happie) calde none of the world, (in time past) in respect of our Ilandes littlenes.’14 Burgundy's vision of fruitfulness lapsing into waste, and of the supplanting of crops by weeds to the detriment of ‘both beauty and utility’, was a frequent image of the ‘vnhappie state of Fraunce’:

For through this foundation [‘good reconciliation’] … the fieldes and champion should returne to tilth, which in most places are giuen ouer and lye in frith, and in stead of such fruites as they were wont to bring forth for the sustenance of man, are now ouergrowne with thornes and thistles, which at this time make euen the face of them most hideous to behold.15

In The Restorer of the French Estate (1589), France herself speaks of the detriment her countryside has suffered through the wars, and like Burgundy goes on to relate that neglect of the countryside to the corruption of the country people from their innocent bucolic nature:

All my villages & champion soyles are conuerted into sepulchres, monuments and churchyardes, my poore Villagers doo resemble goblins, ghoastes forepined of skin & bone, without flesh; so many Pesants, so many Anatomies: they be labourers no more, they be all counsellers of Estate, they obserue no longer the seasons of the yeere, the motions and alterations of the ayre; and they haue reason: since that they sow no more, the iniuries of th'ayre can hurt them no more …16

The people might even be metaphorically conflated with the countryside:

And thou people, when the nobilitie and townes shall be deuided, what rest shalt though enioye? people, the garner and storehouse of a realme: the fertile fields of this estate, whose trauaile nourisheth Princes, whose sweate dooth water them, whose occupations doo maintaine them … thus behold the effects of warre.17

When The Reformed Politike (1589) cajoled its readership to embrace Protestantism, it did so by evoking a future replete with the miseries of the present, in which human suffering and the decay of the land were images of one another:

you shall languish in warre without enioying your commodities, which for the most part shall remaine subiect to the souldiour and thiefe, as your cattell to be driuen out of your pastures, and your tillage to cease: some of you to be taken and ransomed, others to die of the enemies sword, and so to leaue their widowes and orphanes desolate, yet doth not the end of all these calamities depend vpon the sword: for how long haue we hoped for it [peace], and yet can not get it?18

English presses of the 1590s, then, not infrequently placed before their readership ‘the face of the florishing Kingdome of France, whose lustre and glorie at this present is a little eclipsed and dymmed by the cyuill dissention and bloudy broiles that a long time haue afflicted it’.19

Why, however, should Shakespeare have chosen to echo the evocations of French desolation, which had been most prevalent at the beginning of the decade, in a play first performed during the summer of 1599, when France had enjoyed five years of calm, and when Henri IV's policy of building up the wealth of his kingdom was already bearing fruit?20 In order to frame an answer to that question, we must examine some of the other peculiarities in the play's depiction of the French and their concerns.

The relation between the two textually significant versions of Henry V—the quarto of 1600 (Q) and folio of 1623 (F)—was placed in a new light with the publication of Gary Taylor's Oxford edition. What previous editors had tended to disregard as merely a ‘bad’ quarto of no authority, Taylor persuasively represented as a memorial reconstruction of a version of the play cut to make it suitable for a small touring troupe. The importance of Q was as a result greatly increased, since it now appeared ‘a transcript of the text of Shakespeare's play by two men whose living depended on their memories, and who had acted in Henry V within a year or so of its first performance’.21 In Taylor's view, some of the divergences between Q and F reflect the reshaping of the play for a smaller number of actors. Others, however, have no impact on the resources required for staging, and therefore appear to be features of the play as first performed between the summer of 1599 and 1600, which have been preserved in Q but which were altered or expunged in F. One of the most fascinating of this group of divergences is the substitution in the Agincourt scenes of the Dauphin for the Duke of Bourbon (III. vii and IV. ii). That F's inclusion of the Dauphin amongst the French troops at Agincourt is probably a revision of the text as represented in Q, rather than Q's being a corruption of F, is suggested by the French king's instruction to the Dauphin to stay with him in Rouen.22Q is consistent with this, whereas F contradicts it by having the Dauphin present at the battle. As Taylor points out, the presence of Bourbon at Agincourt ‘happens to be historically accurate’, but mere historical accuracy seems never to have been an overriding concern of Shakespeare's in the history plays.23 The aesthetic effect of its being Bourbon rather than the Dauphin who fulfilled one English stereotype of the French by playing the role of braggart has been brought out by Taylor, who judges that it makes more favourable the depiction of the French in the play.24 That the embodiment of French vanity should be not the heir to the throne, but simply one nobleman amongst a number of noblemen, makes vanity less a national characteristic than the failing of a particular individual. This transferral of a failing from a whole population to a single man was further emphasized by Shakespeare's handling of the other French nobles. Henry V staged a much fuller and more detailed picture of the French aristocracy than that to be found in The Famous Victories, a picture which included ‘the … scepticism and professionalism of the Constable; the silence and peacemaking of Rambures; the high spirits, common sense, and loyalty of Orléans’. However, this vesting of what was more commonly seen as a national failing in an individual character raises a question of its own. Why should Shakespeare have wished, in 1599, to have made the embodiment of French vanity a character who bore the name Bourbon, while at the same time exempting the other French peers from the scope of this traditional insult?25

Another way of putting that question would be to ask why Shakespeare should have wished to mock the present French king, Henri IV. Before his coronation in 1594, Henri IV was commonly referred to as ‘Henri de Borbon King of Nauarre’ or as ‘King Henrie of Bourbon’, and even afterwards, in English publications of the late 1590s, his family name was prominent.26 In 1594 Robert Parsons had considered Henri in the context of the fortunes of the ‘howse of Burbon’.27 In 1597 he was styled ‘Henrie of Burbon King of Nauarre’. In 1598 his title to the French throne was explained for an English readership in terms of ‘the genealogie and discent of the house of Bourbon’, and his style given as ‘Henry of Bourbon, the fourth of that name, king of France and Nauarre’.28 In The View of France (1604; composed 1598), Sir Robert Dallington repeatedly alluded to Henri IV's extraction from the ‘house of Burbon’.29 Moreover, after the death of his uncle the Cardinal de Bourbon in May 1591, Henri IV was the only prominent member of his family with whom the name ‘Bourbon’ was commonly associated.30 In 1599, when one referred to a Bourbon, one referred in the first instance to Henri IV.

Before Henri abjured Protestantism on 25 July 1593, he had been extravagantly praised in English publications on France as the latest and greatest scion of ‘the race of Bourbon, fatall vnto Rome’.31 Thereafter, however, he was attacked as an apostate and trimmer. The anonymous publication of 1597, The Mutable and wauering estate of France, from the yeare of our Lord 1460, untill the yeare 1595, deplored Henri's inconstancy:

this noble and famous Prince who had for the space of foure or five and twentie yeeres so valiantly and fortunately defended the Gospell, and that with the hazard and perill of his owne life, freely exposing his royall person, his treasor, his friendes, and all other meanes whatsoeuer for the maintenaunce thereof, beganne to waxe calme in the defence of his profession, and to encline to that false and superstitious Religion of Rome, to the high displeasure of almightie God, the great dishonour of his princely Maiestie, and to the extreme greefe and astonishment of all the Protestants.32

The author then went on to elaborate Henri into an image of mutability. The decline in Henri's English reputation, which had set in with his abjuration of the Huguenot faith, steepened with the signing on 2 May 1598 of the Treaty of Vervins between France and Spain. Sir Robert Dallington had been particularly incensed by this desertion (as he saw it) of his sovereign, whose earlier support for Henri had entitled her in his eyes to the style ‘Protetrix of France’:

As for the French, what could he have done, more dishonourable to himselfe, or profitable to his enemies, or preiudiciall to his late Allies? what lesse agreeing with the time, with his cause, with his oath, then to yield to this peace? But it hath bene an old tricke of the French, to obserue neither promise, nor oath … But let the French take heede there come not a day of payment for this, who are so hastie to abandon their friends, and make peace with their foes, onely vpon a foolish naturel of theirs, to desire change …33

From being England's ally, Henri had become an object of suspicion. His recent actions revealed him to be a monarch without principle or gratitude.34 Even the Edict of Nantes of February 1599, which extended a limited toleration to the Huguenots and protected them with certain privileges, seems not to have raised his reputation on this side of the channel. Although the Edict and its accompanying Declaration were quickly translated and published in England, its first readers in England were most concerned with the restoration and establishment of the Catholic Church which the Edict also brought about, and to the offensive styling of the Huguenot faith throughout the text of the Edict as ‘the said pretended reformed religion’.35

However, at the very moment of Shakespeare's play—the summer of 1599—rumours about the French king far more dramatic and alarming than anything he had actually done were circulating in London.36 In April 1599 Francesco Contarini, the Venetian ambassador in Paris, had reported to the doge and Senate that Henri IV was seeking a new wife:

He [Henri IV] declares openly that he intends to marry again, and has shown some inclination towards the Princess Maria, niece of the Grand Duke of Tuscany; the Huguenots also suggest a wife for his Majesty, as they wish him to marry one of their sect, for although she would be obliged to become Catholic, they think she would always retain a partiality for their faction; among others they suggest a Princess of the house of Saxony, who would bring a large dower; and an English lady, a daughter of the Earl of Derby, a relation of the Queen of England, through whom the King would acquire a certain claim to the English throne [‘qualche pretensione sopra quel Regno’].37

The daughters of the Earl of Derby were cousins of Elizabeth, and traced their royal ancestry back to Mary, daughter of Henry VII and thus Elizabeth's aunt. They formed part of the House of Suffolk, which was often mentioned in discussions about the succession during the 1590s as having ‘much show to be preferred’.38 It was a while before the rumour which Contarini had reported in April figured in English intelligence. The last cryptic sentence of this letter from William Resould to Cecil of 25 July 1599 may have been a ripple of it:

Here goeth the whole rest of Spain; spoil this and wear the Spanish Crown; their sweet speeches that they come for no conquest, but to raise up the next heir that is a Catholic to the English Crown, are dangerous; possibly some Jesuits' persuasions have seduced the English Papists to believe it, but let them not be deceived; it is the English Crown the Spaniards covet, and not religion nor conscience. I fear there is some great personage already obtained unto that which the last Earl of Derby denied, though I can accuse none; yet by their speeches, it is a dangerous suspicion.39

On 30 July 1599 George Fenner wrote to Nottingham that ‘his Majesty [Henri IV] is full determined to marry’, though without mentioning the daughters of the Earl of Derby.40 However, in August John Petit in Brussels wrote to a London merchant, Peter Halins, linking Henri IV to the English succession. Petit's letters to Halins had run on the succession and the likely candidates for the English crown for some while. Earlier in 1599 he had been particularly concerned that James VI would try, in his Aesopian metaphor, to ‘gather grapes before they are ripe’.41 Then in August he reported something yet more difficult to believe:

If these incredulous people [English statesmen] will not believe known truths [that ‘the King of Scots intends to cut the grass under Her Majesty's feet’], how will they believe what I am going to tell you now? Sir Jas. Lindsay, returning here from Paris, says he hears that some English and French have put it into the head of the King of France,—considering the Queen's age, the nearness of the country to his,—that the King of Scots is a man of little courage, and his people half barbarians,—and that it is not convenient for France that England and Scotland should be joined,—to take England himself, alleging that when the Queen dies, the waters will be troubled, and there will be good fishing; and that France is full of people that will run headlong to the enterprize; they say that the King intends it, as a matter necessary for France, and is laying his plots.42

On 29 August he repeated the warning: ‘do not neglect what I said about the French King's fishing in troubled waters, for I have heard more of it since’.43 Then, on 2 October, Petit picked up an echo of the rumour Contarini had written of in April:

The news that I told you before, sent in cipher in great secresy, is now in the Roman Gazetteer, viz., that the marriage treaty between the French King and great Duke [of Tuscany] cools, for the Queen of England has promised him a near cousin of her own, whom she loves much, and whom she intends to make her heir and successor.44

By 15 October, it was apparently the common talk of Paris:

In Paris they will needs have their King the Queen's heir and successor, and in ‘hasty French fury’, they are ‘shaking their light heads at the matter, as though there were no doubt in it’. I would rather he were in a fishpool, with his mistress for a millstone about his neck. I do not like this light talk; it argues something brewing.45

Matters then cool a few degrees. In December even Petit, whose strongest suit was not scepticism, seemed doubtful: ‘The French still profess that they will do something in England when the time serves, but it may be French brags.’46 But then, in the spring and summer of 1600, the rumours came back in full strength:

The French King gives the King of Scotland fair words, promising to assist his pretences for England, but meanwhile divers near him give out that the Queen is offering to declare the French King her successor. I believe he has such an intention when the Queen dies, if not before; the smoke does not rise without some fire, though covered with ashes of deep dissimulation.47

This on 24 March, from Petit to Halins. It was confirmed by another report, sender and recipient unknown, on 7 April:

The King of France still gathers money, and furnishes himself with stores of armour and ammunition; he promises to assist the King of Scots in his pretences for England, and meanwhile divers near him give out that the Queen intends to make him her successor.48

Finally, in June 1600 Petit told Halins that ‘a book has been made entitling the King of France to the Crown of England. Bruce, a Scot, had some doing in it.’49

The accuracy and reliability of these reports is, for our purposes, irrelevant. For us, the consideration of importance is that, from the summer of 1599 to the spring of 1600, in London and the major cities of Europe, Henri IV was discussed as a probable—and, in English eyes, unwelcome—contender for the English crown. This is the essential political context which throws light on Q's substitution of the Dauphin for Bourbon. Shakespeare's Henry V offset the image of masculine, military, Protestant and charismatic kingship it generated through its central character with a lampoon of a new candidate, identified by his patronym and by his notorious sexual incontinence (Petit's expostulation against Henri IV's mistress is paralleled in the play by the Constable's dry and punning reply to Orléans' praise of Bourbon as ‘simply the most active gentleman of France’: ‘Doing is activity, and he will still be doing’).50 The entry of Bourbon as a silent captive after Agincourt was the dramatic nemesis to that hubris which, in the late 1590s, was the dominant characteristic of both the real Bourbon, and his Shakespearean stage counterpart.51 But when the moment of Henri IV's connection with the English succession had passed, Bourbon's assumption of the role of braggart at Agincourt may have seemed only to deflect the force of the customary insult on to a mere nobleman; and so in F, it is the Dauphin who writes sonnets to his horse.

Two further elements of Henry V bore an offensive implication for the French king: the archbishop's long speech discrediting the Salic Law, and the play's justification of the Lancastrian title to the English throne.52 The Salic Law speech has been much, if narrowly, discussed by critics. The debate has focused exclusively on the question of whether Shakespeare intended the speech to be manifestly ridiculous (thereby mocking the genealogical basis of Henry's claim to the French throne), or whether it was offered as a straight account of an issue of importance in the play. The occurrence of serious expositions of genealogical minutiae in other plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries indicates that the archbishop's subject was not in itself ridiculous, and that Shakespeare's audience would not have found the detail of his analysis indigestible. Moreover, the phrase most often seized on as revealing Shakespeare's ironic intent—‘So that, as clear as is the summer's sun’—is, like much of the wording of the speech, taken with very little alteration from Holinshed.53

If the case for reading the speech as a mock exposition is, on inspection, flimsy, the question arises of why Shakespeare should have wished so thoroughly to have discredited the Salic Law. The material to do so lay to hand in Holinshed, but the availability of material is not in itself a motive for inclusion—there was much available to Shakespeare in Holinshed which he left out of Henry V. The thoroughness of the archbishop's demolition of the Salic Law assumes greater prominence when we compare it with the equivalent passage from The Raigne of King Edward the Third. Artoys, the renegade French peer, indicates Edward's claim to the French throne via his mother Isabel, and explains how the French pretend to exclude it:

The French obscurd your mothers Priuiledge,
And, though she were the next of blood, proclaymed
Iohn, of the house of Valoys, now their king:
The reason was, they say, the Realme of Fraunce,
Repleat with Princes of great parentage,
Ought not admit a gouernor to rule,
Except he be discended of the male;
And thats the speciall ground of their contempt,
Wherewith they study to exclude your grace:
But they shall find that forged ground of theirs
To be but dusty heapes of brittile sande.(54)

Artoys gives no detail about the historical origins of this French law of succession; he does not show how the French themselves have on occasion disregarded it; he does not even name it as the Salic Law. In comparison, the speech in Henry V stands out for its explicitness, and the legal and historical power of its arguments.

An issue which commentators have not much considered is the question of the significance of the Salic Law in the late sixteenth century.55 The assumption seems to have been that this was a genealogical nicety which had little present relevance or topical prominence for Shakespeare's first audiences. In fact, this principle of succession to the French throne was of great importance in the French Wars of Religion, was much discussed in the pamphlets relating to those wars printed in London, and held particularly important implications for Henri IV.

Before 1584 the official Huguenot line on the Salic Law was that it had no authority to determine the succession. In the Franco-Gallia (1573), for instance, the Huguenot jurist François Hotman argued that originally the Salic Law, ‘constantly on the tongues of our contemporaries’, applied only to private inheritances.56 This was an argument dictated solely by political circumstances. Before the death of the Duke of Alençon, the Salic Law lay as an obstacle in Henri of Navarre's path to the throne. After the death of Alençon, however, Henri became the heir-presumptive, and his pretensions to the throne were now strengthened, not weakened, by the Salic Law. In consequence, the stance taken by Hotman in the Franco-Gallia was gravely embarrassing.57 The events of 1584 had transformed the Salic Law from an impediment to Henri's title to the principle which guaranteed its primacy before all others. Parsons explained the dependence of the French king's title on the Salic Law repeatedly and very clearly for an English readership in his Conference Abovt the Next Svccession to the Crown of Ingland (1594)—a book which, according to Sir Thomas Craig, made ‘deep impressions on the minds of men’.58 Moreover, the validity of the Salic Law was a recurrent topic in the pamphlets relating to the Wars of Religion published in London during the early 1590s, all of which championed the interest of Henri of Bourbon and which were offered for their English readers' approval:

The most certaine and true fundamentall law of this realme for the succession thereof, is the Salicque lawe, which is so entiere perfect, & excellent, that (next God) vnto it appertaineth the first & chief honour of the conseruation of it in the estate where it hath so long continued, even to this present: It is also so neat and pure that neuer it would receiue or allowe of any interpretation or exception.

the Salike lawe, a lawe that is the onely oracle of France, bought with the price of our auncestors bloud, with the destruction of our townes, with the decay of our houses, and with the losse of two wretched battailes Cressy and Poictiers: a law that preserueth vs from the dominion of strangers, and that cutteth off all forraine fashions and kindes of life, which long since had filled ours with bastardy …

I speake generally, leauing all questions of law, and election of persons, and cleaue onely to the Salicque fondamentall law, inuiolably obserued by the French, who aboue all nations haue euermore beene highly commended and renowned for their most faithfull obedience and loue to their kinges and the princes of their bloud.59

In the early 1590s, only those opposed to the English interest—the allies and supporters of the League and the House of Guise—were represented as opposed to the Salic Law.60 This changed in the late 1590s, as Henri's reputation in England declined. Sir Robert Dallington, who as we have seen became disenchanted with the French after the Peace of Vervins, in 1599 dismissed the Salic Law as mere fraud:

they would needes make the world beleeue that it is of great antiquitie, wherewith they very wrongfully tromped the heires of Edward the third, of their enioying this Crowne of France, which to them is rightly descended by his Mother, and whose claime is still good, were the English sword well whetted to cut the Labels of this Law.61

In Shakespeare's play, too, explicit rejection of the Salic Law—a move which struck at the basis of Henri IV's title—is part of a more general antipathy to the political behaviour of the French monarch. Far from having any claim to the English throne, the implication runs, he does not even possess a sound claim to the throne he presently occupies. In 1589 English readers might have discovered, in the words of Henri of Bourbon himself, that ‘this foure yeares space I haue bene the argument of the tragædies of France’.62 When Shakespeare put an image of Bourbon on a literal stage, he twisted that dignified self-image into a buffo counterpart to the embodiment of true regality he fashioned in the character of Henry V.

This discrediting of one of the main principles justifying Henri's title to the French throne, which comes so early in Shakespeare's play, was reinforced in Act IV. In The Famous Victories, the defeat of the French at Agincourt was a satisfying smiting of the ancient enemy. In Henry V, however, Henry's prayer on the eve of the battle deepens the significance of the battle immensely. The miraculous English victory is transformed into a sign of divine favour for Lancastrian kingship. After the battle Henry rules by God's ordinance, and any faults his father made in compassing the crown are as nothing.63

This carried implications for Henri IV's title to the French throne, because the validity or otherwise of the Lancastrian dynasty was, in the 1590s, seen as a relevant precedent when trying to determine the thorny primogenitural crux of whether, in the absence of a directly lineal claimant, the uncle or the nephew (that is, propinquity in degree or the elder line) had the better title. Parsons discussed the Lancastrian kings in this context, and made the relevance of the issue to recent French politics explicit:

So that the question now is, whether after the deposition of king Richard, Edmond Mortimer nephew remoued of Leonel (which Leonel vvas the second sonne to king Edward) or els Henry duke of Lancaster, sonne to Iohn of Gaunt (which Iohn vvas third sonne to king Edward) should by right haue succeeded to king Richard, and for Edmond is alleaged, that he was heyre of the elder brother, and for Henry is said, that he vvas neerer by two degrees to the stemme or last king, that is to say, to king Richard deposed, then Edmond was, for that Henry vvas sonne to king Richards vncle of Lancaster, and Edmond was but nephew remoued, that is to say, daughters sones sonne, to the said king Richards other vncle of Yorke. And that in such a case, the next in degree of consanguinitie, to the last King, is to be preferred (though he be not of the elder lyne) the fauourers of Lancaster alleage many proofes, whereof some shalbe touched a litle after: & we haue seene the same practized in our dayes in France, where the Cardinal of Burbone by the iudgement of the most part of that realme, was preferred to the crowne for his propinquity in blood to the dead King, before the king of Nauarre, though he were of the elder lyne.64

Early fifteenth-century England was thus not without implications for late sixteenth-century France: and the two might be brought together in the context of the Elizabethan succession. Inasmuch as the Lancastrian title was strong, as Parsons made plain, then to the same degree was Navarre's title to the French throne weak. One consequence of Shakespeare's justification of Lancastrian kingship (though not the prime motive for that justification) was therefore a further turn of the screw in the play's disparagement of Henri IV. The purpose of Burgundy's evocation of a France ravaged by war is equally part of Shakespeare's dismissal of the pretensions of the French monarch. When the miseries which preceded Henri's accession are recalled, the much vaunted prosperity of his rule is pushed to one side.65

Eighteen years ago, Marie Axton suggested that Henry V was a play to be understood, at least in part, in relation to the succession controversy.66 Certainly the absence of reprintings after Q and before F suggests that it was a play of brief, if perhaps intense, topicality, whose popularity declined abruptly once the grounds of its appeal had been removed. The present essay corroborates that suggestion, although on grounds different from the high jurisprudential arguments canvassed by Axton. Shakespeare's depiction of the French in Henry V was responsive to popular representations of the French in the pamphlet literature of the late 1580s and 1590s. It was also sensitive to changes in those representations which occurred late in the decade, and to the rumours which surrounded them. The Chorus to Act V, with its panegyrical reference to Essex, suggests the play's allegiances. In the early 1590s, Essex had been a great friend and champion of Henri IV, both on the field and in the council chamber.67 Even as late as 1597 the Venetian ambassador in Paris could refer to ‘the Earl of Essex, the great supporter of the King of France.’68 But by the late 1590s, their relationship had cooled. In the aftermath of Essex's rising, Henri offered no support to his erstwhile comrade, despite being approached.69 The affiliations between Henry V and Essex contrive to be both definite and tantalizing. Nevertheless, the play's implicit yet pointed hostility to Henri of Bourbon is, in 1599, compatible with support for Essex, and another strand of political allusion which ties the play in yet more tightly to the anxieties and suspicions of the Elizabethan succession.70 It is hard now to know quite what Essex's aims were in the period following the débâcle in Ireland and leading up to the rising in February of 1601. The government, however, had reason to believe that one outcome which Essex's followers at least had envisaged was the earl's claiming of the throne for himself:

More reports that when it was asked among Essex's friends why they should send for the King of Scots, seeing the dangers that might ensue if they prevailed; it was answered that it was only to persuade the King that they pretended for him, and thus prevent his opposing them; but if they found their own power sufficient, and the people applauded their doings, they would put the crown on the Earl of Essex's head, and let the Scot go shoe goslings.71

Hence Cecil's outburst in council, that Essex ‘had been devising five or six years to be King of England’.72 But whether Essex sought the throne, or wished merely to be kingmaker, in the complicated endgame to Elizabeth's reign any disturbing intrusion from abroad would be unwelcome. Henri IV's refusal to come to Essex's assistance in his hour of trial is easily misread as ingratitude. Aspects of the portrayal of France and the French in Henry V suggest that Essex himself knew well, and had perhaps already exploited, the difference between political friendship and personal affection.


  1. John Aylmer, An Harborovve for Faithfull and Trevve Svbiectes (Strasbourg, 1559), sig. Q1v. The death of Henri II on 10 July 1559 made the husband of Mary Queen of Scots, Francis II, king of France. Both husband and wife were pliable instruments of the Catholic Guises, who thus controlled France and Scotland. In the minds of fervent Protestants such as Aylmer, this looked like a pincer movement aimed at an isolated outpost of reformed religion, England; and indeed French pretensions to the English throne were not diminished until the mid-1560s. See W. MacCaffrey, The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime (1969), 57-9 and 90-1.

  2. Chesterfield, Letters (4 vols., 1774), ii. 140.

  3. On the complexity and volatility of English relations with France during the reign of Elizabeth, see for instance R. B. Wernham, The Making of Elizabethan Foreign Policy, 1558-1603 (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1980). J B Black, Elizabeth I and Henry IV: Being a Short Study in Anglo-French Relations, 1589-1603 (Oxford, 1914) provides a detailed narrative and explanation of relations at the diplomatic level.

  4. On the printing of news from France during the late sixteenth century, see: M. A. Shaaber, Some Forerunners of the Newspaper in England: 1476-1622 (Philadelphia, Pa., 1929); R. O. Lindsay and J. Neu (eds.), French Political Pamphlets, 1547-1644 (Madison, Wis., 1969); D. C. Collins, A Handlist of News Pamphlets: 1590-1610 (1943). The impact of these pamphlets on political thought is surveyed in J. H. M. Salmon, The French Religious Wars in English Political Thought (Oxford, 1959).

  5. The Mutable and wauering estate of France, from the yeare of our Lord 1460, vntill the yeare 1595 (1597), v.

  6. The Restorer of the French Estate (1589), 151. That England might suffer from unrest akin to the French Wars of Religion on the death of Elizabeth was a warning explicitly made by Robert Parsons in his Conference Abovt the Next Svccession to the Crowne of Ingland (1594), sigs. Ii6vff.

  7. The Mutable and wauering estate of France, from the yeare of our Lord 1460, vntill the yeare 1595 (1597), dedication (no sig.) and 38.

  8. John Eliot, Ortho-Epia Gallica (1593), sig. A3r. Eliot placed the familiar disparagement of the French—(‘They are but bragging fooles of France, / Hardie at the bottle, and cowards at the Lance’)—in the mouth of an emptyheaded Englishman, ‘The Bragger’ (sig. S4r).

  9. A Politike Discourse most excellent for this time present (1589), sig. B4v.

  10. A Politike Discourse most excellent for this time present (1589), sigs. C1r, B4r and B3r.

  11. Edwin Sandys, Europae speculum (1629), 176. The imaginative closeness between the two nations is perhaps also revealed in the way episodes from the history of one nation might be used to illustrate current affairs in the other. Edward II was a popular choice; see Thomas Walsingham's Histoire Tragique et mémorable de Pierre de Gaverston (Paris, 1588), and George Harte, A Declaration concerning the needfulnesse of peace to be made in Fraunce (1575), sigs. Eiiv-iiir. Robert Parsons' Conference Abovt the Next Svccession to the Crowne of Ingland (1594) repeatedly illustrates English politics with French examples; as does the translation of E. de Lallouette's Apologie Catholique, A Catholique Apologie (1585), against which Parsons was often writing in the Conference.

  12. Henry V, ed. Gary Taylor (Oxford, 1984), v ii. 31-62.

  13. The French Kings Edict (1594), sig. A3r; cf. also the ‘miseries and calamities that hang on ciuill warres’ deplored in George Harte's A Declaration concerning the needfulnesse of peace to be made in Fraunce (1575), sig. Fviiir.

  14. Nevves from France (1591), sig. A2r. Compare Sir Robert Dallington's praise of France as ‘the Garden of Europe’ (The View of France, 1604, sig. B2r).

  15. A Proposition of the Princes, Prelates, Officers of the Crowne, & others of his Maiesties Councell, propounded to the Duke of Mayenne (1593), sig. A3r.

  16. The Restorer of the French Estate (1589), sig. Biir. For another complaint put in the mouth of ‘France’, see The Contre-Guyse (1589), sig. Miv.

  17. A Letter written by the King of Nauarr (1589), sig. C1r.

  18. The Reformed Politike (1589), sig. Iiiir. Cf. also A Caueat for France, vpon the present euils (1588); ‘Howe many domages must this estate encurre during these alterations? how manie good families destroied, how many good townes laid wast? howe manie widowes and orphanes? how much land be vntilled? & how many poore households must die for hunger? France through these long robberies will growe to a forest …’ (sig. D2r).

  19. John Eliot, A Svrvay or Topographical Description of France (1592), sig. A3r. The laying waste of France was not, of course, something that occurred suddenly in the late 1580s and early 1590s. In 1570 Geffray Fenton was already deploring the ‘late French troubles’ (A discourse of the Ciuile warres and late troubles in Fraunce, 1570, sig. Aiiv). And even as late as 1598 Sir Robert Dallington could endorse La Noue's judgement, that in France ‘more than half the Noblesse is perished, the people diminished, the Treasure exhausted, the debts increased, good Order ouerthrowen, Religion languished, maners debaucked [sic], Iustice corrupted, and the men diuided’ (The View of France, 1604, sig. Y2v).

  20. For the date of Henry V, see Taylor's edition, pp. 4-7. For Henry IV's fiscal policy, implemented by Sully, and its effects on the French economy, see Mark Greengrass, France in the Age of Henri IV: The Struggle for Stability (1984), ch. 4, pp. 88-116.

  21. Henry V, 23.

  22. Henry V, III. v. 64.

  23. Henry V, 24. For Shakespeare's indifference to matters of strict historical accuracy, see Lily B. Campbell's analysis of how the history plays were shaped to match present, rather than past, actualities: Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (Los Angeles, 1947).

  24. Sir Robert Dallington identified vanity and boastfulness as prominent aspects of the French character: ‘a bragging Rhodomonte … an endles & needles prater, fastidious & irksome companion, where you shall see the French naturel, very liuely & admirably well described’ (The View of France, 1604, sig. X4r: cf. also V4v and X2v).

  25. He is so named by the other characters: Henry V, III. vii. 86. In Famous Victories, it is the Dolphin who embodies most powerfully the characteristics of lightness and boastfulness, but they are also to be found in the Constable: see G. Bullough (ed.), Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, vol. IV (1962), 327-8.

  26. Newes from Rome, Spaine, Palermo, Genevœ, and France (1590), sigs. A2r and B3r-v.

  27. Robert Parsons, Conference Abovt the Next Succession to the Crowne of Ingland (1594), sig. M8r.

  28. The Mutable and wauering estate of France, for the yeare of our Lord 1460, vntill the yeare 1595 (1597), 134. J. de Serres and P. Mathieu, An Historical Collection of the Most Memorable Accidents and Tragicall Massacres of France (1598), sigs. L13v-4r, Vv2r.

  29. Sir Robert Dallington, The View of France (1604), sigs. E1r, E4v and H4v.

  30. The Prince de Condé seems never to have been referred to by his family name, which was also Bourbon.

  31. Michel Hurault, A Discourse vpon the present state of France (1588), 53. For an example of preapostasy panegyric, see John Eliot's A Svrvay or Topographical Description of France (1592), sigs. A3r-v.

  32. The Mutable and wauering estate of France, from the yeare of our Lord 1460, untill the yeare 1595 (1597). 146.

  33. The View of France (1604), sigs. Y1v and Y2r. For Elizabeth's own fury at this fickleness (as she saw it), see the letter quoted by Black, Elizabeth I and Henry IV, 137.

  34. Elizabeth seems to have been indifferent to the religious aspect of Henri's apostasy, and to have been concerned only for its practical and political consequences; see David Norbrook, Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance (1984), 127. She may even have encouraged him to change religion in order to secure his political ends; see CSP Venetian 1592-1603, item 107, p. 48 and item 230, p. 112. Her chief objective in the late 1590s was always to secure repayment of the money she had advanced to Henri: see the letter of 19 February 1599 from the newly-appointed English ambassador in Paris, Henry Neville, to Thomas Windebank in CSP Domestic 1598-1601 (1869), 164. Black believed that the ‘question of reimbursement [For the £400,000 spent by Elizabeth in the French cause], therefore, became one of the prime questions of this later period [i.e. 1598-1603]’ (Elizabeth I and Henry IV, 154).

  35. The King's Edict and Declaration (1599), sigs. B1r, B2r-v and C3v.

  36. For the date of Henry V, which we know with unusual precision, see Henry V, 5-7.

  37. CSP Venetian 1592-1603 (1897), 366-7.

  38. Robert Parsons, Conference Abovt the Next Succession to the Crowne of Ingland (1594), sig. Kkr. For the House of Suffolk, see the letter of 15 June 1599 from Robert Parsons to an unknown recipient in CSP Domestic 1598-1601 (1869), 211-12, and Conference, sig. Ii2r.

  39. CSP Domestic 1598-1601, 259.

  40. Ibid. 265.

  41. Ibid. 189; letter of 28 April 1599.

  42. Ibid. 299.

  43. Ibid. 314.

  44. Ibid. 327-8.

  45. Ibid. 330.

  46. Ibid. 356.

  47. Ibid. 413.

  48. Ibid. 419.

  49. Ibid. 442. I have not been able to identify the book to which Petit referred. The rumours persisted into 1601, although they focused on the likelihood of armed invasion, not the procurement of a claim by marriage (ibid. 42 and 148). Henri married Marie de Médicis, the daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, at Lyon on 23 November 1600 (ibid. 500).

  50. Henry V, III. vii. 93-4; cf. also the bawdy innuendo in ll. 91-2.

  51. See, for example, CSP Domestic 1598-1601, 500.

  52. Henry V, I. ii. 33-95.

  53. For other such speeches, see I Henry VI, II. v. 61-92 and Sir John Oldcastle, III. i. 6-43 (as reprinted in C. F. Tucker Brooke, ed., The Shakespeare Apocrypha, Oxford 1918, 141-2); Henry V, I. ii. 86. Holinshed's phrase is ‘so that more cleere than the sunne it openlie appeareth’ (Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, IV. 379). Where Shakespeare diverged from Holinshed, he perhaps did so under the influence of the pamphlet literature generated by the French Wars of Religion. Holinshed referred to ‘Charlemaine’, but Shakespeare, like the pamphlets, referred to ‘Charles the Great’; cf. Henry V, I. ii. 61, 71, 77 and 84, and A Discourse vpon the Declaration, published by the Lord de la Noue (1589), sig. B2v.

  54. The Raigne of King Edward the Third, I. i. 19-29 (as reprinted in Tucker Brooke, Shakespeare Apocrypha, 69).

  55. On the origins of the Salic Law, see J. M. Potter, ‘The development and significance of the Salic Law of the French’ Engl Hist R (1937), 235-53. A sixteenth-century conception of its importance can be found in Claude de Seyssel's La Grande Monarchie de France (Paris, 1557), 8. Marie Axton looks at the implications of the Salic Law, were it to be applied to the English succession (The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession, 1977, 112-13): a remote consideration, since the Salic Law was always acknowledged to be a local custom of the French, and the apparently parallel maxim in the English common law against alien inheritance relates only to private property. When Fabyan discussed the French king Pharamond, who allegedly drew up the Salic Law, he noted his achievements as a legislator (‘he made certaine lawes whiche longe tyme enduryd after’), but did not specify what they were because they are ‘derke to Englysshe vnderstandynge’ (Cronycle, 1516, sig. d viiir).

  56. ‘Quae cum assidue nostris hominibus in ore est’ (François Hotman, Franco-Gallia, ed. R. E. Guisey and J. H. M. Salmon, Cambridge, 1972, 269). Hotman's discussion of the Salic Law is to be found in chapter VIII of the editions of 1573 and 1574, chapter X of the edition of 1586 (ed. cit., 269ff).

  57. ‘The Salic Law … became a particularly sensitive issue, in historical as well as political terms, in the last years of the civil wars’: D. R. Kelly, The Foundations of Modern Historical Scholarship: Language, Law and History in the French Renaissance (Columbia, 1970), 293.

  58. Parsons, Conference, sigs. D5v, K2v, M8r and Bb8v. Sir Thomas Craig, The Right of Succession to the Kingdom of England (published 1703; composed before 1603). sig. blv.

  59. A Proposition of the Princes … sig. B2r (supposedly spoken in the person of Henri IV); The Contre-Guyse (1589), sig. D2v; An Admonition giuen by one of the Duke of Savoyes Councel (1589), sig. B2v. See also The coppy of a Letter written by the Lord of Themines (1593), sig. A3v.

  60. See, for examples, The Flevr de Lvce (1593), sig. B4r (where the Duke of Savoy is said to dispute the Salic Law), and Michel Hurault, A Discourse vpon the present state of France (1588), 56 (where the King of Spain ‘thinketh not that the Salicke law … was made for him’).

  61. The View of France, sig. E3r.

  62. A Letter written by the King of Nauarr (1589), sig. Aiiir.

  63. For a fuller discussion of the significance of the English victory at Agincourt, see my ‘Why is Falstaff Fat?’, Rev Engl St, forthcoming.

  64. Parsons, Conference, sigs. X2v-3r.

  65. A report of 22 May 1590 to the doge and Senate from the Venetian ambassador in Germany, Piero Duodo, spoke in one breath of English resentment at the flourishing state of France, and of Henri's presumptuous overtures to secure a claim to the English throne: ‘They say the Queen is very jealous of the prosperity of the French, her ancient rebels and foes. Some weeks ago she told the Scottish Ambassador that his most Christian Majesty had demanded in marriage Arabella, daughter of Charles Stuart, and descended from Margaret, daughter of Henry VII, who is a pretender to the Crown, no less than the King of Scotland, for they are second cousins’ (CSP Venetian 1592-1603, item 883, p. 410).

  66. Marie Axton, The Queen's Two Bodies: Drama and the Elizabethan Succession (1977), 111-15.

  67. See Robert Lacey, Robert, Earl of Essex: An Elizabethan Icarus, (1971), 84-5, 203 and 251.

  68. CSP Venetian 1592-1603, 273-4.

  69. See a fascinating report of 20 August 1601 from Marin Cavalli, the Venetian ambassador in France, to the doge and Senate (CSP Venetian 1592-1603, item 1006, p. 468).

  70. That there was hostility towards France in general, and Henri IV in particular, amongst Essex's circle in the late 1590s is shown by the example of Sir Robert Dallington, whose testy opinion of the French has been quoted above. Dallington was tutor to the Earl of Rutland, and had been the earl's companion on the Grand Tour. Rutland was involved in Essex's rising in 1601, and was fined.

  71. CSP Domestic 1601-1603, 42.

  72. CSP Domestic 1598-1601, 554.

Lisa Hopkins (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6669

SOURCE: Hopkins, Lisa. “Neighbourhood in Henry V.” In Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture, edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray, pp. 9-26. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Hopkins demonstrates that France's position as “the Other” is portrayed in ambivalent terms throughout Henry V, commenting that France and the French, while still a place and a people to be conquered, are discussed by Henry as known and familiar, not strange or foreign.]

Shakespeare's Henry V ostensibly tells a story of enmity. The main plot of Henry's triumphant subjugation of the over-confident French seems to have its emotional dynamic of hostility subtly but tellingly underwritten by the subplot: the story of Bardolph, Pistol and Nym enacts the ever-widening breach of sympathy and circumstance between the King and his erstwhile companions of the tavern. From the outset, however, the development of the opposition is structured by a tense emphasis on the close confines of the combat. The Globe itself may be an inadequate arena for a representation of the conflict, but in one sense at least it merely mirrors an actual facet of the war itself:

Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.(1)

The restricting ‘girdle’ of the Globe provides an apt correlative for the narrowness of the ocean, across which ‘fronts’ menacingly face each other.2 This is an image not particularly apt for the English channel—Dover cliffs are not really matched by any similar eminence at Calais or at other French ports—but it would serve as a strikingly vivid encapsulation of the typical design of a London street, in which houses built with projecting jetties jutted across at each other over the cluttered space below. Briefly, in such an image, two surreal effects are achieved: the 22 miles of the English channel are visually collapsed as we are offered a vision of both sides simultaneously, and each side, it seems to me, may be said to resemble London.

This juggling with our relative ideas of size and location inaugurates a sustained ambivalence in the representation of France as the Other, and indeed in the dramatizing of the very concept of Frenchness. The first slippage comes with the Archbishop of Canterbury's surprising refutation of one of the most obvious characteristics of the French polity, its adherence to the Salic Law:

Yet their own authors faithfully affirm
That the land Salic is in Germany,
Between the floods of Sala and of Elbe …


In Olivier's pointedly anti-German film version of 1944, these lines were given special emphasis, but Olivier did no more than bring out a distancing element already present in Shakespeare: the apparently traditional marker of Frenchness is here geographically and racially displaced onto the Germans. ‘Frenchness’ is made even less strange in the remark of Westmorland:

But there's a saying very old and true,
If that you will France win,
Then with Scotland first begin.


Westmorland's thinking here is defensive, since he goes on to characterize Scotland as a ‘weasel’ (I.ii.170); but Henry himself has earlier shown us that a considerably less pejorative view of Scotland is equally tenable when he refers to ‘the Scot, / Who hath been still a giddy neighbour to us’ (I.ii.144-5). Threat is defused in the homely familiarity of the twin reassurance of ‘giddiness’ and ‘neighbourhood’, terms which assimilate the Scots within the known and accepted rather than demonizing them or othering them—terms which, indeed, as Christopher Pye has it, ‘riddle the very distinction between invader and invaded’.3

The concept of neighbourhood proves in fact to be an increasingly important one in defining England's relation to France and in charting a journey which takes Henry from the last vestiges of his old self to his most fully realized apprehension of his chosen identity. Initially, Henry characterizes his invasion of France exclusively in terms of the remote and unfamiliar:

                                                            'tis ever common
That men are merriest when they are from home.


Increasingly, however, France is also figured in his language as the known and even the neighbourly:

                                                                      God before,
We'll chide this Dauphin at his father's door.


France may be conceived of as another household here, yet it is a household that operates within ways that are readily recognizable and understandable. Indeed, with the introduction of the subplot and the treachery motif, enemies within become increasingly difficult to demarcate from those without. The Chorus apostrophizes the three traitors with ‘thy fault France hath in thee found out’ (Chorus, II.20); alliteration may link ‘France’ with ‘fault’, but the logic of the sentence also gestures towards a profound and indeed internalized affinity between these Englishmen and the enemy, and this is further suggested in Henry's long denunciation of Scrope, of which the thrust is precisely to characterize him as normative, as ostensibly indistinguishable from any other Englishman of his background and breeding. Of course, it would also be possible to read this indictment of ‘seeming’ in terms of the dramatic development not only of the main plot but also of the subplot, since Henry himself had, as Prince Hal, seemed precisely like one of the riotous comrades from whom he has now been so careful to distance himself. These literal neighbours are now living in a state of virtual warfare with one another, which even the state's policy of radically demonizing France as the Other has barely managed to contain.

With the literal move of the action to France, however, it becomes even harder to maintain the designation of the French as alien, as the language focuses increasingly on concepts of neighbourliness. The word ‘neighbour’ itself occurs five times in the play, a tally equalled only by its appearance in Much Ado about Nothing, and there are also ‘neighboured’—found only in this play, Hamlet and King Lear—and two instances of ‘neighbourhood’ (elsewhere found only once, in Timon of Athens). Interestingly, Henry V shares this emphasis on neighbourhood, improbable though it may initially seem, with Marlowe's Tamburlaine, where the word ‘neighbour’ occurs six times.4Henry V and Tamburlaine have many notable similarities: Henry's rhetoric and ruthlessness before Harfleur closely parallel the similarly threatening ferocity and tactics of Tamburlaine, and Graham Holderness sees further parallels between the two kings, commenting that ‘Pistol's main function in Shakespeare's play is to parody, by projecting a Marlovian megalomania, the king's tendency to dramatize himself as the old-fashioned epic hero’ and that, in the Olivier film at least, where there is an interpolation from Marlowe, ‘evidently it is passing brave to be a king and ride in triumph through Persepolis’.5 Finally, both Henry V and Tamburlaine Part One perform an unusual manoeuvre at the close when their subject matter of war in each case gives way to the conventionally comic finale of marriage—a marriage which in each case uses the bestowal of a daughter to bond a king to his conqueror.

That Marlowe was in Shakespeare's mind when writing the Henriad is sufficiently illustrated by Pistol's celebrated parody of Tamburlaine, while Exeter's warning to the French not to ‘hide the crown’ (II.iv.97) is reminiscent of Mycetes' unsuccessful attempt to do just that.6 There may also be some evidence that when Shakespeare thought of Marlowe, he perhaps tended to think of Ireland too. As You Like It, a play with some unusually pointed mentions of Marlowe as a ‘dead shepherd’ and one who made ‘a great reckoning in a little room’,7 is also notably full of references to Irish wolves, Irish rats and Irish music.8 Sir D. Plunket Barton indeed noted that ‘Rosalind has so much to say about Ireland that some people have drawn the inference that Shakespeare must have made an Irish tour shortly before the production of the play’.9 Perhaps, though, the allusions to Ireland and to Marlowe go hand in hand, and are associated with the work that Shakespeare had put into the Henry VI plays, in which both older scholarly opinion and recent computer-assisted analysis see him revising or reworking Marlowe, and where Ireland and its involvement with York and the Mortimers feature very prominently indeed.10

The twin emphasis on neighbourhood in both Henry V and Tamburlaine may suggest that Shakespeare's play also shares one of the most striking features of its Marlovian predecessor, the extent to which its apparent foreignness dissolves as the Scythian hero holds his ‘tragic glass’ up to the English audience. As Emily Bartels puts it, ‘what makes Marlowe's plays stand out … is that their foreign worlds are not only “Englished”; they make a point of that Englishing’.11 Shakespeare's repeated use of ‘neighbour’ in the context of the French may well seem to make much the same point, showing us a Scythian in the mirror and collapsing the distinction between self and other, as Stephen Greenblatt suggests when he argues that Henry V ‘insists that we have all along been both coloniser and colonised, king and subject’.12

The distinction between them and us is also tellingly blurred by one of Shakespeare's most elaborate linguistic games, which has the French princess and her lady-in-waiting speaking French, while the rest of the court speak English. (Indeed, David Baker comments that the French knights in general seem ‘suspiciously English’).13 As when Grumio in The Taming of the Shrew fails to understand Italian and imagines it to be Latin, this blatant signposting of the lack of realism of the drama's own conventions of representation forces us to a reconsideration of our own relationship to the characters. Additionally, while Katherine's obvious Frenchness may temporarily distance her from us, her desire to learn English counteracts the effect by offering an immediate rapprochement. This is all the more so since she does not give us her reason for it, and so invites us to read her psychology in terms of our culturally familiar expectations—and the product of such a reading will of course be that she wants to learn English either because she is aware that political realities dictate this, or because she already feels a personal interest in the king to whom, as the Chorus at the beginning of the third act tells us, she has already been offered as a bride. Moreover, the presence of a whole scene almost entirely in French surely suggests that Shakespeare expected a significant part of his audience to be able to grasp at least the gist of the jokes, and serves, thus, as a reminder of the historic prestige which French culture has enjoyed in Britain, with French as the language most likely to be familiar to us, for historical reasons of which a French lord—in the Arden edition, the tellingly-named ‘Britain’—will remind us when he denounces the invaders as ‘bastard Normans, Norman bastards!’ (III.v.10). Even the insistence by both Henry and the Chorus (I.ii.241, Chorus, II.6) on his status as ‘Christian king’ echoes the traditional French honorific of ‘Most Christian King of France’. (There is no reference to the English equivalent of ‘Defender of the Faith’; although any such allusion would of course have been anachronistic, that would not necessarily have stopped the Shakespeare who included a clock in Julius Caesar.) And if Henry V is indeed to be read as a compliment to Essex, it is worth remembering that Essex's family name, Devereux, speaks loud and clear of French origins, proclaiming as it does that the family came first from Evreux, in Normandy.

The concept of neighbourhood structures and underpins the build-up of the increasing tension before Agincourt. Henry's defiance invokes it directly:

Yet, God before, tell him we will come on,
Though France himself and such another neighbour
Stand in our way.


He even caps this threat by giving Montjoy money (English, presumably?), symbolically resiting his adversary's herald within a patron/client relationship (a development interestingly picked up on in the Kenneth Branagh film, which traces a growing bond between Henry and Montjoy). But if France is a neighbour here, he is a distinctly adversarial one, and the dynamics of the relationship are aptly indicated in the speech's creation of the fictional ‘such another neighbour’. There is indeed such another neighbour of England's whose presence is subtly encoded within the ostensibly French-centred exchange between the Dauphin and the Constable:

O then belike she was old and gentle, and you rode like a kern of Ireland, your French hose off and in your strait strossers.
You have good judgement in horsemanship.
Be warned by me then: they that ride so, and ride not warily, fall into foul bogs.


Underneath the French hose, it seems, lurk the ‘strossers’ of the Irish, England's close and turbulent neighbours; beneath the fields of France loom the Irish bogs which wreaked such havoc on Elizabeth's armies, just as, later in the play, Pistol will address his French captive with the words of an Irish song.14 So close is the element of identification here that Joel Altman refers to the enemy in the play as ‘the French-cum-Irish’.15

Ireland has always loomed large in the history of the production and reception of Henry V. Michael Neill points out that ‘Burgundy's lament for France … echoes numerous descriptions of Ireland as a fertile earthly paradise turned to wilderness by the barbarity of its own inhabitants’, and Gary Taylor refers to ‘the revealing textual error in “So happy be the issue, brother Ireland” (V.ii.12), and Henry's promise to Catherine that “England is thine, Ireland is thine, France is thine” (V.ii.230)’.16 The Chorus, moreover, explicitly invokes Ireland at the beginning of Act V in the famous lines:

Were now the General of our gracious Empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword …

(Chorus, V.30-2)

Almost certainly, this refers to Essex; conceivably, however, it could refer to his successor, Mountjoy17—and Mountjoy is the name of the French herald (as well as of the French Huguenot couple with whom Shakespeare was living by 1604 and for an unknown time before).18 By ironic chance, the 1944 Olivier film, which aimed to transfer the burden of demonization from the French to the Germans, was filmed in Ireland, while one of the several concealments effected by Branagh's Henry V is the careful eradication of any trace of accent from the cultivated tones of the Belfast-born hero.19 The Dauphin's reference here may serve to remind us that Ireland has always been at least as troubling a neighbour as France; equally, though, it can be seen as suggesting that the issue is not so much Frenchness but foreignness, and the whole problematic of othering. Certainly this idea seems to be reinforced by the text's persistent emphasis on those other neighbours, the Welsh and the Scots,20 who are presented as so unproblematically absorbed into a pan-Britishness that the historical reality of a Scottish prince held hostage at Henry's court, and a Wales that had been fiercely loyal to Richard II and had not forgotten Glendower, is seriously distorted.21 Ireland, however, is symbolically as well as actually more difficult to subsume, particularly in the light of those echoes of the Scythian Tamburlaine, for Scythianness was powerfully associated with Irishness—as when, in A View of the Present State of Ireland, Spenser explicitly asserted that the Irish descended from the Scythians (as opposed to the English claim of Roman origin through Brut, son of Aeneas).22 The explicitly westward-bound teleology of Tamburlaine's conquests makes the analogy particularly apposite. The Scythian lurks in the mirror as an Irish self does in the French other, and there is a potentially dangerous slippage between Henry/Tamburlaine and Scythian/Irish. For if the French are like the Irish, if the first English settlers had, through marriage, become assimilated to the Irish, and if Henry through marriage will become the heir to the French throne, what, then, will stop him, like so many English nobles before him, from becoming his own Other?

Strategies for keeping the element of similarity at bay are, however, numerous. While Tamburlaine outrages his opponents by his unconventionality, Henry plays it by the book, obeying the laws of war. However much he may imitate Tamburlaine's threats, he does not duplicate his actions. Moreover, the point is forcibly underlined in the ‘Four Captains’ scene, in which many of the play's most crucial imagings of nationhood are transacted. The Irish Macmorris, as Willy Maley points out elsewhere in this volume [Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture], is identified only by his patronymic, an intensely politicized form of nomenclature which, composed as it is of ‘an Irish prefix and a Norman termination’,23 also draws attention to his problematic national identity. He is one who, as the Dauphin says of the English, might be termed a ‘Norman bastard’ (like, perhaps, Robert Devereux himself). Macmorris' name, then, thus performs the very elision of national identities which is threatened by the permeable borders between Scythian/Irish and French/Henry. It encapsulates the terrifying paradox of encoding both the idea of bastardy, a father-lessness which haunts so much Elizabethan political and social discourse, and also of an identity constituted solely by relationship to the father—and the father figure is one which has proved notably troublesome for the young Prince Hal. In this double threat, though, Macmorris is powerfully counterbalanced by Fluellen, whose lack of any patronymic (despite its normally crucial role in Welsh naming-systems), and of the father-haunted identity that it bestows, allows him, as I have argued elsewhere, to function as a peculiarly recuperative figure for Henry.24 The character of Fluellen seems designed partly with a view to a common perception of the Welsh as interested in learning, and the Welsh captain stresses both the importance of the military code and his own close connections with the King. He thus defuses the threats encoded both in the father/bastard nexus of the name ‘Macmorris’ and of the Scythian lawlessness of the disorderly Tamburlaine, which in turn effects a radical demonizing of the Scythians/Irish as antitype of chivalry. Additionally, Fluellen simultaneously affords a vehicle for Henry to assert a distinctively Welsh identity (which will also work to associate him symbolically with the Tudors rather than the Valois), and, by his barely motivated quarrel with Macmorris, provides a careful differentiation of the Welsh from the Irish. This is a nice irony in view of the extensive Geraldine involvement in both countries, neatly emblematized in Gerald of Wales' description of Ireland. Moreover, it also runs counter to the persistent Tudor construction of the two as similar, and the ‘biographical affinities between Glendower and Tyrone’, which Christopher Highley traces.25 In the light of such links between Wales and Ireland, the forcing apart of Fluellen and Macmorris may well look like special pleading here.

After its extraordinary double vision of the French as Irish, the text becomes even more insistent in its presentation of them as paradoxically neighbourly. On the night before Agincourt,

                    the fixed sentinels almost receive
The secret whispers of each other's watch.
Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
Each battle sees the other's umbered face.

(Chorus, IV.6-9)

Taking what comfort he can from the situation, Henry muses:

There is some soul of goodness in things evil,
Would men observingly distil it out—
For our bad neighbour makes us early stirrers,
Which is both healthful and good husbandry.
Besides, they are outward consciences,
And preachers to us all.


We see here the positive side of the process of othering, which provides the presence of an observer whose gaze confirms and refines the sense of self. As such, the Other indeed possesses an acknowledged and welcomed authority, being cast as ‘preacher’; and it is notable that Henry's next use of the term ‘neighbours’ develops still further this emphasis on the social solace of neighbourhood:

He that shall see this day and live t'old age
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours.


The role of the neighbour here is once more crucial in the creation and maintenance of a pleasing sense of self; it is worth remembering that it was, after all, precisely as a means to bolster solidarity at home that Henry's father initially advised him to pursue a demonization of France. Once the kingdom has been conquered, however, that strategy is rendered otiose, and stress can be laid instead on the strengths of the links between France and England: ‘I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it’ (V.ii.168-9) says Henry, confirming its status as the known, and when Katherine hesitates to commit herself he reverts to the now-familiar topos with ‘Can any of your neighbours tell, Kate?’ (V.ii.190). He is able to maintain this position partly because he has now found a new Other:

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


And ultimately, the idea of neighbourhood will be embraced by the French as well, as the French king proclaims:

Take her, fair son, and from her blood raise up
Issue to me, that the contending kingdoms
Of France and England, whose very shores look pale
With envy of each other's happiness,
May cease their hatred, and this dear conjunction
Plant neighbourhood and Christian-like accord
In their sweet bosoms, that never war advance
His bleeding sword ’twixt England and fair France.


In many ways, however, these explicit acknowledgements at the close of the play do no more than confirm openly what has been strongly suggested throughout—only with the added emphasis of a specifically Christian accord, a highly pointed comment in a play written at a period when the major cause of political tension between France and England (and also, to a lesser extent, between France and Ireland) was the difference in religion.

One very striking aspect of Shakespeare's characterization of Henry V is the sustained emphasis on his Catholicism and on his adherence to obviously medieval forms of piety. Stephen M. Buhler has recently demonstrated in fascinating detail the extent to which this strand is picked up on in the Olivier film, in which ‘the director provides a complex apologia for both the Old Religion and the English version of l'ancien régime’; but Olivier is doing no more than bring out what is already strongly present in the text.26 Ely in the opening scene calls the king ‘A true lover of the holy Church’ (I.i.24), while Canterbury comments on his unwillingness to entertain legislation remarkably similar to that introduced by Henry VIII at the outset of the English Reformation. The Mass itself is repeatedly invoked by the presence of ‘mild oaths involving the rite’.27

Most notably, perhaps, Henry himself implores God for mercy by reminding him:

                                                                      And I have built
Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard's soul.


This not only constitutes a further reminder of the orthodoxy of Henry's Catholicism, with its adherence to the Catholic practice (anathema to Protestants) of prayers for the dead; it also alludes to another memory of great significance for the play. Though officially present only in this one shadowy mention, Richard II is nevertheless a crucially important figure for the whole story of Henry V, who was often said to love this surrogate father better than his real one.28 Although the alternative father-figure offered by Falstaff has disappeared, Henry has by no means finished with the game of constructing alternative families for himself—Lisa Jardine points to ‘Henry's elaborate naming of the French royal house as his close kin (brother, sister, cousin)’—and he is at pains to stress his association with Richard II (which might be seen as present, too, in the name of the English captain Gower, recalling one of the literary luminaries of Richard's reign).29 The historical Henry reburied Richard's body in the tomb he had intended for himself in Westminster Abbey, developed his predecessor's architectural heritage, and posthumously became his brother-in-law when he married Catherine of Valois, sister of Richard's widow Isabella of France.30 Richard had been immortalized in his most famous portrait, the Wilton Diptych (which Henry V himself is sometimes thought to have commissioned) as the exemplar of a chivalric, patriotic piety which found its expression in heraldic, emblematic terms, producing an icon of kingship into which ‘the mirror of all Christian kings’ (Chorus, II.6) might well have been glad to gaze.31

A recent comprehensive study of the Wilton Diptych suggests that Shakespeare may well have seen the painting. There are some suggestive parallels between the concepts of Richard II to be found in the two most famous ‘images’ of him, the Wilton Diptych and Shakespeare's play. As Caroline Barron states:

Several passages in the play are suggestive of the painting. John of Gaunt's description of England as ‘this little world, / This precious stone set in the silver sea’ recalls the tiny map of a green island set in a sea of silver leaf recently discovered on the orb at the top of the banner in the right-hand panel of the diptych. Moreover, the eleven angels who all clearly display their support for Richard by wearing the king's badge of the white hart, may have been in Shakespeare's mind when he wrote: ‘God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay / A glorious angel’.32

The imagery of the Wilton Diptych is radically informed by a desire to celebrate alliance, rather than hostility, between England and France. The saints it features are John the Baptist, Edmund, king and martyr, and Edward the Confessor: ‘as the Wilton Diptych demonstrates, Richard came to identify himself not with the popular nationalistic Saint George who was thought to support the English against the French, but rather with the sainted Edward the Confessor’;33 moreover, great prominence is given to collars made of broomcods, the emblem of Richard's father-in-law by his second marriage, Charles VI of France (who would also become the father-in-law of Henry V).34

One suggestion is that the Wilton Diptych was made specifically for Richard II to take to Ireland, which he was the first English king for nearly 200 years to visit35—and to which the young Hal had accompanied him, being knighted on the campaign with much chivalric panoply (as, later, Essex would attempt to build up a power base by dubbing knights on his Irish campaign, much to the Queen's fury).36 The painting can certainly be seen as icon of English nationalism—it has been suggested that its emphasis on angels plays on Pope Gregory the Great's pun ‘non Angli sed Angeli’—in ways that fit with Richard's dismissive attitude to Ireland.37 Elsewhere in this volume [Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture], David Baker demonstrates how late Tudor Ireland hovered uneasily between the status of kingdom or colony: to Richard II it was less than either, since he created Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, firstly Marquis of Dublin and then Duke of Ireland. The specifically English rather than British nature of the two saint/kings portrayed in the Diptych, Edmund the Martyr and Edward the Confessor, further encodes a chivalric, pious national English identity which can readily embrace France, but in which Ireland can find no place; the Wilton Diptych may, indeed, have been intended primarily to function as a battle icon precisely for use against Ireland.

Finally, associating Richard II with Henry V allowed Shakespeare to perform a very delicate manoeuvre. Henry's triumphant defeat of the French is overtly paralleled with Essex's Irish campaign and the earl's aggressive militarism; Elizabeth herself was quick to point to resemblances between her own position and Richard's, responding to John Hayward's provocative history of Henry IV and its implied eulogy of Essex with the celebrated ‘I am Richard II, know ye not that?’ His coronation portrait appears to have provided the direct precedent for her own, which, like the Wilton Diptych, was painted at the end of her reign but represented her as she had appeared at the beginning; she may, too, have been struck by an element of similarity between her own appearance and that of Richard, which she would have wished to play up since Richard, son of ‘the Fair Maid of Kent’, was generally considered handsome.38 Other similarities are to be found in Richard's concept of himself, after his unsuccessful bid for the title of Holy Roman Emperor (one of the reasons given him for its failure was ‘his inability to reduce to obedience his rebellious vassals in Ireland’)39 as ‘entier emperour de son Roiaume’.40 This matches Elizabeth's use of the language and symbols of empire, and both monarchs, too, further played on the theme by making considerable use of globes and maps in their portraiture.41 Most notably, it was the tragedy of Richard II that Essex's steward ordered played to inaugurate his rebellion. To link the two figures, presenting Henry as Richard's spiritual heir, allows Shakespeare to smooth over some of the differences which would soon irrevocably fissure the relationship between the ageing queen and her glamorous soldier-courtier. Annabel Patterson sees the allusion to Essex as destabilizing ‘the fusion of monarch and military hero in a single popular archetype’, but the inclusion of Richard mediates the fission, allowing Elizabeth and Essex to appear not in oppositional but in relational terms.42 The reference thus performs a threefold function. Firstly, it pours oil on troubled political waters. It sheds light on Henry's state of mind, reminding us both of his problematic political status as the son of an usurper and, more personally, of his troubled relationship with his father. Finally, for those who remember their Holinshed, it adds an extra edge to Henry's eventual triumph that he enters into a marriage which, as well as bringing him more obvious gains, also bonds him to the family of the dead Richard. Most importantly for the purposes of the present project, it achieves all this in a distinctively Catholic context.

Such obtrusive emphasis on a spirituality so markedly different from that of contemporary practice serves to estrange Henry from the audience and visibly to align him with the sixteenth-century concomitant of Catholicism, foreignness (by the same token, it also elides further the differences between English and Irish). It thus offers a further element in the sense of increasing closeness created between him and his ostensible opponents. As in Coriolanus, where any differences between Roman and Volscian will be so much less obvious than the strong homosocial attraction between their two chief champions, Henry V counterpoints its narrative logic of antagonism and difference with a thematic one of blurring and assimilation; and the accelerating frequency of the term ‘neighbour’, and its close conjunctions with the text's overt evocations of Irishness, may well invite us less to the jingoistic participations in the mechanisms of demonization so often fostered by appropriations of this play than to a heightened awareness of the ideological underpinnings of their dynamics. After all, given the recent discoveries by Richard Wilson, which do indeed seem to link the young Shakespeare to the circle of Edmund Campion43 (not to mention, at least by the time of the Folio version, the playwright's residence in the household of the French Mountjoy family), he could hardly have read Stanyhurst's description of Ireland, which Campion inspired,44 without experiencing some sense of identification at least as much as one of alienation. The Other is, indeed, in the mirror.


  1. King Henry V, ed. T. W. Craik (London: Routledge, 1995), Prologue, 19-22. All further quotations from the play will be taken from this edition and reference will be given in the text.

  2. For discussion of this passage see also David J. Baker, ‘“Wildehirissheman”: Colonialist Representation in Shakespeare's Henry V’, English Literary Renaissance, 22 (1993), p. 52.

  3. Christopher Pye, The Regal Phantasm: Shakespeare and the Politics of Spectacle (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 28.

  4. Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great, ed. J. S. Cunningham (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1981), I: I.i.61, I.i.115, IV.ii.33-4, II:, III.i.49 and III.i.61.

  5. Graham Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), pp. 189 and 190. Holderness also discusses the Brechtian nature of Olivier's production, which ironically introduces a German element into an anti-German film. On similarities between Henry V and Tamburlaine, see James Shapiro, Rival Playwrights: Marlowe, Jonson, Shakespeare (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), p. 85; Robert Egan, ‘A Muse of Fire: Henry V in the Light of Tamburlaine’, Modern Language Quarterly, 29 (1968), pp. 15-28, and Roy Battenhouse, ‘The Relation of Henry V to Tamburlaine’, Shakespeare Survey, 27 (1974), pp. 76 ff. Lisa Jardine (Reading Shakespeare Historically [London: Routledge, 1996], p. 11) also compares Henry's wooing to Tamburlaine's. Michael Neill compares the two figures in passing (‘Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare's Histories’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 45 [1994], p. 22), and Joel B. Altman heads one of the sections of his essay on Henry V ‘Playing the Tamburlaine’ (‘“Vile Participation”: The Amplification of Violence in the Theater of Henry V’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 42 [1991], p. 13). Gary Taylor also refers to a Henry who ‘was performing the part of a Tamburlaine’ in his 1994 Oxford World's Classics edition of the play (p. 50).

  6. Laurie Maguire also suggests a parallel between Hotspur and Lady Percy and Tamburlaine and Zenocrate (‘“Household Kates”: Chez Petruchio, Percy and Plantagenet’, in S. P. Cerasano and Marion Wynne-Davies (eds), Gloriana's Face [Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992], p. 146). Might it even be possible to detect a similarity between Tamburlaine's decision to carry the body of Zenocrate with him and the continuing failure to inter the corpse of Catherine of Valois, still openly available in Westminster Abbey in Pepys' day?

  7. As You Like It, ed. Agnes Latham (London: Routledge, 1987), III.v.81 and III.iii.11-12.

  8. See Sir D. Plunket Barton, Links Between Ireland and Shakespeare (Dublin: Maunsel, 1919), pp. 59-66, and Michael Cronin's essay in this volume [Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture].

  9. Plunket Barton, Links, p. 66.

  10. See for instance Plunket Barton, Links, p. 142.

  11. Emily C. Bartels, Spectacles of Strangeness: Imperialism, Alienation and Marlowe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), p. 15. See also Lisa Hopkins, ‘“And shall I die, and this unconquered”: Marlowe's inverted colonialism’, Early Modern Literary Studies, 2:2 (1996), pp. 1-23.

  12. Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V’, reprinted in Richard Wilson and Richard Dutton (eds), New Historicism and Renaissance Drama (Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1992), p. 106.

  13. Baker, “‘Wildehirissheman’”, pp. 52-3.

  14. See Plunket Barton, Links, p. 110.

  15. Altman, ‘Vile Participation’, p. 19.

  16. Neill, ‘Broken English’, pp. 11-12; Taylor (ed.), Henry V, p. 7.

  17. See Craik (ed.), Henry V, pp. 1-3, and Christopher Highley, ‘Wales, Ireland, and 1 Henry IV’, Renaissance Drama, 21 (1990), p. 109.

  18. See Samuel Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 260.

  19. On the question of Branagh's Irishness, see Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled, pp. 202, 205-9, and Jardine, Reading Shakespeare Historically, p. 159, note 17. For an interesting account of the film's politics in general, see Chris Fitter, ‘A Tale of Two Branaghs: Henry V, Ideology, and the Mekong Agincourt’, in Ivo Kamps (ed.), Shakespeare Left and Right (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 259-75.

  20. On the question of the play's representation of the Welsh and Scots, see Greenblatt, ‘Invisible Bullets’, p. 106, and Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, ‘History and Ideology: the instance of Henry V’, in John Drakakis (ed.), Alternative Shakespeares (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 224. Dollimore and Sinfield also point to the importance of Ireland as a subtext for the play (pp. 224-5), as does Lisa Jardine (Reading Shakespeare Historically, p. 161, note 42), who suggests that ‘Catherine's English lesson is immediately preceded by a scene in which the united “English” troops deconstruct themselves into an Englishman, an Irishman, a Welshman and a Scot’ (p. 12).

  21. See Glanmor Williams, Owen Glendower (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 23.

  22. Edmund Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland, partially reproduced in David Englander, Diana Norman, Rosemary O'Day and W. R. Owens (eds), Culture and Belief in Europe 1450-1600: An Anthology of Sources (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), p. 293.

  23. Plunket Barton, Links, p. 121.

  24. See Lisa Hopkins, ‘Fluellen's Name’, Shakespeare Studies, 24 (1996), pp. 194-203.

  25. See Highley, ‘Wales, Ireland, and 1 Henry IV’, pp. 92 and 94.

  26. Stephen M. Buhler, ‘“By the Mass, our hearts are in the trim”: Catholicism and British Identity in Olivier's Henry V’, Cahiers Elisabéthains, 47, April (1995), p. 56.

  27. Buhler, “‘By the Mass’”, p. 64.

  28. Gary Taylor points out that this passage has no warrant in either Hall or Holinshed, and seems, therefore, to be Shakespeare's own insertion in the story (Taylor [ed.], Henry V, p. 30).

  29. Jardine, Reading Shakespeare Historically, p. 7. The exception to this is his potential ‘brother’, the Dauphin—H. R. Coursen comments ‘the English don't demonize the enemy—Exeter makes that clear in singling out the Dauphin for particular rebuke’ (Shakespeare in Production: Whose History? [Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 1996], p. 243).

  30. See Thomas Beaumont James, The Palaces of Medieval England (Oxford: The Alden Press, 1990), p. 138, for Henry V's building work on Richard II's favourite palace at Sheen and his imitation in the Kenilworth pleasaunce (an island in the lake) of Richard's island of ‘La Nayght’ near Sheen. Jardine (Reading Shakespeare Historically, pp. 13, 161, note 45) also refers to the intertwining of the stories of Henry V, Richard II and Ireland.

  31. See Frederick Hepburn, Portraits of the Later Plantagenets (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1986). On the chivalric and heraldic elements of the Wilton diptych, see Michael Levey, Painting at Court (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971), p. 22. On the evidence for its actual design and use as a portable altar on campaign, see Jonathan Alexander and Paul Binski (eds), Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400 (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987). Alexander and Binski date the painting to Richard's reign, but to accept both their evidence for campaign use and the dating by other art historians to Henry's reign would point, inevitably, to the assumption that it was Henry who took on campaign this icon of his predecessor.

  32. Caroline Barron, ‘Richard II: Image and Reality’, in Dillian Gordon, Making and Meaning: The Wilton Diptych (London: National Gallery Publications, 1993), p. 13; for the prominence of angels throughout Richard's personal iconography, see also p. 58. Though the possibility of an association between Shakespeare and the Earl of Pembroke may spring to mind, Shakespeare could not have seen the painting at Wilton, since it did not arrive there until the eighteenth century.

  33. Barron, ‘Richard II’, in Gordon, Wilton Diptych, p. 14. The banner carried by one of the angels may be that of St George, though he in any case was not associated exclusively with the English: in 1419, only four years after Agincourt, a Périgourdin lord chose St George as his device (Gordon, Wilton Diptych, p. 57). Elsewhere in this volume [Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture], Andrew Hadfield records in his notes the existence of ‘A new ballade of the tryumphes kept in Ireland uppon Saint Georg's day last, by the noble Earle of Essex and his followers, with their resolution againe there’; once again, St George is mobilized against Ireland in particular—appropriately enough, given that it is St George's Channel which stretches out from Arklow, Wexford and Waterford. (I am indebted to my colleague Michael Cronin, of Sheffield Hallam University's history department, for pointing this out to me.)

  34. On this symbolic meaning of the Broomcod, see Gordon, Wilton Diptych, p. 51.

  35. Gordon, Wilton Diptych, p. 62.

  36. See Plunket Barton, Links, p. 85. Plunket Barton's discussion of this episode forms part of his speculation about what Shakespeare would have included in Richard II if he had chosen to dramatize the Irish episode.

  37. See Gordon, Wilton Diptych, p. 58.

  38. For Elizabeth's iconographic dependence on the traditions of portraiture of Richard II, see Roy Strong, Gloriana: The Portraits of Queen Elizabeth I (London: Thames and Hudson, 1987), p. 38; for the question of dating the Wilton Diptych, see Gordon, Wilton Diptych, pp. 22-3. For Richard's appearance, see Gordon, Wilton Diptych, pp. 18-19.

  39. Plunket Barton, Links, p. 81.

  40. Quoted in Gordon, Wilton Diptych, p. 60.

  41. Elizabeth's use of such motifs is well known; for Richard's, see Gordon, Wilton Diptych, p. 58.

  42. Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989), p. 8.

  43. Richard Wilson, ‘Shakespeare's Ghostly Fathers’, forthcoming in his Gothic Shakespeare.

  44. See Plunket Barton, Links, p. 203.

Christopher Ivic (essay date 1999)

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SOURCE: Ivic, Christopher. “‘Our inland’: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Celtic Fringe.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 30, no. 1 (January 1999): 85-103.

[In the following essay, Ivic contends that the conflicts portrayed between the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and English characters in Henry V emphasized the fragmented nature of the nation, and explains that England's anxiety concerning its national and cultural identity is symbolized in Shakespeare's King Henry.]

More than twenty years ago, in an essay entitled “British History: A Plea for a New Subject,” J. G. A. Pocock invited historians to construct a less anglocentric history of the British Isles, that is, a “plural history of a group of cultures situated along an Anglo-Celtic frontier and marked by an increasing English political and cultural domination” (605). Although the response has been slow, historians of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Britain and Ireland have answered Pocock's plea, as the plethora of recent work on the “British Problem” attests.1 If the new British history has led historians to re-evaluate the political history of the period, it has also paved the way for literary historians to glean valuable new perspectives on literary and extra-literary texts in light of the wider British context that informed, indeed enabled, their production. Just as an emphasis on the dynamics of state formation within and across the British Isles has enriched the work of political historians, literary historians of early modernity, or early coloniality, have begun to situate texts that participated in the production of Britain's and Ireland's heterogeneous cultures within a broader British perspective. It is precisely the enduring cultural artefacts and texts of the early modern period that bear ample witness to Pocock's reminder that the “various peoples and nations, ethnic cultures, social structures, and locally defined communities, which have from time to time existed in the area known as ‘Great Britain and Ireland,’ have not only acted so as to create the conditions of their several existences but have also interacted so as to modify the conditions of one another's existence.” (“Limits and Divisions” 317). Drawing upon the new British historiography, I want to place Shakespeare's “national” history plays, Henry V in particular, within the historical context of an expanding English polity that gradually, violently incorporated the “Celtic fringe.” Shakespeare's “national” histories, of course, have played and continue to play a crucial role in the formation of English national and cultural identity. As “English” histories—that is, as plays written and performed in English (with the exception of the reference in I Henry IV to the exchange in Welsh between Glendower and his daughter) and as plays labelled by critics as dramatizations of “English” historical events—Shakespeare's history plays have come to symbolize the cultural domination of which Pocock speaks; however, they can be reread to foreground the cultural interaction—the complication of pure, monolithic identities—of which Pocock also speaks. More than any other dramatic form, the history play served as a public forum in which English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh figures were made to speak and act through the bodies and in the material props of London's all-male players.2 To locate questions of English identity (de)formation in Henry V within the framework of a plural history of the British Isles is to re-examine early modern Englishness not as a established, originary identity, but as an identity “in the process of being made” (Bhabha, Nation and Narration 3).3

The English polity in which Shakespeare produced the majority of his histories, it is important to remember, included the Principality of Wales and the Kingdom of Ireland. With the arrival of King James VI and I in London in 1603, the whole of the British Isles was, for the first time in history, brought under the sovereignty of one king, a self-styled (and much despised) British king. Early modern England never was a self-contained English geopolitical entity. No matter what Shakespeare's John of Gaunt says, England never was an island unto itself. Perhaps more so than any of Shakespeare's history plays, Henry V invites us to explore inscriptions of English identity in relation to an expanding English polity that included an “incorporated” Wales, an intractable Ireland, and an encroaching Scotland. In his oration to his troops before the walls of Harfleur, King Henry represents his army as distinctly English: “our English,” “you noblest English,” “good yeoman, / Whose limbs were made in England” are the words the king uses to describe his soldiers (3.2.3, 18, 28-29).4 Shortly after Henry's speech, however, the dramatic action gives way to a British army that includes an English, an Irish, a Scottish, and a Welsh captain. Of course, Henry V dramatizes past conflict between the English and the French; what I want to consider, however, is the play's symbolic staging of the “British Problem.” France is a fitting space for a late-Elizabethan enactment of the “British Problem”: with the shameful loss of Calais in 1558, England's last outpost on the Continent, the English were forced to concentrate on consolidating an empire within the British Isles.5 As many of the play's recent editors and interpreters have suggested, the anachronistic inclusion of an Irish and a Scottish captain in Henry's army calls attention to the early modern British context informing the play's cultural politics.6 Prompted by the fifth-act Chorus's allusion to “the general of our gracious empress … from Ireland coming, / Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword” (5.Chor.31-33), Shakespeareans have long been aware of the play's concern with the Anglo-Irish war raging in Ireland at the time of the performance.7 Given the four direct references to “Ireland,” the threat of Scottish invasion voiced in Act 1, scene 2, and Fluellen's disquieting malapropisms,8Henry V solicits an interpretation attentive to not just England but also the cultural politics of England's relations with its “giddy [Celtic] neighbor[s]” (1.2.151).

Although recent feminist, new historicist, and cultural materialist work on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama has highlighted the ways in which theatrical representations contested dominant ideologies, Shakespeare's history plays are often still read in a manner that privileges their representations of monarchic power, a privileging of monarchic power that elides the tension in the plays' representation of an imperial Britishness and a national Englishness. Influenced by an early new historicist rhetoric of subversion and containment, Richard Helgerson contends that “Shakespeare's history plays are concerned above all with the consolidation and maintenance of royal power” (296). Arguing that Henry V “is premised on the consolidation of national identity through violence against foreign enemies,” Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin offer a somewhat different perspective by treating the play's production of Englishness as very much bound up with the image of the monarch: “In war, Henry's men whether Irish or English, Scottish or Welsh, yeoman or earl—temporarily become a band of brothers” (4). But what about the non-national characteristics of the play's “English” monarch? To borrow a phrase from Benedict Anderson, Henry's “legitimacy derives from divinity, not from populations.” In other words, Henry's rule attempts to contain the play's incipient English nationalism: the play brings together a British army that seems to render intra-British borders “porous and indistinct” (Anderson 19). In a now infamous essay, “Invisible Bullets,” Stephen Greenblatt argues that “[b]y yoking together diverse peoples—represented in the play by the Welshman Fluellen, the Irishman Macmorris, and the Scotsman Jamy, who fight at Agincourt alongside the loyal Englishman—Hal symbolically tames the last wild areas in the British Isles.” For Greenblatt, Henry is “the charismatic leader who purges the commonwealth of its incorrigibles and forges the martial national state” (56). Does the play imagine a smooth, stable transition from English nation to British state? English cultural imperialism in Henry V (and at the time of the play's performance) is far from the smooth “civilizing process” that Greenblatt posits. The Englishries in Wales and Ireland, it is crucial to recall, did not always retain those cultural traits that were viewed as the constitutive elements of Englishness. I Henry IV, for instance, represents a reversal of the “civilizing process” as an effeminate Edmund Mortimer, the earl of March, gives not only his love to a Welsh woman but also his tongue: “But I will never be a truant, love, / Till I have learned thy language” (3.1.213-14). In his Geography Delineated Forth in Two Bookes (1625), Nathanael Carpenter writes “people suffer an alteration in respect to their seuerall transplantations … [c]olonies transplanted from one region into another, farre remote, retaine a long time their first disposition, though by litle and litle they decline and suffer alteration” (sig Mm*3). It is precisely the threat of “decline” and “alteration” that haunts Henry V, a threat evinced in the play's many instances of linguistic corruption and cultural contamination. That Henry himself is anxiously imagined as culturally hybrid—as we shall see, he is addressed as “brother Ireland” (5.2.12; emphasis added); moreover, he woos the French Princess, Katherine, in broken French, and twice he dubs himself a Welshman—suggests that the play's nascent English nationalism is at odds with the interests of the emergent multi-national British state, a state that was engaged in a brutal war in Ireland. Rather than containing the play's deep cultural anxiety, I want to draw attention to the question of England's tenuous borders and the unsettling instances of tainted English tongues and bodies. Described by the Bishop of Canterbury as “Our inland,” England, as imagined in this play, is precariously delimited by “the pilfering borderers,”9 “th'ill neighborhood” (1.2.148, 160) circumscribing it.10 As the king's imperial, dynastic ambitions force the inland's inhabitants outwards, however, fears about cultural hybridity begin to surface—this is especially evident in the uneasy inscriptions of a heterogeneous British linguistic community, the various speakers of “broken English” (5.2.255). The king's body, I am suggesting, serves as a conflicted site upon which anxiety about national and cultural identity is focused.

In a recent, lengthy discussion of Henry V, David Baker observes that the play “participate[s] in the attempt to consolidate … a polity made up of the four kingdoms of England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland” (21). What cannot be underestimated is the extent to which the play's various critics and, more importantly, editors have made this statement possible. The remainder of this essay is given over to explaining what I mean here, but let me first call attention to how editorial emendations have dubiously altered what is arguably the most manifestly, and most disturbing, British scene in all of Shakespeare's histories. I am referring to Act 3, scene 2, often referred to as the “four captains scene,” which appears in only the First Folio version of The Life of Henry the Fift (F1). In the First Folio, three of the British captains are given ethnically specific speech prefixes: the English captain is designated by his name, “Gower”; however, Fluellen's speech tag is “Welch,” while Macmorris (“Makmorrice” and “Mackmorrice” in F1) and Jamy are “Irish” and “Scot,” respectively.11 In 1709, Nicholas Rowe replaced the Folio's ethnically specific speech prefixes (“Welch,” “Irish,” “Scot”) with the captains' names, and subsequent editions have followed Rowe's lead. Although Rowe provides no explanation for the change, his emendations were presumably informed by eighteenth-century editorial protocol that, as Random Cloud (Randall McLeod) puts it, “sought to discipline, tidy, and regulate” (95) Shakespeare's heterogeneous play-texts. Indeed, Rowe's refashioned speech prefixes reflect eighteenth-century “Editing” practices that were committed to “the invention of dramatick character” (Cloud 88). By closing the gap between “Welch” and “Fluellen,” “Scot” and “Jamy,” and “Irish” and “Macmorris”—that is, the gap between ethnic tag and dramatic character—Rowe's emendations betray a desire to unify, stabilize, fix the identity of these dramatic characters, to render, for instance, a fractured “Irish”/“Macmorris” whole.12

One could easily claim, of course, that the Folio's ethnically specific speech tags simply reinforce the play's stereotyping of captains gathered from the “Celtic fringe.” In fact, Act 3, scene 2 is often interpreted as an instance of comic stereotyping, so comic as to render “[t]hese Celts … united in their service to the English Crown” (Cairns and Richards 10). But to represent the captains merely as “comic ethnic characters” (Hillman 124) is to obscure the dislocation of culture this scene effects.13 Commenting on the play's “national stereotypes,” Catherine Belsey notes that Macmorris is represented as “an irascible Irishman” (16). In this, Macmorris ostensibly comes to personify the stage Irishman. In his Pierce Penniless his Supplication to the Devil (1592), Thomas Nashe provides one such representation of the stock Irishman: the “Irishman,” he writes, “will draw his dagger, and be ready to kill and slay, if one break wind in his company” (86). Nashe's text nicely intersects with Henry V, for Fluellen, represented as a stereotypically verbose Welshman, raises Macmorris's “ire” when he says: “Captain Macmorris … there is not many of your nation—” (122-24). Macmorris interjects with “Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain and a basterd and a knave and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?” (125-27). Far from a moment of unity, this scene of ethnic conflict opens with Fluellen's “disciplining” of Macmorris for undermining the war effort, erupts into Macmorris's threat to cut off Fluellen's head, and closes with Gower's warning that the feuding captains will “mistake each other” (137).14

Mistaken identity—that is, the fluidity of collective identities in the British Isles—is precisely what this scene brings into play.15 However, critics, not unlike editors, have attempted to map a stable identity onto Macmorris. Eschewing the textual indeterminacy of Macmorris's response to Fluellen, Philip Edwards offers the following gloss: “The paraphrase [of Macmorris's ‘What ish my nation’ speech] should run something like this. ‘What is this separate race you're implying by using the phrase “your nation”? Who are you, a Welshman, to talk of the Irish as though they were a separate nation from you. I belong in this family as much as you do’” (75-76). Through an act of critical ventriloquism, Edwards humanizes Macmorris in an attempt to grant him the integrity and stability of an autonomous, and unproblematically Irish, thinking, speaking subject.16 However, Edwards's character study of Macmorris inhibits historical and theoretical reflection on the First Folio's gap between “Irish” and “Mackmorrice,” a gap that invites us to read Macmorris's lines otherwise. The First Folio, I am arguing, calls into question early modern notions of “mere Irish” and, consequently, “mere English.”17 That historians employ such hyphenated nomenclatures as Anglo-Irish, Old English, and New English to delimit sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Ireland's heterogeneous “English” community reminds us that a homogeneous Englishness never existed in England's Irish kingdom. In fact, the name “Macmorris” itself bears witness to early modern Ireland's intricate identities. As Michael Neill points out, “Macmorris” is a “hybrid surname (a Gaelicized version of Anglo-Norman Fitzmaurice)” (“Henry V: A Modern Perspective” 272). In a section of his Discovery of the True Causes Why Ireland Was Never Entirely Subdued (1612), entitled “How the English Colonies Became Degenerate,” Sir John Davies censures those colonials that “grew to be ashamed of their very English names … and took Irish surnames and nicknames” (172). By way of an example, he points to “the great families of the Geraldines” in Munster, in particular one family that “was called ‘MacMorris’” (172).18 Rather than reading Macmorris's “What is my nation?” as a plea for identity, whether Irish or (Old or New) English, it is crucial to interpret this line as an interrogative that complicates the simplistic identity politics that has served to essentialize the identities of the intermingling inhabitants of the British Isles. In the First Folio's gap between “Irish” and “Mackmorrice” exists a space haunted by misrecognition and mistranslation. Far from Rowe's and Edwards's stable dramatic character, Macmorris, figured in the First Folio as “Irish,” serves as a sharp reminder that Irishness in the early modern period was often a disfigured English identity. Although Macmorris makes but one brief appearance in the First Folio, his “hybrid surname”—at once French, English, and Irish—is by no means the only unsettling instance of cultural hybridity in the play.

If Macmorris represents a disturbing element within the expanding Elizabethan polity, Fluellen, another hybrid figure—as his anglicized name and marked patois manifest—is traditionally read as a loyal subject, a product of the English “civilizing process” that led to the “incorporation” of Wales into the English administrative system in 1536.19 Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Fluellen goes about “disciplining” Macmorris. Although Fluellen's “correction” (3.2.123) of Macmorris breaks off, he does deliver a humiliating punishment of Pistol: “a Welsh correction” that, in Gower's words, serves to teach Pistol “a good English condition” (5.1.83-4). Can Fluellen's “Welsh correction” be read as not only a disciplining of Pistol but also a displaced disciplining of Macmorris?20 According to one Tudor royal proclamation—“Ordering Arrest of Vagabonds, Deportation of Irishman”—“masterless men” and Irishman can and do inhabit the same discursive space.21 If this proclamation couples vagrants and Irishmen, the play too suggests a connection between Pistol and Macmorris. Just as Fluellen mistakes Pistol to be “as valiant a man as Mark Antony,” Gower, according to Fluellen, mistakes Macmorris to be “a very valiant gentleman” (3.2.69). Moreover, not unlike Macmorris, who asserts that “there are throats to be cut” (2.2.114), Pistol's motto is “Couple à gorge” (2.1.72), a line he reiterates when threatening to cut the French soldier's throat (“I will cut his throat,” “cuppele gorge” 4.4.31, 36). There is also Pistol's puzzling line “calmie custure me” (4.4.4). The editors of the New Folger Library Shakespeare edition of Henry V perhaps too hastily foreclose interpretation by suggesting that this line as it appears in the Folio is “nonsense” (170). Yet, they do note that many editors have emended this line so that it echoes the refrain of an Irish ballad. In the Oxford Shakespeare edition of Henry V, for instance, Pistol is made to speak in broken Irish: “Calin o custure me!” Following Edmond Malone, Gary Taylor observes that “Calin o custure me is an Elizabethan corruption of an Irish refrain, cailin og a' stor' (‘maiden, my treasure’); the corrupt refrain is used in a song … printed in Clement Robinson's Handful of Pleasant Delights (1584)” (234). Frederick Sternfeld sheds further light on this refrain:

There is no doubt that English audiences considered the line “Callino” as foreign: Davies of Hereford characterizes the burden as “from a foreign land, which English people do not understand”; and Playford dubs the tune “Irish.” This fact, in conjunction with the usual vagaries of Elizabethan orthography, accounts for the multiple variations in spelling. Even so, the tune was named thirteen times at least during Shakespeare's lifetime, a frequency that suggests a reasonable amount of general popularity.


If, as I am suggesting, Fluellen's “Welsh correction” functions as a symbolic disciplining of both Pistol and Macmorris, then it would seem that this scene exemplifies what Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield describe as the play's commitment to “the aesthetic colonization of [unruly] elements in Elizabethan culture” (118). But it is also possible to read Pistol's broken Irish as a further instance of cultural contamination in the play. While celebrating “the chief pillars of our English speech” Nashe calls attention to the role a common language plays in the process of national self-definition. For Nashe, linguistic purity is a requisite of nationhood. England's poets, he writes, “have cleansed our language from barbarism and made the vulgar sort here in London, which is the fountain whose rivers flow round about England, to aspire to a richer purity of speech than is communicated with the commonalty of any nation under heaven” (91). In Henry V, however, the English language as it is spoken by representatives of the “Celtic fringe” is far from pure; even more disquieting, one of the play's English soldiers speaks in broken Irish. “Degeneration,” Neill points out, “was typically exposed as linguistic corruption” (“Broken English” 17). Pistol may be “purged” from the play-text, but his broken Irish anticipates the linguistic contamination—“broken English”—effeminacy, and degeneracy that plagues the ensuing, final scene. In the closing scene, however, it is the king's body, not a “foreigner's” or a commoner's body, upon which the play's anxiety about cultural identity is focused.

In Richard II, John of Gaunt nostalgically looks back to an England imagined as a “fortress built by Nature for herself / Against infection” (2.1.48-49). In Henry V, England is not immune from infection. Again, editorial emendations to the First Folio have served to cleanse the text of its contaminating elements. Often overlooked by readers of the play is the moment in Act 5, scene 2 when the Queen of France greets Henry as “brother Ireland” (sig. 16v; TLN 2999; 5.2.12). As the editors of the New Folger Library Shakespeare edition of Henry V observe, the First Folio's “Ireland” was changed to “England” in the Second Folio of 1632, and has remained so in all subsequent editions (214).22 Although many theories exist as to why the First Folio includes “brother Ireland,” they are all based on the dubious assumption that Shakespeare intended “brother England.”23 According to Gary Taylor, “brother Ireland” is a “revealing textual error,” “Shakespeare's own ‘Freudian slip’—a slip natural enough in 1599” (7, 18). Following this logic, the change to “brother England” in the Second Folio, we are to understand, “restores” Shakespeare's text to its proper state, disinfecting it, as it were, of “brother Ireland.”

I invoke a rhetoric of infection in order to foreground the anxious cultural context in which the Queen's “brother Ireland” was originally voiced. “Henry V,” Edwards suggests, “was clearly written in the short time when England was excited at the prospect that the young hero [Robert Devereux, earl of Essex] would soon have the Irish licked” (78). While Edwards is correct to describe the line “Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword” as “powerful,” he elides the uneasiness that the preceding line evokes: “As in good time he may” (3.2.32; emphasis added).24 Ireland, to be sure, never was cause for excitement during Elizabeth's reign. As Andrew Hadfield and Willy Maley remind us, “Ireland was the site both of English identity formation, and of English identity crisis” (8). One of John Donne's verse letters, “H. W. in Hiber. Belligeranti,” evinces this sense of loss of identity. Written in 1599 at the height of the Nine Years War, Donne's poem addresses his close friend, Sir Henry Wotton, who at the time was in Ireland as Essex's secretary. “Went you to conquer?,” Donne asks, “and have you so much lost / Yourself, that what in you was best and most, / Respective friendship, should so quickly dye?” (1-3). “Lett not your soule,” Donne warns, “It self unto the Irish negligence submit” (13, 16). In these lines, Donne touches on a familiar, disturbing lament about identity deformation that surfaces again and again in early modern English discourse on Ireland and the Irish. Troubled by the infectious Irish, Richard Stanyhurst, an Old English resident of the Pale, concludes his contribution to the first edition of “Holinshed's” Irish chronicles (1577) with the lurid figure of the “degenerate” Englishman: “the verie English of birth, conuersant with the sauage sort of that people become degenerat, and as though they had tasted of Circes poisened cup, are quite altered” (69). Here, Circe metonymically stands in for Ireland, which is represented as a feminized land that not only attracts colonial gentlemen and but also distracts them from the civilizing process, eventually emasculating them and transforming them into beasts.25 In A View of the Present State of Ireland (1598), Spenser explicitly cites Irish women as the source of “contagion” that causes English colonizers to undergo hibernicization: “the old English in Ireland, which through licentious conversing with the Irish, or marrying and fostering with them … have degendered from their ancient dignities …” (66). For Spenser, once potent English landlords have been symbolically castrated, a castration made all the more apparent by Spenser's use of the term “degendered.” An early modern synonym for degenerate, the word “degendered” reminds us that early modern notions of degeneracy and effeminacy are inextricably intertwined: both entail a decline, or slippage from a desired socio-cultural category (civility/masculinity) to its opposite (savagery/femininity).

When viewed within the context of Elizabethan early modern discourse on Ireland, the Queen of France's greeting of Henry as “brother Ireland” demands to be read as more than just a “textual error.” On the one hand, as previously noted, “brother Ireland” acts a possible title for Henry: after all, he offers Katherine England, Ireland, and France (5.2.248-49). On a more subversive level, “brother Ireland” brings to the surface the anxious masculinity and nationality that plagues Shakespeare's history plays and the chronicles that inform them.26 For an Elizabethan audience familiar with the first tetralogy, the Queen's greeting—“So happy be the issue, brother Ireland / Of this good day and this gracious meeting”—would have served as a sharp reminder of the historical Henry and Katherine's “issue”: namely, King Henry VI, the “half French, half English” son that the king and the French Princess will “compound” (5.2.215-16).27 Identified in Henry V's sobering Epilogue as the king who “lost France and made England bleed” (12), Shakespeare's Henry VI is depicted in the first of the Henry VI plays as an “effeminate Prince” (TLN 44) and in the third as a “degenerate King” (TLN 206).28 Far from a compositor's “misreading” (Gurr 214), “brother Ireland” marks another instance of what Patricia Parker describes as the play's ominous hints at “a translation in the opposite direction of Henry's mastery or dominion” (171). To emend the Queen's “brother Ireland” to “brother England,” therefore, is to purge the text of one of its most unsettling moments, a moment in which Henry's Irishness (indeed, his Britishness) serves to remind the (Protestant, nationalist?) London audience of the monarch's non-national character and his extra-national dynastic interests.

The final scene of Henry V, as Joel Altman points out, is all too often viewed as “the obligatory coda to a rousing national epic” (32). Although Altman takes issue with critics who read this scene in such a manner, he nevertheless posits Act 4 as the play's climax; the final scene, according to Altman, “functioned rhetorically as an ebbing of the tide” (31). Focusing on Henry's dialogue at the expense of the unsettling female voices, Greenblatt cites Henry's line “Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine” (5.2.182-84) to argue for the play's “complete absorption of the other” (69).29 For Neill, the representation of Englishness in terms of “relaxed inclusiveness”—that is, an ostensibly inclusive colonial policy—serves to mask the play's commitment to a colonial policy of “aggressive assimilation” (“Broken English” 20). In light of the Queen's identification of Henry as “brother Ireland,” considering the anxiety about hybridity in the play, “absorption” is anything but “complete,” and the issue of incorporating other cultures is scarcely “relaxed.” To represent Henry's martial victory and dynastic marriage with Katherine as crowning achievements, therefore, precludes analysis of the threat of cultural contamination that haunts the final scene.30 Indeed, the reiteration of “broken English” and “English broken” (254) suggests that the royal betrothal generates not ideological stability, not closure but instead uneasiness about Henry and Katherine's “incorporate league” (378).31


  1. The “British Problem,” as historians define it, refers to the political upheavals that led to inter- and intra-island conflicts in the 1640s and 1650s, what has come to be termed the “War(s) of the Three Kingdoms,” which had its origins in the larger framework of the British Isles: the Scottish invasion of England in 1638, the Ulster Rising of 1641. Increasingly, however, the “British Problem” denotes the uneasy process of state-formation in the early modern period, a process triggered by the Tudor “incorporation” of Wales and Ireland and culminating in the Anglo-Scottish Act of Union. For Alan Smith, the “British Problem” entailed “ensuring that all constituent parts of the British Isles were under firm English control” (57). More generally, and from a less anglocentric perspective, Steven Ellis notes that the new British historiography aims “to construct a British history which reflects what happened beyond the purview of English administration as well as change in the south-east. In this way, the growth of political unity reflected in the establishment of the United Kingdom can be understood as something more than simply an English conquest or domination of ‘the Celtic fringe’” (42).

  2. For a general survey of stock representations of Celts in early modern drama, see Snyder, esp. 162-70. Whereas Snyder merely catalogues English stereotypes of the Irish, Scots, and Welsh, my central concern is the disruptive presence of these figures in Henry V.

  3. Bhabha's work on the (dis)location of culture is important: “What is theoretically innovative, and politically crucial,” he writes, “is the need to think beyond narratives of originary and initial subjectivities and to focus on those moments or processes that are produced in the articulation of cultural differences” (The Location of Culture 1).

  4. Unless noted otherwise, all references to Henry V are from Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine's New Folger Library Shakespeare edition. References to Shakespeare's other histories are from either the New Folger editions or the Norton facsimile edition of The First Folio of Shakespeare.

  5. “It is one of the paradoxes of English Renaissance culture,” Willy Maley writes, “that a period characterized by Europeanization can be viewed as a time in which England virtually turned its back on the continent in order to concentrate on matters ‘domestic,’ in order, in fact, to domesticate the British Isles in the interests of English sovereignty. The Reformation isolated England from Catholic Europe. The Celtic fringe had to be tamed, brought under English jurisdiction, or it would offer access to Spain, by way of Ireland, or France, through Scotland” (“This Sceptred Isle” 93).

  6. Joel Altman speaks of the “French-cum-Irish” (19). In fact, the play's French characters themselves make this connection: the Dauphin compares a fellow French nobleman to “a kern [i.e., foot soldier] of Ireland” (3.7.55).

  7. Evelyn May Albright describes the Chorus's allusion to “the General … from Ireland coming” as “the clearest and most unmistakable personal and topical reference in all [of Shakespeare's] plays” (727). Critics tend to date the performance of Henry V between 29 March 1599 (when Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex departed for Ireland) and 28 September 1599 (when he returned). However, Warren D. Smith has suggested that the “General” refers to Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, who succeeded Essex as commander-in-chief of the forces in Ireland in early 1600. Hence, Smith dates the play between 1600 and the time when Mountjoy returned to London shortly after the death of the Queen in 1603.

  8. See Parker 166.

  9. That this reference to the Scots as “pilfering borderers” had topical relevance is supported by a royal proclamation of 1596—“Ordering Peace Kept on Scottish Border”—that notes “of late time there hath been great disorders by incursions into our realm of multitude of Scottishmen dwelling upon the borders of our realm towards Scotland, committing both murders, taking of prisoners, burning of houses, and taking of goods and cattle” (Tudor Royal Proclamations 3:166-67).

  10. If Canterbury's use of the word “inland” denotes England's (London's?) geographical position, it also carries connotations of superior civility. The OED [Oxford English Dictionary], which cites this line from the play, defines the word “inland” in this way: “The interior part of a country, the parts remote from the sea or the border … the inlying districts near the capital and centres of population, as opposed to remote or outlying wild parts.” In As You Like It, Orlando's use of the word “inland” explicitly denotes superior civility: “The thorny point / Of base distress hath ta'en from me the show / Of smooth civility, yet I am inland bred / And know some nurture” (2.7.99-102).

  11. This scene marks Macmorris's and Jamy's only appearance, and it is the sole moment in F1 where Fluellen's speech prefix is “Welch.” In his “‘The very names of the Persons’: Editing and the Invention of Dramatick Character,” Random Cloud [Randall McLeod] reminds us that “the very names of the Persons in the earliest Shakespeare texts very frequently vary” (88). I confine my reading to the First Folio version of Shakespeare's The Life of Henry the Fift not because I regard The Cronicle History of Henry the fift, With his battell fought at Agin Court in France. Togither with Auntient Pistoll (1600) as a “bad” quarto, but because Q1 does not contain the Choruses and the scene with the British captains. In fact, the word “Ireland” never appears in Q1. Annabel Patterson has argued that F1 is more committed “to ideas of national greatness and agreement” (55) than Q1 precisely because Q1 includes less patriotic material (for instance, the Choruses). Following this argument, one could also argue that the absence of the “British Problem” from Q1 renders it a less anxious text.

  12. For a fuller account of Restoration and eighteenth-century emendations to the text, see Murphy, “‘Tish ill done’: Henry the Fift and the Politics of Editing,” especially 226-27.

  13. Bhabha's discussion of the colonial stereotype is useful: “The stereotype,” he writes, “is not a simplification because it is a false representation of a given reality. It is a simplification because it is an arrested, fixated form of representation that, in denying the play of difference (which the negation through the Other permits), constitutes a problem for the representation of the subject in significations of psychic and social relations” (The Location of Culture 75). It is precisely the play of difference that is denied when editors emend the “Irish” speech prefix to “Macmorris.”

  14. According to Richard Hillman, “by representing those nations of the British Isles whose factiousness runs from Richard II's Irish Wars to Owen Glendower to the Douglas,” Henry V's ethnic characters “promote a unity that hardly squares with their disruptive literary heritage” (124-25). Fluellen is no “irregular and wild Glendower” (I Henry IV 1.1.40); however, the scene with the four captains hardly promotes unity.

  15. Although he does not mention F1s speech prefixes, nor the reference to “brother Ireland,” David Baker provides an intelligent reading of the displacement of identities in Henry V.

  16. Some critics have embraced Edwards's rephrasing of Macmorris's “What ish my nation” speech: see, for instance, Dollimore and Sinfield 125. In Gary Taylor's Oxford edition of the play, Edwards's dubious paraphrase serves as a gloss on Macmorris's lines.

  17. In its early modern denotation “mere” was not a term of abuse; instead, it meant “pure” or “unmixed” (Hadfield and McVeagh 275, n.7). In Edmund Spenser's prose dialogue A View of the Present State of Ireland (1598), the liminal position of the Gaelicized Old English—that is, the descendants of the twelfth-century Anglo-Norman invaders of Ireland—resists ethnic classification: “most of them,” one of the interlocutors claims, “are degenerated and grown almost mere Irish” (48; emphasis added). This is a disturbing inversion of Bhabha's notion of colonial mimicry as “the desire for a reformed, recognizable Other, as a subject of difference that is almost the same, but not quite” (The Location of Culture 86). As a Protestant planter in Munster, Spenser is representative of the group of Englishborn colonials that historians now term New Englishmen.

  18. “The FitzGeralds of Lixnaw in Kerry,” the editor of The Discovery notes, “assumed the patronymic MacMorris (from Maurice)” (173, n.281).

  19. Attentive to the play's many references to “breachs” and “leeks,” Parker's reading of Henry V offers a less recuperative reading of Fluellen (see esp. 168-71). See also Highley, who notes that “Fluellen's enthusiastic support for the English war obfuscates the widespread intransigence of his compatriots who, rejecting the status of submissive colonial subjects, refused to fight in Ireland” (156).

  20. A similar instance of substitution occurs in Act 4, scene 8 as Fluellen acts as Henry's stand-in.

  21. Tudor Royal Proclamations 3:134-6. In his A Caueat or Warening, for Commen Cursetors Vulgarely Called Vagabones (1566), Thomas Harman, in a section entitled “A Palliard,” refers to “many Irishmen that go about with counterfeit licences” (104-05).

  22. Based on the First Folio text, the New Folger Library Shakespeare edition of Henry V reinserts “Ireland” into the play. If not for this invaluable edition, I would have been oblivious to “brother Ireland.”

  23. Mowat and Werstine suggest that the name Ireland could have been used to refer to Henry V on the early modern stage, for Henry was described as “Lord of Ireland” in All the workes of John Taylor (1630) and as “Henricus V, Angliae et Franciae Rex, Dominus Hiberniae (i.e., Henry V, King of England and France, Lord of Ireland)” in William Martin's The Histories and Lives of the Kings of England (1628); see their longer note on 243. In “‘Is it upon record’: The Reduction of the History Play to History,” Werstine argues that “editors who fashion palaeographical justifications for emending the Folio's ‘Ireland’ to ‘England’ also invoke the appearance of the word ‘in-land’ in the Folio on sig. h2, TLN 289, 1.2.148.” “They construct this perfectly good word,” he adds, “as an error for ‘England,’ an error into which the compositor was allegedly drawn by a putative ‘Ingland’ manuscript spelling” (79, n.19). Not only is “in-land” a “perfectly good word,” but, as I suggested earlier, it also bears witness to English anxiety about England's “pilfering borderers” (1.2.148). As Andrew Murphy points out, Canterbury's “Our inland” is a far cry from John of Gaunt's imagining of England as an island unto itself, an imagining of England as island-nation that erases Scotland and Wales (“Shakespeare's Irish History” 51).

  24. For a wonderfully rich reading of Henry V in the context of Essex's Irish campaign, see Highley 134-63.

  25. Donne also seems to render Ireland as feminine temptress, for he tells Wotton “I / Would [not] lose your love for Ireland” (4-5). The word “degeneracy,” it is important to point out, first surfaced in the English language at the turn of the sixteenth century, at a time when England's borderlands, the “Celtic fringe,” were being incorporated by an increasingly centralized state.

  26. “We know that Shakespeare leaned heavily on Holinshed for the history plays of the 1580s and 1590s. One would expect him to rely therefore on the Irish section of that work for his allusions to ‘Irish’ character” (Maley, “Shakespeare, Holinshed and Ireland” 28). Indeed, Shakespeare borrowed from the English and Scottish sections of “Holinshed's” Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Irelande, so there is a strong possibility that he read the Irish section. I am less interested in how Shakespeare reworked his source material than the way in which the Chronicles' concern with the nation's past, with cultural memory, with contested borders and hostile neighbours plagues Henry V.

  27. The word “issue” is reiterated during the play's betrothal scene when the King of France says “Take her, fair son, and from her blood raise up / Issue to me” (360-61).

  28. In The second Part of Henry the Sixt, “uncivil kerns of Ireland” threaten the “blood of Englishmen” (TLN 1615-16). Perhaps it is not surprising that the rebellious York discovers Jack Cade, who is compared to a “shag-hayr'd craftie Kerne” (TLN 1673), in Ireland.

  29. Similarly, Claire McEachern argues that “Henry V closes with the containment of the ‘effeminate’” (53).

  30. Although it says nothing about the textual issues, Dollimore and Sinfield's reprinted article on Henry V includes a wonderful discussion of masculinity and miscegenation in the play: “fear of miscegenation—always a complication in imperialism—has been a major preoccupation all through the play; xenophobia and racism often accompany male homosocial insecurity” (139). They also point out that the betrothal scene “involves contamination of English masculinity with French effeminacy” (140).

  31. I want to thank Elizabeth Harvey and Paul Werstine, as well as ARIEL [A Review of Arts and Letters in Israel]’s anonymous reader, for their invaluable comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

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Further Reading

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Altieri, Joanne. “Romance in Henry V.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 21, no. 2 (spring 1981): 223-40.

Studies elements of the romance genre in Henry V.

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.

Analyzes the inconstancy of Henry's language, arguing that the king uses language to manipulate and control people and situations.

Baldo, Jonathan. “Wars of Memory in Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 47, no. 2 (summer 1996): 132-59.

Maintains that while the play's depiction of the battle of Agincourt is unremarkable, Henry V nevertheless offers an impressive examination of how a nation recalls its own history.

Dean, Paul. “Chronicle and Romance Modes in Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 18-29.

Examines the influence of the chronicle and romance forms on the structure of Henry V.

Derrick, Patty S. “Richard Mansfield's Henry V: The Shaping of an American Hero.” Theatre History Studies 19 (1999): 3-16.

Contends that in his 1900 staging of Henry V, Mansfield emphasized the patriotic elements in the play in order to make it more appealing to American audiences.

Gilbert, Allan. “Patriotism and Satire in Henry V.” In Studies in Shakespeare, edited by Arthur D. Matthews and Clark M. Emery, pp. 40-64. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1953.

Examines the ways in which Shakespeare utilized the dramatic and historical sources for Henry V.

Greenblatt, Stephen. “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V.” In Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, edited by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, pp. 18-47. London: Manchester University Press, 1985.

Suggests that the Henry plays may be viewed as a confirmation of the Machiavellian theory that a prince's power originates in force and deception.

Hall, Joan Lord. “Critical Approaches.” In Henry V: A Guide to the Play, pp. 95-122. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Surveys recent modern critical approaches to Henry V, including the cultural materialist, new historicist, and feminist approaches, highlighting the various avenues of critical analysis within each method.

Jones, G. P. “Henry V: The Chorus and the Audience.” Shakespeare Survey 31 (1978): 93-104.

Asserts that most critical analyses of the role of the Chorus in Henry V are skewed, as such discussions reflect the untested hypothesis that the Chorus serves as the voice of the public theater.

McEachern, Claire. “Henry V and the Paradox of the Body Politic.” Shakespeare Quarterly 45, no. 1 (spring 1994): 33-56.

Analyzes Henry V's portrayal of power, and studies Henry's character as a reflection of the Elizabethan tendency to personify the crown.

Pugliatti, Paola. “The Strange Tongues of Henry V.Yearbook of English Studies 23 (1993): 235-53.

Maintains that the play is not, as many critics have contended, an ambiguous statement of Shakespeare's politics; rather, it is a distinct political statement about the ambiguity of politics and history.

Royal, Derek. “Shakespeare's Kingly Mirror: Figuring the Chorus in Olivier's and Branagh's Henry V.Literature/Film Quarterly 25, no. 2 (April 1997): 104-10.

Argues that the Chorus in Henry V reveals the darker side of Henry's character, and demonstrates that this method of critiquing the king's character is never fully explored in either Olivier's or Branagh's film adaptations of the play.

Shaughnessy, Robert. “The Last Post: Henry V, War Culture and the Postmodern Shakespeare.” Theatre Survey 39, no. 1 (May 1998): 41-61.

Examines the sense of irony and displacement revealed in the Royal Shakespeare Company's 1994 production of Henry V, directed by Matthew Warchus. The critic demonstrates the ways in which this production was more concerned with nostalgia and myth than it was with portraying the physical reality of war.

Spencer, Janet M. “Princes, Pirates, and Pigs: Criminalizing Wars of Conquest in Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 47, no. 2 (summer 1996): 160-77.

Explores the juxtaposition between scenes in which Henry seeks to justify his war with France through religion or through his displacing of responsibility, and scenes in which his campaign is criminalized.

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