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Henry V

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The concluding drama of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, Henry V was first performed in 1599 and likely written in the same year. The play recounts the reign of celebrated English monarch Henry V, centering on his successful military campaign against France in the early fifteenth century. Shakespeare based his play on numerous works, including 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 of the 1580s. Although generally perceived as an adulatory piece that commemorates the exploits of its historical protagonist, the drama has elicited considerable scholarly controversy, much of it in regard to the precise nature of Shakespeare's depiction of King Henry. Overall, critics remain divided as to whether Henry should be regarded as an ideal king whose war with France is justified, or as a brutal, Machiavellian leader. While most critics acknowledge that Shakespeare probably intended to present a patriotic valorization of a legendary national hero, contemporary scholarly studies and theatrical interpretation have tended to stress the ambiguous nature of Henry's character.

Recent assessments of Henry V have continued the scholarly tradition of evaluating Shakespeare's characterization of King Henry as the central and defining element of the play. In his survey of the drama, C. W. R. D. Moseley (1988) underscores Shakespeare's rendering of Henry as an ideal hero drawn from Christian and classical estimations of an effective and just leader. Thus, Moseley sides with those critics who eschew ironic readings of the English king, instead emphasizing Henry's fortitude, faith, martial élan, and efficacy as a peacemaker. Pamela K. Jensen (1996) similarly suggests that Shakespeare sought to present a flattering portrait of King Henry in his drama, one that would appeal to English audiences. She evaluates the king's status as a skilled decision maker whose actions reflect his concern with political expediency and general avoidance of domestic responsibilities in favor of the prospects for glorious military victory abroad. For Jensen, Henry's inspirational qualities and charismatic leadership on the battlefield at Agincourt solidify his appeal, even if the play's Elizabethan viewers would likely have realized that his spectacular historical accomplishments would not outlast his own lifetime. Richard Corum (1996) offers an alternative take on King Henry's personality by exploring the “homosocial” dynamics of the drama. Corum claims that far from rendering a simple and laudatory portrait of the English king, Shakespeare's Henry V conceals a multitude of obscured historical motivations, which are made manifest when studied in terms of Henry's displaced homoerotic and phallic desires. Camille Wells Slights presents a historicist view of his character in her 2001 study. Concentrating on Henry's internalization of the Reformation notion of conscience, she suggests that Shakespeare dramatized the monarch as a fervent instrument of God's will, an individual embodiment of divine providence guided by his private sense of moral responsibility.

For the vast majority of its stage history, Henry V has been treated as a straightforward celebration of the king who would become England's foremost military hero. Since the second half of the twentieth century, however, many directors have tended to stress the play's ambiguous nature. Summarizing this trend, Robert Shaughnessy (1998) examines the postmodern inspiration for British productions of Henry V since the 1960s, observing the ways in which directorial interest in ambiguity, intertextuality, interpretive dissonance, and the cultural myths of the postwar era have informed performances. In a complementary study, Kathy M. Howlett (see Further Reading) considers Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version of Henry V as an intriguing interpretation of the drama that draws attention to its own ironic and ambivalent handling of history. Critics have also surveyed recent individual stage productions of Henry V. Ruth Morse reviews the Parisian staging of the play directed by Jean-Louis Benoit in 2000, the first ever French-language theatrical production. Noting its stylized form, apolitical tone, and self-conscious theatricality, Morse finds this performance inventive, humorous, and altogether well-realized. Russell Jackson's review of the 2000 production of Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by Edward Hall, emphasizes its unspecified wartime setting and cynical, rather than heroic, tone. War was the central visual component of the 2001 staging at Canada's Stratford Festival, attended by critic Kevin Nance. In his review, Nance highlights designer Dany Lyne's eclectic gathering of wartime models—from medieval Agincourt to the military conflicts of the twentieth century—and the production's generalized antiwar sentiment. Alvin Klein comments on actress Nance Williamson's compelling performance as the Chorus in Terrence O'Brien's 2002 Henry V for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Aside from Williamson's deft interpretive interludes, however, Klein finds this production more concerned with pageantry and the pursuit of contemporary relevance than with meaningful characterization. Lastly, Markland Taylor negatively reviews the limited cast and extensive directorial intervention of the 2002 Shakespeare & Co. production directed by Jonathan Epstein.

Contemporary studies of Henry V oriented toward genre and theme have placed particular emphasis on the political and historical meaning of the work as either a tacit celebration or subtle critique of Henry's rule, as well as its ambivalent generic status as either historical romance or tragicomedy. Paul Dean (1981) argues that in Henry V Shakespeare manipulated the conventions of the chronicle history play by juxtaposing elements of romance, thus introducing a distinctive ambiguity into the thematic fabric of the play. W. M. Richardson (1981) maintains that the world of Henry V is a hopelessly cynical one. Calling the drama “a classic portrait of the modern state,” he asserts its thematic dissociation from moral sensibility and evocation of a worldview in which the ethical significance of the ordinary individual has been radically diminished. In a contrasting assessment, Richard Levin (1984) questions the relevance of such ironic readings of Henry V, including those that portray Henry as an inauspicious or corrupt ruler, suggesting that these are blunt misinterpretations of Shakespeare's text. Historiography and genre are key elements in Marsha S. Robinson's (1996) evaluation. Robinson considers Henry V as part of a romantic cycle of fraternal conflict, reconciliation, and redemption, examining its spiritualized conception of English history passing through tragic interludes of isolation, dislocation, and violent disruption. Joan Lord Hall (1997) surveys multiple themes in the text, such as a social and cosmological concern with order and chaos, a complex evocation of war from the violent horrors of battle to the heroic glory of victory, and its central theme of kingship, including the justness of Henry's rule, the conscience of the king, and his political legitimacy. Finally, Alison Thorne (2002) concentrates on the political world of Henry V, maintaining that the work demonstrates an ambivalent relationship to the traditional ideological tenets of the English chronicle history play. Thorne concludes that in this play Shakespeare examined class relations and questioned the view that “the common subject can participate on an equal footing in the creation of a national community that continues to be defined in the interests of a ruling elite.”

Paul Dean (essay date spring 1981)

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SOURCE: Dean, Paul. “Chronicle and Romance Modes in Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 32, no. 1 (spring 1981): 18-27.

[In the following essay, Dean suggests that the structure of Henry V is a combination of two dramatic forms (“chronicle” history and “romance” history), highlights Shakespeare's sophisticated characterization of King Henry V, and explores the dynamic relationship of the drama's main plot and subplots.]

It is customary to divide plays written during the Elizabethan period upon subjects related to English history into two groups: “chronicle” histories, which draw their source-material, in the main, from the work of non-dramatic prose or verse historiographers, and “romance” or “pseudo” histories, which incorporate characters from history within a completely imaginary, usually comic, plot. It is further agreed, by the principal authorities, that only the “chronicle” histories had any important influence on Shakespeare's contribution to the genre.1 There are grounds for questioning this assumption, which cannot be discussed in detail here;2 an interesting case-study of an individual play has, however, been provided by Anne Barton in an important article on Henry V (1599).3 Relating Shakespeare's play to earlier “romance” histories—such as George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield (1587-1593), Peele's Edward I (1590-1593), Heywood's 1 Edward IV (1592-1601) and Fair Em, the Miller's Daughter of Manchester (1598-1601)—which, like Henry V, make use of the motif of the disguised king who mingles unrecognized among his subjects, Barton argues that Shakespeare took the opportunity to re-examine the tradition, not without a certain cold detachment. The “nostalgic but false romanticism”4 of the earlier plays, with their Utopian dream of a world in which King and commoner could meet on equal terms,5 is, in Barton's view, rejected by Shakespeare, for whom “Henry V seems to have marked the end of his personal interest in the tragical history. He had virtually exhausted the form, at least in its English version.”6

Mrs. Barton's alignment of Henry V and “romance” histories affords a long-overdue acknowledgment that it was not only in his comedies that Shakespeare explored the conventions of romantic pastoral. Nonetheless, her argument illuminates only parts of the play. If it incorporates “romance” elements, to speak of it as an example of “the tragical history” seems too narrow: as does the alternative category of comic history.7 Its tone of disillusionment with an ideal of social democracy, for example, is at odds with the confident, “chronicle” history nationalism apparent (embarrassingly so to our age) elsewhere, in Henry's speeches. Critical disagreements about the play and its eponymous hero have, indeed, centered upon questions of tone and attitude; but such qualities are notoriously elusive, and it is my contention that we shall do better to concentrate on the play's structure, about which it is possible to arrive at more definite conclusions. For, ultimately, we are not dealing with a contrast of tones, but of modes.


The main structural components of Henry V are the Choruses, the main plot and the subplot; the relationship between them has caused much discussion. It has been maintained, for example, that the Choruses provide the popular conception of Henry which is contradicted by his actions in the play;8 that this contradiction is resolved in Act V;9 that the Choruses are to be regarded as no more than a conventional Epic device.10 Again, it is debated whether the subplot characters act as foils to the King, who appears even greater when compared to them,11 or whether the parallels of incident, character, and language reduce Henry to the clowns' level.12 Yet again, the play is obviously indebted to a tradition of heroic drama inaugurated by 1 Tamburlaine (1587-1588),13 but are we to see Henry as a figure parallel to Tamburlaine,14 or as an ironic contrast?15

The most thorough and persuasively-argued structural analysis (although, as I shall argue, it is ultimately unsatisfactory) is that of Richard Levin, and it is convenient to begin from his account of the relationship between the plots, which is designed to justify the conclusion that “Everything in the subplot points unambiguously to its function as a foil to contrast with, and so render still more admirable, the exploits of the ‘mirror of all Christian kings.’”16 He cites in support a series of striking contrasts: between the English forces, hierarchically organized and embracing the entire British Isles (Gower, Fluellen, Macmorris, Jamy) as well as the ranks of common soldiery (Bates, Court, and Williams) subordinated to the unifying monarch, on the one hand, and, on the other, the autonomous, freelance, “fringe” militia (Nym, Bardolph, Pistol); between Henry's aim of conquest and the clowns' aim of filching; between Henry's unimpeded good fortune, ending in a marriage consummating national and international harmony, and the cumulative decline in the clowns' fortunes, from the loss of Falstaff (II.i, II.iii) to their cowardliness at Harfleur (III.ii) to the deaths of Nym and Bardolph and the final departure for England of the bereaved Pistol (V.i)—all emphasized by the scornful choric comments of the Boy (III.ii.28-57, IV.iv.69-80); between Henry's victories against immense odds and the clowns' verbal menaces which are never put into action; between Henry's resolution of the quarrel with Williams, where the King's honor forbids his personal engagement but matters are settled amicably (IV.viii), and Fluellen's quarrel with Pistol, which the latter neglects to prosecute out of cowardice and in which he is ignominiously beaten (V.i). Levin concludes that “the negative analogies have been consistently deployed to augment the seriousness and elevation of the main action.”17

Attractive though these antitheses may be, there is much, not so unambiguously to Henry's credit, which they pass over in silence. A closer study of the text reveals a number of parallels which seem to draw King and clowns, and also King and Frenchmen, together. Before these can be examined, however, the character of Henry must be set against a “romance” history tradition to which Shakespeare makes definite allusions.

In Act I of the play we see Henry in the role of warlord; in Act V, in that of lover. Elizabethan dramatists, including Shakespeare, had made a commonplace of this conjunction and had explored it metaphorically (by using the language of one of the activities to talk about the other) and in terms of character (by examining the adverse effects upon the monarch's military prowess of the enfeebling sickness of love). Some of the most important “romance” histories in which Mars and Venus are at odds are Lyly's Campaspe (1580-1584),18 Marlowe's 1 Tamburlaine,19 Greene's Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay (1590-1594) and James IV (1590-1591) and the anonymous Edward III (1590-1595). By 1599, therefore, a dramatist could assume that the love/war link would be understood, and there is no need to insist on a specific precedent for Henry V. Nonetheless, there are indications that Shakespeare had Edward III particularly in mind (and, it is worth remembering, his connections with that play may have extended to part-authorship).20 Direct references are limited to Canterbury's assertion that the Scottish King was sent to France “to kill King Edward's fame with prisoner kings” (I.ii.162), which derives from the earlier play and not from any extra-dramatic historical account; and to the possibility that Henry V, III.vii.150-54 echoes Edward III, III.iii.159-62.21 References to events dramatized in Edward III are, however, more frequent. Canterbury, for instance, encourages Henry:

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


The incident of Edward III's refusal to save the Black Prince from danger (Edward III, III.iv; note the theatrical image of “play'd a tragedy” above) is also referred to by the French King (II.iv.53-62), whose admonition to fear one descended from such hardy stock is exactly the advice subsequently given to the French by Exeter (II.iv.91-95). The victory at Crecy is, finally, recalled by Fluellen (“as I have read in the chronicles”) after Agincourt (IV.vii.94-98).

It seems then that Henry is presented as challenging comparison with Edward III. In the earlier play, Edward demonstrates his princely virtue by resisting the temptation to seduce the Countess of Warwick, and his victory in this amorous struggle is echoed in the lists of war by his son's triumph (also unaided) against apparently overwhelming numbers of Frenchmen. What Shakespeare's predecessor had seen as two separate though analogous trials requiring two separate though analogous characters, Shakespeare conflates into the single character of Henry in his dual aspects of warlord and wooer.22

It is the King's personal equilibrium which is emphasized at the outset of the play. His “two bodies,”23 his public and private selves, we are assured, are completely at one, and this harmoniousness is conventionally reflected by that of his court and his kingdom, whose various parts “keep in one consent, / Congreeing in a full and natural close, / Like music” (I.ii.181-83). Yet Canterbury is shortly advising him to “Divide your happy England into four” (I.ii.214), and the simile quoted above recurs with ambiguous effect when, in trying to win over the coy Katharine, Henry demands, “Come, your answer in broken music” (V.ii.256-57). The order celebrated at the play's beginning does not necessarily persist to its close, and the references to Edward III may be intended as a discomforting contrast rather than as an admiring parallel. In combining into Henry the roles of Edward III and the Black Prince,24 Shakespeare at least made his King a more complex character, and the nature of that complexity needs further examination.

I shall now take up again the question of the relationships between the plots.


It is generally agreed that Pistol is in certain respects a parody of Henry. His “On, on, on, on, on! to the breach, to the breach!” (III.ii.1) blatantly echoes “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” (III.i.1), although Pistol, as usual, does nothing to follow up his encouragement, and the phrase is also used by Fluellen (III.ii.21) and echoed by Macmorris (III.ii.111 ff.). More substantially, the references to throat-cutting first made by Nym (II.i.22-24, 69 ff.) and Bardolph (II.i.91 ff.) are taken up by Pistol in his catch-phrase “Couple a gorge!” (II.i.71, IV.iv.37). According to the Quarto of the play (1600), he also speaks these words at the end of, just after Henry's order to his troops to kill the French prisoners (, which is repeated, with the specification of throat-cutting, at IV.vii.65. The Quarto is an unauthorized text, and the Folio omits Pistol's parting shot; but, as William Empson argues, the other occurrences of the phrase allow us to take it seriously as associating Henry's action with the coarse vindictiveness of Pistol.25 Again, critics have commonly found difficulty in accepting what seems to be gratuitous ranting on Henry's part at Harfleur (III.iii.1-14); the New Arden editor's assurances that the King is “precisely and unswervingly following the rules of warfare as laid down by Vegetius, Aegidius Romanus and others”26 do not seem an adequate explanation. When we connect Henry's behavior here with the throat-cutting incident, and with his exposure, through an elaborate trick, of the traitors Cambridge, Scoop, and Grey (II.ii)27—a trick which deliberately mocks them despite Henry's verbal professions of sympathy—we cannot but feel uneasy.

Henry is also associated with the subplot characters through his supporters, who are by no means so united as Richard Levin claims. We may not feel inclined to attach much weight to the charges of Nym and the Hostess, that the King has virtually murdered Falstaff (II.i.88, 121-26), but Williams' retorts to him in IV.viii (considered below) are more serious criticisms (as are the soldiers' arguments in IV.i). Again, the quarrel between Macmorris and Fluellen in III.ii parallels that between Nym and Pistol in II.i; whilst the encounter between Fluellen and Pistol in V.i has been anticipated by Fluellen and Williams in IV.viii, and by Henry and Williams in IV.i. I am suggesting, in short, that Henry V may not be a straightforward double-plot play with a clown subplot acting as foil, but what Levin calls an “equivalence plot” play;28 and, at the risk of appearing unduly schematic, I further propose that the parallels of character, implied by the parallels of incident given above, may be transcribed, using Levin's own system, into a series of proportional relations, thus:


If we eliminate the common factors in this equation, we have


which brings the King into comparison with both a member of the acceptable common people, and a wholly unacceptable rogue. This sequence may not be mathematically exact, but it is dramatically suggestive and excludes the possibility of placing Henry on a level of his own in which every bad action committed by other characters somehow makes him seem more admirable.

His behavior toward Williams, in particular, casts interesting light on the claims made for him in I.i as the complete man and the complete King. In disguise he declares that “The King is but a man, as I am … His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man” (IV.i.100 ff., 105 ff.). Anne Barton sees ironic scrutiny of the “romance” history motif here; her point can be developed by observing that, in “romance” history, the King's disguise and the equality it provides are possible only because the King is the King; his condescension is in itself an aspect of his royal magnanimity, so that ultimately there is no Utopia at all. Henry illustrates this point too: he appears to be denying that he is any different from his subjects, but the phrase “as I am” is an escape clause: to be a man as Henry is is not to be a man in the normal sense. Subsequently Henry pulls rank in telling Williams, “It was ourself thou didst abuse” (IV.viii.50; note the change from “I” to “we”). But Williams is not to be cowed:

Your majesty came not like yourself: you appeared to me but as a common man; witness the night, your garments, your lowliness; and what your highness suffered under that shape, I beseech you, take it for your fault and not mine: for had you been as I took you for, I made no offence; therefore, I beseech your highness, pardon me.


It is true that he asks forgiveness, but his attitude is quite unlike the abject terror of, for example, Hobs in 1 Edward IV when he discovers the real identity of his erstwhile boon companion. Williams' common-sense defense of his actions, his readiness to suggest that the King is at fault, discomfort Henry by reducing him to the level of “a common man” at a time, and in a place, where it does not suit his convenience. He evades a direct reply (as he did in IV.i.150-92, when Williams asked about the King's personal guilt for the deaths of his soldiers in battle) by the obligatory distribution of largesse: “Here, uncle Exeter, fill this glove with crowns …” (IV.viii.59), and by reducing Williams to the status of “this fellow” (IV.viii.60). But when Fluellen tries to imitate the King by offering Williams a shilling, the latter's irritation explodes: “I will none of your money” (IV.viii.70). Fluellen's gesture reflects back upon Henry's, cruder though it is; we have witnessed a gap between Henry as King and as man which has involved him in, to say the least, inconsistent behavior.

The Williams episode affects its subsequent analogues. Fluellen's offer of money to Williams is repeated to Pistol (V.i.60 ff.), who, appropriately to his lower status, gets a groat rather than a shilling but, like Williams, refuses it. Additionally, the glove given by Henry to Williams as a gage has its comic counterpart in the leek sported by Fluellen and eaten by Pistol.29 Even though we may be reluctant to accept R. W. Battenhouse's view that the leek episode is a parody of Henry's marriage to Katharine,30 still the symbols link Henry to Pistol, and Fluellen's anger toward Pistol, which even Gower condemns as excessive (“Enough, captain: you have astonished him,” V.i.40), recalls Henry's overbearing treatment of Williams. Fluellen, has, moreover, already been established as a substitute-Henry by his observation that the King, like him, wears the leek on St. David's day, and by Henry's explanation that “I wear it for a memorable honour; / For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman” (IV.vii.108-9).

Fluellen is also the means of furnishing another comparison for Henry's rule. Following Henry's claim that the English are descended from a race of Alexanders (III.i.19), he is himself compared to “Alexander the Pig” by Fluellen (IV.vii.14-55), who has earlier proved himself a master of inapt analogy in equating the valor of Pistol with that of Mark Antony ( As a commentator on this episode remarks, the references to Antony and Alexander “precede questionable ethical actions by the two men [i.e., Pistol and Henry] which belie the classical designations or, ironically, reflect them, and through contrast undercut the apparently heroic images.”31 It is tempting to think, in the “romance” history context, that memories of Lyly's Alexander in Campaspe are surfacing in Shakespeare's mind here, and that the character joins Edward III as a pattern of the integrated self in comparison with whom Henry fares badly.32

I have so far been trying to establish comparisons between the mainplot and subplot worlds which imply an equivalence, and not a contrast, between them, and accumulate to qualify radically our approval of the King. I now turn to the resemblances between Henry and the French, which are less explicit but nonetheless significant.

The opening of the play establishes a pattern of religious references in which England and France are placed at opposite ends of the ethical scale. As a “true lover of the holy Church” (I.i.23), one whose reform of his life was so sudden as to be almost miraculous, Henry is living testimony to the power of God, “in whose name,” he charges the French ambassadors, “tell you the Dauphin I am coming on” (I.ii.291). In opposing Henry the French are, in effect, siding with the Devil, as are their undercover agents at the English court. The actions of these traitors seem to Henry to constitute “another fall of man” (II.ii.142); he denounces Scroop as an “inhuman creature” (II.ii.95), the seduction of whom—to thoughts of treason and murder, those “two yoke-devils sworn to either's purpose” (II.ii.106)—represents a triumph for the forces of darkness:

                    … whatsoever cunning fiend it was
That wrought upon thee so preposterously
Hath got the voice in hell for excellence:
.....If that same demon that hath gull'd thee thus
Should with his lion gait walk the whole world,
He might return to vasty Tartar back,
And tell the legions: “I can never win
A soul so easy as that Englishman's.”

(II.ii.111-13, 121-25)

This way of viewing rebellion is a wholly conventional one, but it is given special prominence by the insistence on Henry's personal piety: moreover, it reappears more explicitly in the clown scene which separates I.ii from II.ii. There we hear Nym boasting that “I am not Barbason; you cannot conjure me” (II.i.53), Barbason being, as the editor notes, the name of a devil. The association becomes more marked when the Boy refers to Pistol as “this roaring devil i' the old play” (IV.iv.73-74). In their desire for self-interest, their indifference to moral standards, and their isolation from the order of Henry's court, the subplot characters are inimical to the King's religious conception of his own person and mission, and so are to be allied mentally with the French as agents of disruption and wickedness.

This conjunction of the French and the clowns, and their joint association with the Devil, apparently forms a group of characters, and a body of values, to which Henry can figure as a splendid contrast. But the play's moral values are not so straightforward. Perhaps the King's old tutor had something to teach him yet; Falstaff on his deathbed, we are told, stigmatized women as “devils incarnate” (II.iii.32), and in his courtship of Katharine, Henry himself is drawn into the magic circle. Henry's first words after kissing her are “You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate” (V.ii.292); he later admits to Burgundy, “I cannot so conjure the spirit of love in her, that he will appear in his true likeness” (V.ii.306-8), to which Burgundy replies, “If you would conjure in her, you must make a circle” (V.ii.310-11). Various extenuating explanations of this language can be offered—that it is a light-hearted conventional metaphor for falling in love, or that it is part of Shakespeare's purpose to show Henry as an adept courtier. Katharine is not a “witch” in the same way as Joan of Arc or Margaret in Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy. Yet the equation of the power of beauty with the power of black magic had been established in “romance” history since Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay.33 and, taken together with the other references to devils given above, these uses of the metaphor cannot be dismissed as mere badinage. They seem to reflect the parallelisms of character discussed earlier in this essay, casting doubt on Henry's judgment and actions. Furthermore, his courtship is conducted partly in bawdy terms which we have previously heard from Katharine (in the language-lesson in II.iv) and the Dauphin. Lamenting his amorous ineptitude in the approved soldierly fashion, he claims that

If I could win a lady at leap-frog, or by vaulting into my saddle with my armour 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.


Compare with this the obsession with horses characteristic of the Dauphin in III.vii, in particular this exchange on the subject of his own horse:

… I once writ a sonnet in his praise and began thus: “Wonder of nature,”—
I have heard a sonnet begin so to one's mistress.
Then did they imitate that which I composed to my courser; for my horse is my mistress.
Your mistress bears well.
Me well; which is the prescript praise and perfection of a good and particular mistress.


Henry in the wooing scene allies himself, through the use of a specific sexual image as well as of a bawdy tone (the references to “conjuring in” Katharine carry the same suggestiveness), with the French and, implicitly, with the subplot characters—the enemies of England and of God.34

It may be argued against this that, again, bawdy may be innocent or merely to be expected in wooing. But Henry's behavior with Katharine cannot be seen apart from the accumulation of details to which I have related it, and, taken together with them, it becomes profoundly disquieting. The kinds of unity achieved by the marriage—the national and international peace which it cements—are ambiguous. As in Campaspe and Edward III, the activities of war and love are imaged in terms of each other as if to emphasize a final harmony. Henry admits that, although he is the conqueror, he “cannot see many a fair French city for one fair French maid that stands in my way” (III.ii.335-37), and the French King comments, “Yes, my lord, you see them perspectively, the cities turned into a maid; for they are all girdled with maiden walls that war hath never entered” (V.ii.338-41). From this point of view Henry's union with Katharine is one between equals who are complete in themselves yet complementary. Yet the key word is “perspectively”—point of view is important, and mutable.35 There is a disjunction between Henry as man and as King; Katharine's high social position does not shield her from suspicions of black magic. From such a union we can hardly expect permanence, and, as the final Chrous reminds us, Henry's successors “lost France and made his England bleed” (l. 12). The peace purchased by Agincourt was, after all, dearly bought.


I have sought to indicate Shakespeare's debt, in Henry V, to other aspects of the “romance” tradition than those noted by Anne Barton, and in doing so to mediate between the critical disagreements outlined at the beginning of section II. If the play is viewed “perspectively,” it becomes more complex than is generally allowed. It shows us both the Henry of popular esteem, the undaunted, unsophisticated, all-conquering patriot, expecting that he and Katharine will beget another such conqueror (V.ii.215-20), and an imperfect man, sometimes hasty, sometimes brutal; both an Epic Prince and a private person; both a triumph of unification and a failure to perpetuate it. The subplot acts as both foil to, and critique of, the main plot; the Choruses make just claims for the King's achievement and also caution us against a blind endorsement of his success.

Henry V demonstrates an equilibrium of a kind which makes irrelevant the academic distinction between “chronicle” and “romance” history with which this essay began: indeed, it contains both kinds within itself. The materials of the story derive from Hall, Holinshed, and other chronicles,36 but the story is not the same thing as the plot; and the plot turns upon conventions of romance such as the King disguised and the King in love. Shakespeare's handling of these conventions, however, is such as to hint at his dissatisfaction with their representations of reality. The world of Henry V is not a place where the contest between good and evil is straightforward, or where the values of the English establishment are wholeheartedly endorsed: nor is it one where there is not virtue extant—the positives for which Henry stands really are positive It is, rather, a world of profound ambiguities, as I have tried to show: a world where the juxtaposition of “chronicle” and “romance” visions of political action (the one encouraging a sober realization of the responsibilities of power, the other a light-hearted appreciation of its privileges) stretches the history-play genre to its limits. It is worth remembering that Shakespeare's next history-play, of any kind, was to be what the Folio firmly called the tragedy of Julius Caesar.


  1. See, e.g., E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Chatto and Windus, 1944); Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare'sHistories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, Cal.: The Huntington Library, 1947); Hardin Craig, “Shakespeare and the History Play,” Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. Brander Matthews and Ashley H. Thorndike (Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1948), pp. 55-64; F. P. Wilson, Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953), pp. 105-8; Irving Ribner, The English History Play in the Age of Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press 1957; rev. ed., London: Methuen, 1965); Kenneth Muir, “Source Problems in the Histories,” Shakespeare Jahrbuch, 96 (1960), 49; F. P. Wilson, “The English History Play,” in Shakespearian and Other Studies, ed. Helen Gardner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969), pp. 1-53.

  2. I am preparing a full discussion in another article.

  3. “The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History,” in The Triple Bond: Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance, ed. J. G. Price (University Park: Penn. State Univ. Press, 1975), pp. 92-117.

    Terminal dates for plays follow S. Schoenbaum's revision of Alfred Harbage's Annals of English Drama 975-1700 (London: Methuen, 1964).

  4. Barton, p. 99.

  5. Not exactly equal, as I point out below.

  6. Barton, p. 117.

  7. Even A. P. Rossiter, who brilliantly explored this sub-genre, failed to notice the connections between the plots: “There are fine things in Henry V; but much of the comedy has lost touch with the serious matter” (Angel with Horns, [London: Longmans, 1961], p. 58).

  8. H. C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 218.

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

  10. J. H. Walter, ed. New Arden edition (London: Methuen, 1954), pp. xiv-xvii and note on I.i.1. All subsequent references to Henry V are cited to this edition.

  11. Richard Levin, The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), p. 116.

  12. R. W. Battenhouse, “Henry V as Heroic Comedy,” Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1962), pp. 169-80.

  13. See David Riggs, Shakespeare's Heroical Histories:Henry VIand its Literary Tradition (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1972).

  14. R. Egan, “A Muse of Fire: Henry V in the Light of Tamburlaine,Modern Language Quarterly, 29 (1968), 275-82.

  15. R. W. Battenhouse, “The Relation of Henry V to Tamburlaine,Shakespeare Quarterly, 27 (1974), 71-79.

  16. Levin, Multiple Plot, p. 116.

  17. Ibid., p. 119.

  18. Campaspe is not an English history play, but its inclusion in the list is justified since it provided the basic “romance” history structure, it is referred to in 1 Henry IV (see A. Davenport, “Notes on Lyly's Campaspe and Shakespeare,” Notes and Queries, 199 [1954], 18-20, and A. R. Humphreys' New Arden ed. [London: Methuen, 1960], note on II.iv.402-9), and, as I suggest below, we may be meant to recall it in Henry V also.

  19. Also not an English history play, but central to the tradition (cf. above, note 13).

  20. The debate is summarized by Kenneth Muir, Shakespeare as Collaborator (London: Methuen, 1960), pp. 31-55. See further 1. Koskenniemi, “Themes and Imagery in Edward III,Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 65 (1964), 446-80.

  21. See New Arden Henry V ad loc.

  22. The extent to which a “romance” conception colors Edward III is indicated by the fact that the historical Edward raped the Countess of Salisbury. (I am grateful to John W. Velz of the SQ Editorial Board for pointing this out.)

  23. Cf. Ernst Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957).

  24. There are striking similarities between the portrayal of the Black Prince and both the Hal and Hotspur of 1 Henry IV.

  25. “Falstaff and Mr. Dover Wilson,” Kenyon Review, 15 (1953), 241-43 (but the whole article repays close study).

  26. New Arden ed., p. xxv. For criticisms of Henry, see the comments by G. Gould and D. A. Traversi reprinted in Henry V: A Casebook, ed. Michael Quinn (London: Macmillan, 1968).

  27. Compare the machinations of Richard II in II. ii of the anonymous play now generally called Woodstock (1591-1595; ed. A. P. Rossiter [London: Chatto and Windus, 1946]). He manipulates the accepted Court custom of petitioning the King as a sardonic method of ending Woodstock's protectorship and claiming the crown. (Once again it is interesting to note possible connections between Woodstock and 1 Henry IV: see R. Helgerson, “1 Henry IV and Woodstock,Notes and Queries, 221 [1976], 153 ff.).

  28. See Multiple Plot, chapter 5.

  29. Noted by Levin, pp. 118 ff. Anne Barton, “The King Disguised,” p. 117, compares the treatment of Kendal's emissary in George a Greene, the Pinner of Wakefield, and that of the Summoner in 1 Sir John Oldcastle (1599), which may be indebted to Henry V.

  30. Article cited above, note 12.

  31. R. P. Merrix, “The Alexandrian Allusion in Shakespeare's Henry V,English Literary Renaissance, 2 (1972), 333.

  32. Merrix provides detailed discussion of Elizabethan attitudes to Alexander. Interestingly, in 1 Henry IV, III. ii, Shakespeare may well have drawn some details for Henry's advice to Hal from a recent translation of a pseudo-Aristotelian work in which Alexander is similarly counseled: See T. P. Harrison, “The Folger Secret of Secrets, 1572,” in Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, pp. 609 ff. (Once again, I owe this reference to John W. Velz.)

  33. See William Empson, Some Versions of Pastoral (London: Chatto and Windus, 1935; 2nd ed. 1966), p. 33, and W. Towne, “‘White Magic’ in Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay?”, Modern Language Notes, 67 (1952), 9-13.

  34. Paul A. Jorgensen, “The Courtship Scene in Henry V,Modern Language Quarterly, 11 (1950), 183ff., inaptly compares the scene to King William's wooing of Mariana in Fair Em, but sees no derogation of Henry here.

  35. On perspectives as a symbol for relativist perception see Richard II, II. ii. 19-20. The whole subject is illuminatingly surveyed by A. Shickman, “The ‘Perspective Glass’ in Shakespeare's Richard II,Studies in English Literature, 18 (1978), 217-28.

  36. See New Arden ed., pp. xxxi-xxxiii, and the relevant chapter in Kenneth Muir, The Sources of Shakespeare's Plays (London: Methuen, 1977).

C. W. R. D. Moseley (essay date 1988)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10393

SOURCE: Moseley, C. W. R. D. “This Sceptred Isle: Henry V.” In Shakespeare's History Plays Richard II to Henry V: The Making of a King, pp. 147-70. London: Penguin Books, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Moseley describes the principal characters and plot structure of Henry V, emphasizing thematic elements in the drama associated with the heroic role of Henry.]

In Henry V there are so many references back in time to the events dramatized in the previous plays that, while the play is, naturally, able to stand quite independently, it gains enormously from being seen against the well-known events of the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV. Even more does it gain when seen against the background of the discussion of rule and the ruler in Shakespeare's treatment of those historical events.

In watching the movement of Hal from Eastcheap towards the crown, a redefinition of his self, and an acceptance of the implications of his role, we have been constantly reminded (not least by Henry IV) of the movement of Richard away from the crown to his discovery of a new self in his new nonentity. The careers of both—and of Henry IV too—centre round their possession, or not, not only of legitimate title to the throne, but also of the Cardinal Virtues of Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude. In Henry V these virtues are seen for the first time united with legitimate possession of the throne; the earlier plays demonstrated how necessary they are to a ruler by showing men engaged in power struggles who possessed them only partially or not at all. Richard, for example, lacked both justice and temperance, and was imprudent to a degree; in his fall he learned fortitude and, when it was too late, the three divisions of prudence—memory of his own misdeeds, understanding of what was happening to him, and foresight of what would happen to his realm.1

Henry Bolingbroke's fortitude we can take for granted; he possessed a sense of justice and was temperate, but he was led into a course of events whose outcome he did not foresee and whose consequences dog his reign with unhappiness and rebellion. In the Henry IV plays, Henry tries hard to understand and foresee his problems, but ultimately is a responder to events rather than a controller of them; his sympathetic portrait is neatly set against that of the unlikeable political schemer Worcester, who possesses almost a parody of prudence. (Worcester is also contrasted with Northumberland—a vacillating man, given to misjudgement.) Hotspur has a complete lack of the virtue of prudence—he has no policy or forethought, can control neither his tongue nor his actions, and lacks the broadness and generosity of mind that is essential to justice. Falstaff's cunning is shortsighted, working on assumptions we know to be false, and takes no thought for the time that will come when no man may work. He shies away from prudent consideration of the ultimate end of man when he tells Doll not to speak like a death's-head, a memento mori, to him (Part 2, II.iv.229-30ff.). In his lechery and gluttony he is a very figure of intemperance; he is mean and unjust in his treatment of the Hostess, his soldiers, and—had he been able—would have been so to Shallow and Silence. The idea of connecting fortitude with Falstaff is ludicrous, and the nearest the Eastcheap group come to a perception of fortitude is in the ridiculous posturing of Pistol—which hides a deep cowardice.2

Against all these is set Hal. He has prudence in full measure; his behaviour throughout Parts 1 and 2 indicate an awareness of his family history, an understanding of public opinion and people as well as political reality, and a foresight that allows him to turn his possession of the throne into a mark for later ages to aim at. This quality is also shown in his examination of the evidence in the council in Act 1 of Henry V, before committing himself to war. That council also shows his concern for a cause that is just; and his justice is shown not only in the treatment of Scroop and Cambridge but also of Bardolph, who is caught robbing a church. He is fair and just to both the Hostess and Hotspur.

The justice that Hal comes to exemplify is neatly underlined when he plays the part of his own father giving judgement in Part 1, II.iv (a picture deliberately set against the icon of misrule we have just seen in Falstaff), and in the confirmation in his speech to the Lord Chief Justice of the visible symbols of justice, the sword and the scales (which still surmount the Old Bailey). The mercy (of which more later) that goes with justice is shown in his treatment of Falstaff and his companions. His fortitude in battle and hardship is obvious, and we have seen how in the midst of intemperance in Part 1 he remained temperate. Henry in Henry V is thus not only a legitimate king, but also a good man.

He is also a Christian. The emphasis on this in Henry V is very noticeable, and the play examines, among other things, the implications of a deeply held personal Christianity for the ruler. The Prayer for the Church in the First (1549) and Second (1552) Prayer Books is virtually identical to that in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; it beseeches God to

defend all Christian Kings, Princes and Governors; and specially thy servant Elizabeth our queen; that under her we may be godly and quietly governed: And grant unto her whole Council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion and virtue.

The prayer stresses the powerlessness of the ruler without God's help, his duty of good government, and of impartial justice. These are exactly the issues that the play deals with in the series of tableaux framed by the Choruses, and furthermore it scrutinizes what is involved in being a Christian prince. Henry in this play has to blend his role as a conqueror and legitimate ruler with his inward, personal Christianity. The tension has the potential for tragedy, but through it Henry discovers his true identity and reaches a triumphant synthesis.

The first act of Henry V is so structured as to bring these issues into consideration. Shakespeare often uses in his political plays a big Court scene at or near the beginning to introduce us to the issues the play will raise, and to the persons involved. The staging of such a scene necessarily reminds us of the hierarchy in the state that mirrors the ordo in the universe; we have seen this at the beginning of Richard II and 1 Henry IV. Frequently too (but not invariably) he structures these scenes so that we have a short introduction by some minor characters who prepare us for what we are about to witness, then the big state entry, then a third division commenting on some of the implications of what has happened.3

Act 1 opens with Canterbury and Ely talking about the king. They both agree he is ‘full of grace and fair regard’ and ‘a true lover of the holy Church’ (I.i.22-3), and Canterbury goes on to enumerate his perfections. The inevitable reference to his reformation is couched in terms specifically religious, echoing the Baptism Service of the Prayer Book of 1560; the prince's ‘consideration’ (repentance) has, as it were, undone the Fall and left a perfect man, the proper abode for the Holy Spirit. (It is noteworthy that already we have, as we did in Gaunt's complaint about Richard's mistreatment of England, reference to the Garden of Eden and that other garden, the Paradise of the blessed.) His character is more than just reformed. He can understand the subtler points of theology (ll. 38-40); he is skilled in civil law (ll. 41-2); he can speak eloquently on the art of war (ll. 43-4);4 he is an expert in statecraft or ‘policy’, and can by reason solve problems that would have driven even an Alexander to use his sword.5 He speaks with all the admired arts of rhetoric, and has married the ‘theoric’ and ‘practic’ sides of life as a good Renaissance prince should. What is being described is nothing less than the Renaissance ideal of the uomo universale we see in Sidney or Castiglione, a man who is mater of himself and master of the pleasure that would corrupt other men (l. 51; cf. above, p. 141). Ely—who holds a bishopric that, as we know from Richard III, has something of a reputation for strawberries—replies with garden/cultivation images (the strawberry thriving under the useless nettle, and so on) to suggest that there may have been an organic connection between the king's early wildness and his present excellence.

After this prologue comes the state entry. We should envisage a stage crammed with people—even if we only allow two attendants per noble (mean by Renaissance standards) there would be twenty-one people on stage before Canterbury and Ely enter. This company obviously must have been organized as nearly as possible in a pattern like that of the Elizabethan Parliament. Henry's opening of the matter of his claim to the French throne shows exactly those qualities Canterbury has enumerated: mastery of the legal issues, eloquence, a readiness to defend his right by battle, a recognition that the king bears a heavy responsibility under God for his actions. He is a king who is far from trigger-happy, but cares deeply about justice. He is aware that the rightness of his cause is not one he alone can decide (I.ii.10-12) and warns Canterbury not to ‘fashion, wrest, or bow [his] reading’ to suit what he thinks Henry wants to hear. A far cry from the flattering counsellors of Richard! Canterbury's reply is to be taken seriously, however difficult we find it to do so; it emphasizes the justness of Henry's claim and the legitimacy of his decision to pursue it by war if negotiation fails.6 Henry is adamant on this point: ‘May I with right and conscience make this claim?’ This careful weighing of the legal and moral rights shown by Henry is highlighted by the parallel with his father, for although Bolingbroke had right and law on his side, this careful consideration never crossed his mind. He was pulled by the logic of his own actions into rebellion and the deposition of an anointed king.

Ely supports Canterbury, and caps the latter's roll-call of English heroes and his reminiscence of the well-known story of the Black Prince at Crécy with a call to Henry to live up to their valiant example.7 Prophetic; for Agincourt was, like Crécy, a desperate throw against huge odds, and Edward and Henry did, in 1356 and 1415, ‘forage in blood of French nobility’. A lesser king would immediately be swayed by such a volume of ecclesiastical agreement; but Henry still holds back. The ‘policy’ Canterbury described is exemplified in his concern to protect his realm from the incursions of the Scots. But, as his counsellors agree, here is no Irish expedition of a King Richard; this realm is properly and harmoniously organized, and Canterbury's memorable speech about the mutual interdependence of the commonwealth of the bees finally convinces Henry of what he should do.

Yet this part of the scene is not quite so simple as this makes it sound. For a start, the support of two senior bishops is pretty powerful; and we ought to remember that Bolingbroke's actions to seek the throne were strongly opposed by Carlisle, and his continuance on it by the Archbishop of York. Both appealed to divine sanction for their opposition; but Canterbury and Ely represent such a sanction supporting Henry. The contrast with his predecessors could hardly be more powerful. Secondly, Canterbury's speech about the bees holds up an analogy to the well-ordered state, an ideal to be worked for, rather than offering a description of what actually is. There is an implied conditionality in his lines,

                                                            I this infer,
That many things, having full reference
To one consent, may work contrariously

(ll. 204-6)

which reinforces his earlier suggestion that ‘obedience’ (i.e. this interdependence in the state) (l. 187) is ‘an aim or butt’ to be worked for. It may not yet have been achieved, and the achievement may be temporary. The confidence—and it is a real confidence—of this scene is set off by the recognition that the ideal is not automatically achieved; the details of the hive of England are, in fact, examined in subsequent scenes. Henry has to be the ‘sad-eyed justice’ delivering over to execution, at whatever personal cost, those who break his trust and their own faith.

But that painful act of self-control is still in the future. A more pressing one is immediate. To highlight Henry's nature, Shakespeare made a significant change to his sources at this point. In the sources the Dauphin's insult arrives before the decision is taken to press Henry's claim. Here it is clear that the decision has been reached in fair and open concert of the prince with his counsellors, working together like the commonwealth of the bees, and that the Dauphin's insult does not affect the issue one way or another. What it now serves to do is to underline that, as the ambassadors report (II.iv.29ff.), the rest of Europe must take note of the change in Henry as his own country has had to do in 2 Henry IV.

The ambassadors enter with a good deal of trepidation. Henry reassures them:

We are no tyrant but a Christian king,
Unto whose grace our passion is as subject
As in our wretches fettered in our prisons


—a reply which not only endorses the law of nations, but reminds us of the standards of kingship we are to apply to Henry and of the justice in him that controls both his subjects and his own passions. His own passions need that self-control, for he is clearly deeply offended and angry at the Dauphin's joke. He contains his anger, even turns it into a series of bitter puns and images, but it is clear that the irresponsibility of the Dauphin, a more foolish Hotspur, must bear a good deal of the blame for the decision to refuse Henry's demands, and thus for the war that will devastate France. Five times in the last twenty-five lines of the first act Henry emphasizes that he is acting in God's name and that his cause is just, and there is no reason to suspect any irony on his or Shakespeare's part. After all, the historical tradition attributed to Henry V a piety and seriousness about religious issues that there is no reason to doubt; he is known to have had long and earnest theological arguments with Oldcastle to win him back to the orthodox religion so that he could save him from execution. Shakespeare has already made Canterbury endorse this, and the whole of Act I has been focused on demonstrating what qualities make him a credible ‘mirror of all Christian kings’ (II,Chorus,6). Shakespeare could have left the matter there and merely taken Henry off to a gung-ho expedition to bash the French. But he does something much more interesting. He shows Henry developing those qualities in action that the mere statement by Canterbury might not be enough to convince us he possessed, and developing a piety and humility that reflect, perhaps, Richard's later consciousness of his place in God's sight. Henry grows and develops in this play not only as a ruler but as a man conscious of his huge moral responsibility, at the cost of his own personal feelings. The justice Canterbury speaks of is shown not only in the patient searching of his own title to the French throne, where he stands to gain a good deal, but also in the extremely painful and wounding confrontation with the conspirators in II.ii.

He clearly knows all about the treason of Scroop, Grey and Cambridge before he asks them their opinion about the treatment of the wretch who committed lèse-majesté. Those who themselves would have betrayed him advise severity—the advice of flatterers who say what they think he wants to hear. But he shows the wretch the royal prerogative of mercy; and their own mouths have denied the conspirators the chance of mercy for their more heinous crime. All their betrayals are bad enough; but the one that is particularly wounding is that of Scroop, for clearly Henry loved the man. He is given a long speech of reproach (II.ii.79-144) in which the tones of the public man give way to the broken cadences of a betrayed friend. The most common grammatical structure is a pained, reproachful question; the second person singular (signalling the intimacy of the reproach) dominates, and the imagery moves from money to extortion (l. 99), to devils tempting a man to fall, then to the devils' ability to deceive with fair-seeming, and finally to the open mention of what had been more and more insistent in the subtext: the Fall itself. Like Adam, Scroop has fallen from grace, and has committed the sin of Judas in betraying his master. The reminiscence of Richard is inescapable in this, the last betrayal, as that of Richard was the first. The speech is full of the tones, even the very rhetorical patterns (ll. 127ff.), of Richard; yet their positions are antithetical. Richard was powerless against his betrayers, and had to fall to learn what being a king meant; Henry knows what being a king entails, and has to use his power to punish, however unwillingly. Against the desires and pain of the private man they must be punished. Henry assumes again the royal plural in their sentence, for this is a necessary act of policy. His passions are indeed in prison. We may applaud so just a prince, but we are made aware of the cost to the man.

Memory of the other plays again highlights this moment. When Bolingbroke indicts and condemns Green and Bushy (Richard II, III.i), there is more than a hint of personal animus in what purports to be justice; and neither of them accepts either his authority or the justice of his condemnation. Worcester, when condemned by Henry IV (1 Henry IV, V.v), can merely ‘embrace this fortune patiently’, and does not accept Henry's right though he must accept his power. Mowbray and the Archbishop of York (2 Henry IV, IV.ii) are also indignant at Prince John's stratagem—which is not, incidentally, so unlike his brother's here. But these traitors not only accept Henry's justice and right, not only repent of their crimes and ask for God's pardon, but also applaud his action. There could be no stronger endorsement of Henry's kingship than this, from those who would have destroyed him.

Scene ii extends the private self-control of I.ii into public action. The world is having to notice this prince who indifferently ministers justice. The contrasting comic scenes, II.i and II.iii (of which more later) give some idea of the sort of people for whom Henry has responsibility; even there, as Falstaff lies dying, his heart ‘fracted and corroborate’ by the king's rejection, Nym accepts ‘the King is a good king’. In II.iv the news of the formidable nature of this prince reaches France. Here is another of those visual parallels Shakespeare used so often; the court of England in I.ii, presided over in harmony by Henry, is contrasted with that of the France he claims. Here is no country acting in concert. In the face of external threat, the counsellors disagree. The Dauphin shows a foolish and imprudent disregard of Henry as a monarch, and speaks with the contemptuousness of a Hotspur, while the Constable urges that the ambassadors' report of his excellence must be taken seriously. King Charles wisely agrees, remembering Crécy and the tree of which this prince is a shoot. When Exeter and his train are announced, again the Dauphin foolishly butts in, implicitly comparing the English to a pack of dogs and the French to the noble deer; the irony of which he is unconscious is that the deer is hunted and pulled down by the dogs (II.iv.69-70). Exeter's message to the king reveals a good deal about Henry. He is not entering on this war lightly, and, like the French king himself just before, is terribly aware of the horror of war and its insatiable appetite (ll. 104-5;109). He beseeches Charles ‘in the bowels of the Lord’ whom they both acknowledge (l. 102) to deliver up the crown to save the suffering of the innocent. To the Dauphin he sends back insult in the same terms as he received it; and that foolish young man desires nothing more than the arbitrament of war without thought of the cost. His folly, over-confidence and silly pride masquerading as honour keep alive in this play, as a coarsened and distorted reflection, the memory of Hotspur whose character was strongly contrasted with the inner honour of Prince Hal.

In Act III, war has arrived. Henry's physical courage, fortitude and prowess does not need exploring in this play; had Shakespeare wished to do so, he could have dramatized the famous and historical combat with the Duc d'Alençon he found in his sources—he alludes to it in some detail at IV.vii.150ff. What is explored as the play goes on is his inheritance, and more, of his father's gift of inspiring and leading men. The speech before Harfleur (III.i), the favourite old warhorse of anthologists, would never have acquired that status had it not been indeed inspiring. It belongs to a recognized genre for which Shakespeare and his generation must have known a plethora of classical precedents—‘the general's address to his soldiers before the battle’—and a masterpiece of rhetoric was obligatory, particularly in an ‘epic’ play. Its first half centres round a striking image: a peaceful human face physically distorted by rage into the mask of ‘grim-visaged war’, nostrils flared, teeth set, eyes staring. The second half appeals to pride of family and of country, to a consciousness of national worth about to be tested, before Henry's own face distorts in the roar of the battle-cry. The material on which he must bring his inspiration to bear is immediately underlined by the next scene. Shakespeare obviously cannot—as he keeps reminding us through the Chorus—show the siege of Harfleur, but he can illustrate the responses of the combatants. Bardolph's first line is a broken, comic reminiscence of Henry's own—quite serious, though; but the old sweats and bravos of Eastcheap, Nym and Pistol, are finding things too hot for their liking, and the poor Boy would rather have a pot of ale than any amount of glory. (There is more than an echo of Falstaff here) Fluellen enters in high rage and drives them on, leaving the Boy behind. Alone, he outlines his contempt for their cowardice and their thieving—and their silliness in both. It is such men that Henry has to turn into heroes.

But Fluellen, Captain Jamy and Captain Macmorris are another matter, comic as they are. (There were stage Welshmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen in Elizabethan theatre, as there are in our own.) Their disputes are comic and longwinded, but they are about the art of war and the serious matter in hand—unlike the ludicrous quarrel of Nym and Bardolph in II.i; here are representatives of the whole of Britain uniting in the king's service and sinking their pride and difference in a common purpose.

Shakespeare has not given Henry a simple attitude to war. Henry has been convinced his war is just, and we ought to accept that the audience would have agreed, whatever our own feelings. Shakespeare shows him proceeding on the course that he lays out for him very carefully and thoughtfully—even cautiously. If his claim to the throne of France is just, then the war the French engage in by rejecting his claim is a civil war—‘impious war’, as he calls it at III.iii.15. He is therefore acting according to Elizabethan ideas with every bit as much—and more—justice and legitimacy as Henry IV did in putting down the rebellions of his reign. His ambassadors gave the French a chance to agree, and warned them of the consequences; by refusing, they accepted the graphically realized horrors of an invasion. So Henry proceeds to his first campaign at Harfleur. But before committing his troops to the sack of the town, he stops, and gives the Governor another chance to acknowledge his lordship. His speech at III.iii.1ff. is imperious, frightening; he spells out what happens when a city is sacked—something Elizabethans knew all about, from the upheavals in the Low Countries. It is not a nice picture. The images of violence, pain, fire, devils and monsters swirl in and out of the speech to make a picture that chills the blood. The soldier whose blood is up is like a hunting-dog, ‘fleshed’, mowing down without remorse children and young girls, deflowering8 them even while they shriek and their old fathers have their brains knocked out against the walls. This hellish picture is further intensified by images that send us back to the Mystery play of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents—babies spitted and jerking on the swords and spears of Herod's men while their mothers look on.9

Henry does not want this to happen—he is himself horrified by the picture—but he has the wisdom to know the limits of command: no general, in wars from Troy to Vietnam, has ever been able to control his troops in victory. And he is trapped; he cannot raise the siege and end the war now, for what is done cannot be undone. He has to play the role of king through to the end. The only way out of this horrible fate is for the town to acknowledge his lordship. When it does, instead of the punishment it might deserve for resisting in the first place he commands Exeter to ‘Use mercy to them all’. For mercy becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.

The daring juxtaposition of this tense moment and the little scene with Katherine (III.iv) works interestingly. The scene is charming. After the noise and heat of battle that the language has conjured up, there follows this picture of peace and quiet and innocence, with a delicate play of cross-language bawdy. The violent rapes of Henry's imagination give way to hints of peaceful and willing dalliance. The scene serves a particular purpose: it shows us the future Queen of England, whose femininity will complement and complete the manhood of her king. But a darker side shows in this symbol of the innocence that war might have destroyed. The war, however just, is a terrible risk, and might destroy the very thing it sought to win.

However glorious and admirable as a war-leader Henry may be, therefore, Shakespeare has not presented us with a simplistic view either of human conflict or of the man himself. Throughout the four plays, from Richard's and Carlisle's prophecies onwards, the horror of war has constantly been realized. The little people do suffer in the conflicts of the mighty, and the vulnerable and guiltless new growth is uprooted by its terrible storm. The question must be asked: how can a war be just, fought (as Henry's is) in the name of a just and merciful God, and yet perpetrate such unjust cruelty? The answer, which the play faces squarely, lies in the very nature of man in his fallen state. … God gave man not only a nodal position in the chain of being, but free-will so that he could be a responsible moral person and not a mere automation. That freedom necessarily entails the possibility of refusing to do God's will, and this means that man's decisions will have effects far beyond himself. Man fell in Eden and the whole earth subject to him inevitably suffered, not for any sin of its own but because its governor had failed in his responsibility to it. In his mercy, as Augustine said, God instituted states and law to contain the effects of the Fall, but the Fall could not be undone, nor could the intimate connection between man's actions and the world he lived in be severed. Strife became a condition of man's existence. War was a consequence not of God's will but of man's refusal to obey it; and when the mighty disobeyed the right, their subjects suffered because of the structure of the world and society within it. The king thus shoulders a frightful responsibility, and Henry is agonizedly aware of it. Hence his caution on starting the war and in conducting it, and his appeals to the French to reconsider their disobedience; hence the responsibility for the suffering of the innocent lies on those who refuse, as the devils refused, the right. But if war is a consequence of the disorder caused by human sin, God's providence can nevertheless use it to punish the guilty and redress the disorder of the world into a temporary balance—before the next round of sin caused by man's fallen state. ‘War is His beadle’ (IV.i.164)—that is, his policeman: the idea is not far from that which Marlowe gives to Tamburlaine, who causes cruel havoc by his conquests, seeing himself with huge pride as ‘the scourge of God’. War, however horrible, is thus somehow purging and cleansing; it is also a necessary consequence of human freedom and the love God showed for man in giving him that freedom.

But while Henry accepts his own, and King Charles's, peculiar responsibility, there are limits to it. The issue is discussed acutely in the conversation with Bates and Williams (IV.i). The peasant sense of Williams is sceptical of the disguised Henry's assertion of the ‘king's cause being just and his quarrel honourable’ (ll. 123-4): ‘That's more than we know.’ Bates sees, however, that they are not qualified to judge the issue, and that if they as individual soldiers behave as good subjects even in a bad cause, they are guiltless of that cause's guilt. Williams rejoins that if the cause is not good, the king must bear a ‘heavy reckoning’ (l. 131) for leading men to their deaths before they could put their own souls in order—that is, he must carry not only the responsibility for his own misjudgement but for the damnation of those who might die in sin. With careful logic Henry demonstrates that this cannot be so (ll. 143ff.) and the individual soldiers must be responsible for their own moral conduct as individuals in so far as it is based on their own choice and actions—this the king cannot take on himself: ‘Every subject's duty is the king's; but every subject's soul is his own’ (ll. 171-2). War is no excuse for conduct that would be evil and immoral in peace, even in the heat of the sack of a town like Harfleur. The effective argument convinces Williams and Bates,10 and is yet another demonstration of Henry's power of leadership and his possession of that inspiring common touch that can make a ruler not just obeyed but loved. (When Henry later reveals himself to Williams in IV.viii, he does so with such grace, humour and generosity that the 200-year-old tradition of Henry as an exceptional king of men becomes credible indeed.)

Henry's reaction to this conversation (ll. 218ff.) is his only soliloquy in the play (it is briefly interrupted by Erpingham, recalling Henry to his public duties), and that alone is enough to signal its significance. He reveals as nowhere else in the play the deepest elements in himself; and the speech shows him not only as a philosopher who understands the burden of rule, but also as an honest man. He explores more deeply the attitude to the crown we glimpsed in his reaction to his father's sickness in 2 Henry IV (and Henry IV himself, in his guilt, observed: ‘Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’; cf. 2 Henry IV, III.i.4-31 and IV.v.22ff.). He is no longer an observer, though; he wears it himself and knows its cost. He is lonely; the king is separated by his role from his subjects, yet he is a man as they are, and his crown cannot cure his ills. The common labourer knows delights of rest and sleep and simple honest work the king can only envy, and the king must take responsibility, at great personal cost, for providing the conditions in which the peasant can sleep in peace (ll. 272ff.). The king must bear, too, the blame the commons put upon him without thought. In this moment of stillness in the play, before the great clash of Agincourt, Henry has found himself and accepted the full implications of the hard condition of a king, on whose decisions rest both peace and war. As his prayer confirms (ll. 283ff.), he has not only committed his cause to God but also accepted his own sinfulness and his inheritance of guilt. His pious acts cannot undo that primal Fall, be it Richard's murder or the Fall of man. He, like his subjects, is under judgement, dependent on the mercy of God. The Chorus opening this act reminded us of the terrible tension between the public face on whose confidence and courage everyone depends, and the pain and fear felt by the inner man. We have seen both in action in this scene.

The depth and thoughtfulness of Henry's understanding of his role and conduct is illuminated by the contrast with the French reactions to his campaign. In III.v, after the quiet delicacy of the scene with Katherine, the French Court—thirty nobles on stage at once, nearly all to be killed at Agincourt—explodes in anger and hurt pride, at once mystified by the success of the enemy and scornful of them. The Dauphin is particularly strident. The French do not pray; they merely swear. Here is no policy, merely folly. The Constable, against all the warnings of the siege of Harfleur, wishes the enemy stronger so that the personal glory of defeating them might be the greater.11 There is strong contrast with the (comic) pride in their mastery of the practical arts of war that Fluellen and Macmorris have shown in III.ii and the quiet dignity and efficiency of Henry. When Henry receives the insulting message insultingly delivered by Montjoy (, his self-control shows in his firm and courteous reply. There is no Dauphin-like bravado; he is aware that his army is small, tired, sick, yet—‘God before’ (l. 154)—he will advance. Gloucester's trepidation (l. 166; cf. IV.i.1ff.) only elicits once more Henry's confidence that his cause is ‘in God's hand’ (l. 167).

In the scene that takes place the night before Agincourt, Shakespeare has shown us the king understanding, in his isolation, the burden he must bear; the same scene also shows us an army tense, serious, yet united by the personality of Henry. Against this is set, in point for point contrast, the other, deliberately parallel, night scene in the French camp (III.vii). While the English are serious, tense, fearful, the French nobles are longing for the night to pass. Henry visits his soldiers and understands them; the Dauphin is insufferable, boastful, praising his horse—it is not even a proper warhorse!—to a ludicrous degree. He is insulting to the Constable, and there is an undertone of mere quarrelsomeness for its own sake that only the Constable's good humour prevents from flaring into open anger. This is not the sensitivity to the real issue of the king's trustworthiness that lies behind the ironic comedy of Williams's quarrel with Henry—just the sort of thing that might happen in moments of such tension—which is rapidly smoothed by Bates. The Dauphin and Rambures are stupidly over-confident, holding their enemy in derision. Yet the Constable, far more sensible and experienced than the others, suggests that the Dauphin's courage and abilities are strictly limited (ll. 89ff.). The picture is not a flattering one, and in the Dauphin we see what royalty should not be. The contrast with Henry's attitude to war could hardly be greater.12

We see the same qualities in IV.ii. The Constable's speech (ll. 13ff.), another ‘general's address to his soldiers’, obviously contrasts with Henry's before Harfleur. Its over-confidence and contempt for the enemy is not simply ironic—for we know that Henry will win the battle; it illustrates a godless tempting of Providence, a regret that the slaughter will not be greater. Set against this the humanity, humour, true honour, generosity and courage of Henry's rallying call to his army in IV.iii, where the idea of the king as leader of a united country is brought vividly to life. This is where all the discussions of honour in the Henry IV plays reach their climax; the very tones of Hotspur—a Hotspur who, unlike the Dauphin, has grown up—are heard in

But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.(13)

(ll. 28-9)

Montjoy's second arrival (IV.iii.79) reminds us of Henry's appeal to the Governor of Harfleur to surrender; but the only mention of mercy is ironic—a suggestion that the soldiers make a good confession before their inevitable deaths. Henry's reply is gallant and even manages humour; but underneath, as the hypermetric line (l. 128) musingly reveals, he knows their plight is dangerous.

The success of Henry—beautifully conveyed by the verbal slapstick of IV.iv, where even Pistol, the comic simulacrum of soldierly valour, wins a prisoner—throws the French into angry and horrified confusion (IV.v). Even the Dauphin at last recognizes the real nature of the enemy. The reaction is to lead a counter-attack to retrieve ‘honour’ by a pointless death—not the honourable and noble death of York, recounted by Exeter (, but an attack that is far from noble. Its fruit is the killing of the unarmed boys of the baggage train. Fluellen, from whom we hear of it first, is horrified by this breach of the law of arms (IV.vii.1ff.). Gower's anger leads him to applaud Henry's reported order for an action that would be equally horrific: to cut the throats of the prisoners (ll. 8-10). But Henry, angry and shocked as he is, is no butcher; he is prepared to do this only if the French—the Dauphin and others, who did not take part in the attack—do not join the fight, or leave the battlefield (ll. 56-7). Even here, in the heat of battle, the motive is to limit further slaughter.

Casualty lists are never pretty reading. But the size of the English victory, emphasized by the roll-call of the great names of France fallen in this field (IV.viii.75ff.), had a central place in the Elizabethans' myth of their own history, just as their defeat of the Armada had for later generations. Shakespeare could have shown Henry here simply as the glorious and triumphant king and got away with it. In fact he makes him turn right away from any pride, ascribing the honour and glory to God alone. His first thought is of humble gratitude and of his own littleness in the eye of Providence. The seriousness of the faith of this mirror of all Christian kings has been tested in the furnace, and God has vindicated him. He is a holy monarch. In line 106 he quotes the first verse of what is now Psalm 115 in the English Prayer Book, and later orders it to be sung in thanksgiving (l. 122); it is one of the psalms of celebration of God's deliverance of his chosen people Israel from their enemies, and in the Vulgate Latin text is part of Psalm 114, which begins: ‘When Israel came out of Egypt, and the House of Jacob from among a strange people’. The link in Henry's—and the audience's—mind between the English army defended by God from the power of the French and the Israelites' escape across the Red Sea from Pharaoh's army is quite open. Then and in later times, many Englishmen (in particular the Puritans) saw their nation as a holy country in whose affairs Providence frequently took a hand, as God had intervened in the politics of Israel. Such a country needs a monarch who will be both a David and a Solomon.14 Henry is shown to have been both, and a mirror for future monarchs.

So far we have only seen Henry at war, or preparing for it. The arts of peace belong to a monarch too, and Act V concentrates on these. Before taking us on in time (five years) to the final peace, the Chorus to Act V describes the return to London in a triumphal procession quite proper to a conqueror, but here again the emphasis is on Henry being ‘free from vainness and self-glorious pride’. Once more there is a heightening comparison—this time to Julius Caesar, another of the Nine Worthies.15

But a conqueror must be judged not just by the battles he has fought but the peace he concludes, and it is that which constitutes the business of this final act. The complex tableau of the peacemaking is preceded by the lightness of V.i, where Pistol gets his comic come-uppance at the hands of the delightful Fluellen. It is not mere diversion; symbolically it is integral to what follows, for here, in the comic mode, the proper ruler shows up the fake for the deceit and silliness it is. As Henry re-establishes England and the crown, so Fluellen cleanses the English camp of the fakes and the cheats and the rogues. We have had plenty of time to observe both Fluellen and Pistol in the play, and the similarities between them emphasize a deep contrast. Both of them maul the language to the point of occasional incomprehensibility; both are proud to a fault; both love Henry (Pistol may be taken as sincere in IV.i.44ff.); but Fluellen is a real soldier and an honest man, not the mere appearance of both that Pistol has attempted (sometimes with success) to sustain. (In it is clear that he managed to fool Fluellen himself for a time.) The scene is important, since it dramatizes in Fluellen's punishment of Pistol the final rejection and discomfiture of all false honour and pretence. Pistol's grotesque language is a mere extension to nonsense of the hyperbolic posturing that heroes, in and out of plays, are often given to. His connection with the miles gloriosus of Roman comedy should not blind us to his connection with the selfish, sterile, hyperbolic honour of Hotspur and the Dauphin, while his capture of Monsieur le Fer must remind us of Falstaff's similar capture—by illusion—of Colevile of the Dale. Real honour appropriate to his rank is shown by the honest, frank, not frightfully eloquent, touchy Fluellen—who, indeed, in his love for and pride in Henry, signals to us one very important standard of assessment.16

But the world is not cleansed finally; it will always have its Pistol. He sets off for a new career as bawd, thief and professional Old Soldier, who fakes wounds and scars in order to beg the better. (The number of vagrant old soldiers—genuine or not—begging in this way was one of the scandals of Shakespeare's age, incidentally.) Falstaff, at the end of 1 Henry IV, merely did the same thing on a larger and more barefaced scale. Eastcheap will always be with us.

The second scene divides into three parts: the full Court scene, the wooing of Katherine by Henry, and the final conclusion of the peace. In the first section the dominating speech is that of Burgundy, the peacemaker, but before he speaks the queen gives a striking reminiscence of Henry's own conceit before Harfleur—of the face distorted by anger into that of ‘grim-visaged war’ (V.ii.14ff.); now, the ‘venom of such looks … / have lost their quality’. Burgundy, as I have said above (p. 110), pulls together all the garden/farming images of the four plays in a formal and exhaustive catalogue of the disorder in the kingdom—a disorder caused by the war against her true master. Vines, hedges, fields and meadows all need tending, the weeds must be uprooted, and the tide of blood must be turned back by a proper gardener. The whole catalogue is governed by the personification of peace that introduces it:

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?

(ll. 34-7)

The pathos of this personification of peace as vulnerable, abused femininity focuses the images of rape and sexual violence that have been insistent accompaniments to the war. (Interestingly, the French when invaded saw their honour as somehow sexually connected: cf. III.v.5ff., 27ff.; IV.v.15-16.) As the delegates leave to discuss the treaty, Peace herself puts up her lovely visage. For just as the delicacy of the earlier scene with Katherine—which on the personal level more than suggested her interest in King Henry—made visible the femininity that war could debauch and destroy, this part of the scene works both as a delicate wooing of the two persons, with all the charm of Henry's soldierly gaucheness, and also uses Katherine as a symbol of that peace that will be restored in the marriage of the two kingdoms. She is, as Henry says, ‘our capital demand’ (l. 96). But philosophers like Erasmus had stressed that a marriage merely for the sake of an alliance was likely to lead to further strife. Shakespeare is at pains to show us, within the conventions of the stage, that this is a love-match too.

The switch to prose signals a drop to intimacy and privacy after the publicity of the Court. It shows Henry in a most attractive, entirely new, light. He is, we know, witty and fond of word-play, but in the Henry IV plays that wit had been at someone else's expense. Here it is at his own. He is eloquent, yet his long prose speech is uncomfortable in its rhythms, embarrassed and confused in its argument, lacking in any of the devices of the stage wooer. For a moment we are reminded of the curiously attractive clumsiness of Hotspur with Lady Percy. And his conclusion is that ‘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’. This is what this sun-like king is offering. The scene is completely convincing and suddenly makes the hero entirely human and believable. The ‘silken dalliance’ the youth of England left in the wardrobe for the war (II, Chorus, l. 2) is worn again. The divorce of king from country symbolized by the separation of Richard from Isabel is healed; these lovers, unlike Glendower's daughter and Mortimer, can understand each other despite the barrier of language. …

The return of the rest of the Court confirms, as expected, Henry's title to France. Peace is concluded. But before that announcement is made, Shakespeare includes a striking prose passage between Henry and Burgundy, the imagery of which is of the greatest importance. The marriage of Katherine and Henry, the male aggressive and the female receptive, is of course a symbol of the equilibrium of balanced opposites that constitutes the best peace man can hope for; Katherine is France and Henry England. But Shakespeare draws in other ideas through a chain of sexual word-play. ‘Conjure up the spirit of love’ (ll. 284-5) has an obvious play on ‘spirit’, and Mercutio uses virtually this phrase to Romeo; ‘conjure’, though, introduces ideas of magia, which Burgundy picks up. The spirit of love, Cupid, will be called up ‘naked and blind’, which leads into other plays on ‘wink’, ‘yield’, ‘do’, ‘stands’, ‘girdled’, ‘walls’, ‘will’, and so on. Now this joyous playing with the idea of sexual intercourse transposes into the major key the subtheme in the imagery throughout, of war as violently sexual; it has a last echo here (ll. 355-8). This congress is willing and willed without destroying proper feminine modesty. But the aim of the magus was the ‘alchemical marriage’ of opposites in a balance that would be healing and harmonious, and go some way towards restoring the image of Eden on earth. The imagery delicately suggests this hope for Katherine and Henry, perhaps even suggests the necessity for this in Elizabethan politics. Moreover, the symbolism of Katherine is underlined both by her lover, ‘who cannot see many a fair French city for one fair French maid that stands in [his] way’, and by her father in his response: ‘Yes, my lord, you see them perspectively,17 the cities turned into a maid; for they are all girdled with maiden walls, that war hath never entered.’ The obvious reference to virginity hides from us another neat visual allusion. Cities were often depicted allegorically as women, crowned with a crown of walls. Katherine ‘is’ these cities of France that she will bring with her as her dowry to her lord.

And so in the mystery of marriage the just war is over, the rebellion quenched, the effects of the fall stayed for an interim. The land can be cultivated once more, and the gardener knows his job. In one sense the ending of Henry V is comic at this point, for the ideal king has found himself and his role, is married to his kingdom in a harmony that reminds us of that costly harmony at the end of some of Shakespeare's comedies. But the cost, public and private, has been huge, and payment will continue to be exacted till the day of doom. For the play does not end with peace and the marriage; it closes with the Chorus predicting, in a regular Shakespearean sonnet, what the audience knew had actually happened—the loss of all that Henry had won.

The choice of a sonnet is itself of interest. Sonnets, to most of us, are just sonnets; but the Elizabethans recognized several different types which did specific jobs. Shakespeare's choice of the sonnet form (as in the first meeting of Romeo and Juliet) is therefore a signal to the audience, at the very least of a serious and aphoristic overview of the experience of the play. It begins and ends with the difficulties of the medium—a favourite idea, the inadequacy of words or vision to compass reality. This is, indeed, how the play began. But in the third quatrain, which builds up to the conventional emphatic pause before the final couplet, the Chorus looks forward to the loss of France by Henry VI. ‘So many had the managing’ of his state that Henry V's achievement was undone, and, in a last and striking return of the images of Richard II and the opening of 1 Henry IV, ‘made his England bleed’. This is history, and the material of Shakespeare's own popular 1 Henry VI; but it is also a deliberate and open warning. If the state is not united in counsel, as in the 1590s England was not, if the wrong counsellors have the prince's ear, then England will bleed again. The ideal monarch is but a man, and men die. Elizabeth had not yet named an heir, and was obviously nearing her end.

We must therefore return briefly to that picture of the monarch Shakespeare has given us. He is a just prince and a good man, who understands his people, be they Pistol who bumps into him (significantly, in the dark), or Fluellen, or Williams; he understands his father too. We have in him a deliberate conflation of the ideal of a Christian man whose every act is felt to be in God's eye, and the classically derived ‘Aristotelian mean’—the man in whom passions are felt but controlled, who knows himself for what he is and avoids excess in any particular. Then add to this the ideal of Christian kingship, where king, people and Church act in concert: the play shows Henry harnessing not only the support of the Church and his nobles to the cause, but also that of the common people, down to the very rogues. Finally, Henry is linked to the great conqueror Alexander, but surpasses him. Fluellen's delicious attempt to find parallel incidents in the lives of the two men (IV.vii.12-51) is highly comic. Pedant that he is, versed (not very well) in the ancients, he constructs in the proper rhetorical manner a ‘comparison’ between the two. He compares the places where they were born, seeking similarities between the Monmouth he knows and the Macedon he does not, and then moves on to look for parallel events in the lives of the two. All he can manage is the dissimilarity between Alexander killing Cleitus when drunk and (significant!) a sober Hal turning away Falstaff. Behind the humour is something serious; Henry is actually superior to the great Alexander, for he is a Christian and not a pagan prince.

The true hero knows when to fight and when to seek peace, when to beat the ploughshare into the sword and when to return to the field. Before Harfleur his imagery, particularly his pun on ‘metal’, kept alive the notion of an England of farmers suddenly and exceptionally called to labour in a different field:

                                                  And you, good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture,


who sold their pasture to buy their warhorses (II, Chorus, ll. 3-5). But summoning up the blood must have an end and the fields must be ploughed after the blood has been shed for another harvest. Behind the glory of the figure and the reign of Henry, Shakespeare lets us see the shadows. And they will not go away. All flesh is grass, the grass withereth, and the flower thereof fadeth away. Here is no abiding city, and there will never be peace on earth, for man is fallen.

And so man—all men—can only throw themselves on God's mercy. They must work, labour in the vineyard in the heat of the day, for that is a condition of existence, but in the end it is God's mercy that will save or not. The prince, as God's vice-gerent, needs that mercy too, but is also in peculiar need of the quality of mercifulness. This is the attribute of power that validates all the others; it is in this that a king may be called, as with unconscious irony the Duchess of York calls Bolingbroke, ‘a god on earth’:

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest,
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes,
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice …
… in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.

(The Merchant of Venice, IV.i.180ff.)


  1. This threefold division is a medieval and Renaissance cliché. The interdependence of these qualities is well demonstrated in Titian's ‘Allegory of Prudence’.

  2. Pistol's dramatic ancestors include the miles gloriosus (‘boastful soldier’) of Roman comedy, a stock figure who appeared regularly on the Elizabethan stage. The number of quotations from Marlowe Shakespeare buries in his speech suggests he was less than impressed by the hyperbolic heroics Marlowe gives his royal figures, particularly Tamburlaine, to speak.

  3. For example, cf. King Lear. Sometimes, as in Henry V, Shakespeare uses what are marked in the text as separate scenes to build up this structure (cf. Julius Caesar, I.i, I.ii; and Hamlet, I.i, I.ii).

  4. We ought not to let our perfectly proper horror of war blind us to the fact that our ancestors saw it as potentially glorious, an activity that called for nobility and self-sacrifice, and an art utterly desirable for the true ruler to possess.

  5. This reference to Alexander's ‘unloosing’ the Gordian knot, of which it is prophesied that he who undid it would rule the world, is quite important, and anticipates Fluellen's linking—comic in expression, but to be taken quite seriously—of Henry to Alexander. The link cannot be openly made without overstatement, but it can be suggested with force; and Alexander was one of those Nine Worthies who set up a standard for all other military men. These were the three Jews (Joshua, Gideon and Judas Maccabaeus), three pagans (Hector, Alexander and Julius Caesar) and three Christians (Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey de Bouillon who captured Jerusalem from the Saracens in 1099).

  6. Which raises the issue of the Just War. The theology of this idea ultimately derives from Augustine. In the thirteenth century St Thomas Aquinas laid down three conditions in which arms may be taken up: it must be on the authority of the sovereign, the cause must be just, the belligerents must have a rightful intention—for example, to prevent a greater evil. (Some thinkers also added that it was a good idea to make sure you had a good chance of winning.) Henry's war is made out to be just on these terms; and likewise the French, resisting their lawful sovereign, are fighting an unjust one. The issue is a topical one, in which the Elizabethans were much interested.

  7. The imagery is of lions. We recall Henry's own call before Harfleur to ‘imitate the action of the tiger’—a royal and noble beast, but violent and destructive. Note the imagery below—the Scots are doggy, wolfish, weasels, mice; the English eagles, lions, cats.

  8. The imagery is extremely complex in lines 13-14. We think of death as a reaper of all flesh, which, as the Bible says, is grass; but superimposed on this is a strange and grotesque mixture of sexuality (death was often at this time pictured as a grotesque lover) and springlike growth unnaturally destroyed. Indeed, once again Virgilian agricultural images come into play, but Virgil never achieved this astonishing denseness of reference.

  9. A stained glass in St Peter Mancroft, Norwich, shows this scene from the cycle of plays. Dolls would be used, of course, which could be made to jerk realistically by shaking the sword.

  10. In we saw Henry putting it into practice when he condemned Bardolph for behaving as soldiers all too often do: ‘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 …’ Bardolph receives the same impartial justice as the traitors. War is no suspension of the moral imperatives.

  11. Henry in his victory gave the glory to God, and was glad his army was so small: the risk to his country was so much less (IV.iii.18ff.).

  12. Shakespeare has neatly avoided a tricky problem here. He has to have an opponent to Henry who will contrast with him in almost every way—in attitude to honour, humility, relations with his fellows, lack of policy, and so on. And we have to dislike him. But he could not portray King Charles like this, as he needed to keep him reasonably credible as a future party to the peace and father-in-law of Henry. So he carefully keeps Charles in the background and pushes the Dauphin forward.

  13. The speech looks forward to a future that is the Elizabethan past, where Agincourt is a legend of a monarch and people united in a common and glorious purpose.

  14. This issue is too complex to go into in detail, but the evidence for this assertion is manifold. It can be found in quotations from the Bible, especially the Psalms, in prints like that of the defeat of the Armada, in Christian names (particularly of Puritans), and in the literary use of biblical history as a cover for discussion of English affairs, for example in Dryden's Absalom and Achitophel or Milton's Samson Agonistes. One specific example of the Puritan vision of England's troubles must suffice: in 1646, John Hancock published a print entitled ‘Englands [sic] Miraculous Preservation Emblematically Described’, where the Civil War is seen in terms of the successful weathering of a storm by an Ark—an Ark, doubtless, of the Solemn League and Covenant!—in which, with unconscious comedy, are the House of Commons, the Lords, and the Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Various royal and royalist figures float in the waves.

  15. Lines 29ff. refer to what was hoped of Essex; the topicality might extend a good deal—and dangerously—further.

  16. Notice how his feelings almost get the better of him in IV.vii.90ff. Henry's replies to him are very gentle, and the little vignette heightens the emotions felt in the moment of success by, as it were, defusing them.

  17. The word has changed its meaning. A perspective could mean a distorted picture that, viewed from a different angle, suddenly became lifelike. There are many Renaissance examples—the famous portrait of Edward VI, for example, or the skull in Holbein's ‘The Ambassadors’, that was designed to be seen from the side and above. (The painting was meant to hang at the foot of a staircase.)

Pamela K. Jensen (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9087

SOURCE: Jensen, Pamela K. “The Famous Victories of William Shakespeare: The Life of Henry the Fifth.” In Poets, Princes, and Private Citizens: Literary Alternatives to Postmodern Politics, edited by Joseph M. Knippenberg and Peter Augustine Lawler, pp. 235-69. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Jensen presents an overview of Henry V from the point of view of politics, concentrating on Henry's rhetorical appeal to English audiences. The critic contends that with this play Shakespeare sought to render “a king worthy of our admiration both for his unflinching realism and for his righteousness.”]


To defend the claim that Shakespeare's plays are appropriately treated as political texts, it may be helpful to indicate what Shakespeare's poetry has in common with such students of politics as Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Rousseau. These thinkers equate the study of politics and what is at the heart of how people live; in their view politics establishes the fundamental opinions of a society and shapes human aspirations accordingly. Shakespeare agrees with this orientation and, thus, sees an intimate connection between his characters and the political contexts in which he places them. His characters live in various political settings, with events in their lives subject to influences that could only arise in those settings. Because the plays depict political principles in concrete or applied rather than theoretical form, we can observe and compare the effects of different political arrangements on human beings. By entering imaginatively into the characters' lives, we can learn more about how to evaluate various political alternatives, an enterprise in which we must engage in order to see our own situation clearly. Further, by considering the choices made by the characters, we can refine our own ability to make sound political judgments, which are always constrained by circumstances and always occur within a particular time and place. I will demonstrate in just one case, The Life of Henry the Fifth, how Shakespeare contributes to our political education, by discussing some of the things he leads us to think about when we read or see the play.1

I know of no other Shakespearean play whose commentators are as concerned about the author's political judgment as this one. Virtually all the principal dramatic questions raised by Henry V resolve themselves into political questions. Above all, they ask, what does Shakespeare think about the king he portrays? And, as a related question, what ought we to think about him? Claims about Shakespeare's assessment range from the view that he intended to glorify an icon of English history to the view that he meant ironically to subvert the king. Some say that Shakespeare's artistic freedom was restricted at the outset—by the theatrical medium, by the need to defer to his queen's Welsh forebears, or, generally, by the Elizabethan cultural context.2

The major episodes of Henry's life were well known in Shakespeare's time, its legendary outline already drawn. Shakespeare had as sources a number of Elizabethan accounts: the anonymous, crudely drawn comic play called The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (1598), Samuel Daniel's patriotic poem The First Fowre Bookes of the Civile Warres (1595), and the stately historical chronicles of Holinshed and Hall.3 In the play, the various episodes in Henry's life roll by us like a series of tableaux appropriate to epic, punctuated and strung together by a personified chorus, but they roll by in a uniquely altered form. It is true that Shakespeare's fidelity to Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles extends even to the repetition of Holinshed's errors. And there are numerous close parallels between the structure of Shakespeare's plays about Henry and Famous Victories, particularly in its juxtapositions of court and tavern and its seamless commingling of chronicled fact and comic fiction. But in both cases, what is derivative in Henry V only throws Shakespeare's originality into greater relief. His reinterpretation of the story produces a different kind of king from either the chronicles or popular legend. Shakespeare's refashioning of his source material evinces the desire both to represent for his audience the actual politics of medieval England and to supplant other accounts of the king.4 Rather than imitating, Shakespeare's representation rivals the accounts of those whose labor he employs. He blends deference to history with creative self-assertion. I will show that Shakespeare seeks neither to debunk Henry's high reputation nor to sentimentalize his portrait, but to make a king worthy of our admiration both for his unflinching realism and for his righteousness.

Shakespeare levels his judgment on Henry V in light of the two kings—Richard II and Henry IV—who preceded him, and whose lives he presented in the three earlier plays in the so-called second tetralogy (Richard II and the two parts of Henry IV). Henry V combines the strengths of both his predecessors without the weaknesses of either.5

As prince, Henry made himself invisible, obscuring attentiveness to his royal responsibilities “beneath a veil of wildness” (I.i.63-64).6 Nothwithstanding Henry's love of playacting, Henry V makes clear that hard political necessities prompted his counterfeit of his true nature. Especially vulnerable to those who would have sacrificed him—the heir and first-born son—in his father's quarrels, Henry hid himself “as gardeners do with ordure hide those roots / That first shall spring and be most delicate” (II.iv.39-40). Likening him to the founder of the Roman republic, who was called “Brutus” because he seemed stupid, the French constable insists that Henry wore “a coat of folly,” the better to conceal his prudence (1.38). To avoid becoming embroiled in his father's self-destructive quarrels, the prince sacrificed his father's friendship during his father's lifetime and took up with Falstaff, his surrogate father.7 Consorting with Falstaff's crowd at Eastcheap conferred positive political benefits on Henry as well, foremost among them the advantage to be gained from an adjustable political lens. Unlike kings who simply look down, Henry has also seen the high from below and the low at eye level.

As king, Henry proves to need the same talents he displayed as the “nimble-footed madcap prince of Wales”: his ability to hide in plain sight, both to capture the hearts of his friends and to baffle his enemies (I.ii.266-68; II.iv.26-29). Shakespeare takes some pains to remind us of Henry's versatility as a player; his prodigious skill in changing his nature. He can be fox as well as lion, has eyes in the back of his head, and can even parade in sheep's clothing. Since the first two acts of Henry V depict conspiracies directed by those nearest the king and various sorts of masked men throughout, we can say that the political virtue for a king who knows how to deceive by appearances is how not to be deceived ( The paramount question in Shakespeare's Henry V is whether or not Henry see his enemies clearly.



We bring to the play the principle that foreign war is the condition of civil peace. As the play opens, England's war with France, which makes up the whole action of the play, is virtually a foregone conclusion. Especially in light of the deathbed advice of Henry's father that he “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels,”8 King Henry's own hesitancy is especially striking. He must be assiduously exhorted on all hands, even cajoled into the war. The deliberations occupying most of Act I acquire their particular character from this fact. Henry is punctilious on all points of right and extraordinarily cautious on all points of policy. On behalf of the church, the archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop Ely volunteer to overcome the king's resistance; they vouch for both the justice and the feasibility of war. Only after Henry's scrupulous sense of rectitude has been satisfied and his mind eased on the potential Scottish menace does he commit himself. Thus, the overwhelming impression conveyed by the speeches in Act I is that it is not Henry at all, but the church most definitely that wants this war, and that the clergy has effectively manipulated the king to do its bidding. Appearances notwithstanding, Henry's hesitancy concerning the war with France is dissembled.

Shakespeare retains from Holinshed the clergy's determination to promote war with France in order to forestall consideration of a parliamentary bill to take away its so-called “temporal,” that is, nonchurch, lands. On this hint, Shakespeare draws the bishops as decidedly worldly men, ready to wield their mighty spiritual influence in order to safeguard their wealth.9 With heavy irony, the “spiritualty” is the explicit spokesman in the play for men's bodies and money (I.i.79-81; ii.130-35). In the absence of foreign war, in order to throw Parliament off the scent, these clerics would not scruple to foment civil war (I.i.3-5), in which case they could likely count on the aid of France or Scotland. If the clergy were to declare that Henry V was not the legitimate king of England, for instance, it might incite the nobles into open rebellion against him. Even in less extreme circumstances, there could be no bold or vigorous war effort without the church's support. To insure the friendship with the church that is so necessary to his designs, Shakespeare's Henry gives the bishops the illusion that they exert the influence over him—the power to “impawn” him—that they actually wield in Holinshed. The intense orthodoxy and chivalry of the king in the chronicles make him guileless and pliant in the clergy's hands, subject to their leadership and to their limitations. By contrast, Shakespeare's King Henry allows his ostensible reluctance to be overcome by Canterbury and Ely, but only on the grounds he establishes and in a setting he completely orchestrates.10

Canterbury has sounded Henry out on the parliamentary bill in private and, perceiving him to hesitate on the question, makes an unprecedentedly generous offer of support in the imminent war to the king in order to win him over. While appearing in the main favorably disposed, Henry does not actually confirm to the archbishop whether the offer was persuasive, prompting him to up the ante. Just at the point at which Canterbury was about to lay before Henry his “true title” to the French crown, presumably to tantalize him into battle, Henry breaks off the interview because the French ambassador demands a hearing. In the next scene, however, as Canterbury and Ely go themselves to the court to hear the French ambassador, we find that Henry is calling for Canterbury. The French ambassador has been left outside cooling his heels until the archbishop resolves for Henry “some things of weight,” pertaining to his claims on the crown of France. This is the very same conversation that Canterbury sought to have with him earlier. We must conclude, then, that Henry broke off the private conversation solely that it might be resumed in public, that is, before the assembled nobility. Henry's hesitation on the parliamentary bill in private insures that the archbishop will press Henry's claims with the utmost vigor in public. Above all, in a very adroit move, Henry transforms the archbishop's willingness to make a private bribe into the necessity that the church accept full responsibility for starting the war. By contrast to Holinshed's prelates, who were content to stay in the background, Shakespeare's bishops are thrust into the limelight: “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; emphasis added).11

Deft evasion of public responsibility is Henry's typical mode of rule throughout the play.12 This invisible command, an extension of his actions as prince, situates Henry between Richard II, whose notorious irresponsibility brought him down, and Henry's father, whose palpable and unrelenting efforts to protect the crown only heightened his vulnerability further; such that every step he took to strengthen himself had the opposite effect.

In view of the awful gravity of Henry's opening speech to the clergy, what is most striking about the ensuing discussion is that, by his design it brings to light only legal and political questions that are patently easy to answer, while shrouding in deep silence every real difficulty. There is a belabored consideration of the traditional objections to English forays into France that, as such, have well-known and well-worn responses. The assembly's focus on them draws all attention away from Henry's real problems. As in Holinshed, Canterbury proves the impeccable credentials of King Henry as claimant to the French throne by demonstrating the groundlessness of the Salic Law; an ancient French statute that disallows claims to the crown made through the female line, which is the source of the claim to France of Henry's great-grandfather, Edward III. Henry actually confines the discussion of his legal claims to the interpretation of the Salic Law, and it is very easy for Canterbury to prove its irrelevance because there have been so many French violations of it in their own dynastic history. However freely one grants the point though, Henry's legal difficulties remain. Edward III may have laid claim to France with impunity. The real legal-political question, which is pointedly circumvented, is whether Henry V is the rightful heir to Edward III in England. England's claim to the French throne is in fact better established than Henry's claim to the English throne. The first claim is, so to speak, an English tradition, while the rule of Henry's family is not, and was indeed hotly contested in the civil wars that flared up after his death. By enforcing concentration on irregularities in the French royal lineage, Henry deflects attention from irregularities in the English royal lineage.

As Canterbury justifies Edward III's claim to France in his long, tedious speech (I.ii.33-95;98-114), he is forced to acknowledge tacitly, without equivocation or question, that Henry is Edward III's rightful heir. It is this public attestation to his legitimacy that Henry seeks above all to extract from Canterbury. This is the prize he needed most to win. The clerics thus note Henry's rock-solid link to his most illustrious forebears, Edward III and his son Edward: “You are their heir, you sit upon their throne” (1.117; emphasis added). But the names of his immediate predecessors Richard II (Edward III's grandson) and Henry IV are nowhere publicly mentioned in the play; instead, they are expunged from the historical record, as if they and the fatal quarrel between them never even existed.

The public silence Henry purchases from the church serves the cause of domestic peace. He does not take the public suppression of the questions, however, as a cue to walk away from “the fault / My father made in compassing the crown,” as he will later reveal in private (IV.1.294-305).

Indeed, for the priests to call Henry “a true lover of the holy Church” says more than they realize. Henry's righteousness, not theirs, supplies the model for piety and rectitude in the realm. Not only does a sense of right enhance his soldier's' readiness to fight for the cause, Henry's strict preoccupation with justice also inspires their trust.13 As in the self-government or “grace” he shows the French ambassador (I.ii.241-45), at every opportunity Henry communicates his freedom from arbitrary or capricious actions. “We are no tyrant, but a Christian king” (1.241). The ideal of medieval chivalry, which Shakespeare first brings to light by showing Richard II's betrayal of it, conjoins valor and righteousness; this combination of qualities depends on self-government—keeping one's passions as subject “as our wretches fett'red in our prisons” (1.3). A man as watchful over himself as over others can be trusted to reward and punish evenly.14 By contrast to his predecessors, Henry wins support by his example, expecting nothing of others except what he embodies in himself.

To assess the justice of Henry's claim to France—whether he really goes forth with “rightful hand in a well-hallow'd cause” (1.293)—we may note, in addition to French provocation, long-standing English tradition.15 However remote, Henry's claim to France arises with Edward III. He makes use of that claim, but does not invent it.

In the deliberations, Henry also appears to be as unconcerned about domestic problems as he is about his title in England. The sole practical problem he worries over is Scotland. Far from seeking to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels, Henry seems hard-pressed to stop thinking about England's “giddy neighbor” Scotland (1.145). By fastening tenaciously on the matter of Scottish incursions into England, a problem that admits of easy resolution on traditional grounds, Henry is able once again to obfuscate the real issues and to avoid pointing to his real vulnerabilities. Henry's actual fears about the domestic danger he might incur by leaving home are allayed in the discussion led by Canterbury.16

Once having satisfied the demands for justice and prudence in this war, Henry reassures “the noble sinews of our power” that there is room now for all men of merit—those with sufficient courage—to thrive in the realm: the “empery” over which England will rule in Europe is “large and ample”; the dukedoms that are up for grabs are “(almost) kingly” (11.222-27). Even if there remain some disgruntled nobles in the audience, however, they now know the church will not help them. If Henry succeeds, he will be stronger than the clergy or nobility ever imagined; his aims as well as his achievements extend farther than his great predecessors'. If his plans miscarry, the clergy will bear the brunt of the inevitable criticism (1.97). The clergy has given him a great deal. He has given them nothing more tangible than the impression that he is on their side.

The efficacy of the war with France to curtail domestic rivalries and submerge them temporarily in a common cause is underscored in the conversation among Falstaff's followers in the following scene, a comic reenactment and recapitulation of the events of Act I. The “home-bred broils” over who has rightful possession of Hostess Nell Quickly arising in Falstaff's band of confederates, are prorogued without bloodshed by the promise of better trade in France. Bardolph intercedes between Nym, who was engaged to Nell, but never had her, and Pistol, who usurped Nym's title with her willing complicity. Nym's cowardice and susceptibility to Pistol's verbal virtuosity make is easy for Bardolph to convince them that the new quarrel will be better than the old. Like the church, Nym is ready to forgive and forget—forgive Pistol and forget Nell—in return for eight shillings, a small enough recompense as it stands. Under the spell of Pistol's cleverly evasive speech, however, Nym is placated by the ephemeral promise of even less currency, to be extracted in some vague future, and Pistol's current friendship (II.i.105-10).


The final domestic impediment to Henry's designs abroad, the English traitors who have ostensibly been suborned by French gold, is eliminated in the second scene of Act II. The traitors corroborate the effectiveness of Henry's strategy with the clergy. Since they cannot color rebellion against Henry as a righteous cause sanctioned by the church, they must confine their efforts to a covert assassination plot. Their sole chance is to reconcile the country to a fait accompli. The donnybrook at Eastcheap makes the appropriate segue to this scene; moving us smoothly from a low band of thieves of “crowns” to a highly placed one. Depending on how it is read, Henry's disposition of the three traitors either signifies an apparent success that obscures a real failure, or a real success that is deliberately hidden from view. The difficulty arises from the fact that at least one of the traitors, the earl of Cambridge, disguises his real motives; admitting as much in his cryptic allusion to having motives other than money (II.ii.155-57). Since Henry does not expose the ruse, nor even appear to notice it, the question arises, as in Act I, whether Henry sees his enemies clearly or is instead deceived by appearances.

On the surface, the episode is a resounding success. Henry publicly unmasks the traitors in such a way as to deter imitators. Further, by making an example of traitors, he turns back on them their own supposedly well-meaning advice that he should make an example of wrongdoers (11.79-83). They can thus seem to be responsible for their own demise, not the king; to be hoist on their own petard. Having discovered this plot by mysterious means unknown to anyone at court (11.6-7), Henry's efforts to rule remain inscrutable.

The event vividly displays Henry's boldness and his uncanny ability to ferret out secrets, as well as his impartial but implacable justice.17 And Henry's excoriation of his best friend and, hence, the worst traitor, Scroop, serves notice on the other nobles in the most memorable way that, henceforth, Henry will on principle distrust the outward appearance of chivalry or loyalty. Since the false knight has been exposed, the true knights will be assumed to be false (11.138-41). Once again, in addition to inspiring fear, Henry's vigilance regarding friend and enemy, and the exquisite precision with which he draws the line between justice and vengeance (1.174), inspires trust. Shakespeare confirms the reputation Henry has in the chronicles for giving people exactly what they deserve—the exact inverse of Richard II and Henry IV, whose maltreatment of both friends and enemies was their chief failing. Henry's friends and enemies know exactly where they stand: they can rise by merit, but not by flattery; and no one falls from grace owing either to the king's willfulness or his morbid anxiety.18

From every angle, then, Henry appears to have orchestrated the whole unpleasant event to his utmost advantage, turning, as only a “good wit” can, and in true Falstaffian fashion, something bad to something good; as Falstaff would say, turning “diseases to commodity” (2 Henry IV, I.ii.248): “We doubt not of a fair and lucky war, / Since God so graciously hath brought to light / This dangerous treason lurking in our way” (II.ii.184-6). In the traditional accounts of this episode, however, it is actually Henry's victory here that is merely apparent. Just as Henry seems in the chronicles to be at least the intended pawn of the church, so is he portrayed there as the dupe of his chief enemy's dissimulation.19

Cambridge, who is executed along with the other traitors, only counterfeits an interest in French crowns when his real object is the English crown. Because the king did not see Cambridge's motives, it is alleged that he missed an opportunity to secure himself and his own heirs from danger.20 It is likely that an Elizabethan audience familiar with Shakespeare's other plays about Henry V would have recognized the true crime lurking beneath the false one. Here, however, Shakespeare offers nothing about Cambridge's true motive beyond a tantalizing hint. As he had done earlier with respect to the English royal genealogy, however, by skirting the issue, he may point up its importance.

The poet Daniel says that the source of Henry's failure to see this plot clearly was his “unsuspicious magnanimite”; a quality that is part and parcel of the king's own chivalry, leading him to focus concertedly on the opportunity for glorious action abroad to the exclusion of the court intrigue.21 By contrast, Shakespeare's Henry may be perfectly equal to the task of dealing with the likes of Cambridge. If he is foiled in doing so, the fault may not be failure to foresee the danger of the earl's enmity (see 11.86-89), but failure—if it can be called such—to foresee his own untimely death.22

Henry seems to take almost no notice at all of Cambridge in this scene, being bewildered and shocked at the revelation of Scroop's personal treachery. Moreover, the interposition of the scene with Scroop between the two scenes in the play occupied with the death of Falstaff, for which his followers hold the king responsible, indicates that the two events are somehow interconnected. Falstaff's staunchest supporters might allege that Shakespeare explicitly juxtaposes the two parallel betrayals here (since Henry renounced Falstaff's friendship when he became king), and find a kind of justice in the fact that, having proven to be a false friend himself, Henry is shown to suffer the pain of having one (11.93-104).

The evidence of the play itself supports exactly the opposite view, suggesting that Henry is neither the dupe of appearance, nor the false friend to Falstaff, man to man. This scene, a kind of reenactment of incidents at Eastcheap, does after all show the extent of Henry's debt to Falstaff; on whom he practiced exposing liars and from whom he learned how to get out of tight spots. Henry's greatest pleasure as prince seems to have been to expose Falstaff as a boasting thief, and then watch with mock-indignation how Falstaff would try to wriggle out of paying for what he had done.23 Henry's association with Falstaff is thus a dress rehearsal for the most serious business he has as king. In the extensive speech about Scroop occupying most of the scene, moreover, we can detect an artful silence on a real enemy joined to an artful silence on a real friend.

The bulk of Henry's speech to the “ingrateful, savage, and inhuman” Scroop is an extended enumeration of his putative virtues. Now it is impossible to imagine that Henry could so elaborately rehearse Scroop's false virtues without thinking fondly on Falstaff's true faults. Henry's list is a perfect counter to—the inversion of—a well drawn portrait of Falstaff. Outwardly, Scroop looked eminently to be dutiful, grave, learned, well born, and religious; the very model of discipline and grace, that is, Falstaff's opposite: “Or, are they spare in diet, / Free from gross passion, or mirth or anger, / Constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood, / Garnish'd and deck'd in modest complement, / Not working with the eye, without the ear, / and but in purged judgment trusting neither?” (11.131-36; emphasis added).

In view of the presence of Falstaff's spirit in this act, Henry's deeply moving renunciation of apparent chivalry has a double meaning. The very falseness of Scroop's chivalry vindicates the falseness of Falstaff's—whose name is literally and symbolically false (the real king had no companion named Fals-taff).24 Falstaff perpetually tries to be something he is not. He is the false knight who, consequently, lacks the flaws of the lean and hungry Scroop and who is, therefore, despite his falseness, true. Although Falstaff is laid low by sins from which Scroop is exempt, he was not liable to the sins of the traitors. With one notable exception—when he pretends to be dead—Falstaff is a terrible liar.25 His colossal corporeality tells against him—he is a walking confession of the sins of the flesh—but also for him. He is an open book.

The speech against Scroop serves, and its placement suggests that it is meant to serve, as the king's secret eulogy of the dying Falstaff. There may be no express place for Falstaff in Henry's public world but Henry gives full play to Falstaffian sentiments as king. What Henry appears to forget, he does not forget. In addition to everything else, Falstaff's very material and very mortal presence is important to remember because it deters kings from being deceived by outward appearances—by the forms and ceremonies of their office—and teaches them to recognize their own human vulnerability. Both Richard II and Henry IV forgot the flesh and blood man beneath the dazzling crown—leading the first to commit crimes as king and the second to commit crimes to become king. But it is hard to be beguiled by form next to the living exemplar of substance, matter itself, this “mountain of flesh,” this “tun of man.”

Now, if Henry is silent about his friend, he may also be silent about his enemy. Henry's concentration on Scroop would be a perfectly effective feint to deflect attention away from Cambridge. And Henry may need to obscure the conspirators' motivations more than they do. To be forced to take note of a rival claimant to the throne is to lend, by the very fact of shedding publicity on it, credibility to that claim. If Henry cannot eliminate his enemies, he must at least prevent them from showing themselves as enemies in public. As with the clergy, Henry must discover new ways of coping with them that do not require him to expose their counterfeits. He confounds his enemies best then by appearing not to see them. As Henry had satisfied without appearing to see the mercenary motives of the church, so in the case of the traitors, he appears to see only mercenary motives.

So much for Henry's potential enemies. To break the cycle of hostilities coming from the traditional quarters—church and nobility—Henry must, in addition, also create new friends; a feat his father could not perform. As Henry diminishes the power of the church by supplanting it as the exemplar of righteousness, so he tempers the political priority of the nobility by raising the common man. He seeks in fact to establish the commonwealth of England on an altogether new foundation; one that will at least fully incorporate the commons into the realm. His aims are visible in Shakespeare's treatment of the war with France.



It is clear that Shakespeare emphasizes the inferiority of the French to the English in certain fundamental respects—for instance, orderliness and discipline, deference to authority, modesty, gravity, and cohesion. As perfect counterparts of the English, the French are the foil setting off the English more clearly by contrast. The weaknesses in the French army emanate directly from court, where the dauphin, the heir apparent, sets the tone. The contrast between him and Henry reprises the earlier contrast between Richard II, just before his political fall, and Henry Bolingbroke, at the moment of his greatest ascendancy.

The arrogance of the dominant elements in the French court is about to undo them. When the dauphin has his ambassador give Henry a box of tennis balls as a present, to say nothing of the contemptuous greeting he attaches to it (I.ii.249-57); when the French disdain to show up in force to defend the besieged city of Harfleur—being utterly scornful of their adversary (III.iii.43-46); when the nobles shoot dice before Agincourt to decide who will get the ransom on the prisoners they expect to capture—we can see they are readying for a fall.26 While acting through British agents, moreover, the French are behind the attempt to assassinate Henry V. This move is not only shocking and provocative, but also reckless with respect to their own king's security; it makes regicide a thinkable crime.

Along with their boastfulness, an uncritical attachment to feudal aristocratic tradition lures the French to defeat themselves. Indeed, the theme of self-defeat is another carry-over from the earlier plays in this series; a reminder first of Richard's and then of Henry IV's debilities.

While the French forces vastly outnumber the English—the odds are five to one—their numerical superiority is worth less than it seems.27 The haughty aversion of the French aristocrats to the common soldier rends their army in two, canceling out their overwhelming advantage in numbers. A mounted French knight could not brook being beholden to or seconded by a man of low degree (IV.ii.25-28).28 The French nobles, like Richard II before them, refuse to recognize the humanity they share with their commons. In their own minds, far more important than the numbers in their army are the names. The unity that the French fail to achieve for the sake of victory is the punishment inflicted on them in defeat. Ten thousand Frenchmen, lying in jumbled heaps, litter the field at the close of the battle of Agincourt. This final commingling of aristocrats and commoners may be more humiliating to the French than the grim body count itself (IV.vii.74-81).

The class consciousness of the French nobles, their desire to distinguish themselves from their own commons and from the English, is confined to externals or forms. They are imprisoned by what is weighty and palpable to the eye. Preoccupied with gilding the body, they altogether ignore the soul or the inner man. As a consequence, like Richard II's and Henry IV's seduction by outward regal trappings, they are deceived by appearances; this is the characteristic French vice in the play.

Overall, the French are victims at Agincourt of a self-imposed double deception. Judging by externals, they misperceive both English strengths and French weaknesses. They assume that the English are not men to be reckoned with essentially because they do not look the part. And they assume that their own mere presence in glistening battle regalia will suffice to defeat the English. “Do but behold yond poor and starved band, / And your fair show shall suck away their souls, / Leaving them but the [shells] and husks of men” (IV.ii.16-18). Against such hollow, counterfeit men only a counterfeit valor—valor's “vapor”—is needed (11.18-24). As it is, until it is too late, the French bring only apparent valor, a “fair show,” and nothing more, to bear.


When the two armies meet, the French are at the peak of their form while the English are at the lowest ebb of theirs. To this point the English have not seriously tested themselves against the French; they are engaged by the French when Henry's sick and famished army is retreating to Calais for the winter (

The play suggests that in the absence of Henry's leadership of the English at Agincourt, French self-confidence would have been very well founded. The resplendent and formidable outward appearance of the French, on which they themselves rely, is the one thing that can defeat the English. Despite their own weaknesses therefore, the French army possesses the power to unnerve and paralyze the English, in effect defeating them in advance, before a single arm is lifted. The English, too, are in danger of becoming their own worst enemy. To avoid what is essentially their own self-defeat, then, the English must be made proof against appearances. Henry can insure that they do not make the French mistake only by making them literally blind to what they see (IV.i.290-91). For Henry and his friends, this is the real battle at Agincourt.

To confound or over rule their senses, Henry must steel their hearts. Since the body is merely the outside or skin of a man, the mere shell or “husk,” we may say that nature cooperates with Henry's effort. Henry muses, “when the mind is quick'ned, out of doubt, / The organs, though defunct and dead before, / Break up their drowsy grave, and newly move / With casted slough and fresh legerity” (IV.i.18-23).29 The soul can rally, even resurrect, the body.

Historical accounts of the war with France often stress the unique resources of the English. By and large, however, they emphasize English weaponry and the mode of warfare, in particular, the prominence in the English army of the long bow and, hence, of the archers, who were commoners, over the mounted knights or nobles.30 In Henry V, Shakespeare is silent on all such matters.31 Indeed, the greatest peculiarity of this play organized around war is that there is no actual warfare in it.

Shakespeare may want to show that the cause of the English victory is not discernible in weapons or combat tactics at all, but is, on the contrary, entirely a matter of hearts and minds. As Henry himself insists: “All things are ready, if our minds be so” (IV.iii.71). On the English side, the cause of victory is manifest therefore in Henry's speeches to his men before battle. From these speeches we can conclude that Agincourt does indeed represent a departure from tradition; not because of the new preponderance of the common man's weapons, but because of the new preponderance of the common man's heart. This is not to say that King Henry is a democrat in disguise. From Henry's actions we can, however, infer his recognition of the common humanity underlying all social and political distinctions.

As Shakespeare presents it, the war provides the opportunity not only to cover up or postpone the old quarrels, but also to begin to eradicate their cause. The secure allegiance of the commons establishes a bulwark for the crown missing in previous reigns. Henry's actions imply, therefore, a more far-reaching and revolutionary design than anything conceived by his father. As he also sets about to reconstruct England's past, Henry sets about to construct the English nation, to make a whole out of the disparate parts.32 To achieve genuinely national goals, Henry must put amity where there might otherwise be distrust and mutual respect where there could be contempt.33

With his speeches, Henry aims to kindle a zeal for the common cause within which the differences between nobles and commons can merge and, for a time, dissolve themselves. He seeks both to ameliorate the traditional aristocratic impulses toward an aloof and segregated existence, and to encourage the common soldiers to catch some of the fire that more easily inflames the nobles; or, if not rendering them ardent, at least making them obedient. In the first place, to achieve these two purposes Henry does not so much denounce the thirst for distinction that underlies the hereditary aristocracy as to nurture that pride on a new basis. As much as the French nobility, but in a novel way, Henry ostentatiously flaunts good breeding. England herself and not a few old, established families is now hailed as the progenetrix of the best men. “And you, good yeomen, / Whose limbs were made in England, show us here / The mettle of your pasture; let us swear / That you are worth your breeding, which I doubt not; / For there is not one of you so mean and base / That hath not noble lustre in your eyes” (III.i.25-30). Further, the new upper class, the rarefied fraternity to which Henry invites his little “band of brothers,” is all-inclusive with respect to those who participate in the engagements in France and who partake of the common danger, but is reserved for them alone; an exclusive club in which membership is earned by valiant service. “For he today that shed his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition” (IV.iii. 38-39; 59-61).

At the deepest level, however, and contrary to what one might expect, the task Henry has to weld English hearts together in a single whole demands that he stay alive to the real heterogeneity and indeed the inequality of his men. If the concentration on the body democratizes men by reducing them to the lowest common denominator, which is the tendency—against their will—of the French, the focus on souls expresses a genuinely aristocratic impulse. To make Englishmen out of all his men does not require that Henry seek to obliterate the natural distinctions between them, but that he bring them by different routes, “contrariously,” to a common goal (I.ii.205-6).

Henry speaks to his soldiers as if he spoke to two natural classes of men.34 The natural nobles seek honor and can even be made to prefer it to life, and the natural commoners would trade all of the martial fame in the world, since it belongs to dead men, for the page boy's pipe dream: “a pot of ale and safety” (II.i.12-13). To speak well to each of these types of men, Henry must meet their real concerns, while being free of their self-deceptions or delusions. Henry cannot shore up the nobles' flagging spirits by appearing to be anything less than the foremost exemplar of chivalric virtue; as if he embraces entirely Harry Percy's intrepid, even reckless zeal for outward glory (Harry Percy is called “Hot-spur”) and does not share at all in Falstaff's immunity to it.35 “But if it be a sin to covet honor, / I am the most offending soul alive” (IV.iii.28-29). He cannot shore up the commoners' hearts by being king at all, and so he disguises himself as a common man. As in his jests with Falstaff that had no apparent purpose beyond themselves, to achieve his deadly serious purposes as king, Henry bestows himself so that he may serve as the touchstone to the souls of the other men while hiding his own. As Chorus tells us, the famous “little touch of Harry in the night,” enables “mean and gentle all” to derive support from the king's example “as may unworthiness define,” that is, each according to his own limits (1V.i.45-47). There is, moreover, a central trick or paradox in each of the two main speeches Henry delivers on the eve of the battle at Agincourt that reveals how well he knows his men.

To treat the second of Henry's audiences first: Henry's prebattle speech to the nobles is apparently very traditional. To overcome their fear of death, Henry appeals to their thirst for honor. The stark imbalance in the sizes of the two armies is thus no disadvantage: “The fewer men, the greater share of honor” (IV.iii.22).36 What the soldier sees so clearly with his mind's eye—the honor that will be his—can make him ignore the things he apprehends with his senses. Death itself can be made to disappear from view.

Thus, Henry anticipates for the nobles the accolades that will be heaped upon them after the battle. In the most vivid, intoxicating way, Henry commemorates the victory attained at Agincourt before it is won.37 There is no reverential invocation of the ancestors in Henry's speech as there had been earlier in England and at Harfleur. The knights who face the French at Agincourt are no mere latecomers or epigoni. On the contrary, the achievements of those who have come to France before slip into oblivion. “This day is call'd the feast of Crispian … / And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by, / From this day to the ending of the world / But we in it shall be remembered” (11.40,57-59; emphasis added).

The celebration Henry lovingly depicts for his men weaves perfectly together an acknowledgment and a forgetting of their mortality. Given the inevitability of death at some time, the deliberate choice of a noble death is more compelling: “He that outlives this day, and comes safely home, / Will stand a' tiptoe when this day is named,” and, “he that shall see this day, and live old age, / Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors” (11.41-45; emphasis added). Nevertheless, the overriding impression conveyed by Henry's speech is one of high-spirited vitality, camaraderie, and warm good cheer. The portrait of the celebrants of Agincourt is so lifelike, its hearers can place themselves in the imagined scene, subtly obscuring the fact that in Henry's foreshadowing, they are not actually there. Henry has made clear that all names of note must be earned by valiant service. Barely perceptible in his picture, however, is the fact that all that remains of the men to whom he is speaking is their names. The seductive, imaginary commemoration takes the place of the real ones, which they are not to enjoy. Inconspicuously but definitely embedded in the promise of undying honor, so to speak, as its escort, is the promise of death. Henry's immortal speech to his nobles is their funeral oration.38


  1. All citations are to The Riverside Shakespeare (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). I wish to thank Lauren Weiner, Diana Schaub, and Fred Baumann for their assistance, and Mary Nichols, Ernest Fortin, and Lee and Joseph Knippenberg for enabling me to present earlier versions of this essay. I also thank the Earhart Foundation for fellowship aid.

  2. See Herschel Baker's “Introduction” in the Riverside Shakespeare for a summary of critical positions, 930-34. See also Ken Adelman, “The Blast of War,” in Policy Review no. 52 (spring 1990), 80-83; Lily Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1947); Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Seinfeld, “History and ideology: the instance of Henry V,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), 206-27; Stephen Greenblatt, “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985), 19-47; Harry M. Geduld, Filmguide to Henry V (Bloomington and London: Indiana University Press, 1973), 55-69; Lawrence Olivier, “The Making of Henry V,Classic Film Scripts (London: Lorrimer Publishing, 1984), 1; Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972); Norman Rabkin, “Rabbits, Ducks and Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly vol. 28 no. 3 (summer 1977); 279-96; E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's History Plays (New York: Macmillan Press, 1946); Derek Traversi, Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press, 1957); and Gunter Walch, “‘Henry V’ as Working-House of Ideology,” in Shakespeare Survey 40, (1987): 63-68. On the general approach I am employing, see Allan Bloom with Harry Jaffa, Shakespeare's Politics (New York: Basic Books, 1964); and Catherine Zuckert, Natural Right and the American Imagination: Political Philosophy in Novel Form (Savage, Md: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990).

  3. All references to Shakespeare's sources are to Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare's Plays, vol. 4 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), 299-434. See also Graham Holderness, “Henry V,” in Shakespeare: The Play of History, ed. Graham Holderness, Nick Potter, and John Turner, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987), 62-82.

  4. See Paul Cantor, Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1976), 7-18; Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1996), section 224 (pp. 151-3).

  5. See Richard II, I.i.104; III.iii.108;; and Pamela K. Jensen, “Beggars and Kings: Cowardice and Courage in Shakespeare's Richard II,Interpretation, vol. 18, no. 1, (fall 1990): 111-44.

  6. See Holinshed, in Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 280-88; Famous Victories, in Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources 1.480, 313; 11.550-51,570-72, 315; Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources, 354 ff; 1 Henry IV (I.ii.195-217); and 2 Henry IV (V.ii.122-29). Narrative and Dramatic Sources is hereafter referred to as N- and D-S-.

  7. See Bullough, N- and D-S-, 216-17; Famous Victories, 1.480, 313; 11. 550-51,750-52, 315; 1 Henry IV, V.iv.49-52.

  8. 2 Henry IV, IV.v. 202-20; 1 Henry IV, I.i.18-28.

  9. Holinshed speaks of the “sharpe invention” of the church to support the war in order to set aside the commons' bill. Shakespeare preserves from Holinshed the fact that this wealth was “devoutlie given,” but refrains from repeating Holinshed's phrase that it was also “disordinately spent” (Bullough, N- and D-S-, 377-78; see also 356).

  10. By contrast to Holinshed's Chronicles and Famous Victories, in the play it is Henry rather than the clergy who introduces the possible objections of the Salic Law and Henry rather than either the clergy or the nobles who introduces and presses home the objections that could be made about Scotland. Both of Shakespeare's sources present an actual debate on, especially, the latter question. Canterbury in Famous Victories and Westmoreland in the Chronicles raise questions about Scotland, which are duly answered in the former case by Oxford (1. 770-75, 779;. 331-32), and in the latter by Exeter, whose “earnest and pithie persuasions” entirely carry the day, “according as the archbishop had mooved” (379-80). See also Holinshed, in Bullough, N-and D-S-, 377-81, 407; Winston Churchill, A History of the English Speaking Peoples (New York and London: Cassell and Company Ltd., 1956), Volume I, 292-94; 1 Henry VI, I.i.35-36; see also III.i.

  11. See Holinshed, in Bullough, N- and D-S-, 407.

  12. I.ii.21-22; 281-88; II.ii. 79-82; 184-87; III.iii.39-40; IV.i.155-56; V.ii.68-71.

  13. 2 Henry IV, II.ii, 79-82.

  14. Richard II, II.1.15-16, 28-29,70; Jensen, 113, 120.

  15. The attack that the English make on what they call “the borrowed glories” of France (II.iv.78-79) is matched in Shakespeare's play King John, where the French ambassador tells the English king to lay down the “borrowed majesty” he holds in the English crown (I.i.4). The battles at Crécy (1346) and Poitiers (1356) (II.iv.50-55) took place during the lifetime of the sitting French king, making the war seem like a renewal of a quarrel, which Henry's predecessors had to forgo (Famous Victories, 1.768). Richard II had, however, married a French queen, inaugurating a kind of truce that lasted into Henry's reign.

  16. Given the clergy's unanimity on the war question, the editorial attributions of the speech at I.ii.166 to Ely and that at 1.174 to Exeter, might be misattributions, and perhaps transposed.

  17. Holinshed, in Bullough, N- and D-S-, 407.

  18. Calling Henry “a severe justicer” who was both loved and obeyed, Holinshed says he left “no offense unpunished, nor freendship unrewarded” (Bullough, N- and D-S-, 406).

  19. Holinshed reports that Cambridge “rather confessed … monie” as his motive than reveal his true purposes because he desired “rather to save his succession than himself,” a situation that, had Henry “either doubted or foreseene,” would not have come to pass (Bullough, N- and D-S-, 385-6). Famous Victories does not treat the conspiracy.

  20. Nominally, Cambridge acts on behalf of Mortimer, earl of March, Richard II's designated heir, who is not mentioned in the play. Because Mortimer had no son, however, Cambridge harbored the not unfounded hope that the crown would devolve on his own heirs. After Henry's death, Cambridge's son, Richard Plantagenet, does initiate the claims against Henry VI that start the dynastic wars. See 1 Henry VI,; II.v. 23-33, 55, 63-97.

  21. Daniel's Henry “for being good, hates to be ill.” See stanzas 34-35, in Bullough, N- and D-S-, 428-29.

  22. See Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. with intro. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985), chap. 14, 60. See also Chaps. 3, 12; 14, 60; 18, 25, esp. at 100.

  23. 1 Henry IV, I.ii.186-90; II.iv; III.iii.163; 2 Henry IV, II.ii.169-70.

  24. In 1 Henry VI, I.i.131, Shakespeare uses the name “Sir John Falstaff” for the cowardly knight Sir John Fastolfe; he originally gave the name Oldcastle to the prince's companion. (2 Henry IV, Epilogue, 1.32; and Riverside, 843).

  25. 2 Henry IV, IV.iii.18-23.

  26. Holinshed reports that before the battle at Agincourt, the French built a chariot at the site, to be used to parade Henry through French streets, “little weening (God wot) how soone their brags should be blowne awaie” (Bullough, N- and D-S-, 394).

  27. Holinshed reports odds of six to one, in Bullough, N-and D-S-, 392.

  28. It may have been to justify their fighting alongside lesser men rather than to call forth more gallant service from them, that the French court created five hundred new knights just before the battle at Agincourt (IV.vii.85-86).

  29. See 2 Henry IV, I.ii.193-201.

  30. Dupuy and Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History (New York: Harper and Row, 1870), 330-35, 414-15; Winston Churchill, 294-296; Michael Howard, War in European History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), 1-19; Theodore Ropp, War in the Modern World (London: Collier Macmillan, 1959), 19-25.

  31. To enhance the effectiveness of the archers, Henry employed a device that is nearly as famous as the battle itself, one made into a picturesque part of the battle scenes in both the Olivier and Branagh film versions of the play. To protect the archers compromising the vanguard, Henry planted tall sharpened stakes in the ground in front of them; in order to gore the horses of any assaulting Frenchmen who survived the initial shower of arrows. The importance of this arrangement is attested to by Holinshed. Famous Victories essentially incorporates his description as part of the order of battle (11.1160-80), in Bullough, N- and D-S-, 39 and 332-33. In 1 Henry VI, the inability to employ this particular device is adduced as a factor in England's defeat when the war with France is renewed (I.i.115-19). It is all the more curious then to note that no reference to it, or to the order of battle or tactics at Agincourt, or even archers, occurs in Henry V.

  32. Moving the aristocracy away from French, the historical Henry was the first king of England to write his field dispatches in English. See Churchill, 299.

  33. The night before Agincourt, the French nobles dissipate their own considerable eloquence and facility with language, which might have been used to muster courage in the army, in sophisticated and lascivious wordplay having to do with horses and mistresses and taking the one for the other. The ridiculous lengths to which the dauphin goes to celebrate his horse (“his neigh is like the bidding of a monarch”) is also telling because, judging from the way he—the heir apparent—is treated by his closest associates, “the prince of palfreys,” receives more deference than the prince himself (III.vii.10-40). The dauphin inspires a senseless, frivolous competition in the nobility, which prevents the men from helping one another or from wanting to help him (III.vii.72-123). As the model for the realm as a whole, the order that is missing in his own life infects the army. At the most crucial moment, the horrified nobles recoil at the disorder that has defeated them by a veritable panegyric on disorder. In deference to chivalry, the best they can do is to attempt to escape disgrace by embracing death (IV.iv.6-22).

  34. Harvey Mansfield, “Machiavelli's Political Science,” American Political Science Review 75, no. 2 (June 1981): 293-306.

  35. The contrast between Falstaff and Percy is made in 1 Henry IV, V.iv.

  36. Holinshed merely reports at this point “a right grave oration,” culminating in “manie words of courage.” The point of the speech as he describes it, moreover, is: the fewer men, the less damage to England. An additional advantage to having so few men is that the soldiers will not ascribe the victory to themselves, but to God. His Henry also makes a disdainful reference to the French (Bullough, N- and D-S-, 393-4; Churchill, 295).

  37. Strictly speaking, as is true of the Battle of Gettysburg, for example, the commemoration of valor at Agincourt is independent of the attainment of victory.

  38. The peculiarity of Henry's speech as a pre- rather than a postbattle oration, as well as something of the universality of the sentiments it expresses about tales soldiers tell “in their flowing cups” is captured in General Norman Schwarzkopf's address to the departing troops after the success of Desert Storm in Bahrain on 8 March, 1991. “I can hear the war stories now. Over Lone Star beer, over Colorado Kool-aid, over some great German beer, a firewater or two, and what you drink the most, that Diet Pepsi and Coca-Cola. I know what glorious war stories they are going to be”: (Richard Pyle, Schwarzkopf: The Man, the Mission, the Triumph (New York: Signet, 1991), 255-56.

Richard Corum (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 14417

SOURCE: Corum, Richard. “Henry's Desires.” In Premodern Sexualities, edited by Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero, pp. 71-97. New York: Routledge, 1996.

[In the following essay, Corum offers a “homosocial” reading of Henry's character in Henry V, analyzing phallic desire as a motivating force in the play.]

… not the physical past whose existence is abolished, nor the epic past as it has become perfected in the work of memory, nor the historic past in which man finds the guarantor of his future, but the past which reveals itself reversed in repetition.

—Jacques Lacan

Let me begin with a brief account of the materials on one's desk when one sits down to work on Shakespeare's The Life of King Henry the Fifth. First, the figure Henry. Too visible after the fact, and altogether unrecoverable as a fact, Henry, “like himself,” is by 1415 already a legendary figure inherently vulnerable and inescapably defensive, a vanishing point in the real not to be separated from the imaginary/symbolic orders which constructed him nor to be untangled from those imaginary and symbolic orders which unfold from him.1 Then, the various pre-Shakespearean, post-Henrician textualizations of this figure: chronicle histories, earlier plays, poems.2 Despite destabilizing genealogical differences, these texts construct Henry as a miraculously reformed Prince “applyed … unto all vyce and insolency [who became] a majestie … that both lived & died a paterne in prince-hood, a lode-starre in honour, and mirrour of magnificence.” As an object of government control, censorship, containment, Henry's life is a site for the production of an official history that registers and adjudicates competing points of view in order to speak with “full mouth” of the figure it holds up as a “paterne” for, and of, those who wield power.3 In the face of this official historiographical project, another group of representations/valuations comes quickly to mind: those dissenting knowledges and voices that this official, totalizing, and territorializing narrative of perfection was constructed to make illegitimate and inaudible; subversive points of view and antithetical judgments of Henry, that is, which, despite state power “descending to the most recalcitrant fibers of society,” have nevertheless been to a degree recovered—“nomadic” valuations (to use Deleuze and Guattari's term) which neither idealize Henry, nor praise him (Foucault 1982, 795; Deleuze and Guattari 1987).4

When we place Shakespeare's play(s)—three quartos and a folio; Globe and Jacobean Court performances—in the context of this official history/unofficial histories binary, we realize that for a common actor-playwright to write and produce, not just a life, but The Life of King Henry the Fifth in early modern England was a risky undertaking to the extent that his Life did not reproduce the official version. So it is (and long has been) of considerable interest, reading the folio and the sources, to see that although the play gives us the official life, it also supplements this life with extensive additions, changes and omissions. What can be said with complete confidence about this Folio text is that there is nothing in it (given the dangers, there could be nothing in it) that can conclusively prove that Shakespeare was not wholly committed to the official version of Henry's life, and much to suggest that he was. On the other hand, there is also nothing in this text which conclusively proves that Shakespeare was committed to this official version, and much to suggest that he was not. If in dramatizing the official version Shakespeare added a parallel, unofficial and destabilizing version/valuation of Henry's life and actions, this version, by the logic of censorship, would have had to be officially invisible, however unofficially accessible.5

When we turn to the extensive critical/performative materials surrounding Shakespeare's play, it is not surprising to discover that, apart from those who found the play a disappointment, critics and producers have been sharply divided into three principal groups: first, those who read the sources, the stage tradition and the play, and see no significant difference between the official Henry and Shakespeare's Henry except that the latter serves the state as a more powerful ideological vehicle than the chronicles or the earlier dramatizations; second, those who read the sources and the play and perceive a profound difference between the official representation of Henry as ideal and the play's ironic rerepresentation of Henry as a manipulative, conscienceless autocrat who masked his will to power and consequent predations under a carefully constructed “godlie” image. For this group, Shakespeare's semiotic excess, voicing subversive knowledge and transgressive values, radically negates the official version of Henry's sovereign ideality which of necessity it must also articulate. Thus Shakespeare stands, not as a self-effacing handmaid of the state, but as a powerfully articulate subversive who brought text/performance critically to bear against a dominant formation of power, its construction of identity and subjectivity, its apparatuses of representation and dissemination, its appropriations of theatre and so on. In brief, a second Henry, a second Shakespeare and a second logic: not the official logic of sovereign ideality supplemented by Shakespeare's dramatic genius, but an unofficial, deconstructive logic of Shakespearean supplementarity identifying a fissure between dominant myth and historical fact.6 Finally, there are those who argue, in an attempt to mediate this longstanding controversy, that Shakespeare's text gives us both an eagle Henry and a hyena Henry because, as Kantorowicz argued, kings have two bodies (1957). The text, Norman Rabkin asserted, is indeterminate, and although there are those who will insist on determining it one way or another, the wiser critic will step back and see that the play gives both views of Henry in tension, and that Shakespeare's text, far from taking one or the other side of this difference, is caught up, as Shakespeare and his culture were caught up, in what Anthony Brennan and Graham Bradshaw term the “complex multiplicity” of sovereignty itself.7

What general observation can we make about this controversy, and what role can we say postmodern theory, particularly queer theory, plays when it enters the space of this debate? The Henry V controversy has not been primarily about Shakespeare's Henry. Instead Henry has long functioned as a particularly charged archaeological site where English-speaking cultures have recorded, layer upon layer, their deeply contestatory attitudes towards one or another manifestation of masculine aggressive sovereignty. As Rabkin (1981) implicitly understood, the controversy has always had a powerful displacement effect. When Henry ceased being useful as an object for Tudor and pre-Tudor discussions of monarchical sovereignty itself, he became a site for discussions of the value of human (as opposed to divine) monarchical sovereignty in a Protestant state; then, with the decline of monarchy, the value of bourgeois England's nationalistic opportunisms in, and imperial aggressions against a radically expanding Third World; and, more recently, after the partial decline of two English-speaking empires, the value of masculine authority in a variety of domestic spheres, particularly, on this side of the Atlantic, patriarchal institutions (Congress, the Supreme Court, the military, the family, marriage) and professions, including, of course, the profession of English itself.8 From 1415 to the present, the debate about Henry has been a debate about the value of various forms of masculine sovereignty and has been fueled in part by the need to enlist the foremost literary genius of the culture on one or the other side of one of the most important issues of the last several hundred years: absolute patriarchal sovereignty and its monopolizations of identity, rule, aggressivity, logic, and representationality.

When postmodern theorists entered this deeply layered and massively contested field, they did so, in the main, to further destabilize dominant masculine sovereignties as well as the subjectivities and memory constructs (the “histories”) such dominance has produced. Postmodern theorists engaged in this analytical/deconstructive enterprise work to prevent the return of such sovereignties and their sociopolitical consequences, and to understand and represent (as well as legislate against) the culture's long attraction to, its dependencies on, its identifications with, and its endless imitations of patrilogosovereignties. One could say, in brief, that postmodern theories are the most recent powerfully articulate return of those intellectual/cultural activities that absolute patriarchal sovereignties have long repressed. Thus, whereas among other things, new historicists and cultural materialists decenter “Shakespeare” as an effect of cultural appropriation in order to reposition a rehistoricized Shakespeare on the subversive/transgressive margins of Elizabethan/Jacobean culture, and whereas deconstructionists and feminists decenter Henry as an effect of essentialist and misogynistic cultural formations, queer and psychoanalytic theorists decenter Henry as an effect of desire and the unconscious, political or otherwise.9

As a general theorization of sexuality and the cultural production and use of sexualities, queer theory makes visible the private parts, so to speak, of the language that constitutes a textual/theatrical phenomenon like Henry V. Queer theory interrogates Henry's, Shakespeare's, critics', directors', editors', and audiences' sexualities—their libidinal, erotic investments, their desires and pleasures—as a function of their knowledge/power/unconscious and its production of actions, texts, performances, critical representations, cultural constructions, and pedagogical interventions. For example, Jonathan Goldberg's “Desiring Hal” section of Sodometries addresses (among numerous other issues) a question raised a century and a half ago by Hazlitt: “How then do we like [Ha]?”10 Working from the rich resources of postmodern queer theory (particularly the work of Foucault, Bray, and Sedgwick) as well as alongside Lacan's mirror stage and aggressivity papers, Goldberg's answer is that those critics and audiences who like Hal do so (to put a complex argument very briefly) because they desire Hal, identify with him, and construct themselves after his “paterne” in order to manifest his ideal Christian, heterosexual image while acting out the homophobic, misogynistic repressions this image necessitates and disguises. That is, dazzled by an “imaginary … identification” with Henry “that founds the ego in its desire for sovereignty,” those who endorse Hal “as the very locus of [their] identity” do so to be Hal, and to blind themselves, as Hal does, to the homonarcissistic foundations of this identification (Goldberg 1992, 147).

In this paper, queer theory is again brought to bear on Henry V, but the question I address concerns Henry's desires as these desires are articulated by the language of the play. My argument assumes that Shakespeare's theatrical resources are not limited to an official historicization of Henry's life and actions as a public figure; rather, Henry V is seen as a particularly brilliant historicization of a subjectivity whose “deep truth” (to use Foucault's phrase) is its sexuality.11

To plot the actions by which Henry traverses homosocial space is not to repeat the history Henry V is ostensibly telling us; rather, it is to articulate an alternative history that Shakespeare's text is showing us. This unofficial history (to borrow a sentence from Harry Berger, Jr.'s discussion of Lear) is not the history Henry prefers to hear about himself, but an account of his life, as I read it, “which strikes closer to home and which [Henry] would find harder to bear,” though how hard will not become fully clear until the third section of this paper (Erickson and Kahn 1985, 210-29).12

Having lingered outside homosocial space (as we know from 2 Henry IV, if not from the chronicles) as an associate of prostitutes, thieves and a dissolute, ex-homosocial man, Falstaff, in whose company he has been addicted “to courses vain,” Henry has lost phallic stature except in name.13 In this exterior space he has become, in effect, penile, and, content to be little more than penile, he has enjoyed the sodomitical pleasures afforded by the penis.14 Thus his position at the death of his father (that is, at the end of 2 Henry IV) is a precarious one. Neither his homosocial God—the Phallus—nor his homosocial lords can be pleased with his performance, though his defeat of Hotspur at Shrewsbury (in 2 Henry IV) proved an exception to his dissoluteness. Thus, at the beginning of Henry V, most of Henry's lords do not respect or fear him. Probably none of them love him, and several love his cousin, Mortimer, a man who has a better claim to the throne than Henry. No doubt others also desire to take his place. In this position Henry has options. He can stay “outside” and die, since if he does not come in, one of his cousins—Mortimer, Cambridge or York—will take his place and he will be too dangerous to be allowed to live. Or he can “come in.” But because there are doubts (“Can I/he possibly be/come phallic?”), and because there are desires (“I/he can be/come phallic”), Henry must quickly and thoroughly phallicize himself if he is to survive and rule.

How does Henry do this? First, at the end of 2 Henry IV, he reestablishes homosocial space by re-drawing its boundary with “himself” inside. In Holinshed's account, he banishes his “misrulie mates of dissolute order and life … from his presence … inhibiting them upon a great paine, not once to approoch, lodge, or sojourne within ten miles of his court or presence” (280). For Henry to have brought any of these sodomitical outsiders inside would have violated a fundamental rule of homosocial space and would have destroyed him as surely as such behavior destroyed Edward II and Richard II.

Once back inside (and prior to the beginning of Henry V), Henry labors to purge himself of his penile habits, desires, pastimes, vices. To quote Canterbury's account of this “mortification,” this “scouring [of] faults,” we are to understand that:

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

(1: 2, 28-31)

Rather than an “offending” sodomitical vessel containing mortal spirits (sperm/alcohol/money), Henry's body, given a clean new mythic interiority, is reimagined as an Edenic “paradise,” a granary, to be filled only with celestial, phallic seed.

Thus, having emptied himself of “th'offending Adam,” Henry must now fill his paradisical body with celestial spirits, and he must prove to his homosocial God that it is so filled, so that this God will embrace, love, empower, and protect him. Of the available technologies for interiorizing the phallus—cannibalism, necrophagy, positive and negative predation, inheritance, self-sacramentalization, education—it seems, from Ely's account (1:1, 38ff.), that Henry's first attempt is to fill himself with knowledge.15 This gives him some phallic status (“when he speaks, / The air, a chartered libertine, is still, / And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears / To steal his sweet and honeyed sentences”), but not enough to suffice. In 2 Henry IV Henry had also turned to positive predation, trading some of his dark, wet, penile stains for Hotspur's hot and dry phallic fame and glory; but clearly, only limited resources of this sort are available to him in England. Nor is reliance on his inheritance a sure solution, since his father was a usurper and a murderer, and one of his cousins has a better claim to his throne than he does. Given these obstacles, Henry must go to war. Aggressivity, in the ancient form of trial by combat/trial by ordeal, is the only viable way Henry can weed out his rivals, regain his legacy in France, and achieve phallic dominance.

Henry's next problem is how he is going to persuade his lords to follow him into battle. It does not seem likely that homosocial men will be eager to wage war under the direction of a young man who has been lingering outside, who lacks the phallus, and whom, as a consequence, they cannot fear, respect or love. Clearly, Henry will have to manipulate them into making him wage war. But how will he do this? From what the first two scenes of the play give us, we can infer (if we have not been blinded by official representations of Henry as ideal, “godlie” sovereign) that before the action of the play begins, Henry has sent ambassadors to France insultingly and arrogantly demanding his properties there, and that he has also reintroduced a bill from his father's reign, which, if passed, would empty half of the church's coffers and massively reduce its power and influence. With this threat in his hands, we can also infer that Henry then lets it be known to Canterbury that if he does not produce a compelling argument to accomplish Henry's desire, Henry will prosecute this bill. Henry waits to convene council until the French reply to his demand is in his anteroom. Then, in council (as the second scene of Henry V documents), Henry, presenting himself as a pious young king facing a difficult crisis, first humbly and dutifully seeks the advice of his spiritual lord by asking Canterbury, on the life of Canterbury's soul, what he should do about the French matter, as if this matter had just come to his attention, and then summons the French ambassadors so his temporal lords may hear their reply, knowing that the insults and arrogance he sent to France will have provoked sufficient insults and arrogance in turn to provoke his temporal lords. In response to the urgings of these lords, Henry declares his intention of going to war if his property in France is not returned immediately, a demand he knows will be refused. Thus, although Henry seems to follow textbook protocol (faced with a difficult problem, a young king requests, listens to, and accepts sage advice), Henry is in fact manipulating his lords into creating the political fiction and the war it entails that he needs if he is to phallicize himself.

Having declared war, Henry must figure out how to win it, and the solution he adopts is (to use Lacan's phrase) to make his desire the desire of the phallic Other, by constructing the war he is about to wage not as his war, but as his God's war. And since this intolerant phallic God wants a pure and unified homosocial England, one with an unstained, phallic identity (just as he wants Henry to have a pure, unstained, phallic identity), Henry will use war as a way of doing to England and France what he is doing to himself. As God's angel, Henry will whip “th'offending Adam” out of the body of England (a body symbolized by his army), making England a “paradise / T'envelop and contain celestial spirits.” He will also use war to whip “th'offending Adam” out of England's other “garden,” France, making it, too, a paradise to envelop and contain his celestial spirit.

Who are these offending Adams whom Henry must whip out if he is to rewrite England as a perfect homosocial paradise? Needless to say, they are the French, who wrongfully penetrated and sodomitically fill what was once England's “paradise” with thousands of offending, penile Adams, and, among these thousands, most particularly a Dauphin who loves, who writes sodomitical verses to, a horse that is his “mistress” (3:7, 42). Needless to say, too, they are also the Eastcheap occupants: Falstaff, Bardolph, Pistol, Nym and Mistress Quickly, those very uncelestial spirits fouling the interiority of England. And, among others, they are Cambridge, Scroop, and Gray, traitors to Henry and to homosociality itself.

If in personal terms, then, war allows Henry to invert his status as sodomitical object of homosocial law into scouring agent of such law, and if in narrative terms the plot of the play is Henry be(com)ing the chosen, only begotten, phallic son whose homosocial identity is no longer obnubliated by any sodomitical stain whatsoever, the other plot of this play is the construction of England as a pure homosocial space. The objective of Henry's weeding, pruning, limbing, lancing, and burning is not to steal or destroy France, but to create for England a national homosocial identity, and thus the kind of unity, purity, maturity, and completeness which will enable Henry and England not only to be “the mirror of all Christian kings” and all Christian states, but also to be the mirror in which Henry's God will see nothing but his own “ideal image.” The objective here is not just that Henry, having rid his God's England of penile, sodomitical difference, will surely be chosen and blessed by this God; it is also that Henry's kingship will be a sacrificial ritual of purification: those homosocial men who survive Agincourt will have proved themselves to be the celestial spirits who alone will be enveloped and contained by the English paradise Henry's God is creating through the instrumentality of Henry's acts. And this is the tableau we witness at the play's end: a happy band of celestial brothers occupying a homosocial Christian paradise, with Henry the most celestial, the most phallic, the most homosocial, standing on top of an enormous pile of dead sodomites who had to be pruned from the sacred tree in order for Henry and England to blossom. In short, Henry “like himself” is one of the chief architects, if not the chief architect, of that reactionary rise of intolerance which radically reshaped English homosociality in early modern England.16

We are now in a position to analyze specific aspects of Henry's reactionary homosocialization and homonationalization of himself and England as these are illuminated by the play. Of the numerous scenes, episodes and passages about which questions have been asked and answers given, there is space here to look at only three: why Henry takes only one quarter of his army to France, why he orders his soldiers to kill their prisoners at Agincourt, and why he hangs Bardolph. These scenes are important to address because they typify the textual detail which tends to be ignored or simplified in modernist discussions and productions of this play, erasures that have the effect of deleting Henry's subjectivity/sexuality from the play's historiographical project.

The official explanation for the first of these is that Henry must leave three quarters of his army in England to deal with the unruly Scots: “We must not only arm t'invade the French, / But lay down our proportions to defend / Against the Scot …” (1: 2, 136-37). The way “proportion” is argued in council makes it seem that Henry is doing what he can under the circumstances: he would take a larger proportion if he could. From the perspective of homosociality, however, we realize that Henry's purpose for taking only one quarter of his army is that Henry chooses to reduce the size of his army, despite the fact that if a military leader is facing two opponents one of which is three times larger than the other, he ought to put one quarter against the lesser threat, Scotland, the rest against the greater, France, other things being equal. Henry, a man schooled in military strategy, knows this, yet he does exactly the opposite. What, then, is Henry's strategy, if this action seems calculated to lose the very war he must win? The answer is that the war Henry must win is not the war we see him fighting on the ground. Henry has to find out if and prove that his God is on his side, and the only way he knows to do this—the only way he knows to make his God reveal his choice—is to make his English army so small that it cannot possibly win without his God's blessing and help. In short, Henry takes one quarter of his army to effect a religious miracle. If he wins with an army too small to have a chance of winning in its own right, he will know beyond doubt that his God has forgiven him. War is his God's instrument of judgment, and Henry is determined to prove himself “straight” in its crucible: “be he ne'er so vile [Agincourt] shall gentle his condition” (4:3, 62-63). Knowing that “the man whose mind is backward” will perish in war (4:3, 72), Henry has good reason to insist that the victory at Agincourt is “none but [God's]”: “be it death proclaimed through our host / To boast of this [victory], or take that praise from God / Which is his only” (4:8, 109-111). A victory that is not God's would be useless to him because it would not prove what Henry must prove, namely, that he is no longer a sodomite. Agincourt, that is, is Henry's way of writing himself as exemplary, and France is the fatted calf Henry's God slaughters to honor his rephallicized prodigal.

Of course, there is also a practical, manipulative side to this matter of proportions. What Henry needs to produce is a victory he can retroactively represent as (and, to the extent he can dominate representation, will be read as) a divine blessing/gift. So Henry studies history, not the myths of England's legendary past, but the practical military history of numbers, positions, probabilities: how Edward III won at Crécy. So Henry learns exactly how many men he will need, exactly where to put his archers, exactly how far his lines will have to be from the French (and how muddy it will have to be) to slow the French advance to an exhausted crawl, and exactly how much to reduce his own army to get it stuck in just a tight enough corner to insure that his soldiers will fight in phallic fashion or die. But this manipulative aspect of Henry's behavior should come as no surprise. Henry at war, like Henry in the council scene, is staging a theatrical show, The Miracle of Agincourt. Playwright, producer, set designer, chief actor—what role is Henry not performing? And although the “new man” whom this victorious war produces has seemed to many to be a complete transformation of Henry's prodigal adolescence into solid Christian/homosocial maturity, it is necessary to recognize that this war, this victory, this new man are no less theatrical productions than the prodigal Hal we saw in Eastcheap, except that here Henry, not Falstaff, is writing the script, and that here the script Henry writes is a homosocial masque, not the antihomosocial antimasque Falstaff wrote in the past. To set aside childish things for adult things is, for Henry, setting aside apprenticeship in one kind of transgressive theatricality for a sovereign appropriation of theatricality itself. And though the official view is that this appropriation produces a noble, mature, complete Henry as Henry's aggressive, manipulative performance plays itself out in the real, it would be more accurate to say that Henry assumes (and has been contained by) the despotic structure of power that he and Falstaff had previously mimically subverted.

Critics have long been troubled by Henry's reasons for ordering his soldiers to cut their prisoners' throats.17 The official version, worked out in the chronicles and in modernist criticism/performances against doubts about the morality of such an action, is that Henry gives this order either because a fresh attack by the French would overwhelm an English army heavily burdened with prisoners, or because Henry's rage requires revenge for the slaughter of his baggage boys. From a homosocial perspective, however, what Henry sees as playwright and director when he looks over his battlefield is that men like Pistol are contemplating how rich they will become when their prisoners are ransomed. The only way Henry can put an end to this theft of his inheritance (“France is mine,” he is saying to himself, “and it is not penile money; it is my phallic wealth/inheritance”), the only way he can keep penile men like Pistol from getting rich at his expense, and prevent them from penilizing his war, is to force them to kill their prisoners. To phallicize his men rather than merely enrich them—to get the phallus inside them rather than French gold in their pockets—Henry orders this castration of the penile, sodomitical other. What this act also means, of course, is that if the English are captured they will be killed, not ransomed. So, by forcing his men to kill their prisoners, Henry powerful induces them to stop thinking about making money and to start turning themselves into aggressive, celestial spirits capable of whipping the French.

A third incident queer theory is in a position to illuminate is Bardolph's execution (3.6). In defiance of Henry's edict against plunder, Bardolph has stolen a pax from a French church. He is tried, found guilty, and hanged. Why does Henry not pardon his old friend? One pro-Henry answer is that Henry needs to send a strong message to his soldiers or run the risk of having his decrees trifled with in a situation where trifling could destroy his chance of victory, and what stronger message could Henry send than the one being sent by the execution of Bardolph? From a homosocial perspective, however, Bardolph, a man with no phallic essence, is penile, and, worse, a man immune to phallic penetration: his ears do not take in Henry's edict against plundering. What Bardolph perceives as stealing a piece of gold from a French altar in order to enrich himself in a base, material, nonhomosocial manner is in fact a blasphemous misperception of a synecdochical piece of the phallus as a source of monetary profit. Moreover, since this small piece of France is part of Henry's phallic inheritance, Bardolph is stealing Henry's legacy in order to engross himself financially outside, and at the expense of, an economy of homosocial aggressivity. This mistake is, of course, the same mistake Bardolph and his associates made in the past with respect to Hal. They took the prince to be a means of profit and were unable to perceive that, despite his stains, Hal was part of the phallus. Hanging Bardolph restores this theft, revenges this misrecognition, reconstructs this eroded difference, and thus marks Henry as an extension of the omnipotent Phallus.

Hanging Bardolph also functions in another register of Henry's imaginary. To prove that he has moved from outside to inside, from prodigal son to phallic leader of the chosen people, Henry must consistently produce greater and greater differences between the past and the present—differences he can then record as history, differences which he can use official “history” to reify as fact. In the present theatre of Agincourt, he needs a band of happy brothers, whereas in the past theatre of Eastcheap, he needed a ragtag, stained band of happy rogues. Thus, given his needs at Agincourt, he cannot allow a homosocial army to plunder the countryside in the manner his Eastcheap's army had plundered Gadshill in the past. To allow such a sameness would be to let his stained past stain his present, collapsing the boundary between outside and inside, past and present, and thereby to destroy the binary differences (phallus/penis) he has worked hard to construct. To execute Bardolph, then, is to execute the past, construct a difference, and transform a former penile “love” into a phallic/aggressive love. It would be a mistake, however, not to see that, both at Gadshill and at Agincourt, Henry's script satisfies the same will to power in the same theatrical fashion. The reason Henry must compulsively enforce with repetitive acts of violence the difference he is trying to construct is that the difference between these two wills to power inevitably keeps collapsing into a terrifying sameness: his repetitively repressed sodomitical stains keep returning no matter how many times he whites them out. Thus, no matter how many times he whips those offending Adams out of his domains, they have an uncanny way of returning, a return (a sameness) against which Henry defends by writing a history of his life and actions in which a deeply wished-for perfection fictively triumphs over the real.

In much the same way that Troilus' Cressida “is, and is not Cressida,” Shakespeare's Henry V is, and is not a homosocial history, because it records not only the phallic, but also the penile, truth of Henry's life. And (if I may state my thesis before presenting supporting documentation) the penile truth about Henry's life is not just that Henry was an adolescent sodomite in his “bed-pressing” moments with Falstaff and others outside homosocial space, but that, as England's sovereign, he remains a sodomite inside this space. Fueling Henry's actions is the fact that although Henry presents himself (and must present himself) as a person who is free of the offending Adam, he knows this whipping has failed in one fundamental respect: his body is still full of sodomitical desires. The “barbarous license” (1: 2, 272) rumored about his past and officially declared to be a thing of a juvenile past is not just a thing of the past. And though everything Henry does in public appears to validate the claim that his desire has been entirely subjected to the desire of his phallic Christian God, in fact Henry's desire is not, and cannot be, the desire of this Other. He cannot scour this stain from his homosocial identity because it is his identity. As a result, he is no doubt terrified. He knows that (like Pistol) “he is not the man that he would gladly make show to the [w]orld he is” (3: 6, 81-82). He knows homosocial law condemns him. He knows that to be a sodomite (as Goldberg writes with respect to Edward II and Piers Gaveston) is “to be damned, a being without being.” But “it is just such ‘being’ that [Henry] has” (Goldberg 1992, 121-22). Sodomy, in short, is Henry's treasonous subjectivity. To be Henry “like himself” is to be his God's and culture's worst traitor.18

As the French Ambassador's initial speech makes clear, the French know this to be the case:

… the prince our master
Says that you savor too much of your youth,
And bids you be advised: There's naught in France
That can be with a nimble galliard won;
You cannot revel into dukedoms there.
He therefore sends you, meeter for your spirit,
This tun of treasure. …
What treasure, uncle?
Tennis balls, my liege.

(1: 2, 250-56, 259)

Tennis balls are “meeter for [Henry's] spirit” because, as the Dauphin's tun insinuates, Henry's body is gendered (in homosocial terms), not with lethal, phallic “gun stone” testicles, but with sodomitical “tennis balls”: “You, Henry, are this tun, and what is inside this tun is, symbolically speaking, inside you; thus we present you with the truth of your sexuality in the form of tennis balls, and we do so as a mockery of your present homosocial, phallic pretensions.” In short, a tun of French treasure has the effect of outing Henry not just as a former sodomite, but also as a present one, and does so in front of Henry's entire homosocial court.19

Henry tries to “wash [this sodomitical] mote out of his conscience” (4: 1, 169-70) by, for example, fighting and killing Hotspur. By rooting a too-hot political spur out of the body of England, Henry can be seen as trying, in displaced fashion, to root a too-hot libidinal spur out of his own body. Likewise, one could argue that, taken in and by itself, the fact that Henry digs up Richard II's body and reinters it in Westminster Abbey need suggest nothing more than guilt with respect to his father's usurpation, anxiety about his legitimacy, and a penitential effort to put things as right as he can; but in conjunction with a second curious fact, that Henry brings Richard II's body to Westminster and reinters it there with the body of Richard's wife, Anne, does suggest an attempt not only to compel Richard to assume his proper heteronormative identity after the fact, but to map onto Richard's royal body the same reheterosexualization that Henry must enact on his own.

But the task proves impossible. To Henry's despair, his homosocial desire to destroy his sodomitical desire fails. So, filled with fear, guilt, anxiety, he must have told himself that he was finished; that like Edward II, he, too, would lose his crown; that he, the son of the man whom God used to execute sodomitical Richard II, would be struck down; that he, the man who wanted to be, not sodomitical Edward II, but homosocial Edward III, is Edward II. In desperation, urgent to be Edward III, Henry desires to be straight, but because of his desires, he cannot be straight. Not just a problem, this doubleness poses an insoluble dilemma, since as homosocial king it is Henry's duty to destroy sodomites—to train lethal gun stones (to use the play's imagery) against tennis balls—wherever he finds them. Henry's problem, then, is that he is, and yet he cannot be, a sodomite, and the plot as we have it, I am suggesting, traces Henry's compulsively repetitive attempts to “solve” this endlessly recurring, permanently insoluble problem without seeming to be solving any such problem at all. What applications of denial, repression, splitting, and projection will ensure the ongoing fantasy that his homosocially constructed desire not to be a sodomite will be able to make invisible, unconscious, and nonexistent his sexual desire to be a sodomite? By what means, that is, can Henry bring homosociality's lethal apparatuses of power to bear absolutely, and yet not bear at all, on his actual self? As we shall see, one effect of this doubleness is that every signifier attached to Henry has two signifieds; another is that every question a critic can ask about Henry's behavior has at least two contexts of explanation—a homosocial one and a sodomitical one.20

Consider Henry's remarks after declaring war against France:

Either our history shall with full mouth
Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave,
Like a Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,
Not worshipped with a waxen epitaph.

(1: 2, 231-34)

At first glance this claim that history will loudly and freely proclaim Henry a hero if he wins his war or forget him if he does not seems conventionally heroic, if oddly perturbed. Given a second, queer look, however, this boast also is stating a promise that Henry will control what is said about himself, and will do so by silencing anyone who could say anything other than what the official version shall speak with “full mouth.” We may understand the “full mouth” / “Tongueless mouth” binary not only, that is, in the apparent sense noted above, but also as a defense against the anxieties bred by Henry's fear of exposure: Henry will literally remove the tongue from (will Turkishly “mute”) any mouth which is in a position to expose him. And, by symbolic extension, Henry's act will ensure that never again will “tongues” (that is, penises) be in “mouths” (that is, orifices). In short, Henry's signifiers, oddly perturbed by the multiplication of their unsuspected signifieds, allow Henry to announce the “barbarous license” he must pursue under the guise of glorious war he will pursue. Henry wages war, that is, not only to become phallic (the homosocial and speakable context of his discourse), but to hide under the exigencies of honorable war the murder of anyone who could destroy this assumption of phallic stature (the sodomitical and unspeakable context). Henry's confidence is that no one will be able to see these homicides because, disguised as sovereign martial necessities, they will be wholly invisible. Thus, were we to ignore the perturbations by which Shakespeare's unspeakable history disturbs Henry's history of “Henry,” Henry's “full mouth” would be the only mouth speaking his history (though not, thanks to the ironists, the only mouth valuing the consequences and effects of this history), and Shakespeare's unofficial history would become a tongueless mouth, his text a “Turkish mute.”21

Whom does Henry murder? First Falstaff, as Nell (“the King has killed his heart”) and Fluellen tell us:

I think it is in Macedon where Alexander is porn. I tell you, captain, if you look in the maps of the orld, I warrant you sall find, in the comparisons between Macedon and Monmouth, that the situations, look you, is poth alike. There is a river in Macedon, and there is also moreover a river at Monmouth. It is called Wye at Monmouth; but it is out of my prains what is the name of the other river. But 'tis all one; 'tis alike as my fingers is to my fingers, and there is salmons in poth. If you mark Alexander's life well, Harry of Monmouth's life is come after it indifferent well; for there is figures in all things. Alexander, God knows and you know … did, in his ales and his angers, look you, kill his best friend, Cleitus.
Our King is not like him in that. He never killed any of his friends.
… As Alexander killed his friend Cleitus, being in his ales and his cups, so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgments, turned away the fat knight with the great pelly doublet. …

(4: 7, 31ff.)

What did Henry kill? A man who was to Henry what Cleitus, Alexander's sodomitical lover, was to Alexander. Homosocial critics like Richard Levin have enjoyed ridiculing Fluellen's method of comparison—the logical inconsequentiality of his comparison of “salmons” and “rivers”; but, of course, literal salmons and rivers and a literal comparison between them is not the point of Fluellen's wobbling exposition. By the logic of double signification operating in this text, salmons and rivers become simultaneously an innocent way of talking about two geographical regions, Monmouth and Macedon, and an extremely graphic way (“there is salmons in both”) of talking about what Alexander had in Cleitus, and Henry in Falstaff, or vice versa—“Harry of Monmouth's life com[ing] after [Alexander's] indifferent well” (4: 7, 29-30). How did Henry kill Falstaff? By cutting him off cold. “I put my hand into the bed,” Nell Quickly tells us, “and felt [Falstaff's feet], 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” (2: 3, 21-24). Without desire, without love, the corpulent embodiment of sodomitical love becomes in death a symbol of what (from the perspective of homosocial space) it ought to have been in life, “as cold as any stone,” just as Henry, in turning the fat knight away, himself becomes as cold as a stone. What Nell almost tells us, but does not, is that Falstaff's warm “tennis ball” testicles have also become cold stones. What she might have told us, had she lived, is that, in killing Falstaff, Henry creates the first of many “tongueless mouths.”

Henry is stone cold nowhere more obviously than during the hanging of Bardolph. Here again (if we add the sodomitical to the homosocial context) a single signifier, hanging Bardolph, asserts two signifieds, Henry's official and his unofficial objectives. “We would have all such offenders so cut off,” Henry asserts (3:6, 103). The official homosocial objective of this execution (as we saw above) is to cut Bardolph off as an “offending [thief] Adam”; the unofficial homicidal one is to cut Bardolph, like Falstaff, off as an “offending [sodomitical] Adam.” But why “cut off” Bardolph by hanging him, and why the dark humor about his large red bulbous nose: “His face is all bubukles and whelks, and knobs, and flames o' fire, and his lips plows at his nose, and it is like a coal of fire, sometimes plue and sometimes red; but his nose is executed, and his fire's out” (3: 6, 99-103)? Officially, Bardolph is hanged because hanging is standard for thieves; but unofficially Bardolph's punishment, like Falstaff's, is symbolic in another register of signification. So if a homosocial Henry is satisfied to see Bardolph hanged as a thief, a defensively sodolethal Henry needs to see Bardolph's mortal, penile body grow stiff, his “head” become engorged with blood, his nose become even more penile than it was before.22 It is not that Henry needs to see Bardolph executed; rather, he needs (as the text specifically asserts) to see that Bardolph's “nose is executed” as a symbolic surrogate for the erect, sodomitical penis itself. He needs to see the “sometimes [b]lue and sometimes red” head of an orgasmically twitching penile man snapped and turned cold, its fire put out, its mouth made “tongueless,” its orifices “mute.”

Scroop is a more difficult mouth for Henry to make tongueless, because Scroop is a more recent, a more visible “bedfellow” with standing inside homosocial space, and thus a more dangerous opponent, a mouth that could speak a more damning sodomy than Falstaff's or Bardolph's. For Henry to ask how he is going to hide the murder of Scroop is to ask how he is going to implicate Scroop in a plot along with Cambridge and Grey, so that the three can be exposed as traitors, and leave no one with grounds to suspect that, though three die as traitors, one also dies because he was Henry's lover.23 It is also to ask how, in implicating Scroop, Henry made sure that Scroop would not prove rash enough to add slander to treason. Scroop's death is also a symbolic execution: Henry must see the stained homosocial head literally cut off, to see that same castration physically inflicted on another, on three others, which he, in a sense, is having to inflict psychically on himself: neither he nor Scroop will ever use his “head” again for pleasure. Without a head, Scroop becomes yet one more sodomite struck down by homosocial justice, one more “tongueless mouth” that cannot speak Scroop's or Henry's real name. It can be objected that all traitors of rank are beheaded, and thus that Scroop's beheading has no unusual symbolic significance. But this is exactly Henry's objective, to leave no trace: the invisible signifieds which Henry is concealing under the visible ones, treason/(sodomy), execution/(murder), escape detection because Henry makes the signifier of the closeted signified virtually identical to the signifier of the uncloseted one. In Shakespeare's text, however, a trace, a difference, is in fact left: Gary Taylor tells us that Henry's reaction to Scroop's betrayal is “so prolonged and excessive that it has almost never been performed in full” (1982, 45). My suggestion is that Henry's execution/(murder) of Scroop's treason/(sodomy) is almost never performed in full because to perform it in full would allow a scene to leave a trace which, when not performed in full, plays altogether straight.

Falstaff, Bardolph and Scroop are not, of course, the only sodomites destroyed in Henry's purge. Consider the boys who are killed guarding the baggage: “Kill the poys and the luggage?” asks Fluellen. “'Tis expressly against the law of arms. 'Tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offert” (4:7, 1-3). Did retreating French soldiers kill these baggage boys, as the official version maintains? The French are in retreat, fleeing for their lives. Perhaps it is believable that terrified French soldiers might stop long enough and be cowardly enough to slaughter baggage boys as revenge, but would they have been able, under the circumstances of chaotic retreat, to kill every single boy even if they had wanted to do so? “'Tis certain,” Gower tells us, “there's not a boy left alive” (4:7, 5). Henry, on the other hand, has a powerful motive to have every boy killed. If he is to disguise, as a French atrocity, the murder of the boy he knew in his Eastcheap life, and thereby create yet one more “tongueless mouth,” one more “Turkish mute,” Henry would have had to be absolutely certain that not a single boy survived, since a survivor's tongue could wag in the direction of English, rather than the alleged French, assassins. Henry's objective in staging such an atrocity is not just, however, that there would be no boy left to speak his crime; it is also that there would be no more boys to tempt him, or make him suffer unendurable pangs of desire for what he cannot any longer enjoy, or pollute his band of celestial brothers. For further evidence of Henry's involvement, consider the subsequent scenic juxtapositioning: Fluellen's and Gower's discussion of the slaughtered boys turns directly to a discussion of whether Henry killed Falstaff as Alexander killed Cleitus.24

At (4:3, 129-30), the Duke of York—next in succession once Mortimer dies—petitions Henry: “My lord, most humbly on my knee I beg / The leading of the vaward [vanguard].” At (4:8, 98-100), we learn that “Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk, Sir Richard Ketly, [and] Davy Gam” are the only English dead “of name”—York and Suffolk are being the only dead English nobility. So the play invites us to ask “why York and Suffolk are the only English nobility who die at Agincourt.” And the play is constructed, I suggest, to provide an answer at 4: 6, 10ff., where we learn that by York's “bloody side, / … The noble Earl of Suffolk also lies”:

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,
And 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 kissed his lips;
And so, espoused to death, with blood he sealed
A testament of noble-ending love.

This quotation, a considerably abbreviated version of Shakespeare's lengthy addition to Holinshed, is, I suggest, a test case of Alan Bray's thesis that it is not possible to tell the difference between male-male friend/lovers and male-male sex/lovers in early modern England (1990). So we can ask: Is it merely a coincidence that the only two noble English dead “of name” are York and Suffolk? And is it a coincidence that it is York who petitioned Henry to lead the vanguard, or may we assume that York's desire became the desire of the royal Other as a result of the same sort of manipulative coercion which shaped Canterbury's desire to Henry's martial desire in Act One, and which will shape Katherine's desire to Henry's heteronormative desire in Act Five? To be sure, it is not possible to conclude with certainty that York and Suffolk were sex/lovers, or that they are being represented as such in this passage.25 In the context of Henry's war, however, given that anyone who dies is a sodomite (since, by definition, phallic men do not die), York and Suffolk are nonetheless what Henry needs them to be: two more “tongueless mouths,” two more dead lovers who will not remind Henry of his identity, and two more who, far from being “celestial spirits,” will not populate/pollute Henry's English paradise or be included in Henry's “band of brothers.”

In killing Falstaff, Scroop, Bardolph, the boy, York, and Suffolk, as well as the thousands of soldiers and prisoners who die (and a Dauphin who disappears) at Agincourt, Henry's motive is not just to purify England, not just to project his own sodomitical desire onto others so he can obliterate this desire in the obliteration of the sodomitical other, not just to remove temptations and witnesses, nor just to make impossible any history of his life other than his official one; Henry's motive is also to “prove” to himself that sodomites die—to “prove” that the homosocial God means exactly what he says (“no sodomite can suceed”). How can Henry persuade himself not to be what he is except by causing to happen to numerous sodomitical others that very fate which he fears will be imposed on him if he is not what he must be? It is in this respect that we understand why a victory that is not his God's would be valueless: such a victory could not “prove” what Henry needs to prove, that he is straight and that, among others, York and Suffolk are sodomites.

Critics have often pondered what Henry is doing during the night he waits for trial by combat/ordeal to prove his phallic identity. So we may also ask whether queer theory is able to illuminate Henry's disguised encounter with three common soldiers, Williams, Court, and Bates, or the briefer bracketing scenes, also frequently cut from performance, between Henry and Pistol, Pistol and Fluellen. At the outset of Act Four, the Chorus tells us:

… O, now, who will behold
The royal captain of this ruined band
Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent. …
For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile. …
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks. …
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

(4: Cho., 28ff)

As numerous commentators have observed, we do not in fact behold any of this. Virtually everything that happens in the scenes that immediately follow this official account of Harry in the night contradicts the picture the Chorus paints. What we do behold is a disguised Henry who, going off (he says) to be alone, comes into contact first with Pistol, and then with three common soldiers, Williams, Court, and Bates. After a lengthy argument with the latter three turns into a heated quarrel, Williams and a disguised Henry each agree to wear the other's glove in his hat until they can meet and settle their differences. In a subsequent scene Henry asks Fluellen to wear William's glove in his hat. In a third scene, Williams challenges Fluellen, thinking him to be the disguised stranger he argued with in the night. Henry intervenes, acknowledging that he was the soldier with whom Williams quarreled, and rewards Williams by filling Williams's glove with gold.

These episodes are complicated enough to cause many directors to cut them, and many critics to wonder why Shakespeare filled his fourth act with such obscure material. If we set aside the content of Henry's and Williams's lengthy political/ethical argument as not irrelevant but secondary to the action taking place, and look instead at the relations of power and sexuality structuring the action of these scenes, we discover, I suggest, that Henry is out at night wandering among his troops for two contradictory reasons. This might be the last night he will be alive and, in his loneliness and anxiety, he is, I suggest, longing for illicit male companionship; he is also deeply worried that his men might be longing for the same thing (“a little touch of Henry in the night”). Henry has a terrible need for what he is afraid he will find: men, like himself, who are succumbing to the temptations of the penile body symbolized, in Henry's case, by the fact that he confronts these men not “like himself” but disguised by a cloak.26 However, for his miraculous victory to transpire the next day, Henry must eradicate any possibility of penile weakness (anxiety, fear, doubt), and, more importantly, any possibility of sodomitical pleasures taking place between his men, as well as between himself and his men. So, when Henry encounters Williams, arguably a handsome enough young soldier for Henry to dally with (in contrast to the very brief, earlier exchange he has with Pistol), Henry must, if he is to live, transform his and Williams's powerful libidinal attraction to each other into homosocial anger and aggression (just as Katherine's libido is translated into aggression in the English lesson and wooing scenes). Hence the quarrel. Then, as a way of permanently fixing this translation of libido into anger and aggressivity, Henry symbolically reifies it. He moves Williams's glove—a symbolic surrogate for bodily orifices that fingers and penises may penetrate, as well as a symbolic surrogate for such penetrating appendages—from Williams's waist to his own cap, and he simultaneously moves his own glove, similarly symbolic, from his waist to Williams's cap. In this way, penile/sodomitical libidos and their bodily organs are sublimated and territorialized by being rewritten as tokens of exchange within that highly aggressive homosocial ritual, the challenge. In order to further defend against sodomitical desire, Henry then fills Williams's glove, not with semen, but with gold (here symbolic of phallic power) in order to transform penetration and filling from sodomitical to phallic acts. In short, the three scenes with Williams act out the ritualistic processes of phallicization that structure homosocial space itself. And by reenacting these constitutive formulae the night before Agincourt, Henry (in Foucault's formulation) produces aggressive homosocial bonding out of sodomitical libido. So if Henry is “thawing cold fear” as the Chorus proclaims, it is Henry's own fears and anxieties that are being thawed; and if anyone is getting “a touch of Henry in the night,” Henry is making sure that it is an aggressive, and not a sodomitical one.27

But because desire is strong and repression “endlesse worke,” Henry's sublimational alchemy must be compulsively repeated. In fact, the scene with Williams is already a repetition of numerous earlier instances of this process, particularly the first scene of this fourth act. Prior to meeting Williams, Henry plays out a brief version of this sublimational process with Pistol (a character, like Hotspur, whose name and “character” create dangerously incoherent conflations of penis and phallus). Rather than recognition, friendship or nostalgia at what may be the last meeting between these two Eastcheap friends, there must now be nothing but the safe lubricants of nonrecognition and aggression, as Pistol's cudgeled head learns yet one more time in 5:1, where Pistol is forced to play out this process in far more violent fashion with Henry's surrogate, Fluellen, a scene in which Pistol's eating of Fluellen's leek (a symbolic staging of fellatio) is visually translated into Pistol's symbolic submission to Fluellen's phallic correction, and in which a penis surrogate (a leek held at Fluellen's waist) is translated into a phallic surrogate (a leek in Fluellen's cap).

We are now in a position to ask why Shakespeare adds four captains—an Englishman, a Scot, an Irishman, and a Welshman—to the Henrician legend, given that none of these four are to be found in any of the chronicle sources. If these captains, like Henry's Eastcheap associates, disappear in criticism and in performance (as they disappear in Olivier's and Branagh's films) into a quotidian military mass, there is no point for Shakespeare's addition except to supply proof that support for Henry's war comes from every ethnic part of an allegedly unified nation. But if three of these captains are beautiful young men, then there is a powerful point to their diversity, their exoticism, their difference. Why would Henry not want to surround himself, at the moment he submits to homosocial law, with the most handsome speci-men in uniform he can find from the four quarters of his empire?28 To love all and to be loved by all of his homosocial subordinates is the least he deserves in repayment for his suffocated desire. So why should not his “band of brothers” be an especially aesthetically pleasing lot, given that Gower, Jamy, and Macmorris, and the Welshman, Fluellen, are homosocial replacements in Henry's life for Bardolph, Nym, Pistol, and Falstaff? The question to ask, I suggest, is who is acting the part of Fluellen? And if the answer is Will Kempe, the actor who presumably played Falstaff, then the transformation of this actor's role from Henry's sodomitical to Henry's homosocial father figure is a particularly vivid theatrical visualization of the sublimational logic dominating Henry's behavior, a logic which transforms sodomitical libido not only into homosocial aggression but also into homosocial aestheticism. Of course, these captains can also be said to be evidence of a desperate hope surviving somewhere deep in Henry's psyche that the universal sameness demanded by homosocial Christianity might still have some room in it for heavily fissured differences, despite the necessity of having to be marked as same.29

From the perspective of those who do not want to witness, celebrate, or identify with Henry's victorious Christian/homosocial/heteronormative absolutism, Shakespeare's The Life of King Henry the Fifth is a tragedy, though, of course, it is also a “comedy” for those who, standing in homosocial space, need precisely to see, celebrate, and identify with such a victory. From a nonhomosocial perspective, the answer to the question, “Why is this history tragic?” is simple. Because thousands are dead. Because Henry, more and more threatened by every noncathected tongue, becomes more and more dependent on violence to perform his hyperideal identity. And because, as a result of this dependency, Henry's economy, psychic and otherwise (not to mention England's economy under Henry), inevitably degenerated into an economy of waste and decline which seemed to prosper only when it was at war, which is why Henry spent the rest of his life fighting “himself” in the fields of France.

Given such consequences, one must interrogate the cause of such a tragedy. Is it the fact that Henry is a sodomite? Would things have been different, that is, if Henry had been straight? If by “straight” one means homosocial heteronormativity, no doubt English homosociality would have gone on, nevertheless, in its own direction, and Henry would have been one more monarch hiding under his phallic identity a subjectivity riddled by autoeroticism, voyeurism, adultery, rape, pederasty, fornication, or some other sodomitical activity tolerable when hidden. But if by “straight” one means heteroromantic/reciprocal love/sex, then Henry would also have been in trouble. To be sure, had Henry simply been discovered as being straight in this sodomitical sense he would not have been executed, as Edward II was, with a red hot poker inserted into his anus, but he hardly could have commanded the respect, fear, and love of, nor could he have assumed or exerted sovereign authority over his homosocial peers. So to have kept his crown, a straight Henry (in this sense of “straight”) would also have had to engage in something like the endlessly repetitive dissimulations of desire in which Henry is so thoroughly trapped.

But the larger point is that Henry's sexuality per se is not the cause of this tragic waste; Henry's sodomitical desire is not correctable, nor is sodomitical desire the problem Shakespeare's play is interrogating. The cause of the tragedy that is Henry's life is the cultural demand/introject, “Be straight or die,” and the homosocial formation which necessitates such a demand/introject. This cause is correctable, and it is the problem Shakespeare's text is analyzing. The solution to Henry's problem, that is, is not the sodolethal apparatus of power Henry brings to bear upon his desire displaced onto the other, but the removal of homosociality itself, its “Be straight or die” demand/introject, its identities, aggressivities, sexual roles, protocols, relations of power, monopolies, and histories. To solve Henry's problem, a culture must be created in which a person like Henry might do something more valuable with his energies and intelligence than construct himself as a celestial spirit, England as a fascist paradise and English culture as a happy band of Christian/homosocial brothers, and something more pleasurable with his sodomitical desires than make them fodder for sadomasochistic purgation or fuel for sadistic purifications. So, though it is true that homosocial productions and homosocial readings of Henry V—caring more for Henry and homosociality than they do for the thousands of lives they happily sacrifice on the altars of Henrician perfection—do “draw their audiences irresistably toward the celebration of … power [based on] force and fraud”;30 it is also true that Shakespeare's Henry V was designed to draw its audiences away from “mighty men … in little room … mangling … their glory” (Epi., 3-4), and draw them toward that revisionistic assault on such power, force, and fraud which we now call democracy.

In Misrepresentations, Graham Bradshaw argues that “history never tells us what Henry's motives were, because it can't; in this simple but important sense a history play that pretended to make Henry's motives clear would be historically irresponsible” (1993, 46-47).31 I have been arguing, on the contrary, that Shakespeare's play makes a way to Henry's motives available, if not clear. There is in this text that which functions, in censorial circumstances, as evidence—a collocation of traces, coincidences, displacements, repetitions, overdeterminations, and juxtapositionings which register on a nonhomosocial audience. I have catalogued some of this collocation—this semiotic excess that Shakespeare added to his chronicle sources. That Olivier, Branagh, and others have had to cut so much of this excess in order to produce their versions of Henry V as homosocial masterpieces—and their Henries as sovereignty's best piece of poetry—suggests just how much of Shakespeare's play is irresponsible in Bradshaw's sense. Shakespeare's Henry V is and is not irresponsible, but, paradoxically, it is its irresponsibility that makes it so useful to some as history, just as it is its thoroughly coerced responsibility that makes it so useful to others as homosocial History.


  1. Cho. 5; all citations of this play are from The Life of King Henry the Fifth (Henry V), Shakespeare (1972). I would like to thank the editors of this volume, Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero, for their careful editorial attention to the argument that follows.

  2. Chronicle histories: Hall (1548); Fabyan (1559); Holinshed (1587); Stow (1580). Poems: The Battle of Agincourt (c. 1530); Baldwin (1575); Daniel (1595). For a discussion of the earlier Henry V plays, especially The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (1598), see Taylor (1982, 3-4).

  3. Holinshed (1587), in Bullough (1962; 280, 408). For discussions of Tudor chronicles as history and the complexity of Tudor representations of Henry, see: Levy (1967); Kelly (1970); Smith (1976 3-26); Patterson (1989, 71-92); Hunter (1990); Rackin (1990); and Bradshaw (1993).

  4. For a recent account of Henry's life, see Hibbert 1975; for an earlier account, see Wylie, 1914-1929.

  5. On quarto/folio differences see: Taylor (1982, 12-26); Patterson (1989); Graham Holderness, et al. (1988); Holderness and Loughrey (1993). On censorship, see: (Hill 1986, 32-71); (Clare 1990). For a discussion of Shakespeare's relation to his chronicle sources, see Tomlinson (1984); Taylor; Walter (1954); and Bullough (1962). Taylor relates the critical controversy to the quarto/folio differences: unlike the 1623 Folio, the 1600 Quarto “removes almost every difficulty in the way of an unambiguously patriotic interpretation of Henry and his war” (12). Brennan 1992 shows that a longstanding stage tradition in which productions are generally as heavily cut as the 1600 Quarto has had much the same jingoizing effect. In other words, the play's critics have seen remove from the play most of what Shakespeare added to the chronicle accounts.

  6. Among those attracted to Henry: Wilson (1943); Walter (1954); Humphrey (1968); Aoki (1973); Sanders (1977); Berg (1985). Among those repelled: Gould (1919), (1969); Doren (1939); Goddard (1951); Rossiter (1961); Richmond (1967); Gurr (1977); and Barber and Wheeler (1986, 198-236).

  7. Rabkin (1981). Rabkin was anticipated, in the play itself, by Pistol (“I love the lovely bully”); Nym (“the King is a good King … but the King hath run bad humors on the knight [Falstaff]”); Hazlitt (1817), who termed Henry an “amiable monster” [cited in Quinn (1969, 37)]; Traversi (1957); and Hapgood (1963, 9-16). Rabkin's lead was followed by Salomon (1980, 343-56); (Pye 1990, 13-42); Brennan (1992); and Bradshaw (1993).

  8. As Rabkin (1981) implicitly recognized, the longstanding debate about Henry V was not so much a crisis created by ironic readings of Henry V as a crisis within the profession occasioned by the new discourses being used to produce such readings. Thus Rabkin's effort to negotiate a solution to the Henry V controversy was implicitly an attempt to resolve a methodological problem which was proving increasingly divisive to the profession.

  9. The theoretical work on Henry V to which I am particularly indebted is that of Williamson (1975); Greenblatt (1981); Mullaney (1983); Dollimore and Sinfield (1985); Erickson (1985); Wilcox (1985); Czerniecki (1988); Leggatt (1988); Berger (1989); Rackin (1990; 1991, 323-45); Newman (1991); Helgerson (1992); and Traub (1992a).

  10. Goldberg (1992, 145-75). Quinn (1969) cites the relevant passage from Hazlitt (1817, 37).

  11. To read Shakespeare's text as sexualizing, materializing, and thus as historicizing its central character is not to read Shakespeare's Henry as a person; rather, it is to perceive Shakespeare's Henry as a theatrical analysis of an historical subject who is recognized as having been embedded in and conditioned by social processes that produced his sexuality as a function of his cultural identity.

  12. In addition to Goldberg's, the queer theory to which I am indebted includes: Foucault (1976/1980); Irigaray (1977/1985); Hocquenghem (1978); Cixous (1981); Bray (1982 and 1990); Sedgwick (1985 and 1990); Butler (1990); Bredbeck (1991); Smith (1991); and Traub (1992b).

  13. In 1 Henry IV, Falstaff mocks Hal as a “dried neat's-tongue,” “a bull's pizzle,” a “stock-fish”—euphemistic expressions, David Bevington's glosses at 2: 4, 240-42 tell us (1987), which are designed to point out Hal's “genital emaciation”; Falstaff's larger objective, however, as Goldberg notes, is to “point to the phallus Hal lacks” (1992, 174).

  14. Holinshed quotes Christopher Ocklund's (1580) Anglorum Praelia. Ab anno Domini 1327 usque ad annum Domini 1558 (R. Neuberie for H. Bynneman): “Ille inter iuvenes paulo lascivior ante” [translated by Bullough (1962) as “Previously he has been somewhat wanton among the young men” (280)].

  15. For an anthropological analysis of these predatory/incorporative technologies, see Bloch (1982a), and Bloch and Perry (1982b, 1982c, 211-30).

  16. It is not necessary here to outline the rise of intolerance which Boswell 1980 locates in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Europe; Boswell's account is brilliant and well-known. It is necessary, however, to note that English homosociality became increasingly intolerant as the crown of England passed from Richard Coeur de Lion (1189-1199), to Edward II (1307-1327), Richard II (1377-1399), and to Henry V (1413-1422).

  17. For recent alternative discussions of this matter, see Barber and Wheeler (1986, 227); Brennan (1992, 92-95); Bradshaw (1993, 294n26).

  18. After Foucault (1976/1980) and Bray (1982), it has become conventional to distinguish between late modern homosexual identities and early modern sodomitical acts—the former category confining sodomy to an essentialized subset of the culture, the latter regarding it as a sin everyone is capable of committing. Recently, however, this distinction has been questioned by Bruce R. Smith, who observes that in Renaissance satire “the sodomite was a distinct type rather than a universal figure” (1991, 75-76).

  19. Many critics of this scene conclude that the Dauphin is simply in error about Henry's present situation because he has not yet heard about Henry's miraculous reformation. However, the unofficial history we are watching encourages us to recognize that the Dauphin is not in error, that he knows the official myth articulating the pastness of Henry's past but simply does not believe it. The obvious reason, apart from needing something to carry them in, that the French Ambassador presents the tennis balls in a tun (OED, s. v. tun: a large vessel in general; a tub or vat; a chest; Holinshed writes, “a barrel of Paris balls” [545]) is to get an insulting tub-equals-Henry analogy in the King's face. Much of the force of this insult is lost, however, if Shakespeare's tun is turned (as it is in the Branagh production) into a small, elegant box.

  20. A particularly striking example of this double semiotic is Henry's relation to Salic Law. Why, we may ask, is Henry so troubled by a law that says “‘In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant’; / ‘No woman shall succeed in Salic land’” (1: 2, 38-39)? The official answer is that if Salic law stands, Henry's claims on ancestral lands in France are invalid. But to recognize only this official, homosocial explanation would be to miss the less visible function of Salic Law in this text. In reading Salic law, Henry finds himself reading the handwriting on the wall, because for him this law bars possession of his inheritance in a sense quite different from the bar being asserted in public. For Henry, Salic Law is seen to stand as a restatement of the divine injunction against sodomy: “no sodomite shall succeed in homosocial land.” Thus, for Henry to circumvent the visible law is, magically, to circumvent the less visible one. Moreover, to circumvent the invisible law is to put himself in the position, as we have seen above, of enforcing it: Henry will now ensure that “no sodomite shall succeed in homosocial space.”

  21. “Tongueless mouth” has, of course, other registers of signification. This passage alludes to the myth of Tereus and Philomela in Book Six of The Metamorphoses of Ovid (1955). The more obvious connection is a narrative one—Tereus, having raped Philomela, his wife's sister, responds to her threat—“I shall come forward before your people, and tell my story. If I am to be kept shut up in the woods, I shall fill the forests with my voice, and win sympathy from the very rocks that witnessed my degradation”—by turning Philomela into a tongueless mouth—“But even as she poured out her scorn … he grasped her tongue with a pair of forceps, and cut it out with his cruel sword” (162-163). The less obvious connection is the performative aspect of this barbarity: “The very acts which furthered [Tereus's] wicked scheme made people believe that he was a devoted husband [to Procne], and he was praised for his criminal behaviour” (160). A second subversive connection to Henry V lies in a common historiographical project: as Philomela, unable to speak Tereus' tyranny, weaves a tapestry which tells her story (“Cunningly she set up her threads on a barbarian loom, and wove a scarlet design on a white ground, which pictured the wrong she had suffered” [163]), so Shakespeare's Henry V, unable to proclaim Henry's barbarity, weaves a text which tells Henry's victims' stories.

  22. In the place of the conventional terms, homophobic/homophobia, I will be using sodolethal. I do so because a friend of mine asked why a term which voices the anxieties and fears of the aggressor should be used to mark the violent effects of these fears on the aggressor's victims.

  23. For a valuable discussion of this scene, see Wentersdorf (1976). For discussions of the commonplace linkage of treason and sodomy, see Bray (1982, 70-80), and Smith (1991, 41-53). For a discussion of the sodomitical puns in the scene (as throughout Henry V and 1 & 2 Henry IV), see Rubenstein (1984). Among the numerous entries Rubenstein indexes (324-25), see, in particular, “Bungle(hole), bungle Anus. … Henry V.” One part of this complex discussion must stand for the whole: a “‘demon’ (homosexual) … ‘gull'd’ (buggered) Scroop … (who, in turn, buggered Henry)” (39-40). The brunt of the entry in the Dictionary of National Biography—SCROPE, HENRY le, third Baron Scrope of Masham (1376?-1415 [11 years older than Henry])—is that Scrope's “complicity … in the plot … caused general surprise. It seemed strangely inconsistent with his character as well as his past career. He himself pleaded that he had become an accessory in order to betray the conspiracy (Rot.Parl.iv.66)” (1077). Is it possible, in other words, that Henry drew Scroop into this plot by “asking” his “bedfellow” to become an accessory, in much the same way that he had “asked” Canterbury to support war and Katherine to accept marriage, and then charged Scroop as an accomplice?

  24. Henry also, of course, derives military value from this atrocity. What better way to redouble his soldiers' efforts at a moment of potential defeat than throw a war atrocity in their faces? Henry has already used one tactic to shore up their phallic valor—making them kill their prisoners—so by killing the boys he not only provides a justification for this command but also translates fear into outraged violence.

  25. It is possible, for example, that Henry's imaginary constructs York and Suffolk as sodomites in order to justify killing York, a successor to the throne.

  26. For antecedents for Henry's disguise, see Barton (1975). One antecedent Barton does not discuss is the Christian one. In Henry's homosocial space the chief paradigm for the ritualistic productivity of disguise is, of course, Christ. Coming disguised as the man Jesus into the night of the fallen world, Christ puts on, like a cloak, the penile condition of man as a preface to the technologies of rephallicization by which he will rehomosocialize himself and the penile other through various forms of aggressivity against self and other. For a medieval parallel, see Fradenburg (1991, 240-41).

  27. These scenes are also working in at least two other ways: Henry is making it absolutely impossible for himself to remain “disguised,” and he is proleptically rehearsing during the night the transformation from disguised penile sodomite to victorious phallic sovereign he intends to actualize the following morning.

  28. Four geographically distinct captains call to mind the imperial habit of articulating homosocial monuments with nude women, one for each corner of the empire: the Albert Memorial in London, for example, or the figures presently outside the Musee d'Orsay in Paris, or, earlier, the title-pages of Renaissance texts. The homosocial message is that empire harnesses sexuality as a means of producing civilization, even though this message is purposefully transgressed by an illicit exploitation of the colonialized subjects' sexualities. Equally relevant is the recognition that these sculpted nudes offer an illicit reward to the imperial gaze—i.e., dominance over the subjected other's sexual body. Cp. also the figures of Emetreus and Lygurge in Chaucer's “Knight's Tale.”

  29. Henry is so compulsive about transforming sodomitical libido into homosocial identity that he seems to have arranged events so that his miracle of Agincourt would take place on October 25, “the Feast of Crispian” (4:3, 40), a feast day celebrating two brothers, Crispianus and Crispinus, who, martyred A.D. 287, became the patron saints of shoemakers. But why this feast day? One answer, I suggest, is that in Henry's imaginary this day could be seen as celebrating penile brothers who become saintly brothers by containing their penile names (“-anus” and “-pinus”) within their saintly phallic names (Crispianus and Crispinus) through the mediation not so much of their martyrdom as of their fetishized craft role, shoemaking. As saints, that is, one brother becomes an asexual cover (a “shoe”) for the foot taken as a fetish substitution for the penis, while the other becomes an asexual surrogate for the anus taken as a fetishized receptacle (a “shoe”) for the fetishized foot. As ‘shoes’ they no longer have a (visible) “-pinus” or “-anus.”

  30. Greenblatt (1988, 20). On “territorialization” see Deleuze and Guattari (1983).

  31. Bradshaw is echoing Maynard Mack on the subject of motivation. To quote Berger “the essence of Mack's argument … is that since characters are not only imaginary persons but also emblems, archetypes, and exemplars, motivation is beside the point” (1985, 224).

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Camille Wells Slights (essay date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Slights, Camille Wells. “The Conscience of the King: Henry V and the Reformed Conscience.” Philological Quarterly 80, no. 1 (winter 2001): 37-55.

[In the following essay, Slights probes the historical context of Henry's conscience in Henry V, including his mediation between personal judgment and social obligation as King of England.]

Since the celebrations of Shakespearean characters as portrayals of universal human nature have been largely silenced by scholarly attacks on the universalizing of the bourgeois subject, analyses of early modern representations of human life have risked an equally ahistorical projection of a postmodern fragmented subject onto early modern texts and have sometimes avoided attributing all meaning to originary subjects only by effacing human agency altogether. If we assume that reality is grasped through language, that there is no pre-linguistic knowledge, then we need to be wary of how we use our own vocabulary in analyzing early modern subjectivities and to look carefully at historical linguistic practice. As Anne Ferry has shown, sixteenth-century English had yet to develop a vocabulary for the analysis of internal experience. Such terms as “superego,” “unconscious,” and “emotions” are relatively recent developments, and words like “self” and “subject” were used in ways different from ours.1 As Ferry observes, the closest term for continuous internal awareness available in sixteenth-century vocabulary was “conscience.”2 Thus when William Fenner advises, “Let a man examine himself, that is, his conscience,” the appositional construction assumes that the self is the conscience.3 Conscience was usually defined as the part of practical understanding that applies inherent knowledge of the basic principles of good and evil to particular actions, judging past actions and legislating future ones. According to the influential preacher and theologian, William Perkins, conscience “is (as it were) a little God sitting in the middle of men[s] hearts, arraigning them in this life as they shal be arraigned for their offences at the tribunal seat of the everliving God in the day of judgement.”4 Thus, in contrast to contemporary psychoanalytic discourse, which assumes a pre-moral psyche, Fenner assumes the inherently moral nature of the self.

While conscience signified moral self-awareness, it was also the efficient cause of political action. For example, John Speed observed of the Elizabethan settlement that “many that had fled the Realm in case of conscience, returned,”5 and the plethora of books published during the 1640s and 50s with such titles as The Ancient Bounds, or Liberty of Conscience (1645) and Against Universall Libertie of Conscience (1644) demonstrates that, by the time of the civil war, “conscience” had become a code word for political controversy. In early modern England, then, conscience was a site where subjectivity and politics, ideas of salvation and of nationhood, were inextricably entangled. The representations of conscience in theological, legal, political, and literary texts provide significant access to the self-understanding of early modern selves and their social relations. By focusing on conscience in William Perkins's Discourse of Conscience, James VI and I's Basilicon Doron, and Shakespeare's history plays, particularly Henry V, I hope to illuminate tensions between individual judgment and obligations to authority within the concept of conscience that give us more precise understanding of religious and national identity in early modern England.

In Shakespeare's history plays, conscience is the nexus where internal self-awareness and external political action, the obligations of obedience and the authority of personal judgment converge. In Richard III, it performs a unifying function both structurally and politically. In the ruthless world Richard of Gloucester bustles in, most characters attempt to maintain or to acquire power and do so in defiance of their consciences. From Richard's sardonic announcement that he is “determined to prove a villain” (1.1.30), through his gleeful boast that he has seduced Anne with “God, her conscience, and these bars against me” (1.2.234), to the murderer's decision not to “meddle with it [conscience], it makes a man a coward” (1.4.134-35), the play directs our attention to characters' choosing to act against their own understanding of moral goods.6 But, as Perkins warns, although sinning against one's conscience is common, finally the judgment of conscience is unavoidable: “as God cannot possibly be overcome of man, so neither can the judgment of Conscience being the judgement of God be wholly extinguished” (3). In Richard III, attempts to ignore conscience are futile. In Clarence's dream, the men he has betrayed return to accuse him. His murderer discovers that his conscience will not stay neatly packed away “in the Duke of Gloucester's purse” (1.4.128) and repents “this most grievous murther” (1.4.273). The murderers of the princes flee “with conscience and remorse” (4.3.20). King Edward, Hastings, Buckingham, and Lady Anne all face the accusations of their guilty consciences and repent shortly before death. Only Richard continues to deny his conscience. Lady Anne's report of his “timorous dreams” (4.1.84) alerts us that the “worm of conscience” has been gnawing at his soul as Margaret's curse predicted (1.3.221), and on Bosworth field Richard's guilty conscience is performed on stage as his victims haunt his dreams. But even as he acknowledges that “My conscience hath a thousand several tongues, / And every tongue brings in a several tale, / And every tale condemns me for a villain” (5.3.193-95), he dismisses conscience as “but a word that cowards use … to keep the strong in awe” and determines to let “Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law” (5.3.309-11). Yet his desperate determination to carry on “pell-mell; / If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell” (312-13) fulfills the curses to “Despair and die!” of his conscience-stricken dream. Richard's reckless despair, as well as the pattern of sin and repentance, illustrates Perkins' admonition that conscience cannot be extinguished. Those who “goe on in their owne waies against conscience,” he warns, “after the last judgement, shall have not onely their bodies in torment, but the worme in the soule and conscience shall never die” (3).

At the end of the first tetralogy, then, the conscience that brings murderers to repentance and troubles Richard's dreams is the clear voice of God's judgment, manifested in external events as well as in the individual soul. The psychic division of Richard's guilty conscience (“I love myself. … Alas, I rather hate myself’ [5.3.187, 189]) epitomizes the condition of the nation itself, an England torn apart by the rivalry of York and Lancaster, “Divided in their dire division” (5.5.28). On Bosworth field, Richard is defeated and killed by Richmond, who has slept the sleep of the just, and by an army in which “Every man's conscience is a thousand men” (5.2.17). Richmond's final speech announcing the uniting of the houses of York and Lancaster and praying for lasting peace tells us that the clear consciences of Richmond and his army have been the means through which God's providence will heal the divisions of the nation.7

In Henry V, the end of the second tetralogy, conscience is again a central issue, but its presentation is more complicated and ambiguous. Instead of a pattern of parallels and contrasts, in which several characters are defined in terms of their adherence to their consciences, the conscience of Henry himself commands the audience's attention. While in Richard III political problems are treated as the consequences of sin, of individuals acting against their consciences, in Henry V, an opaque political world is the given, the field in which moral decisions must be made.

When King Richard just before the battle of Bosworth Field dismisses “coward conscience” (R3, 5.3.179), his echo of the second murderer's equation of conscience and cowardice reminds us of the universality of the moral economy: the decisions of king and hired thug are basically homologous. All people have consciences that tell them to do good and avoid evil, and for all the differences in rank and power and severity of sin, the rejection of conscience is a rejection of God and a maiming of self by king and commoner alike. In contrast, Henry V directs our attention to the differences between Henry's moral responsibilities and those of his subjects. He is not primarily a symbol of his country, the product and cause of its guilt, nor an Everyman working out his individual salvation. As a person, Henry has a conscience that directs and judges his actions as he moves towards salvation or damnation. As a king, he is supreme political authority whose decisions have direct life-and-death consequences for his subjects and a moral authority with responsibility for the spiritual health of his country. In the year that Henry V was first performed, James VI of Scotland published Basilicon Doron, dedicated to his son and instructing him in “all the points of his calling, aswell generall, as a Christian towards God; as particular, as a King towards his people.8 According to James, conscience is “the conseruer of Religion, … nothing else, but the light of knowledge that God hath planted in man,” and he advises Prince Henry, “Above all … labour to keepe sound this conscience” by carefully examining it daily (17). Henry V similarly focuses on a monarch's dual responsibilities as a Christian and a king. In Richard III, an England guilty of rebellion and regicide has produced and suffers under the guilty ruler it deserves, and with Richard's death exorcizes its guilt and produces a king who will heal the nation morally as well as materially. Henry V demystifies this symbiotic relationship, scrutinizing the conscience of a king who would also be his country's conscience.

From his first appearance, where Henry questions the justness of his claims in France, to his soliloquy the night before the St. Crispin's Day battle, where he struggles with a sense of guilt for his father's usurpation of the crown, Henry's conscience is troubled. Such doubts and anxieties are signs of an active, rather than an evil, conscience, and demand resolution before action. Perkins repeatedly warns that “Whatsoever is not of faith, that is, whatsoever is not done of a setled perswasion in judgement and conscience out of Gods word, however men judge of it, is sinne” and thus “Whatsoever is done with a doubting conscience is a sinne” (41). Henry refuses to proceed against France until he is fully persuaded that he may “with right and conscience make this claim” (1.2.96). And he does not announce himself “well resolv'd” (222) until he is assured that England will be securely protected in his absence. Similarly, in his restless anxiety the night before the battle at Agincourt, Henry does not, like Richard before Bosworth, recklessly reject his conscience in guilt and despair, but thoughtfully analyzes his moral responsibilities in debate with common soldiers. When the disguised Henry claims, “I will speak my conscience of the King” (4.1.118-19), the Riverside gloss of conscience as “honest opinion” does not fully register its self-reflexive force. As Perkins explains, when men use such expressions as,

In my conscience I never thought it … they signifie that they thinke something or they thinke it not, & that their consciences can tell what they thinke. … For there be two actions of the understanding, the one is simple, which barely conceiveth or thinketh this or that: the other is a reflecting or doubting of the former, whereby a man conceives or thinks with himselfe what he thinkes. And this action properly pertaines to the conscience. … By it I conceive and know what I know.


When Henry says, “Methinks I could not die any where so contented as in the King's company, his cause being just and his quarrel honorable” (4.1.126-28), the audience is to understand that he has examined his conscience and is at peace with himself.

The establishment of Henry as a king with an active conscience begins even before he appears on stage. In the play's first scene, the bishops of Ely and Canterbury describe the radical transformation of madcap prince into gracious king:

The breath no sooner left his father's body,
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seem'd to die too; yea, at that very moment,
Consideration like an angel came
And whipt th'offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a paradise
T'envelop and contain celestial spirits.
Never was such a sudden scholar made;
Never came reformation in a flood
With such a heady currance, scouring faults.


The emphasis here is on the intellectual nature of the virtue Henry has acquired—“Consideration” has effected the change and produced a “scholar”—and on the sudden totality of his conversion. These emphases signal that the king's sobering experience is not merely grief at his father's death but enlightenment and rectification of his understanding. Also, as Gary Taylor observes in his note to reformation in line 33, “The Protestant Reformation must surely have influenced the nuance of this word for Elizabethans.”9 Henry has acquired not only a reformed, but a proto-Reformation conscience.

While the concept of conscience was pervasive, it was also unstable. English Protestant treatises on conscience by William Perkins, William Ames, Robert Sanderson, and Jeremy Taylor all define conscience and its workings, substantially as Aquinas had done, as the human mind operating morally, but Reformation emphasis on salvation by faith alone and on the individual's unmediated relation to God modified the understanding of conscience. While Catholic theologians held that the conscience derives its authority from God and insisted that acting against one's conscience is sinful, they also emphasized that an individual conscience may be wrong, and dealt with the troublesome problems of “erroneous” or “doubting” consciences by maintaining that they should be corrected and resolved by the guidance of the church. In contrast, Reformed theologians insisted that conscience is subject only to God's word as revealed in Scripture. And, though they accepted the traditional view that all humans have consciences, they also insisted that only regenerate consciences are good consciences and that a regenerate conscience requires a conversion through faith. According to Perkins, “Regenerate conscience is that which beefing corrupt by nature, is renewed and purged by faith in the blood of Christ. For to the regenerating of the conscience, there is required a conversion or change; because by nature all mens consciences since the fall are evill, and none are good by grace. The instrument serving to make this change is faith” (44). The implication for Protestant thought of this linking of conscience and faith is that conscience functions not only to apply knowledge of God's law to particular actions, as it does in scholastic thought, but to judge the person as a whole.10 As the sphere of conscience expanded from ethics to salvation, its emotional dimension became more important—for Luther, as important as the rational dimension, according to Michael Baylor.11 Perkins echoes Luther's understanding of the judgment of conscience as corresponding to God's judgment of the individual as a whole, and, while he defines conscience as a cognitive faculty, he too emphasizes its emotional effects—the shame, sadness, and terror of an accusing conscience and the confidence and joy of a clear conscience (39-41). Thus Huston Diehl's description of the Protestant conscience as an internalized self-disciplinary spectator should be qualified with acknowledgment of its empowering force. As she correctly observes, frequently “metaphors of sight and spectatorship … convey the inner workings of conscience,”12 but metaphors of conscience as precious jewel, guide, compass, book, ship, and physician are also common. On a single page, for example, Perkins calls an evil conscience sergeant, jailor, witness, judge, hangman, and hellfire, and figures a good conscience as man's best friend, a continual feast, and an earthly paradise (74). Perhaps most significantly, he claims that “two notable effects” of a regenerate conscience are boldness and confidence and echoes Luther in citing Proverbs 28:1 as a description of a regenerate conscience: “The righteous are bold as a lyon” (41).13

In Henry V, what David Kastan calls Henry's “characteristic idiom of moral certainty”14 suggests the boldness of a regenerate conscience as described by Protestant theologians. But Henry is also specifically a medieval Christian, “a true lover of the holy Church” (1.1.23), according to the Bishop of Ely. In the course of the play, Henry moves from a position as a medieval king consulting ecclesiastical authorities on political policy to one as an English Protestant king who recognizes no higher political or religious authority. By portraying this change, Henry V explores the moral and political implications of the emergent Protestant conscience in sixteenth-century England.

One aspect of Henry's development is increasing independence. At the beginning of the play he is a young king accepting the moral and political direction of the church. In Act 2, stung by the betrayal of trusted friends, he manipulates them to condemn themselves. By Act 3 he is a battle-hardened warrior making agonizingly difficult moral choices—to fight on with his exhausted army, to refuse to set a ransom for himself, to agree to the execution of his old friend, and in Act 4 to order the killing of the French prisoners—and making them alone. With this growth in independence comes a display of interiority. When Henry in his first scene has “some things of weight / That task our thoughts” (1.2.5-6), he sends for advisers. In Act 4, he looks for solitude: “I and my bosom must debate a while, / And then I would no other company” (4.1.31-32). His sardonic reference to the vastly larger enemy forces as “our outward consciences” because they serve as reminders “That we should dress us fairly for our end” (4.1.8, 10) calls attention to the inwardness of his examination of his conscience in the two soliloquies that follow. In the first, Henry complains about, but does not consider shirking, the responsibilities of kingship. Although his description of the mindless complacency of his subjects is obviously inaccurate and unfair as a description of the men he has just been talking with, his analysis of the discrepancy between the king's two bodies—his physical vulnerability and mental anguish as a man and his power as a king—is tough-minded and accurate. His analysis of the emptiness of ceremony, as Norman Rabkin has pointed out, is as clear-sighted as Falstaff's of honor.15 But the crucial difference is that, while Falstaff rejects honor, Henry does not reject ceremony. His attitude toward the ceremonies of monarchy reflects the Protestant attitude toward religious ceremonies: they have their uses but should not be idolized. King James advises his son to “learne wisely to discerne betwixt points of saluation and indifferent things, betwixt substance and ceremonies” (19) and to remember that “this glistering worldly glorie of Kings, is giuen them by God, to teach them so to preasse so to glister and shine before their people” (13). Similarly, Henry scoffs at ceremony as superstition—as an idol, a god eliciting adoration—but also understands that in social reality ceremony is “place, degree, and form, / Creating awe and fear in other men” (4.1.246-47), and he has no intention of rejecting “place, degree, and form” or the responsibilities they entail.

In his second soliloquy, Henry takes his problems of conscience directly to God, without the intervention of priestly authority explicating French law. Praying to the “God of battles” (4.1.289) to give his soldiers courage and confessing his inherited guilt from his father's usurpation, he illustrates the basic paradox of the emotional workings of the early modern Protestant conscience, the simultaneous presence of buoyant certainty and abject fear. Protestants stress the confidence of the regenerate conscience, but they also insist on its total humility. Luther, for example, argues that faith produces confidence that “the works which you do are acceptable and pleasing to God, whatever they may turn out to be,” but also insists, “you can have the confidence … when you realize that through these works you are nothing in His sight.”16 Within this frame of reference, Henry is bold and decisive at Agincourt because he knows that “all that I can do is nothing worth, / Since that my penitence comes after all / Imploring pardon” (4.1.303-5).

This internalization of conscience is expressed in a developing sense of nationhood. Henry's ambitions in France, which in the opening scenes are discussed in terms of family lineage and inherited right, by the battle at Agincourt have become a matter of national honor, transcending linguistic and class differences and uniting “a band of brothers” (4.3.60) in a common cause. Moreover, in assuming the moral authority of the church, Henry assumes responsibility to act as moral as well as military leader. According to James, God has made a king “a little GOD to sit on his Throne, and rule ouer other men” (12). Just as a king can learn “all the things necessarie for the discharge of [his] duetie, both as a Christian, and as a King” by looking to God, “seeing in him, as in a mirrour, the course of all earthly things, whereof hee is the spring and only moouer” (13), so a king should act as “a mirrour to [his] people … that therein they may see, by [his] image, what life they should leade” (34). A “King is not mere laicus [a mere layman]”(52); as conscience is “the light of knowledge that God hath planted in man” (17) so a king should be “a lampe and mirrour … giuing light to [his] seruants to walke in the path of venue” (42). As James recommends, Henry serves as a model to others: he inspires his army with his own courage, keeps his word to refuse to set a ransom for himself, applies the law impartially, and insists on attributing the English victory to God.17 When scrupulous Fluellen, whose tag phrase is “in my conscience,” wistfully asks whether boasting a bit about the body count is allowable, Henry agrees with a condition: “with this acknowledgment, / That God fought for us” (4.8.119-20). In Fluellen's response, “Yes, my conscience, he did us great good” (4.8.121), “my conscience” ambiguously both registers that in his own conscience he has accepted that human actions themselves are “nothing worth” and addresses Henry as his conscience.

But if the king was, as Kevin Sharpe says, “the conscience of the commonweal,”18 Henry also clearly distinguishes individual consciences. In addition to his exemplary courage, integrity, and humility, the characteristic form Henry's moral leadership takes is the urging of others to examine their consciences. Even in submitting his own case of conscience to the bishops, he warns them that his trust that “what you speak is in your conscience wash'd / As pure as sin with baptism” (1.2.31-32) involves them in responsibility for the consequences of their advice. A similar motive to guide his subjects in the path of virtue can explain his stratagem to trick the traitors, Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey, to condemn themselves out of their own mouths and to repent their perfidy. Insistence on personal moral responsibility also informs his charges against the French enemy. He sends word to the Dauphin that “his soul / Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance” (1.2.283) and to King Charles that “the widows' tears, the orphans' cries / The dead men's blood” are “on your head” (2.4.105-7) and warns the men of Harfleur, “you yourselves are cause” of the threatened horrors (33.19). Most notably, he rejects the charge from his own soldiers that the king is responsible for the souls of the men he leads into battle: “Every subject's duty is the King's, but every subject's soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier … wash every mote out of his conscience” (4.1.17680). Henry is not merely evading responsibility and blaming the victim, but insisting that every person has a conscience accountable to God.19

Shakespeare's representation of the Protestant conscience is far more sympathetic than, say, Jonson's satiric portrait of Zeal-of-the-Land-Busy. From the perspective of the Reformation conscience, Henry's combination of self-righteous certainty and self-effacing humility, which has proved so disturbing to modern critics, does not appear as Machiavellian hypocrisy.20 As king, Henry scrupulously examines his conscience, acts only when he has resolved his doubts, articulates profound awareness of the terrible consequences of his actions in innocent suffering, performs his duties zealously, administers the law justly, and inspires his subjects with a sense of national purpose. But without undercutting Henry's good intentions, the play also raises questions about the decisions themselves and the devious and violent means by which they are carried out and thus about the implications of the transfer of moral authority from the universal church to the sovereign state. Henry's assumption that he can both respect the individual consciences of his subjects and yet command their obedience exemplifies, as Kevin Sharpe observes, “the central problem of the early modern state: if conscience were the foundation of the duty of obedience to princes, yet conscience informed some subjects that the ruler acted ‘directly against God’, how could monarchy and the commonweal survive?”21

The most direct challenge to Henry's image as his country's conscience comes from the soldier Michael Williams the night before the battle of Agincourt. Williams is skeptical about the justice of the war and imagines the judgment the king would face for wasting lives for an unjust cause: “if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs, and arms, and heads, chopp'd off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such a place’” (4.1.134-38). More disturbing for Henry, however, Williams goes on to hold the king morally responsible for placing his soldiers in a situation where they are unable to prepare themselves for death and judgment:

I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it; who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.


Henry presents two arguments to defend himself. First, by drawing an analogy linking king, master, and father, he argues that authorities are not responsible for the unintended consequences of their orders: “The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death when they purpose their services” (4.1.155-58). His second argument is that each soldier is morally responsible for himself: “Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers … every subject's soul is his own” (4.1.158-77).

Henry's argument that he is not responsible for other men's souls provides the theoretical foundation for his speech at the siege of Harfleur, where he not only charges the consciences of the men of Harfleur with guilt for the terrible consequences of resistance, but by invoking the image of a soldier “With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass / Your fresh fair virgins and your flow'ring infants” (3.3.13-14), he implicitly distances his own conscience from the savage latitude of his soldiers' in the heat of battle. By acknowledging the independent consciences of his soldiers and the capacity of the fallen human conscience to embrace hellish acts, he also admits limits to his moral authority and acknowledges that he does not embody a collective English conscience. Indeed he emphasizes his inability to exercise moral authority over his troops:

We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon th' enraged soldiers in their spoil,
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore. …


Henry's speech at Harfleur, then, is consistent with his emphasis on each soldier's moral independence in his reply to Michael Williams, but it also reveals the inadequacy of his response to the problems Williams raises, revealing the oversimplification of his primary argument that a king is morally responsible only for the results he consciously intends. His analogy linking king, master, and father is familiar. Citing Cicero, James uses it to contrast a “good King,” who is like a “naturall father and kindly Master,” with a tyrant, who is like “a step-father and an uncouth hireling” (20). In both cases the analogy obscures important differences among political, familial, and economic relationships. First, Henry's claim of innocent intentions is simplistic. Although Henry may “purpose not their death” when he sends men into battle, he makes clear that he fully intends the “waste and desolation” (3.3.18) they commit. Of course, he does not actually subject the city's inhabitants to the savage violence he threatens. The violence of his language, in fact, is a successful tactic for avoiding the horrors he describes. Yet if Henry distinguishes his repugnance for “murther, spoil, and villainy” from the ferocity of “th' enraged soldiers in their spoil” (32, 25), he also insists that the decision to cause the “waste and desolation” is his to make and that he will make it without regret. After Agincourt he attributes victory to God, but when the crucial battles are yet to be won, he does not rely on the “God of battles,” nor does he, like Richmond at Bosworth field, suggest that his forces will win because their hearts are pure and their cause just. He uses the threat of rape and rapine as a military tactic and announces his willingness to use them in fact. Far from being “the mirror of all Christian kings” (2.6), in which his people can see themselves in an image of virtue, Henry deliberately sets up “the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand” (3.3.34) as the mirror in which he sees himself: “I am a soldier, / A name that in my thoughts becomes me best” (5.6).

The play's foregrounding of the clash between Henry's image of himself at Harfleur releasing “the flesh'd soldier” to range “in liberty of bloody hand” (3.3.11-12) with his image of himself before Agincourt keeping watch “to maintain the peace” (4.1.283) dramatizes not the hypocrisy of a callous manipulator but the inadequacy of a concept of conscience as wholly internal good intentions. While the clergymen who advise Henry that his cause is just in order to protect the financial interests of the church show the limitations of a consequentialist morality, Henry illustrates the dangers of an intentionalist morality. The play presents him as genuinely convinced of the rightness of his cause and appalled by the horrors of war but unaware that, as Jeremy Taylor says in his monumental work on conscience written after the civil war, there are “social crimes, in which a man's will is deeper than his hand” and people are responsible for the crimes others commit in their name with their approval.22 According to Taylor, although sin always involves some degree of choice, responsible choice includes diligent consideration of the consequences of one's actions, and people are responsible for the sins they foresee and cause but commit involuntarily.23 Although Henry's defense relies on the concept of intention, Michael Williams has argued that the king is morally responsible for the unintended consequences of his actions, for imperiling the souls of his subjects: “if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it” (4.1.144-45). Like King James, Henry assumes that a king is responsible for promoting the spiritual as well as the material well-being of his subjects, but, although he acknowledges responsibility for the physical suffering and death consequent on his decision to invade France, he fails to accept responsibility for the moral and spiritual consequences for his men of his decision to fight at Agincourt against overwhelming odds. His advice that “every soldier in the wars [should] do as every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience” (4.1.178-80) rings hollow after his vivid description of the bloodlust of “enraged soldiers” with “conscience wide as hell” (3.3.25, 13).

Henry's debate with his soldiers raises troubling questions about the moral responsibilities of subjects as well as of the king. Williams is unconvinced by the disguised king's self-defense and continues to express skepticism about his trustworthiness, but since he never argued that the sins of the soldiers who die unrepentant are somehow transferred to the king, he easily agrees that “every subject's soul is his own” and that no one can avoid God's judgment: “'Tis certain, every man that dies ill, the ill upon his own head, the King is not to answer it” (4.1.186-87). And he apparently concurs with John Bates's opinion that common soldiers are not responsible for judging the justice of the cause they fight for: “we know enough, if we know we are the King's subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us” (4.1.131-33). But Williams's pessimism about the possibility of virtue on the battle field and his belief that “to disobey were against all proportion of subjection” (4.1.145-46), opinions he shares with Henry, show soldiers in an impossible moral dilemma and reveal how attenuated the concept of volition is within an ethic of unquestioning obedience. Theorists of conscience present the same impasse, agreeing both that conscience dictates obedience to human rulers and that the law of God supersedes human authority. Perkins, for example, indignantly condemns “notorious rebels … that beefing borne subjects of this land, yet choose rather to die then to acknowledge (as they are bound in conscience) the Kings Majestie to bee supreame governour under God in all causes and over all persons” (37-38), and he is equally adamant that if human authority commands “things that are evill and forbidden by God, then is there no bond of conscience at al; but contrariwise men are bound in conscience not to obey” (34). Citing the locus classicus on obedience, Romans 13.5, “yee must bee subject not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake,” he comments, “Magistracie is indeede an ordinace of God to which wee owe subjection, but how farre subjection is due, there is the question” (26).

No one in the debate in Act 4 questions the extent of subjection, but the play raises the issue obliquely through the figure of the Boy. Shamed and disgusted by the antics of the “three swashers,” Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym, the Boy concludes his catalogue of their cowardice and thievery with a complaint about their requirements of him and a decision to leave their service:

They would have me as familiar with men's pockets as their gloves or their handkerchers; which makes much against my manhood, if I should take from another's pocket to put into mine; for it is plain pocketing up of wrongs. I must leave them, and seek some better service. Their villainy goes against my weak stomach, and therefore I must cast it up.


In deciding to leave his masters, the Boy faces a case of conscience much like Launcelot Gobbo's dilemma of whether to flee from Shylock's service and the one Prince Hal poses to Francis. Launcelot Gobbo, who thinks of his decision as a psychomachia with his conscience advocating obedience to authority and “the fiend” encouraging flight, is irremediably caught between two evils, since his conscience tells him to stay with “the Jew my master, who … is a kind of devil” and “the fiend … is the devil himself’ (MV2.2.22-27). When Prince Hal challenges Francis, he puts the question in terms of courage and cowardice rather than of good and evil but also points the paradox involved in renouncing the service of a lawful master: “darest thou be so valiant as to play the coward with thy indenture, and show it a fair pair of heels and run from it?” (1H4 2.4.46-48). Like Prince Hal, the Boy sees the decision as a question of valor and, like Launcelot Gobbo, he understands it as a moral choice. But only the Boy is unequivocal that he must “seek some better service.” None of these plays invites the audience to endorse the actual repudiation of a lawful master. Shylock willingly agrees to negotiate Launcelot Gobbo's change of service, and poor Francis does not understand the question much less attempt to act on the suggestion. The Boy presumably is killed in the French slaughter of the boys guarding the luggage before he can act on his decision, but his response to the “plain pocketing up of wrongs” raises the possibility of disobedience as a moral duty.

Henry V portrays with remarkable fullness the understandings of conscience current at the end of the sixteenth century. The Chorus's descriptions present conscience as the voice of God manifested in Henry as “the mirror of all Christian kings” shaping human history; soliloquies dramatize conscience as the fallible capacity for self-reflection in the individual soul's relation to God; and scenes of dialogue and debate dramatize, in the circumstantial particularities of human interaction, the conflicts arising from the tension between a concept of conscience as God's will always and everywhere the same and a concept of conscience as private and individual. The play does not attempt to harmonize the unsettling resonances between Bates's principle that subjection removes moral responsibility and the Boy's visceral decision that he can no longer stomach following villainous orders. Similarly it does not reconcile the mercifulness of Henry's order to treat French civilians leniently and respectfully with the ruthlessness of his command to kill all the French prisoners, nor does it mitigate the emotional impact of the application of the order against looting in the execution of Bardolph. The primary effect of these unresolved problems, I think, is not to render the figure of Henry ambiguous but to engage the consciences of the audience with these doubtful cases. Gary Taylor suggests that the pattern of audience response in Henry's decision to invade France, to threaten Harfleur, and to kill the prisoners is to raise our suspicions and then to allay them, emotionally at least.24 I would argue rather that in each case the play directs us to understand Henry's conscientious decisions but neither to condemn nor to endorse them. While Henry resolves his doubts, the play stimulates doubt in the audience. Joel Altman has demonstrated that imaginative participation in Henry's on-stage war allowed original audiences to play out the emotional ambivalences of the off-stage Irish war and to embrace the imperialist venture even while questioning its values.25 Although Altman's analysis brilliantly accounts for the play's emotional power, I am skeptical that the theatrical sacralizing of violence he describes silences the questions the play raises, either about Henry's decisions or about their application to other times and places. That is, the interplay of choric commentary, soliloquy, and debate activates the consciences of the audience without offering clearly right answers to specific cases; the imaginative participation the play invites includes the engagement of our moral reason.

In particular, Henry's sense of monarchal duty, Fluellen's rigid adherence to law and precedent, Williams's stubborn integrity, and the Boy's planned rebellion suggest that the concept of the authority of the individual conscience may undermine national cohesiveness in a hierarchical social structure. His subjects' conscientious performance of duty, which is the foundation of Henry's power, is a potential threat to that power. Through his trick with the glove, Henry finds a way to enable Williams to keep his word and thus satisfy his conscience without violating hierarchical principle. But while this representational strategy allows the plot to move to harmonious resolution, it does not conceal the deviousness of Henry's stratagem or the suggestion that differences among individual consciences may create conflicts that cannot be reconciled. The Epilogue reminds the audience of the fortuitousness of Henry's victories—“Fortune made his sword” (6)—and of the bloodshed that follows in his son's reign when “so many had the managing” (11) of the state. That is history, already performed on the stage. It also reminds us, though not the play's original audiences, that in the future, within fifty years, England will bleed again when Royalists and Parliamentarians fight for conscience's sake.


  1. Anne Ferry, The “Inward Language”: Sonnets of Wyatt, Sidney, Shakespeare, Donne (U. of Chicago Press, 1983), Chapter 1.

  2. Ferry, 45.

  3. William Fenner, The Souls Looking-glasse … With a Treatise of Conscience (Cambridge: Roger Daniel for John Rothwell, 1640), 38.

  4. William Perkins, “A Discourse of Conscience” in William Perkins, 1558-1602, ed. Thomas F. Merrill (Nieukoop: B. DeGraaf, 1966), 9.

  5. John Speed, The History of Great Britaine (London, 1611), 832.

  6. The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al., 2nd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

  7. I discuss conscience in Richard III in more detail and from a different perspective in The Casuistical Tradition in Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, and Milton (Princeton U. Press, 1981), 68-79.

  8. Basilicon Doron in King James VI and I: Political Writings, ed. Johann P. Sommerville (Cambridge University Press, 1994), 2.

  9. Henry V, ed. Gary Taylor, The World's Classics (Oxford U. Press, 1994) 1.1.34n. In “The Hybrid Reformations of Shakespeare's Second Henriad,Comparative Drama 32 (1998): 176-206, Maurice Hunt discusses attempts at reformation in Henry IV, I and 2 and Henry V as Shakespeare's melding of Protestant and Catholic elements.

  10. See Michael G. Baylor, Action and Person: Conscience in Late Scholasticism and the Young Luther, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Thought, vol. 20 (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977), Chapter 6.

  11. Baylor, 209.

  12. Huston Diehl, Staging Reform, Reforming the State: Protestantism and Popular Theater in Early Modern England (Cornell U. Press, 1997), 202.

  13. Cf. Luther's Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan and Helmut T. Lehmann, 55 vols. (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1955-76), 25:400.

  14. David Scott Kastan, Shakespeare and the Shapes of Time (University Press of New England, 1982), 64.

  15. Norman Rabkin, Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (U. of Chicago Press, 1981), 47-48

  16. Works, 360.

  17. I am not suggesting, of course, the direct influence of Basilicon Doron on Henry V. The reference to the Irish expedition in the fifth chorus suggests dating the play in the Spring of 1599. James's treatise was written in 1598 in Middle Scots, and in 1599 an English version was printed in a very limited edition of seven copies. It did not become widely available in England until 1603 with the publishing of a revised English edition with an added preface. Sommerville, “Introduction” xviii. Also see Jenny Wormald, “James VI and I: Basilikon Doron and The Trew Law of Free Monarchies: The Scottish Context and the English Translation” in The Mental World of the Jacobean Court, ed. Linda Levy Peck (Cambridge U. Press, 1991), 36-54.

  18. Kevin Sharpe, “Private Conscience and Public Duty in the Writings of James VI and I” in Public Duty and Private Conscience in Seventeenth-Century England, ed. John Morrill, Paul Slack, and Daniel Woolf (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), 80.

  19. Henry's evasion of responsibility is stressed by W. L. Godshalk in “Henry V's Politics of Non-Responsibility,” Cahiers Elisabethains 17 (1980): 11-20 and by Richard Helgerson in Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (U. of Chicago Press, 1994), 231, 232. Dennis Kezar argues convincingly that Henry V's distribution of guilt uses theological concepts to explore metadramatically questions of authorial function and responsibility. “Shakespeare's Guilt Trip in Henry V,MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly] 61.3 (2000): 431-61.

  20. Condemning Henry, as Harry Berger says, “is currently considered a sign of liberal chic.” I want to demonstrate that focusing on Henry's conscience—its earnest humility as well as its self-righteous evasions—precludes the reductiveness of both sides in what Berger describes as “a tedious squabble … between Harry-lovers and Harry-haters.” Making Trifles of Terrors: Redistributing Complicities in Shakespeare (Stanford U. Press, 1997): 250.

  21. [See note 18].

  22. Jeremy Taylor, The Whole Works, ed. Reginald Heber, rev. C. P. Eden (Oxford, 1854), 10:570.

  23. Taylor, 10:611-16

  24. “Introduction,” 38.

  25. Joel B. Altman, “‘Vile Participation’: The Amplification of Violence in the Threater of Henry V,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] (1991): 1-32.

Robert Shaughnessy (essay date May 1998)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8809

SOURCE: Shaughnessy, Robert. “The Last Post: Henry V, War Culture and the Postmodern Shakespeare.” Theatre Survey 39, no. 1 (May 1998): 41-61.

[In the following essay, Shaughnessy surveys stage and film versions of Henry V from the postwar period, evaluating the ways in which the interpretative principles of postmodernism increasingly informed these productions.]

“Marketing, that mysterious part of the theatre industry, can produce surprising effects,”’ observes Peter Holland in his recent book on Shakespearean production in Britain during the 1990s.1 Discussing the material constraints on the repertory of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Holland cites the promotion of the 1994 production of Coriolanus as it transferred to the Barbican, which, knowingly addressed a “youth” market versed in the work of Oliver Stone and Quentin Tarantino. The RSC poster displayed a blood-soaked Toby Stephens in the title role, accompanied by the slogan “A natural born killer too.” For an even more surprising and mysterious example of optimistically modish marketing, consider the tactics of the newspaper advertisement announcing the 1996 season at Stratford-upon-Avon. Avoiding any direct mention of Shakespeare, his plays, or theatre, it pictured an ominously darkened cloudscape, with slogans projected onto it, almost like skywriting. These posed a question, “Virtual reality?” and a riposte: “Try the real thing.” This intriguing solicitation aptly summarized the RSC's current perception of its position as an organization dedicated to the production of Shakespeare's plays within the global multi-media cultural economy. On the face of it, this was a none-too-subtle attempt to expand and rejuvenate the RSC's audience base. Closer inspection reveals an antithesis between the virtual and the real that rehearses a well-entrenched opposition between the insubstantial, possibly worthless, even narcotic products of technological mass culture, characterized by banality and nerdish triviality on the one hand, and high theatrical culture, centered, inevitably, on Shakespeare on the other. It is equally evident that the exhortation to “try the real thing” evokes the qualities of immediacy, relevance, even danger, as well as those of authority and authenticity that have traditionally informed the company's work and provided its raison d'etre. The advertisement also offers a point of departure for a consideration of the relations between contemporary RSC Shakespeare and postmodernism. The opposition also implicitly differentiates between the modernist and postmodernist modes of cultural production or between a conception of theatre as high art that (notwithstanding the populist aspirations of successive RSC administrations) has held sway at Stratford since the early 1960s, and what Fredric Jameson has famously termed the “cultural logic of late capitalism”; the logic, that is, of “consumer society, media society, information society, electronic society or high tech, and the like.”2 Much virtue in “virtual.”

There is, however, some irony in this particular instance of RSC self-promotion. Even if we ignore the not-so-faint echoes of the slogan of the Coca Cola Company (purveyor of perhaps the central component of globalized culture), and leave aside the Pirandellian question of how theatrical performance has become the “real thing,” it has become evident in recent years that the RSC's repertoire is no longer (if it ever was) separable from mass and media culture. Viewed within the frame of high culture, of course, the postmodern theatrical Shakespeare has begun to attract some critical attention.3 Dennis Kennedy identifies the key characteristics of this latest phase of Shakespearean production toward the end of his history of Shakespearean stage performance in twentieth-century Europe and America. Contemporary Shakespearean production is, he argues, mesmerized by the rhetoric of the image, and what he terms “neo-pictorialism” is dominant. This mode is characterized by self-consciousness, intertextuality, baroque ornamentation, eclecticism, quotation, hybridity, and pastiche. It is typified by the Shakespeare productions of figures as diverse as Peter Zadek in West Germany, Ariane Mnouchkine at the Theatre du Soleil in Paris, Robin Phillips at Stratford, Ontario, and Adrian Noble at Stratford-upon-Avon. Kennedy observes that the lingua franca of late twentieth-century Shakespearean stage production carries the distinguishing marks of the postmodern, signaled by “a clear preference for the metaphoric over the metonymic” and “a trans-historical or anti-historical use of eclectic costuming and displaced scenery, creating, through irony, a disjunction between the pastness of Shakespeare's plays and the ways we now receive them.”4 In this essay I wish to explore further some of the effects of this pervasive sense of irony, displacement, and disjunction, first by offering a brief overview of the RSC's work in the 1980s and early 1990s, and then by means of a more extended discussion of a recent postmodern production, the 1994 revival of Henry V, directed by Matthew Warchus.

As a self-reflexive, stylistically eclectic and contradictory text, Henry V is already easily readable as a presciently postmodern work; it has, moreover, also become increasingly problematic in terms of its cultural politics. If Kennedy's sense of the “pastness” of the play can be extended to include not only the evidently archaic qualities of language, characterization, and ideology but its specific cultural histories, the pastness of Henry V is partly constituted by its contribution to the shaping of British national identity in terms of military conquest. As Kennedy notes, the postmodern Shakespeare is not simply a repertoire of stylistic devices, but operates within the context of postcolonial and intercultural Shakespeare, where, Barbara Hodgdon writes, the yoking of “divergent cultural materials and identities into pastiche, collage, and bricolage, is oppositional to the grand literary and theatrical narratives that would draw national and cultural boundaries around ‘Shakespeare’ and manage ‘his’ meanings.”5 But the 1994 Henry V demonstrates that, in the case of the RSC, the postmodern Shakespeare is constituted by relations between text and mise-en-scene that are governed and administered within national and cultural boundaries, themselves rather less secure than they might at first appear.


Before beginning a detailed discussion of this production, however, I need to establish its broader critical and theatrical context. In order to recognize the distinctive features of the postmodern RSC Shakespeare, it is necessary to set it against its modernist antecedents. The late 1970s were both a defining moment in Shakespearean performance criticism and a period of significant transition for the English Shakespearean theatre. If “neopictorialism” has become the dominant mode in the last decade-and-a-half, it was certainly not the future imagined for Shakespeare, particularly within performance criticism twenty years ago. In 1977, J. L. Styan proclaimed a “revolution” in both criticism and performance, and, declaring that “the straining towards a psychological and pictorial realism for Shakespeare” was “all in the past,” confidently prophesied the revival of “the half-apprehended mystery of a supremely non-illusory drama and theatre.”6 This was apparently confirmed by RSC practice. The 1970s saw celebrated non-illusionist productions such as Peter Brook's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 1970, John Barton's ritualistic Richard II in 1973, and, on a smaller scale, Buzz Goodbody's Hamlet and Trevor Nunn's Macbeth in The Other Place in 1975 and 1976, respectively. Much of this was seen in another definitive RSC event of the 1970s, Terry Hands's 1975 production of Henry V. In 1977, RSC director Barry Kyle confidently declared that “there's a new simplicity, director's theatre is dead.”7 As almost everybody recognized at the time, the move towards the “poor Shakespeare”8 of scenic austerity was more the product of a progressive squeeze on the company's funding than an application of the methods of Poel, Granville-Barker, Guthrie, Brecht, Grotowski, or Brook; nonetheless, the work of this period was in a tradition of twentieth-century Shakespearean performance which operated within the paradigm that Hugh Grady has identified as the “modernist Shakespeare” in that it aimed to offer “a critical and Utopian alternative to instrumental reason and capitalist discipline.”9 The empty-space aesthetic of the 1970s was recognizably modernist, insofar as it was founded upon a metaphysics of presence, and upon the unity and hermetic self-sufficiency of both text and performance. The productions of the 1970s demonstrated a close convergence of theatrical and literary values, as the eschewal of illusion and spectacle appeared to be coextensive with respect for or trust in the text; these maneuverings, in turn, derived their immediate impetus from the rich (but also unstable) combination of E. M. W. Tillyard, F. R. Leavis, and Jan Kott that provided the critical and theoretical rationale for much of the RSC's work.10

But in the early 1980s it all changed. At the turn of the decade, the RSC took stock of its position in the cultural market-place and, as Terry Hands recalled (in terms which suggest a diversification of a portfolio of investments), “took a policy decision to go into spectacle.”11 Initially, the change of direction was signaled in Trevor Nunn's 1981 production of All's Well that Ends Well, which located the play in what Nicholas Shrimpton described as an “explicitly and persuasively Edwardian” social world.12 The setting provided a context for a notoriously difficult play, offering a persuasive rationale for both Bertram's rejection of Helena and what emerged as her proto-feminist assertiveness. In retrospect, however, the scrupulous historicity of this production seemed more like an elegiac tribute to a vanished era of realist pictorialism (and hence, in itself a postmodern strategy of stylistic pastiche) than a clue to the future direction of the RSC. This kind of actualization of social settings as complete, coherent, and comprehensible reflects a positivist historiographical perspective which is in turn a product of enlightenment rationality. It declares a certain faith in the grand recits of history in that it attempts to substantiate the motives and behavior of Shakespeare's characters and to contextualize the action of the plays. A year later, however, the main-stage debut of director Adrian Noble and designer Bob Crowley established a different kind of postmodern pictorialism as the dominant form. In their 1982 King Lear, the specificity of historical reference that had underpinned All 's Well was supplanted by a freewheelingly anachronistic and eclectic mise-en-scene. This appeared to range from the Austro-Hungarian empire to the nineteenth-century English music hall to contemporary Beirut, from the world of Edward Bond's Lear to that of Beckett's Endgame. It featured, Shrimpton recorded, “everything from Russian soldiers with sandbags to Japanese kendo fighters.” Although Shrimpton thought this merely “whimsically diverse”13 (the Shakespeare Quarterly reviewer similarly described it as a “hideous visual muddle”14), the production could be seen as staging the postmodern fragmentation and commodification of history itself as, to quote Jameson again, “a vast collection of images, a multitudinous photographic simulacrum,” fueling the fantasies of “a society bereft of all historicity, one whose own putative past is little more than a set of dusty spectacles.”15King Lear was followed, in 1984, by a Measure for Measure which, although apparently set in an eighteenth-century Vienna, featured an electric chair for the prison scenes and depicted Mariana's moated grange as “a Jazz Age villa on the French Riviera.”16 A “post-Falklands” Henry V followed in which fifteenth-century French aristocrats in black velvet and golden armor went to battle with an English army in anonymous combat fatigues which “inevitably prompted associations with the First World War.”17 Bill Alexander's A Midsummer Night's Dream, in 1986, “placed the court of Theseus in 1930s Mayfair, took the mechanicals from a 1950s beatnik espresso bar, and (despite lip-service to Arthur Rackham) based the fairy scenes on Cicely M. Barker's saccharine Flower Fairies.18 The culmination of this trend was John Caird's exuberant, and, as Stanley Wells put it, “brilliantly clever, consistently postmodern”19 production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the end of the decade, which treated the conjuncture of play and production as a huge metatheatrical joke. In this production, which trawled shamelessly through Anglo-American popular and high culture, as well as through the stage and screen history of the play, the stage was filled with scrapyard junk, delinquent fairies were dressed in heavy boots and shoddy gauze wings, and Puck was portrayed as a combination of “Just William, Bugs Bunny, Olivier's Richard III, Ken Dodd, Biggles, Groucho, Batman.”20 This was not only theatre about theatre; it was also a richly anarchic celebration of the relations between Shakespearean tradition and pulp culture.

Placed in its broader theatrical context, the neo-pictorial RSC Shakespeare of the 1980s and 1990s may well reflect the influence, not only of Euro-Shakespeare, but of the postmodern theatrical avant-garde, typified by the work of Robert Wilson, where, as Nick Kaye summarizes, the “gradual transformation and development of images which reflect and fold into each other … continually invites and at the same time seeks to displace particular readings.”21

I would suggest, in addition, that the RSC's mutating house style owes as much to the influence of cinema. The mixing of styles, genres and periods is reminiscent of a number of postmodern cult movies of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Ridley Scott's Blade Runner and Terry Gilliam's Brazil, as well as of the “art house” films of Peter Greenaway (most obviously, the “neo-Jacobean” The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover and, of course, Prospero's Books) and Derek Jarman (The Tempest and Caravaggio). In the RSC's productions of the history plays, in particular, the juxtaposition of disparate periods deliberately confused the mythical past, fragmented present and imagined future, producing a weird hybrid of costume drama and science fiction. In Noble's Henry V, which has already been mentioned, the French appeared at Agincourt “on a gleaming, pennant-hung gallery which beams down on the stage with spaceship lights.”22 The awesome armor and weaponry of The Plantagenets (Noble's 1988 adaptation of the First Tetralogy) suggested a kind of medieval cyberpunk, recalling the milieu of The Terminator and RoboCop. In The Plantagenets, especially, the re-presentation of the Elizabethan “world picture” as baroque technological spectacle provided an analogue for the cyberpunk worldview characterized by Jameson as a vision of “the labyrinthine conspiracies of autonomous but deadly interlocking and competing information agencies … the impossible totality of the contemporary world system.”23 Increasingly, during the 1980s, Shakespeare's texts were read and presented in cinematic terms—the borrowings from, and references to, film culture proliferated, and stage productions drew upon its repertoire of images of the past as if these were the substance of history itself. Bob Crowley said of Henry V that “it was as though Shakespeare had composed the very first film script.”24 Maria Bjornson's monochrome design for the 1984 Hamlet depicted “a Jacobean film noir.”25 A world of movie gangsters and detectives was also evoked in the same season's Measure for Measure, according to Nicholas Shrimpton, with prison scenes conjuring “the State Pen circa 1930—a wall of grey bricks and an electric chair.”26 In Bill Alexander's Merry Wives of Windsor (1985), set in the 1950s, the cinematic references were even more overt: “characters rushed about … to incidental music in the manner of the Ealing Comedies … Dr. Caius became (to very good effect) a medical equivalent of Peter Sellers's Inspector Clouseau”; Nicky Henson's disguised Ford appeared “dressed in a Hollywood tough guy's trench coat”27 (like Harrison Ford in Blade Runner). In Ian Judge's 1990 production of The Comedy of Errors, cinematic intertextuality activated the various layerings of illusion and artifice: the first scene “began in police-cell monochrome” for Egeon's narrative, but moved “at once from black and white to the Technicolor of Mark Thompson's shamelessly vivid set … the transformation to this surreal dreamscape was rather like that in the film of The Wizard of Oz.” (Peter Holland also caught hints of the Beatles' Yellow Submarine.28) Whereas during the 1970s, the square box of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre had aspired to the condition of the Wooden O, it now seemed to want to transform itself into the silver screen.

This sustained preoccupation with film culture on the part of the RSC during the 1980s and 1990s is one of the most visible ways in which the company's work has become postmodernized, and may well reflect increasingly pressing (although rarely openly articulated) concerns about the changing status of the theatre within media culture. Working upon the fair assumption that the bulk of the RSC audience will command a degree of cine-literacy which is likely to be considerably higher than their knowledge of literary, theatrical, or art history, easy-to-spot references to the film canon now function rather like Peter Brook's use of Watteau in his 1946 Love's Labour's Lost, or of Beckett in his 1962 King Lear. It is also important that the heyday of Styan's Shakespearean revolution, which supposedly saw specifically theatrical production situated at the center of Shakespeare studies, coincided with the arrival of the cheap video technology that decisively moved the teachings and criticism of Shakespeare-in-performance from the domain of the theatre into that of film and television. This has involved a shift from live performance towards a new set of texts—whether these are the canonical film versions of Olivier, Kurosawa, and Branagh, the dull but reliable BBC Television Shakespeares, or the more user-friendly animated Shakespeares. As public perceptions of the plays are increasingly shaped by their screen versions (which present their own hierarchies of definitive and variant readings), live performance seems to carry less and less conviction as the true or natural home of Shakespeare.

I suggest, moreover, that the combination of postmodern scenography and cinematic intertextuality is beginning to have a significant impact upon the way the text-performance relationship is perceived, and hence signals a significant shift in the RSC's use of Shakespeare. The old imperatives of faithfulness to the text and topicality, a conjuncture which Alan Sinfield has labeled “Shakespeare-plus-relevance,”29 have given way to irony, knowingness, and, in some instances, to camp. If the half-empty spaces of the 1970s aimed to reveal the essential Shakespeare by stripping away what was extraneous and inorganic, the productions of the 1980s and 1990s reversed this process by situating the plays amidst a ludic proliferation of images, quotations, and associations. Increasingly, Shakespeare's texts might be said to be quoted rather than spoken; the act of interpretation is foregrounded. Rather than being located “in” performance (as in the modernist paradigm), the “text” of the postmodern Shakespeare is suspended alongside it in wry quotation marks. What this involves is a desanctification of the formerly empty stage itself—no longer evacuated and hermetically sealed from history, the Royal Shakespeare Theatre now acknowledges its permeable boundaries, acknowledges that it is as likely to register the traces of the mass media as any other cultural space. Even more disconcertingly, the typically postmodern playful refusal of depth, origin, and foundation may also threaten to dismantle the humanist subject of modernist Shakespearean performance. Benedict Nightingale observed of the 1982 King Lear that its visual inventiveness risked “substituting theatricality for truth of feeling.” Robert Smallwood voiced similar doubts about the 1989 Dream, arguing that the relentless theatrical virtuosity eradicated both character and genuine feeling: “the audience applauded a performer as they might applaud a magician doing his turn.” Peter Holland criticized the 1990 Comedy of Errors in much the same terms. Appraising the production's essentially cinematic (or televisual) tactic of having the sets of twins each played by a single actor, he concluded that the inventiveness and ingenuity of the staging became far more important than the action of the play: “the history of the characters is replaced by the history of the performance.”30 This displacement itself signifies a postmodern rupture, between a depth model of self/character and a performative account of subjectivity.


There is much at stake here, I suggest: not only the “humanity” of Shakespeare in the broad sense, but, more narrowly and perhaps (for some) even more troublingly, Englishness itself as recurrent anxieties about the self-referential virtuosities of director's and designer's Shakespeare coupled with the perennial issue of the quality of verse speaking, reflect a deeper unease over the changing status of the Shakespearean text, and over the continuing viability of the cultural and national values that it supposedly embodies. It is here that we may turn to Henry V, a text whose own stage and screen history in the British Isles demonstrates the close relations between the reproduction of Shakespearean drama, the military adventures of the English/British, and the fashioning of national identities. The play's political significance lies not simply in its ostensible “relevance” to the historical and political situations in which it has been read, quoted, staged and screened, but also in its capacity actively to produce national history and patriotic myth. As Tom Healy observes, “whether extended by spectacle or depleted by cuts, the play has come to constitute the actual history of national comradeship which it purports merely to be culturally celebrating.”31 The most important twentieth-century version of Henry V, in this respect, is Laurence Olivier's 1944 film; and because they are central to the 1994 production, the implications of the dominance of this film text over the play's subsequent stage history need to be briefly addressed. Martin Banham has commented that “when thinking of Henry V many of us think first of the play as a film—Laurence Olivier's famous version”; Ralph Berry refers to the film's “dominant grip on the public consciousness.” Both comments point to the profoundly ideological nature of its role within post-war culture.32 As Berry has demonstrated, every stage version of the play since the war has taken its bearings from Olivier, especially, from the 1960s onwards, in the form of anti-heroic counter-readings, set in conspicuous opposition to Olivier's heroic and celebratory account of Henry and of Agincourt. The best-known instance of this is Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film of Henry V, which, as has been shown by a number of commentators, is locked into what Peter Donaldson characterizes as an Oedipal “intertextual rivalry”33 with Olivier's film text; and which, Branagh declared, sought to liberate the play “from jingoism and World War Two associations.”34

The point is that these associations are specifically focused upon Olivier's film. What I wish to emphasize here is the remarkable convergence of the cinematic strategies deployed in the film, the film's continuing ideological role within British culture, and the post-war stage history of Henry V itself. It is well known that the most spectacular (that is, the most purely cinematic as well as extra-textual) elements of Olivier's film (notably the setpiece battle scenes) have been the key factor in its particular potency in its first instance and its popularity ever since; and it has been recognized that this is where the film most clearly evidences “its patriotic application of the play to the current national crisis” and where it celebrates “the confident, militaristic emotions of 1944.”35 But as a number of commentators have argued, the film's ideology is less cohesive than it appears—in particular, the opening scenes at the Globe complicate (and possibly even subvert) the patriotic project. Of particular relevance here is Graham Holderness's emphasis upon the disruptive potential of the first, “theatrical” part of the film, which, he argues, “distance[s] the art of film from reality, displaying the artificiality of the medium in such a way as to qualify (though not, ultimately, to dispel) the passionate conviction of the patriotic emotion.”36 Importantly, this qualification, and the ambivalence which it articulates, are mediated through an interplay between the theatre and the cinematic medium (which itself is divided into variegated strata of realism and artifice, ranging from the non-naturalistic painterly codes of the French scenes to the epic treatment of Agincourt).

Yet this is not how Olivier's version has generally been received, and if it is the most spectacularly cinematic aspects of the film that have afforded it its enduring ideological potency, these have also been the source of its contentiousness. The lasting appeal of the film, particularly within the British context, lies in its continuing capacity to mobilize nostalgia for the Second World War itself (for which Agincourt is a surrogate), and for the ideals of national unity and purpose that supposedly obtained during that period, in the context of the dissolution of empire and declining military and economic power. This is what the post-war performance history of the play has had to contend with. And if this history of Henry V has operated within the framework of a dialectic between heroic and anti-heroic readings which are identified with and against Olivier respectively, then this history is also readable as a succession of exchanges not just with Olivier, but also between the cinematic and theatrical modes of Shakespearean production. This has been evident in the three previous RSC productions of the play. Working through the related binary oppositions of heroic versus anti-heroic, depth versus surface, illusion versus non-illusion, myth versus realism, the productions of 1964, 1975, and 1984 all engaged with Olivier, to a greater or lesser extent, as a means of contending with the larger spectacular and patriotic theatrical, cinematic, and nationalist traditions that his film is held to embody, and, importantly, in order to assert the primacy of theatre over cinema. With the Vietnam War in mind, Peter Hall and John Barton's production of 1964 combated Olivier on various intertextual fronts: casting Ian Holm against romantic type as Henry (“his style is contemporary, there is nothing statuesque or declamatory about him,” wrote Hugh Leonard); battle scenes which, according to Gareth Lloyd Evans, were “bloody, clobbering and unpleasant;” and signs of authenticity in the shape of smoke and mud, and dirty grey and khaki costumes. Juxtaposed with all this, however, was a Chorus who appeared to have just stepped out of Olivier: a “miniature by Nicholas Hilliard,” as Robert Speaight put it, and dressed (like Leslie Banks's Chorus) in vivid yellow, he was conspicuously at odds with the rest of the production, and according to John Russell Brown, “was allowed to orate and make flourishes about a quite different play, as if the directors thought that all he said had to be ironically wrong.”37 Here was the myth, the rhetoric, the world of film; there was the reality, the world of the stage. The implication was that the theatre is more real, more true, more authentically Shakespearean than the cinema could ever hope to be. Rather than framing the world of the play, this Chorus was ironized by the insistent authenticity of the stage production. If this production evoked Olivier's patriotic iconography in order to dispute it, Terry Hands's 1975 production was both more detached and more conciliatory, even as it emphasized the ultimate superiority of live performance. As Hands saw it, Olivier had (necessarily, in the circumstances) suppressed the “doubts and uncertainties” in the play which his production sought to restore; more crucially, Hands aimed to reclaim the text from Olivier by taking “Shakespeare's theatre play par excellence” on its own terms, which meant that he could “abandon the artistic strictures of ‘naturalist’ theatre, with its cinematic crowds and group reactions.”38 But if Hands's approach repudiated the vocabulary of stage illusion (significantly elided with cinema here), aspects of his production actually seemed to reproduce Olivier's tactics. The most important of these was the decision to start the play in modern dress and in a mock “rehearsal-room” situation and then gradually, and partially, let it take on the trappings of illusionist representation. This removed the opening-out process in Olivier's film, particularly when considered in conjunction with Guy Woolfenden's musical score (that in places pastiched William Walton's score for Olivier), which provided a quasi-cinematic accompaniment to the action. The depiction of the French as figures trapped within highly formalized settings modeled on medieval miniatures was another obvious nod toward Olivier, and here articulated the opposition between the enemy and the English as an antithesis between pictorial artifice and three-dimensional theatricality. The French were afforded a similar treatment in Adrian Noble's 1984 “post-Falklands” production, which featured Kenneth Branagh in the title role, and which, as noted earlier, the designer Bob Crowley approached as a film script. I have already noted that in the staging, the French army appeared just before Agincourt as if on a descending spacecraft out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The night before Agincourt was even more memorably staged. The French aristocrats lounged upstage in glistening bronze armor, behind a trellis of golden spears, while the khaki and grey English huddled on the forestage. As Roger Warren observed, the moral “was absolutely clear: visual splendor must automatically be distrusted, while drabness must reflect the grim reality underneath the glittering surface of war, and the price in human terms to be paid for it.”39 The relative scarcity of overt references to Olivier in this production did not, however, mean that it was free of his spell. Ian McDiarmid's skeptical Chorus, who with blue bomber jacket and white scarf looked like an RAF bomber pilot, might well have been one of the “airborne troops” to whom the 1944 film was dedicated. But more significantly, a number of reviewers evoked Branagh's predecessor as the absent Other against which his portrayal of the king was to be defined. Francis King, for example, mused that, physically, he was “far removed from the romantic hero-king best exemplified by Olivier;” B. A. Young recorded that he was “no dashing hero leading his army into victory with Churchillian periods;” and Sheridan Morley wrote that “Branagh's Henry remains in some doubt about the wisdom of going once more into the breach, and his doubts are what inform much of the rest of an intelligently low-keyed reconsideration of a play that is in fact a great deal darker than Olivier's Technicolor version allowed.”40 Thus the anti-heroic made sense in relation to the heroic: because the terms do not negate each other but are interdependent.


Turning now to the 1994 production of Henry V, directed by Matthew Warchus and with Iain Glen in the title role, it is possible to see elements of this pattern repeating themselves. Comparisons were again drawn with Olivier. Nicholas de Jongh wrote that Glen “cuts a convincing new interpretative line” on a figure “whom Laurence Olivier made into a symbol of confident warrior glory,” while Chris Peachment felt that, in the final scene, Glen (who in the battle scenes was like “an early Errol Flynn”) “suddenly reveals a gauche, awkward man, far removed from Olivier's smooth seducer.” More widespread, however, were the comparisons with Branagh (the film rather than the stage version): Benedict Nightingale concluded that Glen “avoids both Olivier's triumphalism and the post-Falklands ennui of Branagh;” Charles Spencer reckoned that he was “far sexier than Branagh;” while a more skeptical Russell Jackson felt that Glen's “straightforwardly heroic and fundamentally dissatisfying” performance “did not tell a story (as did Noble's stage production and Branagh's film) of Henry's personal journey to maturity and what the war cost him.”41 While it is the business of reviewers to draw such comparisons, the postmodern orientation of the Warchus production actively encouraged this through its tactics of pastiche, quotation, and reflexivity. There were many echoes of previous stage and screen versions of the play, but once again the most significant intertext was Olivier's film, seen in such elements as its overall color scheme—with azure skies and impossibly yellow fields recalling Olivier's Technicolor landscapes—the Book of Hours iconography utilized at Harfleur, the pennants fluttering overhead before Agincourt, and the woosh of arrows during the battle itself. One important opening-out in Olivier, the account of the death of Falstaff, was reworked. Whereas Olivier depicts the death of the knight in poignant detail, with Olivier as Prince Hal declaring his rejection in voice-over; Warchus juxtaposed the Hostess's description with a spotlight on Henry's face, “as if he knew telepathically what was occurring.”42 This was a rather cinematic touch, a flash-sideways rather than a flashback, which switched the focus from Falstaff's memory of his own rejection to Henry's prescient imagining of Falstaff's death. If, in Olivier's film, the demise of Falstaff marks the point of transition from theatrical to cinematic space, this juxtaposition afforded Glen's Henry a temporary panoptical authority over his subjects and over the stage world. The associative and disjunctive scenography tended on the whole to work in a manner akin to that of cinematic montage—this was appropriate enough, given that the vocabulary of the war movie continues to provide a primary means of structuring public perceptions of war itself. As in Branagh's film, the recurrent nods towards Olivier served to interrogate the film's martial and heroic rhetoric, although to a less emphatically “anti-heroic” effect. The key difference was that while Branagh countered Olivier with a fierce insistence upon the “reality” of political chicanery, of the blood and squalor of battle, Warchus appeared content to leave the ethical and political questions open.

I have suggested that the continuing appeal of Olivier's Henry V lies in its capacity to activate a kind of double nostalgia: for the fairy-tale feudalism it celebrates, but also for the wartime history which permeates the film, from the opening dedication to the troops onwards. In 1944, Olivier revisited Agincourt to anticipate the invasion of Europe, representing, as fantasy, what contemporary warfare ought to be. Viewed from the vantage point of 1964, 1984, or 1994, his Henry V shows us, again at the level of myth, dream, or fantasy, a nostalgic re-enactment of how it should have been. Re-viewing the film text as a historical document in the 1990s adds another dimension to an already intricate temporal structure. Warchus's 1994 production was well placed to address the nostalgia for the Second World War which has acted as such a powerful force in post-war British culture. The fiftieth anniversary of the D-Day landing was marked by ceremonials and media retrospectives on an unprecedented scale, and the business of collective commemoration figured very prominently in the production. The first image was of Tony Britton as Chorus, depicted, wrote Carole Woddis, as “a bluff old Remembrance Day Colonel, complete with fawn cavalry overcoat, walking stick and medals.” With the house lights still up, he delivered the opening lines (“in the long-fossilised style of British Movietone News,” wrote Irving Wardle), and then (following the gesture of Derek Jacobi's Chorus in Branagh's film) threw a heavy wall-mounted switch that plunged the auditorium into darkness and brought up the lights on the first scene. Audiences saw a medieval regal robe draped over a tailor's dummy, surrounded by poppies and enclosed behind low rope barriers, like a museum exhibit, or, Russell Jackson suggested, a film studio.43 The juxtaposition of the historic and the contemporary, while a familiar tactic of postmodern pictorialism, was particularly resonant in this instance, because it established a concern with the function of history, and of historical myth within the present. As Peter Holland read the production, it “investigated the play as a series of overlays of history.”44 The broadly postpositivist approach to history was underlined in the production program, which contained a note on the play's cultural history by the historian John Ramsden declaring that “we are all relativists, reconstructing myths of the past for our own age.” The temporal and stylistic juxtapositions which are generic to the postmodern Shakespeare here worked to emphasize the mythical and imaginative function of this representation of history—the modern-dress Chorus was set against the medieval figures of the English and French, a distinctly Dickensian Eastcheap gang, and a silent cohort of women and children in 1940s dress (the home front—Olivier's audience). For a few reviewers, the anachronisms simply suggested the universality of the play's concerns. As David Nathan put it, the staging conveyed “the eternal sameness of slaughter.”45 More intriguingly, the specific characterization of the Chorus had the effect of rendering the status of the events unfolding on stage teasingly ambiguous, with the Chorus supplying a frame which called the truth of the representation into question without offering a judgment upon it. Depending upon how you were disposed toward the play, its subject-matter, and old soldiers, the ensuing action could be read as a celebration, as an act of remembrance, as a dream, as false memory, as a patriotic fantasy which could be endorsed, qualified or rejected; it could also be seen as an exploration of the functioning of the Agincourt myth within the national psyche.

This use of multiple time-frames produced one particularly fine, startling effect, which attracted little critical comment, oddly enough. During the climactic scene of the battle of Agincourt, depicted as a brutal and unwieldy slog on a steeply raked stage, Iain Glen as Henry slipped, almost fell and caught the end of the walking stick helpfully thrust forward by the Chorus, who had stood as a silent witness throughout. For a couple of beats medieval king and twentieth-century veteran stared at each other, frozen as icons, locked in an indecipherable tryst. History, memory, and fantasy collided in the moment, and the spectator was left to read this Wilfred Owenite “strange meeting” at whatever realistic, fantastic, or metaphoric level he or she wished.46 Who was imagining whom here? Was it a timeless image of bonding and comradeship, Henry's premonition of an endless future of conflict, a miraculous intervention in history? Or was it a romantic re-imagining of the Chorus's own personal experience, alerting us to the ways that the myth of Agincourt has both mediated and been mediated through subsequent conflicts? The encounter could be read sentimentally, as an affirmation of universal comradeship. Alternatively, it could be seen as a radically disruptive moment, for the intervention which ensured Henry's survival actually secured the course of the history which the Chorus was now commemorating: the Chorus was actively making history happen. While the convergence of reminiscence and re-enactment is strongly evocative of another memory play dealing with warfare, Frank McGuiness's Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (which was, coincidentally, revived by the RSC in 1996), this impossible exchange between past and present has resonance which, perhaps rather unexpectedly, can be located in the wider context of popular film culture. The Chorus's anachronistic intervention in history aligns the production with an entire science-fictional subgenre of time-travel movies which began in the 1980s, from The Terminator through Back to the Future and its various sequels, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, to Twelve Monkeys. With its implicit suggestion that this particular history of Henry V was a kind of self-sustaining loop, Warchus's staging of the encounter between King and Chorus offered an oedipal juncture reminiscent of the situation in The Terminator, where the time-traveling hero must ensure the survival of the child who is to become a future hero, or in Back to the Future, where the central character races to prevent his own extinction by securing the union of his parents. These are not entirely facetious parallels. As a number of commentators have pointed out, the time-travel genre articulates widely-held millennial anxieties about the supposed End of History itself, with progress, linearity, and purpose apparently evaporating—leaving, as I. Q. Hunter remarks of the genre, “no underlying pattern, only the unintended consequences of ambiguously intended acts.”47 In Warchus's Henry V, it was the integrity of the past, rather than of the future, that seemed to be at stake.

This scene of the battle was one of the most memorably staged, in a production that fluently combined the picturesque, the emblematic, and the metonymic. The raked-stage section upon which Henry's army battled with the French, at claustrophobically close quarters as if on the Raft of the Medusa, resembled a huge memorial stone. On it was carved the dates 1387-1422: the enactment of history co-existed with its commemoration as myth. Extras planted red poppies on the flat stage surrounding this platform while scraps of armor and weaponry hung overhead like dismembered bodies. This was typical of what Jackson called the production's “scattershot of associations.” For the siege of Harfleur, similarly, “the stage became a noisy military building site” in front of a metal roller blind; after Henry's ultimatum this was raised “to reveal a stylized Gothic townscape out of a book of hours.”48 As The final scene was coolly framed within a pavilion-like open box. As this scene ended, everyone on stage froze in place, the Chorus returned to throw the switch again, arresting a moment of history as a tableau vivant. Such spatial disjunctions are, as Jameson observes in a different context, characteristic not only of the postmodern hyperspace of the city and the shopping mall, but, in a “new and virtually unimaginable quantum leap in technological alienation,”49 of postmodern warfare itself.

The production displayed considerable sensitivity to the sentiments underpinning the D-Day anniversary celebrations, and in political terms it seemed to achieve the subtly nuanced even-handedness which had been sought in every RSC production of Henry V since the 1960s. As the instance of the encounter between King and Chorus indicates, the metatheatrical structure made it difficult to ascribe to the production any singular or determinate view of the play, its hero or its subject matter. For many reviewers (largely in the right-wing press), ignoring the more disruptive implications of the production's self-reflexive subtleties (which was easily done) allowed for a fairly straightforward reading of the play and production as exhibiting a “balance” between the heroic and the realistic. Nicholas de Jongh's view was that the text was played “as an epic of regal neurosis in the face of warfare rather than as complacent royalist propaganda;” Charles Spencer was glad that “having reminded us of the modern parallels, Warchus's production doesn't deprive us of the clanking armour and Plantagenet pageantry that are such an enjoyable part of the play”; and John Peter concluded that both play and production “should appeal to the disillusioned 1990s as well as the more solid certainties of the older generations.” As always, much relied upon the portrayal of the king, and most reviewers praised what they saw as Glen's thoughtful, charismatic, and complex Henry, which reconciled the oppositions informing both the play and our divided responses to it. This was aptly described by John Peter: “His heroism, his frank, manly behaviour with his soldiers, is the conduct of a born commander, but also of the cool politician. … His spontaneity is infectious; and yet there is also a deliberateness and a hard remoteness about him.” This Henry adopted a monkish habit for his pre-Agincourt walkabout, carried out the execution of the French prisoners onstage, and yet was both ruthless and engagingly gauche in the “wooing” of Katherine. More worryingly, the production also provided the opportunity for the Daily Telegraph reviewer to dismiss “modish directors who hijack the show to demonstrate the horrors of war” and for David Nathan to take a swipe at “politically correct lecturers teaching peace studies at a polytec—oops!—I meant to say ‘university.’” Although such comments simply epitomize the tendency of reviewers to find what they want to find in productions (Carole Woddis, conversely, saw the production as “a deeply moving lament of pacifist persuasion”), they also highlight the political ambivalence of the postmodern Shakespeare.50 Adopting the characteristic tactic of foregrounding the processes of representation, the production might have displayed the political and ethical ambivalence which has been a critical issue in postmodern cultural theory; but as these comments indicate, it could be readily appropriated for a reactionary agenda.

Perhaps reflecting this, not all the notices were so favorable. For the Guardian's Michael Billington, the production offered a dazzling array of visual effects but lacked both “a controlling vision” and a stable and coherent characterization of Henry himself: “each big speech becomes a distinct solo aria so that the terrifying address at Harfleur is treated as pure rhetoric and the inward meditation on ceremony is delivered with belting fortissimo.” This view of Glen's performance may be difficult to square with the more positive accounts offered by other reviewers, but a more important point is that it shares with them a set of well-entrenched assumptions about Shakespearean performance that the move towards the postmodern may well call into question. Billington's criticism (which recalls the doubts about the 1989 Dream and the 1990 Comedy of Errors that I have already cited) rests upon a depth model of performance which is situated within the humanist tradition of characterization, and which, partly as a legacy of the modernist theatrical Shakespeare, views conspicuous stage spectacle as always potentially meretricious. The logic of the postmodern Shakespeare, however, suggests otherwise. It may well be that Glen's discontinuous and, in Billington's terms, superficial and effect-driven performance was, in the context of the production's visual iconography, entirely appropriate. In postmodern terms, after all, everything may (or may not) have quotation marks attached. Similar objections were voiced by Irving Wardle, who found Glen's Henry a “mechanical three-note performance,” and who read the scenic juxtapositions as incoherent: the contrasts between “a heroic upstage picture” and “the down-to-earth floor” invited “a dialogue between the rhetoric and reality of war. But no such dialogue takes place.”51 These are familiar critical oppositions. A recurrent feature of reviews of the play during the post-war period has been the attempt to arbitrate the pro- and anti- views of Henry, of Agincourt, and of war in general by means of a distinction between the “rhetoric” and the “reality” of conflict—the one identified with the posturing of the Chorus, the other with the mud and blood of the battlefield. It is this distinction that informs the differing tactics of Olivier and Branagh. Warchus's production, however, dismantled this simple binary, so that the spectator was presented with (at least) two rhetorics of warfare—the rhetoric of heroism and the rhetoric of realism—with neither term privileged over the other. In this sense, the production was more concerned with the representation of war than with “war itself.” Indeed, in the postmodern epoch, these terms have become increasingly difficult to disentangle. In an era of military actions so technologized, so highly mediated, so transformed into spectacle and virtual reality that, in Jean Baudrillard's controversial formulation, the 1991 Gulf War had not really taken place, being “a process of the extermination of war, an operational stage set of a fact, war … “realized” by sophisticated technical means,”52 this distancing of the conflict itself had a certain cruel logic. Furthermore (as John Peter reflected in his Sunday Times review, citing “Edward Heath, Denis Healey, Enoch Powell and Tony Benn” as “the last generation of politicians whose experiences and beliefs were shaped by a great war”), the direct experience of conflict which has been a key factor in post-war political history has become the preserve of a dwindling (and now professionalized) minority. As a consequence, the relation of actors, audiences and critics to the subject matter of Henry V have become more vicarious than ever before. As direct experience of war has diminished, so too have the moral certainties and priorities associated with it. In the context of international peacekeeping, no subsequent conflict has enabled the English so unproblematically to render their own war-making as an affirmation of sovereignty, an act of national self-definition based on moral right.

If this is another (perhaps the primary) reason why the Second World War has retained its central symbolic importance within English culture for so long, then it is also a key factor in the history of Henry V in the same period. Perhaps this production, like the anniversary celebrations themselves, may come to be seen as marking a turning point. More than any previous production at Stratford, it was more concerned with nostalgia, memory, myth, and representation than with the physical realities of warfare. Although the anniversary celebrations of 1994-95 provided the opportunity yet again to recycle the cultural myths, they also may have signaled the beginning of the end of the “post-war” epoch itself. In the era of global capitalism, as the traditional boundaries of the British nation-state have, in economic terms, largely ceased to function, the mechanisms which have combined the integrity of the nation with the moral right of victory are no longer sustainable; it remains to be seen how Henry V can be (and of course will be) adjusted to this new situation.53 If British cultural and national identities during the second half of the twentieth century have operated within the parameters generated by the events and aspirations of the wartime period, successive appropriations of Henry V have played a considerable part in keeping memories of that time alive. By drawing attention to the mechanisms that have maintained this nostalgia for so long, the 1994 Henry V may be seen not only as a postmodern production of the play, but as perhaps the RSC's first post-postwar engagement with it.


  1. Peter Holland, English Shakespeares: Shakespeare on the English Stage in the 1990s (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 10.

  2. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (I.mdm: Verso, 1991), 3.

  3. See, for example, Andreas Hofele, “A Theater of Exhaustion? ‘Posthistoire’ in Recent German Shakespeare Productions,” Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992), 80-86; Johannes Birringer, Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1993), Michael Hattaway, Boika Sokolova, and Derek Roper, eds., Shakespeare in the New Europe (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994); Susan Bennett, Performing Nostalgia: Shifting Shakespeare and the Contemporary Past (London: Routledge, 1996); James C. Bulman, Shakespeare, Theory, and Performance (London: Routledge, 1996); W. B. Worthen, Shakespeare and the Authority of Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1997).

  4. Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare: A Visual History of Twentieth-Century Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

  5. Barbara Hodgdon, “Looking for Mr. Shakespeare after ‘The Revolution’: Robert Lepage's Intercultural Dream Machine,” in Bulman, Shakespeare, Theory, and Performance, 81.

  6. Styan, The Shakespeare Revolution: Criticism and Performance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 232-33.

  7. Quoted in Jim Hiley, “A Company with Direction,” Plays and Players, October 1977.

  8. See Peter Thomson, “Towards a Poor Shakespeare: The Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford in 1975,” Shakespeare Survey 29 (1976), 151-56.

  9. Grady, The Modernist Shakespeare: Critical Texts in a Material World (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1991).

  10. Accounts of the critical influences upon the RSC's work are given by Alan Sinfield, “Royal Shakespeare: Theatre and the Making of Ideology,” in Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield eds., Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), 158-81; Christopher J. McCullough, “The Cambridge Connection: Towards a Materialist Theatre Practice,” in Graham Holderness, ed., The Shakespeare Myth (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), 1, 12-21; and Robert Shaughnessy, Representing Shakespeare: England, History and the RSC (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1994).

  11. Quoted in Michael Coveney, “Terry Hands, Adrian Noble and Peter Hall, Masters of the RSC, Talk Theatre,” Observer, 28 June 1992.

  12. Nicholas Shrimpton, “Shakespeare Performances in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, 1981-82,” Shakespeare Survey 36 (1983), 149.

  13. Ibid, 152.

  14. Roger Warren, “Shakespeare in Stratford and London, 1982,” Shakespeare Quarterly 34 (1983), 85.

  15. Jameson, Postmodernism, 18.

  16. Shrimpton, “Shakespeare Performances in Stratford-upon-Avon and London, 1983-4,” Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985), 202.

  17. Ibid, 204.

  18. Shrimpton, “Shakespeare Performances in London, Manchester and Stratford-upon-Avon 1985-,” Shakespeare Survey 40 (1988), 173.

  19. Wells, “Shakespeare Production in England in 1989,” Shakespeare Survey 43 (1990), 200.

  20. Robert Smallwood, “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1989 (Part I),” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990), 109.

  21. Nick Kaye, Postmodernism and Performance (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1994), 68-69.

  22. Martin Cropper, The Times, 15 May 1985.

  23. Jameson, Postmodernism, 38.

  24. Quoted in “Set Pieces That Release the Forces of Darkness,” Guardian, 17 April 1984.

  25. Kennedy, Looking at Shakespeare, 294.

  26. Shrimpton, “Shakespeare Performances 1983-4,” 202.

  27. Shrimpton, “Shakespeare Performances in London and Stratford-upon-Avon 1984-5,” Shakespeare Survey 39 (1986), 197-99.

  28. Smallwood, “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1990,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991), 348; Holland, “Shakespeare Performances in England, 1989-90,” Shakespeare Survey 44 (1991), 176.

  29. Sinfield, “Royal Shakespeare,” 159.

  30. Nightingale, New Statesman, 1 June 1982; Smallwood, “Shakespeare at Stratford upon-Avon, 1989,” 108; Holland, “Shakespeare Performances in England, 1989-90,” 176.

  31. Healy, “Remembering with Advantages; Nation and Ideology in Henry V,” in Hattaway et al., Shakespeare in the New Europe, 181.

  32. Banham, “BBC Television's Dull Shakespeares,” Critical Quarterly 22, 1 (1980), 31; Berry, Changing Styles in Shakespeare (London: Allen and Unwin, 1981), 67.

  33. Donaldson, “Taking on Shakespeare: Kenneth Branagh's Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991), 61.

  34. Quoted in The Times, 5 October 1989.

  35. Graham Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama (Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1992), 184.

  36. Ibid, 185.

  37. Leonard, Plays and Players, August 1965; Lloyd Evans, “Shakespeare, the Twentieth Century and ‘Behaviourism,’” Shakespeare Survey 20 (1967), 139; Speaight, “Shakespeare in Britain,” Shakespeare Quarterly 15 (1964), 387; Brown, “Three Kinds of Shakespeare: 1964 Productions in London, Stratford-upon-Avon and Edinburgh,” Shakespeare Survey 18 (1965),151.

  38. Hands, “Introduction to the Play,” in Sally Beaumann, ed, The Royal Shakespeare Company's Centenary Production of Henry V (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1976), 15-16.

  39. Warren, “Shakespeare in Britain,” Shakespeare Quarterly 36 (1985), 81.

  40. King, Sunday Telegraph, 19 May 1985; Young, Financial Times, 17 May 1985; Morley, Punch, 29 May 1985.

  41. De Jongh, Evening Standard, 11 May 1994; Peachment, Sunday Telegraph, 15 May 1994; Nightingale, The Times, 12 May 1994; Spencer, Daily Telegraph, 12 May 1994; Jackson, “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1994-95,” Shakespeare Quarterly 46 (1995), 345.

  42. Ibid., 343.

  43. Woddis, What's On, 18 May 1994; Wardle, The Times, 15 May 1994; Jackson, “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon,” 342.

  44. Holland, “Shakespeare Performances in England, 1993-1994,” Shakespeare Survey 48 (1995), 208.

  45. Nathan, Jewish Chronicle, 20 May 1994.

  46. There was an analogous moment in the 1984 Henry V when Branagh's Henry and McDiarmid's Chorus unexpectedly encountered one another on the eve of Agincourt, and, in Holderness's account, “miming a surprised double-take of near-recognition”; for a brief moment, as in the 1994 production, “we saw the fictional world of the dramatic action suddenly enter the fictional activity of the Chorus” (Shakespeare Recycled, 200). In 1984, the surprise meeting was played for comic effect, whereas in 1994 it was strangely moving

  47. I. Q. Hunter, “Capitalism Most Triumphant: Bill and Ted's Excellent History Lesson,” in Deborah Cartmell; I. Q. Hunter, Heidi Kaye and Imelda Whelehan, eds., Pulping Fictions: Consuming Culture across the Literature/Media Divide (Landon: Pluto Press, 1996), 122.

  48. Jackson, “Shakespeare at Stratford-on-Avon, 1994-95,” 342-43.

  49. Jameson, Postmodernism, 45.

  50. De Jongh, Evening Standard; Spencer, Daily Telegraph; Peter, Sunday Times, 15 May 1994; Nathan, Jewish Chronicle; Woddis, What's On.

  51. Billington, Guardian, 12 May 1994; Wardle, Independent on Sunday, 15 May 1994.

  52. Quoted in “This Beer Isn't a Beer: Interview with Anne Laurent,” in Mike Gane, ed, Baudrillard Live: Selected Interviews (London: Routledge, 1993), 185.

  53. As a postscript to the above, the 1994 Henry V was followed, with unusualness, by a brash and poorly-received production at Stratford three years later. It is also worth noting that the inaugural production at the Bankside Globe the same year was a self-consciously Elizabethan, all-male Henry V, directed by Olivier's son.

Ruth Morse (review date 18 February 2000)

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SOURCE: Morse, Ruth. “Review of Henry V.Times Literary Supplement, no. 5055 (18 February 2000): 19.

[In the following review, Morse comments favorably on director Jean-Louis Benoit's stylized, comedic, and nonpolitical 2000 French-language staging of Henry V.]

Although the imported films of Welles, Olivier and Branagh have been extremely popular in France, this Henry V is the first French theatrical production. Understandably, perhaps. It was briefly seen last summer at the Avignon festival, in the star position of the great outdoor courtyard, and televised live, to scathing reviews. Transferred now to one of the more intimate theatres at the former arsenal in Vincennes (whose surrounding woods, after the devastating storms at Christmas, are looking too much like a war-torn landscape), its virtues are wholly apparent.

Above all, by taking advantage of the play's calls to its own theatricality, the director, Jean-Louis Benoit, avoids the risk of offending French nationalist sensibilities. The costumes and sets recall Olivier's make-believe Middle Ages, with a painted castle, tricks of perspective out of manuscript illustration, and a pretty landscape constructed of doll's-house-sized villages and rolling hills which turns out to be a huge rug, rolled back to reveal the dead soldiers (and dead horse) of l'après Azincourt. From the beginning, a Chorus in a bright orange wig and twentieth-century gamin costume (Laure Bonnet) emphasizes the use of a wooden wheel lying flat stage centre, a literal “Wooden O” on to which characters step out of the action to address us directly. And there is need to address us, to recruit us into filling out “the swelling scene”, since the cast numbers only fifteen. Not only the Chorus, but the Heralds, are women, cross-dressed. The need to double—and treble—adds to the artifice, and taxes the strength and staying power of the energetic, mainly young, cast, with the inequalities of playing which that implies. Jean-Pol Dubois is outstanding five times: as a pedantic, calculating Archbishop of Canterbury, plotting to finesse the young king into a war order to protect Church revenues; as one of the conspirators; as the Duke of York; as the English soldier, Williams and as a feeble and tottering Charles VI, a mannikin out of Ionesco's Le Roi se meurt.

Using another of the imaginative, risk-taking translations of Jean-Michel Déprats, the story proper opens with a pseudo-Shakespearean scene in the Boar's Head tavern, to introduce the calculating Prince of Wales and his dissolute companions (including “Sir Falstaff”—the name by which plump Jack is known from Falstaff, the French title of Welles's Chimes at Midnight), whose further adventures (or lack of them) Henry V recounts. The playing style is broad, making cartoon characters of the old English enemy. One can hardly take them seriously, let alone hate them. The same can be said of the French, played in the Olivier style of silliness, so that one cannot identify with, let alone love, them.

It is this heavily stylized ensemble against which Philippe Torreton as the English King defines himself. He is in a different play, and remains there through five acts, accompanied only by his brothers. Yet he is alone, and that is the emphasis and interpretation of this production. Torreton is a great actor, capable of changing his style to suit Tartuffe at the Comédie Française or the eponymous Captain Conan of Bertrand Tavernier's recent war film. The trend of the director's cut intensifies Harry's solitude: this Harry sees Falstaff's coffin, sees and suffers the condemnation of Bardolph. Gone, as might have been expected in a French production, is the forging of a nation; the joke about the Irishman, the Scotsman and the Welshman has disappeared, as has, to all intents and purposes, the “little touch of Harry in the night”. Gone is most of the King's interchange with Bates, the common soldier; here, he feels the weight of his responsibility and distance, with none of the redeeming joke about Bates's wager with him after the battle. This monarch is tired, and he is ill. He knows he has to play the king, but sometimes it is too much. Henry's long—some would say excessively long—speech over his betrayal by the traitor, Scrope, gives Torreton the occasion to diagnose his condition. He can trust no friend, because he can have none. Benoit's production is neither a celebration of Britishness nor a study of the costs of war. Against the usual wisdom of the difference between Continental interpretations of Shakespeare and English ones, it is less, rather than more, political.

And it is very funny. The emphatic self-consciousness of the play opens the way to a brilliant solution to the Princess Katherine's English lesson by reversing the languages: the women speak English and call it French; French and call it English. Marie Vialle has a fine gift for comedy, and a ravishing neck. For the improper puns, Déprats offers “gown/con” and “foot/foutre”. His language jokes become wildly more mixed in the wooing scene: Torreton and Vialle move from English to French so quickly that the audience are whirled from one pretence to the other. Which language are they pretending is which? Only here, with his Kate, does Harry seem outmatched. By now, however, with the audience in the palm of his princely hand, the romantic interlude becomes an ironic send-up of romantic interludes (only the Dauphin's disappointment spoils the fun). This kind of theatricality is not just what the theatre does best, it is what only the theatre can do.

Russell Jackson (review date spring 2001)

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SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “Review of Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2001): 107-32.

[In the following review, Jackson details the somber wartime setting and cynical mood of Edward Hall's 2000 production of Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon.]

Edward Hall's production of Henry V, with designs by Michael Pavelka, was a story told in a time of war by modern soldiers. When the audience entered the theater, men and women in gray fatigues and tee shirts, all wearing metal identity tags, were sitting or wandering around the stage in a state of half-busy, half-idle expectancy. Some were checking equipment, others writing letters home. At the back of the stage, in front of a sheer brick wall, was a gantry resembling a dockside crane. A clutter of gray ammunition and equipment boxes occupied the downstage area, which was covered with a gray silk cloth, a red cross at its center. A mobile phone rang just as the houselights were dimming, causing some amusement and annoyance until it turned out to be in the backpack of one of the soldiers. He found it, switched it off, and turned to ask the audience to make sure all their pagers and mobiles were also turned off. (A rhyming prologue to the Comedy of Errors had ended with the same request, usually made from front of house.) The Chorus's first speech, each sentence taken by a different cast member, ended with the cloth being pulled up and shaken, scattering what had become a shower of poppies onto the floor. This was now revealed as a war memorial inscribed with the names of those who had fallen at Agincourt, with three larger inscriptions “To The Glory of God,” “I Have Fought a Good Fight,” and “I Have Finished My Course.” The gray boxes were cleared back to form an altar, and two actors then enrobed as bishops—and the play began.

The use of an unspecified twentieth- (or twenty-first-) century conflict, the adaptation of the choruses as part of a Brechtian story-telling technique, and the onstage evocation of a war memorial are devices familiar from recent productions of the play. This particular combination of them displaced the heroism of the campaign and the monarch onto the achievement (against the odds) of telling the story, making palatable an otherwise unflinchingly patriotic tale by conjuring up the cynicism of the “poor bloody infantry.” This attitude, famously compatible with the desire to “do one's bit,” is voiced during the otherwise-unconvincing attempts of the disguised king to argue his case on the eve of Agincourt: now it was as though the likes of Bates and Williams were presenting the whole play. The production did not suggest specific recent conflicts as analogies for Henry's opportunistic and aggressive campaign but proposed that the state of being at war produces contradictions and stresses that the Elizabethan play can speak to. No production of Henry V will ever be as acute about the particular politics and horrors of modern warfare as Das Boot, Platoon, or Saving Private Ryan. However, the play's celebratory dimensions (real enough for Olivier's film to be “faithful” to its original) are notoriously offset by the space it allows for doubt and cynicism. Cutting removed one layer of metahistorical ambiguity, however: Fluellen's discussion with Gower of the comparison between Henry and Alexander was excised, together with its notable failure on the part of the play's amateur historian to recall Falstaff's name.

Within this framework, the story of Henry's arrival at responsibility was developed in a way at once chilling and satisfying. He could handle being a king. He showed his athleticism and energy as well as rhetorical prowess at Harfleur, both before and after the siege. (The gantry moved downstage like a terrifying war machine, lights flashing and siren blaring, and scaling ladders were raised against the front of the dress circle.) Forced to witness the execution of Bardolph, Henry showed none of the signs of pity and self-reproach evident in Kenneth Branagh's Henry (at Stratford in 1984 and in his 1989 film). He was simply left contemplating the hanging figure while the troops formed up and marched off through the audience, singing of their desire to fight for the king. (The only one not singing was Pistol, who turned to look at Henry and Bardolph.) Unlike David Troughton's Henry IV, the fifth monarch of that name had little trouble in putting the crown on his head: he treated it as a symbol of office and responsibility, rather than a mystical and desired extension of his personality. He donned it to meet the Dauphin's messenger but wore appropriate military headgear (uniform cap or helmet) as necessary. To deal with the traitors, Henry wore “undress” uniform and even put on spectacles to read dispatches. This was a scene set up as a council of war which turned into an informal court martial—at the end of which the guilty men were taken to the back and shot against a brick wall. Exeter, bespectacled and punctilious, was a career officer. Henry's coolness was manifested in the matter of the tennis balls: the gift consisted of a pair of balls rotating in a music-box casket, and Henry's reply was to have the stage showered with tennis balls from above. When the last one had bounced to rest, and only then, he uttered his mirthless “Ha, ha.”

The king's adoption of battle fatigues and weaponry was not a sudden transformation of accomplished courtier into G. I. Joe but a “natural” extension of Henry's versatility and effectiveness in this brutal conflict. This sense of an unglamorous, warlike existence was aided by the general absence from the production of the other usual signs of royal pageantry or symbolic assertion. There were no robes of state, no orbs or scepters. The French court was well dressed but not foppish. There was some mockery in their treatment by the story-telling soldiers—the second part of the play began with Katherine reading a large French-English dictionary while a band played “Thank heaven for little Girls.” Alice walked in through the audience, and the princess gave a game rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” The fleur-de-lis was seen only on a parachute-silk backdrop (rather tattered by the end of the campaign), and the French king wore a képi rather than a royal crown. In the final scene Henry hung his crown on the back of a chair to conduct his wooing, picking it up hastily at “Here comes your father” (as usual now, a laugh line.) When he asked the French king for his daughter's hand, Henry held the crown in his own. He allowed himself (what actor would not at the end of a long and noisy evening?) the geniality of the comic wooing, but the opposition of Katherine was formidable and the ultimate result uncomfortable. At the very end of the play, as Henry and Katherine faced each other, the Union Jack that had been unfurled behind the tableau fell to the ground. Burgundy's frank mirth was cut from the scene, as was the character of Queen Isabel. Burgundy was played as a sober diplomat, and much of his emotive speech about the condition of France was also cut. After the joining of their hands, Katherine lifted the crown from Henry's head and he simply walked down to the front of the stage and out through the audience.

Kevin Nance (review date December 2001)

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SOURCE: Nance, Kevin. “Review of Henry V.Stage Directions 14, no. 10 (December 2001): 42-5.

[In the following review of the 2001 Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, Nance concentrates on stage and costume design, particularly its contribution to this production's multifaceted wartime setting.]

As the United States and its allies are discovering in their fight against terrorism, all wars are not created equal. Each has its own iconic leaders, its own weapons, its own look. And each has its particular emotional resonance for the participants.

Similar thoughts about the vagaries of war, and the way we view wars of various historical periods, were roiling in Toronto designer Dany Lyne's mind as she approached Shakespeare's Henry V, which would grow into the boldest, most visually striking production of the Stratford Festival of Canada's 2001 season.

Lyne's eclectic design incorporated an abstract set (complete with a backdrop on which prerecorded and live video images were projected) and costumes inspired by military uniforms from four distinct historical periods: 1414, the year of the actual Battle of Agincourt; 1914, the dawn of World War I; 1945, during the last days of World War II; and 1999, the era of the sleek black uniforms of the British Special Air Service (SAS), known for their appearances in the Persian Gulf War and the ongoing conflict in Northern Ireland.

The combination of all of those visual styles on the same stage sounds chaotic, but at Stratford's Avon Theatre the various facets of the production design blended easily, coherently and with devastating impact. It was a daring artistic gamble that paid off spectacularly, mainly because it was conceived with great care by Lyne, director Jeannette Lambermont and the sound and video designer Wade Staples.

They began the process with the Bard's great history play itself, viewing it not as an inquiry into the nature of heroism, as it's often interpreted, but as an anti-war statement. “I wanted it to sit in the realm of the great anti-war films, such as Apocalypse Now and especially All Quiet On The Westerm Front, which stopped me dead in my tracks,” says Lyne, an award-winning designer who has created sets and costumes for numerous plays and operas at Stratford and throughout Canada. The question immediately became: How do we set Henry V in a context where the ambience of war would reach the audience in a very real way? And we felt we just couldn't serve that purpose by staying in the play's historical period.

The problem, she felt, was that period costume distances audiences so much that battle scenes can seem more like a fairy tale than actual combat. “A bunch of guys going at each other with swords doesn't resonate with today's audience as a particularly violent act,” Lyne says, “It's almost more like a ballet than real [fighting].”

… This sent the production hurtling exactly 500 years forward, helped in part by the texts's references to mines and trenches. “Say the word ‘trench’ and immediately World War I comes to mind,” she says. “So the original idea was to take 1414 and 1914 and put them in a blender at high speed.”

But after drafting several designs, Lyne came to feel that the blender didn't contain enough ingredients to create the visceral dish of wartime horror that she envisioned. “We did stick with 1914 quite a while, but it still didn't have the edge that we wanted,” she says. “It didn't seem close enough and frankly, violent enough. Once I did the preliminary design, in which I had only 1914, there was still that sense of distance. It didn't have that punch I was after.”

And so Lyne went shopping in history. It was to her a natural leap from World War I to World War II, and from there to the SAS soldiers of the 1990s. Quickly she began to perceive visual connections between the various periods of battle garb. For example, the quilted leather undergear that Henn, and his soldiers would have worn beneath their armor at Agincourt bore a striking resemblance to the bulletproof vests of the SAS. “Once we started mixing periods, I began looking at pants, jackets and boots as words,” she says. “They became a vocabulary, and I was eventually going to form those words into sentences and paragraphs.” The unique syntax of the show extended to the sound design, which included both medieval and 20th-century wartime noises, as well as a cellist who played live music onstage throughout the show; to the set, a series of bare diagonal platforms and parallelogram shapes; and even to a series of video images on a giant backdrop.

Staples assembled a montage of moody location images, many of them shot with a handheld camcorder by actor Graham Abbey (who played the title role) on a trip tracing the historical Henry V's path through northern France. All of the images were turned into grainy black-and-white, then played using a stuttering effect that made them look like newsreel footage from the first two world wars, as well as CNN videotape of more recent conflicts.

Staples also developed what he came to call “the honor roll”—a series of ghostly, silent, prerecorded video portraits of the individual cast members that are played before, during and after the play. “At the beginning, you're seeing the cast, and at the end, you're seeing the faces of the dead,” he says. There so much desolation, death and destruction in war, and the video images were there to convey that in a very contemporary context using contemporary technology.”

Particularly up-to-date was Staples' use of live video at various points. Young actor Paul Dunn, who played a boy wandering through the battlefields, carried a video recorder throughout the production. At one point he lay flat on the floor and delivered a monologue directly into its lens, his smudged, tear-stained face looming huge on the upstage screen.

“The idea was to bring the audience into the psyche of this young boy caught in the midst of this turmoil,” Staples says. “That was amazingly well received, especially by younger audiences. You're touching on subject matter and time periods that most of these kids have no knowledge of, and using multimedia like that brings the material within their realm of understanding. It was powerful.”

During the design phase, however, both Lyne and Staples had fears about how all the conceptual elements would fit together. There was a real risk, they both knew, of producing an attention-grabbing effect that might detract from the story rather than serve it. “It's a difficult balance to strike, between the requirements of emotional/psychological realism and the fact that those requirements can't always be accomplished with what's naturalistic,” says Lyne. “What's important is to give the play a context in which it can find its truest and fullest expression for a contemporary audience. If you have to change the actual words of the text to fit the design and start interfering with the work itself, then the design concept becomes too heavy-handed and whacks people over the head. You find yourself falling into the pits of the Grand Canyon. But we didn't feel we were doing that.”

Stratford's Artistic Director Richard Monette had concerns along similar lines. He joked to a Stratford audience that when the creative team had promised an authentic period design, “I wasn't expecting four different periods.” Says Lyne, “I do think he was worried. But he was also intrigued by the direction we were going in, and he didn't step in at any time. I thought about the risk, too, but it never occurred to me to mitigate my ideas, because I felt so passionately about them.” In the end, Staples happened to be standing near Monette after the opening-night performance and overheard him exclaim, “No, I liked it!”

But perhaps one audience member's comments following a performance showed most clearly that the design scheme had worked perfectly: “War is war,” he said.

Alvin Klein (review date 23 June 2002)

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SOURCE: Klein, Alvin. “Review of Henry V.New York Times (23 June 2002): 8.

[In the following review of Terrence O'Brien's Henry V for the 2002 Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Klein praises Nance Williamson's excellent work as the Chorus, but otherwise finds the project “misguided” in its depiction of King Henry.]

Everyone knows that Shakespeare is summertime's No. 1 theatrical sport, but it's the comedies and tragedies, 28 in all, that leap to mind. Only the most intransigent devotee will miss the histories, which add up to seven.

For most of us, there is plenty of Shakespeare to go around without having to bone up on royal French and English genealogy, such study invariably involving an immersion in politics, in religion and in the military, for through the ages, nobility thrived on the glory and the spoils of warfare.

From the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival's founding artistic director, Terrence O'Brien, comes this statement: “War is always relevant.” But it somehow lacks the power to persuade us that the most interesting and accessible festival in the metropolitan region should be drawn to Henry V, its first history play in 16 years.

Happily, often deliriously so, the festival has put an indelible imprint, on many productions, even on the impossible Titus Andronicus.

But on Henry, no.

Granted, it is impossible to resist the heady rendering of the famous line, “A little touch of Harry in the night” by the Chorus of the occasion, and Mr. O'Brien's staging does not stint on levity, the abandon and the accessibility that defines the festival's inimitable style. But the complexity of the title character—he is many shaded and conflicted, but he is not great—and the grave undercurrents of an imperfect play are out of reach here.

Traditionally played by one actor, the Chorus warms up the audience, eager to report news from the battlefield, sometimes with cannon fire as accompaniment, promising to take us to mighty places. And once the word is out that the scintillating Nance Williamson is the welcoming Chorus here, it's likely that haters of plays historical will flock to this one.

Talk of welcoming. “O for a muse of fire, that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention,” is the Chorus' first utterance, and with that Ms. Williamson has you hooked. When Ms Williamson, wearing her black trenchcoat as if it were the must-have coat of summer, implores the audience (“On your imaginary forces work,” “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts” and “Gently to hear, kindly to judge our play”), she lifts a problematical play to a universal statement about the mind's possibilities and theater's power to enliven them.

But then, Ms. Williamson radiates the generosity of spirit that lifts the company, one of those ineffable gifts possessed by some performers who are themselves possessed by the magic of theater.

Note too that Ms. Williamson makes a brief appearance as Montjoy, a French herald.

But when it comes to ripening a King Henry “into noble manhood,” the transformation is out of the hands of a Chorus. While Harrison Long evokes shades of the carousing Prince Hal of his former days, the actor relies on political savvy at the expense of substance and the inner turmoil of a man who is determined to hold onto honor in defiance of the seductiveness of war and power that could overtake his sense of responsibility. The affable side of Henry is perceptible; his monster side is either unconvincing or too well concealed.

Mr. Long and the flirtatious, bewildered and altogether winning Natasha Piletich as the French and French-speaking Princess Katherine are fun in their courtship scenes, in which neither much understands what the other is talking about. The festival's customary aura of fun, irreverence and musical anachronism is minimally effective here and the choreographed swordplay from the fight director Ian Marshall is overly extended, landing in a pretentious muddle.

It remains for the ever-dependable Chorus to tell us, at the very end, how the horror, the brutality of war was all for nothing, “confining mighty men / Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.”

With that, one can understand Mr. O'Brien's sense of the play's contemporary importance. But the director's concentration on an incompletely realized portrait of one man learning a painful lesson is misguided. Pageantry is a conventionally handy compensation for dramatic flaws, but the festival's resources do not encompass such essential embellishment. We must expend extra effort when Ms. Williamson commands us to “grapple your minds … work, work your thoughts.”

Markland Taylor (review date 5-11 August 2002)

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SOURCE: Taylor, Markland. “Review of Henry V.Variety 387, no. 11 (5-11 August 2002): 30.

[In the following review of the 2002 Shakespeare & Co. production of Henry V directed by Jonathan Epstein, Taylor observes that gratuitous stage business, comic nonsense, and an overall lack of directorial cohesion defined this deeply flawed staging of the play.]

For the first time in its 25 years, Shakespeare & Co. has staged Henry V, which joins Macbeth in the Founders' Theater through Sept. 1. It isn't as bad as the Macbeth, how could it be? But its still below-par Shakespeare and continues to suggest S&Co. has an enormous way to go before it begins to live up to its new Lenox campus and its first real theater, the Founders.

Having just 10 actors to perform Henry V is a problem to begin with, and a reading of the playbill makes it look as though many characters must have been excised. But that is not necessarily the case, as the company turns its hand to a multitude of roles, English, French and Welsh, high- and low-born. When the archbishop of Canterbury is supposed to enter immediately after the prologue, the actors look around the stage and out into the audience for him and then decide to dress up the straw soldier at center stage and have one of them pop his head up above it in an impersonation of the archbishop. Similar expediencies follow.

The more or less set-less production opens with a child singing off-stage; then a penny whistle is heard, then neighing. Allyn Burrows as Henry is revealed plunging his sword into the straw soldier (sculpted by Michael Melle) as a variety of voices urge him, “For God's sake go not to these wars.” Eventually we get to Shakespeare's opening “O for a muse of fire” prologue.

Jonathan Epstein's main directorial conceit is to turn the entire company into clowns. He does so by having them wear red noses on strings, which they don and doff throughout. In theory this aims to suggest that every human being, whether king or lowest of subjects, is a clown at times. In practice it's meaningless.

Epstein also sees the play as “25 one-act plays that are connected thematically.” Yet in this production, scene after scene is incomprehensible and no theme is discernible. If Epstein wanted to suggest that war is just one big, stupid, messy boondoggle, he could be said to have succeeded.

There are some moments of relief, such as Ariel Bock as Mistress Quickly actually touching the emotions as she delivers her epitaph to the dead Falstaff. But they are far too few.

The title role is a demanding part that needs an actor of real stature and presence. Burrows does contribute some physical glamour (he looks like Robert Redford), but he doesn't have sufficient histrionic heft; at times his approach is too conversational, and his voice often sounds strained.

As is too often the case in Shakespearean productions, the comics are tiresome, though Tony Simotes' Nym does have an amusing cockiness. And, most unfortunately, far too many of the actors have been allowed to bellow, bluster and shout, to the great detriment of the text.

The charming English-lesson scene between French princess Katherine (Susanna Apgar) and her attendant Alice (Bock) is marred by too much physical business—the two women are on Melle's sculptured half-horses carried by other cast members. There's also too much clambering around and sliding down the theater's scaffolding.

The costumes are a motley mix often taken out of onstage trunks, including outsize wigs for the French royals. For no good reason, Katherine is at one point seen in a '50s cocktail dress and, finally, in what looks like a debutante's ball gown.

Performance seen was astonishingly poorly attended. Let's hope S&Co. heeds the warning.

Brownell Salomon (essay date autumn 1980)

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SOURCE: Salomon, Brownell. “Thematic Contraries and the Dramaturgy of Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 31, no. 3 (autumn 1980): 343-56.

[In the following essay, Brownell affirms the unified design of Henry V by presenting a scene-by-scene analysis of the drama in relation to its theme of “private cause” versus “public good.”]

That Henry V provokes radically different responses from its modern interpreters is well known. For every critic willing to accept the play at face value as heroic drama, there is another determined to find it an ironic satire of Machiavellian militarism. But controversy fails to daunt Shakespeareans who are newly attracted to the play, each intent upon developing an interpretation that reasonably accounts for the largest measure of evidence. No exception, I here offer my own view that Henry V is a coherent dramatic work, an imaginative unity with a form totally integral with its meaning.

This is not to obscure the fact that the play is also one segment of a four-play historical sequence. Yet that particular fact should not be given more than its just due—as too often, I believe, it is. Extra-textual evidence, usually from the other plays of the Lancastrian tetralogy, may corroborate details in Henry V, but it cannot be relied upon to uphold a full reading. As Edgar Allan Poe neatly phrased the axiom, “Every work of art should contain within itself all that is requisite for its own comprehension.” We are, then, the more likely to gain practical understanding by scrutinizing the play itself for evidence of its formally controlling purpose. Above all, one looks for clues to an underlying idea, some organizing principle that governs all the characters and the configuration of all the parts.


To date, the clearest insight into the overall structure of Henry V is that provided by Richard Levin.1 Approaching the work as one type of Renaissance double-plot play, Professor Levin shows that Pistol and his cronies afford a near-perfect illustration of the “clown subplot” that serves as a foil to (as distinguished from a parody of) the main-plot actions. He finds the foil relationship to be most fully developed through a number of negative analogies. For example, Henry's impassioned urging of his army at the siege of Harfleur (III.i) is formally opposed to the succeeding scene in which Fluellen must drive the unwilling clown-foils into battle. “… Everything in the subplot,” argues Levin, “points unambiguously to its function as a foil employed to contrast with, and so render still more admirable, the exploits of the ‘mirror of all Christian kings’” (p. 116). Because plot-subplot analysis of this kind embraces a play's central elements, it offers a persuasive structural account of Henry V.

But an even more comprehensive explicative method is available to the student of Renaissance dramaturgy: analyzing the principles of design by which individual scenes are aggregated into the play as a whole. That approach is only now coming into its own, and will surely find wider use in future studies of Renaissance drama. A few years ago, Alfred Harbage noted that “It is one of the curiosities of Shakespearean criticism that it has offered so little analysis of scenic structure as compared with analysis of characters in the last century, and of images in the present one. Perhaps the reason is that the subject has lain fog-bound in the exhalation of the phantom ‘acts’ which have diverted or baffled inquiry.”2 In his fine recent study of Shakespeare's dramaturgy, Mark Rose agrees, declaring the matter of disputed act divisions “a scholarly red herring” that “discourage[s] us from seeing the plays as they really are.”3 As Professor Rose demonstrates, the basic structural unit of Shakespearean drama in particular and late Tudor drama generally is the cleared-stage scene.

One may account for this fact by the uniquely pictorial, visual sensibility of Shakespeare and his contemporaries. The Renaissance tendency to fuse the sister arts of poetry and painting in the spirit of the Horatian dictum, ut pictura poesis (“poetry is like painting”) is illustrated in many genres, but nowhere more clearly than in the remarkable popularity of the emblem book—a collection of spatially discrete “speaking pictures.” But if Renaissance aesthetic notions of spatial form and multiple unity are influences upon the emblem book, they also figure importantly in the symmetry and schematic organization of long poems like Spenser's Faerie Queene and Epithalamion, and Marlowe's Hero and Leander. So, likewise, do the aggregate scenes of a Shakespearean play comprise, in effect, an integral series of speaking pictures. Shakespeare tailors his scenic design to his drama of ideas; he makes conscious use of patterning for thematic purposes. To relate the independent scenes to their controlling idea, Shakespearean dramaturgy characteristically employs such formal means as frame scenes, diptych scenes (for example, the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet as divisible “hate” and “love” segments), ironic juxtapositions, and parallels and liaisons between scenes.

It is in light of these known Shakespearean methods that I offer the following scene-by-scene analysis, endeavoring to show that Henry V's individual scenes are organically interconnected, unified by a single conceptual framework. That framework consists in two rival ethical attitudes, whose prevalence oscillates in successive scenes or groups of scenes throughout the play until at last the favored attitude overrules. Specifically, the idea of the play's structure is embodied in two thematic contraries: private cause versus public good.


Crystallized in that antinomy is an essential tenet of sixteenth-century political morality: namely, that the needs of the commonwealth take precedence over the welfare of private citizens. So often did that sentiment find expression in Tudor literature that it attained proverbial status. From Morris Tilley's compilation of Elizabethan proverbs only two of many examples contemporaneous with Shakespeare's play need be cited: “private welfare is not to be preferred before common-weale,” from Nicholas Ling's Politeuphuia. Wits Common Wealth (London, 1597); and “private cause must yield to public good,” from George Chapman's (George Peele's?) Alphonsus, Emperor of Germany, I.ii.26 (London, 1594).4 In Shakespeare's own work, the private/public antinomy has major ethical and thematic relevance in the tragic poem, The Rape of Lucrece (1594). There, as in Henry V, “private” is equated with negative, solipsistic values, and “public” with the positive, societal values imperiled by Tarquin's crime:

‘Thy secret pleasure turns to open shame,
Thy private feasting to a public fast,
.....‘Why should the private pleasure of some one
Become the public plague of many moe?
.....For one's offence why should so many fall,
To plague a private sin in general?

(Luc., ll. 891-92, 1478-79, 1483-84)5

In Henry V, to be sure, the private/public polarity is somewhat less obvious, taking the form, by and large, of a unifying structural concept rather than a verbalized motif. Yet it is an ideational conflict that remains constant and pervasive in the play. The mode of opposition among particular scenes may variously be expressed as solipsism vs. altruism, self-love vs. public spiritedness, special pleading vs. the communal welfare, selfhood vs. the polity, parasitism vs. social benefaction, egoism vs. fellow feeling, partiality vs. mutuality, the subjective code vs. the objective ethos, opportunism vs. patriotism, and so forth.

In the analysis that follows, every scene will be considered except for the brief Prologue and Epilogue. These are excluded from the analysis because they function as mood-setting, presentational frame scenes that lead the audience into and out of the drama proper, which is thus formally set apart.


The opening scene (I.i) is flatly concerned with advancement of a private cause. From the first line on, we hear that the main problem for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely is to defend the Church's lands against an impending parliamentary bill of expropriation: “If it pass … We lose … half of our possession” (ll. 7-8). Of course, the bishops assert only the highest charitable motives for wanting to hold on to the property that parliament would “strip from us” (l. 11). But there is little doubt that narrow group interests take precedence over those of the commonwealth when we learn that Canterbury has cynically moved to incline King Henry to their cause by offering a great sum of money (ll. 75-81) in support of the tentative French invasion.

With the ceremonial entry of the King and his attendants (I.ii) we are instantly shifted to the arena of public interest. Once the question of England's just claim to France has been legally and morally resolved by Canterbury's discourse on the Salic Law, and ratified by the English lords, that policy is then extolled in the most glowing terms. The French expedition is thus unmistakably affirmed as a collective, national endeavor, not a strategy for the monarch's personal glory. Exeter invokes a traditional analogy to express their common solidarity: “For government, though high, and low, and lower, / Put into parts, doth keep in one consent, / Congreeing in a full and natural close, / Like music” (I.ii.180-83). With an equally traditional metaphor, Canterbury descants for 39 lines on the correspondence between England's national unity-in-diversity and that of the beehive (ll. 183-221). Though at the same time the King's courage and honor are enlarged upon (“I will dazzle all the eyes of France”), his virtues are never isolatedly his own, but rather meld with the nation's destiny: “I am coming on … to put forth / My rightful hand in a well-hallowed cause” (ll. 293-94). Henry's is a collaborative enterprise that allies the entire cosmic hierarchy: God, himself, and his subjects (“by God's help / And yours, …” ll. 223-24). His half-dozen allusions to God in this scene are no mere index of personal piety, therefore, but thematic affirmations of the lofty, communal sanction of the venture. As though in direct response to Henry's call to action in the tag line of this scene, the Chorus enters to announce that the royal imperative has been translated forthwith into a single-minded, national effort: “Now all the youth of England are on fire, / … / Following the mirror of all Christian kings / With winged heels” (II. Chor. 1, 6-7).

Displacing the show of public unanimity just witnessed, the scene following (II.i) presents a speaking picture of utterly different behavior: the petty contentiousness of Nym and Ancient Pistol. The cause of their grudge is a third party, Nell Quickly, who has faithlessly revoked her trothplight to the one in order to marry the other. That fact only makes the blustering exchanges of oaths and threats between the two former friends seem the more perverse and solipsistic. Even their comic diction negatively accents the trivial, personal (“solus”) nature of their quarreling, which keeps them (ll. 86-88) from responding to their public duty in France:

                                                            I would have you solus.
“Solus,” egregious dog? O viper vile!
The “solus” in thy most mervailous face!
The “solus” in thy teeth, and in thy throat, …


Another iterative word in this scene, and in the play thereafter, is Nym's catchword, “humour.” In contemporary usage the word was, of course, a synonym for any personal whim, crotchet, quirk, or idiosyncrasy—as in Nym's phrase beginning at line 52, “I have an humour to knock you.” Both “solus” and “humour” are thematic words, connoting verbally what Nym and Pistol's repeated drawing and sheathing of their swords symbolize visually throughout the scene. They are the gestes of private indulgence that derogate from the public interest.

Act II, scene ii again presents the contrary side of the equation. Bedford and Exeter's opening dialogue reveals that the conspiracy of Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey is known to the King, and that the traitors “shall be apprehended by and by” (l. 2). Since the first eleven lines foretell how this scene must end, its purpose is obviously not to build suspense as to the conspirators' identities. It is, rather, to dramatize the ascendancy of the public welfare over that most despicable of all private crimes against the social order, treason. By way of reinforcing the dramatic irony, Henry reminds the dissembling conspirators where true allegiance ought to lie, with the martial task that has the nation's wholehearted support: “we are well persuaded / We carry not a heart with us from hence / That grows not in a fair consent with ours” (ll. 20-22). As the traitors are handed their orders of arrest, Henry berates them as “English monsters” who “Join'd with an enemy proclaimed, and from his coffers / Receiv'd the golden earnest of our death” (ll. 85, 168-69). The rigor of the law must be imposed, he says, not because it revenges the attempt against his person (l. 174), but because of the public chaos their capital crime would have produced. They would have sold the King's “princes and his peers to servitude, / His subjects to oppression and contempt, / And his whole kingdom into desolation” (ll. 171-73).

With the shift of locale to the Boar's Head Tavern (II.iii), we again revert to the world of selfish opportunism. For a few moments, the grieving of Pistol, the Hostess, and their friends at the news of Falstaff's death is allowed to evoke our sympathy and amusement (at the Hostess' malapropisms and Pistol's alliterations). But not for long, because the scene closes with Pistol reaffirming his self-serving, parasitic motives: “Let us to France, like horse-leeches, my boys, / To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck!” (II.iii.50-51). Ironically, his words recall the earlier-mentioned depredations of a proclaimed national enemy, “the weasel Scot” who “sucks her princely eggs” (I.ii.170-71). At the French court in the next scene (II.iv) self-centeredness also prevails, but in a different modality. While the French King and the Constable recommend caution and national preparedness against the English invasion, the Dauphin speaks slightingly of Henry, and would put private enmity and spite above public policy: “Say, if my father render fair return, / It is against my will; for I desire / Nothing but odds with England” (II.iv.127-29). As his advice to his father shows, the Dauphin virtually incarnates self-regarding hauteur: “Self-love, my liege, is not so vile a sin / As self-neglecting” (ll. 74-75).

Stirringly, the Chorus at the beginning of Act III recalls us to the arena of public-spirited action. We the audience become vicarious participants in the sailing of Henry's “brave fleet” toward the great national mission at Harfleur: “who is he … that will not follow / These culled and choice-drawn cavaliers to France?” (III.Chor.22-24). The imperative mood is employed all-pervasively in this speech (“Suppose … Play … behold … think … follow, follow! / Grapple”), as though to compel our allegiance to the common cause. This is the same rhetorical mode that Henry will use with his troops in the famous speech in the following scene: “imitate the action of the tiger: / Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, … On, on, …” (III.i.6 ff.). Henry's inspiring presence before Harfleur is the apotheosis of communal values in action: “Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’” (III.i.34).

Act III, scene ii divides into two episodes, before and after line 23, the two segments of the diptych representing contrary ethical priorities. Nym, Pistol, Bardolph, and the Boy have heard the King's order to the breach, but choose rather to evade the call to heroic warfare: “The knocks are too hot. … The humour of it is too hot” (ll. 2-4). Nym's “humour” is again the verbal high sign of solipsism, of the elevation of private cause over public welfare.

But immediately afterward, the anti-social motivations of his cohorts are pointedly censured in the Boy's soliloquy. Pistol is a coward, and Nym and Bardolph are shirkers and downright thieves: “They will steal anything, and call it purchase” (III.ii.38). The Boy repudiates such practices (“Their villainy goes against my weak stomach,” l. 48) and expresses his intention to leave their service. The entire speech is choric in tone, stressing that its condemnation of parasitism is the play's ethical position directly confided to the audience. And to emphasize that Pistol and his friends are untypical of English soldiery, there follows an episode showing that bravery, dependability, and loyalty to the common welfare are in fact the dominant social values (ll. 50-130). Symbolizing the national unity-in-diversity are captains Gower, Fluellen, Macmorris, and Jamy, who set aside their respective regional loyalties (English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish) to embrace a public duty that could well involve the ultimate self-sacrifice. Jamy's sentiments speak for all: “ay'll de gud service, or ay'll lig i' th' grund for it! ay, or go to death!” (ll. 106-7). An honorable band whose efforts are socially productive, they are in stark contrast to the ignoble fraternity of Nym and Bardolph, “sworn brothers in filching” (ll. 40-41).

In Act III, scene iii Henry addresses the besieged Governor of Harfleur and brings about the French town's immediate surrender. Using a rhetorical strategy designed to provoke fear of his soldiers' reprisals, Henry gains his objective without additional bloodshed. The victory, however, is shown to belong to the English forces collectively rather than to the King alone; he is but the self-effaced embodiment of the national will. Henry's sole concerns are for the vanquished (“Use mercy to them all”) and for his soldiers' health and well-being (ll. 54-56).

The “language lesson” scene (III.iv) featuring Princess Katherine and her gentlewoman might seem to signal an alternation to merely personal values, but this is not the case. Though the scene serves several dramatic functions at once, the key phrase relating to the private/public antithesis is Katherine's assertion that she must learn the English language: “il faut que j'apprends à parler” (ll. 4-5). That English is felt necessary (“il faut”) for a French princess is, in effect, an acknowledgment of France and England's cultural parity. More important, it foreshadows England's later political and cultural transcendence. 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. The present scene takes place in France and deals with personal matters; but paradoxically, its main reason for being is as a reverberation of Henry's victory for English communal values in the preceding scene.

With Act III, scene v comes a regression to egotistic motives. It is noteworthy that the French forces, who have met to plan their defense against the English, are represented by only the narrowest upper stratum of aristocrats. Unlike the English, whose cause energizes social cohesiveness (“Now all the youth of England are on fire”), the French response is actuated only incidentally by the threat to the nation as a whole. What preoccupies the French nobles is the confined interest of their class. They wish to avenge the loss of self-esteem occasioned by the English invasion. What lip service they give to patriotism is couched in terms of wounded personal honor: “shall our quick blood, spirited with wine, / Seem frosty? O, for honor of our land, / Let us not hang like roping icicles …” (ll. 21-23). The notion of honor echoes throughout the scene, but always in the sense of a private punctilio which must be vindicated rather than an internalized public ethic: “with spirit of honor edged … hie to the field … now quit you of great shames” (ll. 38-39, 47; cf. l. 27). Most stinging of all to the French is the affront to their pride and manhood: “Our madams mock at us and plainly say / Our mettle is bred out” (ll. 28-29).

In the scene following (, the play's ethical alternatives confront one another, to the esteem of public values. Pistol attempts to persuade Fluellen to intercede with the Duke of Exeter in behalf of Bardolph, who is to be hanged for stealing that “pax of little price” (l. 44). Fluellen refuses Pistol's special pleading, saying that he would want his own brother executed if he were guilty, “for discipline ought to be used” (l. 55). Minutes later, King Henry informs Fluellen that maintaining orderly conduct is not just a military necessity but, because they are on enemy soil, a socio-political one as well (ll. 103-9). In his attempt to raise private expediency above obligation to the community, which Fluellen and the King exemplify, Pistol is once more shown up as the very embodiment of egoism: “a rogue, that now and then goes to the wars to grace himself” (ll. 66-67). The King, on the other hand, takes the occasion humbly to reaffirm the dependence of his army upon a suprapersonal reality, God (ll. 145, 151, 164).

The next scene (III.vii) is a vignette wholly concerned with the French nobles' vanity and frivolousness on the eve of the battle of Agincourt. As they banter about the relative merits of their armor and horses, not the slightest heed is given to the battle's wider implications. The narcissistic Dauphin's boastfulness is only slightly more conspicuous than the others', but it makes him the easy target of the Constable's taunts. Without exception, every speaking character in this scene is given to vaunting French superiority. But the primary focus here is not upon real versus apparent valor, but rather upon the utter self-absorption of these aristocrats, which points up the flaccid social bond underlying their cause. French defeat is a foregone conclusion.

The impression of social divisiveness in the previous scene, expressed through the belittling, sarcastic exchanges among the French leaders, is contrasted in the Chorus to Act IV by an impression of unity and fellow feeling on the English side. The rapport between Henry and his soldiers is not the product of their mutual danger, but of Henry's ability to instill a sense of personal co-identification, of shared participation in their national mission: “with a modest smile / … [he] calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen” (IV. Chor. 33-34). Unlike the inwardly preoccupied French nobles, the outer-directed Henry upholds a demotic, communal goal. By his visits among his men (“A little touch of Harry in the night,” l. 47), he makes co-partnership of every rank the object of personal concern: “A largess universal, like the sun, / His liberal eye doth give to every one” (ll. 43-44).

Act IV, scene i involves the subtlest expression of the private/public dialectic in the play. This is the scene of Henry's incognito conversation with his soldiers, Bates and Williams, on the eve of the battle. For the first time there is a hint of possible contradiction between Henry's avowed public intention not to allow himself to be ransomed if he were captured by the French, and what action he might actually take. By refusing ransom, the King has magnanimously set aside a royal prerogative which would serve his private advantage, choosing instead to tie his own fate to that of his army. Henry's third-person self-deprecations in this scene (“the king is but a man … his senses have but human conditions,” ll. 98, 100) both humanize him and enhance his credibility. Clearly, the King's private thoughts and public enactments are identical. Nevertheless, Williams is entitled to his skepticism. Henry's display of valor could be but a false mask for cowardice: “He may show what outward courage he will” (l. 109; italics mine). Unlike the common soldier, moreover, the King might revert with impunity to self-regard: “when our throats are cut, he may be ransomed, and we ne'er the wiser” (ll. 183-84). Henry's certain knowledge that he would keep his public promise never to be ransomed is unprovable, for the special privilege he enjoys as a king exempts him from being held to such a pledge: the validity of his oath as a private person is mooted by the royal prerogative. The frustration this causes Henry is not self-created, but inheres in the medieval and Renaissance legal sanction of his office, which distinguished between the king's two bodies, the private and the public: “O hard condition, / Twin-born with greatness” (ll. 219-20).6 Williams' incredulousness piques Henry, then, because it calls his private as well as his public oath into question. By way of postponing their altercation to a more fitting time, Henry gets Williams to agree to exchange gloves, with both to wear them in their respective headgear for later identification (ll. 197-202).

Our every observation of the play to this point argues against interpreting this episode as mere psychological realism, as a scene intended to depreciate Henry's maturity as a king.7 The scene is preeminently of emblematic significance. For, notwithstanding its unfriendly tone, the act of exchanging “gages” (l. 197), or pledges, symbolizes the reciprocity and mutuality existing between Henry and his men. Their shared public allegiance creates a genuine brotherhood, a human parity that transcends the disparity in rank. As Henry later puts it, “he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother” (IV.iii.61-62; cf. IV. Chor. 34). Viewed in anthropological terms, the exchange of gloves is a social-bonding ritual. It is a “rite of incorporation” exactly as the inter-tribal marriage, the exchange of visits or gifts, the communal feast, or the peace-pipe ceremony are for primitive peoples.8 Such a rite puts one or both of its participants under a constraint. By giving over his glove to one of his ordinary soldiers, then, all the while continuing to hide his elevated status, Henry symbolically reaffirms his earlier vow that self-interest shall defer to the body politic.

The Dauphin and three other French peers then blusteringly take the stage, at once displaying their narcissism. As in III.vii, they are absorbed by externals, the “fair show” (IV.ii.17) of their horses and dress:

The sun doth gild our armor. Up, my lords!
Monte, cheval! My horse, varlet lacquais! Ha!
O brave spirit!
Via les eaux et terre!

The four men are then joined by a fifth, the Constable. Though staging calls for the group to stand before the audience in a line, the impression conveyed is one of mutual isolation and detachment—the very opposite of group solidarity. The fragmentary nature of the opening lines also confirms an aura of divisiveness, of obliviousness to everything but private concerns (“our honors,” l. 32). To observe how well Shakespeare has used structural means to contrast public-spirited with egocentric values here, consider the way Henry's final line in the previous scene creates a liaison with this one. Henry's words, “The day, my friends, and all things wait for me” (IV.i.296), had emphasized his commitment to obligations outside himself. Juxtaposition of those words with the light-minded bravado of the Frenchmen heightens the play's central ethical opposition.

King Henry's “Crispin's day” speech is the rhetorical high point of IV.iii and of the play. But more important, the speech makes explicit the King's almost sacramental identification of himself and his men with their unanimous, high purpose: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother” (ll. 60-62). The sense of community among Henry's officers had already been depicted at the beginning of the scene in their exchange of affectionate epithets—“noble,” “good,” “kind,” “full of valor,” “princely” (ll. 8-16). This camaraderie and devotion to public responsibility, in spite of the “fearful odds” (l. 5), may be contrasted with the endless self-congratulations of the Frenchmen in the preceding scene.

Pistol's capture of Monsieur le Fer in IV.iv is an episode that is humorous only on the surface. Though we may smile at Pistol's punningly tortured French, the chilling purpose of the scene is to remind us that Pistol and his “yoke-fellows in arms” became soldiers for predatory, not patriotic, reasons: “like horse-leeches … to suck!” As Pistol leads off his captive, whose life has been spared by the promise to pay 200 crowns in ransom, the Boy soliloquizes on Pistol's self-serving hypocrisy and cowardice: “I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart … ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound’” (IV.iv.66-68). As Derek Traversi rightly observes, “The chief quality of Pistol is emptiness, a bombastic show that wordily covers vacancy.”9 Pistol, his lately-hanged confederates Nym and Bardolph, and the boastful French nobles are all types of the “hollow men” envisioned by T. S. Eliot in the poem of that name. And significantly, all of these self-centered, spiritually vacuous characters are later defeated or humiliated by characters who represent the good of the commonweal.

The next scene (IV.v) finds the French army in disarray and facing imminent defeat. In their concern with private stigma (“O perdurable shame! Let's stab ourselves. … Shame, and eternal shame! nothing but shame! / Let us die in honor,” IV.v.8, 11-12), the Dauphin and his colleagues are oblivious to the national danger. The operative word in this brief, 24-line scene is shame; it occurs no less than six times. As in the preceding scene, personal interests transcend public ones, though for the last time in the play. From through to the end, every scene magnifies the ideal of community.

In scene vi of Act IV, a mirror inversion of the previous scene, King Harry hears Exeter describe the noble battlefield deaths of Suffolk and York. Although both scenes are virtually equal in length (24 lines in IV.v, 36 in and deal with the fortunes of war, their emphases are antithetical. Whereas in IV.v the French were engrossed with private honor, York's dying words in refer selflessly to his public commitment: “‘Commend my service to my sovereign’” (l. 23). There follows yet another exemplary resolution of the private/public antinomy. Upon Exeter's admission that he was moved to tears by York's death, Henry too gets “mistful eyes” (l. 34). At that precise moment the French sound an alarum (l. 34 s.d.) signifying their intention to rally. Henry is compelled instantly to respond to that tactical disadvantage by ordering the French prisoners executed. Predictably, critics who opt for an ironic reading of the play interpret this action as heinous or unnecessarily cruel.10 But the manifest function of the incident is to make a razor-sharp juxtaposition: Henry as capable of feeling the deepest private compassion, yet able to stanch that emotion utterly when public danger threatens. For this episode Shakespeare even adapts his sources—in both Hall and Holinshed—in a way calculated to enhance our impression of Henry as a model of social responsibility, not the private avenger of the murdered luggage boys.11

After the English victory, Montjoy the herald seeks King Henry's permission to allow the French to bury their dead. The herald makes a special point of the need “To sort our nobles from our common men” for “… our vulgar drench their peasant limbs / In blood of princes” (IV.vii.69, 72-73). The class partiality of the living is now to be reimposed upon the dead. By contrast, among Fluellen and his other comrades of high and low estate, King Henry reaffirms the mutuality that continues to unify all levels of the English social hierarchy (ll. 89-173). His mock-serious teasing of Williams in the next scene—his pretended indignation at the “bitter terms” he endured while incognito in IV.i, and his desire for “satisfaction”—ends good-naturedly with the presentation of the glove filled with crowns (IV.viii.53-54). Henry's gift-giving assuages Williams' honor, and, like their earlier exchange of gloves, functions as a rite of incorporation, re-establishing parity in their interdependent social relationship. Like the glove-exchange, the gesture has little psychological interest, being above all emblematic social symbolism.12

From the Chorus we learn of Henry's triumphal return to England. For reasons of modesty, the King refuses to display tokens of his personal heroism, “Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride; / Giving full trophy, signal, and ostent / Quite from himself to God” (V. Chor. 20-22). Henry's piety remains a conspicuous thematic idea throughout the play, and this emergence of it echoes his own words in the previous scene: “O God, … to thy arm alone, / Ascribe we all!” (IV.viii.101-3). And yet its very obviousness arouses suspicion in several modern commentators, who refuse to take Henry's virtue at face value.13 To be sure, Henry refers to God oftener than any other Shakespearean character, even more frequently than the Henry whose deeds Holinshed records. But never, in any of its dramatic contexts, does the trait smack in the least of personal righteousness. Instead, it functions as a socio-ethical motif, connoting the alliance with Providence that rewards champions of the general welfare.

The critics who insist upon reading the two scenes of Act V as the concluding segment of a traditional five-act structure are almost always disappointed. Samuel Johnson, for example, held that “the poet's matter failed him in the fifth act, and he was glad to fill it up with whatever he could get.”14 That the historical actions of the last act take place five years after the heroic battle of Agincourt inevitably strikes Shakespeare's detractors as the worst kind of anticlimax. But if the two scenes comprising Act V are analyzed scenically, in terms of their significant bearing upon the private/public thematic paradigm, the organic purpose of the last act becomes manifest. While every scene after IV.v vindicates communal values, the two scenes of Act V together form a diptych that provides the public ethos with its final, closural affirmation. With these two scenes, the conceptual opposition that informs the entire play is climactically resolved. Scene i, in the satiric mode, presents the exemplary defeat or nullification of private expediency; scene ii, on the other hand, is in the mode of festive comedy, and celebrates personal and socio-political harmony on an international scale.

Each scene is dominated by an emblematic, ritual action which has the reverse implications of that in the other scene. In scene i, that action is Fluellen's belaboring Pistol with a leek until he falls stunned to his knees (V.i.32-34). On the literal level, as farce, the gesture signifies revenge for Pistol's having insulted the Welshman for wearing the leek on St. Davy's day. But as dramatic symbolism, Pistol's humiliation betokens the play's wider repudiation of the kind of self-love that undermines responsibility to the community at large. By reason of his cowardice and opportunism, Pistol has been an exemplar of anti-social behavior; he is thus the play's comic villain. His punishment figures forth society's retributive action: the ritual expulsion of the scapegoat who personifies hated taboo values. With both Fluellen and Gower “officiating,” Pistol's rites take the form of abusive name-calling (“scurvy, lousy … counterfeit cowardly knave,” etc.), physical degradation (being pummeled with and forcefed the leek), and finally explicit banishment (“God bye you. … Go, go. … Fare ye well”). Shakespeare is careful to emphasize that Pistol is no mere victim of personal vengeance, but the object of collective derision. For the leek is unequivocally a social symbol, a totem of British patriotic virtue which even King Henry himself wears as an “honorable padge” (IV.vii.96-100). It is thus an index of Pistol's self-absorption that he grows “qualmish at the smell of leek” (V.i.19), being given only to “mock at an ancient tradition, begun upon an honorable respect and worn as a memorable trophy of predeceased valor” (ll. 63-65). His ignominy lacks even a shred of pathos. But though now a declared pariah, the unrepentant Pistol will yet maintain his leech-like relation to society: “To England will I steal, and there I'll steal” (l. 79). That he also intends to become a bawd (l. 78) expands his associations with social outlawry and sterility—a fact that establishes a significant liaison with the next scene, as will be apparent shortly.

Whether primitive or advanced, every society employs special ceremonies to mark its members' crucial changes of life. Rites of banishment, expulsion, or excommunication are one type of what Arnold van Gennep has called rites of passage, and initiatory rites of incorporation are seen as their counterpart (van Gennep, pp. 113-15). And whereas an expulsion ritual was found to be the underlying form of V.i of Henry V, Act V, scene ii involves the converse symbolic action, a rite of incorporation. Anticipatory rites of incorporation had occurred earlier in Act IV, scenes i and viii, when the King gesturally affirmed a bond of mutuality with his soldiers. But the betrothal of Henry and Princess Katherine solemnizes a full-scale personal and national incorporation. In the opening moments there are semiological expressions of divisiveness: the French and English parties make ceremonial entries from opposite doors, and take up positions on either side of a wooden bar (V.ii.27) that divides the stage.15 The scene concludes, however, with a summary enactment of the new “incorporate league” (l. 350) of France and England. A ceremonial trumpet flourish accompanies Henry's kiss of the Princess (l. 342 s.d.), magnifying that gesture into a national rite of unification.

Even the numerous sexual references and innuendoes in this scene relate to the ascendancy of public over private values in the play. For unlike the brutal sexuality associated with Pistol in the last scene, the sexual nuances attending Henry's betrothal to the French princess have socially beneficial connotations. As the royal pair embodies political unity (“Combine your hearts in one, your realms in one!” l. 344), so their sexuality is directed toward communal, national-evangelical goals (“Shall not thou and I … compound a boy, half French, half English, that shall … take the Turk by the beard?” ll. 200-203). Such sexual allusions as this and the remarks of the quibbling Duke of Burgundy (“If you would conjure in her, you must make a circle,” ll. 282-83; cf. ll. 136-41, 200) have both thematic and anthropological relevance. They are metonyms for the life-force necessary to rejuvenate the French nation, once a “garden of the world, / Our fertile France” (ll. 36-37), but now made moribund and infertile by war (“nothing teems / But hateful docks, rough thistles, kecksies, burrs,” ll. 51-52). And just as indecency worked as vestigial fertility symbolism in Greek Old Comedy, surviving as a saturnalian element in Shakespearean festive comedies like Love's Labor's Lost and Much Ado About Nothing,16 so it functions with like effect in Henry V. Surely it was for this purpose that the Princess' sexual sophistication was established in III.iv, when she acknowledged to her gentlewoman her awareness of the obscene puns. That incident not only revealed Katherine's humanity but suggested her latent sexuality, foreshadowing the role that her procreativeness would eventually play in the dynastic and socio-political union of France and England. The play ends with the marriage in immediate prospect, and the wedding party departs in a festal procession—an analogue of the kommos of Attic comedy, and the canonical ending of all comedy. When one considers the important question of genre, then, necessarily a side issue in the present essay, the cumulative structural and stylistic evidence makes it clear that Henry V is as much a festive comedy or a heroic romance as a history play.17


The foregoing scene-by-scene analysis confirms what many recent studies of Shakespearean structure have demonstrated: that act division plays no part at all in the design of the plays; that their basic dramatic unit is the scene; that there is a conscious design in the internal organization of the scenes, as in the schematicism of A Midsummer Night's Dream or the symmetry of The Winter's Tale; and that the scenes are individually molded compositions which are part of an organically unified pattern.18 This is true of Henry V, whose individual scenes or integral groups of scenes severally depict two contrary sets of values, values which alternate in prominence throughout the play.

There is, however, a wide disparity in the structural emphasis given the two sets of contraries. If we let the total number of lines in support of each ethical alternative stand as a rough index of relative importance, then communitas is preferred to egoism by nearly three to one, 2541 lines (73.6٪) as compared with 880 (26.4٪).19 But more important is the fact that the climactic last half-dozen scenes of the play present a sustained triumph of the public ethos. In other words, the overall pattern of scenes organizes the positive and negative values not merely as oscillating, paradigmatic categories, but as an emerging temporal sequence wherein social mores progressively transcend anti-social ones.20 It is emphatically a moral structure.

Expressed diagrammatically, the fortunes of characters who variously represent self-interest, such as Pistol and the French chivalry, begin a diagonal descent to repudiation and defeat almost from the beginning of the play. Intersecting that downward vector is the upward diagonal that represents the justification and growing success of King Henry and like-minded supporters of communal goals. A comprehensive analysis of scenic structure not only reveals the unifying conceptual design of Henry V, but also verifies the majority understanding of the play as one whose nature is exemplary rather than ironic or satiric.


  1. Richard Levin, The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 116-19.

  2. Alfred Harbage, gen. ed., The Complete Pelican Shakespeare (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 32.

  3. Mark Rose, Shakespearean Design (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of the Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), p. 21 et passim; the remarks immediately following are indebted to this book. On the “speaking-picture” aspect of Renaissance visual epistemology, mentioned next, see also Forrest G. Robinson, The Shape of Things Known: Sidney's Apology in Its Philosophical Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1972), chaps. 2 and 3.

  4. Morris Palmer Tilley, Elizabethan Proverb Lore in Lyly's Euphues and in Pettie's Petite Palace with Parallels from Shakespeare, Univ. of Michigan Publications, Language and Literature, 2 (New York: Macmillan, 1926), item 505. Unaccountably, the proverb and its many examples are omitted from Tilley's expanded version of this work, published posthumously in 1950.

  5. Citations are to The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, op. cit.

  6. See E. F. J. Tucker, “Legal Fiction and Human Reality: Hal's Role in Henry V,Educational Theatre Journal, 26 (1974), 308-14; Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), p. 8 et passim.

  7. See Marilyn L. Williamson, “The Episode with Williams in Henry V,Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 9 (1969), 280-81; cf. Anne Barton's view, that the quarrel and Henry's allegedly patronizing generosity contradict the romantic, ballad tradition (“The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History,” in The Triple Bond: Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance, ed. Joseph G. Price [University Park: Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 1975], pp. 100-101).

  8. Arnold van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, trans. Monika B. Vizedom and Gabrielle Caffee (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 131-33.

  9. Derek Traversi, Shakespeare from Richard II to Henry V (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1957), p. 193. Note, too, that Pistol's trumpery in this scene is stylistically isolated by his use of stilted blank verse, while the Boy and the Frenchman converse ingenuously in prose.

  10. E.g., Norman Rabkin condemns the act as an illegitimate “response to the fair battlefield killing of some English nobles by the French” (“Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly, 28 [1977], 292), but fails to mention the French alarum that prompted it; H. M. Richmond considers the English as “guilty of barbarities” as the French (Shakespeare's Political Plays [New York: Random House, 1967], p. 198).

  11. Holinshed, “The Third Volume of Chronicles: Henry V,” Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, ed. Geoffrey Bullough, IV (1962; rpt. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975), 397.

  12. See van Gennep, pp. 131-33.

  13. For a debunking of this refutative critical technique, which has been used specifically to question Henry V's piety, see Richard Levin, “Refuting Shakespeare's Endings. Part II,” Modern Philology, 75 (1977), 139-40. See also Traversi, cited above.

  14. The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Vols. VII and VIII, Johnson on Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Sherbo (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1968), VIII, 565. J. M. Maguin observes that Act V is structurally coextensive whether the act division of the First Folio or of modern editions is used, making V.i-ii by either scheme a depressing “continuation of a deliberately descending curve” (“Shakespeare's Structural Craft and Dramatic Technique in Henry V,Cahiers Elisabethains, 7 [1975], 59). For an affirmative approach to Act V, differing from my own, see George Walton Williams' argument that its scenes “are thematically united in presenting peace and order, at home and abroad. They are also thematically unified by references to language and to the garden” (“The Unity of Act V in Henry V,South Atlantic Bulletin, 40 [1975], 5).

  15. The semantic value of gesture, movement (including stage grouping), and decor is discussed in my essay, “Visual and Aural Signs in the Performed English Renaissance Play,” Renaissance Drama, NS 5 (1972), 154-57.

  16. See C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy: A Study of Dramatic Form and its Relation to Social Custom (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1959), pp. 7-8, citing Francis MacDonald Cornford, The Origins of Attic Comedy (1914; rpt. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday Anchor, 1961), see esp. pp. 38-39.

  17. Barber's classic study approaches two other history plays, 1 and 2 Henry IV, in terms of festive comedy, but not Henry V. Significantly, in its bawdiness the latter more typifies Shakespearean comedy; it was designated “the obscenest of the Histories” by the authority on such matters, Eric Partridge (Shakespeare's Bawdy: A Literary and Psychological Essay and a Comprehensive Glossary [1947; rev. rpt. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1968], p. 45).

  18. See Rose, esp. pp. 1-26; Hereward T. Price, “Mirror-Scenes in Shakespeare,” in Joseph Quincy Adams Memorial Studies, ed. James G. McManaway, et al. (Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1948), pp. 101-13; and Wildred T. Jewkes, Act Division in Elizabethan and Jacobean Plays 1583-1616 (Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press, 1958). See also Emrys Jones, Scenic Form in Shakespeare (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971). A precursor of the extended scenic-structural reading is Hereward T. Price's analysis of 1 Henry VI in Construction in Shakespeare, Univ. of Michigan Contributions in Modern Philology, 17 (Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press, 1951), pp. 24-37.

  19. Lineation used is that of Charlton Hinman's facsimile edition of the First Folio (New York: W. W. Norton, 1968). For the reason given earlier, the fifty lines of the combined Prologue and Epilogue are excluded from the count.

  20. For other uses of oscillation analysis in Shakespeare studies, see Elemér Hankiss' report on the Investigative Committee on New Research Methods in Shakespeare 1971: Proceedings of the World Shakespeare Congress, Vancouver, August 1971, ed. Clifford Leech and J. M. R. Margeson (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1972), p. 274.

W. M. Richardson (essay date winter 1981)

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SOURCE: Richardson, W. M. “The Brave New World of Shakespeare's Henry V Revisited.” Allegorica 6, no. 2 (winter 1981): 149-54.

[In the following essay, Richardson claims that Henry V features Shakespeare's depiction of a cynically modern and amoral state.]

By modern political criteria, the medieval world was confused and chaotic. Men's loyalties and duties were divided among the often conflicting claims of the Church, the crown, and their feudal overlords; and it was largely due to these divided loyalties that Malory's Arthur's dream of an England united in the fellowship of the Round Table failed. By the time Malory's Morte D'arthur ends, feudal loyalties, the Grail quest and other claims of the Church, clan loyalties, and the obligations of the Courtly Love tradition have broken the ties of brotherhood so precariously united in the Round Table; and both Arthur and his dream are dead.

However, it is doubtful that the political confusion resulting from the varying claims of these institutions more seriously complicated life for the generality of men than the later emergence of a unified state under a powerful central government. Because Church, crown, and overlord were often in competition with one another, their demands on the individual were ultimately less oppressive than those of the all-powerful state. Moreover, the options available to most men may have been enhanced, giving the individual more freedom to choose his own priorities rather than those assigned him by the state.

Certainly the world of Malory, like that depicted by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, is a broader, more comprehensive world than that which exists at the end of Shakespeare's Henry V trilogy. For by the end of the trilogy, everything—man, the Church, even God—has been reduced to the narrow expediency of the state as embodied in Shakespeare's Hal. To pass from Arthur's dream to Hal's reality is to pass into a shrunken world, a world of diminished possibilities. The transformation of England from a medieval society to a modern state is the larger theme of Shakespeare's trilogy, and much more is at stake than simply Hal's own humanity. Before the end of Henry V Falstaff, the symbol of warm, lusty, unregenerate life for its own sake, is banished and dead. Hotspur, the ostensible personification of the chivalric ideal, has been used and betrayed by the practitioners of the new politics and is finally killed by its most successful practitioner, who desires only the appearance of chivalry. The Church, trying desperately to protect its resources from the crown, has become an accomplice to Hal's morally and legally dubious war against France; and Bardolph and Nym have been sentenced to death for a relatively trivial crime by a man whose hands are red with the blood of thousands—a man who is shortly to order the massacre of large numbers of helpless prisoners.

Even the feudal injunction requiring the loyalty and obedience of the vassal only as long as they are not in conflict with basic Christian values has been abrogated. In his dialogue with the common soldier Williams, this consummate politician manages to place the blame for the wrongs committed in the service of the king or state upon the shoulders of its humblest instruments. They, with God, must share the joint responsibilities for the bloody acts of the state.

The radical dissociation of moral sensibilities so characteristic of the modern state and, indeed, of modern man has already taken place.1 And, for Hal, the dissociation is convenient. Hal can forgive his would-be assassins for their plot on his person but can order them executed for their conspiracy against him as the state. As the state, he can blackmail the Church into sanctioning his war on France and make it God's war as well as his. As the state, he can threaten the recalcitrant citizens of Harfleur with the rape of their daughters, the slaughter of their elders, and the spitting of their infants upon pikes. And after his exchange with the soldier Williams on the eve of Agincourt, this politic aggressor, this most warlike of kings, can speak with terrible sincerity of the terrible burdens of kingship, of

What watch the King keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages.

(Henry V, IV, i)2

Nearly all the contents of the Pandora's box of evils that modern man has opened are present in the trilogy—not only the split between the private and public sphere of human action but also the dreadful consequences of a narrow and parochial nationalism. When one considers the context of the foregoing speech and Hal's motives in invading France: to busy “giddy minds with foreign quarrels,” the peace he speaks of can only be the domestic peace of England. For that, another peaceful kingdom must be laid waste, helpless prisoners slaughtered, and men killed in thousands. It is a familiar gambit, an act of short-term expediency. The French, like William Perkins' poor, are expendable in a good cause, “a cursed generation,” who are, in contrast to the English, denied the promise of God's kingdom and belong to “no civill societie,” but are as “rotten legges and arms, that drop from the body.” Thus Christianity, with its larger obligations and its promise of a larger brotherhood, is now confined within national boundaries and, like man, suffers from diminution in Hal's brave new world.

That Shakespeare provides a classic portrait of the modern state and its rulers in the trilogy is undeniable. That Hal has generally been considered Shakespeare's ideal king is perhaps due to the acquiescence of modern man in his own diminution and the corresponding shrinkage of his moral perspective. That Shakespeare encourages us to see Hal's limits, his moral obliquity, is, I think, obvious. In Henry IV, Part I, he places Hal in the shadow of Hotspur and Falstaff; in Part II, he shows him cruelly rejecting Falstaff and eagerly seizing his father's crown. Further, he gives us little evidence that Hal is either a good or responsible king, or that he considers England any more than an extension of himself.

Many critics have been taken in by Hal's wit and rhetorical skills, but the soldiers who, with the French civilians, are the initial victims of his policies are under no illusions about him. Pistol knows that the English are going to France “like horse leeches … to suck, to suck, the very blood to suck.” Hal evades rather than answers the charges of the loyal Williams, and the comparison of Hal and “Alexander the Pig” by Gower and Fluellen after hearing of the order to kill the French prisoners is devastating in its irony:

.. the King, most worthily, hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O, 'tis a gallant King!
Aye, he was porn at Monmouth, Captain Gower. What call you the town's name where Alexander the pig was born?
Alexander the Great.
Why, I pray you, is not pig great? The pig, or the great, or the mighty, or the huge, or the magnanimous, are all one reckonings, save the phrase is a little variations.

This rather pointed exchange, which also involves parallels drawn between Alexander's Cleitus and Hal's Falstaff, ends with Fluellen exclaiming “I'll tell you there is good men porn at Monmouth” (Henry V, IV, vii).

Those who believe that the larger theme of the trilogy shows a tragic Hal reluctantly surrendering his humanity to the importunities of kingship overlook the fact that Hal is the only unchanging factor in the trilogy. Only his outward circumstances change. Hal is, in the end, as he was in the beginning, the shrewd, unscrupulous, politician using people as tools for his own ends, whether they be to astound the world with his reformation, as factors “to engross up glorious deeds” in his behalf, or to fill up breaches in the walls of Harfleur. Most damaging is Hal's brutal rebuttal of the troubled Williams' assertion that if Hal's soldiers “do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it, whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.” Hal answers:

The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers … for they purpose not their death when they purpose their services. Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers. Some peradventure have on them the guilt of premeditated and contrived murder; some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals of perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before gored the gentle bosom of peace with pillage and robbery. Now if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God. War is His beadle, war is His vengeance, so that here men are punished for before-breach of the King's laws in now the King's quarrel. … Then if they die unprovided, no more is the King guilty of their damnation than he was before guilty of those impieties for the which they are now visited. Every subject's duty is the King's, but every subject's soul is his own.

(Henry V, IV, i).

The speciousness of Hal's logic here is stunning.

Samuel Johnson said of Homer that neither nations nor time has been “able to do more than transpose his incidents, newname his characters, and paraphrase his sentiments.” Most certainly this is true of nations in the twentieth century with regard to Shakespeare. Hal's sentencing of Bardolph and Nym and his specious reply to Williams have, in our day, been echoed at Nuremberg and the Lieutenant Calley trial. The cry of “Once more unto the breach” has echoed continually since Hal's time, and uncounted millions have rushed forth in their youth to fill one breach or another. Still the breaches become larger and the cries shriller and more urgent.

Surely the larger tragedy and theme of the Henry V trilogy is not Hal's alone but humanity's as well. To be sure, that medieval order, of which Hotspur and Falstaff are in their own differing ways representative, was decadent. It was an order whose decadence was reflected in the venality of the churchmen in Henry V as well as in the excesses of both Hotspur and Falstaff. Clearly, a change was needed, and Shakespeare was not engaged in whitewashing the past at the expense of the present. But a world lacking the qualities embodied in a Falstaff or Hotspur, however much they need tempering, is surely a poorer world. A world in which religion and the chivalric ideal have value only as instruments of policy is a poorer world. As Hal reduces all to his narrow exigencies, the range of human choice becomes more and more limited until, in the end, there is only the state. Arthur's dream would have united the conflicting loyalties and institutions of his world into a partnership and directed them toward a common and loftier secular end. Hal's reality subordinates or destroys them in pursuit of its own questionable ends. One feels that Arthur would have rejoiced in a Hotspur and a Falstaff even as he sought to curb their excesses, but Hal destroys them.

The larger promises implicit in Hal's soliloquy in Henry IV, Part I, beginning

I know you all, and will a while uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness,

are made quite explicit by the end of Henry V; and Falstaff's cry “Banish plump Jack and banish all the world” has been prophetic because only the state blindly pursuing its own purposeless destiny remains. Despite his wit and his moments of insight, Hal remains, beneath his stolen mantle of chivalry, a sort of political Flem Snopes. He has pursued power as blindly as and to no more discernible purpose than Flem pursued wealth, and therein lies the tragedy for both Hal and humanity. If Flem is Faulkner's equivalent of Max Weber's capitalist man—one who rationally exploits other human beings for profit pursued as an end in itself—then Hal is his political equivalent: one who rationally exploits people for power pursued as an end in itself. And the emergence of both Hal and Flem in the modern age has given an added touch of horror to a world already horrible enough in its reality. Both exploit and manipulate men for ends that are incomprehensible in terms of normal human motivation, ends that are, in fact, ahuman. We can comprehend the motivations of Flem's predecessors, the Compsons, Sutpens, and Sartorises even as we deplore them, just as we can comprehend those of a Falstaff and Hotspur and his fellow conspirators even as we deplore them. With both Hal and Flem man's sublunary predicament has come to mirror his predicament in the larger universe he inhabits. Man's own world which had, with the traditional consolations of religion, provided him with some relief from the hell of life in an indifferent and incomprehensible universe has become as indifferent to his needs and as incomprehensible to him as that larger universe. Therein lies, I think, the peculiar horror of Hal and the modern state of which he is Shakespeare's exemplar.

There are critics who are fond of speaking of Shakespeare's dark period, but I submit that the Henry V trilogy is the blackest work Shakespeare ever did. The implications of Hal's brave new world are too sad, too horrible for satire, cynicism, or railing; and the sympathy of Shakespeare must finally embrace Hal, even as that of Faulkner embraces Flem. It is for these reasons that so much critical confusion exists about Shakespeare's intention with regard to Hal and what he represents. The dreary truth of the emergence of the modern state and its consequences for man can only be treated in the tones of restraint that sorrow and utter hopelessness engender. Shakespeare's apprehensions concerning the new political order which Hal represents have become a frightening reality today; and virtually the only voices one hears in our literature are those of frightened, impotent little men vainly protesting that they want to live. But our Hals in their madness do not hear and still ready themselves and their peoples to prevail or die to no purpose on some field of Agincourt. Their world, like Hal's,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

After writing his trilogy, it would have been redundant, I feel, for Shakespeare to have exclaimed like Conrad's Kurtz over the horror of it all.


  1. Nor is this radical separation of the private sphere from the public with regard to morality restricted to politicians like Hal. One is almost inescapably reminded of R. W. H. Tawney's comment on the Puritan tendency to regard “religion as a thing privately vital but publicly indifferent.” Historically, it was the middle class, puritanical in nature before Calvin, who joined with the monarchy to found modern England; and if one can give credence to his critics, the Puritan was as pathologically concerned as Hal to conceal this schism.

  2. All quotations from Shakespeare are taken from G. B. Harrison's Shakespeare: The Complete Works. (New York, 1952).

Richard Levin (essay date summer 1984)

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SOURCE: Levin, Richard. “Hazlitt on Henry V, and the Appropriation of Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 2 (summer 1984): 134-41.

[In the following essay, Levin argues that contemporary ironic readings of Henry V—those that generally suggest that Shakespeare's dramatic presentation of King Henry is unfavorable—have tended to “appropriate” the work rather than properly interpret it.]

What used to be called the new ironic reading of Shakespeare's Henry V is of course no longer new, since it has been espoused by a growing number of studies of the play over the past three decades, and therefore does not require any extended explanation. Although these studies differ among themselves on matters of detail and emphasis, and sometimes add special qualifications of their own, they generally follow the basic line laid down in Harold Goddard's essay, published in 1951, which is still the most elaborate and probably (as later references to it would indicate) the most influential statement of this position.1 Its fundamental premise is that Shakespeare designed the play to convey two contradictory meanings—an apparent or surface meaning (usually explained as a sop to the less intelligent members of his audience) which seems to present Henry as a great national hero, the “mirror of all Christian kings,” but which is undercut by a pervasive and subversive irony (aimed at the wiser few) that embodies the real meaning and reveals that Henry is actually a cynical hypocrite, a cold-blooded Machiavellian, a brutal butcher, and so forth.

To judge from a quick survey of recent publications, this is now the dominant view of the play, and is well on its way to becoming the new orthodoxy. As early as 1970, Laurence Michel could say that it was not necessary to spend much time arguing for his ironic interpretation because “most of this exegesis has been done already, and I can merely reiterate,” which he proceeds to do in a brief summary; and eight years later Ralph Berry began his essay by asserting that “the ironic reading of Henry V, which has received some outstandingly able advocacy, seems to me unanswerable. But I shall assume at least a general acquiescence on that score.”2 I have presented my answers to this reading elsewhere,3 and have no desire to reiterate them here, since I would like to examine instead a different but closely related new reading that has emerged alongside this one and is now also on its way to achieving orthodox status—namely, the reading of William Hazlitt's essay on Henry V, published in 1817 in his Characters of Shakespear's Plays, as an ironic interpretation and hence as a forerunner of Goddard, Michel, Berry, and the rest. I believe that this is a serious misunderstanding of Hazlitt which should be rectified, but that is not my only motive, because I also believe that an examination of this misunderstanding will vindicate one of my own arguments against the ironic reading of Henry V that has been challenged, and at the same time shed some light on the nature of the reasoning that underlies such readings of this play and of many others as well.


The earliest suggestion of this view of Hazlitt known to me appears in 1962 in a study by Roy Battenhouse which he introduces as “a basic extension” of the Goddard position that Henry V is constructed as a “double-edged” play:

It will allow some spectators, blinded by a surface patriotism, to admire as their own ideal its particular heroism. But it will permit others to discern, as various modern critics have, … a suspicious fulsomeness in the rhetoric, and a kind of heroism in Henry more suggestive of “a very amiable monster” (Hazlitt's phrase), or of “some handsome spirited horse” (Yeats's phrase), than of a truly human being.4

It is made clearer a few years later in Ronald Berman's assertion that Hazlitt regarded the play “as a satire on the ancien régime, and applauded anything in it which seemed to undercut hierarchy, feudalism, and Christian politics.”5 In 1970 Herbert Coursen explicitly equates Hazlitt's interpretation with Goddard's: “Harold Goddard and others … have filled in Hazlitt's outline and have read the play as a condemnation of its principal character”; and in 1978 he calls this “the Hazlitt-Goddard thesis.”6 Michael Manheim, writing in 1973, cites two recent ironic readings of the play and explains that they “follow a long tradition of Hal-haters, notably among literary figures: Hazlitt, Swinburne, Masefield, Yeats, and Mark Van Doren.”7 And in his 1978 essay Ralph Berry proposes to show that

the mode of Henry V is the dubious or fallacious argument. If the arguments so constantly advanced in Henry V are generally sound [he of course will prove that they are not], then the play is a Meissonier canvas of a Great Patriotic War, Carlyle is right and Hazlitt is wrong, and modern critics have been wasting their time in peering for ironies where none exist.8

Several other statements of this sort were evoked by my assertion, in New Readings vs. Old Plays, that the earliest ironic reading of Henry V I could find was Gerald Gould's article of 1919,9 and that before then there was a general consensus of opinion that the play was not ironic. In their reviews of the book, Roy Battenhouse objects: “Is there really a consensus of response? Hazlitt, we may recall, considered Henry V an ‘amiable monster’”; while E. A. J. Honigmann claims that Gould's reading “has an honourable ancestry before 1919 in the work of Hazlitt, Watkiss Lloyd, Yeats, and others. There are really two traditions where Henry V is concerned.”10 And Coursen criticizes me for “overlook[ing] Hazlitt's violent exception to ‘consensus’ in 1845, a predictable republican reaction to be reiterated by the Quaker, Harold Goddard, a century later.”11


To see that this view of Hazlitt's position is clearly wrong, we need go no further than the first two sentences of his essay. He begins:

Henry V. is a very favourite monarch with the English nation, and he appears to have been also a favourite with Shakespear, who labours hard to apologise for the actions of the king, by shewing us the character of the man, as “the king of good fellows.” He scarcely deserves this honour.12

And the essay itself faithfully follows the logic of this double thesis. The first section draws up an indictment of Henry (which appears to be directed more at the historical personage than at the dramatic character) in order to show that he does not deserve the honor Shakespeare has bestowed on him, so it is obviously presented as Hazlitt's own indictment and not the play's. Then comes the transition: “So much for the politics of this play; now for the poetry” (p. 286). The remainder of the essay is devoted to a series of “splendid quotations,” almost all of which contribute directly to the favorable portrayal of Henry and his cause. Hazlitt often expresses his admiration for the “strength and grace” or “beautiful rhetorical delineation” or “heroic beauty” of these passages, although he also occasionally indicates his disapproval of the values they embody13—a disapproval which presumably accounts for his resistance to that favorable portrait, and for his judgment that this “is but one of Shakespear's second-rate plays” (p. 289).

Thus, while it is perfectly clear that Hazlitt condemns Henry, there is no suggestion that he thinks the play does so. In fact, in the first section he admits that

We like him in the play. There he is a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant. As we like to gaze at a panther or a young lion in their cages, … so we take a very romantic, heroic, patriotic, and poetical delight in the boasts and feats of our younger Harry, as they appear on the stage.

(p. 286)

And in the second section he says that

The behaviour of the king, in the difficult and doubtful circumstances in which he is placed, is as patient and modest as it is spirited and lofty in his prosperous fortune.

(p. 291)

Nor is there any suggestion that Hazlitt finds anything that might be called satire or irony in Shakespeare's treatment of Henry. I think we must conclude, therefore, that far from being an ancestor (much less an “outline”) of Goddard's reading of Henry V, Hazlitt's is exactly the opposite: he interprets the play as a straightforward and very positive presentation of Henry that fails, whereas Goddard interprets it as an ironic and very negative presentation of him that succeeds (that is, for the wiser few, a group to which Hazlitt obviously does not belong).


We would also have to conclude, as a logical consequence, that Hazlitt's reading is not an exception to the consensus of opinion I spoke of, but is in fact part of it. For I was referring to a consensus in the interpretation of the play, not in the evaluation of it or its protagonist. We all know, of course, that the prevailing estimates of Renaissance characters and plays (and even of Renaissance drama as a whole) fluctuated widely over the years, because of changes in taste and in the theatre itself, and also in political and social attitudes, as Hazlitt demonstrates. What I maintained, however, was that the basic interpretation of most of these plays—that is, the perception of their intended effect, broadly defined—has remained quite constant from the earliest recorded responses, which often go back to the seventeenth century,14 down to the advent of the new ironic readings in our own day. In this sense, then, the consensus on Henry V includes both Hazlitt and Carlyle, since they agree in their interpretation of Shakespeare's intention (to present Henry as an object of admiration), although they disagree sharply in their judgments of Henry (on whether he “deserves this honour”) and hence of the play (on whether it realizes that intention). One could even argue that; in proving the existence of this consensus, Hazlitt's position is more significant than that of Carlyle and the many other admirers of Shakespeare's protagonist, for his disapproval of Henry should have made him especially sensitive to any indications of a similar attitude in the play itself. Therefore, the fact that he sees no such indications—that, despite his own feelings, he still believes that Henry was “a favourite with Shakespear, who labours hard to apologise” for him—must be considered a very impressive confirmation of the consensus, like the corroborative testimony of a hostile witness in court.

The same can be said, moreover, of several of the other “Hal-haters” named by the critics quoted earlier. Swinburne, Masefield, and Van Doren may question the merits of Henry (and of the play), but they never suggest that Shakespeare's portrayal of him is meant to be ironic or negative.15 Their readings, in other words, belong to the same general class as Hazlitt's rather than Goddard's, which places them within this basic interpretive consensus. Watkiss Lloyd is different, since he argues that there are deliberate ironies in the play's presentation of Henry; however, he regards them as “reservations” which are designed to qualify but not to cancel out the overall impression favorable to him and his enterprise, and so stops far short of claiming that the play as a whole is ironic.16

Yeats is the only one of those named who makes such a claim; he concludes that Shakespeare could not have admired Henry, and “watched [him] not indeed as he watched the greater souls in the visionary procession, but cheerfully, as one watches some handsome spirited horse, and he spoke his tale, as he spoke all tales, with tragic irony.”17 Although that is scarcely the kind of irony that Gould and Goddard and their followers find in the play, which is supposed to produce an emphatic condemnation of Henry, I probably should have cited this essay, rather than Gould's, as the earliest ironic reading and hence the first real break in the consensus on Henry V.

I may of course have overlooked other nineteenth-century ironic readings, but I do not see how there could be many of them, or how they could constitute a “tradition” of ironic interpretation, as Manheim and Honigmann suggest. If such a tradition existed, Gould was certainly not aware of it, since he titles his article “A New Reading of Henry V,” and begins it with the assertion that “None of Shakespeare's plays is so persistently and thoroughly misunderstood as Henry V,” after which he announces, in italics, that “The play is ironic,” as if he had made a major discovery. Indeed, Gould is even careful to distinguish his reading from Hazlitt's: “He detested Henry, and said so: but he made the mistake of supposing that that detestable character was a ‘favourite’ character of Shakespeare's” (p. 42).18 Moreover, Gould seems to have had no discernible effect on the non-ironic consensus, which prevailed for at least thirty more years, even among those “Hal-haters,” as we found in the case of Van Doren.19 So far as I can ascertain, the ironic tradition did not really get under way (if that is what traditions do) until the studies of Goddard and Gilbert in the 1950s.


It is not enough, however, to correct this erroneous conception of Hazlitt's essay (and of its relationship to the consensus), because we still have to ask why it has become so widespread. Since the critics quoted earlier could not have been deliberately misrepresenting Hazlitt, they must have been misreading him. And the nature of their misreading is quite clear: they failed to distinguish his view of Henry from his view of Shakespeare's view of Henry. They seem to have assumed, in other words, that his attitude toward the protagonist would also be the attitude he attributed to the play. And this assumption is by no means limited to them; it reappears, for instance, in several recent discussions of Henry V which divide the critics into those who admire Henry and those who dislike him, as if that were the crucial distinction which would necessarily determine their interpretations of the play.20 But we have just seen that this is not true—that it is possible (or, at least, used to be possible) for critics to dislike Henry and yet believe that Shakespeare admired him and intended to present him non-ironically as an object of admiration. Such critics, we might say, disagree with the play.

Should we then ask if there are any examples of the reverse disagreements of critics who admire Henry but think that Shakespeare disliked him and meant to portray him ironically as an object of detestation? The question itself seems absurd, since it is obvious that all of the critics who read the play as an ironic condemnation of Henry also condemn him themselves. They never disagree with the play, because the attitude they find in it turns out to be identical with their own. This may help to explain why they have assumed that the same would be true of Hazlitt. And it may also raise the suspicion that they, unlike Hazlitt, are projecting their attitude into Henry V, that with their ironic reading they are appropriating the play—to adopt Alan Sinfield's phrase21—so that it will mean what they want it to mean.

If we go on to consider why they should do this, it is not difficult to find explanations (I am not of course implying any conscious intention to distort the play). Projection is, after all, a natural tendency to which we are all subject in our responses to art as well as to life. It is also natural enough to take pleasure in discovering that, in the attitudes involved here, we are on the same side as our greatest cultural hero (which means proving that he is on our side). But the primary motive for these ironic readings would seem to be the desire to vindicate the play and its author. Critics like Hazlitt and Van Doren, who disliked Henry but thought that Shakespeare did not, tended to downgrade the play; their disagreement with it became, in effect, an adverse judgment of its values. But such a judgment is apparently inconceivable to the modern ironic critic. He sees it as his task to prove that the play's values are right (that is, that they coincide with his own), so if they seem to be wrong he must show, by means of an ironic reading, that they are only the “apparent” values and that the “real” ones are above reproach. (As Sinfield put it, he “attempt[s] to juggle the text into acceptability.”) Goddard, for instance, is quite open about this; he begins his chapter on Henry V by stating that he will clear Shakespeare of the “charge” of jingoism (p. 216). And the fact that Gould's essay appeared in 1919 would suggest that he wanted to absolve Shakespeare of the sentiments associated with militarism, which now seemed so abhorrent.

Nor has this rescue operation been limited to Henry V. It is the underlying cause, I believe, of our many new ironic readings of The Taming of the Shrew and The Merchant of Venice (probably the two plays of the canon whose “apparent” values are most unacceptable today), which set out to demonstrate that we are really meant to condemn Petruchio's taming of Kate (or else to conclude that she was never really tamed after all), and that Portia and Antonio are really shown to be at least as bad as Shylock, if not much worse. Indeed, this conception of interpretation as exoneration is now so widely accepted that I have even heard the suspicion voiced (though I have not yet seen it in print)22 that those who do not read these plays ironically may themselves be guilty of male chauvinism and antisemitism. From the perspective of the ironic critics this seems quite logical, because they always try to prove that a play embodies values which they believe in, and therefore expect that others will do so too. This is the same kind of reasoning, I suggested, which led them to assume that, if Hazlitt disliked Henry, he would read the play ironically in order to find it echoing his own attitude. That is what they would have done in his place.


It is also easy to understand why they would want to claim that Hazlitt's reading is ironic. For most of the critics quoted at the outset are themselves committed to the ironic interpretation of Henry V, and are therefore faced with the embarrassing fact that the “real” meaning they have discovered in the play does not seem to have been noticed for three hundred years by spectators or readers, including some of the most insightful commentators on Shakespeare, who have all interpreted the play in the opposite way (which is what the nonironic consensus means). This would indicate that there must be something radically wrong with the play, since it had obviously failed to communicate its meaning. But these critics cannot accept such a judgment, for we saw that their purpose was to vindicate the play—in fact they usually insist that it is brilliantly successful.23 And that is why they feel the need to deny the consensus, and to recruit “an honourable ancestry” in Hazlitt and others. In order to protect their ironic reading of Shakespeare, they must go on to produce ironic readings of earlier readings of Shakespeare. Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.

Now it may not matter very much if we misinterpret Hazlitt's little essay, which can scarcely be considered one of the treasures of our literary heritage. But I hope it is not necessary to argue that it matters a great deal if we misinterpret Shakespeare. And that will happen, inevitably, whenever we set out to prove that our own attitudes and values are mirrored in his plays. I may be entirely wrong, of course, in suggesting that this is what the new readings of the ironic critics amount to. But if I am, there is a very simple test that they can take to acquit themselves and refute me. All they have to do is tell us some significant respects in which their view of Henry's victory, or Kate's taming, or Shylock's trial differs from the view they attribute to Shakespeare. They certainly should be able to do this, because it is hardly possible that an author writing almost four centuries ago, in a culture which was in so many ways quite unlike ours, would have exactly the same attitudes on war and women and Jews (not to mention the more general social and moral values involved) as a critic living today. It seems perfectly fair, therefore, to ask them to state some of these differences in attitude. If they cannot, it seems fair to conclude that they are not really interpreting Shakespeare but appropriating him.


  1. The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1951), chap. 17.

  2. The Thing Contained: Theory of the Tragic (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1970), p. 65; The Shakespearean Metaphor: Studies in Language and Form (Totowa, N. J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1978), p. 48.

  3. The Multiple Plot in English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 116-19; New Readings vs. Old Plays: Recent Trends in the Reinterpretation of English Renaissance Drama (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), chap. 3 passim.

  4. Henry V as Heroic Comedy,” Essays on Shakespeare and Elizabethan Drama in Honor of Hardin Craig, ed. Richard Hosley (Columbia: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1962), pp. 165, 168.

  5. Introduction, Twentieth Century Interpretations of Henry V (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 14.

  6. “Henry V and the Nature of Kingship,” Discourse, 13 (1970), 283; Review of The Triple Bond (ed. Joseph Price), Shakespeare Quarterly, 29 (1978), 302. See also The Leasing Out of England: Shakespeare's Second Henriad (Washington, D. C.: University Press of America, 1982), p. 155.

  7. The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play (Syracuse: Syracuse Univ. Press, 1973), p. 194. The two recent ironic readings cited are John Bromley, The Shakespearean Kings (Boulder: Colorado Associated Univ. Press, 1971), chap. 6, and C. H. Hobday, “Imagery and Irony in Henry V,Shakespeare Survey, 21 (1968), 107-13.

  8. Shakespearean Metaphor, p. 50.

  9. “A New Reading of Henry V,English Review, 29 (1919), 42-55.

  10. Comparative Drama, 14 (1980), 237; Yearbook of English Studies, 12 (1982), 246.

  11. Exchange, 5 (1979), 54 (he is responding to an earlier article where I made the same point). Hazlitt died in 1830, and Goddard was not a Quaker.

  12. I quote from The Complete Works of William Hazlitt, ed. P. P. Howe (London: J. M. Dent, 1930-34), IV, 285-91.

  13. See especially p. 288: “It is worth observing that in all these plays, which give an admirable picture of the spirit of the good old times, the moral inference does not at all depend upon the nature of the actions, but on the dignity or meanness of the persons committing them. … Might was right, without equivocation or disguise, in that heroic and chivalrous age.”

  14. The earliest comments known to me which could indicate an interpretation of Henry V are in Thomas Heywood's An Apology for Actors (1612), sig. B4r, and Margaret Cavendish's CCXI Sociable Letters (1664), pp. 245-46 (Letter 123), and they both would belong to the consensus I am referring to.

  15. Algernon Charles Swinburne, A Study of Shakespeare (London: Chatto & Windus, 1880), pp. 112-15; John Masefield, William Shakespeare, Home University Library of Modern Knowledge (London: Williams and Norgate, 1911), pp. 120-23; Mark Van Doren, Shakespeare (New York: Henry Holt, 1939), pp. 170-79.

  16. William Watkiss Lloyd, Critical Essays on the Plays of Shakespeare (1856; rpt. London: George Bell, 1875), pp. 251-67: “Thus much in reservation, or thus much in vindication of the poet, who must not be lightly misconstrued as exhibiting a dazzling display of military heroism to take and astonish the world by its dash and brilliancy, while he overlooks or forgets to hint at the basenesses that are compatible with glories of this class. … Apart, however, from the question of the cause that calls them forth, the qualities that achieve military success are in themselves truly honourable and admirable. … While, therefore, the poet does not conceal the qualifications they are subject to, he addresses the national military spirit distinctly enough, and excites our esteem” (pp. 255-56). He concludes with a warning against “giv[ing] applause unmingled with any reservation to the successful bravery and ambition of Henry” (p. 267). Schlegel also finds some ironic elements in the play which qualify its presentation of “Shakespeare's favourite hero in English history”—see A Course of Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature (1809-11), trans. John Black (London: Bohn, 1846), pp. 428-32.

  17. William Butler Yeats, “At Stratford-on-Avon,” Ideas of Good and Evil (London: A. H. Bullen, 1903), pp. 154-64.

  18. See also Alan Gilbert, whose ironic reading is more tentative than Gould's: “Are we, going further even than Hazlitt, to interpret the work as a satire on a hypocrite whose ambition disregards the misery he causes?” (“Patriotism and Satire in Henry V,Studies in Shakespeare, ed. Arthur Matthews and Clark Emery [Coral Gables, Fla.: Univ. of Miami Press, 1953], p. 62).

  19. Further evidence can be found in the surveys of criticism in John Dover Wilson's introduction to the New Cambridge edition (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1947), and Paul Jorgensen's “Accidental Judgments, Casual Slaughters, and Purposes Mistook: Critical Reactions to Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth,Shakespeare Association Bulletin, 22 (1947), 51-61. Neither of them mentions Gould, or seems to be aware of an ironic interpretation of the play.

  20. Manheim's list of “Hal-haters,” quoted above, is part of such a division based on the critics' own feelings. See also the division in Larry Champion, Perspective in Shakespeare's English Histories (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1980), p. 211, which lumps together on the anti-Henry side ironic readings like Bromley's and non-ironic ones (including Hazlitt's). Ronald Berman runs into a greater problem in A Reader's Guide to Shakespeare's Plays (rev. ed., Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1973), pp. 73-74, with his classification of “three groups of critics: those who hate the play and its hero; those who admire both; those who attempt to remain neutral.” The first group includes Hazlitt, Swinburne, Van Doren, and Battenhouse, among others. But Battenhouse—to adopt this terminology—hates Henry and admires the play, since he thinks the play hates Henry too. And this would also apply to Hazlitt, if what Berman said about him in the passage quoted earlier (that he regarded the play “as a satire on the ancien régime”) were true.

  21. “Against Appropriation,” Essays in Criticism, 31 (1981), 181-95; see also the briefer comments by Maynard Mack, Rescuing Shakespeare (Oxford: International Shakespeare Association, 1979), pp. 4-5; and Joanne Altieri, “Romance in Henry V,Studies in English Literature, 21 (1981), 238-40.

  22. René Girard comes quite close in “‘To Entrap the Wisest’: A Reading of The Merchant of Venice,Literature and Society (Selected Papers of the English Institute, 1978), ed. Edward Said (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1980), p. 109. See also Edna Krane, “Literary Criticism and Theological Anti-Semitism,” Midstream, 30 (1984), 47-50.

  23. Berry, for instance, says that Shakespeare's ironic strategy “calls for sleight-of-hand of the highest order, for the disparity between the two versions [i.e., the apparent and real meanings] has to be indicated discreetly yet unmistakably” (p. 48), which leads one to wonder why it was in fact mistaken for all those years.

Marsha S. Robinson (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9785

SOURCE: Robinson, Marsha S. “Mythoi of Brotherhood: Generic Emplotment in Henry V.” In Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre, edited by John W. Velz, pp. 143-70. Binghamton N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996.

[In the following essay, Robinson examines Shakespeare's manipulation of English historiography in Henry V through a thematic evocation of fraternal conflict and reconciliation, and generic blending of tragedy and comedy.]

In the English history plays, Shakespeare's generic choices are often expressed in a symbolic language indigenous to English historiography. The form of Henry V reflects the interplay of several traditions of historiographic practice, each of which appropriates the mythoi of fraternal strife and fraternal reconciliation to articulate the generic shape of the past. Shakespeare's repeated allusions to brotherhood, which are particularly significant in the complementary generic dynamics of Richard II and Henry V, are more than thematic; they are, in fact, a way of articulating form and genre.

This relationship between the figurative representation of historical content in the historian's narrative and the generic form implicit in any account of the past is illuminated by Hayden White's characterization of historical narratives as “verbal fictions” which “mediate” between “past events and processes” and the “story types that we conventionally use to endow the events of our lives with culturally sanctioned meanings.”1 White thus argues that historical discourse is generically “emplotted” as comedy, tragedy, romance or satire: the chronicle facts, which are “value-neutral” and could serve as the components of several kinds of stories, “are encoded by the use of the figurative language in which they are characterized, in order to permit their identification as elements of the particular story type to which this story belongs.”2 The historical narrative, then, can best be described as a “complex of symbols” which “points in two directions simultaneously: toward the events described in the narrative and toward the story type or mythos which the historian has chosen to serve as the icon of the structure of events.”3 White's explanation of the operation of historical discourse invites us to read the figures of brotherhood used to encode the facts of English historiography as signs of the generic story types apart from which the past is incomprehensible. Moreover, White's comment that “history-writing thrives on the discovery of all the possible plot structures that might be invoked to endow sets of events with different meanings”4 illuminates the exploratory and provisional character of Shakespeare's quest for historiographic form.

Shakespeare's English history plays, like all histories, “mediate among … the historical field, the unprocessed historical record, other historical accounts and an audience.5 Therefore, it is imperative that we not isolate these dramatic works from their historiographic heritage, but that we consider in some detail the generic strategies for “emplotting” the past which inform the historical accounts on which he drew. Such an approach requires that we entertain historical narratives, “the contents of which are as much invented as found,6 not merely as sources of historical content or fact, but as “literary artifacts,” which as generic emplotments of the past provided Shakespeare with conceptual models against which he undertook his own rewriting of the English past. Thus Shakespeare's use of fraternal conflict as an informing principle in his English history plays reiterates not merely the thematic content, but the shape of both Christian and classical accounts of the past.7 In these accounts secular history was often perceived as a fraternal contest for power and glory and expressed in formal patterns that counterposed the tragedy of fraternal strife with the comedy of brotherly reconciliation.8

One model for such accounts is St. Augustine's De Civitate Dei, in which the Cain and Abel story is assigned an explanatory and seminal role. Augustine's vision of history not only influenced Christian historiography; his articulation of the tragicomic form of the history of salvation as well as his “political realism” shaped the ideology and the generic structure of the medieval mystery cycles.9 Augustine's selective fashioning of biblical history provided a generic model for the formulation of secular history, one which Augustine applied in his analysis of the Roman empire, one which the English writers of the cycle plays invoked in their localization of biblical history and one which Shakespeare tested as he sought to create a dramatic model of English history.

Augustine, following Genesis 4:17-22, designates Cain, a fratricide, as the founder of the earthly city.10 He thus identifies recurring fraternal conflict as the definitive pattern which informs secular history, a pattern often obscured by the mask of political cooperation. The counterpart of the earthly city is the heavenly city, the citizens of which are the symbolic heirs of Abel and his successor, Seth. The earthly city, driven by egotism and power, “glories in itself”; the heavenly city glories in God.11 Just as Cain's enmity toward his brother represents, Augustine argues, the hatred of the earthly city for the heavenly city, so the fraternal strife between Romulus and Remus, founders of Rome, symbolizes the enmity among members of the earthly city itself.12 Attributing the conflict between brothers to the unwillingness of one partner to diminish his glory by sharing it with the other, Augustine characterizes the history of the earthly city as an account of “wars, altercations and appetites of short-lived or destructive victories” in which self-interest directs the pursuit of fame and honor.13

For St. Augustine history is linear and progressive and has a definite end. As literary fictions, endings as well as beginnings serve to encode Augustine's narrative as a particular genre.14 The tragic history of the earthly city, destined to suffer its final end—damnation, culminates in the Last Judgment. On the other hand, the citizens of the heavenly city, sharing the communion of the saints and united by their love for God, enjoy eternal life. While the tragedy of fraternal strife is limited to time, the comedy of salvation, begun in time, is fulfilled in an apotheosis in which history is transcended and the members of the heavenly city share in the final triumph of the Church. It is this tragicomic pattern which informs the medieval mystery cycles in which “the role of Cain and Abel remains immensely significant, for it confirms the pattern of the Fall which will resonate through the entire series of plays until finally the ‘two classes’ of people will be separated on the Last Day of history.”15 In the typological structure of the Corpus Christi cycles, Abel's tragic death as a martyr anticipates Christ's death and the comedic redemption of history.16

Another widespread influence on English historiography, the representation of internecine conflict in classical histories, provided a distinctive model of the past. Tragic or ironic, the generic shape of these accounts is essentially at odds with the linear and progressive form of Christian history with its tragicomic vision of time.17 The past is represented as a cyclic alternation of unity and internecine discord in which typical sequences of behavior repeat themselves as part of an irreconcilable duality which is never supplanted. For example, Thucydides presents the Peloponnesian War as a tragic record of recurrent intestine factionalism motivated by a self-aggrandizement and ambition which turned Greek against Greek.18 In these accounts of the devastating reverses of circumstance to which the city state is subject, Thucydides comments that blood proves a weaker tie than party, which violently divides classes and families. Not only does the father kill the son, but foreigners are invited by partisans to prey upon their fellow citizens. On the other hand, moments of human achievement are described in terms of the communal cooperation of citizens who with oaths of reconciliation unite in the face of immediate difficulty. History is thus represented as a continuous struggle between men and circumstances in which “human reason” is “defeated and crushed by the forces of irrationality.”19

Although Shakespeare's formulation of history as fraternal conflict may well draw on the ultimately Augustinian historiography of the mystery plays, English historians themselves, incorporating both classical and Christian strategies of representation, fashioned the past as a story of fraternal discord. The Anglo-Norman chroniclers of the twelfth century, for example, many of whom serve as sources for the Tudor chroniclers, repeatedly represent the past as a story of fraternal discord. Their narratives illustrate the process of historical selection. The factual field is the object not of reduction but “distortion”: the historian “‘displaces’ some facts to the periphery or background and moves others closer to the center, encodes some as causes and others as effects, joins some and disjoins others. …”20 The resulting emplotment takes the form of a cycle in which tragic internecine conflict alternates with periods of comedic reconciliation: brothers prey upon brothers with impunity, periodically uniting to defeat their mutual enemies. Commenting that William of Normandy “did not even spare his own brother,” Henry of Huntingdon, like his fellow historian, William of Malmesbury, invokes this cycle in his emplotment of the reigns of William the Conqueror and his sons and heirs—William II, Henry I, and Robert Duke of Normandy.21 Unlike Augustine, who refuses to identify the heavenly city with political entities, Henry of Huntingdon implicitly designates the English as the party of Abel and interprets the internecine fierceness of the Cain-like Normans as evidence of their role as God's scourge, sent to “humble” the English nation.22

Speaking through the voices of the Norman lords, the historian Ordericus Vitalis even more self-consciously reflects the tragic pattern which he ascribes to Anglo-Norman history, perceiving it as inherent in the past itself. His text clearly demonstrates the way in which the invocation of a motif or figurative symbol—“brothers”—encodes the facts as a component of a particular kind of story. For example his query, “What happened to the Thebans under the two brothers, Eteocles and Polyneices?,” summarizes in miniature the course of Anglo-Norman history and informs it with the shape of tragedy. Comparing the nation to a woman continually “suffering the pangs of labor” and “Cruelly harassed by [her] own sons,” he uses a language of internal division to signal the generic shape of the past.23 Like the other historians, he depicts a cycle of fraternal violence and mutual support: “But as discord makes divisions among them, and fatally arms them against each other, while they are victorious in foreign lands they are conquered by themselves and cut each others throats without mercy. …”24 Drawing on a classical use of fratricide to encode accounts of internecine conflict, Ordericus, like Augustine, presents fraternal conflict as unnatural—the mark of the immorality of secular history. Moreover, his juxtaposition of tragic and comedic emplotments, exemplified in the very language of this passage, demystifies communal cooperation. Because such reconciliations, as Augustine remarks, give rise to the kind of self-interested concord exhibited by a band of pirates,25 Ordericus represents them as ironic inversions of the comedic reconciliation of brothers.

It is Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain, however, who most clearly articulates the pattern, projecting onto a fictitious British past the generic outlines of Anglo-Norman accounts of the past.26 The distinctive feature of his narrative is its formal unity. The unique details of historical discourse which populate the literal surface of historical narratives and which often defy formal coherence are supplanted by the “figurative element.” The generic form of the past, which in most historical narratives recedes to “the interior of the discourse,” is foregrounded.27 In each successive reign the ruling heir is challenged or even deposed by an ambitious brother (sometimes one with whom he jointly shares the throne), cousin or other relative.28 For example, Mempricius and Malim, the great-grandsons of Brute, contest the throne, struggling for possession of the island, and Mempricius murders his brother in a meeting ostensibly planned to forge “concord betwixt them.”29 The threat of internecine destruction is further dramatized in a second scenario—the return of the exiled brother (sometimes accompanied by a foreign army) to reclaim his patrimony. Both of these scenarios anticipate Shakespeare's representation of the English past in which “brothers” are displaced and then return, as do Henry Bolingbroke and the Earl of Richmond, to displace their rivals. Treating his material from an almost secular perspective, Geoffrey does not condemn the brothers in his history as Cains, but with the detachment which also anticipates Shakespeare, he presents their often disastrous choices as representatives of forces of personal desire and individual destiny, forces at odds with the political relationships which determine national unity.30

Geoffrey's tragic scenarios are juxtaposed with interludes of reconciliation in which hierarchy is reaffirmed as the brothers become one in unity or acknowledge differences in lineal rank.31 The motif of two becoming one—the effacement of all difference, encoded even in the alliterative names of pairs—figuratively represents the comedic ending which generically identifies these stories. Exiled brothers are restored to their patrimony, and the nation is united. Such reconciliation inspires foreign conquests as reunited brothers, typified by Belinus and Brennius, venture forth to conquer the Franks and finally Rome itself.32 In this formulation fraternal strife is temporarily supplanted by a spirit of unity. History gives way to romance as a tragic or ironic model of the past is displaced by a model of what should be.

Geoffrey presents such moments as “exemplary” history: “the end of fraternal strife restores civil harmony and paves the way for the conquest of foreign lands.”33 These scenarios, however, do not ultimately provide comedic closure, for Geoffrey's cyclic history has no “ending.”34 His classical and secular vision of history as a contest of irreconcilable forces casts an ironic shadow on these moments of success; the empowering of the nation incites ambition and issues in or is inextricably linked with the resurgence of national crisis in which personal ambition reasserts itself as civil conflict.35 In Geoffrey's formulation of history the unity of brothers anticipates not an ending, but the renewal of a pattern of fraternal hostility and thus ironically defies generic expectations.

The Tudor historian Edward Hall, in contrast, invokes the conflict of brothers to articulate a tragicomic formulation of the past in which English history is a chapter in the history of salvation, the ending of which anticipates Christian apotheosis. In his The Vnion of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and Yorke, Hall sets forth the conflict between heirs as a manifestation of the tragic “intestine deuision” between “the brother and the brother” as one instance of the factionalism which had shaped the history of European realms.36 Commenting in his introduction that unity cannot be comprehended apart from division, Hall represents the record of warring brothers as both a tragic story of suffering and death and a prelude to the restoration of concord enacted in the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Hall's opening analogy between marriage and Christian redemption, part of an ode to unity, becomes an identification in the conclusion of his account, in which he celebrates this union as a succession of the “ioy” by which “peace was thoughte to discende oute of heauē into England. …”37

Hall's articulation of the Tudor view of the state as a redemptive agency is, however, destabilized by a political realism inherent in any detailed chronicling of fact. The past as an account of warring brothers is represented in a modality which is at odds with and thus ignores providential design.38 Hall's tragicomic emplotment—unity born out of division—is divested of its informing power and disengaged from the text. For although Hall finally describes the Tudor dispensation “as a thynge by God elected and prouided,” he immediately proceeds to record Henry's continuing preoccupation with the suppression of “dyuision” and “dissencion.”39 His generic model of tragic conflict superseded by providential apotheosis gives way to a continuing pattern of conflict.

In his English histories, Shakespeare more self-consciously enlists the conventional plot scenarios of fraternal conflict and cooperation, testing their iconic power to inform the past and deconstructing familiar patterns. Just as the form of Richard II is, for example, articulated in terms of the biblical paradigm of fraternal conflict, so Henry V dramatizes the comedic or romantic resolution of that cycle—brotherly reconciliation and redemption.40 The play's comedic or romantic emplotment is dramatized not only by recurring references to brotherhood but by iconic and exemplary strategies which create the play's “ceremonial” representation.41 Supporting a vision of unity, these strategies enforce the unity of the text itself.

The play's reenactment of these modes is counterpointed by its denial of the complementary tragic phase of this cycle, expressed in its suppression and isolation of tragedy and its displacement of violence. The comedic voice of the play, a voice of denial, ironically evokes a “tragic emplotment” of events which challenges the very form of the play. As White explains, “The same set of events can serve as components of a story that is tragic or comic, as the case may be, depending on the historian's choice of the plot structure that he considers appropriate for ordering events of that kind so as to make them into a comprehensible story.”42 Shakespeare's creation of dual emplotments is a characterizing feature of sophisticated historical texts, which are “always written as part of a contest between contending poetic configurations of what the past might consist of.”43 Mediating between contending emplotments,44 Shakespeare qualifies Henry's comedic vision of reconciliation with a tragic model of events.

The form of Henry V is illuminated by the generic dynamics of Richard II, which, in its representation of fraternal conflict, appears to be the tragic counterpart of the comedy of reconciliation. In Richard II Shakespeare juxtaposes the tragic conflict of Cain and Abel and an ironic version of that story in which secular history is distanced from redemptive history. Challenging Mowbray, Bolingbroke covertly identifies Richard as his uncle's murderer, a figurative Cain who

Sluic'd out his innocent soul through streams of blood—
Which blood, like sacrificing Abel's, cries,
Even from the tongueless caverns of the earth,
To me for justice and rough chastisement.


He assigns himself the role of avenger on behalf of Gloucester, whose identity as sacrificing Abel (104) is reinforced by the Duchess of Gloucester's entreaty addressed to Gaunt—an appeal to “brotherhood” and a protest against the desecration of a sacred heritage symbolized by the Plantagenet blood of her murdered husband (I.ii.9-36). Ostensibly defending the old dispensation, symbolized by the anointed blood of Edward III, against unnatural violation, Bolingbroke assumes the role of Abel's champion. He implicitly aligns himself with England, whose bloodstained “earth” is metaphorically identified as the temporal locus of the heavenly city. Richard, in turn, associates his adversary, whom Shakespeare significantly casts in the role of a brother—“Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom's heir, / As he is but my father's brother's son” (I.i.116-17)—with the heartless and violent power of Cain (III.ii.111).

Exposing the moral posturing, Shakespeare anamorphically conflates his Cains and Abels in their shifting relationship to power and right. Although Cain's exile, the biblical anticipation of the separation of the heavenly city from the earthly city, is repeatedly invoked by the participants as a God-ordained punishment for the apostasy of rebellion, exile in fact dramatizes shifting relations of power in the earthly city (I.iii.198-203), much as it does in Geoffrey's account of the past. Moreover, it foreshadows the recurrence of violence as brothers return to claim their patrimony. Thus Bolingbroke, Mowbray (Richard's surrogate), Richard, and finally Exton (Bolingbroke's surrogate), each forced into “exile” by a “brother,” are condemned by their enemies as apostate violators of the body politic—“With Cain go wander through shades of night” (; I.iii.176-77). Each, on the other hand, identifies himself with Abel. Bolingbroke portrays himself as Abel's defender. Richard, in his martyr-like role as Cain's victim, is implicitly compared to Abel and fashions himself as Abel's typological counterpart, Christ (IV.i.170-72). Even Mowbray and Exton belie their roles as Cains; a crusader, the exiled Mowbray serves Christ in the very capacity which Bolingbroke repeatedly covets for himself and later dies in Venice, yielding up his soul to Christ (IV.i.93-101); in contrast, Bolingbroke's death in the Jerusalem Room at Westminster, not the Holy Land (2 Henry IV IV.v.232-40), ironically signifies his Cain-like exile in the earthly city. Exton, Richard's murderer, believes he serves Henry in his role as the Lord's Anointed.

Although in Richard II the struggle between brothers is fashioned by the contestants as a conflict between Abel and his apostate enemy Cain, Shakespeare, like Augustine, challenges myths of legitimacy which support the power of worldly empires. The identification of England as the heavenly city—the inheritance of Abel—is counterpointed with a vision which undermines the assumptions of a whole tradition of Christian historiography in which the state is a “monument to God's ordering of history,” and the “political or social hero” is informed with the “nature of both Christ and Caesar.”45 The tragic demise of Richard as the Lord's Anointed and thus Abel's representative is emplotted as an ironic struggle for power among the descendants of Cain, whose pretensions to moral legitimacy belie the true foundations of the earthly city—power and self-interest. A play in which successive monarchs assume the role of Cain (, Richard II enacts the shape of history as recurring fraternal conflict.

Because Henry V is a self-conscious work of historiography, the play itself calls attention to the problematic relationship of genre and history. The selective processes by which the facts of history take on generic form are often transparent; the past is clearly a text subject to the shaping of the historian. In Henry V, generic fashioning becomes evident in what the historian leaves out as much as in what he includes.46 One of many such incidents which allude to the recurrence of fraternal violence, the Southampton plot (II.ii) illustrates Shakespeare's use of selective strategies to invoke one generic formulation and suppress an alternative representation.

The operation of the selective process becomes clear when one examines the chroniclers' attempts to place this event in the larger pattern of historical change. Assuming the retrospective view of the historian, Tudor chroniclers generally represent the Southampton plot as an anticipation of the Wars of the Roses. Recounting Henry's discovery of the conspiracy and his efficient dispatch of the perpetrators, Hall, for example, proceeds to place the event in the broader historical continuum, identifying it as a prologue to the eventual demise of the house of Lancaster:

But if he [Henry] had cast his eye to the fyre that was newly kindled, he should haue surely sene an horrible flame incesed against the walles of his owne house and family, by the which in conclusion his line and stocke was cleane destroyed and consumed to ashes, which fire at that very tyme paradvuenture might haue bene quenched and put out.47

In the works of Hall and Holinshed this tragic interlude is juxtaposed in chronicle fashion with heroic accounts of Henry's reign; the poet-historian Samuel Daniel, however, attempts to present a coherent generic model of the past. Emplotting his The Civil Wars as tragedy, he foregrounds the Southampton plot as smoldering evidence of “the lowe depressed fire, / Whose after-issuing flames confounded all” (5.1).48 Daniel self-consciously reflects on the tensions arising from his generic emplotment. He must eschew the “intermedled good report” characteristic of chronicle accounts in which inclusiveness supplants generic formulation (5.13). Having committed himself to a tragic account of the past—“‘Nothing but blood-shed, treasons, sinne and shame’” (5.6)—he can “onely tell the worst of euerie Raigne” (5.13).49 Given his program of selection, the representation of Henry's reign, as Daniel acknowledges, becomes problematic. He must subordinate “this so happy a meanewhile” (5.33)—an allusion to Henry's enlightened policies of national reconciliation—as a mere parenthesis in a tragic discourse, in which, he laments, the glorious battle of Agincourt has no place (5.13).

The chroniclers and Daniel not only identify the Southampton plot as part of a tragic formulation of the past, they disclose the motives of Cambridge, Grey and Scroop, the king's would-be assassins. Hall, for example, questions the motive of greed confessed by the conspirators, who according to some reports had been bought by the French:

diuerse write that Richard earle of Cambridge did not conspire with the lorde Scrope and Sir Thomas Graye to murther kyng Henry to please the Frenche kyng withal, but onely to thentent to exalte to the croune his brotherinlawe Edmonde earle of Marche as heyre to duke Lyonel.50

Revealing that the conspirators were supporters of Lyonel's heir, the descendant of an elder brother, Hall redefines the plot as a recurrence of fraternal conflict and so discloses its tragic configuration: hierarchical differences are effaced as king and subject are identified as rival kinsmen, contenders for the crown and near equals in their rights and claims.

Although the conspiracy in fact challenges the success of the policy of reconciliation and reinstatement by which Henry sought to control and re-assimilate his father's enemies, particularly the Yorkist claimants (II.ii.25-31),51 in Henry V this plot against the king, discovered on the eve of Henry's embarkation to France, appears strangely transformed. Shakespeare divests the conspiracy of the tragic identity assigned to it by the chroniclers and Daniel. Instead, he uses iconic strategies of representation to divorce the incident from the historical continuum, and thus he contains it.52 First of all, this account of the insurrection is detached from the past and future to which it implicitly points, offering no analysis of political cause and effect. It is presented as neither a replay of the Ricardian conspiracies which plagued Henry IV nor a reciprocal reenactment of the familial bloodshed of the past—specifically the murder of Richard II.53 Moreover, it is distanced from the anticipation (in the Epilogue) of the fraternal conflict between the Lancastrian and Yorkist parties which “made his England bleed.”

Ignoring the questions of precedent and outcome essential to historical discourse, Shakespeare not only isolates the event from its temporal context but obscures its motivation.54 Henry seizes upon the conspirators' confession that they acted out of greed, appearing to accept this motive at face value (II.ii.88-91) despite Cambridge's ambiguous disclaimer (155-56). In addition, the particular historical details which would disclose factionalism are effaced; Shakespeare is silent about the genealogical facts or political alliances which might reveal the reciprocity of the adversaries and identify the assassination plot as a manifestation of fraternal enmity.55

Here, as elsewhere in the play, it is Henry who rewrites events, collaborating with the Chorus, an “official historian.”56 In this scene the tragedy of fraternal discord is effaced and finally supplanted in a coherent and self-contained drama which evokes the Last Judgment. Depoliticizing and universalizing the conspiracy, Henry in fact stages a biblical drama of sin and judgment in which he assumes a God-like role as the embodiment of an impartial justice (II.ii.174)—righteous, inclined to mercy, but implacable in the face of sin.57 Attributing the conspiracy to unfathomable human depravity, he characterizes the defection of his intimate friend, Scroop, as “Another fall of man” (II.ii.142). He thus magnifies the conspirators' treason as a type of the spiritual apostasy of both Adam and Cain, whose rebellion is structurally represented as a second fall in the medieval cycle plays.58 Interestingly, this moral emplotment echoes the medieval account commissioned by Henry, in which the conspirators, condemned as “Judas-like,” are implicitly linked with Cain, Judas' typological counterpart in the cycle plays.59 Evoking history's final drama in which justice triumphs over sin, Henry dissociates himself from motives of revenge (174) and identifies himself with both law (143, 176-77) and mercy. He thus denies his reciprocal relationship with his opponents. They in turn, “rejoic[ing]” (159, 161) in the providential discovery of their betrayal, assume the roles of penitents and suppliants, signaling their subordination to the king.

In concert with Henry, the Chorus pursues the theme of betrayal; “English monsters” (II.ii.85) and a “nest of hollow bosoms” (, Cambridge, Scroop and Grey are demonized (II.ii.111-25) as unnatural “children” ( Moreover, their violence and disloyalty are displaced upon the French enemy with whom they are linked (II.ii.88-90, 100). Ironically belying insurrection, this fiction preserves the play's affirmation of “one consent” (I.ii.181, 206; II.ii.20-24). A moralized vision of English unanimity is invoked as a standard for exposing the immorality and unEnglish otherness of the conspirators (II.ii.126-40). The tragic dimensions of the Southampton plot are thus exorcised in a generic metamorphosis by which tragedy, a mere prelude to the reaffirmation of divine order, corroborates the play's insistent declaration of unity. Tragedy is subsumed by and anticipates the romance of brotherly reconciliation.

Henry's generic representation of the conspiracy is characteristic of the political fashioning of history in Henry V. Holinshed suggests that the official account of the conspiracy was in fact a fabrication: “their [the conspirator'] purpose was well inough then perceiued, although happilie not much bruted abroad, for considerations thought necessarie to haue it rather husht and kept secret.”60 Shakespeare allows us to witness the fashioning of this event, dramatizing the process which began in Henry's court. The suppression of brotherly conflict is of course clearer to the modern reader with access to documents which suggest that the motive of greed was apparently the invention of Walsingham, a Lancastrian apologist, as was the identification of Scroop as the intimate of the king.61 Both fictions obscured the grievances of the dispossessed Earl of March, whom Henry had forced to pay a huge marriage fine, and of Richard, Earl of Cambridge, who in keeping with Henry's program of reconciliation with his enemies, had been given a title, but had never been awarded any source of income.62 These facts, excluded from official accounts, disclose the continuation of brotherly discord. Henry's manipulation of the Lyonel faction through economic strangulation was in fact interpreted by the Earl of March, who feared that the king would “undoe him,” as an act of metaphorical violence.63

Most of these facts were probably not available to the Tudor chroniclers or to Shakespeare. He plays on the ambiguity of the confession as well as the fictitious character of the indictments for treason, confirmed, in this case, by the retrospective acknowledgment (made official by Yorkist claimants) that the “traitors” were never legally convicted (1 Henry VI II.iv.96-97).64 Although the conspirators (except Scroop) confessed to a plan to elevate the Earl of March by taking him into Wales and proclaiming him king, those who wrote the indictment, in their effort to win a conviction for treason, charged the conspirators with having plotted to assassinate the king and his brothers. This fiction was designed to substantiate the conventional charge, derived by implication, of “imagining and compassing the king's death.”65 Shakespeare's allusion to unvoiced motives activates the dissonance between medieval accounts, which invoke this event to affirm national unity, and the Tudor perspective, in which it figures as a continuation of and motive for the feud between brothers, inspiring the revenge of Richard Plantagenet, Cambridge's son. The Southampton plot ironically anticipates the demise of Lancastrian fortunes and the reinstatement of the Yorkist faction in the person of Edward IV, grandson of Richard, Earl of Cambridge. In a reversal of roles in which Cains and Abels change places, the three Lancastrian kings would in 1460 be declared usurpers, and the perpetrator of this treason, Richard of Cambridge, would later by parliamentary decree lose the name of traitor.66

Henry represents his violent repression of fraternal conflict as a type of the Last Judgment and thus disengages this confrontation from the familiar tragic emplotment which encodes acts of internecine conflict. Henry's celebration of the battle of Agincourt is, in contrast, fashioned in terms of the comedy of brotherly reconciliation and Christian redemption. Henry implicitly compares the communal cooperation of his soldiers to the transcendent fellowship of the heavenly city. Like Christ who calls his obedient followers his brothers, Henry promises that “he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother” (IV.iii.61-62) and styles himself as one of a “happy few, we band of brothers” (60). Framed as prognostication, Henry's account of the yearly commemoration of the battle of Agincourt (IV.iii.39-67) anticipates the end to which Christian history points; national history becomes a type of the history of salvation in which tragedy is eclipsed and history redeemed.

Evoking the spiritual and eschatological connotation of brotherhood, Henry, in fact, transforms English history to national hagiography—an account of the suffering and triumphs of the heavenly city as a brotherhood of saints. Just as the hagiographer exhorts the brotherhood of the faithful to endure by reminding them of the Christian's ultimate consolation—the promise of eternal life—67so Henry exhorts his men to endure by envisioning for them the consolation promised to national heroes—historiographic fame (51-59). And just as hagiographic literature celebrates death in the company of Christian brothers—one's fellow martyrs—as a privilege and an honor,68 so Henry's anticipatory account of English history celebrates the felicity of death in the company of fellow Englishmen—a select brotherhood of national saints. Henry distinguishes this new nobility from that nobility conferred by blood (61-63). Elevating achievement over inheritance, he honors a perseverance and self-sacrifice motivated by a secular faith—patriotism.

Henry completes the spiritualization of English history by transforming the future commemoration of the battle of Agincourt into a secular feast day memorializing those martyrs who gave their lives for the faith.69 Unifying the observance of the martyrdom of Sts. Crispinus and Crispianus, whose feast day it is, with the annual remembrance of the heroism of this band of brothers, Henry reinforces the image of a sacred brotherhood. Crispinus and Crispianus, brothers and wealthy heirs to a secular patrimony, succeed to a more transcendent brotherhood as heirs of Christ. They embrace the Christian faith and live as humble shoemakers, sharing the gospel in the face of persecution.70 As martyred brothers, not only do they embody Henry's vision of his band of brothers, but their conversion to the Christian faith metaphorically echoes the historic change implicit in Henry's fashioning of events: the subordination of patriarchal and aristocratic notions of allegiance to a new concept—allegiance to country. In creating a new brotherhood of secular saints, Henry forges bonds of communal allegiance, honoring those who are willing to subordinate individual ambition to public goals.

As members of the happy band of brothers, the four Captains—the Welsh Fluellen, the Irish Macmorris, the Scots Jamy and the English Gower—are actors in a comedy of brotherly reconciliation. Foils to the quarrelsome, unsoldierly French, they courteously and generously pay tribute to one another's valor and professionalism and enjoy the comradery of yokefellows committed to a mutual task (III.ii.63-65, 75-81). The ethnic and national divisions dramatically voiced in the distinctive dialects of these officers are discounted by Gower, who rebukes Pistol's xenophobic contempt for Fluellen: “You thought, because he could not speak English in the native garb, he could not therefore handle an English cudgel” (V.i.73-75).

The play's comedic vision of the English past—its denial of ethnic differences—is, of course, at odds with the audience's awareness of a continuing history of ethnic rebellion. For as the play elsewhere indicates, in 1599 the English audience awaits news of the subjection of Ireland ( Thus, ethnic animosities surface even in the midst of a supportive communal dialogue. For example, the outraged “What ish my nation?” (III.ii.121) with which Captain Macmorris responds to Fluellen's innocent allusion to “many of your nation” (120) fiercely contests the dehumanization of the Irish by their English oppressors. Stigmatized as “a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal” (121-22), the Irishman was of course excluded from both the contest of brothers, a story of near equals, and the comedy of fraternal reconciliation. Hardly candidates for brotherhood, the Irish, like the French before them, were “the other”—the victims of the imperialism which brotherhood inspires. Intimations of tragedy, the deep and irreconcilable divisions articulated by this Irish voice, like the voices at Southampton, must, of course, be muted and transfigured as they are in this scene: “Gentlemen both, you will mistake each other,” cautions Gower (133).

Because England's politically sensitive relationships with a rebellious Ireland and an independent Scotland do not support an English story of fraternal reconciliation, Shakespeare selectively foregrounds Fluellen, a shadow of the Welsh-born Henry, as a symbol of the spirit of patriotic unity—a corporate nationalism which in the world of the play transcends these ethnic differences.71 Playing the stranger, Henry, the first among Englishmen, disguises himself as Henry Le Roy, “a Welshman” and proclaims to a hostile Pistol that he is Fluellen's countryman, friend “And his kinsman too” (IV.i.51-59). Henry not only acknowledges the power of bonds based on ethnic and national identity, he at once enacts the effacement of the differences he celebrates. Henry—king and commoner, Welshman and Englishman—becomes all things to all people to win them to his cause, forging fraternal bonds which permeate social, ethnic and national boundaries.

The comedy of reconciliation is enacted on the field of Agincourt itself where the king's identification of himself as a Welshman and Fluellen as his “good countryman” (IV.vii.104) is reciprocally acknowledged by Fluellen: “I am your Majesty's countryman” (110). However, shared nativity, Fluellen realizes, is but a material bond, and thus his kinship with Henry, like the brotherhood of the four Captains in the play, is a spiritual one, a shared integrity. For Fluellen will confess their relatedness “so long as your Majesty is an honest man” (IV.vii.118-19). Just as Henry fashions the battle of Agincourt, so Fluellen proceeds to rewrite Welsh history as a comedy of fraternal cooperation. Shakespeare's allusion to Holinshed's tragic record of atrocities done in 1399 by the monstrous Welsh women on the bodies of dead Englishmen in 1 Henry IV is succeeded in Henry V by Fluellen's record of “good service” in a French garden of leeks, where the Welsh reappear as brothers-in-arms to the English (97-98).72 Conflating a Welsh St. David's day victory, sometimes identified as a Celtic defeat of the Saxons, with the Black Prince's victory at Crécy, Fluellen creates an account of “St. Davy's day” which both validates Welsh nationalistic pride and is ironically refashioned to serve “English purposes” ( Connecting the past with the present, this narrative places the battle of Agincourt in the broader context of English history as a continuing comedy of fraternal reconciliation intrinsically connected to the staging of a foreign war. Incorporated into the fabric of English history, St. David's day—a memorial to Welsh valor—anticipates and is subsumed by St. Crispin's day. A celebration of brotherly cooperation, it commemorates the reconciliation of ethnic differences which like “many arrows, loosed several ways, / Come to one mark” (I.ii.207-8). The generic impulse of comedy—incorporation—is thus enacted again and again in the representation of ethnic brothers. The embodiment of this incorporation, Fluellen, the king's kin, countryman and double, collaborates with Henry to create an incorporative history of English fraternity, which honors difference while invoking an inclusive English brotherhood as the earthly model of the fellowship that epitomizes the heavenly city.

Henry's fashioning of the past and future as a comedy of reconciliation conflates the history of redemption with the triumphs of the earthly city. Shakespeare, in contrast, distances the earthly city from its heavenly counterpart by destabilizing Henry's emplotment, in which tragedy is averted and transformed. The comedic unity of the play is, in fact, constantly under siege as inverse accounts of fraternal discord surface. For example, the tragic outlines of the Southampton plot and the intimations of ethnic hostility emerge displaced onto another fraternal triumvirate, the fictional conspirators, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol, “three sworn brothers” (II.i.12). The Southampton plot is, in fact, the centerpiece in a dramatic triptych, the flanking panels of which reenact the classical emplotment of history as a tragic or ironic cycle of fraternal violence and reconciliation. A parodic version of Henry's comedic representation of the conspiracy, Act II, scene i burlesques the quarrel of brothers. Nym and Pistol draw swords; their mutual threats of murder reenact the discord among brothers disguised by the official account of the Southampton plot (II.i.35-73). Vying for the hand of Mistress Quickly, who is married to Pistol but was contracted to Nym, they openly contest a reductive version of the competing claims which remain unspoken in Henry's encounter with his co-claimant. Suspending this quarrel, the announcement of Falstaff's death with the explanation “the King has kill'd his heart” (II.i.88) not only restages Henry's own betrayal by his intimate friend, Scroop, but also implicates Henry himself in the reciprocal economy of fraternal hostility.

A reenactment of the historiographic comedy of affiliation, the third scene (II.iii) in this triptych counterpoints the first. Echoing Henry's assurance that “every rub is smoothed” (II.ii.188), Pistol's promise to Nym that “friendship shall combine, and brotherhood” (II.i.109) anticipates an alternate story, one which will supplant the conflict of brothers played out in this scene. The reconciliation is, however, an ironic and starkly realistic version of the idealized national unity Henry constructs for the audience in scene ii. Brotherly unity is achieved by the repression of differences which still fester (Nym cannot kiss the hostess goodbye); confederacy is merely a redirection of predatory self-interest: “Yoke-fellows in arms, / Let us to France, like horse-leeches, my boys, / To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck!” (II.iii.53-55). The thievish ambitions of Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph, “sworn brothers in filching” (III.ii.43-44), expose both the ambitions of another triumvirate—the would-be usurpers of the crown—and the imperial ambitions of Henry himself. Enclosing Henry's comedic and self-contained staging of history, this parodic reenactment of the historiographic fictions of fraternal violence and brotherly reconciliation reformulates the past in both a tragic and ironic mode. Generically transformed, Henry's story is subsumed as part of a continuing pattern of internecine violence which informs Anglo-Norman accounts of the English past. Just as the Anglo-Normans, driven by self-interest, destroy their brothers and then turn their mutual hostility against their enemies, so the English unite to prey upon the French.

Shakespeare, in fact, interrogates Henry's model of national brotherhood—a fellowship of saints bound together by mutual love—invoking an alternative model of community, a sworn brotherhood of thieves. Shakespeare's critique of the pragmatic bonds which support national unity echoes Augustine's depiction of the earthly city as a confederation of thieves:

Set justice aside then, and what are kingdoms but fair thievish purchases? For what are thieves' purchases but little kingdoms, for in theft the hands of the underlings are directed by the commander, the confederacy of them is sworn together, and the pillage is shared by law amongst them? And if those ragamuffins grow up to be able to keep forts, build habitations, possess cities, and conquer adjoining nations, then their government is no more called thievish, but graced with the eminent name of a kingdom, given and gotten, not because they have left their practice, but now because they may use them without danger of law.73

Just as Augustine, citing Alexander the Great, effaces the distinction between the emperor and the thief, so Shakespeare counterpoints Henry's band of brothers with a band of thieves, exposing the basis of communal cooperation rooted in egotism and material ambition.

Henry's vision of brothers reconciled and redeemed from obscurity by the power of the historiographic record “From this day to the ending of the world” (IV.iii.58) informs time with a comedic closure and implicitly anticipates the redemption of history. Analogy becomes identity as English history, rewritten in the form of redemptive history, becomes one with Christian history. Shakespeare, however, questions the relationship between the record of history and the record of eternity, creating alternative “endings” which reformulate the story of Henry's reign. Henry's identification of secular history with the history of the heavenly city and his depiction of the state as a redemptive agency is countered by Williams' anticipation of “the latter day”:

But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopp'd off in 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 debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument?


In this vision of the Last Judgment, Shakespeare recreates the alternative ending of Christian history; the comedic apotheosis of the saints is rewritten as the tragedy of damnation. If the play's presentation of the body politic in a language of unanimity exemplified by “one consent” (I.ii.181, 206; II.ii.22-23), “all,” (, “one” (I.ii.208-9, 212; V.ii.357-58) and in images of harmony—the beehive (I.ii.187-204) and the happy band of brothers—insistently encodes its story as a comedy, the shocking image of dismembered body parts, brutally dissevered, signals a contending version of Henry's seamless story of “one consent.” In this apocalyptic anticipation of the “heavy reckoning” due to men engaged in amoral conquest, the earthly city is envisioned as a dissevered body and the material basis of its unity is disclosed. Contrasting the “argument” or sign which identifies men who live and die by violence—blood—with the mark of the heavenly city—charity—Williams calls into doubt the sanctification of a band of brothers united not by justice, but by blood. Williams's severing of the history of conquest from the history of the heavenly city echoes Augustine's division between the party of Cain and the party of Abel: “that boasts of ambitious conquerors led by the lust of sovereignty: in this all serve each other in charity. …”74 Ironically, Williams's anticipation of time's ending subverts the transcendent implications of Henry's anticipation of a temporal apotheosis. It also subjects Henry himself to the “heavy reckoning” which he invokes in condemning his fraternal enemies in his own drama of sin and judgment.

The demythologized accounts of the band of brothers as a confederacy of thieves and an assembly of severed body parts figure forth an alternative story, reiterating the generic tensions which give shape to Henry V. Shakespeare discloses the artifices—both political and aesthetic—which fabricate a vision of unanimity. He thus reveals the fictive character of the comedic closure created by Henry's rewriting of the Southampton plot as a triumphant Last Judgment and his fashioning of the story of Agincourt as its redemptive counterpart. The comedic mode is sustained by a conjuring effort expressed in pleas, promises and acts of imagination. These voices deny, rebuke or transcend the reverse story—history as an account of fraternal enmity. Ironically, these voices at once demystify the English historiographic assumption that foreign conquest reflects or enhances national unity.75 For example, Bardolph's plea for reconciliation between Pistol and Nym, “Come, shall I make you two friends? We must to France together” (II.i.90-93), juxtaposed with the tragic alternative—“knives to cut one another's throats”—is echoed by Bates's plea, “Be friends, you English fools, be friends” (IV.i.219). Henry's promise of eternal brotherhood is adumbrated by the material vision of Pistol's promise to Nym. Just as his assurance that “friendship shall combine, and brotherhood” (II.i.109) anticipates the literal profits of that union, so Henry's promises serve his imperial ambitions. Not only do the characters persuade one another, but the Chorus in a language of unanimity (“all,” “every,” “solely” []) also directs us in the romantic project of imagining the unity of “English purposes” ( Although the Chorus enjoins the audience to accept its poetic figuration as history, “submitting the shows of things to the desires of the mind,”76 the conjuring mode discloses that we are witnessing not history itself but the ceremonial fashioning of an historical text.

While the interior play, Henry's play, imitates the comedic form of redemptive history, all but overpowering dissenting voices which, like that of Williams, invoke the tragedy of damnation, a third “ending” is proposed in the play's epilogue. Recalling the historical continuum, signaled by references to the succession and the future, Shakespeare reframes the past. The Chorus supplants the ending of Henry's story with the record of recurring civil violence. One becomes “many” (Epi.11, 12) as Henry's brothers vie for control of the realm and its young heir.77 Shakespeare counters a comedic myth of transcendence with a secular vision of history similar to Geoffrey of Monmouth's ironic or realistic emplotment of British history, in which fraternal enmity and reconciliation are part of a continuous and inescapable cycle. Distancing history's amoral conflicts and its temporary and pragmatic reconciliations from the history of the heavenly city, Shakespeare represents this cyclical interplay of tragic and comedic scenarios as a parodic counterfeit of the tragicomic form of redemptive history.

Shakespeare, then, explores the generic configurations of the past by reenacting in alternative emplotments the interplay of fraternal strife and brotherly reconciliation, a familiar model for medieval drama and English historiography. The discourse of Henry V is, in fact, marked by “a dialectical tension” between generic models. Such a tension, as Hayden White argues, is the mark of “the element of critical self-consciousness present in any historian of recognizably classical stature.”78 Shakespeare dramatizes Henry's own effort to rewrite history, exorcising the tragic aspects of the mythic configuration of English historiography and institutionalizing the divine comedy of brotherly reconciliation. The play itself presents an ironic view of history's comedies and tragedies. Like an anamorphic image, brotherhood figures forth the “alternative emplotments” which endow a set of historical events, which in themselves have no story, with “all the possible meanings” accessible to Shakespeare's audience.79 The comedy or romance of brotherly reconciliation is sustained by the non-mimetic strategies of the Chorus and of Henry's moral emplotment, designed to evoke what should or might have been. Nevertheless, neither moral exhortation nor appeals to the imagination succeed in exorcising the tragedy of fraternal enmity which reappears in mimetic representation of violated brotherhood. Shakespeare, thus, invokes generic patterns common to English historiography to recreate history's shifting perspectives and to test those formulations against the witness of the record.


  1. Hayden White, “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” in his Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1978), 82, 88.

  2. White, “Historicism, History, and the Figurative Imagination” in his Tropics, 109; White defines “emplotment,” a term which I borrow (along with its cognates, “emplot” and “emplotted”), as “the encodation of the facts contained in the chronicle as components of specific kinds of plot structures, in precisely the way that Frye has suggested is the case with ‘fictions’ in general” (“Historical Text,” 83).

  3. White, “Historical Text,” 88.

  4. White, “Historical Text,” 92.

  5. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1973), 3.

  6. White, “Historical Text,” 82.

  7. See Clyde Kluckhohn, “Recurrent Themes in Myth and Mythmaking,” in Myth and Mythmaking, ed. Henry A. Murray (New York: G. Braziller, 1960), 52. For a discussion of tragedy as fraternal violence see René Girard, Violence and The Sacred, trans. Patrick Gregory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1972).

  8. For a discussion of the representation of power in medieval drama see John D. Cox, Shakespeare and the Dramaturgy of Power (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989), 23-25.

  9. Cox xi; V. A. Kolve, The Play Called Corpus Christi (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1966), 57-67.

  10. St. Augustine, The City Of God, trans. John Healey, 2 vols. (1945; repr. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973), 2:64.

  11. Augustine, 2:59. See Gail Kern Paster, The Idea of the City in the Age of Shakespeare (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1985). Paster identifies the archetype of opposed cities as an ancient one, which appears in classical as well as scriptural sources, and is “always deeply involved with the notion of historical time” (2-13). She discusses the “bipolar image” of the city as it appears in Renaissance tragedy, masque and city comedy.

  12. Augustine 2:64.

  13. Augustine 2:63.

  14. White, “Historical Text,” 98.

  15. Clifford Davidson, From Creation to Doom (New York: AMS Press, 1984), 46.

  16. Davidson, 46-47; Kolve, 66-67.

  17. Charles Norris Cochrane, Christianity and Classical Culture: A Study of Thought and Action from Augustus to Augustine (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1957), 471.

  18. Cochrane, 473; Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley, Modern Library College Editions (Modern Library: New York, 1951), 3.80-86.

  19. Cochrane, 473.

  20. White, “Historicism,” 111-12.

  21. The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, trans. Thomas Forester (1853; repr. New York: AMS Press, 1968), 217; William Malmesbury's Chronicle of the Kings of England (London, 1889), 331-33.

  22. Huntingdon, 216.

  23. Ordericus Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy, trans. Thomas Forester, 4 vols. (1854; repr. New York: AMS Press, 1968), 2:433; 4:156-57.

  24. Ordericus, 4:156-57.

  25. Augustine, 1:115; Cochrane, 489.

  26. Robert W. Hanning, The Vision of History in Early Britain: From Gildas to Geoffrey of Monmouth (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1966), 139.

  27. White, “Historicism,” 115.

  28. Hanning, 142-43.

  29. Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain, Sebastian Evans translation revised by Charles W. Dunn (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958), 32-33.

  30. Hanning, 125-26, 142, 159-60. Geoffrey is the source for Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville's Gorboduc (1562). A forerunner of the Marlovian and Shakespearean history play (Irby B. Cauthen, Jr., ed., Gorboduc or Ferrex and Porrex [Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1970], xiv), this drama didactically portrays fraternal strife as the tragic sequel to any deviation from “single rule.” The play's polarized iteration of this historiographic pattern provided the Elizabethan auditor with a model for interpreting the present and future, a model which foregrounds issues of unity, authority and succession.

  31. Geoffrey, 61-63.

  32. Geoffrey, 51-56.

  33. Hanning, 125-26, 145.

  34. Hanning, 140.

  35. Hanning, 148-49.

  36. Edward Hall, Hall's Chronicle (London, 1809), 1.

  37. Hall, 1-2, 425.

  38. Henry Ansgar Kelly, Divine Providence in the England of Shakespeare's Histories (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1970), 122-23.

  39. Hall, 425.

  40. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington (Glenview, Ill.: Scott Foresman, 1980). All quotations follow this edition.

  41. Herbert Lindenberger, Historical Drama: The Relation of Literature to Reality (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1975), 78-82.

  42. White, “Historical Text,” 84.

  43. White, “Historical Text,” 98.

  44. Hayden White, “The Fictions of Factual Representation,” in Tropics, 129.

  45. Hanning, 31-43; Cox, 12-15. Augustine's skepticism of the political order sets him at odds not only with classical idealism but with the assumptions of Christian historians for whom the history of the Christian state is synonymous with the history of the heavenly city.

  46. White (“Historical Text,” 90-1), discusses Levi-Strauss's theory that “the coherence” of the historian's “story” is achieved by the exclusion of “one or more of the domains of facts.”

  47. Hall, 61.

  48. Samuel Daniel, The Civil Wars, ed. Laurence Michel (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1958).

  49. White (“Historicism,” 111-2) describes generic formulation as a selective process which is not a reduction but a “distortion of the factual field.”

  50. Hall, 61.

  51. See G. L. Harriss, “The King and His Magnates,” in Henry V: The Practice of Kingship, ed. G. L. Harriss (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1985), 31-51. Harriss discusses the Southampton plot as a renewal of the rebellion against Henry IV (36-37).

  52. James R. Siemon, Shakespearean Iconoclasm (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1985), 103-4. Siemon argues that, despite Henry's allegorical shaping of this scene as a symbol of his magnanimity, it “pushes into the realm of history, where at each moment disorder and discrepancy force one to take up the burden of interpretation, to consider before and after, origin and end, purpose and conclusion without any promise of satisfying certainty to come.” I would suggest that the scene itself successfully represses such inquiry except at one point—the concession of motive—although, as I argue below, other parts of the play contest the generic representation of this scene, reidentifying it as a story of re-emergent civil conflict.

  53. Karl P. Wentersdorf, “The Conspiracy of Silence in Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly 27 (Summer 1976): 272-74.

  54. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, “History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V,” in Alternative Shakespeares, ed. John Drakakis (London: Methuen, 1985), 220.

  55. Wentersdorf, 271, 274.

  56. Emmon Grennan, “‘This Story Shall the Good Man Teach His Son’: Henry V and the Art of History,” Papers on Language and Literature 15 (Fall 1979): 371.

  57. See John H. Walter, ed. King Henry V, the Arden Shakespeare (1954; repr. London: Methuen, 1979). Interpreting Henry as an emblematic figure—the ideal Christian prince—he reads this scene as an exemplum of kingly justice, clemency (xviiii) and magnanimity (xvi) and argues that Henry is, like “pius Aeneas,” an agent of God's plan (xxv). Dollimore and Sinfield, in contrast, comment on the universalizing of this defection (220) as a political strategy. The dual emplotment allows us to entertain Henry as both an emblem of justice and an astute politician adept at rewriting events and staging his own Doomsday pageant.

  58. Gesta Henrici Quinti: The Deeds of Henry V, trans. and ed. Frank Taylor and John S. Roskell (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), 19; Kolve, 85.

  59. Dollimore and Sinfield, 217.

  60. Raphael Holinshed, Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 6 vols. (London, 1807), 3:72.

  61. T. B. Pugh, Henry V and the Southampton Plot of 1415 (London: Alan Sutton, 1988), 156, 109.

  62. Pugh, 97-102.

  63. Harriss, 46.

  64. Pugh, 129.

  65. Pugh, 129-30. See also John G. Bellamy, The Tudor Law of Treason: An Introduction (Buffalo: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1979), 9-11.

  66. Pugh, 133-35, 129.

  67. Helen C. White, Tudor Books of Saints and Martyrs (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1963), 8-9. White identifies the address “of consolation and encouragement to the faithful in time of persecution” as one of the most significant “hagiographic genres.”

  68. Helen C. White, 9-10.

  69. Helen C. White, 14. The “afterlife” of the martyr is historical as well as transhistorical. In conflating the celebration of Agincourt with the yearly commemoration of a saint's day, Henry invests historical deeds with the kind of transcendence reserved for the sacrifices of Christian martyrs.

  70. Butler's Lives of the Saints, ed. Herbert Thurston and Don Atwater (New York: P. J. Kenedy, 1956), 4:197-98.

  71. Joan Rees, “Shakespeare's Welshmen,” in Literature and Nationalism, ed. Vincent Newey and Ann Thompson (Savage, Md.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1991), 29.

  72. Rees, 22; 33-34. Weighing the documentary support for Fluellen's account, Rees discusses the conflicting accounts of this Welsh victory and the origins of the Welsh celebration of St. David's day.

  73. Augustine, 1:115.

  74. Augustine, 2:59.

  75. Dollimore and Sinfield, who argue that the play is not “‘about’ unity” but about insurrection (216), contend that the notion that foreign wars distract from internal conflict and enforce unity is demystified (215-18). If so, Shakespeare is implicitly challenging an assumption which is reiterated (and sometimes questioned) in English historiography.

  76. Sir Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, in The Works of Francis Bacon, ed. James Spedding, R. L. Ellis, and D. D. Heath, 3 vols. (Philadelphia, 1842), 1:192. The play's comedic or romantic enactment of an idealized version of brotherly reconciliation and its ceremonial exorcising of the tragic witness of fact recalls Bacon's distinction between poetry and history, in which poetry idealizes by “submitting the shows of things to the desires of the mind,” while history, like reason, “doth buckle and bow the mind unto the nature of things.”

  77. Dollimore and Sinfield, 220.

  78. White, “Historical Text,” 94.

  79. White, “Historical Text,” 84, 92.

Joan Lord Hall (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7004

SOURCE: Hall, Joan Lord. “Themes.” In Henry V: A Guide to the Play, pp. 77-93. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Hall highlights the complexities of Henry V's principal themes: order versus disorder, the nature of warfare, and the requirements of kingship.]

Image patterns are often a clue to a play's underlying concerns. In Henry V the garden metaphor sets ordered fertility against disorderly chaos; images of blood (symbolizing both familial ties and violent destruction) project a multifaceted concept of war; and the extended personification of “ceremony” in the King's troubled soliloquy before Agincourt expands on the key issue of kingship. These three central themes—the importance of order in the nation, the ambivalence of war, and the challenging nature of kingship—emerge from the play's development of plot and character as well as its language.

As might be predicted in a play that Shakespeare wrote only a year or two before Hamlet, the treatment of these themes is complex; Henry V offers no straightforward celebration of the King and his military mission. The play raises questions rather than providing clear answers. Is it possible to achieve lasting unity in the state of England, or do currents of disorder inevitably destabilize this society? Can war against another nation ever be justified, and is it always a mixture of the vile and the heroic? What is the nature of kingship? Must the successful monarch combine the expediency of a Machiavel with the virtues of a Christian? These issues develop in dialectical fashion.


While the key dramatic topics are clear enough—order, war, and kingship—readers or directors of the play may differ in their interpretation of how these topics are handled in the drama, and thus how they build into fully articulated themes. “Order” is a case in point. The topic is introduced very deliberately in I. ii, where Exeter first develops a musical analogy to evoke the harmony of a well-ordered kingdom:

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

(I. ii. 180-84)

Then the Archbishop of Canterbury elaborates a parable on how the honeybees “by a rule in nature teach / The act of order to a peopled kingdom.” The speech, a rehearsing of a fable that had classical and Renaissance precedents,1 is often cited by earlier critics as a key to the play's central theme; J. H. Walter terms it a “reflection of Shakespeare's concern with unity of action in the structure of the play,”2 and A. R. Humphreys thinks it “is meant as a genuine celebration of national harmony.”3 Deconstructive critics … have been more skeptical, discovering in the speech a propaganda pitch for the dominant Elizabethan ideology of social order through submission to authority. In its context it is certainly a piece of special pleading by the clergymen—a reminder to Henry that he can achieve the throne of France if his subjects who are left at home cooperate obediently. Social harmony is thus promoted a little too stridently. Canterbury expounds the parallel between the beehive's “rule in nature” and the well-ordered kingdom, where all levels of society (magistrates, merchants, and soldiers) work for the good of the ruler. Yet the bees' monarch, described as “busied in his majesty,” is strangely passive, content merely to survey the labors of his underlings—the pillaging soldiers and the toiling porters. The progression of the imagery suggests that order at home is easily achieved. Canterbury buttresses the concept of unity in diversity—“That many things, having full reference / To one consent, may work contrariously”—with a series of images from nature (fresh streams meeting in one salt ocean) and human culture (arrows flying to one mark, lines converging in the dial's center). This takes him smoothly to the main point at issue, the military campaign:

So may a thousand actions, once afoot,
End in one purpose, and be all well borne
Without defeat. …


Yet beneath this ideal of harmonious order in the state lurk rebellious segments, barely kept in check; the Scots are threatening to pour into England “like the tide into a breach” and suck the “princely eggs” of “eagle” England (149, 169-71). In a sense, too, Canterbury's speech deconstructs the premise of order, since its powerful rhetoric is finally in the service of a divided rather than a strongly unified kingdom. The prelate is urging Henry to partition England in four and to trust that the commonwealth will continue to run smoothly in his absence, so that he can deploy one-quarter of the male population in his war against France. Ironically it turns out that Canterbury's paradigm of a unified state, all parts interlocking, is at odds with much of what we see in the play: the conspiracy of Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey; the fraternity of thieves (Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym) defying Henry's decree that nothing be stolen from France; and Williams' muted threat of insubordination when he challenges the King's “cause.” There is even the slight possibility, up to the very end of the play, that Princess Katherine might sabotage Henry's plans for unifying the two kingdoms by failing to exercise her womanly duty and conform to his grand design.

Do we interpret the theme here as the necessity for order in the commonwealth, or the difficulty of maintaining it?4 The specious way in which Canterbury's speech sets up the “act of order” as an assured achievement, masking disorder, may undercut its viability. It is clear that the play presents social unity under a strong monarchy as preferable to anarchy (or the cut-throat rivalry of the so-called brotherhood of Eastcheap), but this theme is not presented simplistically. The stability and order of the kingdom partly depend on Henry's proving his qualities as a strong leader (unified in himself),5 so that the theme of order and disorder is linked to that of kingship. Moreover, war may temporarily unite England, but it creates havoc and disorder in France; the images of the wasted garden do more to convince the audience of the importance of a unified kingdom than does Canterbury's complacent speech. In particular, Burgundy's dignified exposition of what happens to civilization in wartime, when “hateful docks” and “rough thistles” stamp out the “cowslip, burnet, and green clover” (V. ii. 49-52), drives home in realistic detail the disorderly “savagery” in a society where peace is “mangled.”


Henry V has been described as the “anatomy of a war.”6 Anatomy is an appropriate term: The play presents different aspects of warfare for our inspection, and we are left to decide whether war is a heroic enterprise or one that brings out the worst in its participants. If the theme can be summed up at all, it is that war has many faces. Filmgoers conditioned by Olivier's movie may think that Henry V glorifies war. But the text provides no stirring battle after the call to arms at Agincourt, only a scene in which the mercenary-minded Pistol captures the cowardly Le Fer. We simply do not see much of the “pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war” (Othello, III. iii. 354); the heroism of York and Suffolk, for instance, is reported, not shown.7 War in this play is frankly the means to an end—a way of unifying the country and extending England's boundaries—but the means is often sordid and always costly.

Because Henry revives an old, somewhat tenuous claim to the throne of France, the war is not strictly necessary. Only by sleight of hand can he turn the French into the initiators; the campaign is more a political opportunity for him to prove his prowess as a leader and a conqueror. Nevertheless, Henry is not depicted as an aggressive warmonger. It is Canterbury who, for pragmatic reasons, urges Henry to “unwind your bloody flag” while Exeter reminds him to emulate his ancestors, the “lions” of his “blood.” Acknowledging both the “waste” and the responsibility incurred, Henry's vision of war is sober:

For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops
Are every one a woe, a sore complaint
'Gainst him whose wrongs gives edge unto the swords
That makes such waste in brief mortality.

(I. ii. 24-28)

The King's speech personifies drops of blood as bitter complainants, but Williams goes further in imagining how the dismembered body parts of those killed in war will rise up in protest on the Day of Judgment:

all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, “We died at such a place,” some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left.

(IV. i. 137-43)

The speech is a graphic reminder of the cost of war in terms of human lives and relationships. Williams also illuminates the corrupting nature of war, the inevitable clash between moral sensibilities and concentration on killing, when he ponders, “I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument?” Blood, as the Eastcheap Boy remarks, is “unwholesome food” (II. iii. 58). This theme of moral coarsening through an obsession with blood (as murder) is echoed in Burgundy's description of how France is affected by the war. Even the children, suffering from the devastating aftereffects of Henry's military campaign, “grow like savages—as soldiers will / That nothing do but meditate on blood” (V. ii. 59-60).

It is at Harfleur that the “savagery” of war is delineated most clearly. In a passage that again focuses on blood and extends into rape, Henry envisages how, if the town refuses to surrender, “the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart, / In liberty of bloody hand shall range / With conscience wide as hell” (III. iii. 11-13). Despite this human ferocity, the vision of war becomes curiously impersonal, for the images that follow show abstractions, rather than people, taking the initiative: “Impious war” is personified and compared to the “prince of fiends,” Satan himself; “licentious wickedness” races downhill; and “murder, spoil, and villainy” are envisaged as natural phenomena, “filthy and contagious clouds.” Once the war machine grinds into gear, it generates its own horrors, so that the “enraged” warriors are somehow not held morally accountable. Indeed, to be a soldier at all means cultivating a tough impersonality, as Henry makes clear when he backs up his exhortations at the breach—“Disguise fair nature with hard-favor'd rage” (III. i. 8)—with images of the eye as a brass cannon and the brow as a rock lashed by the sea. In contrast to the Roman warrior Coriolanus, depicted in battle as a “thing of blood, whose every motion / Was tim'd with dying cries” (Coriolanus, II. ii. 109-10), Henry never becomes an inhuman war machine. Nor does he indulge in the mindless fury parodied in Macmorris's “so Chrish save me, I will cut off your head!” (III. ii. 135). He can, nevertheless, be ruthless in military strategy, prepared to use “bloody constraint” in fighting for the French Crown (II. iv. 97) and to kill the prisoners when his dominance on the battlefield is threatened.

The apparent contradictions in Henry's response to war—compunction coupled with sublime indifference or even callous acceptance—point to a central ambivalence in the way that war is presented. The question of the King's responsibility for lives lost in war, introduced in Act I, resurfaces in Act IV. Henry cannot completely argue away his nagging sense of shedding “guiltless drops” of blood by separating the state of the individual's soul from his “duty” to go to war for his king, as he attempts to do in his conversation with Williams. And the idea that death in battle can serve as the scourge of God—“War is his beadle, war is his vengeance” (IV. i. 173-74)—may come across as a convenient rationalization too. On the other hand, the King at Harfleur accurately points out the inexorable momentum of war, where the “blind and bloody soldier,” swept up in battle fury, acts like an automaton. Such momentum, Henry argues, is out of his control and therefore beyond his jurisdiction. These perspectives on war in the play remain antithetical; they cannot be reconciled.

There is a tension, too, between the creative energy of being transformed into an effective soldier (“bend up every spirit / To his full height!” is phallic, as are other images connected with storming the breach) and the repulsive acts of destruction engendered by this ferocity: rape, carnage, and mortal combat leading to the stench of corpses on the battlefield. Exhilaration is counterbalanced by grotesque detail in the exhortation at the breach, which A. R. Humphreys defines as “desperate, appalling, and inspiring at once.”8 War in Henry V is envisaged as a test of manhood, ranging from the images of virility at Harfleur (“Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood” [III. i. 7]) to the Dauphin's lament that French “mettle is bred out” (III. v. 29). To be on the losing side of the war game is to experience impotence or sexual dishonor, as when Bourbon feels an overwhelming “shame” at seeing the broken ranks of the French. Refusing to return to the fray, says Bourbon, is equivalent to being a “base pander” who watches his daughter being raped by a “slave” (IV. v. 15-17). And war lust is always yoked to death, as suggested in the erotic image of York and Suffolk embracing as they die on the battlefield (IV. vi).

The theme of war in Henry V encompasses more than heroic excitement and violent bloodshed. Hard work and drudgery are also required in any military campaign. With his consternation that the mines at Harfleur are not “according to the disciplines of the war” and his pride at the “excellent discipline” of his compatriot Exeter at the bridge, Fluellen represents the military man's meticulous attention to detail. War is exhausting, too. Branagh's movie adds to the text by showing the slog through mud and rain as part of the campaign's horrors; but a simple stage direction in Shakespeare's play, “Enter the King and his poor Soldiers” (III. vi. 90), is enough to convey the total enervation of the army as they march toward Calais. Exhaustion, as well as resolve, emerges from the halting rhythms and monosyllabic weight of the speech in which Henry addresses Montjoy at the end of this scene. What at first glance appears to be flat, even repetitive verse gives a clue to Henry's underlying emotions: He is bracing himself, presenting a bold front to the French despite being terribly weary. He admits that “My people are with sickness much enfeebled, / My numbers lessened” but continues:

If we may pass, we will; if we be hind'red,
We shall your tawny ground with your red blood
Discolor; and so, Montjoy, fare you well.
The sum of all our answer is but this:
We would not seek a battle as we are,
Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it.


In Henry V the different dimensions of war—its exhilaration and opportunities for courage, juxtaposed with its horrors, grinding weariness, and inhumanity—build into a complex vision, a questioning of whether war can ever be fully justified. King Henry does harness the military venture to his advantage and to the glory of England, for the war effort makes possible not only national unity in the abstract sense but the strongly forged brotherhood felt in the Crispin's Day speech. What is more, the speed with which Shakespeare turns from this heroic speech to Pistol's capture of Le Fer, and from Montjoy's somber request to collect the French corpses to the comic interlude between Fluellen and Williams (IV. viii), may discourage too prolonged a questioning of war's bleakness. Darker nuances remain, however, in the unheroic thievery of the Eastcheap men, sucking the blood of France, and the vision of atrocities that the “blind and bloody” soldier may at any moment perpetrate. And although the English are granted a relatively bloodless victory (few of their men are killed), the war, as Burgundy points out, is disastrous for the fertile garden of France. While a performance of Henry V with a totally anti-war message would be a distortion of the text (and run counter to the energy Henry inspires as a military leader), stage productions in the second half of the twentieth century have taken up hints from the play script and delivered some critique of the war. The Royal Shakespeare Company's 1984-85 version, for instance, did not allow the audience to forget the cost of the French campaign. Even as the marriage between Henry and Katherine was being sealed, “the battlefield, with candles glimmering beside corpses, was seen through a gauzy traverse curtain behind the tableau of Henry's triumphant diplomatic wedding.”9 Branagh's film … reveals more of the contradictions of war than does Olivier's, with its firmer emphasis on the pageantry and patriotism of the military endeavor. As Henry V itself continues to insist, war is both terrible and energizing.


The central theme of Henry V is kingship; in terms of both plot and character, the play unfolds as the testing of a monarch. Henry cannot rely on the sacred “name” of king that Richard II invoked, since divine right has been cancelled by his father's act of usurping the throne. As a de facto rather than a de jure ruler, Henry IV struggles to maintain his authority throughout the Henry IV plays, and Henry V, once he is King of England, must also prove his fitness to rule through appropriate choices and actions. A long list of “king-becoming graces,” helpful in defining the ideal monarch, appears in Macbeth when Malcolm is addressing Macduff. The future king specifies

… justice, verity, temp'rance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude …

(IV.iii. 92-94)

Arguably Henry exemplifies most of these Christian qualities during the course of the play; yet, like Malcolm disguising his true nature from Macduff in order to test him, he is also capable of deviousness, even machiavellianism. As Robert Egan comments, there is an inevitable “dichotomy between conqueror and Christian”10 in Henry V. Strong leadership, Shakespeare implies, requires cunning as well as open “courage”—the combination that Machiavelli outlines when he advises the prince to be both “fox” and “lion.”11 And far from being a straightforward demonstration of kingship, with Henry displaying various facets of the royal persona in a fairly static way,12 the play allows for undercurrents of uneasiness or doubt, moments of possible failure as Henry refines his roles as monarch.

Before we see him, Henry is projected as a kingly paragon; Canterbury expresses wonder at this new king's attributes in the opening scene. As well as being a great orator, Henry excels in four areas: he can “reason in divinity,” he is an expert in “commonwealth affairs,” his “discourse of war” is highly impressive, and he can expound on “any cause of policy” (i.e., argue about politics). What is more, Henry goes beyond the rhetorician who theorizes on abstract propositions, for he has put into practice an active rather than a contemplative virtue:

… the art and practic part of life
Must be the mistress to this theoric.

(I. i. 51-52)

King Henry has much to live up to. Can he establish himself as an accomplished orator, a pious man of God, a statesman-politician, and a military leader? All of these roles are manifested, to some degree, as the play progresses, and most of them are touched on in Henry's opening scene.

When Henry first appears on stage, in I. ii, he is very much on trial. Not only is this the first time that the theater audience sees him, but he is still a relatively new king—and a young one, historically only twenty-five—who needs to make a strong initial impression on the inner circle of noblemen. As a decisive ruler he must take command of the situation and display his control publicly. The key term here is “resolved.” Almost Henry's first words, referring to the legitimacy of his title in France, are “We would be resolved,” and once Canterbury's explanations are complete and the King is ready to call in the Dauphin's ambassadors, he closes the debate with “Now are we well resolved” (I. ii. 222). Not only has the issue been clarified, enabling him to proceed, but he is fully determined (“resolved”) to go ahead with his military campaign. In addition, Henry projects himself as both responsible and pious before he allows Canterbury to launch into his discussion of Salic law. Concerned with the “truth” of his claim, he urges the Archbishop to expound the case “justly and religiously.” In effect the King adopts the role of spiritual authority (the “prelate” who can “reason in divinity”) when he warns Canterbury

Under this conjuration, speak my lord:
For we will hear, note, and believe in heart
That what you speak is in your conscience washed
As pure as sin with baptism.


At the end of the Archbishop's speech Henry checks again, in front of witnesses, that his own “conscience” will not be sullied by pursuing a title that is specious:

May I with right and conscience make this claim?


Showing his skill in “commonwealth affairs,” he cuts through Canterbury's rousing talk of heroic royal ancestors to discuss instead practical steps to “defend / Against the Scot” while the English troops are away in France. Shrewdly Henry recalls how the Scots invaded England while Edward III was away campaigning in France, but Canterbury, also a politician, caps this by reminding Henry how England under Edward III not only defended itself adequately against the Scots but also captured the Scottish King. The King listens carefully to his counselors; he is persuaded by their pragmatic arguments that one-quarter of the English forces can win the war in France while the rest defend their own country.

Once Henry is “resolved,” he is ready to act decisively: “France being ours, we'll bend it to our awe, / Or break it all to pieces” (224-25). Whatever Henry's other possible motives (desire for a heroic enterprise to unify England or the need to busy “giddy minds with foreign wars” as his father advised), it is clear that winning France is also a personal quest for him—a means of proving his prowess as king. The sentiment that he expresses more openly at the end of II. ii, “No king of England, if not King of France!”, is registered here in his extremist attitude to the enterprise. Either he will succeed magnificently and rule France “in large and ample empery,” or he will die in obscurity with no memorial tomb, his deeds uncelebrated. Achieving France will be, as Robert Ornstein comments, “an ultimate proof” of his “kingliness.”13

The arrival of the French ambassador and his entourage presents Henry with another opportunity to demonstrate his royal command of the situation. In assuring them that they may deliver their message from the Dauphin “freely,” Henry contends

We are no tyrant, but a Christian king,
Unto whose grace our passion is as subject
As is our wretches fett'red in our prisons. …


Henry is promising to behave temperately; because he is gracious (Canterbury respects him as “full of grace” [I. i. 22]), he is not prey to outbursts of anger or tyrannical behavior. Although highly provoked by the Dauphin's references to his earlier frivolity (“galliard” and “revel”) and by the demeaning present of tennis balls, the King keeps his promise. The English court, as shown in Branagh's movie, may be watching keenly. How exactly will Henry react? He keeps his temper under control, converting anger into irony and rousing rhetoric:

And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones. …


Again, he is aware that the campaign will test him, enabling him to display to both nations the “practic part of life”:

But tell the Dauphin I will keep my state,
Be like a king, and show my sail of greatness,
When I do rouse me in my throne of France.


“Be like a king” is significant. The opening Chorus regrets that the stage lacks resources to show “the warlike Harry, like himself,” but here Henry goes one better; he promises to “dazzle all the eyes of France” with his intrinsic “greatness.” Although this is kingship in quest of national glory, his heroic impulse is always tempered by rational control. In planning the French campaign Henry judiciously recommends an “expedition” (punning on military invasion and speed) that will progress with “reasonable swiftness” rather than reckless haste.

In Act II Henry faces a more probing test: how to deal with the traitors in a way that proves he understands when “mercy” must give place to just punishment. His related dilemma—can a king be powerful and popular?—is pointed up by Cambridge's hypocritical tribute, “Never was monarch better feared and loved / Than is your Majesty” (II. ii. 25-26). As Machiavelli comments in The Prince,14 it is difficult to inspire both emotions equally, and more important for the strong leader to be respected than adored. In an ideal society, the king could rely on “hearts create of duty, and of zeal” (31). But Henry learns by hard experience that his “bedfellow” Scroop appeared to love him only to take advantage of his friendship. Holinshed captures some of the precarious balance between being “loved” and “feared” when he describes Henry as “so severe a justicer” that “his people both loved and obeyed him”; he left “no offence unpunished nor friendship unrewarded” and proved a “terror to rebels, and suppressor of sedition.”15 In the Southampton scene Henry does not hand out rewards for friendship (although he promises “quittance of desert and merit / According to the weight and worthiness” [34-35]), but we do see him firmly administering punishment, acting the part of “severe … justicer” so that he can effectively crush sedition.

The scene opens with Bedford's reassurance that “the king hath note” of all that the traitors “intend.” This ensures that the audience can savor the dramatic irony, knowing that Henry is orchestrating the situation toward disclosure and that what appears to be naive overconfidence in his subjects (“We carry not a heart with us from hence / That grows not in a fair consent with ours” [21-22]) is actually a tactic for unmasking his enemies. Admittedly the King's strategy is machiavellian. But he is using deception (the pointed irony of referring to the traitors' “too much love and care” of him [52-53]) to expose hypocrisy; one might view him, in John F. Danby's terms, as the “machiavel of goodness,”16 doing what the cunning leader must do to establish his authority. He shows magnanimity in pardoning a drunken man for verbal abuse, even when Grey, damning himself in advance, urges the “taste of much correction.” (In a parallel sequence in IV. viii, Fluellen advocates “martial law” for Williams, whereas Henry pardons him because, as Williams explains, “All offenses … come from the heart” and his heart has remained loyal to the King.) For the traitors, however, there can be no mercy. Henry perhaps speaks as a man in his long speech where he deeply regrets the perfidy of Scroop, who has “infected / The sweetness of affiance” (126-27). But his voice is that of a responsible monarch who puts the safety of his kingdom first when he declares:

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


At Harfleur the King's challenge is to prove himself a military giant, displaying the qualities of “courage” and “fortitude” as a warrior-king. Strong leadership, Shakespeare suggests, is a matter of playing the role convincingly and encouraging others to do the same—to become what they act:

In peace there's nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger.

(III. i. 3-6)

The aggressive soldier must “Disguise fair nature with hard-favor'd rage” and assume the properties of a war machine or a predatory animal. By the time he speaks to the Governor (III. iii), Henry has completely appropriated the persona of the soldier, calling it “A name that in my thoughts becomes me best” (6). His threatening speech is thus predicated on a total divorce between the sensitive mortal who is bound to feel “pity” for violated women and butchered babies and the hardened military leader who would fatalistically let his soldiers run amok. If Henry actually allowed this brutality to take place, could he remain a respected ruler, full of “king-becoming graces”? Again there is a tenuous balance between the monarch's ruthlessness17 (a kind of “justice,” if Harfleur breaks the rules of war that Henry outlines here) and “mercy.” It is possible, though not certain, that the blood-chilling threats are merely a clever tactic to coerce surrender, so that once the Governor has capitulated Henry can “Use mercy to them all” (54). There is a similar conflict between the King's “lenity” and “cruelty” toward an individual when Henry, while insisting on treating the French with respect and not stealing from their land because “the gentler gamester is the soonest winner,” nevertheless approves Bardolph's execution (III. vi. 112). He reveals no regret over the death of an old comrade for theft. The expedient military leader clearly cannot afford to be sentimental.

Michael Goldman comments astutely on how Henry V reveals “the effort of greatness” and “the demands on the self that being a king involves.”18 In Act IV Henry as king faces several challenges: keeping up the morale of his soldiers before and during battle, and justifying his cause (while in disguise) to his men. The Chorus paints a glowing picture of Henry as the “royal captain” who rallies his troops the night before battle with his resilience and “sweet majesty.” Indeed when we first see him at the beginning of IV. i, he is succeeding admirably in cheering up his comrades. He makes the best of a bad situation, “gathering honey out of the weed” by turning adversity to advantage:

For our bad neighbor makes us early stirrers,
Which is both healthful, and good husbandry.

(IV. i. 6-7)

Even the mind, he argues, is “quick'ned” by harsh conditions. It is quite possible, judged by his later “I and my bosom must debate a while” (31), that the King is experiencing anxiety on a deeper level; yet he projects a “cheerful semblance”—the king-becoming grace of “stableness”—so convincingly that we believe in his fundamental optimism and, most important, in his ability to transmit a positive outlook to his subordinates.

The sequence where the King is in disguise points up the ultimate irony: Henry is unable to shed the royal persona and its responsibilities. The price of kingship is isolation from other people, even though Henry is eager to present himself to the commoners (Bates, Court, and Williams) as an ordinary human being: “I think the King is but a man, as I am. … His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing” (103-10). He does not appear to convince them. Indeed, whatever emotions he may be feeling, Henry must remain committed to the public role of “outward courage” in order to rally his subjects; as he goes on to explain, “no man should possess [the king] with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army” (112-14). For a king, the appearance of strength is paramount. Yet Henry continues to defend the King's private self and his “conscience,” maintaining that the King's cause is “just” and his quarrel “honorable.” Whereas Bates expresses unquestioning loyalty, Williams probes the implications, the “heavy reckoning” at the Day of Judgment, if the cause is not “good.” Sensitive on the issue of the King's responsibility for so many lives lost in battle, Henry concentrates on separating the “duty” of the subject, which belongs to the King, from the “soul” of the subject, which is that person's own concern, regardless of whether or not he has been sent to war on a valid pretext. The long speech (150-90) is perhaps a Pyrrhic victory for the King's position. It convinces Williams that “the king is not to answer” for the sins of individual subjects but leaves him suspicious of the King's “word,” his promise that he will never be ransomed: “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” (197-99). Henry's defense of kingship, so coherent on one level, has confirmed the wide chasm—the lack of complete trust, the sense of operating by different standards, the inability to communicate frankly—between the monarch and his subjects.

Henry's meditation on “ceremony” bitterly explodes the mystique of kingship: its dependence on empty forms, which calls into question its genuine substance. Suddenly the emperor is admitting that he has no clothes. Whatever authority the King possesses he must forge for himself, since “place, degree, and form” have no creative or healing powers. No wonder that Henry deeply resents the “ceremony” that both insulates him from his subjects and traps him in a web of anxieties and public responsibilities. Inevitably he romanticizes the lives of the private man (as “infinite heart's-ease”) and the peasant (who “Sleeps in Elysium”), just as he exaggerates the “hard condition” of being a king. On a deeper level, though, he faces up to the implications of his title. When he prays that God will take from his men the “sense of reck'ning” he refers literally to the soldiers' ability to count the huge number of the French enemy, but he also touches on the somber meaning that Williams has introduced just before: a “reckoning” on the Day of Judgment.

The two soliloquies crystallize the King's dilemma; he must accept the penalties of his role if he is to play it successfully on the following day. Acknowledging and coming to terms with his solitary burden (that he alone must “bear all”) releases fresh confidence in his public persona. His oratory before Agincourt demonstrates the positive side of kingship, for it is not only a superb display of his own “courage” and “fortitude” but of the king-becoming grace of “perseverance” in building the same confidence in his followers. To Westmoreland, desperate for ten thousand more fighting men, Henry responds, “What's he that wishes so?” Again turning adversity to advantage, he stresses, “The fewer men, the greater share of honor” and projects a Hotspur-like persona who thirsts for glory in battle when he describes himself as “the most offending soul alive” in coveting “honor.” But whereas Hotspur wanted no “corrival” in the honor stakes (Henry IV, Part i, I. iii. 207), Henry inspires others to join him in a fellowship of heroic feats. The Crispin's Day speech is the ultimate proof of Henry's strength as a leader. Gone is the defensiveness that made communication with the three commoners difficult; paradoxically, in his public address to the army he can reach out to his men on personal terms, abandoning the royal “we” for the “we” of shared enterprise as he forges English brotherhood on French soil:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

(IV. iii. 60)

The apocalyptic overtones of “The day, my friends, and all things stay for me” (IV. i. 315) have dissolved into the absolute conviction that he and his men together have the necessary mental fortitude: “All things are ready, if our minds be so” (IV. iii. 71). No longer fearing the infamy or silence of a failed campaign, Henry proudly tells Montjoy that even those Englishmen who die this day will “draw their honors reeking up to heaven” and be remembered for the terrible plague they bred in France. Valiant as ever, the King again swears that the French will never ransom his living body. Moreover, Henry projects confidence without appearing boastful; he takes pride in his “warriors for the working day,” but his fundamental humility, his submission to the will of God, is underlined in the proviso that they will win the battle only “if God please” (120). This humility (the “lowliness” outlined by Malcolm in Macbeth) is most fully revealed in his conclusion, after he reads the brief list of English dead at Agincourt, that “O God, thy arm was here!” (IV. viii. 108). Regardless of the underlying reasons for Henry's piety, what matters is that he manifests it appropriately, and, by making it a capital offense to “boast” of victory, he deflects his army from the kind of arrogance that has undermined the French.

This is a superb display of practical kingship. The scenes that follow, presenting the King in action at Agincourt, are less clear in their intention—in particular, Henry's order to kill the French prisoners followed by a second threat to cut the throats of all those captured by his soldiers is confusing.19 Shakespeare may be trying to encompass too much here—presenting Henry as a shrewd leader who is coldly ruthless when he foresees danger for his army but also as a furious, spontaneous avenger of the slaughter of the boys in the camp, to the point where he is no longer required to be temperate or magnanimous: “And not a man of them that we shall take / Shall taste our mercy” (IV. vii. 66-67). At any rate, Henry's royal magnanimity is again tested when he has the chance to punish Williams for his “bitter terms” the previous night. Instead of doing so, he graciously accepts Williams' entreaty to “take it for your own fault, and not mine” and rewards the man for his honest heart: “Here uncle Exeter, fill this glove with crowns, / And give it to this fellow” (IV. viii. 58-59). This gesture may serve as an example of Henry's generosity (or the King rewarding his loyal friends); yet it has the effect of patronizing Williams, who is now addressed as “fellow” and not as the “brother” of the Crispin's Day speech. And it is ironic that Henry thinks it appropriate to reward Williams—possibly to buy his loyalty—by giving him gold, even though he himself has spurned wealth in favor of “honor.”

The ambivalence here points to the complexity of Shakespeare's treatment of the theme of kingship. On one level the sequence illustrates Henry's “bounty” as one of the king-becoming graces, just as Henry has displayed “temperance” to the Dauphin's messengers, “justice” to the traitors, “devotion” to God, and “courage” and “fortitude” in battle. But the King's justice is sometimes akin to ruthlessness and his honesty undercut by deviousness or cunning, although these too (the play suggests) may be necessary attributes of kingship. Henry V reflects what Michael Manheim terms the Renaissance “acceptance of deception and intrigue and violence as legitimate instuments of political behavior.”20 And for Henry the dark side of royalty is its utter isolation—the king, vulnerable to betrayal, can have no close friends—as well as its deceptive appearance of glory. Since the “ceremony” of monarchy is merely symbolic, the king must work on his own initiative, with talents honed through trial and risk, to win solid achievements for his country.


  1. The fable of the bees was developed by both Virgil (Georgics, Book IV) and Pliny (Natural History, Book XI). Shakespeare might have found it in the Renaissance authors Erasmus (Institutio Principis Christiani) and Lyly (Euphues); see Andrew Gurr, “Henry V and the Bees' Commonwealth,” ShS, [Shakespeare Survey] 30 (1977), 61-72.

  2. Henry V (ed.), The Arden Shakespeare (1954), p. xvi.

  3. Henry V (ed.), The New Penguin Shakespeare, p. 11.

  4. Derek Traversi, Shakespeare: From Richard II to Henry V (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1957), decides that “the principal theme of Henry V … is the establishment in England of an order based on consecrated authority and crowned successfully by action against France” (166). Conversely, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, “History and Ideology: The Instance of Henry V,” in John Drakakis (ed.), Alternative Shakespeares (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), single out “insurrection” as the play's “obsessive preoccupation” (216).

  5. Rose A. Zimbardo, “The Formalism of Henry V” (1964), in Michael Quinn (ed.), Shakespeare, Henry V: A Casebook (London: Macmillan, 1969), pp. 163-70, pushes this idea to its ultimate conclusion, arguing that the play is a formal celebration of how “the ideal king embodies in himself and projects upon his state the ideal metaphysical order” (164).

  6. Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 114.

  7. See Anthony Brennan, “‘Mangling by Starts the Full Course of That Glory’: The Legend and the Reality of War in Henry V,” in Onstage and Offstage Worlds in Shakespeare's Plays (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), p. 196.

  8. Henry V (ed.), p. 34.

  9. Russell Jackson and Robert Smallwood (eds.), Players of Shakespeare 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 5.

  10. “A Muse of Fire: Henry V in the Light of Tamburlaine,MLQ, [Modern Language Quarterly] 29 (1965), 15-28, 26.

  11. The Prince, trans. George Bull (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961), Chapter 18, pp. 99-100.

  12. As Moody E. Prior concludes in The Drama of Power: Studies in Shakespeare's History Plays (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1973), p. 323.

  13. A Kingdom for a Stage (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972), p. 185.

  14. Chapter 17, p. 96.

  15. Chronicles, in J. R. Brown (ed.), Henry V, The Signet Classic Shakespeare (1965; 1988), p. 208.

  16. This is the term he uses for Prince Hal, in Shakespeare's Doctrine of Nature (London: Faber and Faber, 1949), p. 91.

  17. Ronald S. Berman, “Shakespeare's Alexander: Henry V,” CE, [College English] 23 (1962), 532-39, explores the “dark side of Henry's majestic purposefulness” (537).

  18. Henry V: The Strain of Rule,” in Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton: Princeton University Press), p. 73.

  19. John Arden, To Present the Pretence (London: Eyre Methuen, 1977), calls it a “part-justified, part unmotivated moment of horror” (206).

  20. The Weak King Dilemma in the Shakespearean History Play (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1973), p. 13.

Alison Thorne (essay date 2002)

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10422

SOURCE: Thorne, Alison. “‘Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead’: Henry V and the Politics of the English History Play.” Shakespeare Studies 30 (2002): 162-87.

[In the following essay, Thorne concentrates on the political world of Henry V, maintaining that the work demonstrates an ambivalent relationship to the traditional ideological tenets of the English chronicle history play.]

‘A propaganda-play on National Unity: heavily orchestrated for the brass” was how A. P. Rossiter summed up Henry V in 1954.1 The assumption that this play is complicit with the promonarchical, nationalist rhetoric of the Chorus, and with the particular myth of Englishness it propounds, has persisted. In recent years the most cogent articulation of this view has come from Richard Helgerson, who sees the play as the culmination of Shakespeare's gradual tightening of his “obsessive and compelling focus on the ruler” during the writing of his English history cycle, at the cost of occluding the interests of the ruled. In contrast to the historical dramas staged by the rival Henslowe companies, which, he argues, were less concerned with the “consolidation and maintenance of royal power” than with the plight of the socially inferior “victims of such power,” Shakespeare's chronicle plays exorcised the common people from their vision of the nation with increasing ruthlessness: It is as though Shakespeare set out to cancel the popular ideology with which his cycle of English history plays began, as though he wanted to efface, alienate, even demonize all signs of commoner participation in the political nation. The less privileged classes may still have had a place in his audience, but they had lost their place in his representation of England.2

Helgerson explains this exclusionary process as part of a policy of self-gentrification pursued by Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain's Men—a determination to remove themselves as far as possible from the humble, “folk” origins of the theater they served. According to his reading, the banishment of Falstaff at the end of 2 Henry IV, along with the popular carnivalesque values he stands for, symbolically enacts this desire to be cleansed of the taint of vulgarity associated with the public stage. And in Henry V the purgation is completed. Despite the monarch's populist credentials earned in the Eastcheap tavern, the last play in the cycle confirms the “radical divorce … between the King and his people,” riding roughshod over the “dream of commonality, of common interests and common humanity, between the ruler and the ruled” that had figured so prominently in the popular imagination.3

On the face of it, Henry V offers ample evidence to validate the proposition that, of all Shakespeare's chronicle plays, this one is “closest to state propaganda,” and that such proximity denies the “less privileged classes” a significant place in the nation. One need only cite the near-unanimous commitment to Henry's cause expressed by nobility and commoners alike (in a striking departure from the aristocratic factionalism and popular insurgence that had dominated the preceding plays in the cycle); the curiously muted treatment of those few dissenting voices that do make themselves heard; the play's protective attitude to its royal protagonist, whom it shields from overt inquiry into the legitimacy of his claim to the English as well as the French throne; and, last but not least, the decision to excise Falstaff, whose iconoclastic wit could, on past form, be trusted to play havoc with the nationalistic pieties and chivalric ideals promulgated in Henry V. In each of these respects, the play appears to be fully implicated in the Chorus's campaign to “coerc[e] the audience into an emotionally undivided response” in favor of the English monarch.4 As the play's critical history attests, however, the pressures exerted by its patriotic rhetoric have not precluded more sceptical responses. What might be called the “Machiavellian” reading, first formulated by Hazlitt in 1817, has tended to focus on the gaps between Henry's laboriously constructed public image as “the mirror of all Christian Kings” and his manifest brutality and political opportunism, between the aggrandizing rhetoric of king and Chorus and what is actually shown on stages.5 Latterly, cultural materialists have argued that, in the act of rehearsing various discourses of national unity, the play unconsciously discloses the faultlines inherent in them.6

This essay concurs with such readings in arguing that Henry V distances itself from the Chorus's brand of patriotism, but it contends that the play does this not so much by incorporating vocal dissent or through inadvertent self-exposure, as by means of the ironic self-referentiality of its dramatic form.7 As he reached the end of a period of working intensively within a given genre, Shakespeare habitually turned a searching eye on the structural conventions governing that genre. The last play in his second tetralogy is no exception. From beginning to end, Henry V is informed by an acute “metadramatic self-consciousness,” which entails a close scrutiny of the discursive modes and conventions associated with the English chronicle play.8 Through a process of internal mirroring, the ideology of this particular form is opened up to critical inspection in ways that expose both the latent ambiguities and the coerciveness implicit in its discourse of native heroism. The play also invites scrutiny of the rhetorical usage of history ascribed to the genre, by showing how the past is deployed to manipulate audiences (both on- and offstage) into identifying with a political enterprise founded upon a value system and material interests that must, in many cases, have been fundamentally at odds with their own. It is this provocative mixture of reflexivity and self-contradictoriness in the play's modes of address, I argue, which allows scope for a more complex, more divided affective response than that solicited by the Chorus. Indeed it is here that we should perhaps locate the primary source of the play's ideologically ambivalent effects.9

As it has become customary to note, the rhetorical energies of King Henry and the Chorus are ultimately directed at producing a collective sense of national identity. The linguistic ploys used in seeking to achieve this will be examined more closely in the second half of this essay. First, though, we need to consider what sorts of problems would have to be imaginatively negotiated when evoking the effects of nationhood on the public stage. It has long been accepted that the outpouring of historiographic texts, including chronicles and plays dealing with English history, in the closing decades of Elizabeth's reign played a crucial part in fostering national selfawareness. The late sixteenth-century vogue for historical drama is said to have “incited patriotic interest in England's past and participated in the process by which the English forged a sense of themselves as a nation”; more specifically, it “provided a ‘myth of origin’ for the emerging nation,” whose people “learned to know who they were by seeing what they had been.”10 In Henry V the appeal to history as a means of exciting jingoistic fervor is made unusually explicit. But which version of the nation does the play invite us to endorse? And should we assume the efficacy of its patriotic appeal as given in advance, bearing in mind that the play's success depended on its capacity to engage all sections of the socially heterogeneous audiences that patronized the public playhouses of the period, not merely a privileged minority?11 For what must be emphasized at the outset is the integral involvement of the lower orders in the “cultural project of imagining an English nation.” So far from being effaced, demonized, or even confined to mere tokenism (as Helgerson and others claim), popular participation is shown by Shakespeare's English history cycle to be an essential component in the making of the modern political nation. Henry V, in particular, vividly discloses the extent to which the monarchy's imperialistic exercise in nation-building depends upon the active collaboration of the common populace—in the context not only of the dramatic fiction itself but of the theater in which that fiction was staged and consumed.

Twentieth-century political theorists and historians of nationalism are generally agreed that the emergence of the modern nationstate presupposed the existence of a broad popular mandate, though they differ sharply in their dating of this event.12 Expanding on his influential definition of the nation-state as an “imagined community,” Benedict Anderson relates the rise of this sociopolitical formation to the decline of the “divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm” and its displacement by a horizontal sense of community strong enough to engender feelings of kinship between complete strangers and across existing social divisions. The nation is thus

imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible … for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.13

Others have echoed Anderson's insistence that the mere fact of social stratification need be no hinderance to conceiving of the nation as a community of free and essentially equal individuals with the right, in principle at least, to participate in political decision-making. Arguing specifically for the sixteenth-century origins of English nationhood and nationalism in general, Liah Greenfeld finds that this grew out of an alliance of interests between the monarchy and the common people—the very alliance that, in the civil upheavals of the next century, it would help to destroy. As “an important symbol of England's distinctiveness and sovereignty,” the crown provided an initial focus for nationalist sentiment; conversely, the Tudor monarchs, who “were time and again placed in a position of dependence on the good will of their subjects,” found it expedient to support this burgeoning national consciousness.14 Claire MacEachern similarly holds that the Tudor system of monarchical government was not incommensurable with a genuine belief in a “corporate political identity.” Existing as an affective utopian structure, this belief, she suggests, was rooted in a sense of intimacy or fellow-feeling between the populace and the personified institutions of the state, concentrated in the person of the monarch himself.15

Yet we scarcely need press the point that nations are never as integrated in reality as our myths of national identity would have us believe. The meaning of the nation is continually being contested by different social and ethnic groupings in ways that are liable to expose the fractures within its ideal unity. As Anthony D. Smith remarks, “deep within what appears to the outside as a unifying myth, are hidden many tensions and contradictions, which parallel and illuminate the social contradictions within most communities.” Moreover, although as a general rule national loyalties, once established, tend to override local allegiances and sectional interests, this is not always the case.16 In Henry V the contradictions embedded in the myth of corporate identity are registered primarily through the fluctuating boundaries (both geographic and demographic) of the nation, which are constantly being redrawn. As recent investigations of the play's colonial context have reminded us, the question of whether England's Celtic neighbors should be excluded from, or absorbed within, the “pale” of an expanded English or proto-British polity was never wholly resolved under successive Tudor and Stuart administrations.17 Hence the Irish and the Scots are sometimes stigmatized in this play as inveterate enemies of the English state to be kept at a distance (1.2.166-73; 5.0.30-34). At other times—notably in the scene (3.3) bringing together the four captains from each of the constituent countries of the British isles—they are figured as loyal servants of the Lancastrian crown. A similar prevarication can be traced in the play, as I shall try to show, over the entitlement of the common people (and of other subordinate groups, including women) to be counted as members of the nation's imagined community. How far the king and Chorus choose to recognise the people's contribution in bringing that community into being varies sharply according to the political exigencies of the moment. The likelihood of the tussle between class-based and broader national identities enacted in Henry V being replicated in the experience of the play's first audiences is also considered in the conclusion to this essay. Owing to its ideological multivalency and the social inclusiveness of its clientele, the popular theater of the Elizabethan and early Jacobean era has been widely regarded as an authentically national institution, one of the key sites where a sense of collective identity was forged.18 Yet insofar as they represented a “heterocosm” of the nation, the public playhouses were also bound to reflect its underlying social divisions, and such deep-seated differences among those present at performances (whether as players or spectators) may well have proved easier to activate than appease.

Shakespeare's second tetralogy charts a shift in political episteme remarkably like that described by Anderson. That is, it stages a process of transition from the feudal, hierarchically organised realm of Richard II, putatively authorized by the principle of divine right, to a recognizably more modern prototype of the nation-state under Bolingbroke and his heir, which, though still centred on the monarchy, acknowledges the need for popular legitimation. Like his father, Henry V is acutely mindful of the necessity of compensating for the loss of sanctified authority, consequent upon the usurpation and murder of the annointed king, by winning popular approval. His adroit manipulation of the royal image to make it “show more goodly and attract more eyes” (1 Henry IV, 1.2.214) is wholly directed to that end. Contrary to Helgerson's suggestion, the demotic touch Henry learns in the tavern is not discarded on entering political adulthood; rather, as Joel Altman remarks, such “vile participation” is consistently the “distinguishing feature of Harry's princely career as Shakespeare represents it.”19 No mere short-term “fix” imposed on him by a perilous situation, the rhetoric of crossclass fraternity he invokes on the battlefield of Agincourt is central to his fashioning of the nation's self-image. Hence he figures his army (in whom that nation is synecdochically represented) as “warriors for the working day” (4.3.110), who draw their strength from their broad social origins in contrast to the aristocratic hauteur and effeteness of the French. But even among those who fully appreciate the political capital to be made from such “vile participation,” the social interdependency it implies may well inspire ambivalent feelings as a potential source of shame and inevitable dilution of royal sovereignty. Equally, the appearance of new forms of national consciousness did not signal the instantaneous demise of the dynastic realm, whose modes of thought and social organization retained a hold on men's minds long after they had lost their absolute political hegemony. Henry's oratory testifies to the ideological fluidity that characterized ideas of the commonwealth at the turn of the sixteenth century. In his speeches, the embryonic discourse of national solidarity collides repeatedly with older self-definitions based on aristocratic codes of behavior, the desire to “pluck allegiance from men's hearts” with the desire to withdraw his royalty from the defiling contacts this entails. And similar tensions, as we shall find, shape the Chorus's dealings with the theater audience.

The compromises demanded by this redefining and opening up of the monarchically governed state to allow for greater popular participation are inscribed in the two best-known contemporary accounts of the English chronicle play. In Thomas Nashe's Pierce Penniless (1592) and Thomas Heywood's Apology for Actors (printed in 1612, but probably also written during the 1590s), a shared ideological agenda is sketched out for this dramatic genre. For both these writers, the chief function of the history play was to resurrect “our forefathers valiant actes” by reenacting their “memorable exployts” with such “lively and well-spirited action” that the spectator would be induced to emulate their example.20 One reason for emphasising the exemplary nature of historical drama, we may surmise, was to sustain a sense of continuity between the present and England's glorious past in ways that appealed to, and helped to bolster, the nation's growing self-confidence.21 Yet in his legendary account of the origins of the genre, Heywood dwells on the exclusively “noble,” even quasi-divine, derivation of this historical tradition:

In the first of the Olimpiads, amongst many other active exercises in which Hercules ever triumph'd as victor, there was in his nonage presented unto him by his Tutor in the fashion of a History, acted by the choyse of the nobility of Greece, the worthy and memorable acts of his father Jupiter. Which being personated with lively and well-spirited action, wrought such impression in his noble thoughts that in meere emulation of his fathers valor … he perform'd his twelve labours: Him valiant Theseus followed, and Achilles, Theseus. Which bred in them such hawty and magnanimous attempts, that every succeeding age hath recorded their worths, unto fresh admiration.22

And so it goes on: a dramatic reconstruction of Achilles' part in the fall of Troy made so great an impression on Alexander the Great that “all his succeeding actions were meerly shaped after that patterne,” just as Julius Caesar's actions were patterned on those of Alexander. Heywood imagines the principle of dramatic imitation engendering its own eminent genealogy of valor, as each performance begets a new generation of royal heroes, from Hercules down to the present: “Why should not the lives of these worthyes, presented in these our dayes,” he inquires, “effect the like wonders in the Princes of our times … ?”

When he turns to “our domesticke hystories,” however, Heywood is forced to modify this discourse of aristocratic heroism in order to accommodate the socially mixed clientele of the public playhouses. That the Elizabethan history play was targeted primarily at the ordinary citizens in its audience is strongly implied by Heywood's citing, among his justifications for the theater, that it “hath taught the unlearned the knowledge of many famous histories, [and] instructed such as cannot read in the discovery of all our English Chronicles.”23 It is presumably this plebeian presence that dictates the insinuation of a calculated imprecision, a politic ambiguity, into Heywood's language: “To turne to our domesticke hystories, what English blood seeing the person of any bold English man presented and doth not hugge his fame, and hunnye at his valor. … What coward to see his contryman valiant would not bee shamed of his owne cowardise?” By refusing to locate the grammatical subject in terms of the social categories insisted upon earlier in the Apology, Heywood manages to create the impression that any Englishman, whatever his class origins, is capable of being “inflam'd” by the spectacle of native valor, and so “may be made apt and fit for the like atchievement.”24 Nationality, coming of “English blood,” has replaced narrower status definitions as the criterion for participating in this heroic tradition. Comparable efforts to broaden the appeal of the English chronicle play, to render its elitest discourse more flexibly inclusive, are made on Nashe's side. In return for the patriotic sentiments it would elicit, he hints, this type of historical drama offers its audiences a stake in the “right of fame that is due to true nobilitie deceased.” Hence the chief bait it “propose[s] to adventurous minds, to encourage them forward” is the prospect of sharing, at some unspecified level, in the “immortalitie” normally bestowed by the chronicle play on such dead English heroes as “brave Talbot,” Edward III, or Henry V.25 Underlying both texts is a suggestion that the malleable spectator, who allows images of the past to act upon him in this way and “fashion [him] to the shape of any noble or notable attempt,” will be rewarded by being joined with the valiant dead in what Nashe calls “one Gallimafry of glory” that transcends class differences.

If the heroic vision of Englishness projected by the chronicle play is seen here as dependent for its very force and validation on the involvement of the common spectators, what precisely was expected of them? It is clear from Nashe and Heywood's vivid descriptions of the reception given to such plays that the contribution sought was primarily of an imaginative kind. Both writers ascribe a “bewitching” power to the genre that derives, firstly, from its ability to impart a living presence to the dead (who are “raysed from the Grave of Oblivion, and brought to pleade their aged Honours in open presence”) and, secondly, from the power of dramatic impersonation to make audiences experience in themselves the full immediacy of the emotions enacted on stage (known in rhetoric as ethopeia). Indeed, it is the unmatchable reality effects made possible by the theatrical medium, according to Nashe, that renders the history play a far more effective instrument for inculcating patriotic values than “worme-eaten bookes” of chronicles. At one point he asks:

How would it have joyd brave Talbot (the terror of the French) to thinke that after he had lyne two hundred yeare in his toomb, he should triumph againe on the Stage, and have his bones new embalmed with the teares of ten thousand spectators at least … who in the Tragedian that represents his person, imagine they behold him fresh bleeding.26

This illusion of presence, combined with the powerful affects it stirs in the spectators, solicits an imaginative identification with what is witnessed on stage so complete that the distinction between dramatic fiction and historical reality, between the actor and the part he plays, is temporarily erased.27 In much the same vein, Heywood asserts that audiences, “seeing the person of any bold English man presented,” will be irresistibly impelled to “hugge his fame, and hunnye at his valor, pursuing him in his enterprise with [their] best wishes … as if the Personator were the man Personated.”28 In the context of the popular commercial theater, then, it would appear that the mimetic desires aroused by a dramatic reenactment of the past are no longer regarded chiefly as a means of calling forth heroic deeds. Instead their function is to secure the spectator's acquiescence in, and identification with, the nationalist ideologies staged by the play.

Benedict Anderson repeatedly poses the question of why the imagined community of the nation should command such deep emotional attachments that even its most oppressed or disenfranchised members are prepared to sacrifice their lives for this idea. For an explanation of how such identifications are produced, however, we may find it more useful to turn to Louis Althusser's now-classic account of interpellation: that is, the procedures whereby ideology addresses the individual subject in a manner that ensures his or her cooperation with the existing sociopolitical formation.29 Echoing Jacques Lacan's emphasis on the importance of the “mirror phase” in the psychic construction of identity, Althusser argues that interpellation always takes a specular form. Individuals are invited to recognize themselves in the image of authority in whose name a given ideology exists, and to identify with the roles, or subject positions, designated for them within that ideology. Crucially, interpellative techniques operate through rhetorical manipulation, not force. By persuading us to accede to the fictive representation of actual social relationships it reflects back at us, ideology masks our subjection to the dominant order and ensures that we will freely give of our own labor—or, as Althusser puts it, that we work by ourselves. Theatrical experience, because of the ways it is structured, is peculiarly well adapted to producing such specular effects. In its exemplarity the chronicle play capitalizes on that potential by urging spectators to discover their own image in—and transform themselves into—the heroic models it sets before them. Its success in fostering such identifications may partly explain why Nashe and Heywood chose to focus on this particular dramatic genre when defending the theatre against the endlessly reiterated charge that it promoted sedition and civil unrest.30 The use of historical exemplars as an incitement to patriotic behavior, they believe, offers the strongest proof that “stage-plaies” are, in fact, a “rare exercise of venue,” instrumental in deflecting rebellious impulses and fashioning compliant subjects who willingly defer to the rule of constituted authority.

Henry V, I would argue, stands in a profoundly ambivalent relationship to these sixteenth-century definitions of the English chronicle play and its politico-moral functions. On the one hand, it cannot be denied that Shakespeare's play exploits the strong affective charge generated by identification with dead English heroes—as the regularity with which it has been either performed or invoked at times of national crisis confirms.31 Yet it does so in ways that seem to discourage, rather than invite, an uncritical acceptance of the imaginary versions of the nation articulated within the play. This paradoxical effect, I suggest, is achieved largely by self-reflexive means. In particular, the play insistently foregrounds the interpellative techniques used with fearsome efficiency by various characters, laying open its own ideological stratagems in the process. Thus Henry is shown addressing his common soldiers as “so many Alexanders” in the making as he endeavors to mould them into a redoubtable fighting force in 2.1 and 4.3, while the Chorus's appeals to the theater audience position them as the king's loyal camp followers who embrace his trials and tribulations as their own (cf. 3.0.17-24). Concomitantly, the normally dissembled purposes for which such techniques are deployed are also made visible. Summoning up the idea of a harmoniously integrated commonwealth in 1.2, the Archbishop of Canterbury reflects knowingly on its effectiveness in “setting endeavour in continual motion; / To which is fixed, as an aim or butt, / Obedience” (lines 186-88). A similar observation is made by Henry as, preparing to set himself up as an inspirational model to his troops, he extols the power of “example” to “quicken” the mind and cause the bodily organs to “move with casted slough and fresh legerity” (4.1.1823).32 Whether the king is demanding extraordinary physical efforts from his soldiers, or the Chorus is urging the audience to “work, work [their] thoughts,” their characteristic modes of address are quite blatantly directed at getting others (mostly representatives of the lower orders) to labor on behalf of the king's cause.

Superficially, Henry V also appears to reaffirm the populist agenda ascribed to the English chronicle play to the extent that both Henry and the Chorus strive to invoke a socially inclusive model of history. Replicating Nashe and Heywood's tactics, they manage this by putting a more egalitarian “spin” on the patrician ideals of martial heroism associated with the genre. But even as the play celebrates the king's ability to enlist every stratum of society in his imperialist enterprise, uniting them in “one purpose” through a charismatic appeal to “mean and gentle all” (cf. 4.0.2847), it discloses the anxieties, strains, and contradictions attendant on this project. All Henry's rhetorical dexterity cannot smooth away the class tensions inherent in the goal of national unification that, ironically, are thrown into greater prominence by his attempts to reconfigure aristocratic idioms for popular consumption. Cumulatively, these reflexive devices seem designed to provoke us into questioning the fundamental, if tacit, claim underpinning contemporary defences of the genre: that the common subject can participate on an equal footing in the creation of a national community that continues to be defined in the interests of a ruling elite.

Within the play, the coercive use of historical exempla as a means of “setting endeavour in continual motion” is reflected on three different levels: in the analogous modes of address employed by the king's counselors towards him, by the king to his troops, and by the Chorus to the audience. The Archbishop of Canterbury sets the tone in 1.2 with his convoluted exposition of the Salic law, which shamelessly manipulates historical precedent in the hope of inciting Henry to pursue his hereditary claim to the French throne and so divert him from implementing a bill that would strip the Church of the “better half of [its] possession.” With the same end in view, the archbishop proceeds to invoke the “tragedy” enacted on French soil by Henry's “mighty ancestors” at the battle of Crecy nearly seventy years before:

Look back into your mighty ancestors.
Go, my dread lord, to your great grand-sire's tomb,
From whom you claim; invoke his warlike spirit,
And your great-uncle's, Edward the Black Prince,
Who on the French ground played 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.


Other counselors take up this exhortation to emulate past greatness, urging the king to “awake remembrance of those valiant dead, / And with [his] puissant arm renew their feats” (1.2.115).

Conscious of the obligations this heroic lineage imposes, Henry accepts their challenge, and the terms of his acceptance reveal what is personally at stake for him:

Or there we'll sit,
Ruling in large and ample empery
O'er France and all her almost kingly dukedoms,
Or lay these bones in an unworthy urn,
Tombless, with no rememberance 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 worshipped with a waxen epitaph.


The dialectical structure of this speech implicitly equates military victory with fame; for Henry occupying France is, first and foremost, a route to securing his place in history. By reenacting the drama of imperial conquest performed by his ancestors in this land, he will ensure that his exploits too are preserved from oblivion in their turn, and that “history” will “speak freely of [his] acts” to future generations.33 Without such forms of official “remembrance,” Henry admits, he would be reduced to the impotent condition of a “Turkish mute,” lacking any influence in shaping the national destiny.

In staging the council scene as a contest in deliberative oratory, Shakespeare takes his cue from Holinshed, who narrates the “earnest and pithie persuasions” employed by Henry's advisors to “induce” him to adopt the course of action they prescribe.34 But Shakespeare infuses this rhetorical occasion with an ironic self-consciousness largely absent from his source, and thereby makes provision for a more skeptical appraisal of the practice of resorting to an exemplary past. The archbishop's figuration of the Black Prince's victory at Crecy in 1346 in terms of a dramatic mise-en-scene (cf. 2.4.53-62) pointedly calls attention to the role of the theater as a site where such national traditions are not simply commemorated but actively manufactured. Phyllis Rackin has argued that such metadramatic allusions can produce “a kind of alienation effect,” pushing the audience into adopting a critically detached position relative to the action, especially when combined (as they are here) with anachronism.35 For it should not be forgotten that the idealized chivalric past evoked by the name of Crecy existed at a double historical remove from the audiences who first saw Henry V in 1599. As we noted earlier, the ethos of the English chronicle play was epitomized for Nashe by the figure of “brave Talbot,” whose death wrung tears from “ten thousand spectators at least.” Nashe's remark has been taken as an allusion to Shakespeare's 1 Henry VI (which is usually, though not conclusively, dated to 1590-91), where the discourse of ancestral valor, kept alive by funerary monuments to the “valiant dead” and by the aristocracy's self-sacrificing feats of bravery, is firmly centred on Talbot and his son. But even in the earlier play the values upheld almost singlehandedly by the Talbots are represented as a throwback to a vanishing chivalric world (associated ironically with the memory of Henry V's French conquests), whose passing leaves them vulnerable to the machinations of a more secular, pragmatic age. And by the time Henry V was staged roughly a decade later, this discourse had become still more conspicuously outmoded, more jarringly at odds with the context of realpolitik in which it is invoked.36 In such circumstances, it would have been hard for an audience not to register the competing political interests that motivate the characters' appeals to “bygone valour,” or to overlook the way that past is being manipulated as a means of mobilizing and channeling activity in the present.37

In the following acts Henry redirects the rhetorical strategies used so effectively on him at the plebeian subject, with the aim of eliciting superhuman exertions from his troops. For that purpose he seeks to assimilate the rank-and-file to the loftily aristocratic vision of English heroism conjured up in 1.2 by giving this a more demotic inflection. His celebrated oration before the walls of Harfleur, which first holds out the possibility of an egalitarian partnership that suspends class differences, is deeply and ineluctably ambiguous. Henry prefaces the speech with an oblique acknowledgment that wartime situations such as this license the violation of normal social decorums, according to which “there's nothing so becomes a man [especially, it is implied, the low-born man] / As modest stillness and humility” (3.1.3). The self-transformative action Henry calls for in exhorting his soldiers to “bend up every spirit / To his full height” (line 16) is nevertheless accompanied (as Michael Goldman has shown) by a terrible sense of strain, as though betraying his belief in the grotesque unnaturalness of aspiring to transcend one's allotted place in the social hierarchy.38 The troops are then urged to authenticate their mythologized ancestry by fighting bravely:

On, on you noblest English,
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof,
Fathers that like so many Alexanders
Have in these parts from morn till even fought,
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument.
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you called fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding—which I doubt not,
For there is none of you so mean and base
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.


Essentially Henry faces the same problem here as Heywood did in the Apology: he has to find a way of negotiating the uncomfortable gap between an elitest tradition of martial valor and its popular reenactments. Not surprisingly, he too hits upon the solution of subsuming social demarcations in an ambiguously inclusive discourse of nationhood. Henry's speech is addressed first to “you noblest English,” the nobility whose duty is to “by copy [i.e., an example] to men of grosser blood / And teach them how to war,” before turning to the “good yeomen,” who are admonished to model their behavior on that of their military leaders. But these sharply differentiated designations are offset by his skillful playing upon the indeterminacy of words such as “noble,” “base,” and “mean,” which, though they originated as status terms, were increasingly used in this period to denote relative moral worth. A similar slippage occurs in his references to “blood” and “breeding”; initially defined in a hereditary context as coming of noble parentage or blood, having the required breeding is later broadened to include anyone born and raised on English soil. Through such rhetorical sleights-of-hand, Henry contrives to suggest that all Englishmen, irrespective of class origins, are eligible to participate in his exalted “fellowship,” provided their actions prove them worthy of it.

The incipient contradictions in Henry's interpellation of the soldiers make his vision of a socially inclusive partnership highly vulnerable to contestation.39 And in 4.1 the implication (reinforced by the Chorus at the beginning of the act) that “mean and gentle all” can become equal participants in this imagined community is duly challenged. As has often been observed, Henry's disguised encounter with three of his common foot soldiers, in which he tries unsuccessfully to convince them that “the King is but a man” of their sort, serves only to expose the “complete lack of rapport,” the ineradicable differences of perspective, separating him from them.40 In disputing Henry's claims to ordinariness, Soldier Williams and his companions drive a wedge into the self-serving myth that the monarch and his common subjects are bound together not so much by political expediency as by their shared humanity and commonality of interests. The humiliation inflicted on the king in this debate provokes a backlash in his ensuing soliloquy. Where once he courted the approval and loyal cooperation of his subjects, he now laments the “hard condition” that subjects his own “greatness” to “the breath / Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel / But his own wringing” (4.1.221-3). His rhetorical energies also undergo a radical reorientation, as he seeks to reestablish his distance from the multitude; no longer addressed as “brothers, friends, countrymen,” the common soldiers are now reclassified in terms of aristocratic contempt as “lackey[s],” “wretched slave[s],” and ignorant “peasants” (lines 255-72). But with his army teetering on the brink of a catastrophic defeat, Henry is again compelled by circumstances to seek assistance from those whose social consequence he dismissed a short while before.

Accordingly, his prebattle address to the troops resorts once more to the rhetoric of brotherhood. Previous hints that the ordinary conscript, “be he ne'er so vile,” will “gentle his condition” by his valiant deeds and earn the right to partake of the fame normally reserved for patrician warriors, are restated more baldly in an attempt to bribe him into action. With this we see a return to the same fudging tactics, the same ambiguities and inconsistencies, that allow Henry to construct the image of an egalitarian national community, but that simultaneously threaten to unravel that fantasy. His reiterative use of the first-person plural hovers between the royal and the collective “we,” between the exclusive and inclusive senses of that pronoun. (Cf. “If we are marked to die, we are enough / To do our country loss” [4.3.20]; or “We would not die in that man's company / That fears his fellowship to die with us” [line 38]). Yet, in one sense, there is no contradiction here, since the community envisaged turns out to be little more than an expansion of the regal persona. For as Henry's rallying cry—“the fewer men, the greater share of honour”—should remind us, the fame promised the soldiers is predicated on a feudal cult of honour and ancestral pride that is, by definition, jealously individualistic. The nearest approximation to genuine fellowship this aristocratic code of honor admits is the blut-bruderschaft of Suffolk and York, whose deaths in battle are invested, in Exeter's elegaic narrative (4.6.627), with the full panoply of chivalric values once bestowed on Talbot or Hotspur. To attempt to found a modern nation-state on such an inherently elitest and anachronistic code is self-evidently untenable. That Henry winds up the speech by drawing the parameters of his imagined brotherhood in relation not to the foreign enemy but to the significant proportion of his subjects it excludes among whom are numbered not only “grandsires, babies, and old women” (3.0.20) but all “those men in England that do no work today” (4.3.64-67)—merely underscores the problem.

The second half of the speech leaps forward to a hypothetical future perfect where the “Feast of Crispian” has become a day of national commemoration honoring the English triumph at Agincourt. Henry's ingenious manipulation of his audience's temporal perspective fulfils various purposes. On one level, it mimics the peculiar motivational logic of the chronicle play; treating a yet-to-be-accomplished victory as something long since achieved and sanctified by memory enables the soldiers to be inspired by their own historical example and, by spurring them into action, ensures that the day will indeed be won. But it also offers assurance that the fraternal cross-class community forged on the battlefield will be maintained into futurity through the observance of collective forms of remembrance. Imaginatively projecting this annual event as a popular domestic scene, combining the functions of an aural history lesson with a convivial feasting of the neighborhood, is another brilliant touch, in that it presents an image, at once homely and heroic, with which the common soldier can hardly fail to identify. Yet this carefully crafted vision of shared national rituals cannot entirely dispel the social tensions latent within it. In a recent essay highlighting the importance of memory in the play, Jonathan Baldo notes that, although the Elizabethan establishment was no less intent on orchestrating the collective memory in the pursuit of national unity than Shakespeare's Henry V, the act of remembering continued to be a potential site of division and resistance.41 The same holds true here:

Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
The 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 remembered.
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,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.


At the same time that the personal recollections of the Agincourt veterans are granted a central role in perpetuating the fame of that legendary victory, it is archly insinuated that their memories will play them false, leading them not only to embellish “feats [they] did that day,” but (by extension) to exaggerate the degree of intimacy they once enjoyed with the “great commanders,” whose names are “familiar in [their] mouths as household words.”42 This nostalgic fantasy of brotherhood will be belied even as they speak by the fact that the names immortalised through their reminiscences are confined to the aristocratic titles of their leaders. (Again, the fluctuating use of the first-person plural at once encodes and masks this shift: “our names” are syntactically opposed to “their flowing cups” in lines 51-55, the pronoun only recovering its inclusive meaning at line 60.) While Henry thus concedes the need for popular involvement in establishing such national traditions, he cynically anticipates that the ordinary veterans will be denied the honorable place promised them in the official (and unofficial) historical records. This is confirmed after the battle when, reading from the roll call of the English dead, he lists several casualties among the ranks of the nobility and gentry, concluding “none else of name, / And of all other men, / But five-and-twenty” (4.8.103). Significantly, these lines closely paraphrase Holinshed, who rarely bothers to identify individual foot soldiers by name in his chronicling of Henry's French campaigns.43

Both Henry's methods of galvanizing his troops into action and the ambiguities inscribed in those methods are paralleled in the Chorus's repeated exhortation of the play's audience. From the outset, the Chorus helps to construct a reflexive, metacritical framework for the dramatic action by foregrounding the difficulties posed by historical representation and the theatrical medium through which the past must be brought back to life. Initially, like Heywood, he fantasizes about an exclusively royal performance, “a kingdom for a stage, princes to act, / And monarchs to behold the swelling scene” (1.0.13), before ruefully conceding that this ideal is unrealizable on the public stage where common players masquerade as kings. Conversely, he displays none of Heywood or Nashe's confidence in the theater's ability to produce a compelling recreation of ancient prowess by means of powerful reality effects. On the contrary, he assumes that this can only be achieved if the playhouse's inadequate technical resources are supplemented by the spectators' cerebral activity. It is their “thoughts,” he urges them, that “now must deck our kings,” their laboring imaginations that must give impetus to Henry's campaign. The Chorus's apparent readiness to defer to the “imaginary puissance” of the humbler sections of the audience—as implied by the artisanal metaphor of “the quick forge and working-house of thought” (5.0.23)—making them co-partners in his theatrical enterprise, has led some critics to find an expression therein of the communal ethos of the Elizabethan theater.44 But while his entreaties to the audience to “eke out our imperfections with your mind” certainly confirm (once again) the indispensability of popular participation, they also reveal this recognition of dependency to be fraught with tension and anxiety. Often accepted at face value as a token of (quasi-authorial) modesty, the Chorus's apologetic references to the “imperfections” of the stage can more plausibly be seen, I suggest, as rehearsing a familiar set of anxieties regarding the subversive potential of the popular commercial theater. As Stephen Orgel (among others) has argued, a recurrent concern of the theater's opponents in this period was that the “great image of Authority” would be undermined and debased by being staged to the common view, a fear that greatness might be demystified in the very act of dramatizing it.45 It is surely an echo of this social pathology that resonates in the Chorus's claim that “so great an object” as Henry's famous victory cannot be “cramm'd” within the walls of this “wooden O” without travestying its true magnitude (1.0.8-18), or in the apology he tenders in the epilogue for the playwright's “rough and all-unable pen,” which has allegedly defaced the reputation of “mighty men,” “mangling by starts the full course of their glory.” For all his eagerness to recruit the spectator's “imaginary forces” to the service of the royal cause, the Chorus (like the king of whose image he makes himself custodian) betrays considerable nervousness at the thought of allowing a tradition of aristocratic heroism to be adulterated by being performed and intimately witnessed by low-born subjects—in this case, on the “unworthy scaffold” of the Curtain or the newly opened Globe.

Henry's pledge that his soldiers will be ennobled (in the moral if not social sense) by their participation is also echoed in the Chorus's practice of addressing the spectators as “gentles all” (1.0.8, cf. 2.0.35), who are entreated “gently to hear, kindly to judge our play” (1.0.34). The prospect of gentling their condition is itself conditional upon their willingness to collaborate in the construction of the play's heroic vision of Englishness, and is obviously intended to bind them into that vision. But it is, of course, an inescapable fact that a large proportion of the play's original audiences would have been drawn from the “base, common and popular” classes.46 Exposing the actions of the monarchy to the gaze and judgment of the common multitude congregated around the platform stage was a risky and unpredictable affair—indeed the very fervency of the Chorus's appeals may perhaps indicate that they are designed to head off unsympathetic responses from that quarter. Given their predominantly modest social origins, however, we may reasonably infer that some spectators at least would have been more inclined to follow Soldier Williams's example in resisting the invitation to identify with the royal viewpoint. (It is Williams, after all, who brings home to the king that there are limits to the power of interpellation, that he may command the “beggar's knee,” but not necessarily his innermost thoughts [4.1.228-45]). Women, too, formed an important constituency within the theatergoing public of the day, and they are even more emphatically excluded by the chivalric, masculine terms in which Henry's confraternity is defined (cf. 3.0.17-24).47 Should we assume that the manifold ironies in the exhortations of king and Chorus would have escaped the attention of these playgoers? The less privileged members of the play's audience may well have balked at being asked to overcome through their imaginative exertions deficiencies that are seen as arising directly from their own lowly status and that of the theater they patronised. Female as well as plebeian spectators may equally have resented attempts to coerce them into identifying with an imagined community that, overtly or not, defines itself in opposition to them.

This essay has argued for the need to reappraise Helgerson's generalizing and oversimplified account of the attitude to the common populace expressed by Shakespeare's English history plays. A careful analysis of the rhetoric of class in Henry V reveals that those beneath the rank of gentleman are not, as alleged, progressively erased from the play's ideological construction of the nation, but neither are they fully embraced as equal partners in its formation. Instead, a more complicated picture of class relations emerges in which the leveling dynamic inscribed in the newly formed discourse of nationalism interacts with an older status-defined politics of exclusion in complex and unpredictable ways. Similarly, there has been a critical tendency to homogenize the reception that its original audiences gave to Shakespeare's history cycle. Dissenting from the widely accepted premise that the response elicited by these plays was straightforwardly patriotic and must have functioned to soldify the spectators' sense of belonging to a larger national community, I have suggested that in all likelihood audience reactions varied markedly, depending on a number of factors. In the case of Henry V it seems probable that differences in social allegiance would have inflected the way each spectator related imaginatively to the ambiguous position assigned to the lower orders in the play's representation of the nation as a heroic fellowship incorporating both “mean and gentle.”

Yet while there is every reason to suppose that the political significance of Henry V would have been contingent, in part, on the particular social make-up of its audiences along with other extratextual circumstances affecting its production and reception, we should not therefore deny Shakespeare's text a decisive role in determining its meaning and ideological effect. In the last analysis, as I have tried to show, it is the rhetorical mechanisms of that text which, by acting upon the emotional proclivities and class loyalties of individual spectators, create the conditions for a more complex and diverse response than the characters' patriotic effusions might seem to call for. For if, on the one hand, the play's modes of address, together with its rhetorical invocation of history, are framed to elicit an unquestioning commitment to the values inculcated by king and Chorus, on the other, its generic self-consciousness, by working to expose the coercive and contradictory aspects of such strategies, enables resistance to the process of interpellation. In adopting this paradoxical stance, Henry V makes available to the spectator (or reader) a range of possible subject positions. Like the disaffected conscripts of 4.1 who, despite being suspicious of Henry's fraternal rhetoric, resolve to “fight lustily” for him, we may thus move between—or even experience at one and the same moment—a critical distantiation from, and emotional identification with, the royal myth of Englishness.


  1. A. P. Rossiter, “Ambivalence: The Dialectic of the Histories,” rpt. in Angel with Horns, ed. Graham Storey (London and New York: 1961), 57.

  2. Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood: The Elizabethan Writing of England (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 214.

  3. Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood, 232.

  4. Andrew Gurr ed., Henry V, New Cambridge ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 7.

  5. See William Hazlitt, Characters of Shakespear's Plays, ed. Ernest Rhys (London, 1906), 156-64. For a more recent Machiavellian reading, see H. C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), 215-68.

  6. See, e.g., Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore, “History and Ideology, Masculinity and Miscegenation: The Instance of Henry V,” in Alan Sinfield, Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 109-42.

  7. All references to the play cited in this text are taken from the Oxford edition (1982), ed. Gary Taylor. The majority of the reflexive features identified below are present only in the Folio version, including all the Chorus's speeches, crucial parts of the council scene (1.2.115-35), 3.1, and the king's soliloquy (4.1.218-72). Critical opinion generally concurs with the view that the omission of these and other passages in the 1600 Quarto, whether theatrically or politically motivated, “simplif[ies] the play in order to make it more uncomplicatedly patriotic” (Oxford edition, 23; cf. Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989)], 76-77).

  8. The phrase is borrowed from Phyllis Rackin, Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990), 71. Previous critics have seen the dramatic self-reflexivity of Henry V as a vehicle for exploring the hazards of imposing dramatic unity on the chaos of history (James L. Calderwood, Metadrama in Shakespeare's Henriad: “Richard II” to “Henry V” [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979], chap. 7), or for highlighting the performative basis of royal power (Rackin, Stages of History, 76-85).

  9. Norman Rabkin's classic study of this ambivalence of effect invokes the model of a gestalt drawing, which can be seen either as a rabbit or a duck but never both at once, to argue that the play lends itself equally to being construed as a celebration of ideal kingship or a disillusioned study of Machiavellian imperialism (“Either/Or: Responding to Henry V,” in Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981). Where I part company with Rabkin is (firstly) in positing the play's rhetorical mechanisms and generic self-consciousness as the main source of this ambivalence, rather than characterization, plot, or dramatic sequencing, and (secondly) in arguing for the possibility of experiencing simultaneously conflicting responses to Henry's nationalist project.

  10. See Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin, Engendering a Nation: A Feminist Account of Shakespeare's English Histories (London and New York: Routledge, 1997), 18, and Philip Edwards, Threshold of a Nation: A Study in English and Irish Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 68. For much of the twentieth century the rise of the English history play was directly attributed to the tide of patriotism and “exuberant national sentiment” that swept England in the wake of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. (On the history of this critical commonplace, see Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's “Histories”: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Press, 1947), chap. 2). Although recent writing on Shakespeare's history plays has tended to reject the more triumphalist and politically naive aspects of this theory, a causal connection between the emergence of the genre and a growing sense of nationhood is still widely postulated.

  11. As Larry Champion observes of this patriotic reading, “the essential difficulty with such an approach is that it assumes both an audience basically sympathetic to the monarchy and a universal perspective in plays that, in fact, are designed to appeal to, and engage the emotional interests of, as many spectators as possible” (The Noise of Threatening Drum: Dramatic Strategy and Political Ideology in Shakespeare and the English Chronicle Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990), 9.

  12. Many regard both nations and nationalism as a distinctively modern phenomenon, locating its origins in the revolutionary movements of the late eighteenth century along with the advance of industrialisation and capitalist economics, but this theory (as propounded by Hobsbawm, Gellner, and Anderson) has come under increasing pressure in recent years from those who believe that the antecedents of the modern nation-state are traceable back to the sixteenth century and beyond.

  13. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983; rev. ed., London: Verso, 1991), 7.

  14. Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), chap. 1, esp. 50-51, 65.

  15. Claire McEachern, The Poetics of English Nationhood, 1590-1612 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), chap. 1. McEachern's thesis is extended, and subtly qualified, by her later analysis of Henry V, which she rightly considers to be “as vigilant in limiting the scope of common feeling as it is in encouraging it” (108).

  16. Anthony D. Smith, Myths and Memories of the Nation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 71, 86-88.

  17. See, e.g., Michael Neill, “Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare's Histories,” Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 1-32, and Christopher Highley, Shakespeare, Spenser, and the Crisis in Ireland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

  18. See, e.g., Robert Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition in the Theater, ed. Robert Schwartz (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), 169-77, and Walter Cohen, Drama of a Nation: Public Theater in Renaissance England and Spain (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1985). Peter Womack argues further that, by involving audiences in the reconstruction of a collective “national”; past, the Elizabethan theater invited them “not merely to contemplate the ‘imagined community’ but to be it” (“Imagining Communities: Theatres and the English Nation in the Sixteenth Century,” in Culture and History 1350-1600: Essays on English Communities, Identities and Writing, ed. David Ayers [New York and London: Harvester Wheatsheaf: 1992], p. 138).

  19. Joel Altman, “‘Vile Participation’: The Amplification of Violence in the Theater of Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (Spring 1991): 7.

  20. This formula basically sought to adapt received humanistic notions of historiography to a theatrical context. According to sixteenth-century authorities such as Thomas Lanquet and Thomas Blundeville, the writing and reading of history was profitable because it preserved the fame of great rulers and commanders of antiquity, thereby providing a storehouse of instructive exempla, both positive and negative, of the arts of governance and warfare that would “sturre [readers] to vertue, and … withdrawe them from vice.” Of course such a theory is hardly able to encompass the diversity of approach that actually characterized English historical drama in this period; besides overlooking historical romances like Greene's James IV, it offers an inadequate definition of the chronicle play proper, which rarely followed such a straightforwardly didactic and hagiographic agenda.

  21. According to A. D. Smith, the “myth of descent” is among the most potent of the ethnic myths, symbols, and traditions that constitute the bedrock of any nation. In invoking an heroic ancestry it provides the aspirant nation with a model of identity and a charter for “regenerative collective action,” as its people seek to recreate the spirit of a “past golden age” (Myths and Memories, chap. 2).

  22. Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors (1612), ed. Richard H. Perkinson, (New York: Scholars' Facsimile, 1941), B3r.

  23. Heywood, Apology for Actors, F3r. Cf. the implied concession to the illiteracy of some sections of the audience in the opening lines of the chorus to act 5: “Vouchsafe to those who have not read the story / That I may prompt them” (5.0.1-2).

  24. Heywood, Apology for Actors, F3r.

  25. Pierce Pennilesse his supplication to the Divell (1612), (Menston, England: Scolar Press, 1969), H2,.

  26. Pierce Pennilesse, H2’.

  27. Cf. Pugliatti, Shakespeare the Historian, 60-62.

  28. Heywood, Apology for Actors, B4r.

  29. See “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” in Louis Althusser, “Lenin and Philosophy” and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (London: 1961), 121-76. Despite the usefulness of Althusser's theory of interpellation for my purposes, this essay stops short of subscribing to its deterministic and totalizing implications. As many critics have noted, by positing the subject as a simple effect of ideology, Althusser seemingly precludes the possibility of individual agencies resisting its operations. (See, e.g., Claire Colebrook, New Literary Histories [Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997], 158-62). Drawing on recent work that critiques such monolithic narratives of ideology, culture, and the formation of self, I attempt to show how the contradictory ways in which characters and audience are interpellated in Henry V result in a proliferation of subject positions, thereby opening up a space for political contestation.

  30. It cannot be coincidental that Heywood's comments on the instructive value of the history play are followed by a ringing affirmation of the ideological orthodoxy of the theatre in general: “Plays are writ with this ayme, and carryed with this methode, to teach the subjects obedience to their King, to shew the people the untimely ends of such as have moved tumults, commotions, and insurrections, to present them with the flourishing estate of such as live in obedience, exhorting them to allegeance, dehorting them from all trayterous and fellonious stratagems” (F3v, cf. Nashe, 1-12-H3T).

  31. See Taylor's introduction to the Oxford edition, 11.

  32. The play abounds in promises or exhortations to rouse oneself to action. In addition to the instances discussed below, cf. 1.2.122-4, 273-75, 309-10; 2.2.36-38; 2.3.3-5; 2.4.69-72; 3.0.17-18; 3.1.1-2; 3.2.1; 3.5.48-53; 4.5.16-17; 4.7.56-60; 5.0.8-9; 5.1.9-12.

  33. One might assume that “history” refers here to the chronicles, twice cited in the play (1.2.163, 4.7.89), once by Fluellen, whose excessive reverence for, and comic misuse of, historical precedent is one of the ways in which the practice of invoking an exemplary past is ironized in the play. However, the personification of history as “speak[ing],” along with the allusions to funerary monuments, seems to encompass more popular (oral and visual) forms of historical commemoration.

  34. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland, rev. ed. (London, 1587), 3.546.

  35. Rackin, Stages of History, 94.

  36. The intervening figure of Hotspur, whose self-dedication to the obsolete code of “bright honour” is represented as both laudable and ludicrous, is the clearest index of this shift of perspective.

  37. For an excellent analysis of the ideological appropriation of heroic exemplars sanctioned by humanist tradition, see Timothy Hampton, Writing from History: The Rhetoric of Exemplarity in Renaissance Literature (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1990). As Hampton notes, Shakespeare's attitude to this practice is consistently sceptical (though he confines his study to the latter's handling of classical models): “[His] use of the exemplar theory of history works both to celebrate the power of the past and to undermine attempts to appropriate its authority for political ends. Shakespeare demystifies the relationship between politics and history and demonstrates the extent to which all use of the past in guiding public action is shaped by rhetoric” (206).

  38. See Michael Goldman, Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 58-73.

  39. Such contrarieties emerge not only from the diction, imagery, and other rhetorical devices of particular speeches, but between speeches. A much less flattering image of the common soldier as an inhuman and immoral brute is delineated by Henry at 3.3.90-121, and 4.1.152-59.

  40. See, e.g., Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood, 231, and Anne Barton, “The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History” (1975), rpt. in Essays, Mainly Shakespearean (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 207-33.

  41. Jonathan Baldo, “Wars of memory in Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly 47 (1996): 132-59.

  42. Again we are alerted to the mystification of social relationships by the existence of alternative images. At 3.6.70-83, Gower offers a less romantic “take” on the veteran who exploits his supposed intimacy with the “great commanders” to defraud gullible “ale-washed wits.” In actuality, the ordinary conscripts could expect to suffer acute social and economic hardship on their return from the wars (see Pugliatti, Shakespeare the Historian, 229-32).

  43. For exceptions, see Holinshed, Chronicles, 3.551, 565. But, equally significantly, there is no equivalent in Holinshed for the exchanges between Henry and individual foot soldiers in 4.1 and 8, which (as with 3.2) do, briefly confer both an identity and a voice on the recalcitrant conscripts.

  44. See, e.g., Weimann, Shakespeare and the Popular Tradition, 214-15.

  45. See, esp., Stephen Orgel, “Making Greatness Familiar,” in The Power of Forms in the English Renaissance, ed. Stephen Greenblatt (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1982), 41-48, and David Scott Kastan, “Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule,” Shakespeare Quarterly 37 (1986): 459-75.

  46. Although the relative proportion of “priviliged” versus “non-privileged” spectators estimated to have attended the public playhouses in this period is still vigorously debated, Andrew Gurr's conclusion that the citizen and artisanal classes provided the staple audience has been widely accepted (see Playgoing in Shakespeare's London [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987], 64).

  47. For the evidence of women frequenting the commercial theatres, see Gurr, Playgoing, 55-63. The question of how their experience of plays and playgoing might have been differently inflected by their gender is addressed by Jean Howard in The Stage and Social Struggle in Early Modern England (London: Routledge, 1994), 76-92, and (with Rackin) in Engendering a Nation, 32-36.

Further Reading

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Baldo, Jonathan. “Wars of Memory in Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 47, no. 2 (summer 1996): 132-59.

Evaluates Henry V as a play primarily concerned with collective memory, forgetting, and the legitimization of the sovereign nation-state.

Cubeta, Paul M. “Falstaff and the Art of Dying.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 27, no. 2 (spring 1987): 197-211.

Assesses the effectiveness of Shakespeare's indirect dramatization of Falstaff's death in the Henriad.

Erickson, Peter. “Fathers, Sons, and Brothers in Henry V.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: William Shakespeare's Henry V, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 111-33. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Considers the tragic dimension of Henry V in its representation of strained masculine relations.

Granville-Barker, Harley. “From Henry V to Hamlet.” In More Prefaces to Shakespeare, edited by Edward M. Moore, pp. 135-67. Princeton N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974.

Explores the dramatic disappointments of Henry V as part of the arc of Shakespeare's artistic development toward the achievement of Hamlet.

Howlett, Kathy M. “Framing Ambiguity: Kenneth Branagh's Henry V.” In Framing Shakespeare on Film, pp. 92-114. Athens: Ohio State University Press, 2000.

Examines the irony and ambiguity in Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version of Henry V.

Kezar, Dennis. “Shakespeare's Guilt Trip in Henry V.Modern Language Quarterly 61, no. 3 (2000): 431-61.

Suggests that Henry V delves into concepts of authorial responsibility and guilt as understood within the cultural context of Renaissance England.

Kohler, Michael. “Review of Henry V.Theatre Journal 52, no. 2 (May 2000): 263-66.

Reviews a 1999 French production of Henry V performed at Avignon and directed by Jean-Louis Benoit, commenting on an overall flatness occasioned by its political neutrality.

McEachern, Claire. “Henry V and the Paradox of the Body Politic.” Shakespeare Quarterly 45, no. 1 (spring 1994): 33-59.

Considers the ways in which Henry V treats the tension between the political hegemony of the nation-state and the human bonds that constitute a social community.

Sutherland, John, and Cedric Watts. “Henry V's Claim to France: Valid or Invalid?” In Henry V, War Criminal? and Other Shakespeare Puzzles, pp. 117-25. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Argues that Henry's already suspect claim to the French throne is finally depicted as invalid and illegitimate at the conclusion of Henry V.

Tiffany, Grace. “Puritanism in Comic History: Exposing Royalty in the Henry Plays.” Shakespeare Studies 26 (1998): 256-87.

Focuses on Falstaff in the Henriad as a carnivalesque inversion of the Puritan figure.

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