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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 (1598), and The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, an anonymous play of the 1580s. As one of Shakespeare's most popular history plays, Henry V has been the subject of voluminous and often divergent critical analysis. Although many modern critics have found fault with Henry V for his unrealistic conversion from irresponsible prince to hero-king, his coldhearted rejection of Falstaff, and his bloody war with France, Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar (1960) point out that for Elizabethans, Henry V was a perfect king. The critics maintain that Shakespeare's Henry V “reflects with striking immediacy the attitudes and concepts of his own period” and emphasize that the play was first produced at a time when the English populace was keenly patriotic and fascinated with heroes and history.

The majority of the character studies of Henry V naturally focus on the title figure. 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 intended to present a patriotic valorization of a legendary national hero, contemporary scholarly studies and theatrical interpretations have tended to stress the ambiguous nature of Henry's character. In her study of Henry, Judith Mossman (1994) examines parallels between Henry in Shakespeare's Henry V and Alexander in Plutarch's Life of Alexander. Mossman contends that “by encouraging us to consider Henry in parallel with Alexander, Shakespeare seeks to explain certain features of his play's construction as well as to characterize Henry not as a cold-blooded monster but as a prince.” Similarly, John Mark Mattox (see Further Reading) argues that Shakespeare depicted Henry as a just warrior engaged in a just war. Mattox maintains that Henry is more than “a great conqueror of the Alexandrian variety,” concluding that in his portrayal Shakespeare elevated him “from the status of being merely England's greatest warrior to that of England's consummate just warrior.” Critics are also interested in the play's minor characters. Larry S. Champion (1965) examines Nell Quickly, detailing the transformation of her character in the Henry plays from a mere sketch to “a full-sized portrait.” Alice Lyle Scoufos (1967) considers Shakespeare's use of the legend of Sir John Oldcastle in his portrayal of Falstaff in the Henry plays. The critic also speculates on what made the playwright decide to have this extremely popular character die so undramatically and abruptly in Act II, scene iii of Henry V.

For the vast majority of its stage history, Henry V has been treated as a straightforward celebration of a king who would become England's foremost military hero. However, as Alexander Harrington (2003) points out, the moral ambiguity of Henry V lends itself to both pro-war and anti-war productions of the play. Many modern productions, such as Nicholas Hytner's 2003 National Theatre staging of Henry V, have tended to stress the anti-war aspects of the drama. Susannah Clapp (2003) credits Hytner's production for breaking from Laurence Olivier's highly influential 1944 film adaptation. Unlike Olivier's pro-war “heroic romance,” Clapp notes, Hytner's production was “much darker” and “more divided.” Mark Steyn (2003), however, rejects Hytner's anti-war production, contending that it panders to “the smug Guardian-reading Bush-despising NGO-adoring middle-class metropolitan theatergoer.” Mark Wing-Davey's 2003 Delacorte Theater staging of Henry V in New York's Central Park received mostly negative reviews. An anonymous review published in the New York Post (2003) lauds Schreiber's “magical, subtle” portrayal of Henry V, but criticizes Wing-Davey's production as cynical and unbalanced. Similarly, Ben Brantley (2003) dismisses Wing-Davey's “flashy, flabby” production and contends that the director “devised a Henry V that shirks from seriousness on the unavoidable subjects of war and patriotism.” In his extremely negative review, Steyn calls Wing-Davey's production “quite the most stupid I've ever seen” and contends that the director “seems to have no idea that the play is about anything at all.” In his comparison of Hytner's and Wing-Davey's productions, Steyn maintains that “Nicholas Hytner may be anti-war, but Mark Wing-Davey is anti-Shakespeare.” Katharine Goodland (2003) reviews the 2003 Jean Cocteau Repertory staging of Henry V, directed by David Fuller. Goodland examines the production's focus on the moral issue of war crimes—particularly the scene in which Henry orders his soldiers to kill their prisoners—and notes that “Fuller admirably refuses to simplify this moment.”

Critics are interested in the significance of the play's final act, particularly the courtship between Katherine and Henry V. Henry David Steinsaltz (2002) focuses on the French scenes—those scenes spoken primarily in French—and contends that “[a]s the English nation is perpetually at war with the French, so must their languages be at war.” Steinsaltz concludes that in Henry V the English language is “intimately entwined with the life and honor of the English nation” and that the play is not merely “a representation of England's triumph over France, but … the humiliation and tumultuous trouncing of the French language, which had subjugated their native English for so long.” Donald Hedrick's 2003 study of the play's final act focuses on the wooing scene. Hedrick examines Katherine's resistance to Henry's wooing in light of the fact that Henry is the enemy of France and that Katherine's family has recently tried to have him assassinated. The critic notes that “the couple are no Romeo and Juliet, and romancing is more like negotiating with a mobster family.” In his 1969 essay, Charles Barber (see Further Reading) advances an ultimately negative evaluation of the play. Barber contends that in Henry V Shakespeare presented “an uncritical glorification of the Tudor monarchy and its ideals.” Barber further maintains that Shakespeare's dishonestly “suppresses aspects of the history of the period of which he was perfectly aware, and holds in abeyance his own powers of moral and political analysis.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

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SOURCE: Wright, Louis B., and Virginia A. LaMar, eds. “Mirror of Kingship.” In The Life of King Henry the Fifth, by William Shakespeare, pp. vii-xliii. New York: Washington Square Press, 1960.

[In the following excerpt, Wright and LaMar provide an overview of Henry V, including its historical background, sources, stage history, and text.]

When Shakespeare presented King Henry V to London audiences in the spring or summer of 1599 in a pageant-like play, he showed them a hero-king long established in the heroic tradition and one already popular on the stage. A shrewd appraiser of public taste, as always, Shakespeare took advantage of the swelling patriotism of the moment. When Henry V opened in London, England once more faced the prospect of war. The Irish had rebelled under Tyrone and had administered a stinging defeat to English troops. Now the Earl of Essex was ready to lead a punitive expedition against the troublesome Irish and conquer them once and for all. With a great concourse of people following and applauding him and his train, the noble Earl, a dashing character and the favorite of the Queen, marched out of London on March 27, 1599, bound for Ireland, and, as he and the populace believed, for victory and honor. That he would return defeated and disgraced in September was as yet a secret wrapped in the mists of Ireland.

No subject better than the deeds of King Henry V could have been chosen for the opening of the season in 1599, for Englishmen were enormously interested in the strength that he had brought to the Crown and the glory that he had won. By the end of the sixteenth century England was no longer the weak and puny country that it had been at the end of the Wars of the Roses, when Richard III had died at Bosworth Field and Henry Tudor had snatched his crown and made himself Henry VII. The country had grown strong under the Tudors and had taken its place as a world power under the greatest of them all, Elizabeth the Queen, Gloriana of the poets. Just eleven years before Henry V opened, England had defeated Spain, the mightiest power in the world, and had sent reeling home such galleons as survived from the vast invading Armada. Small wonder that Englishmen thrilled at the deeds of national heroes, present or past.

The reign of Elizabeth, especially the last two decades, saw an enormous interest in history and in historical plays. Felix Schelling, in his history of Elizabethan drama, has estimated that something like 220 plays during the Elizabethan period were drawn from the chronicles of British history, and that approximately half of these plays have survived. From 1588 to 1605, “more than a fifth of all contemporary plays” had for their themes some episode of British history. King John appeared in at least six plays, Henry V and Edward III in seven, Richard III in eight, and Henry VI was a character in at least ten. Of Shakespeare's plays, thirteen, or about one-third, used British history, or legend that passed for history, as their theme. The appetite for historical reading matter was enormous and the greatest poets and writers set out to satisfy this interest.

Shakespeare had already achieved success in historical drama before Henry V was written. Indeed, this play was a sequel promised the public who had taken the two parts of Henry IV to its heart. At the end of Henry IV (Part 2), Prince Hal succeeds to the throne and renounces Falstaff and his madcap cronies. The Epilogue, however, promises that the historical drama will continue with another play in which Falstaff will also appear: “If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue his story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katherine of France; where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already 'a be killed with your hard opinions.” Henry V followed according to promise, but Falstaff was not in it. Shakespeare changed his plan and killed Falstaff off stage near the beginning of the play. Perhaps he felt that the fat knight would steal too many of the scenes in a play which sought to focus interest upon the King himself.

For Henry V is primarily concerned with the hero-king, with the prowess that such a king displays, with the glory that comes to England through the king's exploits, and with the problem of kingship as such. Given the spirit of the times, any drum-and-trumpet play would have attracted attention, but Shakespeare wrote something more and something deeper. His is a drama that breathes the spirit of the new nationalism that suffused England; though it is set in a previous age, it reflects with striking immediacy the attitudes and concepts of his own period. While the spectators applauded Henry V on the “vasty fields of France,” they were also conscious of their own heroic Queen and they may have remembered how, eleven years before, she had ridden her charger before the troops drawn up at Tilbury to repulse the Spanish invaders.

Henry V was a hero who appealed to the Elizabethans. In the face of heavy odds he had won a great victory against a traditional enemy. He was a strong king, who united the country behind him and showed to everyone, at home and abroad, that he would brook neither disorder within his borders nor encroachments from without. Furthermore, Shakespeare made him both God-fearing and just, qualities that the English believed their Queen possessed. She was supreme head of the church and she was the ultimate arbiter of a justice that the English had come to prize as one of their most priceless legacies. Shakespeare makes of Henry the ideal sovereign, or as the Chorus to Act II expresses it, “the mirror of all Christian kings.”

The problem of kingship and the nature of the office interested the Renaissance generally and the Elizabethans particularly. England had suffered from weak rulers during the Wars of the Roses until, in the end, the rise of the Tudors had brought stability and prosperity. Works of history, plays, and poems, as well as popular legend and story, kept alive the memory of the chaotic conditions that existed before the accession of Henry Tudor, and no Englishman wanted a return of civil strife. Strength and justice were the qualities most admired in a sovereign, and the majority of Englishmen agreed that the Tudors supplied both. Queen Elizabeth had shrewdly capitalized upon her subjects' yearning for stability, and she managed to identify herself so completely with the public weal that Englishmen could hardly think of a form of government or a sovereign more benign.

But lurking in the back of every Englishman's head was the thought of what might happen when the Queen was no more, for the succession was in doubt, and the fear of civil commotion was a ghost that could not be laid. Far more depended upon the succession than depends upon the outcome of the most critical election today. All of these facts gave special point to the histories of previous English sovereigns and are a further explanation of the popular interest in history plays. In Shakespeare's Richard II the public could see the evils that come upon the commonwealth when a king is weak and vacillating; in the three plays concerning Henry IV and Henry V they could see and appreciate the benefits of a strong dynasty. There is no question that audiences would equate for themselves the qualities of the great Plantagenets with those of the great Tudors. Consequently, for the spectators in 1599 Henry V was timely, topical, and of consuming interest.

Victorian and modern critics at times have found much fault with Henry V. To some, the reversal of the madcap qualities of Prince Hal and his conversion into a sedate, pious, and business-like ruler once he has succeeded to the throne are unrealistic and unconvincing. To others, the new King's hard and callous rejection of his old pot-companion Falstaff is too brutal to accept. To still others, the King's undertaking of a bloody campaign of aggression in France is proof of nothing except territorial greed. And lastly, to many the play has appeared lacking in structure, a sequence of poorly related scenes.

All of these criticisms are beside the point when one considers Shakespeare's purpose, the interpretation that he intended, and the attitude of the Elizabethans. We must remember that sixteenth-century concepts of character, of the responsibilities and obligations of a king, of war and peace—even of dramatic structure—differed radically from those possessed by the Victorians or by us.

For Henry to have retained the companionship of Falstaff after he had become king would have violated every canon of propriety understood by the Elizabethans. The King might have retained the services of a clown but not the fellowship of a clownish soldier and roistering reprobate. Having assumed the obligations of the crown, Henry had to put aside the frivolities of his irresponsible youth. There was a divinity that hedged a crown, and comic rascality had no place near it. Falstaff had to go. Sentimentalists who shed tears over Falstaff's discomfiture forget that to an Elizabethan the King's action in dismissing Falstaff at the end of Henry IV, Part II, was both proper and just. Though he forbade Falstaff to come within ten miles of the royal presence, he commanded that he be given a “competence of life”—in short, a pension. When the new play of Henry V opens, the King is no longer encumbered with cronies unbecoming a ruler. He is the very picture of an upright king.

The justification for Shakespeare's attribution of religious piety to Henry is found in his sources as well as in the dramatist's own purpose. He wanted to portray the perfect ruler, the character that he proposed to give to the chief protagonist in his play, and the perfect ruler was the spiritual as well as the temporal leader of his people. That was what Elizabethans understood. Their Queen was at pains to let nobody forget that she was supreme head of the church. That was the role that her father, Henry VIII, had assumed, and she had no choice, even if she had wished otherwise, than to maintain that position, for the stability of her throne depended upon her supremacy in spiritual as well as political affairs. Henry V is not the pious hypocrite that some unhistorical critics have made him; instead he is a sovereign mindful of his spiritual duties.

To an Elizabethan, Henry's undertaking the conquest of France was not naked aggression but the assertion of a legal right which it was his duty to enforce even at the expense of war. That is the point of the long passages at the beginning of the play in which the Archbishop of Canterbury expounds the fine points of the law of succession. Henry V—as well as Shakespeare—wants to make clear the legality of his claims and the justice of his cause. Whether we approve or not, Shakespeare's audience was convinced and they approved his actions. War was a part of life in the sixteenth century and few if any dreamed of banishing war as an instrument for enforcing national policies.

Although Shakespeare at times could be careless and forgetful of minor details, he was too skillful a dramatist merely to fling together a series of episodic scenes in a military pageant as some critics have implied. It is true that some of the comic scenes have little relation to the main plot, and occasionally there is evidence of hasty reworking of the material, as in Act IV, Scene vii, where no provision is made for Gower's exit, though the King talks about him as if he had left the stage. But Henry V is not a play without a plan. It must be interpreted as part of a trilogy that began with Henry IV, Part I, as the final element in a dramatic epic of the reigns of these strong Plantagenet kings.

Since Shakespeare was writing an epic of history, he was circumscribed by the known facts in what he could do. Although he could telescope the action and let a chorus account for the passage of years, he could not take too much poetic license with the actual deeds of the English in France or with the results of the war.

To provide information that the stage could not portray and to bring his historical episodes into focus, he employed the technique of a Prologue, an explanatory chorus before each act, and a concluding chorus that serves as an Epilogue. These elements deserve careful study for the information that they provide, not only about the action itself, but about Shakespeare's intentions. That the play has been an enduring success since its first performance is an indication that it is something more than a mere military pageant. It is Shakespeare's epic interpretation on the stage of the career of a national hero, and the poetry that Shakespeare wrote into this play has appealed to Englishmen in every national crisis from that day to this.


As was his usual custom in writing a play on British history, Shakespeare turned to Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577-87) for the information, and sometimes the phraseology, that he wanted. But he did not stop with Holinshed. He consulted Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustrate Families, of Lancaster and York (1548), which Holinshed himself had used as a source, and he apparently knew an older play on the same subject, The Famous Victories of Henry V (ca. 1586-87). In addition, some editors find traces of other works bearing on Shakespeare's theme. For example, Dover Wilson thinks Shakespeare knew a Latin life of Henry V, written by his chaplain, entitled Henrici Quinti, Angliae Regis Gesta, and others have found an echo of a second Latin biography, Vita et Gesta Henrici Quinti, but it is doubtful whether Shakespeare went to work like a college professor to find bits and pieces when he had all that he needed in Hall and Holinshed; these English histories supplied ample raw material. At times he merely cast into blank verse the prose of Holinshed or Hall, as in the opening scenes of the play where the Archbishop of Canterbury discusses the Salic law.

The first printed version of Henry V, the corrupt quarto of 1600, announced on the title page that it had “been sundry times played by the right honorable the Lord Chamberlain his servants,” that is to say, by Shakespeare's company of players. The date of the first performance is fixed within fairly definite limits by a flattering allusion of the Chorus of Act V to the Earl of Essex's expedition to Ireland, which set out from London on March 27, 1599. Since the venture failed and Essex returned in disgrace in September of the same year, the play must have been acted before that date. The reference in the Prologue to “this wooden O” has been taken to mean the Globe playhouse, but it is not certain precisely when in 1599 the Globe was completed. The place of first performance may have been another of the public theatres.

Although Henry V was apparently a popular play, surviving records of its early stage history are scanty. We know that it was performed at Court before King James on January 7, 1605, as part of the Christmas holiday festivities. During the Restoration it was revived and Samuel Pepys saw Thomas Betterton play the King at Lincoln's Inn Fields on July 6, 1668, but there is little evidence of other performances of the play until well into the eighteenth century. Aaron Hill borrowed from Shakespeare for a play of his own on the same theme, but by 1735 Shakespeare's text was restored to the theatre and thenceforth Henry V was seen at regular intervals on the English stage. It was popular at both Drury Lane and Covent Garden and many of the most noted actors of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries have played in it. David Garrick chose to serve as Prologue and Chorus on several occasions, an indication of the importance that he attached to that role. Perhaps the strangest recorded performance of Henry V was that at Stratford-upon-Avon on Shakespeare's birthday, 1921, with an all-woman cast in which Marie Slade played the King.

The mid-nineteenth-century theatre often attempted naturalistic realism in staging the play, a mistake that saw some fantastic stage sets as producers tried to remedy the inadequacies that Shakespeare's Prologue had described. Some of the spectacles provided dioramas of Henry's ships moving from Southampton to Harfleur and of great battle scenes. It remained, however, for Sir Laurence Olivier to weld poetry and scenic effects into a convincing unity in the motion-picture version of Henry V, first seen in England in November 1944. This version of the play has had an enormous popularity on both sides of the Atlantic and fifteen years after its première it is still being seen in British and American theatres.


The text of Henry V printed in the First Folio of 1623 is the basis of all modern editions of the play. Although this text is reasonably free from mislineations, misspellings, and other mistakes, some passages require emendation to make proper sense, and editors have made some use of the quarto versions in an effort to arrive at Shakespeare's meaning. The First Quarto, printed in 1600 by Thomas Creede for Thomas Millington and John Busby, is an abbreviated and corrupt text, shorter by about two thousand lines than the Folio text. Suggestions as to the origin of this quarto version include a text put together from memory by one or more of the actors, and a text taken down by shorthand. A suggestion has also been made that it was a stage version cut for a provincial performance. In any case it is a perversion of the text that was used for the Folio printing, presumably an acceptable playhouse manuscript.

Two other quarto versions appeared before the publication of the First Folio, the Second Quarto of 1602 and the Third Quarto of 1619, but these are not independent versions and merely reprint with some corrections the text of the First Quarto. …

Larry S. Champion (essay date spring 1965)

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SOURCE: Champion, Larry S. “The Evolution of Mistress Quickly.” Papers on English Language and Literature 1, no. 2 (spring 1965): 99-108.

[In the following essay, Champion details the transformation of Nell Quickly in the Henry plays from a mere sketch to “a full-sized portrait.”]

One frequently encounters remarks extolling the fullness of Shakespeare's description of London low life in the comic scenes of 1, 2 Henry IV. Mark Van Doren writes, for instance, that nothing Shakespeare wrote “is more crowded with life or happier in its imitation of human talk. … History is enlarged to make room for taverns and trollops and potations of sack, and the heroic drama is modified by gigantic mockery, by the roared voice of truth.”1 Other commentators have noted a “growing mastery of realistic delineation”2 in the dramatist's “vivid transcripts of contemporary life”;3 the comic crew “move about in an English setting and provide an atmosphere of tavern life that has been as pervasive as Shakespeare's legacy of historical interpretation.”4

Yet, frequently, the critic has been unable to circumnavigate “that bolting hutch of beastliness,” that “huge bombard of sack.” And the result is an astounding library of Falstaffian literature.5 This discussion purports neither to challenge Falstaff's importance in Shakespeare's playworld nor to presume to attempt to add anything new about him, but rather to assert that Falstaff is only one of the characters, albeit the largest, important to the dramatist in creating his comic milieu. Doll Tearsheet, Justice Shallow, Ned Poins, Bardolph, Nell Quickly—each is important, at least as a device for exposing Falstaff's comic dexterity. My particular object is to demonstrate that the hostess should not be written off lightly.

To be sure, this loquacious wench has always fascinated the critics. J. B. Priestley, for instance, lauds her as “the mother of a great line of comic Cockney landladies, charwomen, and the like, in her wandering but vehement speech, her oscillation between a native delight in mirth and easy living and an equally innate desire for respectability and a good name in the parish. … There is not a moment when the Hostess is not alive, not a sentence of her speech that does not ring true to nature.”6 To Brander Matthews she is a veritable sister to Juliet's nurse, alive with the same coarse humor;7 to Professor E. M. W. Tillyard she is a stupid, good-natured woman, whose presence “reassures us that civil war will yield, as the play's main theme, to England.”8 Most frequently, she is cited as important to the revelation of the ugly side of Falstaff, who, with his “cruel depredations on the woman whose affection he has secured,”9 reflects “the more loathsome aspects of civil disorder and mismanagement.”10 These critics, however, have been absorbed in other issues or characters of the drama, with the result that their comments concerning the hostess are random and relatively superficial. Certainly Nell Quickly is no Falstaff; she is no more than what Shakespeare would have her—a minor character of folk merriment—but one observes through the nature and the extent of her growth in importance in 1, 2 Henry IV and Henry V something of Shakespeare's solution to the problem of maintaining the vitality of his comic crew even while Falstaff must be darkened and ultimately banished.

The barest of sketches can reveal the extent of Nell's literal growth as a character in the three plays. She appears in 1 Henry IV simply as the “hostess of the tavern in Eastcheape.” In III, iii, there are numerous references to her honest husband and the respectability of their inn. In 2 Henry IV, now “Mistress Quickly,” she claims to be a “poor widow of Eastcheape” and asserts that Falstaff, whom she has known for twenty-nine years, has promised to marry her. Here her circle of acquaintances has widened to include the prostitute Doll Tearsheet, and together they entertain Falstaff before he sets out for Gloucestershire. In V, iv, she is carried off to prison with Doll, vaguely on the charge that the brothels are being torn down with the advent of the reign of the new Henry, specifically on the charge that “the man is dead that you and Pistol beat amongst you.” In Henry V “Nell” Quickly has married Pistol, although Nym was trothplight to her, a union in itself curious since Dame Quickly in 2 Henry IV could not abide the sight of Pistol and implored Falstaff to drive him from her inn.

Such development is the more striking when one considers that the hostess, sketchily drafted in 1 Henry IV as a comic character in the circle of Falstaff, is essentially a composite portrait created from suggestions in The Famous Victories of Henry V. Three women in the comic scenes (two by description, one by appearance) must have furnished Shakespeare's inspiration for the garrulous proprietress. First to mind when Hal and Ned are considering where they will celebrate following their successful robbery of the king's receivers is the ale house and “our old hostes at Feversham” (ll. 111-12),11 but Henry suggests the tavern in Eastcheap, where there is “a pretie wench that can talke well” (l. 120). Later the shrewish wife of John Cobler engages in a wit combat with Dericke, a fat rover who parasitically attaches himself to Cobler's household. Dericke, in many ways similar to Falstaff,12 brands her “a stinking whore,” “a verie knave” for serving him a dish of roots, though she implies he has offered no payment to merit being otherwise served. When called with Cobler to the wars against France, Dericke struts out with her potlid for a shield, but she overtakes him and, in the best of the tradition of dramatic termagants, “raps him about the pate.” Flustered, the braggadocio cries, “And I had my dagger here I would worie you al to peeces, that I would.”13 With his threats to “clap the law on [her] back,” Dericke reminds one of the hostess in her vain attempts in Henry IV to have the law on Falstaff for refusal to pay his tavern reckonings.

There is, then, no single character from the old play which provides a clear prototype for Nell, but, admitting the critics' case that Shakespeare is indebted in matters of comic incident and specific characteristics of Falstaff, Ned Poins, and Hal,14 one must conclude the composite female personality which emerges to be more than sheer coincidence. Shakespeare draws freely for Dame Quickly, the “old hostes,” not at Feversham but at “the olde taverne in Eastcheape,” certainly a “wench that can talke well.” And, along with her loquacity, there is a verbal bantering and contentiousness with Falstaff, who like Dericke plays the parasite and makes no proffer of payment for services rendered.

In 1 Henry IV the hostess's role is primarily to illumine certain humorous aspects of Falstaff. Before she appears, Hal tell us that she is “a sweet wench of the tavern” at which he has often paid Falstaff's reckonings (I, ii, 45 ff.). As the robbery and counter-robbery at Gadshill are planned, Falstaff, Hal, and Poins, just as in The Famous Victories, plan to reconvene at the Eastcheap tavern. The hostess actually appears in only two scenes. In II, iv, she twice announces the arrival at the inn of persons from the serious world of history outside—first of Sir John Bracy with news of the rebellion against Henry IV and, later, of the sheriff and the watch who are come “to search the house” concerning the Gadshill robbery. Evidently a fluttering and excitable soul (hence the pertinence of Falstaff's later calling her “Dame Partlet, the hen”), she rushes in, distractedly wailing “O, Jesu! my Lord, my Lord!” Part of the comic effect is gained by the agitated flurry and the way in which she breaks in upon moments of high comedy. Further, throughout the scene in which Hal and Falstaff parodically exchange the role of father and prodigal son, she augments Falstaff's wit by her actions more than by her conversation. As Falstaff assumes the “chair of state” and speaks with passion “in King Cambyses' vein,” the hostess is unable to restrain her laughter and tears of merriment (“O Jesu, this is excellent sport, i' faith! … O, the father, how he holds his countenance! … O, Jesu, he doth it as like one of these harlotry players as ever I see!”). Falstaff, equal to the occasion, incorporates her tears into his parody of Henry IV's parental grief by elevating her to the queenship. “Weep not, sweet queen; for trickling tears are vain. / For God's sake, lords, convey my tristful queen; / for tears do stop the floodgates of her eyes” (ll. 426 ff.). As the only character in the tavern crowd to interrupt the lengthy dialogue between Falstaff and Hal, her role is a small one, but the scene on the boards is definitely funnier for her presence.

The manner in which she plays the straight man to Falstaff is more obvious in III, iii, where, incidentally, Hal first calls her Mistress Quickly and twice alludes to her husband. On numerous occasions she furnishes a line which triggers Falstaff's witty retort. For example, called to account for his tavern reckonings, Falstaff claims his pockets have been picked, a charge to which the hostess reacts with indignation. “Why, Sir John, what do you think, Sir John? Do you think I keep thieves in my house? I have searched, I have inquired, so has my husband. … The tithe of a hair was never lost in my house before.” Falstaff's ready wit immediately turns upon the last line: “Ye lie, hostess: Bardolph was shaved and lost many a hair.” To her later comment that, unless she has reported correctly his slanderous remarks concerning the prince, “there's neither faith, truth, nor womanhood in me,” Falstaff retorts: “There's no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune; nor no more truth in thee than in a drawn fox; and for womanhood, Maid Marian may be the deputy's wife of the ward to thee.” Such verbal parrying, with Mistress Quickly inevitably on the short end, is perhaps most effectively illustrated in Falstaff's charge that she is an otter—neither fish nor flesh—and that a man knows not where to have her. Her feeble reply that indeed “thou or or any man knows where to have me” only adds to the revelry.

In 1 Henry IV, then, Mistress Quickly is little more than the amorphous sketch suggested in The Famous Victories. As either the butt or the recounter of Falstaff's badgering, she draws her vitality from “the cause that is wit in other men,” who is at the height of his comic fortunes. Falstaff, however, is simply not as funny in 2 Henry IV. Here he is seen less in the company of Hal, and much of his conversation, especially with the Lord Chief-Justice, is developed around his moral degeneracy. His misuse of the King's press (something merely reported of him in Part I, actually shown in Part II) and his covetous reaction to news of the death of Henry IV seriously mar his comic image. Similarly, his contentious squabbling with Hostess Quickly reflects a basic change in the nature of the comic matter of the play. Whereas in 1 Henry IV Falstaff is, practical jokes to the contrary, a harmonious part of the bawdy comic crew which is pitted against the respectable characters, here (in his association with Pistol, with Shallow, above all with Mistress Quickly) Falstaff clearly reveals the potential threat to Hal and to the crown through his willingness to manipulate friend and cohort to his own avaricious schemes. While Falstaff's gaiety wanes, however, that of Mistress Quickly increases. To be sure, she is still humorous in relation to Sir John, as the garrulous gossip and the butt of his clever and evasive retorts. But more important, she is independently comic—a dizzard of high merriment apart from Falstaff. And, as such, her comic function (in combination with the newly created roles of Pistol, Doll, Shallow, Silence, Fang, and Snare) is to provide Shakespeare a means by which he might maintain the vitality of the comic subplot even in the face of Falstaff's decline. Her growth in comic importance is effected through her new status as a widow with aspirations both for Falstaff and social prestige and through her newfound linguistic dexterity as a bungler of language who commits malapropisms and doubles entendres with equal aplomb.

The first mention of Mistress Quickly in Part II signals the important comic alteration in her relationship with Falstaff. As Falstaff prepares to depart for the wars to fight under Prince John, he commands his page to bear a letter to the hostess, here fondly referred to as Ursula (little she-bear), “whom I have weekly sworn to marry since I perceived the first white hair on my chin” (I, ii, 269-70). Later, stressing that she is “a poor widow of Eastcheape” arresting Falstaff not for “sum” (“some”) but for “all,” she avers that her due is, “if thou wert an honest man, thyself and the money too.” With a wonderful flow of chatter which gushes out in a continuous and illogical torrent, she vacillates between infatuation and exasperation with the “huge bombard of sack” who continually abuses her.

Thou didst swear to me upon a parcel-gilt goblet, sitting in my dolphin-chamber, at the round table, by a sea-coal fire, upon Wednesday in Wheeson week, when the prince broke thy head for liking his father to a singing-man of Windsor, thou didst swear to make me then, as I was washing thy wound, to marry me and make me my lady thy wife. Canst thou deny it? Did not Goodwife Keech, the butcher's wife, come in then and call me Gossip Quickly? Coming in to borrow a mess of vinegar; telling us she had a good dish of prawns; whereby thou didst desire to eat some; whereby I told thee they were ill for a green wound? And didst thou not, when she was gone downstairs, desire me to be no more so familiarity with such poor people; saying that ere long they should call me madam?

(II, i, 93-109)

Indeed her social sights are set high—the wife of a knight, the title of a madam—though obviously the social gain to be realized as the wife of Sir John is humorously suspect. Nonetheless, she is vociferous in her denunciation of the swaggering Pistol, who seeks entrance at her inn:

I must live among my neighbors; I'll no swaggerers: I am in good name and fame with the very best. … I'll foreswear keeping house, afore I'll be in these tirrits and frights.

(II, iv, 80-82, 219-21)

Yet at the very moment she defends her decency and integrity so adamantly, she is playing the common procuress in encouraging, arranging, and overseeing the assignation in her tavern between Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet. And her own virtue is far from spotless; in another scene the Lord Chief-Justice berates Falstaff because he has “practised upon the easy-yielding spirit of this woman, and made her serve your uses both in purse and in person” (II, i, 125-27). While there is nothing funny in the desire for a good name and a social position per se, the comic gap between appearance and reality—culpable venality and hypocritical pretension—has always been grist for the mill of comedy.

Mistress Quickly's numerous doubles entendres effectively illustrate this comic gap. When Snare warns Fang to beware of Falstaff's stab, the hostess retorts: “Alas the day! take heed of him; he stabbed me in mine own house, and that most beastly; in good faith, 'a cares not what mischief he does, if his weapon be out: he will foin like any devil; he will spare neither man, woman, nor child” (II, i, 14-19). In describing the extent of Falstaff's indebtedness to her, she blurts: “A hundred mark is a long one for a poor lone woman to bear; and I have borne, and borne, and borne, and have been fubbed off, and fubbed off, and fubbed off, from this day to that day, that it is a shame to be thought on. There is no honesty in such dealing; unless a woman should be made an ass and a beast to bear every knave's wrong” (II, i, 34-41). She swears, unless Falstaff pay her, to “ride thee o'nights like the mare”; to which Falstaff's reply determines the context: “I think I am as like to ride the mare, if I have any vantage of ground to get up” (II, i, 82-85). In a later scene, to Falstaff's charge that Pistol discharge himself, Mistress Quickly naïvely exclaims: “No, good Captain Pistol; not here, sweet Captain” (II, iv, 149-50). Nor has the laughter subsided before she addresses Pistol as “Good Captain Peesel” (“pizzle”) and fears for Falstaff that he is “hurt i' the groin. Methought a' made a shrewd thrust at your belly” (II, iv, 174, 227-28).

Undoubtedly her leading comic quality is her linguistic ineptness resulting in flagrant and continual malapropisms, several of which occur in passages cited above (familiarity-familiar, debuty-deputy, tirrits-terrors, Peesel-Pistol). No one, not even Dogberry and Verges, is in this respect the equal of Mistress Quickly, whose speech is riddled with such error. For example, there occur the following in II, i: infinitive-infinite; continuantly-continuously; indited-invited; Lubber's Head-Leopard's Head; Lumbert-Lombard; exion-action; honey-suckle - homicidal; honey-seed - homicide; man-queller - man killer. And there are others in II, iv: temperality-temper; pulsidge-pulse; calm-qualm; confirmities-infirmities; beseek-beseech; aggravate-moderate. While a bare listing can do little to suggest the humor of such blunders in context, it at least serves to illustrate a significant comic development in the hostess of 2 Henry IV.

In the final act Mistress Quickly, with Doll, is dragged off to jail as an accomplice of Pistol in a case of manslaughter. At this point Shakespeare meaningfully relates Nell's action to the serious matter; for the laws of England which Falstaff thought to be at his command are seen in active operation against his old associates. His later boast, “I will deliver her,” immediately precedes his own arrest and dispatch to prison. Surely there is humor in Nell's reliance on Falstaff for rescue and Doll's unsuccessful attempts to escape imprisonment by claiming pregnancy with the help of “a dozen of cushions.” But there is thematic aptness in the hostess' flustered quip, “O God, that right should thus overcome might.”

Nell Quickly in Henry V is present, of course, in only two scenes of the first two acts, before the action shifts permanently to France. Here, she retains her comic functions from 2 Henry IV. Caught between two linguistic fantastics—Nym (her trothplight), who uses words in completely contrary senses, and Pistol (her husband), who spews extravagant epithets, tags from current plays, and scraps of foreign languagees—she is quite their equal in verbosity. Nor is she any more adept at correctly using the English language. Atwitter at the possibility of conflict between Nym and Pistol, she blurts, “We shall see wilful adultery and murder committed” (II, i, 39-40), just as she jumbles terms later in describing Falstaff's illness as a “quotidian tertian” (II, i, 124) or misuses Arthur's bosom for Abraham's bosom, “christom” for chrisom, and “carnation” for incarnate. And Nell, now at the nadir of her social fortunes, feels her social aspirations all the more poignantly. Pistol, indeed a comedown for her after her days with Sir John, scorns being called “mine host” and avers that his Nell shall no longer keep lodgers. The hostess, swearing now politely by the Virgin, reiterates: “No, by my troth, not long; for we cannot lodge and board a dozen or fourteen gentlewomen that live honestly by the prick of their needles, but it will be thought we keep a bawdy house straight” (II, i, 34-38). Nevertheless, as Pistol departs for France, he bids her ply her work diligently and insist on “pitch and pay” (cash payment). Her husband, who affectionately calls Nell his “lambkins” and his “quondom Quickly” (his “former quick-lie”),15 scornfully abuses her former associate Doll Tearsheet as “the lazar kite of Cressid's kind,” one not fit for her company.

As for the Hostess Quickly of The Merry Wives of Windsor, she is in name only the garrulous wench of Eastcheap. With the lone exception of “fartuous” for virtuous, she is no longer a malapropian character, and her loquacity is a poor comic third to the wretched mauling of the language by the Welsh parson and the French physician, both of whom constantly spout malapropisms and doubles entendres. Moreover, Ford's flustered and harried attempts to net Falstaff in his own jealous trap are infinitely more humorous than any such characteristics evidenced in Mistress Quickly. Nor does she any longer ludicrously claim, as in the histories, a social position which her actions belie; instead she is a reasonably respectable housekeeper for a French physician, Dr. Caius. In this capacity her importance to the structure of the comedy is admittedly paramount. Motivated now solely by the urge for monetary profit, she serves as the wives' accomplice in their multiple strategems against Falstaff as well as managing a thriving personal enterprise at the expense of Ann Page's three suitors. While the epitome of cleverness, she is comic essentially as a manipulator; no longer the butt of Falstaff's jokes, the pattern now completely reversed, she has lost much of the quality for which she is memorable as Falstaff's crony and the hostess of the tavern at Eastcheap. The comedy of the histories is grounded in character—the pomposity and the wittiness of Falstaff, the marvelous naïveté of Mistress Quickly, the bumbling sentimentality of Justice Shallow, the boisterous and nonsensical exclamations of Pistol. On the other hand, the comedy of The Merry Wives of Windsor is grounded in plot or narrative. The Plautine intrigues are clever and ingenious, the resultant laughter derisive. Instead of laughing with the braggadocio and his gullible wench, we laugh at his making a fool of himself at every turn, and we chuckle at the shrewd and calculating Mistress Quickly who manipulates everything to her own profit.

Thus, it may be said in conclusion that the evolving role of Mistress Quickly, most clearly seen in the Henry IV plays, reveals both the increasing importance of her comic function to the artistic purposes of the individual play and also Shakespeare's general amplification of her comic personality. Falstaff must ultimately fall from his throne of misrule; the development of Mistress Quickly from a sketch to a full-sized portrait best reflects the dramatist's method of enlarging the comic scope of the minor characters to allay the loss of the giant of wits and to maintain a meaningful interrelationship between the comic and serious scenes. In The Merry Wives of Windsor the dupe has become the duper, the hub of the complex comic machinery of plot and counterplot. As for the personality of Nell Quickly, John Palmer has suggested that sympathy, not satire, is the inspiration of Shakespeare's comedy. “The appeal of his comic characters, even as we laugh at them, is to the touch of human nature which makes the whole world kin.”16 As the character emerges throughout the trilogy of histories, her earthy affability and blundering naïveté typify Shakespeare's ability to touch even his minor characters with the magic of life. Regretfully, the Mistress Quickly of The Merry Wives of Windsor signals, as effectively as Falstaff, a new modus operandi in a world in which she well-nigh perishes in the bourgeois confines of Windsor Park.


  1. Shakespeare (New York, 1939), p. 97.

  2. H. B. Charlton, Shakespearian Comedy (London, 1938), p. 197.

  3. E. K. Chambers, Shakespeare: A Survey (London, 1925), p. 118.

  4. Louis B. Wright, ed., Henry IV, Part I (New York, 1961), p. xvi.

  5. Hal's boon companion in fun has been analyzed as the Elizabethan counterpart of the miles gloriosus of Latin comedy, the devil of the miracle plays, the vice of the moralities; he has been traced with little real success to the historical figures of Oldcastle and Fastolfe, branded a coward, and exalted à la Morgann as courageous. A useful summary of the varied evaluations is provided by A. R. Humphreys in the Arden edition of The First Part of Henry IV (London, 1960), pp. xxxix-xliv See also E. E. Stoll, Shakespeare Studies (New York, 1942), pp. 404 ff; and J. I. M. Stewart, Character and Motive in Shakespeare (London, 1949), pp. 111-28.

  6. The English Comic Character (New York, 1925), pp. 77-78.

  7. Shakespeare as a Playwright (New York, 1913), p. 126.

  8. Shakespeare's History Plays (New York, 1947), p. 301.

  9. A. C. Bradley, Oxford Lectures on Poetry (New York, 1909), p. 270.

  10. L. B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Histories (San Marino, 1947), p. 176. See also Stoll, p. 481; Charlton, pp. 185-88; H. C. Goddard, The Meaning of Shakespeare (Chicago, 1951), I, 175; and G. B. Harrison, ed., Shakespeare's Major Plays and Sonnets (New York, 1948), p. 376. J. I. M. Stewart, describing Falstaff's banishment as a part of the mythic sacrifice in Hal's killing of the father image, sees the hostess as “a creature of the wine cart and cymbal.”

  11. Line references accord with the edition of J. Q. Adams, Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas (Boston, 1924).

  12. Cobler, for instance, berating Dericke for his tremendous appetite, suggests Falstaff's favorite pastime: “Why, thou wilt eate me out of doores”; Cobler and Dericke parody the serious scene of Henry's boxing the ear of the Lord Chief-Justice and being committed to the Fleet, just as Hal and Falstaff parody the serious confrontation of king and prince.

  13. Here is the likely source for Shakespeare's double entendre in 2 Henry IV (II, i, 14-19); see my forthcoming note, “Shakespeare's Source for 2 Henry IV, II, i,” in American Notes and Queries. All citations to Shakespeare's plays accord with the lineation of The Complete Plays and Poems of William Shakespeare, ed. William Allan Nielson and Charles Jarvis Hill (Cambridge, Mass., 1942).

  14. As the Arden editor comments, reading The Famous Victories “is like going through the Henry IV-Henry V sequence in a bad dream, so close to Shakespeare is it in fragments, so worlds removed in skill” (p. xxxii). For a tracing of particular borrowings, see pp. xxxii-xxxiv and M. M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty (New York, 1961), pp. 293 ff.

  15. There are no spelling variants of “Quickly” in the quarto and folio texts of 2 Henry IV and Henry V to clarify such a pun. Helge Kökeritz points out, however, that the “y” ending in Shakespeare frequently is rimed with “eye” and that such practice “would make a pun like Quickly-lie almost unavoidable.”—Shakespeare's Pronunciation (New Haven, 1953), p. 220.

  16. Comic Characters of Shakespeare (London, 1949), p. xiv.

Alice Lyle Scoufos (essay date 1967)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9638

SOURCE: Scoufos, Alice Lyle. “The ‘Martyrdom’ of Falstaff.” Shakespeare Studies 2 (1967): 174-91.

[In the following essay, Scoufos examines Falstaff's “undramatic and overly hasty demise” in Henry V.]

The undramatic and overly hasty demise of Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry V has left readers and viewers of Renaissance drama dissatisfied for many years. It has also provided a touchstone for critical wit and ingenuity as any serious student of Elizabethan drama knows when he surveys the perennial crop of published commentary on Falstaff's death scene. From the modern point of view it seems unprovidential that Shakespeare should so suddenly rid himself of the most popular comic character he was ever to create.1 And when we turn to the history plays, we do find textual evidence to indicate that there was some indecision in the playwright's mind or at least some change of dramatic plans, for in the epilogue of 2 Henry IV Shakespeare promises the audience further entertainment with Sir John in it: “If you be not too much cloid with Fat Meate, our humble Author will continue the story (with Sir John in it) and make you merry, with faire Katherine of France.” But, as everyone knows, Falstaff does not appear on stage in Henry V; his death is described in classic fashion by Mistress Quickly who functions ironically as a tragic messenger. And even though it is couched satirically in the mode of Greek tragedy with its stylized form, Falstaff's final scene appears adventitious to the modern reader. Falstaff and death had not, of course, been disassociated in the earlier dramas. Critics have remarked upon the three symbolic deaths which anticipate the demise of Falstaff in Henry V: the feigned death at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1 Henry IV, the “sweating death” of the buckbasket scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor, and the “burning” by fairies in the same play.2 Even the intensification of disease imagery in 2 Henry IV lends substance to the atmosphere of death. Moreover, the epilogue of 2 Henry IV prepares for Falstaff's death with a proleptic phrase, “Falstaff shall dye of a sweat, unlesse already he be killd with your Opinions: For Old-Castle dyed a Martyr, and this is not the man.” And this reference to death and to the martyred Oldcastle leads into another famous crux which has plagued Shakespearian studies for many years; it also provides a point of departure for an investigation of the problems of the death scene. The whole Falstaff-Oldcastle matter is a complex and evocative problem which has not been satisfactorily explained by Shakespeare scholars; my own research among historical resources has provided me with some evidence which may suggest to an extent what happened in Elizabethan England to motivate the creator of Falstaff while he was writing the Falstaff cycle of plays, and that evidence also provides some answers, I think, to the perplexing problems found in the terminus ad quem of Falstaff's dramatic career.3

It was Nicholas Rowe who recorded in the first annotated edition of Shakespeare's plays the story of the Elizabethan family that objected to Shakespeare's use of Sir John Oldcastle's name for his comic character, thus bringing about the name-change to Falstaff.4 The titular descendant of Sir John Oldcastle (a Lollard who bore the title, Lord Cobham, through his marriage to the heiress of that family) was the Elizabethan nobleman, William Brooke, seventh Lord Cobham, the successor to the Lord Chamberlain's staff after the death of Henry, Lord Hunsdon, in 1596, and also a member of the Privy Council, a Knight of the Garter, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, Lord Lieutenant of Kent, Constable of the Tower, intimate friend of Lord Burghley, and father-in-law to Sir Robert Cecil. In his day Lord Cobham was a man of importance although history has forgotten him and his unkind son. The two major political factions which dominated Elizabeth's Court during the last decade of her reign were centered around the Cecils and around the Earl of Essex; Cobham, as might be expected, was closely aligned with his son-in-law and Lord Burghley. The conflict between Essex and the younger Lord Cobham (Henry Brooke who became the eighth baron when his father died in March of 1597) led at length to Essex's final catastrophe in 1601. At his trial Essex accused Cobham and Raleigh of plotting his ruin.5 These tensions were explosive. It is scarcely original of me to suggest that the political machinations and feuding in Elizabeth's Court are reflected in the drama of the period; that the Elizabethan dramatists used chronicle history to provide meaningful commentary upon contemporary political and social life is commonplace knowledge today. Shakespeare's use of the Oldcastle allusions appears to be an example of this method of using historical materials to mirror current affairs.6 And in the death of Sir John Falstaff we find I believe the last of the Shakespeare allusions to Oldcastle, and through those allusions, indirect references to the contemporary Lords of Cobham. Hence it is that I turn to the historical background for elucidation of the famous death scene.

In spite of the denial to the contrary in the epilogue of 2 Henry IV, the theme of martyrdom is present in the description of Falstaff's death. Sir John is dead, says Mistress Quickly, of a “burning quotidian Tertian” (or the Quarto reading, “burning tashan contigian feuer”) which is a lamentable sight. In an attempt to stave off sentimentality some of our more conservative critics today reject any suggestion of martyrdom in this description, but from the point of view of Falstaff's friends Sir John is dying of a broken heart. The statements are explicit in the text. Nym says, “The King hath run bad humors on the Knight,” and Pistol responds, “Nym, thou hast spoke the right, his heart is fracted and corroborate.” Many a modern heart has also been “fracted and corroborated” by the famous rejection scene of 2 Henry IV in which Henry V, regal in his coronation robes, commands his former friend, “I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.” 'Tis this scene which separates the critics into Ephesians and Precise Brethren. We become so involved with Shakespeare's four-dimension characters that we forget he was using in this play chronicle materials which many Elizabethans knew by heart. The fifteenth-century chroniclers invariably described the beginning of Henry V's reign by repeating the story of his rejection of his wanton friends. One of the more colorful versions is that written by the anonymous author of The Brut:

And before he was Kyng, what tyme he regnyd Prince of Walyes, he fylle & yntendyd gretly to ryot, and drew to wylde company; 7 dyuers Ientylmen and Ientylwommen folwyd his wylle & his desire at his commaundment; & lykewyse all his meyne of his housolde was attendyng & plesyed with his gouernaunce, outsept iij men of his howsolde, whiche were ful hevy and sory of his gouernaunce. … And thanne he beganne to regne for Kyng, & he remembryd þe gret charge & wourship þat he shulde take upon hym; And anon he comaundyd al his peple þat were attendaunt to his housolde, to come before hym. And whan they herde þat, they were ful glad, for they subposyd þat he woolde a promotyd them in-to gret offices, & þat they shulde a stonde in gret favyr & truste with hym, & neerest of counsel, as they were afore tyme. & trustyng hereupon, they were þe homlyer & bolder unto hym, & nothyng dred hym; ynsomoche, þat whan they were come before hym, some of them wynkyd on hym, & some smylyd, & thus they made nyse semblaunte unto hym, meny one of them. But for al þat, þe Prynce kept his countynaunce ful sadly unto them, And sayde to them: Syrys, ye are þe peple þat I have cherysyd & mayntynyd in Ryot & wylde gouernaunce; and here I geve you all in commaundment, & charge yow, þat from this day forward þat ye forsake al mysgouernaunce, & lyve aftyr þe lawys of almyhety God, & aftyr þe lawys of oure londe. And who þat doyth contrarye, I make feythful promys to God, þat he shal be trewly ponised accordyng to the lawe, withoute eny favour of grace. … And so he rewardyd them richely with gold & sylver, & othyr Iuelys, and chargyd them alle to voyde his housolde, & lyve as good men, & never more to come in his presence, be-cause he woolde have noon occasion nor remembraunce wherby he shylde falle to ryot agen. … and thus was lefte in his housolde nomo but tho iij men, and meny one of them þat were eydyng & consentyng to his wyldnes, fyl aftyrward to gret myschefe and sorw.7

Without knowledge of the historical context the modern reader is inclined to exaggerate the pathos in the rejection of Falstaff. We are taken in by the expansive, effusive wit of the character which Shakespeare created, and we become one of Falstaff's crew. Falstaff's death is pathetic—until we turn the death scene over to examine the implications of its verso side. There are correlatives to this satiric martyrdom, correlatives which may shock the sheltered or the prim, for the historical Sir John Oldcastle (whose martyrdom is touched in this scene) was burned at the stake in Henry V's reign as a heretic and as a traitor to the crown of England. King Henry turned against the Lollard knight after the insurrection of 1413 which threatened the throne as well as the established church of that time.8 And although the playwright denied in the famous epilogue any allusion to Oldcastle's martyrdom, when one recalls the historical background, Falstaff's broken heart and burning fever become, I think, analogous to martyrdom. Furthermore, if we credit Rowe's story, the playright, having been reprimanded earlier for such allusiveness, added a ludicrous inversion, changing heat to cold, and in doing so substituted a far more famous martyrdom for parodic purpose. Falstaff's death at one point is patterned on that famous scene described in the final pages of Plato's Phaedo. Those of the Elizabethan audience who were schooled in classical literature would have recognized, I think, the parallel in Mistress Quickly's ingenuous words, “So a' bad me lay more Clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the Bed, and Felt to his knees, and so vp-peer'd, and upward, and all was as cold as any stone” (even the less-focused Quarto lines are pertinent: “Then he bad me put more cloathes at his feete: And I felt to them, and they were as cold as any stone: And to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone: And so vpward, and vpward, and all was as cold as any stone”) with Plato's description of the death of Socrates after he had drunk the cup of hemlock:

and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at his feet and legs; and after a while he pressed his foot hard, and asked him if he could feel; and he said, “No;” and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff.9

In this instance the problem of Shakespeare's “small Latin and less Greek” need not intervene, though certainly both the original Greek text and its Latin translation were available in Elizabethan England. The Omnia Platonis Opera was published in Greek in September of 1513 at Venice, and the first volume of the Platonis Opera Quae Extant Omnia, which contained both Greek and Latin texts, was published by Henri Estienne in Geneva in 1578 and was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth. Marsiglio Ficino's Latin translation of Plato's writings circulated throughout Europe after 1482, and the vernacular translations of the Phaedo were printed in the sixteenth century, the French in 1553 and 1581, the Italian in 1574.10 More important perhaps is the fact that when William Caxton published Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers' translation of The Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophhres in 1477, he gave to the English reading public a lusty vernacular version of Plato's description of the death of Socrates. The particular passage reads as follows:

… he went alitil from them / & saide O god have mercy upon me / & anon his synewes shranke his fete wexed colde / and than he leide him down / one of his disciples tooke a boddekyn & prikked him in his feete / and axed him yf he felt eny thing + And he said naye / than he prikked him in his thyghes / and axed him if he felt it / he sayd naye + Anone the colde strake up unto his sydes than Socrates saide whan the colde cometh to my hert I must nedis dye +11

That Shakespeare would parody our much beloved Plato will shock the more conservative critics; therefore, I hasten to point out the witty relevance of such usage. The fates of Socrates and Oldcastle are comparable in an important sense: we know that Socrates was accused of maligning the religion of the state (falsifying the ancient gods); it was Oldcastle's heresy, his rejection of the doctrines of the established church, which catapulted him from Fortune's erratic wheel. Moreover, this substitution of a martyr of greater fame is meaningful at the contemporary level, for like Socrates, William, seventh Lord Cobham, was a victim of the comic poets.12 One should recall that in Plato's Apology Socrates explains that one of his greatest enemies has been public opinion and that the opinion had been molded by the comic poets from envy and malice. Socrates derides his accuser, Meletus, saying, “Such is the nature of the accusation: it is just what you have yourselves seen in the comedy of Aristophanes.”13 In like instance the Elizabethan Cobhams bore for many years the satire of the poets. At his trial in 1603 Henry, eighth Lord Cobham, complained that “except the house of Norfolk noe house of Englande received more disgrace and jealousy for many years together in the time past than my poor house.”14 And this is true. Oldcastle walked the stage in the anonymous play, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, and again in Shakespeare's early versions of the Henry IV plays.15 Elinor Cobham's legend, which had undergone metamorphosis in the chronicles in a fashion similar to Oldcastle's story, was used not only by Shakespeare but by George Ferrers, Michael Drayton, Christopher Middleton, and Chettle and Day. As one might expect, Shakespeare's version of that legend presents an unflattering and treasonable portrait of that noblewoman.16 Furthermore, Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson also had some galled ink to use in their macabre portrayal of the ancestral Cob who was roasted before the Pope.17 Shakespeare's allusions to martyrdom in Falstaff's death scene are wittily (if not morally) fitting, and we find the fat knight dying like an ancient philosopher, though hell's fire is on his mind.

This inventive use of analogues was a mode associated with Oldcastle's death in the sixteenth century. Both John Bale and John Foxe had used a comparative technique in their eulogies of the Lollard martyr's death. In Bale's Brefe Chronycle the author did not hesitate to equate Oldcastle's death with that of Christ:

Syr Johan Oldcastell was brent in Cheanes at London in Saynct Gyles Felde, undre the Galowes, amonge the Laye People, and upon the prophane workynge Daye, at the Bysshoppes Procurement. And all this is ungloryouse, yea and verye despyseable unto those worldlye Eyes, what though Jesus Christ his Mastre afore him were handeled after a verye lyke Sort. For he was crucyfyed at Hierusalem, without the Cyte and without the holye Synagoge, acursed out of Churche, amonge the prophane Multytude, in the myddest of Theves, in the Place where as Theves were commonly hanged, and not upon the feastfull Daye but afore yt, by the Bysshoppes Procurement also.18

And Foxe found the details of Oldcastle's death analogous to the Biblical description of Elijah's ascent into heaven:

Thys is not to be forgotten which is reported by many that he should say that he should die here in earth after the sort and manner of Helias, the whyche whether it sprang of the common people whythoute cause, or that it was forshewed by him, I think it not without with some gift of prophecy, the end of the matter doth suffyciently proue. For lyke as when Helias should leaue this mortal life, he was caryed in a fiery charyot into immortality: even so the order of thys mannes death, not beinge muche unlike, followed the fygure of his departure. For he fyrste of all being lyfted up upon the galowes, as into a chariot, and compassed in round aboute wyth flamynge fyre, what other thyng I pray you dyd thys most holy martir of Christ represent then onlye a fygure of a certayne Helias flying up into heauen. The whych went up into heauen by a fiery chariot.19

The flames which torment Falstaff's slipping mind are, of course, those of mental anguish—the flea on Bardolph's red nose becomes “a blacke Soule burning in Hell.” Within this satiric context, this reference to flames is too hot for comfort.

Hostess Quickly's insistence that Falstaff had not gone to hell but was safe in Arthur's bosom is possibly another reference to Oldcastle's death. In the fifteenth-century accounts of the Lollard's execution his final prophecy was usually repeated: Oldcastle promised his followers that he would be resurrected on the third day after his death. Thomas Walsingham's version of this prophecy was turned into English by John Stow and was printed in the 1592 edition of Stow's Annales:

the last words that he spake, was to Sir Thomas of Erpingham, abjuring him, that if he saw him rise from death to life again, the third day, he would procure that his sect might be in peace & quiet; he was hanged by the necke in a chaine of iron, & after consumed with fire.20

This promise of resurrection inspired the faithful Lollards who returned to Saint Giles Field, the scene of execution, on the third morning; when Oldcastle failed to appear, they gathered his ashes to rub in their eyes. When one recalls that the King Arthur of literature and legend was reported to be in Avalon and would return someday “twice as fair” to rule over his people, the relevance of Mistress Quickly's remark is apparent. Similarly, the Page's reference to incarnation and the Hostess' uncomprehending reply, “A' could never abide Carnation, 'twas a Colour he never lik'd,” become a religious reference applicable to the doctrine of transubstantiation and the incarnate Christ of the sacrament. Indeed, Oldcastle could not abide this “carnation.”21 When one recalls the Lollard's famous trial for heresy and the importance which was attached to Oldcastle's refusal to answer with doctrinal propriety the “murderous question” concerning the bread and Christ's body, Falstaff's mutterings take on new meaning. In addition, Falstaff's profane cries against the Whore of Babylon are also an apparent Oldcastle allusion. The scarlet woman, as all readers know, was an old symbol of derision for the Church of Rome, and Falstaff's outcry is analogous to Oldcastle's final outburst against the “whorish prelates” who condemned him. One of his colorful accusations was repeated frequently by the chroniclers: … quod Dominus noster Papa est verus Antichristus, hoc est caput ejusdem; Archiepiscopi et Episcopi, necnon alii praelati, sunt membra, et Fratres cauda ejusdem.22

The allusiveness of Falstaff's crying out against women goes beyond the Oldcastle legend, I believe, for Shakespeare appears to pick up the earlier reference to Socrates and to make use of it again in these remarks of the Page and the Hostess. In the sixteenth century the ancient Greek philosopher was noted for his misogyny. William Caxton, as editor of Lord Rivers' translation of The Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophhres (which contained an eclectic gathering of biographical ‘facts’ and quotations derived from the large body of Arabic translations of the ninth century, the works of Diogenes Laertius, and the Memorabilia of Xenophon), was faced with the problem of the unkind remarks on women attributed to the ancient philosopher. Lord Rivers had simply deleted them, and Caxton (after some doubts which he describes in detail) gathered the unchivalrous statements into an epilogue and appended it to The Dictes with an apology to the “good, wyse, playsant, humble, discrete, sobre, chast” women of England.23 Caxton's Dictes was an extremely popular work; he reprinted it a number of times after 1477, as did Wynkyn de Worde in the sixteenth century. By the time that William Baldwin printed the anti-feminist sayings of Socrates in his Treatice of Morall Philosophy at mid-sixteenth century, many of the remarks had become jingles. Two examples of the “pithy mieters” should suffice:

Woman is more pittiful than manne,
more enuious than a serpent,
more malicious than a tyrant,
and more deceiptful than the deuill.

And another:

Prayer to God is the onely meane,
to preserue a man from a wicked queane.(24)

This common image of the ancient philosopher as a woman hater was available to Shakespeare, and I believe that he was treating it in comic fashion to increase the allusiveness of Falstaff's death scene. Such an allusion does not, of course, limit itself. Indeed, Falstaff may have had reason to curse women if poor Doll truly were in the “Poudring tub” in the preceding scene.

There are further allusions to the Oldcastle legend in the death scene; Falstaff's frightened cry to his Creator can be paralleled in the stories of the Lollard's martyrdom. Mistress Quickly describes Sir John as a “Christome Child” who “cryed out, God, God, God three or foure times.” This is, of course, a natural exclamation, but it is also allusive. In the chronicle accounts of Oldcastle's death the martyr was reported to have cried out Jehovah's name three times when the flames began to consume him. The Jesuit writer, Robert Parsons, later picked up this image from John Stow when he vilified both Oldcastle and Foxe's glorified image of Oldcastle in the Jesuit book, A Treatise of Three Conversions (a propaganda attack emphasizing the treason of Oldcastle, the earlier Lord Cobham, written and published in 1603-04 when the contemporary Lord Cobham, Henry Brooke, was on trial for his treason in the Main and Bye plots). At one point in his attack Parsons describes the death of a William Hackett who was executed in 1591 for his mad attempt against the realm and the established church, and Parsons brings in the reference to Oldcastle's cries which he apparently got from Stow:

For that Hackett said, he should rise againe the third day, as Oldcastle did: and went as devoutly to the gallowes, as the other did, cryinge, Jhehova, Jhehova, (as Stow setteth it downe) and at the gallowes railed no lesse bitterly upon Queene Elizabeth, than Oldcastle did upon that woorthie King Henry the fift.25

But Parsons' use of the Oldcastle legend to denigrate the Cobhams is another part of the long series of events in the lives of that Elizabethan family.

Shakespeare's use of the Oldcastle legend and its analogues is only part of the admixture of satire found in Falstaff's character. Current happenings in Elizabeth's Court are mirrored in Sir John's death. Editors have noted the pun on “rheumatic-Romeatic;” it is possibly an allusion to Oldcastle's hatred for the Church of Rome. But the pun is also an allusion, I think, to the furtive intrigues of William, Lord Cobham, with the disaffected Catholics of Elizabeth's reign. Cobham played an important role in the intrigues of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Duke of Norfolk. Cobham's bungling in the Ridolfi affair resulted at length in the imprisonment of the Earls of Pembroke and Southampton and in the loss of the Duke of Norfolk's head. Southampton (the father of Shakespeare's patron) spent three years in close confinement as a result of this fiasco. Cobham turned informer, it seems, and escaped punishment.26

The Elizabethan Lord Cobham seems again touched in Mistress Quickly's remark that Falstaff died “Betweene twelve and one, Just at turning of the tide,” for we know that William Brooke also died “about Midnight” on March 6, 1597. Our information comes from Rowland Whyte, that loquacious steward of Sir Robert Sidney, who kept his absent master informed of the details of London life. Sidney was eager to have Lord Cobham's staff as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports, and Whyte watched closely as Cobham drew his final breath.27 Doubtless the actors were watching too, for the Lord Chamberlain's staff would also be transferred at Cobham's death; Henry Brooke, Cobham's eldest son, and George Carey, the new Lord Hunsdon, were vying for this important post which was a powerful position as far as the acting companies were concerned.28

The preparations for death which William, Lord Cobham, made in 1597 are also relevant to Falstaff's final scene in Henry V, for in those plans we find, I think, a possible solution for that perplexing problem of the “Table of greene fields” which has intrigued Shakespeare scholars for over two centuries. Debate thrives today as readers supply ingenious emendations or argue for the Folio reading of this text. Theobald's emendation of the famous crux holds the field with most editors in this century, but the historical background of the Cobhams provides material to suggest that the “Table of greene fields” is meaningful as it stands, for we know that as death approached, Lord Cobham was concerned with a special project, an endowment which would provide a memorial table or tablet to be erected in his honor in Poppynefelde in Kent.

Lord Cobham at the age of seventy, being in poor health and despondent at the death of his daughter, Elizabeth, wife of Sir Robert Cecil, wrote and signed his last will on the 24th of February, 1597. He divided his lands, jewels, horses, and books among his three sons and three daughters, but he reserved some five thousand pounds of ready money and certain building materials for the use of William Lambarde, the antiquarian, Sir John Leveson, and Sir Thomas Fane, his executors, who were instructed to re-establish the ancient College of Cobham as an almshouse for the relief of the poor in Kent.29 Lord Cobham died on the 6th of March, and a few days later William Lambarde wrote to Lord Burghley explaining Lord Cobham's wishes:

His lordship therefore minding an undoubted accomplishment of his godly and fatherly intentions as well towards the poore as his own children, did in his lifetime put into the hands of Sir John Leveson the sum of 5,600 pounds almost, in ready money, over and above rich furniture of his lady's provision amounting in his own estimacion to the value of 2,000 marks. His command to us was that with 2,000 pounds or more of these monies the late suppressed College of Cobham should be re-edified and endowed with livelihood for the perpetual maintenance of twenty poor.30

In spite of the nuances of the old faith which clung to the plan, special permission to re-establish Cobham College was granted by an Act of Parliament which was passed in 1597 soon after Lord Cobham's wishes to found the New College of Cobham in Kent.31

The history of the Old College of Cobham is interesting and somewhat unique; it had been founded in 1362 by Lord John de Cobham who provided an endowment for a perpetual chantry which was to sing praises for the honor of God and the welfare of the souls of the founder and his progenitors. The endowment provided for the maintenance of five chaplains and a number of brothers from the priory of Saint Saviour, Bermondsey. The College flourished, and some one hundred and seventy-five years later when the master signed the bill of the king's supremacy in 1537 which “dissolved, dis-established, and dis-endowed” the College, the fellowship included eleven chaplains, and it had in revenues approximately 142 pounds per annum. After the dissolution the College remained uninhabited, and in this state of abandonment it fell into ruins.

The seventh Lord Cobham wished to rebuild the ancient monument in a new Protestant form, as an almshouse to assist the poor of Kent and, of course, to memorialize his name. The construction of New College progressed rapidly in 1597, and the establishment with its new rules and ordinances, its order for daily prayers and its code of conduct for the poor, was finished in September of 1598. The memorial tablet with the arms and quarterings of the Cobhams within a Garter was engraved and placed above the south entrance of the College. It stated that

This new College of Cobham in the County of Kent was founded for the relief of the poore at the charge of the late Right Honorable Sir William Brooke, Knight of the Garter, Lord Cobham, late Warden of the Cinque Ports, Lieutenant for the same County to the Excellent Majesty of Elizabeth, Queen of England, one of Her Highnesses Privy Councillors and Chamberlayne of Her most Honorable Household. He died 6th March 1596 [/97]. This was finished 29th September 1598.32

The quadrangle of New College and the ruined Founder's Gateway with its memorial tablet remain standing today adjacent to Cobham Church in Kent.33 Within the Church is a famous collection of monumental brasses which has been called the finest family collection in England.34 It includes the magnificent bronze and marble effigies which Lord Cobham provided for his parents' tomb in 1561; he was conscious of memorials. Perhaps he anticipated the negligence and misfortune which would keep his own grave unadorned; before a worthy tomb was created for him, his sons and his estate fell to destruction in the plots of 1603. Today, New College stands as sufficient proof that “wasteful Time debateth with Decay.” But beyond being a symbol of mutability, this memorial structure may quite possibly be the “Table of greene fields” which Mistress Quickly mentions in Shakespeare's famous passage. Admittedly, the Table image is complex, but it is not incomprehensible as some critics insist, nor does it require rearrangement of elements or ellipses or transposed letters or parenthetical enclosures or emendations.35 I find the Folio reading of this famous line both meaningful and consistent. Let us look at it closely in context.

In preceding lines Mistress Quickly describes Falstaff's delirium, his fumbling with the sheets and his toying with the flowers (I assume that Falstaff mistakes the floral design of the bed coverings for real posies; however, perhaps there were fresh flowers at hand, or there may be a suggestion of Elysian Fields in the Hostess' description of Sir John's irrational imaging). Mistress Quickly then describes Falstaff as smiling on the tips of his fingers. This is a prayerful pose which fits the preceding image of Falstaff slipping away as a “Christome Child,” but such a pose is also a traditional one for the effigies on monumental brasses, and the Hostess is quick to recognize that it is time for ultimate things though she attempts to cheer Sir John.

This realistic description of Falstaff's gestures is followed by a figurative description of his face in its drawn and discolored state. Mistress Quickly compares Falstaff's sharp nose to two things: a Pen and a Table. She remarks bluntly: “for his Nose was as sharpe as a Pen, and a Table of greene fields.” We have here, I believe, two similes and a problem of terminology. Let us proceed carefully.

Competent critics have noted the realistic death imagery in this passage, the withering of tissue, the green complexion, etc. The details are accurate here, and Mistress Quickly as well as her creator apparently knew the commonplace elements of Elizabethan medical lore and of the popular ars moriendi literature.36 But the two similes which Mistress Quickly uses are allusive—as similes traditionally are. The comma should not confuse us: Shakespeare frequently uses a comma to separate compound elements (subjects, verbs, objects). For a cursory example, the preceding scene in the Folio contains several such instances of the playwright's “dramatic punctuation”:37

1) Crowned with faith, and constant loyalty.


2) Doing the execution, and the acte,


3) With hearts create of duty, and of zeale.


4) Treason, and murther, euer kept together,


5) Wonder to waite on treason, and on murther:


Modern editors are prone to remove these extraneous commas; however, the punctuation between Pen and Table has not been altered because Theobald's famous emendation has convinced most editors that this line contains two independent clauses: “For his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a' babbled of green fields.” This reasoning, I believe, is erroneous. I think Mistress Quickly is saying that Falstaff's nose resembles a pen and a table; the OED should provide clues to the meaning of these terms, and the historical background should provide an explanation for the allusion.

Although the word Pen can mean a quill-pen or writing instrument pointed and split into nibs at its lower end, Pen can also mean a hill or mountain, a jutting promontory.38 Either of these definitions is relevant and will fit the context where the nose and nostrils are pinched by the onslaught of death. I prefer the former meaning, however, because of its connotation of writing or inscription—a meaning which links Pen with Table. And I think that Shakespeare intentionally juxtaposed these two images for mutual elucidation. The OED offers numerous meanings in use in the sixteenth century for the word Table, and the Shakespeare Concordance reveals that the playwright used the word variously in his plays.39 However, in this passage I believe the word Table means a tablet bearing or intended for an inscription or device (OED: Table, sb., #2, a), in other words, a memorial table or monument. The attribute of sharpness is relevant if we limit the category of memorial tables or stones to the famous classical monuments of antiquity such as Trajan's Column or Cleopatra's Needle, a definition which places the image among the classical motifs used in the death scene.40 To be explicit, I believe that Mistress Quickly says that Falstaff's nose just from his discolored face like a pointed monument built in green fields. If we place this remark against the topical background, it seems to me that the simile becomes a satiric allusion to the monument which Lord Cobham was planning on his death bed—a monument to be erected in Poppynefelde in Kent. Cobham College was built in the rural village of Cobham, and its site overlooked the green pasture lands to the south called Great Church Field and Little Church Field. The architect for the Old College and for the tower of Cobham Church was said to have been the great Henry Yevele, King's Master Mason and architect of the nave of Canterbury Cathedral. The New College was designed by Giles de Witte, an architect from the Low Countries whom Lord Cobham had hired to assist with the impressive wings of Cobham Hall which were constructed in the reign of Elizabeth.41

I do not know whether Shakespeare was ever in Cobham village or not, but I suspect that he had seen Yevele's tall tower at one time or another and that the image of the older building in its rural setting remained in his mind. Or perhaps he actually saw the New College after its completion in 1598 with its arched gateway and the memorial tablet above it. This Founder's Gateway is itself a pointed image with the tablet and crest sheltered by a projecting corbel-table, a pediment, and a peaked entablature which reaches to some height.42 It does seem to me that Lord Cobham's plans for New College supplied Shakespeare with a simile and an ironic allusion when he wrote the final lines concerning Falstaff. If our dating of Henry V is correct, these lines were written in 1599. The elder Lord Cobham was dead; he had caused the Lord Chamberlain's Men some tense moments when he received the Chamberlain's white staff in 1596. As a partial result he was immortalized, not by a memorial structure but by a satiric creation which has never been surpassed. However, perhaps the modern reader, looking back through the death scene, will find the satire on the Cobhams more gross than unsurpassed. Lest this response occur, let me remind the reader that the actions of William and Henry Brooke, Lords of Cobham, throughout Elizabeth's reign made them targets for those who wished to satirize disloyalty and disorder in the political world. Before Shakespeare used it, the Oldcastle legend had become a point of departure from which the barbed shafts of ridicule could be launched at the Cobhams. Our playwright adapted and perfected the satire. If from our distant vantage point in time such usage appears unseemly, we should remember that in the heat of political contests the rivalry of Court factions placed a number of lives at stake. The satire of Oldcastle's martyrdom with its reflections on the contemporary Cobhams appears to have been part of the propaganda of that conflict. Public pressure (or perhaps private) seems to have prevented the playwright's further development of the Oldcastle legend into the reign of Henry V. In his play of the ideal king Shakespeare wisely rid himself of an extremely successful but toxic character, and we find Falstaff dying of both a fever and a chill. In this final scene of the Falstaff cycle of plays the idea of martyrdom is not entirely gone, for the scene is densely complex with historical allusions, and the echo of a classical death rings them in. The satire of the tragic mode is pointed. The poignancy, the pathos which modern readers find reflected in the death scene are nineteenth-century sentimental affections which turned Falstaff into an amoral demigod of sensuous pleasures—a creature to be envied not condemned. The ancient Vice, like the historical archetype who was burned at the stake for heresy and treason, has been hid from view. Twentieth-century critics, or rather those who use the neo-historical approach in the analysis of literature, are successfully attempting the reconstruction of Falstaff as forceful satire on dishonor and disloyalty in the Elizabethan world scheme.43


  1. Various dates of composition for Henry V and for The Merry Wives of Windsor have been assigned by scholars. If the latter play was written after Henry V, then of course Falstaff was resurrected for his role in that Garter play. Leslie Hotson suggested some years ago that The Merry Wives was written to celebrate the election and/or installation of Lord Hunsdon to the Order of the Garter in 1597. My own study of the Falstaff satire leads me to believe that The Merry Wives was written to satirize Lord Cobham (Henry Brooke) when his name was submitted for election to the Garter in the spring of 1599. Most editors suggest that Henry V was written later in this same year while the Earl of Essex was in Ireland with the English forces. If this dating is correct, the death of Falstaff in Henry V is the final scene for that famous comic character.

  2. See the articles by Robert F. Fleissner, “Falstaff's Green Sickness Unto Death,” SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly], XII (1961), 47-55; John M. Steadman, “Falstaff as Actaeon: A Dramatic Emblem,” SQ, XIV (1963), 231-244; Philip Williams, “The Birth and Death of Falstaff,” SQ, VIII (1957), 355-365.

  3. My booklength study of the Falstaff-Oldcastle-Cobham problem, Shakespeare's Flaming Satire, is nearly complete. The abundance of historical records concerning the Cobhams (Oldcastle, Elinor Cobham, William and Henry Brooke) has provided some startling facts which help to explain the satire of the Lollard martyr that we find behind Falstaff's comic mask.

  4. Rowe noted, “Upon this Occasion it may not be improper to observe, that this Part of Falstaff is said to have been written originally under the Name of Oldcastle; some of that Family being then remaining, the Queen was pleas'd to command him to alter it; upon which he made use of Falstaff.” The Works of Mr. William Shakespeare (London, 1709-10), I, viii. In the same paragraph Rowe tells the story of the Earl of Southampton's gift of one thousand pounds to Shakespeare, and he states that “If I had not been assur'd that the Story was handed down by Sir William D'Avenant, who was probably very well acquainted with his affairs, I should not have ventured to have inserted it.” It is probable that Rowe also had his account of the playwright's trouble over the use of the Oldcastle name indirectly from Shakespeare's “godson.”

  5. A detailed account of Essex's trial, the accusations, the events behind the catastrophe can be found in the second volume of W. B. Devereux's Lives and Letters of the Devereux, Earls of Essex (London, 1853). At his execution Essex asked forgiveness of his enemies; this appears to have been the traditional act of Christian humility.

  6. Some attempts have been made to work out the Oldcastle allusions, attempts which relate the satire to the contemporary Cobhams; see Leslie Hotson's study of the Cobhams in Shakespeare's Sonnets Dated and Other Essays (London, 1949), pp. 147-160; E. G. Clark, Raleigh and Marlowe: A Study in Elizabethan Fustian (New York, 1941), pp. 242-263. There are some inaccuracies in this latter study: a portrait of Sir Henry Cobham, the English ambassador to France who was knighted at Kenilworth in 1575, is ascribed as that of Henry, eighth Lord Cobham, Sir Henry's nephew. The remark that Henry Brooke's age was a well-kept secret is unfounded; the date of Henry's birth was published in Holinshed's Chronicles. He was born on the 22nd of November, 1564, and thus was the age of Shakespeare.

  7. The Brut, edited by F. W. D. Brie, EETS, O.S. 136 (London, 1906-1908), pp.594-595.

  8. Until the twentieth century the history of Sir John Oldcastle was written with great bias, either from a pro-Catholic or a pro-Protestant point of view. Modern scholars approach the problem of Oldcastle's martyrdom with more equanimity although there are still disagreements concerning the personality of the Lollard. See James H. Wylie, The Reign of Henry The Fifth (Cambridge, 1914-1929); W. T. Waugh, “Sir John Oldcastle,” English Historical Review, XX (1905), 434-456, 637-658; E. F. Jacob, The Fifteenth Century: 1399-1485 (Oxford, 1960); James Gairdner, Lollardy and the Reformation in England (London, 1908-1913); and of course the DNB, XLII, 86-93.

  9. The Dialogues of Plato, tr. Benjamin Jowett (London, 1892), II, 266. Dover Wilson noted this parallel in the Cambridge edition of the play, but no critic that I can find has seen the significance of the satire. We revere Plato and Socrates too much. It may be worth while to note that in Elizabethan England the contemporary Lord Cobham had been compared with the noble Grecians by Francis Thynne, Lancaster Herald, in his eulogy of his patron which was made suspect because of its excision from Holinshed's Chronicles in 1586-87. Thynne used a quotation from The Republic which defined nobility as a class of men divided into four degrees: those nobles descended from kings and princes, those descended from good and virtuous ancestors, those who performed great feats of war, and those who excelled in “the prerogative of the Mind.” Thynne, of course, concluded his compliment by remarking that Lord Cobham possessed all these virtues: “… that Lord Cobham now living, being the glorie of that ancient and honorable familie, not onelie meriteth well of his countrie, as after shall appeare; but is also an honorable Mecenas of learning, a lover of learned persons, and not inferior in knowledge to anie of the borne nobilitie of England.” Raphael Holinshed, The Chronicles of England, Scotlande, and Irelande (London: 1586-87), III, 1499. It was an age of effusive dedications, but this praise must surely have rankled some of the “borne nobilitie.”

  10. In the French translation of 1581 the relevant passage was printed as follows: “Mais quand Socrates sentit qu'en se promenant les iambes luy failloient, il se coucha à la renuerse, comme auoit dit le ministre, qui en le touchant vn peu apres, regardoit ses pieds & ses iambes: puis pressant fort l'vn des pieds, luy demanda s'il le sentoit, qui respondit que non, il en feit autant aux iambes, & peu à peu montant plus haut, il nous monstra ses parties estre desia toutes froides & roides.” Le Phedon De Platon. Le tout traduit de Grec en Francois … par Loys le Roy Dit Regivs (Paris; 1581), fol. 103r.

  11. The Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophhres (Westmestre: W. Caxton, 1477), [fol. 26r].

  12. The satire used against the Cobhams is extremely complex; I am sure that I have not found all of it in my study of the problem. For a number of the ramifications see below, notes 15 and 16.

  13. The Dialogues of Plato, II, 110-111. The allusion is even more complex when one recalls that Oldcastle too was lampooned by the fifteenth-century poets. See the anonymous poem, “Against the Lollards,” printed in Thomas Wright's Political Poems and Songs Relating to English History (London, 1861), II, 243-247; and see Hoccleve's poem which censures the defected knight, printed in The Poems of Richard James, ed. A. B. Grosart (London, 1880), pp. 138 ff.

  14. Calendar of Salisbury Manuscripts, XV, 290.

  15. Shakespeare's use of the Oldcastle allusions in the Henry IV plays is shadowy. We do not know how much revision these plays underwent when the character name was changed before the printing of the early quartos, but perhaps the Oldcastle allusions were always oblique. However, with the character of Falstaff bearing the martyr's name, almost any allusion would have been comprehensible to the Elizabethans, though today the modern reader finds those allusions unobtrusive unless he has made a detailed study of the chronicles of the fifteenth century. I find the allusions in the Henry IV plays functioning as prolepsis, as a foreshadowing of the history to come. In this sense they have a dual function: Oldcastle's later treasonable actions are suggested, but so too are the actions of the Elizabethan Cobhams. William Brooke dabbled in intrigue, and his sons were accused later of treason: one suffered a traitor's execution and the other spent his last sixteen years in the Tower of London. Shakespeare's technique with the allusions partakes of Sophoclean irony, and that irony was grounded, I believe, in truth as the poet saw it.

  16. It is in 2H6 that Elinor Cobham's treason is handled by our playwright. As with the Oldcastle legend, Shakespeare goes back to the earlier pre-Reformation accounts of the story to find an incriminating version for his use. George Ferrers' use of the Elinor Cobham legend is a complex one. He at length got his “royal ballad” into print in the 1578 edition of the Mirror for Magistrates although the tragedies of the Duke of Gloucester and his wife Elinor were indexed in the 1559 and 1571 editions of the Mirror. See Lily Bess Campbell's introduction to The Mirror for Magistrates (New York, 1960), pp. 17-18; see the same scholar's article, “Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Elianor Cobham His Wife in the Mirror for Magistrates,HLB, V (1934), 119-155; Evaline Feasey, “The Licensing of the Mirror for Magistrates,The Library, III (1922-23), 177-193. Ferrers' satire apparently was written when Lord Cobham's sister, Elizabeth Cobham, Marchioness of Northampton, was playing her hand in a dangerous game of diplomatic intrigue and treason. See also Michael Drayton, Englands Heroicall Epistles (London, 1598), sigs. H2 ff.; Christopher Middleton, The Legend of Humphrey, Duke of Glocester (London, 1600), sigs. D2 ff.; John Day, The Blind Beggar of Bednall Green (London, 1659). This play, published many years after its composition, was written by Day and Chettle and is comparable to the romantically unhistorical play, Sir John Oldcastle, in that it too “blanches” the character of an earlier Cobham accused of treason.

  17. Thomas Nashe uses the roasting of the cob or miller's thumb before the Pope in his mock-epic legend in Lenten Stuffe, or Praise of the Red Herring. This attack on the Cobhams seems to have been launched after stern treatment was meted out to the authors of The Isle of Dogs in the summer of 1597, or so Nashe says in his prefatory remarks. Jonson, of course, uses the same theme in the dialogue of Cob in Every Man In His Humour.

  18. Johan Bale, A Brefe Chronycle Concerning the Examinacyon and Death of the Blessed Martyr of Christ Syr Johan Oldcastell the Lorde Cobham [Antwerp? Hans Luft? 1544?], sig. H4.

  19. John Foxe, Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Dayes, Touching Matters of the Church (London, 1563), p. 281.

  20. John Stow, The Annales of England (London, 1592), p. 572. The italics are Stow's.

  21. The major fifteenth-century accounts of Oldcastle's life and death are these: Thomas Walsingham, Ypodigma Neustriae (London, 1876), pp. 439 ff.; the same chronicler's Historia Anglicana (London, 1863-64), II, 298 ff. John Stow edited both of these manuscripts for Archbishop Parker in 1574. The Bodley Manuscript 462, ed. V. H. Galbraith as The Saint Albans Chronicle: 1406-1420 (Oxford, 1937) and which appears to have been in John Bale's possession at mid-sixteenth century, should supplement the Historia Anglicana. John Capgrave, The Chronicle of England (London, 1858), pp. 300 ff.; Thomas Netter of Walden, Fasciculi Zizaniorum (London, 1858), pp. 414 ff.; “Elhami Liber Metricus de Henrico Quinto,” Memorials of Henry the Fifth (London, 1858), pp. 77ff.; Chronica Regum Angliae Per Thomam Otterbourne, ed. Thomas Hearne (Oxford, 1716), pp. 2 ff.; Polychronicon Ranulphi Higden, ed. Joseph Lumby (London, 1865-86), VIII, 549 ff.

    The transformation of Oldcastle's image from that of traitor to that of saint and martyr was accomplished by the “heresiarchs,” Tyndale, Bale, and Foxe. The latter's ebullient praise of the martyr, couched in his magnificently flamboyant prose, is the epicenter of The Acts and Monuments. Oldcastle's trial and the four major points of contention, concerning the sacraments of the altar, penance, images, and pilgrimages, were emphasized by all three writers. William Tyndale's “Bok of Thorpe” (The Examinacion of Master William Thorpe, Preste … The Examinacion of the Honorable Knight Syr Jhon Oldcastell Lord Cobham [Antwerp? 1530?]) was ordered burned in 1531, and only a unique copy remains in the British Museum—available, of course, on microfilm. Bale states in his Brefe Chronycle that he knew and used Tyndale's little book, and Foxe used both Bale's work and Tyndale's account of Oldcastle's trial. Foxe's account of Oldcastle's martyrdom grew to impressive size as he continued to edit and enlarge his book of martyrs during his lifetime.

  22. Historia Anglicana, II, 295.

  23. The Dictes or Sayengis, [fols. 74-76].

  24. William Baldwin, A Treatice of Morall Philosophy (London, 1575), fols. 207v, 246. This work was printed first in 1547; its popularity sent it through numerous editions before the end of the century.

  25. N. D. [Robert Parsons], A Treatise of Three Conversions of England ([St. Omer,] 1603-04), II, 250. Other references to Oldcastle, “who was not only enemy to the Church and Cleargy, as before I have said: but also to the King and common wealth, & had devised a new King to set up against the old,” can be found at I, 490-491, 493-495, 540; II, unpaginated preface, 197-201, 245-51, 267-77. In his use of the Oldcastle legend Parsons was taking advantage of the propaganda technique perfected by the poets. I have found no relationship between Parsons and Shakespeare, but John Speed, the chronicler, seems to have suspected one when he remarked on the defamation of Oldcastle's character by the stage players and Parsons. See John Speed, The Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine (London, 1611), II, 637.

  26. For primary materials concerning the Earl of Southampton's imprisonment see The Loseley Manuscripts, ed. A. J. Kempe (London, 1836), pp. 229 ff. Lord Cobham's role in the Rildolfi affair must be gleaned from the primary sources; he and his brother, Thomas, were acting as “pages” to the Duke of Norfolk. See William Murdin, A Collection of State Papers Relating to Affairs in the Reign of Elizabeth (London, 1759), pp. 10 ff. Cobham's deposition is printed in the Calendar of State Papers, Scotland, 1571-1574, pp. 9-10. Lord Burghley was protecting Cobham, in a sense, and Cobham apparently turned state's evidence. See Dugdale's comment on the affair: Cobham, “being one of the Lords committed to the Tower of London for complying with the Duke of Norfolk, in his design of marrying the Queen of Scotland, upon hope of pardon discovered all he knew therein.” The Baronage of England (London, 1675), II, 282.

  27. Arthur Collins, Letters and Memorials of State in the Reigns of Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth, King James (London, 1746), II, 25.

  28. Leslie Hotson describes some of these tensions in his chapter on the Cobhams in Shakespeare's Sonnets Dated and Other Essays, pp. 147-160.

  29. W. A. Scott Robertson, “Six Wills Relating to Cobham Hall,” Archaeologia Cantiana, XI (1877), 209-216.

  30. Printed by A. A. Arnold, “Cobham College,” Archaeologia Cantiana, XXVII (1905), 80. It was William Lambarde who established one of the first Protestant “hospitals” or “colleges” in Elizabethan England in 1576 at Greenwich.

  31. Historical Manuscripts Commission, Ninth Report, Part I, 286.

  32. Printed from the original by A. A. Arnold, op. cit., p. 81.

  33. F. D. Hoeniger has kindly informed me that the plaque above the ruined archway still stands in Kent.

  34. Mill Stephenson, A List of Monumental Brasses in the British Isles (London, 1926), p. 221.

  35. The list of commentators on the famous Table is almost endless. The most nearly complete article on the history of the emendations and revisions of this Folio line is that of E. G. Fogel, “‘A Table of Green Fields’ A Defense of the Folio Reading,” SQ, IX (1958), 485-492. See also the series of letters to the editor of the TLS in April and May of 1956: Leslie Hotson, “Falstaff's Death and Greenfield's,” TLS, April 6, p. 212; Sir Ernest Barker, “The Death of Falstaff,” TLS, April 13, p. 221; Oliffe Richmond, “The Death of Falstaff,” TLS, April 27, p. 253; N. Young, “The Death of Falstaff,” TLS, April 20, p. 237; Sir Ernest Barker, TLS, May 4, p. 269. In addition see an interesting article which suggests allusions to heraldry in the phrase: Hilda Hulme, “The Table of Green Fields,” Essays in Criticism, VI (1956), 117-119. This suggestion was answered by John S. Tuckey, “‘Table of Greene Fields’ Explained,” Essays in Criticism, VI (1956), 486-491. Philip Williams also considers the problem of the Table in “The Birth and Death of Falstaff Reconsidered,” SQ, VIII (1957), 359-365, and so does A. A. Mendilow, “Falstaff's Death of a Sweat,” SQ, IX (1958), 479-483.

  36. See John M. Steadman's article, “Falstaff's ‘Facies Hippocratica,’ A Note on Shakespeare and Renaissance Medical Theory,” Studia Neophilologia, XXIX (1957), 130-135; see also A. S. Macnalty's article, “Shakespeare and Sir Thomas More,” Essays and Studies by Members of the English Association, XII (1959), 36-57, which contains a section on the death of Falstaff and Shakespeare's possible use of More's De Quatuor Novissimis. In addition see Mendilow, op. cit., 479-483; Fleissner, op. cit., 47-55. For a survey of the ars moriendi literature of the later middle ages and the Renaissance, see the study by Sister Mary Catherine O'Connor, The Art of Dying Well (New York, 1942). One of these “courtesy books,” the Cordiale Siue De Quatour Nouissimis which Lord Rivers translated from the French of Jean Mielot, was printed by Caxton in 1479. This death literature enjoyed tremendous vogue. The signs of death (quibus signis cognoscitur moriens) are to be found in many books of the sixteenth century, and it is obvious, as least to me, that Shakespeare was aware of this large body of commonplace knowledge. He turns it, it would seem, into a most allusive and suggestive imagery.

  37. The First Folio does not contain scene and line numbers for Henry V. I am using the facsimile of the British Museum copy (G. 11631) for punctuation, but for line identification I am using the New Arden text (1960) which is based on the Cambridge Shakespeare text of 1891. The problem of the compositor enters into any discussion of punctuation. We know that Falstaff's death scene falls within the first twelve pages of Henry V which were set by the two Folio compositors (Hinman labels them A and B) working from a manuscript copy. If Hinman's observations are correct, sig. h4a was set by Compositor B after he had finished sig. h3v. Compositor A set sig. h4b (the column in which the “Table of greene fields” occurs), working simultaneously with Compositor B who was setting up the left column of this page to assist his partner. See Charlton Hinman, The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare (Oxford, 1963), II, 14-19. Since the particular use of the comma to separate compound subjects and objects occurs on both sig. h3v and sig. h4b, I am assuming that the compositors were following the punctuation of the manuscript. This cannot be proved, of course, because both men may have had the same habits of punctuation, habits which differed in comma usage from the manuscript before them. If we look for additional examples of this use of the comma in other plays in the First Folio, instances can be found. In King Lear: Turne all her Mothers paines, and benefits / To laughter, and contempt (I. iv. 310-11). In Hamlet: And I do doubt the hatch, and the disclose / Will be some danger. (III. i. 175-76). In Measure for Measure: Your brother, and his louer haue embrac'd (I. iv. 40). These and additional examples not only from Shakespeare's plays but from Donne and Browne as well are listed by Percy Simpson, Shakespearian Punctuation (Oxford, 1911), pp. 47-48.

  38. This latter meaning of Pen, which comes from the ancient Celtic language, was first suggested as a relevant definition by John Tuckey, op. cit., pp. 486-491.

  39. John Bartlett, A Complete Concordance (London, 1956), p. 1512.

  40. The technical term, obelisk, in use in England by 1549, apparently was never used by Shakespeare in his writings.

  41. A description of New College and excellent photographs of Cobham Hall, Cobham Church with its unusually fine brasses, and the village are given by Christopher Hussey, “Cobham, Kent: A Mediaeval Parish,” Country Life, XCV (1944), 200-203, 244-247. Ralph Arnold also describes New College in A Yeoman of Kent (London, 1949), pp. 11-17, 164.

  42. I should perhaps remark that OED lists a specialized definition of Table which is an architectural term meaning a horizontal projecting course or moulding, as a cornice, usually with a defining word, such as corbel-table, etc. (Table, sb., #12, a). Shakespeare may have had such terminology in mind; my preference of meanings, however, is for the definition of Table as a memorial tablet or stone. This meaning, it seems to me, fits more appropriately with the definition of Pen as shaft.

  43. The research for this article was made possible by a Henry E. Huntington Library grant-in-aid.

Judith Mossman (essay date spring 1994)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9828

SOURCE: Mossman, Judith. “Henry V and Plutarch's Alexander.Shakespeare Quarterly 45, no. 1 (spring 1994): 57-73.

[In the following essay, Mossman examines parallels between Henry in Shakespeare's Henry V and Alexander in Plutarch's Life of Alexander.]

When Alexander's sarcophagus was brought from its shrine, Augustus gazed at the body, then laid a crown of gold on its glass case and scattered some flowers to pay his respects. When they asked if he would like to see Ptolemy too, “I wished to see a king,” he replied, “I did not wish to see corpses.”

(Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 18.1)

Alexander is an evocative figure. as Suetonius's anecdote shows, he quickly became a potent symbol of kingship in the ancient world, and the passage of time only increased the fascination he held for the medieval world and for the Renaissance. Comparisons between Henry V and Alexander in Shakespeare's Henry V are a case in point. The Alexander alluded to in the play is usually thought of as a conglomerate mytho-historical figure, but it has occasionally been suggested that a more precise comparison is intended, namely one between Henry and the Alexander of Plutarch's Lives. I would like to argue that this more precise comparison is also a more subtle and telling one, and that an examination of the relationship between Plutarch's Life of Alexander and Shakespeare's Henry V has interesting implications for our understanding of the construction of Henry V as a whole, as well as for the characterization of Henry.1

The passages I shall consider have long been discussed and have often been seen as a source of irony by those who think that Shakespeare undercuts Henry's moral stature in the play. This tendency to find irony in the parallels seems to go back to Gerald Gould's account of the piece,2 and the ironic intent is argued regularly with a greater or lesser degree of subtlety. But the problems with a subversive, ironic reading have been pointed out by Stephen Greenblatt:

In the wake of full scale ironic readings and at a time when it no longer seems to matter very much, it is not at all clear that Henry V can be successfully performed as subversive.

The problem with any attempt to do so is that the play's central figure seems to feed on the doubts he provokes. … The very doubts that Shakespeare raises serve not to rob the king of his charisma but to heighten it, precisely as they heighten the theatrical interest of the play; the unequivocal, unambiguous celebrations of royal power with which the period abounds have no theatrical force and have long since fallen into oblivion.3

I find it hard to imagine an ironic reading of the play that would satisfactorily explain why Shakespeare would have wanted to subvert Henry; I am also uncertain about what sort of play one is left with if one assumes that Henry V sets out to denigrate its central character. I therefore share Greenblatt's skepticism and see my reading of the Plutarch-Henry V parallels as elaborating on, and perhaps constituting further support for, Greenblatt's statement.

The Alexander is one of Plutarch's longest and most elaborate lives. It begins with a famous programmatic statement of the biographer's task and method which will prove important to my argument:

For they must remember, that my intent is not to write histories, but only liues. For, the noblest deedes doe not alwayes shew mens vertues and vices, but ofte[n]times a light occasion, a word, or some sporte makes mens naturall dispositions and maners appeare more plaine, then the famous battells wonne, wherein are slaine tenne thowsande men, or the great armies, or cities wonne by siege or assault. For like as painters or drawers of pictures, which make no accompt of other partes of the bodie, do take the resemblaunces of the face and fauor of the countenance, in the which consisteth the iudgement of their maners & disposition: euen so they must geue vs leaue to seeke out the signes and tokens of the minde only, and thereby shewe the life of either of them, referring you vnto others to wryte the warres, battells, and other great thinges they did.


Plutarch's character of Alexander, the kind of moral and spiritual delineation promised in this passage, has been considered one of the biographer's most straightforwardly heroic portraits. This, in fact, is an oversimplification. Plutarch certainly hymns Alexander's heroical, epical qualities, but he also takes the opportunity to portray the king's darker side.4 Alexander's absolute power takes its toll on his moral stature: his responses to challenges to his authority become progressively more violent, more that of a tyrant. There is a definite sequence: he meets the supposed danger from his physician Philip of Acarnania with courage but counters the conspiracy of Philotas and Parmenio with guile. He kills Cleitus in a drunken fury, which he bitterly regrets, then wages a sustained and cynical campaign against the philosopher Callisthenes and inflicts a painful and lingering death on him. Alexander's original moderation and self-control are corrupted by oriental, tyrannical luxury and excessive drinking; his death is premature and his last days made miserable by superstition and fear very different from his earlier superb confidence in himself:

Nowe afte[r] that Alexander had left his trust and confidence in the goddes, his minde was so troubled and affraide, that no straunge thinge happened vnto him (how litle so euer it was) but he tooke it straight for a signe and prediction from the godds: so that his tent was alwayes full of Priestes and Soothsayers that did nothing but sacrifice and purifie, and tende vnto diuinements. So horrible a thing, is the mistrust and contempt of the godds, when it is begotten in the harts of men, and supersticion also so dreadfull, that it filleth the gilty consciences and fearefull hearts, like water distilling from above: as at that time it filled Alexander with all folly, after that fear had once possessed him.


It is important for the interpretation of the Alexander and for what follows that Plutarch's parallel Roman life is that of Caesar, who is also great but flawed and who is also corrupted by absolute power. Plutarch's influence on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar has never been doubted.5Henry V was probably written immediately before Julius Caesar, early in 1599; it seems highly likely that Shakespeare not only read the Caesar but also read the Alexander at the time he was writing Henry V. There is internal evidence, as well as prima facie probability, for thinking so.6

There is much in Plutarch's Alexander that could have led Shakespeare to perceive a link between Plutarch's hero and Henry V. The link was already nascent in medieval writings. The medieval tradition, dependent on the Pseudo-Callisthenic Romance of Alexander, had created a remarkable conglomerate figure compounded of history, myth, pseudo-science, and fairy tale and had established Alexander as a type of the idealized medieval prince.7 As early as 1411-12, Thomas Hoccleve, in his Regiment of Princes, had associated Henry V with Alexander, dedicating the book to Henry when he was still Prince of Wales. The famous story of Henry V and the tennis balls (enacted in 1.2 of Shakespeare's play) contains further suggestive echoes of the medieval Alexander figure; as Oskar Emmerig has shown, the incident in which an arrogant foreign prince insults a much younger but more brilliant and heroic ruler by means of a humiliating gift has its origins in the story of Darius and Alexander in Pseudo-Callisthenes.8 But apart from this medieval background, a number of features of the North translation of Plutarch's Alexander might also have suggested more extended and elaborate comparisons between the two men; even the tennis-ball incident is reminiscent of a passage in North:

Furthermore, hauing intelligence that the Thebans were reuolted, and that the Athenians also were confederate with them: to make them know that he was a man, he marched with his armie towardes the streight of Thermopiles, saying that he would make Demosthenes the Orator see (who in his oratio[n]s, whilest he was in Illyria, & in the contry of the Triballians, called him child) that he was growen a stripling passing through Thessaly, & should finde him a man before the walles of Athens.


There are other, broader parallels between their careers: both men attain great eminence when very young through military conquest of a larger and richer country than their own. This country, with which there is a previous history of conflict, can be represented as more corrupt, as more effeminate and luxurious, than the apparently weaker aggressor. Both kings at one stage or another of their careers have a reputation for drinking and riotous living. Both attempt to secure their victories by means of marriage. Both die young and their conquests do not remain under the control of their rightful successor.

To object that these similarities are superficial would be to miss the point. They are precisely the sort of links Plutarch himself stresses in his comparisons and the sort that may well have governed his pairings of Greek and Roman lives.9 As a form of characterization, the comparisons are often disappointingly unsubtle, serving only to spotlight the bare bones; the subtlety is to be found in the individual lives. While Plutarch's comparison between Alexander and Caesar is lost (seventeenth-century editors supplied their own), those that survive are not very different in tone from that which I have suggested above between Alexander and Henry V, though much longer and more detailed and written specifically with an eagerness to establish which of the two subjects is morally more admirable. To write with such a goal may seem strange to us, but it probably seemed a good deal less strange to Shakespeare, who sets out his own extended comparison of Henry and Alexander in Henry V, 4.7.13-53. George Steevens suggested in 1766 that this passage was meant to ridicule Plutarch.10 It is hard to believe that this is so, or that the comparison is there only to undercut Henry through his dealings with Falstaff. I would argue rather that by encouraging us to consider Henry in parallel with Alexander, Shakespeare seeks to explain certain features of his play's construction as well as to characterize Henry not as a cold-blooded monster but as a prince. I argue further that there is something much more subtle in this method of characterizing Henry than straightforward praise by means of a historical or mythohistorical exemplar, or than the rather sneaky undercutting envisaged by some critics.

The passage that initiates the comparison between Henry and Alexander appears early in the play, where Canterbury eulogizes the new king: “Turn him to any cause of policy, / The Gordian knot of it he will unloose, / Familiar as his garter” (1.1.45-47). The episode of the Gordian knot is a famous one in the career of Alexander. (Interestingly, it belongs to the historical Alexander rather than to the mythic one: it is related by Arrian as well as Plutarch but is not found in Pseudo-Callisthenes.) Alexander is usually represented as cutting the Gordian knot rather than untying it.11 Here the word “unloose” stresses the ease and smoothness of Henry's politics, implying perhaps that Henry is more politically accomplished than Alexander: Alexander has to cheat a bit; Henry can achieve the apparently impossible without taking short cuts.12 This is the first of many passages where Henry emerges as similar to Alexander but morally superior to him. “We are no tyrant, but a Christian king,” says Henry (1.2.241), echoing the opinion of Erasmus and other writers that the Christian is almost inevitably superior even to the excellent and virtuous pagan.13 This contrast may underlie the important difference through which Alexander falls prey to superstition toward the end of his life while Henry remains extremely devout, stressing that God alone is responsible for the victory at Agincourt (4.8.108-28).

The most obvious virtue represented as common to both kings—but from which Alexander famously lapses in Plutarch—is self-control. Henry first claims this virtue in 1.2: “We are no tyrant, but a Christian king; / Unto whose grace [i.e., the grace of kingship] our passion is as subject / As is our wretches fetter'd in our prisons” (ll. 241-43). Henry's claim is borne out by the rest of the scene, especially in his response to the Dauphin's mocking gift of tennis balls. Here and throughout the play, even Henry's rage is controlled.14 In 2.2, for example, he holds himself in until the conspirators trap themselves; he does not denounce them until lines 79-144. His appalling threats against Harfleur, as Traversi has noted, show Henry as a controlling force swept aside by the furious flood of war; the threats are uttered not in anger but as a bargaining counter to secure the surrender of the city.15

Similarly Henry's order to cut the prisoners' throats at Agincourt is prompted by expediency, not by rage at the death either of the boys or even of his own brother. That Henry orders the prisoners killed not in a blind fury but with full presence of mind has been held against him;16 but it is perhaps easy to overestimate the effect of the deaths of some anonymous French prisoners on the sensibilities of an Elizabethan audience. That Shakespeare's play has none of the pathetic language Edward Hall uses when describing their deaths does not mean that Shakespeare is leaving the pathos to be created by our imaginations or by the players but rather that he is playing it down.17 He also blurs Henry's motivation: when Henry sees the carnage in the camp, he is angry (“I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant” [4.7.57-58]) and repeats the order to kill the prisoners, this time speaking out of righteous indignation. This blurred motivation gives Henry the benefit of the doubt; we cannot fairly criticize him for being either too cold-blooded or too carried away with vengeful passion. In the event, his response to the death of the boys seems a measured one, mediated through a herald; and his treatment of Montjoy remains courteous as ever.

Alexander's response in parallel situations in the Life is much less self-controlled. Where his initial sophrosune falters and finally fails, Plutarch is most critical of him. Where, in 2.2, Henry is permitted to shine in contrast to the traitorous lords, Alexander's response to conspiracy, as I noted above, is progressively more tyrannical.18 Henry's “sack” of Harfleur before his main campaign against France is merely verbal; Alexander actually sacks Thebes before setting out for Asia and allows atrocities to take place: this is the beginning of Dionysus's evil influence over him.19 Alexander slaughters the inhabitants of Persia with far less excuse than is afforded Henry by the heat of battle and the immense disproportion of the English and French armies. Plutarch, moreover, makes Alexander responsible for the carnage: “There was then great slaughter made in Persia of the prisoners that were taken. For Alexander him selfe wryteth, that he commaunded the men shoulde be put to the sworde, thinking that the best waye to serue his turne” (743). If the comparison with Plutarch is valid, it so far tends to support the view that Henry is being set up as a more virtuous version of Alexander. It is important to emphasize, though, that this type of syncrisis is extremely flexible. Plutarch himself encourages us to compare his subjects with a wide variety of historical and mythological models, thereby giving himself scope to develop different aspects of the subject's character. The great advantage of such comparisons is their potential complexity. A comparison with Achilles, for example, can suggest heroic bravery, stubborn intransigence, tragic self-determination, even homoerotic attraction. A series of comparisons with Alexander has the potential for equal polyvalency.20

The second direct comparison with Alexander occurs in Henry's great speech at Harfleur:

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 sheath'd their swords for lack of argument.
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war.


In this important and revealing passage Henry transfers the Alexander paradigm from himself to his men's English ancestors, urging his men to live up to the multifaceted paradigm that is “Alexander” and in turn to impose it on the enemy.21 Here Henry accords the ultimate compliment of a comparison with the heroic Alexander to the men who fought at Crécy in 1346 under the Black Prince, and thus to his own troops; he demands, and receives, supreme heroism. This is part of a general tendency in the play to show Henry as offering fellowship to his followers as well as firm leadership. In the scene with Williams, this tendency is explored in a more sophisticated and ambivalent way, though in a minor key.22 It is one of Henry's most beguiling traits, as it continues to be in the later depictions of military heroes.

Not surprisingly, Alexander has the same capacity to inspire his men to superhuman effort. Chasing Darius with a troop of horse, Alexander is in dire need of water. He encounters some Macedonians with water in skins, which they offer him:

Alexander asked them, to whom they caried this water. They answered him againe, that they caried it to their children, but yet we would haue your grace to liue: for though we lose them, we may get more children. When they had sayd so, Alexander tooke the helmet with water, and perceiuing that the men of armes that were about him, and had followed him, did thrust out their neckes to looke vpon this water, he gaue the water backe againe vnto them that had geuen it him, and thanked them, but dranke none of it. For, sayd he, if I drinke alone, all these men here will faint. Then they seeing the noble corage and curtesie of Alexander, cried out that he should lead them: and therewithall beganne to spurre their horses, saying, that they were not wearie nor a thirst, nor did thinke themselues mortall, so long as they had such a king.


Henry V's stress on the men who fought at Crécy (see, for example, 1.2.102-14 and 146-65; 2.4.50-64 and 84-95; and 4.7.94-107) is an important part of the play's texture of historical sensibility. While the mythological and ancient historical examples loom in the background, Crécy provides a more direct model, all serving as reminders that posterity will one day regard the men who fought at Agincourt in the same way they view the heroes of antiquity or the army of the Black Prince. As Henry promises his men: “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 …” (4.3.56-59). The Chorus adds a further historical dimension when anticipating Essex's return from Ireland, which it compares not only to Henry's return from Agincourt but also to the triumph of a Caesar (5.1.22-35). Such a feeling for the heroic past is important in the Alexander, too, with a parallel division between the remote mythical past and the more immediate historical background:23 Alexander himself aspires to the heroism of his ancestor Achilles and deliberately models himself after him; Alexander undertakes the invasion of Persia with both Persian attempts to conquer Greece and the myth of Troy very much in mind.

Henry and Alexander also share a love of honor. Plutarch tells us:

But on thother side, the ambition & desire he had of honor, shewed a certaine greatnes of minde & noble corage, passing his yeares. … For when they brought him newes that his father had taken some famous city, or had won some great battell, he was nothing glad to heare it, but would say to his playfellowes: sirs, my father will haue all, I shall haue nothing left me to conquer with you, that shalbe ought worth. For he delighting neither in pleasure nor riches, but only in valliantnes & honor, thought, that the greater conquests & realmes his father should leaue him, the lesse he should haue to do for himselfe.


Henry, too, is presented as “delighting neither in pleasure nor riches, but only in valliantnes & honor”:

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It earns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.


A final characterizing parallel: Henry's determination to conquer is expressed in a trope that can be seen as distinctively classical and typically Plutarchan. Henry phrases his desire for glory in terms of the kind of tomb he will earn, saying that he will either conquer France

Or lay these bones in an unworthy urn,
Tombless, with no remembrance over them:
Either our history shall with full mouth
Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave,
Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,
Not worshipp'd with a waxen epitaph.


The idea of the significance of one's tomb, especially the idea that tombs can speak, is a recurring theme in the Alexander and elsewhere in Plutarch. Shakespeare picks up the idea again at 4.3.95, when the combination of muteness and frailty presented in 1.2.232-33 is overturned: “A many of our bodies shall no doubt / Find native graves; upon the which, I trust, / Shall witness live in brass of this day's work” (4.3.95-97). The “witness [that lives] in brass” carries both the normal reference to church memorials and imperishability and a secondary sense of a voice that is loud and indefatigable, like the brazen voice of the Homeric herald Stentor.25

In terms of structure, one can now discern how the shape of the first part of Henry V might have been suggested by Plutarch's narrative: both works begin with apologies that, while professing to excuse the shortcomings of their respective genres, in fact bring out their strengths. Biography, Plutarch argues in the passage quoted earlier, can in fact present a more accurate and intimate portrait of its subject than can unwieldy history; and drama, Shakespeare urges, when assisted by imagination, can distill reality, “Turning th' accomplishment of many years / Into an hour-glass” (1.Pro.30-31). In general, Shakespeare's play with genre here may help to signal that his approach to Henry's career will employ ideas and techniques more commonly associated with other kinds of writing.26

After the initial apologies, both works open with the topic of the character of the two princes before they become king, Plutarch straightforwardly unfolding scenes of Alexander's childhood and his subsequent quarrels with Philip, Shakespeare by means of the brief conversation between Canterbury and Ely. One certainly cannot press structural parallels too far: Henry's expedition to France gains momentum far more quickly than Alexander's attack on Asia, and the conspiracies against Alexander do not take place until he has made himself virtual master of the Persian empire. This difference, however, is in itself significant. Plutarch positions the conspiracies at a point in the narrative where they will help to sketch the deleterious effect of absolute monarchy on even such a laudable character as Alexander's; Shakespeare, who does not want to show corruption in Henry but rather the emotional cost of power on him and on others, places the conspiracy of Scroop, Cambridge, and Ely before the clean and glorious enterprise of the conquest of France and uses it rather to establish Henry as a worthy leader of the expedition.27

Harfleur enables us to see Henry in action and in relation to his men before the final test of Agincourt. In the greater scope of Plutarchan biography, this function is fulfilled by a far larger number of incidents that take place in Greece and in Persia. The contrast between the actual sack of Thebes and the verbal sack of Harfleur has already been noted. One may also observe that the stress on Henry's isolation and the magnitude of his personal contribution to the battle is matched in Plutarch by the account of Alexander's role in the battle of the Granicus, the first battle in Asia, where he leads his men across the river with splendid courage.

The Alexander might also have suggested the scenes where the French discuss Henry and, in doing so, reveal their own weakness as well as characterizing him and the English. The narrative benefit of showing the enemy's point of view is demonstrated in (for example) the passage where the death of the wife of Alexander's enemy Darius is announced to him (738). She, together with Darius's mother and his two daughters, had been living in captivity in Alexander's camp. Plutarch had already told us of the wonderful continence of Alexander in keeping the women unmolested and in comfort in secluded quarters (733). Darius laments that his dead wife will not have a proper burial; when the messenger reassures him, he assumes that she must have become Alexander's concubine. When he is again reassured, he prays that if the Persians must lose their empire, then it should go only to Alexander (738-39). Through this narrative, Plutarch is able both to magnify Alexander's nobility by showing it through Persian eyes and, at the same time, to give us a vignette of the generous, emotional, doomed Darius.

Shakespeare's major source for the narrative of the battle of Agincourt is Holinshed,28 but the shaping of the play's account of the battle also has much in common with Plutarch's shaping of his narrative of the final battle against Darius, the battle of Gaugamela. The circumstances of the two battles are not dissimilar, and Plutarch offered some techniques of scene-shaping which could be adapted to Shakespeare's purposes. Plutarch might, for example, have influenced the famous speech of the Chorus at the beginning of Act 4, which presents an unforgettable picture of the two armies so close to each other that they can almost hear the conversations in each other's camp. The scene may well have more than one precursor,29 but it is hard to resist the idea that Plutarch's account of Gaugamela is among them:

… both their armies being in sight of the other, Darius kept his men in battell ray, and went him selfe by torche light viewing his bandes and companies. Alexander on thother side whilest his Macedonian souldiers slept, was before his tent with Aristander the Soothsayer, and made certaine secret ceremonies and sacrifices vnto Apollo. The auncient Captaines of the Macedonians, specially Parmenio, seeing all the vallie betwext the riuer of Niphates, and the mountaines of the Gordieians, all on a bright light with the fires of the barbarous people, and hearing a dreadfull noise as of a confused multitude of people that filled their campe with the sound thereof: they were amazed, and consulted, that in one day30 it was in maner vnpossible to fight a battell with such an incredible multitude of people.


There is no parallel here for the “little touch of Harry in the night,” but there are a number of elements in common with the night before Agincourt: the campfires and the noise carrying across the small gap between the two armies; the uneven odds, which have an effect on everyone but the leader of the outnumbered force; the isolation of the leader (Alexander in secret rites while his men sleep, Henry patrolling the camp in disguise). But what should be noticed above all is that Plutarch's biography demonstrates the narrative benefits of focusing on the night before a great battle, building suspense by stressing the physical proximity of the two armies and emphasizing the despair of experienced and brave soldiers in the face of such odds. Only the leader, portrayed in magnificent isolation, is confident—but he is supremely sure of himself and his men, and rightly so.

Shakespeare's transformation of this scene magnifies the suspense and deepens the characterization of the enemy (the overanxious Darius being less interesting than the superbly languid French) and above all of the hero-king, whose self-doubts and manifest imperfections31 dignify rather than undercut his subsequent heroics. Henry's isolation is not magnificent, but it does profoundly engage us and touch us in a way that Alexander's certainty does not. There is no place for eve-of-battle doubts in the makeup of an Alexander. But a Christian king could appropriately display humility, penitence, and a sense of responsibility. It would be wrong to pretend that Henry answers all of William's arguments to our satisfaction or to his own; but we should not assume that Henry is thereby meant to become less sympathetic.

A further similarity between the two historical situations is that owing to the disparity of their forces, the baggage and the camp of the smaller armies are in danger of being lost. In Plutarch this danger is highlighted so that Alexander can respond to the threat with the complete confidence he displays throughout the battle:

Parmenio … sent immediatly to aduertise Alexander, that all their campe and cariage would be lost, if he did not send presently to aide the rereward. When these newes came to Alexander from Parmenio, he had already geuen the signall of battell vnto his men for to geue charge. Whereupon he aunswered the messenger that brought him these newes, that he should tell Parmenio he was a mad man and out of his wits, not remembering that if they wanne the battell, they should not only saue their owne cariage, but also winne the cariage of their enemies: & if it were their chaunce to lose it, then that they should not neede to care for their cariage, nor for their slaues, but only to thinke to dye honorably, valliantly fighting for his life.


The French raiding of the English camp, following and improving on Holinshed, is arranged so as to characterize the king and his enemy but to different effect than in Plutarch. The raid is prepared for with dramatic irony by the Boy's speech at the end of 4.4, and two sympathetic characters, Fluellen and Gower, are given the task of stressing how cowardly and unchivalrous an action it is. Shakespeare places Henry's angry response just before it becomes clear that the day is won, an extraordinarily prominent position. The righteousness of the king's anger is thus clearly set up.

It is at the central moment, just after the massacre at the camp and before we see Henry's reaction to it and to the news of victory, that the most extended and important Alexander comparison is situated (4.7.23-52). Much has been written about this passage;32 its position and Shakespeare's choice of Fluellen as its speaker mark it out as being of essential importance. Shakespeare uses Fluellen, a character whose status is roughly comparable with that of Falstaff, to remind us of the old knight, rather than having one of the noble characters recall him. This implies that the king and his party have put him behind them. A reference to Falstaff from one of the royal party at this point, even if it could be motivated, would give the impression of vindictiveness, something that it seems as though Shakespeare wants to avoid. Earlier Fluellen had been played off against Falstaff's old friends Pistol and Bardolph, and now he can appropriately be used to recall the fat knight himself. The comparison between Henry and Alexander springs easily to Fluellen's lips; he is an admirer of antiquity.33 That Fluellen forgets Falstaff's name makes him seem an objective observer: he has no personal grudge and is merely expressing his satisfaction at Henry's reformed conduct since he became king. But that Falstaff's very name is beginning to be forgotten is extremely pathetic and emphasizes the completeness of Henry's transformation. Fluellen's inimitable rhetoric is also a superb tool for the task and will ensure that Falstaff is recalled more vividly than Fluellen himself would perhaps approve.

It is clear that Dr. Johnson was right about this mention of Falstaff: “This is the last time that Falstaff can make sport. The poet was loath to part with him and has continued his memory as long as he could.” Of the “comick personages” as a group, he comments: “I believe every reader regrets their departure.”34 We do greatly regret them. But what effect does that have on our view of the king and the play? To answer that, we should go back and look at the incident in Plutarch on which Fluellen bases the core of his comparison: the death of Cleitus.35 The event is surrounded by many incidents that are given supernatural significance by Plutarch. Alexander has a sinister dream before the fatal day, and Cleitus abandons a sacrifice in order to attend his last banquet. At the banquet Cleitus accuses Alexander of favoring Persians and Persian customs and of behaving like a tyrant. Alexander calls Cleitus a coward; Cleitus reminds Alexander that he saved Alexander's life at the Granicus; and the quarrel escalates:

Clitus for all this would not geue ouer his impudency and mallapertnesse, but cried out, and bad Alexander speake openlie what he had to say, or else not to bidde free men come to suppe with him that were wont to speake franckely: if not, to keepe with the barbarous slaues that honored his Persian girdell, and long white garment. Then coulde Alexander no longer hold his choller, but tooke an apple that was vpon his table, and threw it at Clitus, and looked for his sworde, the which Aristophanes, one of his gard that waited on him, had of purpose taken from him. And when euerie man came straight about him to stay him, and to pray him to be contented: he immediatly rose from the borde, and called his gard vnto him in the Macedonian tongue, (which was a signe of great trouble to followe after it) and commaunded a trompetor to sound the allarme. But he drawing backe, would not sound: whereuppon Alexander strake him with his fist. Notwithstanding, the trompetor was greatly commended afterwards, for that he only kept the campe that they rose not. All this could not quiet Clitus, whereupon his frends with much a doe thrust him out of the halle: but he came in againe at an other dore, and arrogantly and vnreuerently rehearsed this verse of the Poet Euripides, out of Andromaches tragedie:

Alas for sorrow euill wayes
Are into Græce crept now a dayes.

Then Alexander taking a partisan from one of his gard, as Clitus was comming towardes him, and had lift vp the hanging before the dore, he ranne him through the body, so that Clitus fell to the ground, and fetching one grone, died presently. Alexanders choller had left him straight, and he became maruelous sorowfull: and when he saw his frendes round about him say neuer a word, he pluckt the partisan out of his body, & would haue thrust it into his owne throte. Howbeit his gard about him caught him by the hands, & caried him perforce into his chamber: & there he did nothing all that night but weepe bitterly, & the next day following, vntill such time as he was able to crie no more, but lying on the ground, onely lay sighing.


The most striking thing about this episode is just how unlike Henry's behavior it is. Of course Gower makes that point, and so have the critics.36 Alexander is a man possessed, almost under supernatural influence, and Cleitus's intransigence is such that we wonder whether he, too, is not under an evil spell. But Alexander behaves with a quite extraordinary brutality that threatens to infect the whole camp: if it had not been for the resistance of the trumpeter, the disturbance would have become a battle. Fluellen's copious eloquence can convey some of this without detailed narrative: the piling up of synonyms is not merely comic Welsh windbaggery but gradually builds an impression of extremity which is important:

Alexander, God knows, and you know, in his rages, and his furies, and his wraths, and his cholers, and his moods, and his displeasures, and his indignations, and also being a little intoxicates in his prains, did, in his ales and his angers, look you, kill his best friend, Cleitus.


I have quoted Plutarch's account of the killing at some length in order to challenge the idea, put forward by Gary Taylor,37 that because Alexander kills Cleitus while drunk, he is somehow less to blame, or retains more of our sympathy, than Henry is or does because he dismisses Falstaff in cold sobriety. It is also inadequate, I would argue, to focus on the contrast between the drunken king and the sober one and conclude that the superiority of temperance over sottishness is the issue here. Fluellen, after all, mentions Alexander's consumption of alcohol only after enunciating seven synonyms for anger. Plutarch, too, elsewhere in the Life, claims that Alexander's drunkenness has been exaggerated (749-50), and his account of the banquet, while it acknowledges that it was a boozy evening, is far more concerned with the baleful atmosphere of inevitability we have already noticed. The influence of Dionysus manifests itself not primarily in heavy drinking but rather in the sinister tragic atmosphere, marked by the quotation from Euripides, which is found only in Plutarch. (Arrian's account of the incident is much more matter-of-fact.) Plutarch, Fluellen, and Shakespeare, I would argue, are much more concerned with Alexander's spiritual state than with his spiritous habits. The effects of kingship and lack of restraint on character are at issue here—the price Alexander pays, and forces others to pay, for his magnificence. For the first time, we are made to feel that Alexander's royal status seriously threatens his moral standing.

Fluellen, in contrast, in his comments about Henry, is not observing a new phenomenon in Henry's makeup so much as setting the seal on something that we know to have already taken place. The rejection of Falstaff, which lies in the past, has been confirmed by almost everything the king has said and done during this play. The fate of Bardolph, which acts as a double for and a reminder of Falstaff's rejection, is important here. For one thing, it should be noted that Shakespeare arranges matters so that the king himself does not directly order Bardolph's hanging but rather approves it when it is almost a fait accompli (3.6.110-17). In other words, it is a rejection and not a judicial killing. For another, Henry's approval of the execution is the preface to a kingly and humane (if pragmatically expressed) general order regulating and restraining the conduct of the entire army. The point of this arrangement is to make us feel pity for Bardolph (and Pistol) as well as for Henry, who must be a king rather than a friend. Obviously Henry's lines can be played in a number of different ways; but his civilized attitude toward the innocent French does not fit well with a reading that makes him a cold-blooded monster.

It seems possible that the rejection of Falstaff in Fluellen's comparison is meant to arouse similar twofold pity. In Plutarch a striking feature of the account of the killing of Cleitus is that Alexander is profoundly remorseful and almost kills himself out of grief: his remorse is necessary if the reader's good opinion of Alexander is to survive even in a modified form. Henry expresses no remorse for the rejection of Falstaff or of Bardolph. But there is a fundamental difference between the actions of Alexander and Henry. While the killing of Cleitus and the rejection of Falstaff are comparable in terms of their devastating effect on the victim (as Mistress Quickly says of Falstaff, “The king has killed his heart” [2.1.88]), they differ sharply otherwise. Alexander kills Cleitus because of the influence of Dionysus and the corruption that Plutarch sees as forever imperilling greatness; Henry “kills” Falstaff because he has to grow from a “vain, giddy, shallow, humorous youth” (2.4.28) to realize his potential greatness and to become a true king. Thus Shakespeare cannot arouse our pity for Henry with a frantic scene of self-loathing. He has, however, already made us aware that Henry suffers under the heavy burden that his kingship lays upon him: “O hard condition! / Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath / Of every fool …” (4.1.239-41). So Harry Monmouth was indeed “in his right wits and his good judgements” when he rejected Falstaff: his kingship demanded it. This reminder is positioned where it is because the rejection of Falstaff was necessary for the triumph of Agincourt to take place. Of course we cannot feel anything but pity for “the fat knight with the great-belly doublet: he was full of jests, and gipes, and knaveries, and mocks”—especially when he is brought before us so vividly in Fluellen's copious description, and especially when we realize that his very name is fading and think back to the Hostess's poignant account of his death. But it does not follow that the appropriate response to Henry is therefore condemnation. The Alexander comparison is not straightforward: on the one hand, it might imply that kingship is so harsh that kings cannot retain their morality; on the other, that kingship requires acts that take their toll on the monarch as well as on others. In favor of the second view is Fluellen's presentation of the comparison and the fact that Henry's action is simply not as heinous as Alexander's. The original rejection was not meant to kill. As Prince John said of Henry:

He hath intent his wonted followers
Shall all be very well provided for,
But all are banish'd till their conversations
Appear more wise and modest to the world.

(2 Henry IV, 5.5.98-101)

Had Shakespeare wished to cast doubt on Henry's moral status, it would have been more damning—and a more symmetrical comparison—to have Fluellen mention Bardolph instead of Falstaff.

One final structural similarity between Plutarch's life and Shakespeare's play should be mentioned—the parallel effect of their epilogues.38 Plutarch ends his account of Alexander's death on a gloomy note by recounting the murderous politicking of his wife, Roxane, and his general, Perdiccas; the latter makes a pawn out of Alexander's idiot half-brother, Arridaeus, in order to become king:

Perdiccas came to be king, immediatly after Alexanders death, by meanes of Aridaeus, whom he kept about him for his gard and safety. This Aridaeus, beeing borne of a common strumpet and common woman, called Philinna, was halfe lunaticke, not by nature nor by chaunce: but, as it is reported, put out of his wits when he was a young towardly boy, by drinkes, which Olympias caused to be geuen him, and thereby continued franticke.


The Chorus's last speech in Henry V similarly notes the transience of Henry's achievement and the disastrous aftermath of his reign. Not that either Plutarch or Shakespeare suggests that their hero's achievement was negligible because it was transient. As Shakespeare says of Henry:

Small time, but in that small most greatly liv'd
          This star of England: Fortune made his sword,
By which the world's best garden he achiev'd,
          And of it left his son imperial lord.


Achilles, Alexander's model in Plutarch, compounded for a short but glorious life rather than a long obscure one; Alexander may be said to have done the same. Perhaps in the Chorus's Epilogue there is an implied comparison between them and Henry. However that may be, it seems plausible that Shakespeare wished somehow to remind the audience of Henry's death and the breakup of his realm, not so much to subvert Henry and his life's work as to show that even kings are subject to Fortune, or to God (as Henry himself has stressed both before and after Agincourt). This is broadly the purpose of Plutarch's ending, too. The Life is full of incidents that prompt Alexander to reflect on the transience and uncertainty of greatness; the last chapter shows that Alexander, like Cyrus and Xerxes, was subject to this universal law. Shakespeare elsewhere, famously, follows a long tradition and uses Alexander as a symbol of the ephemerality of human greatness;39 in the Epilogue, Henry, as he conformed to and improved on Alexander's example in other ways, is seen as following him in this as well.

In its almost exclusive focus on Henry, Henry V is much more like a life in the Plutarchan manner than a chronicle history play, as becomes apparent when we compare it to the parts of Henry IV or Henry VI or even to Julius Caesar. It is perhaps significant that Shakespeare conflated more than one Plutarch life to construct Julius Caesar, and that Antony and Cleopatra is based on a life that concentrates on more than one figure to an extent unique in Plutarch's work. Henry V, on the other hand, has the structure of a classic Plutarch life, revolving around one central figure, with scenes and set pieces contrived so as to reveal the complex features of that dominating character.40 I would argue that Shakespeare found the figure of Alexander and his treatment by Plutarch extremely useful, not only for filling out the subtle texture of the Alexander comparisons but also for suggesting ways in which a portrait of a national hero could be made more memorable, more moving, more universal. As the Alexander makes clear, raising questions about the responsibilities, penalties, and hardships of kingship, and about the perils of association with it, is quintessentially Plutarchan. It is a technique that brings hero worship close to tragedy and exalts a Jingo hero into a truly great Shakespearean figure.


  1. The most direct link between Plutarch's Alexander and Henry V is made in a fine study by Ronald S. Berman titled “Shakespeare's Alexander: Henry V” (College English 23 [1962]: 532-39): Berman suggests that “in certain ways Henry is a reconstruction of Plutarch's Alexander” (532). I am in sympathy with his view of Henry as a mixture of brilliance and darkness (see, e.g., 539). Berman stresses the philosophical ties between the two texts and the two figures (“Both Alexander and Henry are philosophical heroes” [534]); I have concentrated on a more literary relationship. In his essay “The Alexandrian Allusion in Shakespeare's Henry V” (English Literary Renaissance 2 [1972]: 321-33), Robert P. Merrix also identifies Plutarch as a major ingredient in Shakespeare's Henry (328ff.) but confines his attention to Fluellen's allusion to Alexander and does not discuss the other Alexander allusions in the play. Although his discussion of the ways in which such allusions may work is very interesting, he comes to conclusions with which I cannot agree, maintaining that “the allusion … exposes one of several flaws in Henry's character” (321).

    Quotations from Shakespeare follow the Arden edition prepared by J. H. Walter (London, 1954). Quotations from Plutarch follow the English translation made by Sir Thomas North from the French version of Jacques Amyot and titled The Liues of the Noble Grecians and Romanes, compared together by that graue learned Philosopher and Historiographer, Plutarke of Chaeronea … (London, 1579), 722-63.

  2. “Irony and Satire in Henry V,” first published in 1919 and reprinted in Shakespeare: Henry V. A Casebook, ed. M. Quinn (London, 1969), 81-94; see also Merrix, who says that the allusion to Alexander is used to “satirize the seemingly pious king” (332).

  3. Shakespearean Negotiations: The Circulation of Social Energy in Renaissance England (Oxford, 1988), 63.

  4. I have argued this elsewhere; see J. M. Mossman, “Tragedy and Epic in Plutarch's Alexander,Journal of Hellenic Studies 108 (1988): 83-93. My contention is that Plutarch uses epic references and reminiscences to praise Alexander and employs tragic quotations and coloring to delineate his darker side.

  5. On Plutarch and Julius Caesar, see, for example, M. W. MacCallum, Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background (London, 1967).

  6. See Berman, 532-33. The play can be dated with remarkable precision: see J. H. Walter's introduction to his Arden edition, esp. xi-xii; and Gary Taylor's introduction to the Oxford Shakespeare edition (Oxford, 1982), esp. 7-8.

  7. See George Carey's remarkable book The Medieval Alexander (Cambridge, 1956). Alexander became the ideal courtly prince in the Roman d' Alexandre (c. 1177); in the English tradition, see also King Alisaunder (c. 1330), based on the Roman de Toute Chevalerie of Thomas of Kent.

  8. Emmerig, “Dariusbrief und Tennisballgeschichte,” Englische Studien 39 (1908): 362-401. He traces the motif from Pseudo-Callisthenes through the medieval tradition and documents its transference from Alexander to other individuals, including Henry V.

  9. The topic of Plutarch's syncrisis is a large and interesting one. See C. B. R. Pelling's illuminating study “Synkrisis in Plutarch's Lives,Miscellanea Plutarchea, ed. Frederick E. Brenk and Italo Gallo (Ferrara, Italy, 1986), 83-96.

  10. G. Steevens, Plays of William Shakespeare, 4 vols. (London, 1766).

  11. In fact there is no other reference before Shakespeare, or indeed until the eighteenth century, given in the OED to his untying it rather than cutting it. Sir Thomas Browne is surely following Plutarch in giving cutting or untying as alternatives (Christian Morality, Bk. 2, sec. 13). On this allusion, see Berman, 535. See also Taylor's comment on these lines.

  12. But it may also be that Shakespeare has in mind the variant tradition recorded by Plutarch:

    It is commonly reported, that Alexander prouing to vndoe that bande, and finding no endes to vndoe it by, they were so many folde wreathed one within the other: he drew out his sword, and cut the knot in middest, So that then many endes appeared. But Aristobulus writeth, that he had quickly vndone the knot by taking the bolt out of the axtree, which holdeth the beame and body of the charret and so seuered them a soonder.


  13. See Walter, ed., on 4.7.13-53 and see his introduction, xiv-xvii. He does not unpack this idea to the full and pursue it through the play, though, or explore fully the associations of Alexander as the ideal king. The idea of the automatic superiority of the Christian over the pagan was current in the Renaissance in terms of writing, too; thus John Christopherson, in the dedicatory letter to William Parr which prefaces his Greek play 'Ιεφθάε (modeled on Euripides's Iphigeneia in Aulis) says that although he is not such a good poet as Euripides, nevertheless he is confident that the truth of his biblical subject matter will more than compensate for his lack of poetic skill.

    The virtues that Renaissance moralists like Erasmus and Chelidonius urge on princes are derived from Plutarch's moral works (such as Ad principem ineruditum, Maxime cum principibus philosopho esse disserendum, and so on). Erasmus assisted in the preparation of the Aldine edition of Plutarch (1509), and it is difficult to overestimate Plutarch's influence on him. The subjects of Plutarch's Liues frequently illustrate the precepts of his moral works, either positively or negatively; thus Alexander is both a positive exemplar of the kingly virtues and an illustration of the corrupting influence of kingship. His virtues as sketched by Plutarch are the font and source of many a later description of the good prince; when we find that Henry has the same virtues as Alexander, it is not surprising, but it is tempting to assume that Shakespeare took them directly from Plutarch rather than from Erasmus or Chelidonius at two removes.

  14. On this theme, see Derek A. Traversi, “The Conflict of Passion and Control in Henry V” in Quinn, ed., 151-62; and Berman, 536.

  15. See Traversi, 154-55. Taylor has some interesting remarks on the siege of Harfleur. He stresses Henry's isolation and the weakness of his position (47-48).

  16. On this episode and the critical reaction to it, see Taylor on 4.7.8-9 and see his introduction, 32-33; and Merrix, who sets it in the context of the allusion to Alexander but with very different conclusions from mine (321-23).

  17. See The Vnion of the Two Noble & Illustre Famelies of Lancaster & York (London, 1548), 1v, quoted in Taylor, ed., 32. See also Joel B. Altman, “‘Vile Participation’: The Amplification of Violence in the Theater of Henry V,Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 1-32.

  18. The device used in 2.2 to trap the conspirators is based on a story in Plutarch's Life of Pyrrhus, as has often been pointed out; but according to Plutarch, Alexander, too, forgives insolent remarks, famously those made in sober earnest by Diogenes. Forbearance in such circumstances is another virtue of the ideal prince; hence Shakespeare makes Henry concentrate on his personal sense of emotional betrayal and the danger to his kingdom:

    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.

    (ll. 174-77)

    Merrix finds a parallel between Henry's treatment of the conspirators here and Alexander's in Samuel Daniel's Philotas (331).

  19. See Mossman, “Tragedy,” 86-87. Berman sees a resemblance between the sieges of Harfleur and Thebes but obscures the fact that Henry does not actually sack Harfleur at all (537-38).

  20. Merrix has an interesting but very one-sided discussion of the use of such comparisons in the Renaissance (325-32). I think he underestimates their potential subtlety.

  21. Lines 24 and 25 of 3.1 relate to other passages in the play in which national characteristics, shaped by nature, culture, and ancestry, are important. I would suggest that these, too, may be prompted by the parallel theme in the Alexander. Both works share an interest in the self-definition of the invading nation with reference to the conquered people. It is interesting to consider 4.3.98-107 in the light of the ancient view, stressed by Plutarch in the Alexander and often elsewhere, that men's characters were shaped by the landscape in which they lived. This goes back to Hippocrates's medical treatise Airs, Waters, Places and is important also in Herodotus. Shakespeare has sharpened this kind of conception into the idea that the very substance of the English is chemically inimical to the alien land. This is a bolder and more adventurous use of the basic concept than is to be found in the Alexander (and it is not in Plutarch's plan to stress enmity between peoples but rather the uniting and civilizing influence of a king like Alexander), but it has something in common with Plutarch's technique where he sketches the difficulty the Macedonians will have in adapting to Persian culture by describing the limited success of Harpalus's efforts to transplant Greek flora to the fiery Babylonian soil. Compare this also to 3.7.141-42, where the valor of English mastiffs is made to stand for that of English men.

  22. Henry does not answer Williams fully; but the inadequacy of his logic need not deprive him of our sympathy. The encounter prompts his great speech about the burdens of kingship: a speech that, I would argue, increases our goodwill toward him and serves an important function in the play as a whole. “Insincerity” and “hypocritical” are inappropriate descriptions of Henry's replies to Williams here (see Gould, 92): Henry would like very much to believe what he says; the very fluency of his rhetoric suggests the urgency of his desire to be right. His later speech suggests that he knows that he is only half right.

  23. I have argued this more fully in my above-cited article, “Tragedy.”

  24. Merrix also makes this connection but sees it as discreditable to Henry (328)—wrongly, I think. The terms of this passage are interesting: a large section of the Alexander is devoted to Alexander's generosity to his friends and the liberality of his table (745; see also 729).

  25. See Homer, Iliad, ed. D. B. Monro and T. W. Allen (Oxford, 1919), Bk. 5, 785; cf. also Bk. 2, 488-92.

  26. The “epic” invocation to the Muse is immediately assimilated into the distinctively dramatic metaphor of lines 3-5. See also the mention of “history” (l. 32) and a later passage (1.2.105-7), where Canterbury speaks of “Edward the Black Prince, / Who on the French ground play'd a tragedy, / Making defeat on the full power of France.” For some sensible remarks on this topic, see Taylor, ed., 52-58; Berman also has an interesting discussion of these opening passages (533-34). See also note 40 below.

  27. Plutarch stresses the small size of Alexander's expedition and the meager nature of his preparations: contrast Shakespeare's “most dreadful preparation” (2.1.13). The eagerness of both heroes' soldiers to make the respective attempts is highlighted in Plutarch and in Shakespeare; see 748-49 and 2.1.1-7.

  28. One divergence from Holinshed is particularly interesting in the context of this discussion: there is no suggestion here of Henry's isolation the night before the battle. It has also been argued that Tacitus's Annales, II.iii, was a model for Henry's eve-of-battle walk; see G. Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, 8 vols. (London, 1957-75), 4:362-63. This may or may not be so: Plutarch and Tacitus are both writing in a well-established ancient tradition of historiography which relished eve-of-battle narratives, and Shakespeare may in fact be composing within a genre rather than aping a particular model.

  29. In the introduction to his edition of the play, Taylor argues convincingly for Shakespeare's use of the published portion of Chapman's Seven Books of the Iliads of Homer. The most relevant passage is Book 8, 553-65. Holinshed describes the proximity of the armies but does not exploit its dramatic potential as do Shakespeare and Plutarch.

  30. This is North's mistranslation of Amyot's “de plein jour,” correctly rendering Plutarch's, ἐκ προφανοç, “openly.”

  31. Alexander elsewhere in the Life emerges as a more interesting character because of his faults and doubts, though never in quite the same way as Henry does before Agincourt. Perhaps at this juncture Plutarch wanted to show that a great general, who could be so certain about the outcome of an apparently very doubtful military situation, could nonetheless be completely at sea in some nonmilitary matters; Shakespeare, on the other hand, was more interested in showing that a king could be very certain and confident of himself, his rectitude, and his army on the surface but still internally be a mass of doubts. This pinpoints an important difference between characterization in Plutarch and in Shakespeare. On Henry's imperfections, see note 22 above.

  32. See especially Bullough, 366-67; M. Van Doren, “The Fragmentation of the Heroic Idea in Henry V” in Quinn, ed., 116-24, esp. 123-24; Taylor, ed., on 4.7.12-45 and see his introduction, 32-34; Walters, ed., on 4.7.13-53 and see his introduction, xiv-xvii; and Greenblatt, 57.

  33. See M. Van Doren, 123-24.

  34. On 4.7.50-52 and 5.1.93, see Samuel Johnson, ed., The Works of Shakespeare (London, 1765).

  35. For a full discussion of this incident, see my “Tragedy,” 88-89.

  36. See, for example, Taylor, ed., 33.

  37. Taylor, ed., 33.

  38. Berman also comments on the similar effect of the epilogues (539).

  39. Hamlet, 5.1.197-212 in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. David Bevington, 4th ed. (New York, 1992).

  40. The play with genre in the Chorus's first speech perhaps alerts us to this more extensive infiltration of drama by biography.

This paper was greatly improved by the perceptive and helpful comments of Helen Cooper, Christopher Butler, and an anonymous referee; I greatly appreciate their help and that of Christopher Pelling and David Gribble. I wrote the essay while I was a Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, Oxford. I am most grateful for the support and encouragement of my colleagues there and for three very happy years at the House.

Alastair Macaulay (review date 14 May 2003)

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SOURCE: Macaulay, Alastair. “Hytner's Henry V Wins the Argument.” Financial Times (14 May 2003): 18.

[In the following review, Macaulay praises the 2003 National Theatre staging of Henry V directed by Nicholas Hytner, especially the production's “triumph of colourblind casting” and Penny Downie as a “modern, female conception” of the Chorus; however, the critic notes that the “nowness” of the production “tips over a few times into the too-gimmicky.”]

If Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre season continues as it has begun, we shall be calling him the great showman of our day. First with Jerry Springer—the Opera and now with his own staging of Henry V, he has presented the two new must-see shows in London theatre today. Not, I hasten to add, the two best, but the two buzziest: the shows that every serious theatregoer should soon have seen, the shows to which one should send people who aren't sure what theatre can be, the shows that should keep people keenly talking as long as they run.

They can afford to. This Henry V inaugurates a six-month (May-November) Travelex season in the National's largest Olivier auditorium, in which most seats will be Pounds 10; and I testify that I have paid more money to see far duller stagings of this and other plays. You can—should—argue with this Henry V: it's so “now” that it tips over a few times into the too-gimmicky, so “now” that occasionally it draws you away from as well as, at other moments, deep into Shakespeare's language, so “now” that, apart from making you discuss whether it is fair to Shakespeare, it also makes you oddly heated about whether it is a fair account of the politics of warfare in the 21st century.

The “nowness” is a hair-raising thrill from the moment Penny Downie comes briskly but casually on to the stage like a secretary, in cardigan and reading specs and clutching a pile of books and—just as we're thinking “Who's she?”—launches into “O for a muse of fire”. This modern, female conception of the Chorus is a brilliant stroke, beautifully sustained by Downie, and yet what Hytner reveals, unnervingly, is how often the Chorus says one thing and then Shakespeare shows us the opposite. “Now all the youth of England are on fire,” she says—and we see Nym and Bardolph sitting bored in the pub, flicking through the TV channels in discontent. On one of those channels is Henry V, giving his presidential broadcast.

So much is going on in it that one hardly has time to notice that this production is also a triumph of colourblind casting. The Royal Shakespeare Company has already given us a black actor playing one of Shakespeare's English kings, beautifully; but Hytner has begun his National Theatre regime by giving us not just a black actor—Adrian Lester—playing the most heroic and popular of those English kings, the Shakespearian king who most embodies English patriotism, he also gives us a radical account of Henry V that frequently goes against—exposes—the charisma and the glamour customarily associated with this role.

It is in Lester's King Henry above all that this production sends us back to the text. He is Henry the politician, Henry the speaker of soundbites, Henry the ruthless sacrificer of old friends, Henry the perfect master of image and spin. And he is Henry the chameleon. Of him, as of our political leaders today, we keep asking: Who is he really? The play keeps making us answer differently. He speaks the great “Upon the King” soliloquy in a frenzy of frustration; and then he prays “O God of battles” in his most genuinely vulnerable moment in the whole play. Now, at last, we've seen him at his lowest when alone; and next comes the revealing miracle, when he returns within moments at his most inspiring, to deliver “We few, we happy few” with irresistible naturalness. But Hytner reminds us that, with Shakespeare, there is always an opposite side. Even Henry's tears are preserved on “Battle of Agincourt” video merchandise; and when Henry's vulnerability returns as he woos the French Princess, it is disconcertingly mixed with ruthlessness. The French losses are movingly apparent, the Princess's reluctance is vivid, but Henry sweeps all before him. Cleverly revelatory, this Henry V reminds us just how much Shakespeare has anticipated our own times. He's even anticipated our own ambivalence.

Susannah Clapp (review date 18 May 2003)

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SOURCE: Clapp, Susannah. “Adrian Lester is an Eerie, Modern Henry in a State-of-the-Nation Epic.” Observer (18 May 2003): 11.

[In the following excerpted review of the 2003 National Theatre staging of Henry V directed by Nicholas Hytner, Clapp credits the production for breaking from Laurence Olivier's highly influential 1944 film adaptation. Unlike Olivier's pro-war “heroic romance,” Clapp notes, Hytner's production was “much darker” and “more divided.”]

In his tussle to reshape the idea of what the National Theatre can be, Nicholas Hytner has already wrestled one preconception to the ground, combating the razzmatazz musicals of his predecessor with the snarling, soaring Jerry Springer—The Opera. Now he's aiming at bigger targets.

In directing Henry V—amazingly, the first time the play has been produced at the National—Hytner is taking on not only the conception of Laurence Olivier as actor and director (and first guv'nor of the South Bank theatres), but also the idea of what it might mean to be a Brit. Specifically, a Brit at war in a conflict with dubious justification.

It's hard to overestimate the extent to which the 1944 Olivier movie has determined our ideas about Shakespeare's play. The film was a brilliant cartoon, with its talented arrows all shooting in the same direction. Richly brocaded, brightly coloured, but with an all-white cast, it was an heroic romance, highlighting Olivier's sculpted jaw and frosty vowels. Snipped of the insanitary and unpalatable (the traitors were docked, as were the king's commands to kill the French prisoners), floating on the sunny gusts of William Walton's music, this was pro-war propaganda of the most blatant kind.

Hytner's battle-dress production is not only much darker, but also more divided, with different versions of events fighting for the upper hand. Penny Downie's Chorus—an insinuating spin-doctor in high heels—announces ‘All the youth of England are on fire’ as the poor old low-lifes appear, staring gloomily at their pints and the telly. When the king, surrounded by cameras, delivers his speech to the citizens of Harfleur, he quickly gestures to the broadcasters to cut the sound before he issues his bloodiest threats. Tim Hatley's black screen design glowers; the soundscape is of predatory buzzes. Rarely have the soldiers' wrangles about the price of war and their appeals to the king to justify his action seemed so pressing; rarely has the closing promise of the play, that England will ‘bleed’ for what has been done, seemed so full of foreboding.

And rarely has an actor conveyed as strongly as Adrian Lester the damage both inflicted and suffered by this king. Lester—the first black Henry—is controlled, sometimes eerily muted, like a man who used to be on something. When, at the death of Falstaff, old videos of the great carouser are played, there with him, is young Hal, beaming and dreadlocked and at home. You see the cost of his adult control when, itemising his self-justifications, he begins to gabble, and his followers melt away.

It's a partial account of the play, but an urgent one. Those buying their pounds 10 tickets as part of the six-month Travelex-sponsored season will get a state-of-the-nation epic. The National Theatre seems necessary again.

Katharine Goodland (review date spring-summer 2003)

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SOURCE: Goodland, Katharine. “Henry V.Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 2 (spring-summer 2003): 13-14.

[In the following review, Goodland praises the 2003 Jean Cocteau Repertory staging of Henry V, directed by David Fuller. Goodland examines the production's focus on the moral issue of war crimes—particularly the scene in which Henry orders his soldiers to kill their prisoners—and notes that “Fuller admirably refuses to simplify this moment.”]

Perfectly paced and punctuated throughout by Bob Dylan songs, David Fuller's production of Henry V begets a layered dialogue between Shakespeare's study of kingship and carnage and America's most troubling military intervention. As the play opens, we feel abruptly immersed in the chaos of combat. The theatre goes black as the distinctive popping sound of M16 rifles grows deafening in the intimate 140-seat space. Boots thud down the center aisle to the stage. The lights come up on a skirmish between actors clad like NVA (North Vietnamese communist regulars in khakis and pith helmets), Viet Cong (in black pajamas and conical straw hats), and U.S. soldiers (in army fatigues and steel pots). The prologue's entrance after this potent opening vignette offers a pause rather than a prelude. For when the Chorus bids us to “let [these], ciphers to this great account, / On [our] imaginary forces work” (18-19), we realize, from the pounding of our hearts, that we are already absorbed in the world of the play. Fuller has skillfully tricked us into the imaginative leap of faith for which the chorus pleads.

Giles Hogya's set and lighting design artfully mingles somber emblems of East and West to evoke a surreal base camp in Vietnam. Opened parachutes spread from the comers of the stage, upheld by bamboo posts. These seemingly inanimate artifacts are integrated into the life of the play, becoming choric in their semiotic function. Through skillful light projection, the parachutes change color, signaling changes in mood, from white, to brown, and then blood-red during the play's darkest moments. Bamboo pikes bundled into tepees frame the stage on either side. During the parley outside the gates of Harfleur, these posts, with their sharpened points, hungrily punctuate Henry's threat that, if the town refuses to surrender, its “naked infants [will be] spitted upon pikes” (3.3.38). Finally, a Torii, the distinctive cinnabar-red gate that marks the entrance to Shinto shrines, stands at stage right. Like the parachutes and bamboo posts, the Torii's ironic symbolism haunts our collective consciousness as we watch the performance; in Shintoism, the gate marks the liminal space between the world of the living and the world of spirits, the hero's gateway to purification and honor.

After Laurence Olivier's patriotic production of 1944, Branagh's 1988 Henry V was much touted for its more complex, dark portrait of medieval kingship. Yet by omitting the text's most morally disturbing moment—Henry's order, “then every soldier kill his prisoners / send the word through” (4.6.38-9)—even Branagh shied away from a candid exploration of the thin but bright line that separates courage from cowardice, honor from evil.

At a time when the international community is grappling with the problem of war crimes and questions continue to surface about the actions of American soldiers in Vietnam (Bob Kerrey's recent trial-by-media comes to mind), Fuller's production tackles this moral conundrum head on, rearranging the textual sequence to give it greater emphasis. The dauphin is captured when he infiltrates the camp and slits the boy's throat. Henry himself singlehandedly kills the dauphin and then gives the infamous order to kill the prisoners of war. The staging of this moment presents a poignant examination of the history of battlefield ethics. The two men wrestle with one another. Henry gains the upper hand and, as he stabs the dauphin with a thrust that is both violent and erotic, they embrace and fall together to the ground. The iconography evokes heroic agon: two men of equal physical stature, equally armed, struggle to the death. Visually, the moment suggests the ideal of medieval chivalry: Henry enjoys a hero's victory, and the dauphin dies a hero's death. Morally, however, the act is contemptible, for the dauphin is Henry's prisoner—as are the other prisoners whom Henry orders to be slain. There is no ambiguity surrounding the order. Releasing himself from the embrace of his dead foe, Jason Crowl's powerful Henry faces his soldiers squarely and, with chilling certainty, commands, “let every man kill his prisoners—send the word through.”

In Shakespeare's day, the law of war concerned ransom money rather than human rights. When Henry orders his soldiers to kill their prisoners, he deprives his nobles of their ransom money—one of the means by which they are paid. Yet even Holinshed was repelled by King Henry's action and decried the order as “lamentable.” Whatever the abstract dictates of law, the human community has always understood the moral repugnancy of murdering those who have no means of defending themselves—soldiers or not. Fuller admirably refuses to simplify this moment. Henry's order is an act of revenge for the murdered Boy; it is an act of blood-lust fed by the desire to win at all costs; and it is also an act of valor. Crowl's moving performance portrays the plight of a leader in battle who is driven by the shifting currents of these complex motives. There is nobility in Henry's willingness to lead by example, to perform the basest deeds he demands of his men. Yet, at the same time, it is impossible to condone his choice. King Henry seems somehow above the act, even as we watch him commit it.

Crowl's Henry V journeys from kingship to manhood in the course of the play. He begins as a man of policy and ends, simply, as a man. The gritty American general we saw giving orders on the battlefield stands halting and awkward before a Princess Katherine fashioned to suggest a young Jackie Kennedy. The evocation of Camelot, however, is food for irony rather than nostalgia. Fuller counterbalances Henry's earnest wooing with the staging, which shows how little choice Katherine has in the matter. As the marriage treaty is settled, the princess stands stiffly against a pointed bamboo pole, a captive to the two men who stand on either side of her and control her fate—her conquered father and her conquering king and husband-to-be. This image completes the visual thread that runs throughout the production, which emphasizes the gendered imagery of violence inherent in the text.

Fuller casts women in roles that italicize the text's bald acknowledgment of military conquest as rape—of the helpless, of the land, of human dignity. Amanda Jones doubles as the Governor of Harfleur and the boy whose throat is cut. Jolie Garrett plays Montjoy, Scroop, and MacMarris. Rebecca Robinson plays both Sir Thomas Grey and Princess Katherine. Women are also soldiers, most noticeably on the French/NVA side—in their black pajamas, their long hair hanging beneath their conical straw hats. These acute casting choices conjured, for me, the most haunting and horrific image of the Vietnam War: Nick Ut's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of “the Napalm Girl”—nine-year old Kim Phuc, her naked body aflame as she runs from her village, howling in anguish, her arms raised to the heavens.

Shrouded in images and sounds that evoke the trauma of Vietnam, Fuller's Henry V awakens our anxieties as well as our ghosts. This sophisticated and brave production is a stirring reminder that, however hollow, political rhetoric is also delicate and dangerous.

Anne Kane-Lavin (review date spring-summer 2003)

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SOURCE: Kane-Lavin, Anne. “Henry V.Shakespeare Bulletin 21, no. 2 (spring-summer 2003): 19-20.

[In the following review, Kane-Lavin praises the 2003 Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival staging of Henry V, directed by Terrence O'Brien. Kane-Lavin notes that the production demanded that the audience reconsider “war, its consequences, and its relatively short-lived benefits.”]

When the Chorus—dressed officiously in long black coat, pants tucked into laced boots—crosses the stretch of field into the tent of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival to bid the audience our “imaginary forces work,” we take her request to heart. No meaner stage could hold so splendid an array of characters and locales. Those seated on the semicircle of risers rimming the tent look past the straw-covered round of stage and out upon a meadow treed with hundred-year-old oaks and maples, the lawn disappearing over the embankments of the Hudson, the rugged highland escarpment rising in silhouette as the sky darkens. Within the tent, a movable bench serves as the only physical prop, the throne for Henry V and Charles VI. Costumes are minimalist renderings of medieval garb, drab corduroy tunics for the British and vibrant slubbed silk caftan-like robes for the French. In this spare setting, imaginations are indeed free to construct the opulence of the Kings' palaces, the chaos outside the gates of Harfleur, the restless sounds of the English and French camps before battle, and the terror of combat at Agincourt. Innovative direction and a strong cast of players aid the audience in “jumping o'er times, / Turning the accomplishment of many years / Into an hourglass” (30-31).

Following the prologue, the stage fills with Pistol, Nym, Bardolph, Boy, and Henry briefly miming a drunken tavern scene to the driving rock of a Bjork tune. News of Henry IV's death changes the revelry to a coronation, and we witness Hal's transformation to the serious monarch who now casts off his lowly friends. The interlude is effective and swift, bringing us smoothly to the political and religious matters at hand.

The script in act one is pared of references to the aggression of the Scots, focusing directly on the claim to French lands. In the first performance I saw (June 26), Henry was played with such sobriety as, at times, to lack any affect at all. His words rolled out with little regard to sense or emotion, automaton-like. In a later performance (July 10), the King seemed to have more confidence in his station and commanded the language as firmly as his subjects, with greater authority and credibility. With strength and charm, this Henry is both determined and generous. He proceeds with plans to attack France only when assured he has legal and ecclesiastical rights to do so. This Henry is wise, considered, but resolute in weeding out those who plot against him. In a rather clumsy scene, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, Sir Thomas Grey, and Henry, Lord Scroop draw laughs rather than pity as they grovel at the feet of the King when they have been discovered as conspirators (2.2), so overindicated are their actions. But Henry manages to regain the serious tone of the moment with quiet power, showing no mercy to the traitors, regardless of their intimate friendship.

The rustics relieve the tension in the following scene as they mourn Falstaff's death, although the twangs of the Hostess' Brooklyn accent grew more annoying than amusing. The others were well controlled in their roles of dignified but clownish friends. For his short time onstage, Boy won over the audience with his gentle attentions to the older, but clearly not wiser, tavern buddies.

As this shabbily dressed band exits, Charles VI, the Dauphin, the Constable, and the dukes enter. Played subtly, all convey an underlying mistrust of the intelligence of the “Dolphin,” whose affectations annoy even his father (2.4). Their arrogance toward the English is well conveyed without villainizing the French, who want desperately to repel the outnumbered enemy. With his strategic intelligence and verbal acuity, the Lord Constable cleverly outmaneuvers the Dauphin and accentuates the heir's inadequacies.

Henry's personality enlarges as we go with him to battle, even as his bedraggled troops and his own exhaustion threaten victory. As the King entreats his army with a rousing “Once more unto the breach” (3.1.1), we believe they are his “dear friends,” and we care that they are met with no resistance at the gates. Henry demonstrates the depth of his soldierly honor as he calls for his men “to use mercy to them all” within Harfleur (3.3.54).

The scene shifts again to the French court and the colorful Katherine with her attendant. The simplicity of the setting seems to illuminate the sparkling interplay between them as they exchange broken English phrases. Timing and expression are superb here, and we quickly get the measure of this beautiful and headstrong princess. Meanwhile, Henry grows into a more complex and thoughtful soldier/sovereign, evidenced by his evolving relationship with Montjoy. At the close of act three, the French envoy grows more respectful and Henry more familiar, after their earlier and often hostile meetings, with the King admitting his vulnerability while proclaiming the English army's fierce determination. Montjoy exits with renewed esteem for Henry. Gloucester reflects the fearful thoughts of all when he expresses the “hope they will not come upon us now.” They are not in the hands of the French but in God's hands, reminds the humble King (3.6.167).

As the audience regains their seats after the intermission, the company takes the stage in groups, lead characters together in front, all with their backs facing us in the dark. Then comes the surprise of the night: lights go up, the groups face the audience, and we hear a 1945 Perry Como recording of “Dig You Later (A Hubba Hubba Hubba)” while the cast mimes the lyrics and dances à la 40s beebop. The effect is at first startling but comic. While the company is engaging and entertaining in their new genre, the shift from war preparations to musical numbers seems absurd, until we listen to the lyrics carefully. Recorded on the heels of our victory over Japan, the song echoes a now especially disturbing racism and glee in recalling “it was mighty smoky over Tokyo! / A friend of mine in a B-29 dropped another load for luck / As he flew away, he was heard to say: / ‘A hubba hubba hubba yuk yuk.’” The interjection of this song brings a much different interpretation to the notion of war for the glory of God and Country.

There is no mistaking the patriotic and religious underpinnings of this play, regardless of the director's attempt to highlight Henry's stirring self-doubts and those of his foot soldiers as they consider war's inevitable savagery. As Harry le Roy walks the camp, the night surrounds us all. Williams' speech questioning the worthiness of their cause is spoken to a hushed audience, aware of Henry's attention to the same agonizing realization: “How, 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). In this production, Williams shoves the King forcibly as their argument advances to a challenge, eliciting a gasp from the audience. We are equally moved as Henry drops to his knees beseeching his Christian God to “steel my soldiers' hearts, / Possess them not with fear! … [T]hink not upon the fault my father made in encompassing the crown!” He recounts the many reparations issued to assuage the guilt of Richard's unseating and death, and we are fully in sympathy with this ardent supplicant, while nonetheless recognizing his imperialistic mission. When, in 4.3, he addresses his troops on the feast of Crispian, the audience, so near at hand to the players, are enlisted and rallied as well. We, too, are ready to scoff Montjoy out of the tent when she recommends the army repent their sins before battle, so “that their souls / May make a peaceful and a sweet retire / From off these fields” (4.3.85-87).

The fields of battle extend beyond the tent and into the night, where scenes of men on horseback and foot soldiers with lances and crossbows are projected onto temporary scrims. The nearer battle, on the stage and beyond, is waged to the same hard rhythms that began the play, a fusion of techno/rock, heightening the intensity of the action. Less effective is the quick resolution of the battle scene into a choreographed mélange of all the soldiers, even those previously dead on the field. The first time I saw this scene, the audience reacted as they had to “A Hubba Hubba Hubba,” although there was nothing amusing about the music or the militant, robotic movements of the company. There was no laughter the next time I saw the play, an indication of the cast's more integrated and cohesive performance. Many stalwarts in the audience were moved to tears as the Boy's body was carried in, enraging Henry and all at such a violation “against the laws of arms” (4.7.2). So then are we swept up in the realization that England had won the day in battle. Henry, at Montjoy's news, drops to his knees next to her on the straw and takes her arms as if in comfort—and in certain display of respect for the envoy and France's efforts. As Henry reads the names of the French dead, we are hushed. We feel his elation and grace as relief that so few of his own have fallen.

In the final scene, Henry works convincingly to woo the reluctant Kate, who argues defensively and equally convincingly that she could not love the enemy of France. Even she cannot resist his convoluted logic, concluding that “when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine” (5.2.175-76). Along with Alice, the trio's work scene seems effortless, an obvious pleasure for the audience.

Hard-driving, dark rhythms of a Bjork song accompanies Henry and Katherine waltzing alone on stage as the war-wounded troops limp across the field behind them, demanding of the audience a reconsideration of war, its consequences, and its relatively short-lived benefits. One cannot come away from this production without seriously evaluating the current climate of racial profiling, the discussion of “preemptive” war preparations, and our suspicions of foreigners at the borders. Claiming God on their side, England won France. The Chorus reminds us of England's bloody fortunes under the next Henry. Another song to consider might include the lines, “Oh, when will they ever learn.”

Brendan Lemon (review date 16 July 2003)

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SOURCE: Lemon, Brendan. “Henry V.Financial Times (16 July 2003): 10.

[In the following review, Lemon offers a mixed evaluation of Mark Wing-Davey's 2003 Delacorte Theater staging of Henry V in New York's Central Park. Although Lemon praises Liev Schreiber's “passionate” and “balanced” portrayal of Henry V, he notes that the production avoided risks.]

Glossy magazines love to place Liev Schreiber in the trio of great thirtysomething New York stage actors, but unlike his oft-mentioned counterparts, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jeffrey Wright, only Schreiber has the vocal mettle to scale the most heroic parts.

In the title role of Henry V, the Public Theatre's sole Delacorte production this summer, he must also mount the set. Leaping atop designer Mark Wendland's burlap-bagged barricades, to urge his soldiers forward, Schreiber cuts a marvelous figure: at the heart of a Manhattan summer ritual—free theatre in Central Park—he symbolises the city's Sinatra-associated theme song: he's top of the heap.

With his not-quite-handsome face and expressive voice, which is particularly stirring during Henry's late-night rounds to eavesdrop on the soldiers before the play's climactic battle of Agincourt, Schreiber makes a very creditable monarch. He plants himself neither in the line of Olivier, whose filmed Henry V caught the triumphantly resistant mood of Britain under attack, nor of Branagh, whose movie 45 years later emphasised the bloody price of war. He is both more passionate and more balanced.

Though the Park production, directed by Mark Wing-Davey, is contemporary enough in trappings—military uniforms direct from CNN, Pistol as a pompadoured Elvis-like figure, Clash-like guitars underscoring the clash of arms—it does not dive into topicality with particular glee. Even the play's put-downs of the enemy (the French) are not delivered with rib-jabbing obviousness, and the Iraq conflict is suggested but not insisted upon.

By avoiding obviousness, the production also avoids risk and attendant payoff. The supporting players are Public Theatre generic: good for the looking, less good for the listening. The gold concert chairs strewn everywhere may, along with the Chorus, underscore the theatrical nature of the enterprise, but they complicate scene changes.

The evening's most indelible image is that of the actress Nicole Leach taking a shower centre-stage: eliminating the dust of battle before her entrance as the French princess, she emerges as an icon of moral cleansing.

New York Post (review date 16 July 2003)

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SOURCE: “Long Liev the King.” New York Post (16 July 2003): 47.

[In the following review of Mark Wing-Davey's 2003 Delacorte Theater staging of Henry V in New York's Central Park, the critic praises Liev Schreiber's “magical, subtle” portrayal of Henry V, but criticizes Wing-Davey's production as cynical and unbalanced.]

In Shakespeare's Henry V, in Central Park, Liev Schreiber shows us a young English king heading into war against France who's making all the right moves.

He's listened patiently while the long-winded clergy line up behind the war, and arrested traitors who thought they had him fooled.

Over in France, he gives the troops an encouraging word and (in one of this production's frantic nods to modernism) has a camera record it.

But despite the cool and the smarts, he's lacking something.

For all of his mastery of rhetoric, he wants heart—he needs the messy, sweaty smell of involvement. He wanders about the camp disguised among the common men and winds up defending himself and his war.

By the time he addresses his army in the St. Crispin's Day speech—dirty and in tears—we can feel his whole heart is in the affair. These common men are his brothers.

Before our eyes, Schreiber's king has become not less intelligent but more human. Later, as he moves around, paying court to the shy French princess (an appealing Nicole Leach), he shows that he's developed a heart in another sense.

It is a magical, subtle performance.

Unfortunately, director Mark Wing-Davey seems interested only in what can be ridiculed and mocked in war.

The English clergy are pompous and ridiculously costumed, and the common soldiers are got up like the cast of “The Sopranos” (Bronson Pinchot as Pistol is the funniest of them).

The French nobles are vain fops sunning themselves by a pool, while the French king is in a wheelchair and his queen is a drag queen. Battles and marriages are mere photo ops.

Some of this cynicism is justified by the text, but Shakespeare balances the picture.

Wing-Davey offers no such balance, but he does at least make space for Schreiber's calculating but combustible king.

Ben Brantley (review date 16 July 2003)

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SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “An Evening in the Park with a Playboy Prince.” New York Times (16 July 2003): E1.

[In the following review of Mark Wing-Davey's 2003 Delacorte Theater staging of Henry V in New York's Central Park, Brantley dismisses Wing-Davey's “flashy, flabby” production and contends that the director “devised a Henry V that shirks from seriousness on the unavoidable subjects of war and patriotism.”]

Where is that old muse of fire when you need her? That goddess of inspiration, beseechingly evoked in the prologue of Henry V, appears to be on vacation this summer. Maybe she's been co-opted as a houseguest by some movie producer in the Hamptons. In any case she is definitely keeping her distance from the flashy, flabby production of Shakespeare's gung-ho military history play that opened last night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park.

Though the title role of the playboy prince turned commanding king is portrayed by no less an actor than Liev Schreiber, the American theater's finest young interpreter of Shakespeare, even he doesn't stand much chance against the battalions of adversaries assembled by the director, Mark Wing-Davey.

The French are the least of this Henry's worries. Mr. Wing-Davey's interpretation, the Public Theater's sole offering in the park this season, seems to operate on the principle that an army travels on its gimmicks. They keep coming at you like a series of dud Scud missiles, in ways that do absolutely nothing to illuminate the play.

The most crowd-pleasing moment is not Henry's courage-bolstering delivery of the St. Crispin's Day speech to his troops, but a scene in which French officers mount their steeds, who are portrayed by strapping, snorting young men with bared torsos. And when a character talks about loving his horse, he pronounces “nay” as a “Mr. Ed”-like “neigh.”

Other sitcom references invariably come to mind. Pistol, that scalawag of a soldier, is played by Branson Pinchot with a Bronx accent and an oversized pompadour, suggesting the Squiggy character from “Laverne and Shirley.” He is found in one scene sitting on a toilet, reading a girlie magazine, simply to set up a joke in which a disguised Henry decides against shaking Pistol's hand.

Katherine (the charming Nicole Leach), the French princess whom Henry woos, first appears stark naked in a shower and later recites what she's learned from an English lesson in the style of Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” And much thought has obviously been devoted to setting up sight gags for a scene in which French courtiers hang out around a swimming pool.

So what is all this about? Is Mr. Wing-Davey sending up American perceptions that the French, they are a silly race? Is he slyly commenting on the idea that thanks to television live combat has become a form of popular entertainment? Is there searing sarcasm in the impression the play gives that its governing philosophy is “war is cute”?

The current National Theater production of Henry V in London, directed by Nicholas Hytner, coolly and critically suggests parallels between Henry's war against the French and the war in Iraq. Whatever his intentions, Mr. Wing-Davey has devised a Henry V that shirks from seriousness on the unavoidable subjects of war and patriotism.

Yes, there's lots of stage blood and thick smoke (useful in getting rid of the gnats drawn by the stage lights), not to mention the occasional interjection of acid rock a la Apocalypse Now. But none of these images keep the evening from feeling like one long, desperate exercise in diversionary tactics. The most conspicuous casualty of such an approach is Mr. Schreiber, who was a fascinating Iago in the Public Theater's Othello two years ago and earlier held his own brilliantly in the title role of Andrei Serban's ludicrously deconstructed Hamlet, also at the Public. As Henry he shows his usual mastery of Shakespearean speech, and as always, he emanates a compelling centeredness.

But this is the first time that I've ever watched this actor and felt he was coasting on his considerable surface skills—the sonorous voice, the crisp diction—while providing few fresh glimpses of the character beneath. He has a piercing moment when Henry, alone, finally gives in to his fears on the eve of the battle of Agincourt. And Henry's tongue-tied courtship of Katherine has seldom been so charming.

But because Mr. Wing-Davey seems to have no cohesive take on the play, its title character inevitably suffers from the same blurriness. Aside from Ms. Leach and Mr. Pinchot, whose punk-nerd conception of Pistol works on its own over-the-top terms, most of the cast members register as animated, funny-looking mannequins. They are like props, on hand to add color and movement to Mark Wendland's set, one of those scaffolding-dominated designs that have been used a few too many times in Shakespearean productions.

Looking like a cross between Bob Hoskins and Edward R. Murrow, Steven Rattazzi brings some theatrical energy to the role of the Chorus, who marshals the actors into order in the opening scene. Before the play proper begins, some of the costumed ensemble members have seated themselves in rows of chairs onstage, as if they were part of the audience.

They even have to be reprimanded by ushers for using flash cameras and not turning off their cellphones. It's a clever way of restating the usual preperformance admonitions to theatergoers. Unlike most of what follows, it's a gimmick that has some immediate bearing on matters at hand.

Michael Sommers (review date 16 July 2003)

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SOURCE: Sommers, Michael. “Oh! Henry! Liev Schreiber Leads Valiant Charge in Iraqi Twist on Shakespeare's Hero.” Star-Ledger (16 July 2003): 39.

[In the following review of Mark Wing-Davey's 2003 Delacorte Theater staging of Henry V in New York's Central Park, Sommers lauds Liev Schreiber's portrayal of Henry V as a “ceaseless pleasure to observe” but finds the production overall to be overly elaborate.]

Director Mark Wing-Davey's outdoor staging of Henry V suggests a classic car in perfect running condition that's been marred by a hideous paint job.

Fortunately, that splendid actor Liev Schreiber is firmly at the wheel as Henry. Thanks to his true and exciting performance, the over-elaborate production, which opened last night at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, sticks to the course that Shakespeare mapped out. As a reminder: Henry V is the continuation of the Prince Hal saga from the Henry IV play series. Formerly a playboy, Henry improbably shapes up when he inherits the throne. To solidify his power base, Henry makes war on France and with a small army miraculously achieves victory.

A British director who has done well by challenging works like The Lights and The Skriker, Wing-Davey tries a contemporary spin on Shakespeare.

Schreiber's Henry makes his initial entrance wearing a George W. Bush Jr.-like blue suit. The “once more into the breach” siege scene turns into a photo op. When Henry visits his soldiers before the battle of Agincourt, a documentary crew follows. In the aftermath of peace, a chubby actor playing the queen of France is dressed as Barbara Bush.

Get the drift? Sure, parallels can be drawn, although the director depicts the French as foolish fops rather than as Iraqis. Whatever one's opinion of the Bush dynasty, however, Shakespeare's drama—still potent—more or less views Henry as a noble guy and Schreiber portrays him that way.

With his watchful air, glittering black eyes and rat-like features, Schreiber looks more like a villain than a hero (remember his terrific Iago a few years back?), so for a while one suspects that his Henry may be a manipulative power monger.

Sticking to Shakespeare, Schreiber keeps the king a valiant yet very human individual, weak-kneed with fear on the eve of Agincourt, tearfully rising to the occasion of the St. Crispin's Day speech and fervent in his thanks to God for his unexpected victory. Once Henry's war is won, Schreiber takes a subtly humorous angle when he sets about wooing a French princess.

Schreiber's sincere, well-spoken performance is a ceaseless pleasure to observe and he anchors the drama completely.

That's good news for viewers, because otherwise Wing-Davey's sprawling staging is cluttered with directorial bric-a-brac, including: A hundred gilt bamboo chairs moving every which way. Rainstorms. Huge iconic images. A pool sequence. A nude shower scene for the princess. Actors saddled as horses. A head-scratcher prologue involving Queen Elizabeth I. Oh, and Bronson Pinchot offers a counterfeit look-at-me-I'm-a-comedian turn as the hotshot soldier Pistol, complete with thick outer-borough accents.

Aside from Schreiber, most of the acting company merely gets lost amid the hubbub. Fortunately, the copper-bottomed play survives such a busy, distracting approach, which rather looks like Wing-Davey's silent scream that he desperately wants to direct a musical someday. Hey, maybe he can use all of those chairs for “Grand Hotel.”

Mark Steyn (review date September 2003)

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SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Henry Goes to Baghdad.” New Criterion 22, no. 1 (September 2003): 40-4.

[In the following review, Steyn discusses both the 2003 National Theatre staging of Henry V directed by Nicholas Hytner and Mark Wing-Davey's 2003 Delacorte Theater staging of Henry V in New York's Central Park. Steyn criticizes both productions, noting that “Nicholas Hytner may be anti-war, but Mark Wing-Davey is anti-Shakespeare.”]

Two recent productions of Henry V neatly illustrate the difference between British and American theater. The first, at the Royal National Theatre, has been a hot ticket in London all summer. Staged by the National's new director, Nicholas Hytner, it's played on the company's Olivier stage, named for the most famous Henry of all, whose gallant screen version rallied the home front during the Second World War. Henry V is a play that never drops out of sight but real war always gives it an extra kick. Forty years after Olivier stirred the blood, Michael Bogdanov co-opted Shakespeare for a savage indictment of Thatcher's Falklands War. Savage indictments of Thatcher's Falklands War were ten a penny in the mid-Eighties, but at least hijacking Shakespeare ensured you got some classier lines.

Two decades on, this latest production also has a real war as its warm-up act, and, just in case it never occurred to you to link art and life, Hytner helpfully explained beforehand that, as he sees it, this play is “about a charismatic young British leader who commits his troops to a dangerous foreign invasion for which he has to struggle to find justification in international law.” The first scene is set not in any old draughty castle but in a detailed recreation of the Cabinet Room at 10 Downing Street. The King (Adrian Lester) enters in a double-breasted gray suit of the kind favored by a certain Mr T. Blair and is greeted by the Olivier audience with the sort of knowing laughter that congratulates itself on being sophisticated enough to appreciate such a subtle joke. As the National's posters tease, “The risks are huge, the cause debatable, and bloodshed certain.”

So this is Henry Goes to Baghdad.

And that would make King Charles VI of France Saddam Hussein?

Ah, well, Hytner would probably advise us not to take the parallels too literally. And his production certainly works hard to provide enough alternative diversions. In the battle for France, there are real jeeps careering back and forth across the stage accompanied by gunfire. Don't ask me why. It's part of Hytner and his designer Tim Hatley's cheery vagueness about the specifics of warfare. I didn't see a lot of jeeps when I was in Iraq, unless you count the gleaming white Cherokees the UN and NGO bigshots swank around in. Hytner is best known for landing a helicopter in the middle of Miss Saigon. Would it have killed him to get a real daisycutter?

But for the rest of the time he has a surer sense of what he's doing. The play isn't so much about Henry anymore as about perceptions of Henry. The King himself is isolated and introverted, and this too has topical resonances: despite Tony Blair's protestations to be “basically a pretty normal guy,” it's routine in Britain now to present him as some weird, lonely fantasist. So much of Hytner's production is concerned with the gulf between the private and public man and less to do with the speeches than with how they're received: The Chorus is one woman—a fine actress, Penny Downie—decked out in a smart cardigan and with the air of a snotty BBC interviewer; the big speeches are “broadcast” on huge TV screens above the stage—with cable-news stings, split screens, and subtitles for the French—in a manner presumably meant to emphasize their detachment from reality. Off-camera, Henry is petulant, morose, riddled with self-doubt, etc. Only on TV is he kingly.

In large part, Hytner's Henry V is an evening of reaction shots. “Now all the youth of England are on fire,” declares Miss Downie. Reaction: the lights go up on Mistress Quickly's pub in Eastcheap, where a bored Corporal Nym flicks from the warmongering to the snooker channel.

Burgundy is describing the devastation of the French countryside. Reaction: An impatient Exeter glances at his watch.

“Once more unto the breach,” cries Henry. Reaction: his army groans en masse. There he goes again.

Nor are the textual interpolations limited to mere sound effects. The soldiers react to a roll call of French losses by sneering “Yeah, yeah.” When Charles VI's vainglorious emissary arrives, he's greeted by the lads with “Fuck you!” Hytner disdains the evasive politician's traditional distinction between opposing the war and “of course” supporting our troops. He has a low opinion of both. Victory is celebrated in a propagandist documentary with a faux-rap soundtrack thanking God for choosing the right army.

I've never much cared for stage productions overly reliant on TV monitors, but where once they were there simply as mere decoration—the proscenium's nod to modernity—now they're generally used not just to acknowledge the pervasiveness of electronic reality but also to mock its shallowness. The plausibility of this condescension depends on the production's ability to plumb great depths of truth in the nonelectronic portions, and that's a bit more problematic. The notion that the King's muscular leadership is simply a performance is in itself somewhat trite, and you can't help noticing that Hytner's tricks soon settles into a familiar and inviolable rhythm: An actor speaks the words; the words are undercut either by an effect, or a visual gag, or a surly grunt. Granted that Shakespeare's text is open to differing interpretations of his intentions, it still seems unlikely that he intended quite so much of it to be interpreted as spin-doctored bullshit.

In some respects, the determined CNN-ishness of Hytner's version actually obscures the real parallels between Henry's time and ours. For example, in Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury, mostly for cynical reasons, bolsters the King's case against France. On the surface, that rings a little strange when everyone's dressed like a bunch of New Labour cronies. Today's Archbishop depends as much as his predecessor on the state's favor: he is appointed by the Queen and sits in the House of Lords. But he's anti-war, and he thinks Bush and Rumsfeld are simpletons, as all bishops do. Even the non-gay ones. Even the Pope, who was opposed to the liberation of Iraq, and on the outbreak of hostilities received Tariq Aziz at the Vatican.

So, when you see Henry and Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely indulging in a pure olde worlde power play, it may not be the “relevance” of the scene that strikes you. But think of the Archbishop as a Colin Powell or Jack Straw. After all, Canterbury obliged Henry by finding convoluted legalistic justifications for the invasion of France, and, in a sense, that's what Powell and Straw did at the UN. Those of us who were pro-war weren't pro-war because of anything Powell and Straw said to the Syrian and German Foreign Ministers: We'd already made up our minds, and we recognized the justification-shopping going on in the Security Council as a kind of necessary charade, a bit of political cover. That's one way to understand Henry's bishops. The only difference is that, in those days, Henry was obliged to take into account the church as an alternative power source; in our time, the new religion that must be deferred to is the cult of progressive multilateralism as vested in the UN.

Shakespeare's understanding of power and the way it operates is as shrewd as ever. The difficulty at the National is that, long before you get to the specifics, Hytner's view of the play has to ignore some of the basics. Most obviously, war is for Shakespeare's Henry a means to unite a fractious, divided nation behind their leader. As the then Prince Hal is advised at the end of Henry IV, Part 2: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels.”

That's hardly Tony Blair, is it? He went to war in defiance of public opinion. If he'd wanted to busy giddy minds, he would have announced some hospital initiative or that he was taking personal charge of Britain's decayed public transit system. These days, the giddy minds resent the instrusion of foreign quarrels into their endless whine about the crummy trains, lousy health care, wretched schools, exploding crime rates. Indeed, it might have been more interesting to explore the differences between Henry's and Tony's Englands, not least the question of what it means to be a nation. One reason why Henry V could busy himself with foreign quarrels is that he wasn't being held responsible by his subjects for the long waiting lists for hip-replacement surgery. Across the channel, most Continental societies are threatened not by external invasion but by the crippling costs of their welfare states and their declining birthrates.

To take another example: the moment on the eve of Agincourt, when the disguised King goes among his men as a common footsoldier is what Hytner calls a “genre scene” dating back to the Emperor Germanicus in Tacitus. Unfortunately for Henry, unlike Germanicus, he finds he's somewhat out of touch with the troops. Your poor bloody infantryman, contemplating death in battle, isn't quite onside about “his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.” As the bolshie Williams tells his undercover Sovereign, “But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads chopped-off in a battle shall join together at the latter day and cry all, ‘We died at such a place’—some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it.”

This certainly rang a bell for me, not because it's how the average Royal Marine is feeling in Basra but because it's what everyone from the BBC to the Poet Laureate was promising in the weeks before war. Harold Pinter especially relishes all those chopped off legs and arms and heads, not to mention, as he likes to, hundreds of thousands of bleeding anuses (something to do with depleted uranium). Young Prince Tony failed to close the deal not with his troops but with the reflexively hostile alternative centers of elite power who come between him and his people. If you're going to “re-examine” the play for its contemporary “relevance,” you have to do a lot more than just paste-by-numbers updating.

Hytner himself belongs to one of these alternative elites, the holder of a state-funded job at a state-funded theatre and one which ex officio commands a knighthood from his Sovereign. It also ex officio requires a kind of doctrinaire counter-tribalism that Shakespeare would have found incredibly tedious. I would wager that, since Olivier's film, the number of “anti-war” Henry V's has outweighed the number of stirring, patriotic Henry's by a hundred to one. Outside the theatre, the wars may change—Vietnam, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq—but inside, the general line is reassuringly consistent. If Hytner—more of a showman controversialist than an ideological believer—had really wanted to stage a “controversial” Henry V, he'd have done a shamelessly patriotic one rejoicing in the King's victory, and would have endured the slings, arrows, and general denunciations of London's theatrical establishment. But, if that's not within the realm of possibility, he could have given us a leader confronted by the moral dilemma of war, aware that its best-laid plans are never cleanly executed, but understanding that there are times when it's the right thing to do. In other words, something not dissimilar to Shakespeare's play.

Still, one understands Hytner. For him, the heart of the play is the order Henry gives his men at the height of battle: “Let every soldier kill his prisoners!” Both Laurence Olivier in the Forties and Kenneth Branagh in the Eighties found the line too raw, too complicating to include—as, in this production, do the “embedded” TV reporters accompanying the English invaders. A sly dig by the director at Olivier and Branagh? Maybe. But, however he deploys it, Hytner is right to insist the line belongs. It's too bold to be an optional extra. It changes the nature of the man—and, to our ears, would put him on a one-way ticket to the Hague. According to Professor Theodor Meron, author of Henry's Wars and Shakespeare's Laws and Bloody Constraint—War and Chivalry in Shakespeare, Henry's speech before the surrender of Harfleur “reads like an indictment in the ICTY”—the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Professor Meron should know—he's the president of that tribunal. I'd never heard of these books until after I saw the play and I've only had a chance to skim his thesis, but it seems to be this: Shakespeare wasn't pro-war or anti-war, but prochivalry in war, and opposed to breaches of that code. That argument finds support in the play. In Shakespeare's time as throughout human history, war was a fact of life. What matters is how you conduct it. The Bard would have been all for enforcing the Geneva Convention, but not for marching through the street bellowing “No blood for oil.”

In Hytner's hands, and ruthless obsessions, the nuances of the play simply disappear. As good an actor as Adrian Lester is, his Henry can't get out from under the production. He's a TV photo-op or an empty suit, but, either way, you get little sense of the humanity with which Shakespeare abundantly endowed him. Who cares? Hytner and the National can live with that kind of criticism. They've made a grand entertainment of Henry V, precisely targeted at their niche demographic—the smug Guardian-reading Bush-despising NGO-adoring middle-class metropolitan theatergoer. Nothing wrong with pandering to them, any more than it was in the old days when Broadway impresarios offered leg shows aimed at the tired businessman. Both function in the same way, going to great lengths to ensure there's nothing that will startle or disturb the customer. Whatever its deficiencies as art, Hytner's take on the play is a shrewd business decision.

Lester, by the way, is black. You note the fact when he appears and never think of it again, because Hytner's vision of the play is so determined it subsumes all within it. By contrast, at Mark Wing-Davey's Henry V everything sticks out—it's a collection of sore thumbs in search of a directorial hand. This production is part of the Public Theater's sad annual ordeal of Shakespeare in the Park, and, seeing it after Hytner's, I take back every grouse and gripe I ever made about the National. For good or ill, Hytner at least has a take on the play, and better an efficient propagandist than a witless poseur. This Henry V is quite the most stupid I've ever seen, including an all-girls boarding school production I went along to when I was fifteen because I fancied the bird who was playing Bardolph.

Hytner is an opportunist: he thinks to himself, “There seems to be a lot of right-wing warmongering going on right now, we could clean up at the box-office.” You can at least disagree with a chap like that. Wing-Davey, though, seems to have no idea that the play is about anything at all. Or, if he has, he thinks it's about chairs. That's the first thing you notice about the production—dozens and dozens of gilt chairs, row upon row, like the banqueting suite at a suburban Marriott the morning after the big sales presentation. They look like Tommy Tune's chairs from Grand Hotel. But at least in Grand Hotel, you know it's a Tommy Tune musical and that therefore at some point the gentlemen of the chorus will come prancing out from the wings and move them somewhere else or at any rate twirl daintily around them. In Henry V, the chairs just sit there, some of them piled haphazardly, some of them artistically balanced. What is their meaning? “Three chairs for Harry, England, and St George”? Is it meant to suggest that when it comes to decisions of war and peace most of us don't have a seat at the table? Are they there because chairs, like soldiers, can be arranged in rows? Or is the very portability of the chairs the point? Is it underlying the fact that the great thing about a chair-based production is that it's one of those all-purpose concepts you can just pick up and move from one play to another? “We've got four dozen chairs left over from My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” “No problem, pal, take 'em over there, we'll use 'em for Henry V.

That's how this production chugs along: it's a show of disconnected gimmicks none of which suggest the director has any point of view on the play. A character speaks appreciatively of his horse, and pronounces “Nay” as a great big whinnying “Neigh!” Funny. The French princess, Katherine (Nicole Leach), recapitulates her French lesson in the style of Marilyn Monroe. Très droll. In London, Hytner uses CNN-style jingles to reinforce his interpretation, but in what way does introducing Marilyn impersonations illuminate Katherine's situation? As for Pistol, he has a Noo Yawk accent and a rock‘n’roll pompadour and sits on the can, pants round his ankles, reading a porno mag. Why? So Wing-Davey can set up a cheap sight gag in which the undercover Henry decides against shaking Pistol's hand.

Speaking of horses, when the French soldiers ride into battle, their mounts are young men—bare-chested, jockey-shorted, and snorting. This would seem tired as a Chippendales routine, which gives you some indication of the scale of the problem at the Public these days: even the homoerotic interpolations are generic. The TV screens at the Royal National Theatre are an adroit stage director's artful accommodation of pop culture; the cheap sitcom and movie references at Shakespeare in the Park are the pathetic floundering of a lazy parasite with nothing to say.

Whatever it was intended to do, the hodgepodge of gimmickry has a disastrous effect on the actors, whom Wing-Davey reduces to props of little more account than his chairs. As Henry, Liev Schreiber, one of the best young Shakespeareans on the American stage, finds himself at war not with the French but with his own director. At every critical moment, this production recoils from the great questions the author poses and takes refuge in tired trivia. Anyone who wonders why New York's theater, unlike London's, is largely irrelevant to the national discourse need only spend twenty minutes with this Henry V. Nicholas Hytner may be anti-war, but Mark Wing-Davey is anti-Shakespeare.

Alexander Harrington (essay date fall 2003)

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SOURCE: Harrington, Alexander. “War and William Shakespeare.” Dissent 50, no. 4 (fall 2003): 89-91.

[In the following essay, Harrington contends that the moral ambiguity of Henry V lends itself to both pro-war and anti-war productions of the play.]

This past winter, as the debate over invading Iraq intensified, I received an e-mail announcement for an “antiwar” production of Shakespeare's Henry V being staged in Los Angeles. For people who know the play only from Laurence Olivier's Anglo-patriotic, World-War-II-era movie, this may be puzzling. However, it will come as no surprise to those familiar with the play's production and critical history. That Henry V can support both patriotic prowar and critical antiwar interpretations has been discussed to a fare-thee-well among Shakespeare critics, scholars, and directors.

Shakespeare's two-sided position can be seen even in a very quick examination of the play. In its first scene, the archbishops of Canterbury and Ely are fretting over a bill about to be passed by Parliament that would strip the church of much of its property. In order to get King Henry to kill the bill, Canterbury plans to offer a big contribution to the king's war chest for an invasion of France. Henry is descended from a French princess and claims that the crown should have passed to his great-grandfather when the last of the French descendents of the royal house died (the crown was given instead to a cousin of the royal family). The French have barred Henry's claim by holding up an ancient Frankish law (the Salic Law) that does not allow inheritance through women. In the next scene, Henry asks Canterbury whether the French argument is legitimate; if it is not, he believes, an invasion of France would be justified. In substance, Canterbury's argument is straightforward: the Salic Law was devised for territory that is now in Germany, not France, and the kings of France themselves have inherited through women. However, this argument is presented in such an absurdly intricate manner that, to an audience hearing it for the first time, it sounds like double-talk. It sounds like double-talk to Henry as well: after Canterbury's long speech, he repeats his question: “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” Canterbury replies, “The sin upon my head, dread sovereign.” After exhortations from his nobles, Henry decides to invade.

Shakespeare is ambiguous as to whether Henry's claim is just. On the one hand, the audience knows that Canterbury has an ulterior motive for justifying the claim, and his speech comes across as obfuscation. On the other hand, his arguments are, given the values of dynastic politics, sound.

Later in the play, at a point when a lengthy siege has failed to get the French town of Harfleur to surrender, Henry tells the governor of the town that if the English are forced to continue the siege, he will no longer be able to control his soldiers. When the town falls, “look to see / The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand / Defile the locks of your shrill, shrieking daughters; / Your fathers taken by the silver beards, / and their most reverend heads dashed to the walls; / Your naked infants spitted upon pikes.” When the governor surrenders, Henry instructs one of his lords to “use mercy” to the inhabitants. Perhaps Henry's threats were a bluff. Nevertheless, it is morally questionable to threaten rape and murder, the killing of the old, and infanticide—even as a tactic.

As Henry and his troops march from Harfleur to the English-controlled port of Calais, Bardolph, one of Henry's drinking buddies from his wayward youth is arrested and executed for robbing a church. Henry supports the execution and proclaims,

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

The lines recall Henry's repudiation of Falstaff. Here he consents to the death of a friend, but at the same time he insists, like a good king, on the humane and respectful treatment of French civilians.

With Henry's numbers depleted by disease and his soldiers exhausted and weakened, the French strike back, and, near the castle of Agincourt, attack Henry's remaining twelve thousand troops with a force of sixty thousand (a historically accurate figure). Immediately before the battle, Henry rallies his outnumbered troops with the famous “St. Crispin's Day” speech. One would expect that a scene of combat would follow. Instead, Shakespeare gives his audience a comic scene in which Pistol, another crony from Henry's wilder days, extorts ransom from a captured French soldier (Shakespeare has made it clear in Henry IV, Part I, that ransom is one of the perks of war). In the next scene, the French nobility decry their shame: they are losing to a smaller and weaker force. They swear to die wreaking havoc. When the French return to the field, Henry panics and orders his men to kill their prisoners—a violation of the rules of war in both medieval and Elizabethan times. The shamefulness of this act is ironically pointed up by the fact that it follows the description of two English knights chivalrously dying in each other's arms. Later, we discover that the French have killed the boys who were guarding the English supplies. A captain says that it is in response to this French atrocity that the king has ordered every man to kill his prisoners. But the audience knows that Henry was unaware of what the French had done when he gave the order. Perhaps this is simply an inconsistency that Shakespeare failed to correct. Or is the captain rationalizing Henry's war crime? Or is Shakespeare deliberately obscuring the issue of right and wrong?

Whatever the answers to these questions, it is important to stress that there are no combat scenes during the battle of Agincourt—a fact often obscured by the insertion of such scenes into movies and some stage productions. Shakespeare's depiction of one of the most significant battles in English history consists of a comic scene about ransom and scenes of one side's going off to commit atrocities (the French) and the other ordering atrocities (the English). Surely there is irony here.

Nonetheless, at the end of the battle, Shakespeare places God squarely on the English side. The English have won against extraordinary odds. The French have lost ten thousand men, the English twenty-nine (historically, the French lost approximately seven thousand, the English no more than five hundred). Shakespeare offers only one explanation for this incredible outcome: it is a miracle. Henry says,

O God thy arm was here; And not to us, but to thy arm alone, Ascribe we all! When, without stratagem, but in plain shock and even play of battle, Was ever known so great and little loss On one part and on th'other? Take it, God For it is none but thine.

In a mechanical tally of the evidence for a patriotic and a critical interpretation of the play, the critical interpretation probably comes out slightly ahead. So it's not surprising that, in a time of war, the theatre community (which is by and large liberal to left and anti-militarist) would mount productions of the play. But if you rely too much on the textual evidence, you will miss the effect of the play in performance. Shakespeare has given Henry such extraordinary speeches that, in the hands of a skilled actor, he comes across as an irresistibly inspiring and charismatic military leader. If you want to present Henry V as an unambiguous antiwar play, you have to fight the power of Henry's speeches.

Indeed, in this summer's Shakespeare in the Park production in New York City directed by Mark Wing-Davey (whose take is, for the most part, antiwar) Liev Schreiber delivered most of the speeches in an extraordinarily controlled manner and seemed to be resisting the rhetorical power of the language that Shakespeare gave him. In an article praising Adrian Noble's 1984 antiwar production at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the critic Chris Fitter describes Noble's staging of Henry's stirring “Once more unto the breach” exhortation to his troops:

Harfleur at 3.1 is a smooth, vast wall of gleaming grey steel. … Ascending this height are three parallel scaling ladders, onto the middle of which, Henry throws himself after “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more / or close the wall up with our English dead.” As soldiers swarm eagerly up the two flanking ladders, Henry freezes three rungs up, and to the astonishment of the troops now above him, who exchange puzzled glances on their heights, Henry breaks into the lengthy and now redundant grandiloquence of a further thirty-two lines. At his ardent climax, crying “God for Henry [sic], England and St. George!” he throws up his arms in surrender to euphoria and topples stiffly backwards into the arms of Exeter and his “brothers.” His troops thus recommence the assault alone, Henry being below in fraternal delirium.

To avoid glorifying Henry and war, Noble had to stage the speech in a way that contradicts the action implied by the text.

Still, Olivier also had to contort the script to make it unambiguously patriotic. He plays up the comedy in Canterbury's Salic Law speech to the point where it obscures what is actually happening in the scene. He also cuts Henry's threats to Harfleur, the execution of Bardolph, and the killing of the prisoners. Kenneth Branagh's brilliant 1989 film, which preserves the play's ambiguity, also cuts the killing of the prisoners. One could speculate that Branagh wanted to play a morally ambiguous, but still heroic Henry, and that including the killing of the prisoners would have tilted the scales too far against Henry for Branagh's comfort.

Henry V is not an isolated case of Shakespeare's moral ambivalence on political questions. It is part of a larger cycle of history plays known as the major tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, and Henry V). Throughout these plays, Shakespeare resists presenting his audience with clear-cut rights and wrongs. Often characters who behave in a morally distasteful fashion turn out to be effective rulers who serve the greater good of their country.

I want to suggest that it's the moral ambiguity of Shakespeare's history plays that suits the times in which we live—and not their messages, however interpreted by directors on the right or left. Consider as a case in point the left's position on U.S. foreign policy. During the cold war, it was relatively straightforward and unambiguous: the democratic left opposed Soviet communism as a totalitarian abomination, but did not think that opposition to communism justified the U.S. government's support of right-wing dictators such as Chile's Augusto Pinochet or Iran's Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. But now look at the contemporary case of U.S. support for Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan.

It is a bit of a stretch, but Musharraf would make a fine character in a Shakespearean history play. Always ambitious, he led the overthrow of a democratically elected government in a military coup and seized power for himself—and was condemned by the United States for doing that. However, the democratically elected leaders that he replaced were corrupt, and he seems to have enjoyed strong popular support. A short time later, al-Qaeda targeted tens of thousands of civilians in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and succeeded in killing almost three thousand. The United States then put pressure on Musharraf to assist us in overthrowing the Taliban government of neighboring Afghanistan, which was closely allied to al-Qaeda. Musharraf agreed, and the United States entered into an alliance with Pakistan. Because many Pakistanis sympathized with the Muslim radicalism of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Musharraf lost popular support and took repressive measures to quash his opposition. Now he is no longer a benign despot, and the United States is no longer condemning him; he is a stalwart ally.

What should the left's position be on issues such as U.S. support for Pakistan? Watching Henry V won't help us answer questions like that, but it might help us understand why, as with the moral/political questions in the play, there is no easy answer. This is a time for the history plays, not because they are pro-war or antiwar, or favor one king or country over another, but precisely because of their deep ambiguities. Let us hope that new productions of the plays preserve their complexity rather than giving easy answers to the hard questions they raise.

C. W. Griffin (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: Griffin, C. W. “Henry V's Decision: Interrogative Texts.” Literature/Film Quarterly 25, no. 2 (1997): 99-103.

[In the following essay, Griffin analyzes three different film versions of Henry V and attempts to prove that “films can be just as plural, just as interrogative, as theatrical performances.”]

In her book Critical Practice (1980), Catherine Belsey speaks of the “interrogative text,” that text which contradicts, even disrupts, itself. “The position of the ‘author’ inscribed in the text, if it can be located at all,” she says, “is seen as questioning or as literally contradictory” (91). Among other examples of interrogative texts, Belsey cites a number of Shakespeare's plays, including the Henry IV plays, Julius Caesar, The Winter's Tale, and Coriolanus. Coriolanus is interrogative, for example, because it dramatizes the “contradictory truth that heroic individualism is both necessary to and destructive of a militaristic society”; offering no single figure with a full grasp of the truth, the play situates the spectator in “an actively critical” position.

The Elizabethan theatre, Belsey feels, was particularly congenial to the creation of interrogative texts, since it existed in “a state of transition between the patently non-illusionist and emblematic medieval stage and the proscenium theatres of the Restoration period.” Framing and containing the action of the play, the proscenium stage creates for its audience “a comprehensive vision of the events dramatized, which is also a comprehending and therefore authoritative vision”; the earlier Elizabethan stage, on the other hand, “is more open, and the relationship between players and audience less controlled and predictable.” Hovering between these two modes, the Renaissance theatre facilitated “the dialectical relationship between identification and distance which enlists the audience in contradiction” (97).

Three years after her book came out, Belsey published an article in Literature/Film Quarterly that extends her argument from Shakespearean plays to films of these plays. While a play in performance necessarily interprets a text and thereby narrows its meanings somewhat, she says, film “tends to narrow plurality to a greater degree, to specify and fix a reading as its reading” (152). Originating in the tradition of perspective staging that had created illusionistic theatre, film's “lighted, framed, rectangular space presents to a single position, the fixed position of the spectator in front of the screen, a fictional world which offers a replica of the real world of the spectator's experience” (155). Through its spatial and narrative coherence, film creates for its audience a sense of “mastery of its meaning and recognition of its ‘truth.’ The modern liberal humanist spectator understands, on the basis of experience, the meaning of a text which is seen as the expression of the author's experience” (156).

In this essay, I wish to challenge Belsey's notion that a film of a Shakespearean play, through its very form, must always specify and fix the meaning of that play. Through an analysis of different film versions of the same scene, I hope to demonstrate that films can be just as plural, just as interrogative, as theatrical performances. In my analysis of three different versions of the second scene in Henry V, the scene in which Henry makes the decision to declare war on France, I will try to show that these scenes grow progressively more subtle and complex in their depiction of the indeterminacy of human motivations and actions.

It would seem that filmed scenes from Henry V would provide a perfect test of Belsey's thesis, since the play text itself seems so undeniably “interrogative,” both in its structure and in its portrait of the King. A number of critics have commented, for instance, on the structural contradictions between the high rhetoric of the Chorus's speeches and the mean actions that often follow them. At the very beginning of the play, for example, after being invited to suppose that we see “two mighty monarchies” confined “within the girdle of these walls” (Prologue 19-20) as well as thousands of men, proud horses, and even kings, we witness instead two prelates plotting about how to manipulate the King in order to save church possessions threatened by a bill in Parliament. And at the beginning of Act II, after the Chorus's announcement that “now all the youth of England are on fire” (Prologue 1), we see not fiery youth, but tavern drunks arguing over Mistress Quickly, the hostess of their tavern home. But even more conspicuous than the structural contradictions in the play are the contradictions that readers of the play discern in the character of the King himself. William Hazlitt calls him an “amiable monster” (206), while E. M. W. Tillyard describes him as hearty and a good mixer but passive and subject to the whims of his counselors (310-11). Ian Johnson says that we may interpret him either as “a dry, precise man pushed unwittingly into war by the machinations of his Archbishop, or as a born leader, virile, eloquent, and heaven-sent” (14), and Phyllis Rackin holds that he is a figure whose Machiavellian plotting contradicts his representations of his achievements and whose role-playing contradicts his characterization of himself as a true embodiment of royal authority (82). Although many critics have eschewed the ambiguity and contradiction I speak of in favor of a more one-sided view of Henry (typically he is either a Christian hero or a self-aggrandizing, Machiavellian villain), enough of the kind of double-sided analysis of his character that I have described exists to justify Norman Rabkin's description of the play that depicts his career as either a rabbit or a duck, and to warrant Rabkin's feeling that Shakespeare, and his sensitive readers and audiences, are equally tempted by these rival gestalts (34).

Certainly there is a good deal of evidence, both within and outside the play, to suggest that Shakespeare must have intended to create a Henry who was at least ambiguous, if not contradictory. On the one hand, it is certain that Henry's image for Elizabethans was unequivocal; he was seen, in the words of J. H. Walter, editor of the Arden edition, as “a leader of supreme genius bountifully assisted by Fortune and by the unity of his people.” “We do less than justice to Henry,” continues Walter “if we do not realize that in Elizabethan eyes he was just such a leader whose exploits were greater than those of other English kings; in Ralegh's words, ‘None of them went to worke like a Conquerour: save only King Henrie the fift’” (xxi). But against this heroic image of Henry, we have to pit, I think, the following evidence that Shakespeare saw the young King much more jaundicely (though there is much evidence for a cynical reading of the King's motivations and actions throughout the play, I am going to draw my evidence from the first two scenes of the play, since my analysis will focus on these):

* The ways in which Shakespeare altered Holinshed's account of Henry's progress toward war with France, placing the tennis balls incident after the King's decision to go to war (rather than before and as a provocation to, the decision as Holinshed had done) and eliminating both Henry's offer to marry the French princess Katherine and endow her with French territory and his extended negotiations with French ambassadors before beginning his campaign; these changes, it seems to me, render Shakespeare's Henry more cold and callous than Holinshed's.

* Our awareness that the Archbishop of Canterbury, whom the King consults as to the legality of his claim on the French throne, is hardly a disinterested authority, since we know from the first scene of the play that he has already broached the subject of war to the King, offering to support a campaign with a large sum of money.

* The fact that the quarto text of the play, which presents what Annabel Paterson calls “an almost unproblematic view of a highly popular monarch” (46), omits the first scene completely; this omission, and others, concludes Gary Taylor, remove “almost every difficulty in the way of an unambiguously patriotic interpretation of Henry and his war” (12).

Although the slapstick comedy and grand oratory of Laurence Olivier's 1944 film suppress the cues that suggest a more cynical reading of Henry's motives and actions, two more recent films provide more complex and, I would argue, interrogative versions of the King's decision to war against France. In actuality, each film provides us with two versions of the decision. The first version depicts an inexperienced (in the BBC film) or a stupid (English Shakespeare Company version) young King being manipulated into his decision by wily ecclesiastical advisors. But the second version (this time a subtextual one) in each film suggests that the King is not being manipulated at all; rather, he is very much in control of the moment, in actuality directing matters so that he will (1) have the support of his counselors and nobles in his campaign and (2) be absolved of any responsibility for the decision.

Made in 1979, the BBC videotaped version of the scene seems on its surface to depict a pious young King, astute but inexperienced, consulting his wise churchmen as to the legality of his claim to the throne of France. We first see the King with his head bowed and hands folded, perhaps in prayer, as the churchmen enter the courtroom. His hands still folded, the King nods his head at the Archbishop's blessing and, in appropriately earnest tones, prays him to proceed

And justly and religiously unfold
Why the law Salic that they have in France
Or should, or should not, bar us in our claim.

(I.ii. 10-12)

Twice during the Archbishop's Salic Law speech, the camera cuts away from him to reveal the King thoughtfully weighing his argument. At the end of this speech, others in the courtroom—first Ely, then Exeter, and finally Westmoreland—urge the King to move against France. Not yet swayed, the King prudently raises the issue of how to protect his country against Scotland in his absence. It is the Archbishop's comparison of the “state of man” to the ordered state of the “honey bees,” from which he infers that “a thousand actions, once afoot / [can] end in one purpose, and be all well borne / Without defeat” (I.ii.211-13) that finally convinces the King, whose face grows more sure and determined as he listens. Caught in an oblique closeup at the end of this speech, the King announces his decision:

Now are we well resolved, and by God's help
And yours, the noble sinew of our power,
France being ours, we'll bend it to our awe
Or break it all to pieces.


And yet, if we watch this scene very closely, we will note hints, particularly in the King's too obvious piety, in his too carefully studied manner, and in the hint of a mocking grin playing about the corners of his expressive mouth, that Henry, far from being naive, is, in the words of Paul Cubeta, “playing a king with a political conscience” (4), manipulating the Archbishop rather than being manipulated by him.

On first viewing, the 1988 English Shakespeare stage production of the play, which was part of a cycle of seven plays covering Shakespeare's two tetralogies, seems to present us with a very different Henry from that of the BBC. Despite his Edwardian military tunic, this tentative, even slow-witted, King seems an easy mark for the machinations of his crafty, prissy Archbishop. Pausing only momentarily over the Scottish issue, he decides for war.

But revealing what Barbara Hodgdon (180) aptly calls “the authoritarian beginnings of an imperialist regime,” this film also tells another, subtextual story of Henry's decision. At least twice during the scene, we are given signs that this Henry is, like the King in the BBC version, also stage-managing events, here, I think, in order to shift responsibility for the war to the Archbishop and possibly to pressure him into following up on his offer of financial support. Our first hint of this King's duplicity is the stagey way he admonishes the Archbishop to “take heed how you impawn our person, / How you awake our sleeping sword of war” (I.ii.21-22), capping his performance of the long speech with a nod of self-satisfaction at the end. It is the second hint that is the more revealing: just before the King announces his final decision, as if to suture over his sudden change of mind, the camera shifts first to a long shot and then back to the closeup, in which we note the new certainty in the King's demeanor and hear the grimness in his voice as he promises to bend France to “our awe / Or break it all to pieces” (224-25).

In their depictions of Henry's decision to go to war in order to regain his “lost” French territories, both of these scenes seem to me to be interrogative in nature. Watching them, we hover between two interpretations of Henry: Is he an inexperienced young king, earnestly consulting ecclesiastical authority as to the legality of his war with France; or is he a shrewd, even manipulative leader, who has already decided to pursue his war and only needs to win the support of his nobles and counsellors? It is testimony to the subtle and layered performances of David Gwillum (the BBC's Henry) and Michael Pennington (English Shakespeare Company) that one is never sure which is the “real” Henry; in the words of Anne Barton, “the mind and heart of the king are essentially opaque” (102). It is just this opacity that raises for us fundamental questions about the King's motivations and actions.

But it is Kenneth Branagh's 1992 film that gives us the most subtle, and to my mind, interrogative version of the King's decision. First of all, one is never quite sure what is going on in the second scene itself. Of course, it is obvious enough that the greasy-looking Archbishop is trying to manipulate the King into war with France. But what part does the King's uncle Exeter play in the Archbishop's plans? Have the two conspired together in order to goad the King into war? Certainly this interpretation is suggested when the Archbishop, in the middle of his Salic Law speech, turns to Exeter, whereupon Exeter smiles, shifts his eyes toward the King as if to say, “Keep it up,” and nods in approval. Or is it possible that the King, Archbishop, and Exeter have all plotted together in order to convince the nobles of the legality of war with France; that this just might be true is suggested by the way the Archbishop directs his Salic Law speech not at the King, but at the seated nobles.

And just what kind of King is Henry in this scene? Is he the bored young man who flops down onto his throne at the beginning, looking disgusted with the whole proceeding? Or is he a more threatening figure, someone who is not to be trifled with? It is this interpretation that is suggested by the shadows of the armed guards who accompany him in his approach to the courtroom, in the tension we hear in the music that signals his entrance, in the sinister way his backlit figure looms up as he approaches (an allusion to Darth Vader, suggests Michael Pursell, 269), and in the guarded bows by which his nobles greet his entrance. It is also suggested by the King's grim warning to “take heed how you impawn our person,” which catches both the Archbishop and Exeter off guard, and suggests that he may be fully aware that the two are trying to manipulate him into war.

“Just who is manipulating whom here?” is the question that the ambiguities and disruptions of the second scene of Branagh's Henry V raise. And behind that question, of course, lurks the deeper political and moral question of how far the King is willing to go to accomplish his imperialistic designs on the kingdom of France, a question that will be raised again and again in the film—by the death of Falstaff, by the execution of Bardolph, and by the bloody, muddy depiction of the Battle of Agincourt.

In order to close my case, I wish to offer one final piece of evidence against Catherine Belsey's assertion that a film text, by its very nature, cannot be interrogative, this time examining not a film but a critical review of a film, Peter Donaldson's essay on Branagh's Henry V published in the spring 1991 Shakespeare Quarterly. Highlighting the film's incongruities (e.g., Chorus Derek Jakobi in modern overcoat and muffler appearing on the cliffs of Dover, at the gates of Harfleur, with the troops at Agincourt, etc.), its gaps (e.g., doors continually marking the boundary between artistic medium and referent), and contradictions (e.g., the playful interlude of Katherine learning English juxtaposed against the expression of pain on the face of her father, the French King), Donaldson presents it, without ever saying so, as a classic example of Belsey's interrogative text. Bringing “to the surface a powerful current of doubt about the imperial premises of the play's actions,” says Donaldson, the film presents a king “whose personal growth is fostered by inward assent to the necessary evils of politics, war, and courtship” (91); in Belsey's terms, this interrogative text “permits the reader [in this case the viewer] to construct from within the text a critique of [its] ideology” (92).

If, as I have tried to demonstrate in this article, a Shakespearean film can be interrogative, then where is the flaw in Belsey's argument that in its interpretation of a play text, film “tends to narrow plurality … to specify and fix a reading as its reading” (152)? While Belsey's argument that film, with its roots in the perspective system developed in the fifteenth century, promises to replicate, through its narrative and spatial coherence, the “real world of the spectator's experience” (155) may be true, no one familiar with recent work in perception and cognition would be naive enough to argue that one's experience of the world is totally unambiguous and noncontradictory. Just as the worlds of experience that our senses create from the sight and sound waves that stimulate them may be plural, so may be the films we make to replicate these worlds of experience. (And paradoxically, it is the closeup, which Belsey argues is “the source of the distance between film and stage” [153], that most often focuses us precisely on the plurality of meanings that can become evident in what we perceive. In fact, it was primarily closeups of facial expressions that created the plurality of possible meanings I discerned in the scenes that I analyzed).

Works Cited

Barton, Anne. “The King Disguised: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History.” The Triple Bond: Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance. Ed. Joseph G. Price. University Park and London: Pennsylvania State UP, 1975.

Belsey, Catherine. Critical Practice. London and New York: Methuen, 1990.

“Shakespeare and Film: A Question of Perspective.” Literature/Film Quarterly 11 (1983): 152-58.

Cubeta, Paul. “The Shakespeare Plays on TV: Season Two.” Shakespeare on Film Newsletter 5.1 (1980): 3-5.

Donaldson, Peter. “Taking on Shakespeare: Kenneth Branagh's Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 42 (1991): 60-71.

Hazlitt, William. The Round Table. Characters of Shakespeare's Plays. Everyman's Library. London: Dent; New York: Dutton, 1964.

Hodgdon, Barbara. The End Crowns All: Closure and Contradiction in Shakespeare's History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1991.

Johnson, Ian. “Merely Players.” Focus on Shakespearean Films. Ed. Charles W. Eckert. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972.

Paterson, Annabel. “Back by Popular Demand: The Two Versions of Henry V.Renaissance Drama: New Series XIX, Essays on Texts of Renaissance Plays. Ed. Mary Beth Rose. Evanston, IL: Northwestern UP and Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies, 1988.

Pursell, Michael. “Playing the Game: Branagh's Henry V. Literature/Film Quarterly 20 (1992): 268-75.

Rackin, Phyllis. Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

Rabkin, Norman. Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1981.

Taylor, Gary, ed. Henry V. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1982.

Tillyard, E. M. W. Shakespeare's History Plays. New York: Macmillan, 1946.

Walter, J. H., ed. The Arden Shakespeare: King Henry V. London and New York: Methuen, 1985.

David Steinsaltz (essay date 2002)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7195

SOURCE: Steinsaltz, David. “The Politics of French Language in Shakespeare's History Plays.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42, no. 2 (2002): 317-34.

[In the following essay, Steinsaltz contends that in Henry V the English language is “intimately entwined with the life and honor of the English nation” and that the play is not merely “a representation of England's triumph over France, but … the humiliation and tumultuous trouncing of the French language, which had subjugated their native English for so long.”]

Amid his arduous and apparently superfluous wooing of Princess Katherine of France, Shakespeare's King Henry V exclaims, “It is as easy for me, Kate, to conquer the kingdom as to speak so much more French.”1 Since he has just conquered the kingdom this is no idle boast, but why does he speak so much French? And why is an entire scene of the same play conducted in French, save for a few words of comically mispronounced English? Why are French words and phrases sprinkled liberally through the speeches of French and English alike? While it is not quite true, as George Watson has suggested, that Shakespeare is “the only Elizabethan dramatist to write at length in a foreign language”—Thomas Kyd's “language of Babel” in The Spanish Tragedy is a well-known counterexample—these French passages are too prominent and unconventional, even disruptive for those spectators not conversant in French, to pass unremarked.2 At the same time, unlike Thomas Middleton who passed off a kind of pidgin English as Dutch for comic effect in No Wit, No Help Like a Woman's, Shakespeare did write essentially correct French, relying on its familiarity to much of his audience.

This final act of Henry V has been knocked about for centuries by shifting currents of critical fashion. One line of critics, tracing descent from Samuel Johnson, has dismissed act V outright as an ill-conceived and inapposite sequel.3 In recent years, though, as the play has, in the words of Katherine Eggert, “assumed a surprisingly prominent place not only in Shakespeare criticism, but [also] in wider critical debates over the relations between literature and hegemonic political power,” the two French scenes have begun to come into focus.4 A consensus has developed that these scenes—the courtship scene in particular—are no mere comic interludes or superficial nods to romantic convention. They may, in fact, be the keystone in the play's dramatic structure, and in the sociopolitical project of the entire tetralogy.

What exactly this structure and this project are, though, and why exactly the French scenes are so crucial, have occasioned rather less consensus. Do they consummate the personal developments of Hal-Henry,5 or demonstrate the public “lesson of harmonious marriage”6 that unites and pacifies the warring nations? While the bilingual singularity of the French scenes of Henry V is no longer ignored, as it often was in earlier work, the language is often relegated to a sideshow for political, social, and sexual conflicts.7 Eggert, for instance, extending an observation of Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore, relates the princess's English lesson to the Archbishop's disqusition on the arcana of Salic law, another scene which criticism has traditionally disparaged or ignored, and to anxieties about the potency and legitimacy of a female monarch, ever more salient in the last decade of Elizabeth's reign.8

The French language is not, however, an arbitrary sign for something foreign or feminine. J. M. Maguin points out that Shakespeare in Henry V “presents the French language in a ridiculous light,” and, more significantly, that “the national epic is a co-exalting of the virtues of the hero and the virtues of the tongue.”9 These ideas deserve further exploration. There is a scheme of linguistic antagonism that pervades the histories, something more precise than the “sort of delayed revenge for the Norman Conquest” that Watson has espied there.10

As the English nation is perpetually at war with the French, so must their languages be at war. In particular, the gender cleansing that Eggert described is portrayed, enacted, and consummated in its linguistic incarnation. As the Englishmen are virile, rugged, honest, and virtuous, so must be their language, in opposition to the womanish, effete, deceptive, and perfidious language of the French. Contrary to Watson's suggestion, this linguistic ethnicity rooted in the language's ancient Anglo-Saxon loam, forming the core of English nationhood itself, was not Shakespeare's own discovery.11 Not only was it a fashionable topic for Elizabethan writers, but it was also backed by an estimable literary and political tradition, in which the historical Henry V himself had played a substantial part.

In his history plays Shakespeare has set himself a formidable task, made explicit in the almost self-abasing Chorus that opens Henry V: to represent “two mighty monarchies” with the limited means of the theater, “Turning th' accomplishment of many years / Into an hour-glass” (Prologue 20, 30-1). This “accomplishment” was, at least in part, the forging of a united English nation in the struggle against the ancient enemy France. The French armies could not be transported into the theater, but in a sense they were already there. Not the armies that Henry V fought at Agincourt, but the Norman armies of three-and-a-half centuries before, who imposed a French-speaking nobility and repressed English to an unwritten plebian jargon. While the foreign rulers were slowly domesticated in the centuries of Anglo-Saxon twilight, a thick stratum of French vocabulary survived in English. With it survived, too, the native English ressentiment, in the English-speaker's unconscious sense that French words are arrogant, mannered, and even rude. In quest of purely poetic means to manifest the titanic national struggle, it is no wonder that the dramatist should reach into this persistent cleavage in the English speaking audience's deepest sense of their own language. While most evident and thematically essential in Henry V, this linguistic polemic runs throughout the history plays.12

The inaptitude for speaking French, which Shakespeare's Henry V asserts and simultaneously demonstrates, may startle the historically aware theatergoer. Is it plausible that an English monarch of the early part of the fifteenth century would have lacked fluency in French? The record is not entirely clear. Since the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, French had been the native tongue of the English nobility. During the fourteenth century, while the nobles gradually adopted English, the royalty remained incorrigibly francophone. So, while Edward III's parliament in 1362 decreed that court proceedings be conducted in English rather than French (because French “is much unknown in the said realm”) it is doubtful whether Edward himself (Henry's great-grandfather) could speak more than rudimentary English.13

In the fourteenth century, the status of vernaculars began to rise throughout Europe. While this was primarily an assertion of the popular speech against the prerogatives of Latin, for the first time the native tongue became a primary banner and cause for national identity.14 The English, in particular, saw themselves dispossessed and alienated in their own land by a foreign tongue. Thus the chronicler Robert of Gloucester, writing around 1300, lamented

Vor bote a man conne frenss me telth of him lute.
Ac lowe men holdeth to engliss & to hor owe speche zute.
Ich wene ther ne beth in al the world contreyes none
That ne holdeth to hor owe speche bote engelond one.(15)

As the long-tense relations with France degenerated into ceaseless warfare, the French language came to appear more and more as an occupying enemy.

Clearly French hegemony in England was already crumbling by 1346, when Edward III broadcast the accusation (first contrived by Edward I) that the French king was plotting “to destroy and wholly annihilate the English nation and language,” with particular emphasis on the latter.16 As O. F. Emerson observes, “it is unbelievable that the destruction of the English language would have been mentioned so prominently if there had not been hope of appealing to the popular pride.”17 Seventeen years later came the change from French to English in court proceedings, though statutes continued to be enrolled in French until 1489. By the end of the fourteenth century, letters and wills began to appear in English, a trend which accelerated in the reign of Henry IV.

The order deposing Richard II in 1399 was read to Parliament in English, as were Henry IV's speeches claiming the throne. John Fisher sees in this the beginning of a deliberate policy of the Lancastrian monarchs to substitute English for French as the prestige written language.18 A sudden profusion of English-language poetry manuscripts around 1400, and the enshrinement of Geoffrey Chaucer, were linked to close companions of the future Henry V, and to his court after he became king. His five proclamations in 1416 to the citizens of London, requesting men and supplies for the invasion of France, were very nearly the first royal proclamations in English in 330 years. His military dispatches from France were written in English, and were quickly recognized as a model for patriotic Englishmen. Consider, for example, the 1422 resolution of the London Brewers' Craft, formally adopting English for their records: “Whereas our mother tongue, to wit, the English tongue, hath in modern days begun to be honorably enlarged and adorned; for that our most excellent lord king Henry the Fifth hath, in his letters missive, and divers affairs touching his own person, more willingly chosen to declare the secrets of his will [in it]; and for the better understanding of his people, hath, with a diligent mind, procured the common idiom (setting aside others) to be commended by the exercise of writing.”19 Without Henry's royal example, Fisher argues, English might not have established itself as a public written language or official spoken language at this time, just as other linguistic shifts—from English to French in Quebec, for example—have followed changes in policy, not in demographics. The promotion of English would be, in this view, much like the French campaigns themselves, a means to inflame patriotic sentiment and divert criticism from the father's controversial usurpation. Henry V, and to a lesser extent Henry IV, saw in an already mature English linguistic ethnicity a lever that could move the hearts and minds of the citizenry to their favor.

V. H. Galbraith, writing on the development of linguistic nationalism in medieval England, draws a straight line from Henry V's communiqués to the “perfect correspondence” of nationality and vernacular that he sees finally attained in the Elizabethan era.20 The correspondence was in fact far from perfect, and the native tongue not yet entirely triumphant. Queen Elizabeth still typically addressed her people in French, which had also “become the language of international correspondence and was considered a necessity for those looking for employment under the Crown.”21 Still, if the queen and her courtiers did occasionally speak French, there can be no doubt that a new sensitivity to the history and character of the English language, a new pride in the national language, blossomed in Shakespeare's day. For instance, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicle, Shakespeare's preferred historical source, laments a past when,

In the court also it [English] grew into such contempt, that most men thought it no small dishonor to speake any English there. Which brauerie tooke his hold at the last likewise in the countrie with euerie plowman, that euen the verie carters began to wax wearie of there mother toong, & laboured to speake French, which as then was counted no small token of gentilitie. And no maruell, for euerie French rascall, when he came once hither, was taken for a gentleman, onelie bicause he was proud, and could vse his owne language, and all this (I say) to exile the English and British speaches quite out of the countrie.22

That English had since acquired a modicum of respectability he attributes to the efforts and the influence of Chaucer and John Gower. It is perhaps significant for the present argument that Chaucer, who died within months of Henry IV's coronation, is nonetheless subsumed by Holinshed into this king's reign.

In the Elizabethan era, according to Richard Foster Jones, writers “came to view the native speech as the most valuable possession of the English people, and as an end itself rather than as a means to an end.”23 This is apparent in the influential writings of Richard Mulcaster: “I do not think that anie language, be it whatsoeuer, is better able to vtter all arguments, either with more pith, or greater planesse, then our English tung is”; and in a more distinctly patriotic vein, “I loue Rome, but London better, I fauor Italie, but England more, I honor the Latin, but I worship the English.24 While it was the Flemings John Van Gorp (or Goropius) and Simon Stevin who purported to show that their language had been prattled in the Garden of Eden, the end of the sixteenth century saw English philologists asserting the primacy of their own native speech with only slightly more restraint.25 Cecil Grayson has further made the case that this exaltation of the English language was intimately bound up with Elizabethan England's surge of national pride in its military, political, and scholarly achievements.26

We might then posit a Shakespeare, immersed in the linguistic patriotism of his day, finding his hero in the warrior monarch who not only led the English army to glorious victory on the fields of France, but also bestowed glory upon his beloved English language. The Elizabethan efforts to ennoble the native tongue and bedizen it with fine poetry had their roots in those times—and was self-consciously initiated by Henry V himself, if we accept Fisher's argument. But was this connection recognized or generally accepted in Shakespeare's day? The king was not alone in promoting English literacy. Henry's practical support may have been significant, even indispensable, but the ideological defense of written English came from the Lollards, whom Henry unswervingly opposed. Avid to render the very word of God into their own tongue, they were the first to assert the general worth of the English language. As Janel M. Mueller has explained, this secular sideline lived on after their main project of religious reform was brutally suppressed, developing into “something like a universal and self-evident truth in the course of the fifteenth century.”27 John Foxe, in his widely read mid-sixteenth-century religious history Actes and Monumentes, emphasized their devotion to English language books.28 Holinshed, too, reminds his readers that possessing “books written in English” was considered, under Henry V, strong evidence of treason.29 Holinshed's account found its way into The First Part of Sir John Old-Castle, a play which appeared shortly after Shakespeare's Henry V. There a bishop ransacks the Lollard leader's library, and exclaims, “All English, burne them, burne them quickly.”30

Clearly there was some popular association of Lollardy with vernacular literacy, then, and of Henry V with the suppression of Lollardy. Whether the educated public would have completed the syllogism, though, is less clear. Mueller herself sees the French scenes in Henry V as evidence that “the racial memory had preserved to Shakespeare's time the association of the Lancastrians with speaking English, on principle.”31 One might see the desire to dispel the negative association behind Shakespeare's decision to place the young Prince Henry under the tutelage of Sir John Oldcastle, albeit in the grossly unhistorical form that was later rechristened Falstaff. These were, after all, the years when Hal by his own account was learning to “drink with any tinker in his own language” (1 Henry IV, II.iv.18-9).

With this smattering of historiographical linguistics laid out, I will try to trace these concerns through the plays. The loathing of the French language is most venomous in Henry VI Part II, when the proletarian rebel Jack Cade condemns Lord Say with, “he can speak French, and therefore he is a traitor,” adding that “The Frenchmen are our enemies … can he that speaks with the tongue of an enemy be a good counsellor, or no?” (IV.ii.166, 170-2). This offers another context for Dick's earlier exhortation, “The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers” (IV.ii.76-7). Whatever else a lawyer may represent, whatever other grievances the people may have, one thing is certain: a lawyer would speak French. A few scenes later, Dick petitions Cade “that the laws of England may come out of your mouth” (IV.vii.6-7). It is French laws that are here to be abrogated and replaced by the English laws of Cade's English mouth.

This antagonism is further alluded to in the opening scene of Henry VI Part I. At Henry V's funeral, Exeter decries fatalistic quiescence, suggesting that any patriotic Englishman should

          think the subtile-witted French
Conjurers and sorcerers, that, afraid of him,
By magic verses have contriv'd his end.


The French are treacherous sorcerers, and their language composes diabolic “magic verses” which have assassinated England's glorious king, whose “deeds exceed all speech” (I.i.15). Later Talbot weeps over his slain son, exhorting him to “Brave Death by speaking, whether he will or no; / Imagine him a Frenchman, and thy foe” (IV.vii.25-6). The Frenchman “Death” here is to be defeated by an Englishman's spoken words.

For the Elizabethan imagination, the French were by nature fickle, over-refined, deceptive, effete, and (to which all these qualities sum up) womanish. “The Mutable and Wavering Estate of France” is the title of one anonymous 1597 treatise while Robert Dallington, writing around 1598, calls the French “childish and ridiculous,” “idle, wauering and inconstant,” marveling above all at the paradoxical immutability of this French inconstancy through the ages.32 In Shakespeare's early histories, France is accounted “a fickle, wavering nation” (1 Henry VI, IV.i.138) of “the false revolting Normans” (2 Henry VI, IV.i.87).

If the spirit of each nation lives in its native tongue, the language itself will not merely represent but must partake of the national character. Until late in the sixteenth century, Jones writes, “The Englishman viewed his language as plain, honest, and substantial, but uneloquent,” all virile attributes which he tended to assign to his countrymen as well.33 The French language, on the other hand, was not only considered effeminate in Tudor England, but also bore connotations of sexual impropriety. The “French disease” was venereal, and a visit to a prostitute was euphemistically a “French lesson.”34 Dallington identifies more than once the fickle French character with the French language: “As the Frenchmens prounciation is very fast, so are their wits very wauering.”35 He quotes with approval an Italian proverb, according to which “[t]he French neither pronounce as they write, nor sing as they pricke, nor thinke as they speake.”36 Nor need one look far to find parallel formulations in Shakespeare. The duke of Alanson in Henry VI Part I calls the French women “shrewd tempters with their tongues” (1 Henry VI, I.ii.123), while Joan in turn ridicules the duke of Burgundy, saying, “Done like a Frenchman—turn and turn again” (1 Henry VI, III.iii.85-6). Richard III mocks the “French nods and apish courtesy” so inimical to “a plain man” of “simple truth” (Richard III, I.iii.49, 51-2). And in Henry VI Part I the French language is identified directly with cowardice, when Sir William Lucy blusters to the French leaders, “Submission, Dolphin? 'tis a mere French word; / We English warriors wot not what it means” (IV.vii.54-5).

More telling than the occasional comments on language, though, is the actual use of French in the plays. In Henry VI Part I, for instance, there is just one exchange of two lines in French, and that is for a treacherous lie, when Joan sneaks into the city of Roan, purporting her noble cohorts to be “Paysans, la pauvre gens de France” (III.ii.14). She immediately translates her line for the audience, a populist gesture that Shakespeare eschewed in most of Henry V, save for the low comedy of act IV, scene iv. The few French words that appear in Richard II are also intended for deception. In act V, scene iii, the duchess of York comes to plead with the king to spare her son's life, begging him to “Say ‘pardon’” (V.iii.116). The duke of York suggests that the king sidestep her plea by a verbal stratagem: “Speak it in French, King, say ‘pardonne moy” (V.iii.119). Furious, the duchess reproaches him that he “sets the word itself against the word!” (V.iii.122). The duchess insists, though, “Speak ‘pardon’ as 'tis current in our land, / The chopping French we do not understand” (V.iii.123-4). It is Henry IV who hews to the honest English meaning.

The most extensive and complex use of French comes in Henry V. Here again, we are shown the fraudulent nature of the language, as when the disguised king calls himself “Harry le Roy” (IV.i.49). The French “le Roy” is a deception, a disguise for “the King.” He is not the first to use French in this scene, though, for the sentry Pistol inexplicably issues his challenge in the language of the enemy: “Qui vous là?”37 (IV.i.35). J. W. Lever has explained that the garbled spelling of the original quartos (“Ke ve la”) was not really French, but was probably meant to represent “a stock piece of Elizabethan thieves' argot,” used by a highwayman in challenging his victim.38 Tracts and pamphlets published in the Elizabethan and early Stuart periods refer to the jargon of the underworld as “broken French” or “pedlar's French.”39

A few scenes later, in act IV, scene iv, Pistol really does play the highwayman, and can bring all his francophone attainments to bear in shaking down his captive French nobleman, in particular his trademark phrase “cuppele gorge” (IV.iv.37) (or “Couple a gorge!” as it appears elsewhere [II.i.71]). This soldier, speaking only French, is a quaking coward. He surrenders to the most craven and base ruffian in the English army (as the Boy reminds us directly), and yet flatters him as a “gentilhomme de bonne qualité” (IV.iv.2-3) and “le plus brave, vaillant, et très [distingué] seigneur d'Angleterre” (IV.iv.56-7). Pistol banters with the Frenchman, interpreting his words as though they were the same coarse criminals' argot with which he is familiar: “la force de ton bras” becomes “brass” and “pardonnez moi” becomes “a ton of moys” (IV.iv.16-7, 18, 21, 22).

So far, then, French is seen to be the language of French poltroons and English thieves, and of all who wish to deceive. The French nobility speaks French for three related purposes, to wit: boasting, blasphemous oaths, and vulgarity. For the boasting we have the Dolphin's raving about “le cheval volant,” with “les narines de feu” (III.vii.14-5) who will soar above “les eaux et terre” (IV.ii.4). This mighty horse is described as a “palfrey,” though, considered a lady's horse.40 The oaths are legion, among them “O Dieu vivant!” (III.v.5), “Dieu de batailles!” (III.v.15), “O diable!,” “O Seigneur!,” and “Mort Dieu, ma vie!” (IV.v.1-3). This contrasts starkly with Henry's remark about “oaths, which I never use till urg'd” (V.ii.144). For vulgarity there are the Dolphin's colorful biblical citation “Le chien est retourné à son propre vomissement” (III.vii.64) and the final speech in Katherine's English lesson, act III, scene iv. It is there that we see the inherent vulgarity of the French language, for the plain, unexceptionable words “foot” and “gown” become comically obscene and offensive to the unsullied ears of a “dame[s] de honneur” (III.iv.54). In her exaggerated horror at these words “de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique” she repeats them again and again, and still includes them on her final list of new words (III.iv.53-4).

The only characters who do not speak proper English are the cowardly nobleman and these two women, the Princess Katherine and her maid Alice. As the main interest of the scene is the comic spectacle of French people mispronouncing English, the particular words and remarks do not seem terribly significant; but several facts do stand out. First, that the speakers are two women; indeed, this is the only conversation between women in the whole play. Second, that all but one of the words they discuss describe parts of the body, culminating in the titillating puns on the French for “fuck” and “cunt”—the latter breaking from the pattern of body parts, being a mispronunciation of “gown.”41 Third, that the French princess is taking a lesson in English. Why is that? She says only, “[I]l faut que j'apprenne à parler [l'Anglois]” (III.iv.4-5), with no further explanation. As has often been observed, the princess's yearning to learn English comes hard on the heels of Henry's first French conquest at Harfleur, in a scene seething with images of rape and penetration. English Henry is on his way to conquer the kingdom of France, and the French women must submit to English masters, as the effeminate French language must yield to virile English. It is a reversal of the Norman conquest that imposed the French upon England, as made explicit in the following scene, when the duke of Britain calls the English “Normans, but bastard Normans, Norman bastards” (III.v.10). The Dolphin laments that

Our madams mock at us,. …
                    and they will give
Their bodies to the lust of English youth
To new-store France with bastard warriors.


Henry V appears then as the avenging angel of the English tongue, and of English manhood. Virile English, which had been defamed and broken to the Norman halter, this yeoman English shamed by centuries of submission to a language cowardly and dishonest, at once vulgar and over-refined, the language of thieves and coxcombs, this English would now ride with English-speaking King Henry to conquer womanish France, and the women of France. Already as Prince Hal in Henry IV Part I he professed an interest in the nuances of common English speech. After a time spent chatting with three bartenders, he relates to Poins what he has learned of their speech, such as “They call drinking deep, dyeing scarlet” (II.iv.15), saying that by his study he “can drink with any tinker in his own language.” He demonstrates his virtuosity then by teasing the apprentice Francis. This is also observed by Warwick in Henry IV Part II, when he reassures the king that “the Prince but studies his companions / Like a strange tongue” (IV.iv.68-9). This linguistic attainment serves him as king, not least when he disguises himself as a commoner, to mingle with the troops on the eve of Agincourt.42

Henry's greatest display of English-language virtuosity is the famous Saint Crispin's Day speech in Henry V. Compare the key passage of that speech:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother


with his private soliloquy of the night before:

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


The latter is typical, lofty Shakespearean poesy: sleek and sophisticated, replete with Latinate “inkhorn” words, as these foreign borrowings were termed. Of twenty-five words, eleven are derived from French or Latin. How different in texture are the lines from the Saint Crispin's Day speech, consisting as they do entirely of Germanic words, mostly monosyllabic, all but one (“happy”) of Anglo-Saxon derivation.43 The speech continues with “be he ne'er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition,” a line of courtly Gallicism to suit the subject, then concludes with

And gentlemen in England, now a-bed,
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here;
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.


Of thirty-one words, the only French root is the contemptible “gentlemen.” Otherwise, with the exception of the name “Saint Crispin,” the passage is solidly Germanic. This context of rugged monosyllables places special emphasis on the “accurs'd” “gentlemen,” and especially on the Anglo-Saxon compounds “England” and “manhoods.” This hearty English oratory, the fruit of Henry's “wilder days” (I.ii.267), mocks by example the Gallic preening of the previous scene, and the pusillanimity that will follow. However the king may speak to himself, the words he chooses to stir the hearts of English peasants and yeomen are pure Anglo-Saxon.

This intentional reliance on Old English monosyllables seems all the more purposeful if we compare Shakespeare's speech with a corresponding pasage of his presumptive sources, the chronicles of Holinshed and Edward Hall. Here Shakespeare:

If we are mark'd to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honor.
God's will, I pray thee wish not one man more.
.....God's peace, I would not lose so great an honor
As one man more methinks would share from me,
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!

(IV.iii. 20-33)

Here Holinshed (1587): “And if so be that for our offenses sakes we shall be deliuered into the hands of our enimies, the lesse number we be, the lesse damage shall the realme of England susteine: but if we should fight in trust of multitude of men, and so get the victorie (our minds being prone to pride) we should therevpon peraduenture ascribe the victorie not so much to the gift of God, as to our owne puissance.”44

And here Hall (1548): “For if you aduenture your liues in so iust a battaile & so good a cause, whiche way soeuer fortune turne her whele, you shalbe sure of fame, glory and renoune: If you be victors and ouercome your enemies, your strength and vertue shalbe spred and dispersed through the whole world: If you ouerpressed with so great a multitude shal happe to be slaine or taken yet neither reproche can be to you ascribed.”45

The early versions offer an eloquence drenched in latinate vocabulary: “victorie,” “aduenture,” “battaile,” “enemies,” “vertue,” “indignation,” and so on. Shakespeare's King Henry eschews these words, except for the French “honor” and “country,” relying instead upon the Old English roots “mark'd to die,” “wish not one man more,” “methinks,” “share.”

“Manhood(s)” is the crux of Henry's speech, and this manhood entails the slaughter of men and conquest of women. The bloodthirst is admirably slaked in the two great battles; the other conquest must be deferred until the final scene, where, as Katherine's previous appearance obliquely promised, Henry will simultaneously conquer the kingdom, the princess, and the language. At first blush, Henry's wooing seems ridiculous, as his marriage to Katherine has been arranged by treaty. But he knows he cannot “buffet for [his] love, or bound [his] horse for her favors” (V.ii.140-1). The laws of chivalric manhood demand that he win her heart with words; the romantic project is a linguistic project. Katherine is the French language, as Henry reminds us when he says that his French “will hang upon my tongue like a new-married wife about her husband's neck” (V.ii.179-80); and the French language is France, as Henry remarks, “It is as easy for me, Kate, to conquer the kingdom as to speak so much more French” (V.ii.184-6). Conquering France, for the king no less than for his soldiers, has literally taken the place of being forced to speak French, as were their ancestors. Katherine, for her part, indicates by her blunder “I cannot speak your England” (V.ii.103), that the English language to which she is being introduced is one with the nation of England.

Henry lamenting, “I cannot … gasp out my eloquence, nor I have no cunning in protestation; only downright oaths” (V.ii.142-4), is in fact the very model of rough eloquence, the Aristotelian mean between the bloodless Latin and the crude Anglo-Saxon, which for Shakespeare's contemporaries was the glory of the English language. No woman can best such a manly king in anything, except by chivalrous pretense. If he speaks English rather than French it must be by choice, not by incapacity. Thus, despite his humble protestations, Henry acquits himself quite competently in French; if he does get tangled in a complicated sentence, he can at least make himself understood. In case we might be uncertain on this point, each of the women assures us explicitly. First Katherine: “le François que vous parlez, il est [meilleur] que l'Anglois lequel je parle,” to which he responds modestly, “No, faith, is't not,” confirming the calm assurance of his understanding (V.ii.188-190). And Alice insists, “Your Majestee entendre bettre que moi' (V.ii.264). Katherine further praises (in a backhanded way) Henry's command of “fausse French” which, she declares, is “enough to deceive de most sage demoiselle dat is en France” (V.ii.218-9). Henry, in contrast, calls Katherine's English “broken” and says, “I am glad thou canst speak no better English” (V.ii.244, 123). An analogy may be found in Holinshed, who remarks with pride that English speakers learn foreign languages more readily than others, especially the French.46

Once his superiority has been demonstrated, once it has been confirmed that he speaks English by choice, Henry may claim victory for himself and for his language. He retorts, “[F]ie upon my false French! By mine honor, in true English, I love thee” (V.ii.220-1): again the contrast between false French and true English, but now the decision has been made to hold fast to the English. He commands her, “break thy mind to me in broken English” (V.ii.245-6). A telling phrase, because of the multiple meanings of “break”: to reveal (information), to train to obedience (as, a horse), and to crush (as, a spirit). Her French mind is broken, submits to his will, in English. All that remains is to mark this with a kiss, a joining of lips and tongues, by which he seals her mouth, and then exclaims that it is more eloquent than the speech of the French council. (He also repeats indirectly the imputation of sorcery to the French speech: “You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate” [V.ii.275].) As an epilogue, we have Burgundy's ironic comment on the kiss, “teach you our princess English?” (V.ii.282); as, in a sense, he does.

The special role of French is underscored by Shakespeare's parallel treatment of the Welsh language. Welsh was another “enemy” language, whose use had been suppressed for nationalistic reasons since shortly before Shakespeare's time.47 In Henry IV Part I Mortimer laments that “My wife can speak no English, I no Welsh” (III.i.191). That Shakespeare himself and his presumptive audience also spoke no Welsh may be inferred from the laconic stage directions that Mortimer's wife and Glendower simply speak “in Welsh” (III.i.195-210). Welsh is the domain of music and love, of women and femininity, of soft sensual pleasure.48 There is a certain analogy here to the feminization of the French language, but without the Manichaean rancor. In contrast to Princess Katherine, the Frenchwoman who learns and is forcibly converted to the English, it is the Englishman Mortimer who vows to learn Welsh. While this appears as tantamount to emasculation, the contrast to Hotspur's ultimately suicidal manliness is not unflattering to Mortimer. Perhaps Shakespeare allows the Welsh language a greater freedom, more ambiguity, for the same reason that he does not actually write dialogue in Welsh: namely, that the Welsh language was genuinely alien, with the charm of the exotic, and by the sixteenth century safely subjugated to boot. French was a too familiar alien presence infiltrating the English language, a linguistic fifth column that could not be ignored.

It is unsurprising that Shakespeare, who did as much as any one man to endow the English language with power, grace, and self-esteem, should have been among those who saw that language as intimately entwined with the life and honor of the English nation. He re-imagined old battles once fought with massed pikes and ranks of longbows upon the fields of France, as linguistic battles fought simultaneously with words and lines of iambic pentameter upon the tongues of Frenchmen and Englishmen, Frenchwomen and Englishwomen. If the language is the nation, then the Chorus's challenge has been met: the “two mighty monarchies” have indeed been confined “within the girdle of these walls” (Prologue 20, 19). The audience has not merely seen a representation of England's triumph over France, but has experienced the humiliation and tumultuous trouncing of the French language, which had subjugated their native English for so long. All English speakers, but particularly those who understood the French passages poorly or not at all, those who have felt most keenly the weight of French pretensions in everyday speech, experience the triumph of their shared language. Unlike the field of Agincourt, this is no mere simulation; it is the thing itself that they experience, the struggle to assert the potency of their national tongue. In this greater struggle, which Shakespeare has contrived to present, the king is only a ragged player in a tin crown. The real field of battle is the theater stage and the printed page, and there it is the poet who is king and general at once.


  1. William Shakespeare, Henry V, in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), pp. 935-75, V.v.184-6. All Shakespeare quotations are from this edition and will appear within the text by act, scene, and line number.

  2. George Watson, “Shakespeare and the Norman Conquest: English in the Elizabethan Theatre,” VQR [Virginia Quarterly Review] 66, 4 (Autumn 1990): 613-28, 614. See J. R. Mulryne's “Nationality and Language in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy,” in Langues et Nations au Temps de la Renaissance, ed. M. T. Jones-Davies (Paris: Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 1991), pp. 67-91.

  3. For a brief discussion and careful rebuttal of this critical tradition, see J. M. Maguin, “Shakespeare's Structural Craft and Dramatic Technique in Henry V,CahiersE [Cahiers Élisabéthains] 7 (April 1975): 51-67.

  4. Katherine Eggert, “Nostalgia and the Not Yet Late Queen: Refusing Female Rule in Henry V,ELH 61, 3 (Fall 1994): 523-50, 523.

  5. Marilyn L. Williamson, “The Courtship of Katherine and the Second Tetralogy,” Criticism 17, 4 (Fall 1975): 326-34.

  6. George Walton Williams, “The Unity of Act V of Henry V,South Atlantic Bulletin 40, 2 (May 1975): 3-9, 5.

  7. Cf. Paul A. Jorgensen, “The Courtship Scene in Henry V,MLQ [Modern Language Quarterly] 11, 2 (June 1950): 180-8; and Paul Dean, “Chronicle and Romance Modes in Henry V,SQ [Shakespeare Quarterly] 32, 1 (Spring 1981): 18-26.

  8. The nexus of gender and language in Henry V is explored by Helen Ostovich in “‘Teach You Our Princess English?’ Equivocal Translation of the French in Henry V,” in Gender Rhetorics: Postures of Dominance and Submission in History, ed. Richard C. Trexler (Binghamton: SUNY, 1994), pp. 147-61; and by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, “History and Ideology, Masculinity and Miscegenation: The Instance of Henry V,” in Faultlines: Cultural Materialism and the Politics of Dissident Reading, ed. Sinfield (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1992), pp. 109-42. See also Juliet Fleming, “The French Garden: An Introduction to Women's French,” ELH 56, 1 (Spring 1989): 19-51, 44-5; Phyllis Rackin, “Patriarchal History and Female Subversion,” in Stages of History: Shakespeare's English Chronicles (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 146-200, n. 150; and Williamson, p. 334. One fascinating study which does place language at the center of the picture, from a very different perspective than the present work, is Joseph A. Porter's The Drama of Speech Acts: Shakespeare's Lancastrian Tetralogy (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1979).

  9. Maguin, pp. 54, 55.

  10. Watson, p. 622.

  11. See Etienne Balibar, “The Nation Form: History and Ideology,” in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, ed. Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein (London: Verso, 1991), pp. 86-106.

  12. The two tetralogies: Henry VI, Parts I, II, and III and Richard III; Richard II, Henry IV, Parts I and II and Henry V.

  13. Quoted in Albert C. Baugh, A History of the English Language (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957), p. 177. See William Longman, The History of the Life and Times of Edward the Third (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869), p. 72. A slightly more positive opinion of Edward's language prowess is offered by O. F. Emerson in “English or French in the Time of Edward III?,” The Romanic Review 7, 2 (April-June 1916): 127-43.

  14. V. H. Galbraith, “Nationality and Language in Medieval England,” in Kings and Chroniclers: Essays in English Medieval History (London: Hambledon Press, 1982), pp. 113-28.

  15. Quoted in Baugh, p. 136.

  16. Quoted in Emerson, p. 138.

  17. Emerson, p. 140.

  18. John H. Fisher, “A Language Policy for Lancastrian England,” PMLA 107, 5 (October 1992): 1168-80. See also Malcolm Richardson, “Henry V, the English Chancery, and Chancery English,” Speculum 55, 4 (October 1980): 726-50.

  19. Quoted in Baugh, p. 183.

  20. Galbraith, p. 125.

  21. Fleming, p. 32.

  22. Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 6 vols. (London, 1586; rprt. London: J. Johnson, 1807), 1:24. I will adopt the title page's convention of calling the collective authors “Holinshed.” For a discussion of these (and other) issues, see Annabel Patterson, Reading Holinshed's “Chronicles” (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1994).

  23. Richard Foster Jones, The Triumph of the English Language (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1953), p. 212.

  24. Quoted in Jones, pp. 194, 193.

  25. Jean-Claude Margolin, “Science et Nationalisme Linguistiques ou la Bataille pour l'Etymologie au XVIe Siècle,” in The Fairest Flower: The Emergence of Linguistic National Consciousness in Renaissance Europe, ed. Fredi Chiappelli (Florence: Presso L'Accademia, 1985), pp. 139-65. See also Jones, pp. 215-23, which includes a brief account of Johannes van Gorp's theories.

  26. Cecil Grayson, “The Growth of Linguistic National Consciousness in England,” in The Fairest Flower, pp. 167-73.

  27. Janel M. Mueller, The Native Tongue and the Word (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 113.

  28. Margaret Aston, “Lollardy and Literacy,” in Lollards and Reformers: Images and Literacy in Late Medieval Religion (London: Hambledon Press, 1984), pp. 193-217.

  29. Holinshed, 3:92.

  30. Quoted in Patterson, p. 153.

  31. Mueller, p. 9, n. 23.

  32. Sir Robert Dallington, The View of Fraunce (1604; rprt. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1936), sig. Xv, V4v.

  33. Jones, p. 18.

  34. Fleming, p. 32.

  35. Dallington, sig. V4v.

  36. Dallington, sig. V2v.

  37. As it is printed in The Riverside Shakespeare; the phrase appears as “Qui va lá?’ in Complete Works of Shakespeare, ed. William Clarke and William Wright (Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1952).

  38. J. W. Lever, “Shakespeare's French Fruits,” ShS 6 (1953): 79-90, 81.

  39. Jones-Davies, “Le Français du Colporteur ou la Langue des Classes Dangereuses dans l'Angleterre Élisabéthaine,” Langues et Nations au Temps de la Renaissance, ed. Jones-Davies (Paris: Klincksieck, 1991), pp. 95-112.

  40. Dollimore and Sinfield, “History and Ideology,” p. 133.

  41. Cf. Suzanne Gossett, “‘I'll Look to Like’: Arranged Marriages in Shakespeare's Plays,” in Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama, ed. Carole Levin and Karen Robertson (Lewiston NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991), pp. 57-74, 64.

  42. The political implications of Hal's field work in common English speech are discussed by Stephen Greenblatt in “Invisible Bullets: Renaissance Authority and Its Subversion, Henry IV and Henry V,” in Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 18-47.

  43. Holinshed condemned words “of manie syllables” (Holinshed, 1:25), while George Gascoigne advised poets in 1575 that “the most auncient English wordes are of one sillable, so that the more monasyllables that you use, the truer Englishman you shall seeme” (quoted in Jones, p. 115).

  44. Holinshed, 3:79-80.

  45. Edward Hall, Chronicle; containing the History of England, during the Reign of Henry the Fourth, and the Succeeding Monarchs, to the End of the Reign of Henry the Eighth, in Which Are Particularly Described the Manners and Customs of Those Periods (1548-50; rprt. London: J. Johnson, 1809), p. 67.

  46. Holinshed, 1:25.

  47. Dollimore and Sinfield, “History and Ideology,” p. 125.

  48. Rackin, pp. 172-4.

I would like to express my gratitude to Richard Marius, sorrowfully missed, without whose support and encouragement this paper would not have been written.

Donald Hedrick (essay date May 2003)

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Last Updated on February 5, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11031

SOURCE: Hedrick, Donald. “Advantage, Affect, History, Henry V.PMLA 118, no. 3 (May 2003): 470-87.

[In the following essay, Hedrick studies how Shakespeare masterfully joined history, politics, and love in Henry V, focusing in particular on the courtship between Henry V and Katherine in the play's final act.]


The violence to genre in Henry V's concluding scene, a romantic minicomedy intruding on the main action of military history, has received its share of aesthetic condemnation and interpretive apologetics, from Samuel Johnson's lament that Shakespeare ran out of material to A. C. Bradley's conviction that Shakespeare could not have intended such a disagreeable ending.1 Despite various explanations, the scene leaves many readers and some spectators markedly uneasy. What typically outweighs any intellectual resolution is the scene's narrative premise, namely that the king's quickie persuasion of Princess Catherine of France to accept, to like, to love, and to marry him takes place under duress: the English have just defeated the French bloodily and overwhelmingly at the Battle of Agincourt, and Catherine has become what Henry terms his “capital demand” (5.2.96).2 Given this wider, historical framing, the charisma of this “mirror of all Christian kings” (2 Chorus 6)—the stock-in-trade of the actors Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh—is continually subject to corrosive quotation marks, so that critics find themselves unable even to name the scene. No longer comfortably termed a “wooing scene,” the interaction has a historical and political dimension that trumps its affective one, in keeping with present-day performance practices that undercut Henry's heroism (Loehlin 3). While scant interpretive consensus exists, almost no one finds love here, however this royal marriage tries to “convert rape into romance” (McEachern, Introduction xxxiii). Nevertheless, the topic of love disarms critical faculties and is often undertheorized, if discussed at all, in interpretations proceeding as if what love is should be self-evident. Freud pinpoints the general interpretive paradox, observing that “things that have to do with love are … as it were, written on a special page on which no other writing is tolerated” (“Observations” 379). Here I hope to explore Freud's insight into the conflict when the other writing on that page is the writing of history.

The talk show question the scene provokes is, bluntly put, “Does Henry love Catherine?” The issue is unidirectional, for dismissed out of hand is whether Catherine might love him. While I do not intend to propose a definitive answer, I want to respect the question's use value for a theoretical advantage—to examine the general conditions of its intelligibility, conditions informed by the play's “experimental” (Hart 22) understanding of history in affective relations among past, present, and future in memory, writing, and action. This understanding involves an innovative logic by which Shakespeare entangles the problematic of history with the analogous problematic of love. Three much debated parts of the play—Henry's Crispin's Day speech, the death of Falstaff, and the final scene—will serve a developing analysis of this logic. Through them I link the pursuit of economic or military advantage to historical authority, link this historical authority and epistemic reliability to an economy of “maximized” affect, and link this work of history making, in all its senses, to that of lovemaking.

While Shakespeare's explorations are often strikingly prescient, I make no claims for a unified Shakespearean theory of history, although I propose some distinctly materialist “makings” consistent with sixteenth-century economics, agreeing with Fredric Jameson that a more radical economic criticism may have something to learn from Shakespeare (320). Nevertheless, Henry V abounds in historiographic moments—that is, representations of systematic history writing or, more broadly, of the imprint of the past in memory, feeling, sense perception, or artifact. These self-reflexive moments, often linking past to future, are continually deployed, moreover, under a rich thematic that Shakespeare names “advantage.” Ideas of tactical military advantage naturally dominate a play about war, but the concept accrues economic and affective dimensions, too.

Consider first a little dramatic moment the night before battle, when the French and English forces are encamped close enough to hear each other's voices. Of particular historiographic interest here, available only through comparison of the text with Shakespeare's source, is the seemingly trivial information of the distance separating the enemies. In Holinshed, the French are “not past two hundred and fiftie pases distant from the English” (391). Shakespeare's revision of this when the messenger reports “fifteen hundred paces” provides telling insight into the historical imagination of the playwright as he reads Holinshed. As if talking to Holinshed's data, Shakespeare's Constable replies, “Who hath measured the ground?” (3.7.114-15). The proximity question, as measure of risk, also motivates a later scene when Shakespeare's comic Welshman, Fluellen, complains to Gower about English troop noise at night, citing classic military historiography for authority—“If you would take the pains but to examine the wars of Pompey the Great, you shall find, I warrant you, that there is no tiddle taddle nor pibble babble in Pompey's camp”—and ranting further at Gower's lame response that “the enemy is loud; you hear him all night” (4.1.68-75).

Aside from revealing to Shakespeareans Shakespeare's dramatic imagination for detail, the line about measuring the distance suggests a skeptical, even impertinent, appropriation of the source, a momentary defeat of official historiography by an amateur playwright-historian. Like Fluellen's amateurism, history serves as rhetorical weapon. Shakespeare's silent exaggeration of the number, perhaps for plausibility, is complicit in the play's many exaggerations, particularly the astonishing kill ratio announced by the English after their victory—dramatically italicized as Henry reads the casualty accounts separately: ten thousand French soldiers to only twenty-eight English. Holinshed cites this fantastically low English figure but adds “[O]ther writers of greater credit affirme that there were slaine above five or six hundred persons” (400). Shakespeare, soldier-historian, silently hyperbolizes, using what he knows to be less reliable numbers.

The Constable praises the soldier-measurer, identified as “Lord Grandpre,” as “a valiant and most expert gentleman” (3.7.117). Shakespeare makes a historical private joke here, while signifying the true historian as interested, engaged, and in danger—walking right up to the enemy to return with accurate facts. History, simultaneously affective and materialist, is achieved from the ground up, as labor, an instrumentalist or pragmatic view evoking the sixteenth century's antiquarian school of history writing, with its recurrent motif of “footprints” from the past (Ferguson 51). Thus, Shakespeare joins the modes of history Nietzsche termed “monumental” and “antiquarian” (180)—hyperbole and litotes respectively. If this soldier is, in effect, a historian, the reverse identification may hold, that the true historian is a soldier. If so, Shakespeare supports Polybius's claim that only military men should write military history (P. Burke 134) or Vico's that history is more certain when the creator of events also narrates them (Streuver 121)—though Shakespeare will interrogate this, too, exemplifying Nietzsche's third mode, “critical” historiography (180).

Aligning affect with accuracy supplements a modern Western notion of history's fictionality, a model ranging from Carl Becker's influential account of the relativity of historical truth to Kenneth Burke's and Hayden White's more recent discussions of how history is patterned on literary genres. Current versions are dominated by Foucauldian “discursivity,” which subsumes and makes intelligible the facts, battles, dates, and leaders of Nietzsche's “monumental” history (Foucault 154).3 Instead of the largely visual and cognitive trope of the historiographic “frame,” the implicit model here is more in keeping with Walter Benjamin's formulation in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” (253-64), near his well-known description of civilization's achievements as “documents of barbarism” (260). There Benjamin counters the historian Leopold von Ranke's requirement that historians report the past wie es eigentlich gewesen war, “how, essentially, things happened” (Ranke 89).4 He does not, however, replace it with a fuller version of indeterminacy—with the construction of “a” past (as in Collingwood, Frye, K. Burke) or the constitution of “facts” (as in White). Instead, Benjamin historicizes history writing itself as an actor in what it narrativizes, prescribing moreover its proper domain as an affective “moment of danger”—that is, the subject's radical disadvantage before some oppressive force: “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins” (255).5 True historiography is a combative arena in which the dead can fight or be captured, defended, or taken hostage—images, as we shall see, adopted and literalized in the play.

A chief historiographic moment occurs in Henry's famous Crispin's Day speech before his badly outnumbered troops. There the king rhetorically inverts Westmoreland's despairing wish for more men by audaciously wishing that there were fewer, because “the fewer men, the greater share of honour / God's will! I pray thee wish not one man more” (4.3.22-23). One-upping his own bravado, Henry even offers to get rid of some of his men, putting himself at even greater disadvantage by offering “passport” and even “crowns of convoy” to the faint-hearted: “We would not die in that man's company / That fears his fellowship to die with us” (4.3.38-39).

In stirring rhetoric of imagined community (Anderson), Henry pictures Agincourt's battle already done, from the future perspective of the victory's anniversary, now familiar to a Shakespearean audience reflecting this community:

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


The best soldier, like Benjamin's best historian, finds himself disadvantaged, but in the comfortable future he experiences significant reversal, improving on history and maximizing glory as he maximized courage. While the speech might be interpretable as critiquing “monumental” history, it seems odd for Henry to include such undercutting. Can he glorify the event by sanctioning lies that constitute its memory, perhaps silently ventriloquizing Falstaff's exaggerations? Or does he indirectly assert the disadvantaged soldier's right to conduct raids on the past? Memory, as for Benjamin, becomes an arena of conflict, and the writing of a conquest constitutes another form of conquest, prefiguring Kant's notion that historiography's main motive is to exert power (Cohen 127) and its military corollary, Clausewitz's notion that war, from a strategist's perspective, is just another kind of writing (402). “Advantage” thus constitutes not the military accomplishment but the historical one: the production of maximized affect, close-eyed patriotism, and in this case “superfluous courage” (4.2.11).

The word advantage and its senses echo throughout. Before the war Henry warns against dividing English forces, lest in defeating the French they become vulnerable to the Scots, “who will make raid upon us / With all advantages” (1.2.138-39), “advantages” signifying adaptive opportunism. Henry's psychological tactics embellish his disadvantage by leading him to “confess” to the French envoy the inferior strength and numbers of his troops: “Though 'tis no wisdom to confess so much / Unto an enemy of craft and vantage” (3.6.129-30). Military theory draws on the logic of advantage as the “better soldier” (3.6.108) in the resistance-through-compliance tactics explicated in Machiavelli's Art of War, which stipulates that against force the “greatest remedie that is used against a devise of the enemie, is to dooe willingly the same, whiche he hath devised that thou shalt dooe perforce: bicause that doing it willingly, thou doest it with order, and with thy advauntage, and his disadvauntage” (141). King James's advice to his son personalizes the military concept, urging him to “assayle not rashlie without an advantage” (James I 70).

Common sense dictates that the most literally disadvantaged are the dead, but the logic of reversal operates there as well. At one point Henry compares the English troops to a sick man who has cleared his conscience: “death is to him advantage” (4.1.167). One can use the appearance of death, moreover, for a distinct advantage: “Though we seemed dead, we did but sleep. Advantage is a better soldier than rashness” (3.6.107-08). Other instances of the term refer to the most disadvantaged and advantaged classes, peasant and king. Disguised among his foot soldiers the night before battle, Henry has an unresolved, acrimonious debate with the foot soldier Williams, who expressed open-eyed, unpatriotic skepticism about the king's willingness to support his men (ending with the disguised king's challenging him with gauntlet). Afterward, Henry soliloquizes about the king's subservience to “ceremony,” without which the working-class “wretch” would have “the forehand and vantage of a king.” Turning advantage into a verb, Henry describes the peace-seeking king's nightly wakefulness, unknown to the “gross brain” of the lucky peasant, who “best advantages,” or betters, his sovereign (4.1.262-66).

Maximizing patriotism through memory evokes advantage as profit on money lent, a meaning used in The Merchant of Venice (1090-1145) in Shylock's euphemism “advantage” for what his Christian antagonists bluntly call “interest” (1.3.66-71). The notion of a temporary, positional opportunity, of turning one's disadvantage to advantage, is also transferred from the political to the economic. To “remember with advantages” becomes another acquisition of material conquest, like the French lands.

Embedded within all these meanings of advantage is the specificity of the nascent capitalist market, namely the highest return on the least investment, seen in the often astounding rates of return for risk-taking merchant-adventurers and sometimes for theatrical entrepreneurs in the fledgling entertainment industry (Knights 32-58; Thirsk 17). As if by coincidence, such markets simultaneously produced the small, best-selling “parasite” genres of popular history that eventually replaced traditional “chronicles.”6 Henry adopts the merchant image when, disguised among the foot soldiers, he debates with them the king's accountability for war's destruction. Arguing in effect against his responsibility, Henry first compares himself to a merchant, who is not responsible for the drowning of the son he sent to sea, and then to a master, who is not responsible for the robbing and killing of the servant sent on an errand. For such people “purpose not their [the son's and the servant's] death when they propose their services” (4.1.148). As affective entrepreneur and entrepreneur of affect, Henry explains with private hubris that the king's “affections are higher mounted than ours” (4.1.103), by implication having greater entertainment value.

The play's most spectacular hyperbolic “profit” is the scene tallying the English and French dead, another dramatization of historical record keeping like that of the clergymen who defend Henry's claim to France by the lengthy citation of the history of Salic law barring monarchical descent through females. Even the announcement of the kill ratio is one-upped by Henry, who credits victory to God and forbids his men to boast of it (to brave and accurate Fluellen's disappointment), reversing his Crispin's Day memorial augmentation. This comparison of casualties embodies the era's maximization dream, the creation of most from least increasingly distinguishing sixteenth-century markets from markets generally. As such, it strikes one as modern, almost characteristic of postindustrial warfare.7

The French, too, are impassioned by the most-from-least fantasy, as we see when the Constable, viewing the English “poor starved band,” imagines novel means by which the French could defeat them: merely by looks (“your fair show shall suck away their souls, / Leaving them but the shells and husks of men”), by breath (“Let us but blow on them, / The vapour of our valor will o'erturn them”), or by pathetic surrogates—our “superfluous lackeys and our peasants” were enough to “purge this field” while the lords stood on a nearby foothill in “idle speculation.” Since “idle” lords might sound less than honorable, however, the Constable then condemns this lack of work, lamenting that there might not be “work enough for all our hands” (4.2.17-31). He concludes with the play's strongest formulation of advantage: “A very little little let us do / And all is done” (33-34)—the repeated “little” a key signifier of the maximization of returns.

This sustained emphasis on labor is characteristic of the entire play. Archbishop Canterbury's lengthy allegory likens the human division of labor to honeybees' “diverse functions,” including those of a king and of soldiers who “with merry march bring home” their “pillage” to him (1.2.183-213). Such a universe is consistent with a counterintuitive historiography by which, according to Jacques Derrida in Specters of Marx, even “the dead must be able to work” (97).8 “Working” memory, the revision of the past (see Jones), is also evoked in the bishop of Ely's war cry, “Awake remembrance of those valiant dead, / And with your puissant arm renew their feats” (1.2.115-16). If rescue from the past is one trope for historiography, advantage adds the radical idea of surplus produced by the working dead. Henry, for instance, predicts that without the conquest of France his bones will do no memorial work, laid “in an unworthy urn, / Tombless, with no remembrance over them” (1.2.228-29), upping the risk should he lose. But he imagines the reverse in his defiant retort to the French demand to surrender and be ransomed: “Bid them achieve me, and then sell my bones” (4.3.92). Outdoing his own conceit, he piles on hyperbole about deadwork, envisioning the use of decaying bones for a spectacular version of early modern biological warfare with the lowest conceivable risk-to-damage ratio:

And those that leave their valiant bones in France,
Dying like men, though buried in your dunghills
They shall be famed. For there the sun shall greet them
And draw their honours reeking up to heaven,
Leaving their earthly parts to choke your clime,
The smell whereof shall breed a plague in France.


For the French, the battle's dead are dead, to be recorded and kept apart by class (the French request license to “book our dead” and “sort our nobles from our common men”; 4.7.65-66), whereas Henry, while getting more work from his dead, appeals democratically to a collective fantasy that whoever fights with him “Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile / This day shall gentle his condition” (4.3.62-63).

The dead, objects of rescue for Benjamin, are for Henry potential recruits. Their labor becomes metaphorically a hyperefficient weapon, when Henry imagines a single bullet performing surplus labor, achieving its advantage by deadly ricochet:

Mark then abounding valour in our English,
That, being dead, like to the bullets grazing,
Break out into a second course of mischief,
Killing in relapse of mortality.


This historical economy of “abounding” valor, doing much with a very little little even after death, also conveys comic appeal, as in the witticism Henry makes after exposing the English traitors, that the devil can never win a soul as easy as an Englishman's (2.2.121-22). Shakespeare uses the motif for overtly economic humor when comic Pistol captures a Frenchman merely with bluster and bad French, extorting two hundred crowns' ransom from the trembling soldier (4.4). Henry's conquest of Harfleur through warnings his soldiers will rape and pillage (3.3.87-118) and the dauphin's insulting gift of tennis balls that Henry says will “mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down” (1.2.286) are violent, even tragic, leveragings of a little rhetoric.


Pistol's comic conquest distinctly echoes the earlier exploits of Falstaff, Shakespeare's exemplary figure of economy of performance, something from nothing. A major crux of Shakespeare's Henry V is Falstaff's absence, a puzzle commercial and theatrical as well as literary, given the fat knight's box office success and especially Shakespeare's explicit promise to theatergoers in the epilogue of Henry IV, Part 2 that they will have a sequel with Falstaff and “fair Catherine of France” (Epilogue 24-25). Technically, the audience does get more Falstaff—only he is dead; reportedly, he fell ill after the new king “killed his heart” (2.1.79) and presumably Falstaff's “project” of easy money and power. On Falstaff's death, Pistol concludes that “we must erne therefore” (2.3.6)—the pun on “earn,” also meaning “mourn,” again conflating the economic and affective.

As in the thematic of the dead, Shakespeare places himself in the position of underdog; Henry-like, he jettisons his commercial best bet but anticipates an even more spectacular coup. Henry makes imaginative use of the dead, and Shakespeare does also, exploiting the audience's affect of fondness while at the same time getting final fat-knight humor from the dead joker. This remarkable grieving scene is a richly self-reflective historiographic moment, as Falstaff's old friends, reporting the death that occurred offstage, cannot even agree about what just happened and what Falstaff said. If a dying man's words are thus in dispute, history becomes tyrant to the fragile facts of a measurement by ear, foot, or hand.

Responding to Bardolph's loyal expression of his willingness to follow Falstaff to heaven or hell, Hostess Quickly begins a lengthy witnessing of Falstaff's death. Reassuring them Falstaff is in English Heaven, “Arthur's bosom” (2.3.9), she describes putting clothes on his cold feet, then feeling to his knees, “and so upward and upward.” The bawdily inclined spectator readily imagines her reaching Falstaff's privates just as she unconsciously chooses the word stone (Elizabethan slang for a testicle) to describe what her hands felt: “and all was as cold as any stone” (21-22)—historical accuracy again reliable insofar as measured by body and affect, an accuracy whose instrumentality is implied by the etymology of testicles as “little witnesses.” Describing his crying out “God, God, God!” “three or four times,” she manifests her reliability through acknowledging the memory limits of the ear but initiates the following dispute:

They say he cried out of sack.
Ay, that a did.
And of women.
Nay, that a did not.
Yes, that a did, and said they were devils incarnate.
A could never abide carnation; 'twas a colour he never liked.
A said once the devil would have him about women.
A did in some sort, indeed, handle women; but then he was rheumatic, and talked of the Whore of Babylon.
Do you not remember a saw a flea stick upon Bardolph's nose, and a said it was a black soul burning in hell-fire?
Well, the fuel is gone that maintained that fire. That's all the riches I got in his service.


We see here history's inventedness and radical contingency, in a conversation that perhaps adumbrates some postmodern views of historiography and recent social psychological work on collective memory and distortion.9 In any case, the scene furthers Shakespeare's exploration in theorizing history (Holderness 31), here as a dialogic accomplishment. Each fact is accompanied by varying loyalties that may increase rather than diminish reliability, reflecting the increasing, transitional role that the passions played in historical explanatory accounts of the era (Ferguson 11, 26; Breisach 189; Dean 23). This history is not a master historian's authoritative pronouncement, but it conveys the Renaissance sense of the past as edited (Greene 19), a living relation between past and present (Blanpied 11), and Shakespeare's constitutive mix of providentialist and Machiavellian ideas of historical causation (Prior 22-23; Rackin 46). The exchange sets up interlocking, unresolved negotiations, in which Falstaff's image, now in narrative pieces, is ultimately up for historical grabs. Nim's response, “They say he cried out of sack,” constructs this image as a collective perception, echoing other gestures the play makes toward popular memory (e.g., the Crispin's Day speech). Reflected, too, is the rapid popularization of historiography in the Elizabethan era, which introduced the term historiography and saw everything from the emergence of “pocket chronicles” to the efflorescence of the history play, a short-lived popular phenomenon largely dead by the Jacobean era (Levy 287, 233) but nevertheless evidence of a nonaristocratic public sphere of contested social signification.

The scene confers advantage, moreover, on its lowliest characters, the Hostess and the Boy, whose pronouncements seem more authoritative even in disagreement and despite Quickly's comic mistakes in word usage. The construction of a notorious identity (see Charnes) thus depends on the maximum affect of such disadvantaged historiographers, who remember Falstaff “with advantages,” in literal proximity to death. If Falstaff is a figure of subversion of authority (Greenblatt, “Bullets”), this dialogue is another Benjaminian rescue of the dead, or a Foucauldian counter memory opposed to official history, preventing the full extension of Henry's glory. Shakespeare even represents the half-rescue, half-forgetting of the dead Falstaff by Captain Fluellen: loyal to the king and nationally liminal as Welsh, Fluellen nevertheless notes the character flaws Henry displays in breaking the heart of the “fat knight,” whose name the captain ironically forgets (4.7.41-42). Henry, by contrast (despite Branagh's sentimental, condescending film flashback to Hal's tavern days),10 is never shown to remember his friend, nostalgically or otherwise, and thus his role as hegemonic and selective future historian of the present is consolidated. The scene provides a microcosm of issues of Renaissance (and sometimes present-day) historiography, viewed from the ground up: it explores dialogism, questions of authority and interest in memory (the Hostess's and the Boy's fondness), the indeterminacy of historical fact, the invention of dialogue, the workings of providence (“he's in Arthur's bosom”) in history, the skepticism about and decline of moralizing accounts (Wikander 34) and increased interest in causality and human motivation and “passions” (the grief-driven nature of the account), and even characterological verisimilitude (“'twas a colour he never liked”).11

Emotions, as we have seen, are continually given economic valence, less as concepts or as expressions than as labor.12 I would summarize this with Hardt and Negri's term affective labor (8), drawn from economic theory that introduces into overall considerations of value the kind of labor we find in the caring labor of mothers at home, a realm seemingly distant from the military one (see also Barrett; Delphy; and Spivak, In Other Worlds 79). Usually omitted from economic consideration, this work is theoretically debated, since in traditional Marxism it is technically not productive labor because, however necessary for creating a labor force, it does not produce surplus value for an employer (P. Smith). Apart from this issue, the concept, helpful for theorizing love, usefully connects an economics of maximizing profit in the new labor regime to maximizations of affect, a social doing of very little little creating spectacles of Renaissance “wonder” as “entertainment value,” here technically construed (Hedrick, “Male” 89-99). Historiography, at these moments, is informed by economic and affective dimensions of this maximization. The production of competitive hyperboles, the dramatic technique Shakespeare perhaps inherits from rhetorical historians and from Marlovian theatrical extravagance, is linked by Shakespeare to the workaday world of profit making. Making most of least, turning disadvantage to advantage, constitutes the new battle cry—not Hotspur's chivalric “Esperance!” but the cynical slogan the rogue-thief Pistol pronounces while departing for France: “And profits will accrue” (2.1.101).

The Renaissance was aware of the advantaging emotional logic of historical rhetoric, as Thomas Blundeville, an early English theoretician of historiography, discusses in The True Order and Methode of Wryting and Reading of Hystories (1574). Blundeville conceives history writing in labor terms:

Of those that make any thing, some doe make much of nothing, as God dyd in creating the World of naught, and as Poets, in some respect, also do, whilst they faine fables. … [S]ome of little do make much, & of much little, as the Oratours whilest sometyme they extoll small things, & sometimes debase great things. And some doe make of so much as much, as true Philosophers and Hystoriographers, whose office is to tell things as they were done, without either augmenting or diminishing them or swarving one jote from the truth.


Also conceiving history as a labor, Henry echoes this caution, commanding the churchmen to beware how they “impawn” him in justifying his dynastic claim to France: “For God forbid, my dear and faithful lord, / That you should fashion, wrest, or bow your reading” (1.2.21, 13-14).

Henry V thus performs history as variously advantageable affective labor. The audience's response is labor as well, and the play maximizes entertainment value by exhorting, “On your imaginary forces work” (Prologue 18). Viewers are urged to think one soldier a thousand (“Into a thousand parts divide one man, / And make imaginary puissance”; 24-25) and later to “[w]ork, work your thoughts” (3 Chorus 25). Not merely an apologetics, the play imagines a working role for the audience members as popular historiographers (Rackin 28), prefiguring the adjudicatory role Brecht assigns to audiences (Brecht 190). War work is transformed into theater work in the cultural imaginary of early modern profitability and wage labor. Theatrical affect multiplication pervades Henry's military thinking, as he warns Bates that a show of fear to the king by even a single soldier might make the king show his fear and in turn “dishearten” his whole army by domino affect (4.1.106-08).

Great profit from little effort, an economic updating of sprezzatura, paradoxically idealizes both work and nonwork, or indolence, producing inherently contradictory something-for-nothing work. The trope of easy recovery of buried treasure is thus the figure Canterbury uses for the military heroism that will make England's “chronicle as rich with praise / As is the ooze and bottom of the sea / With sunken wrack and sumless treasuries” (1.2.163-65). Shakespeare alludes to this constitutive indolence when Westmoreland wishes his military forces had “but one ten thousand of those men in England / That do no work today!” (4.3.17-18)—a teasing insult for Shakespeare's Globe audience, flattered for the nonwork they perform in attending a play.

Affective advantaging operates even in the play's epilogue, Shakespeare's only representation of himself as historian. Its language is usually taken to be apologetic or patriotic (Ornstein 202; Danson; Champion 149), paralleling the prologue's conventional apology for the imperfections of dramatic representation.

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

(Epilogue 1-4)

Appearing to apologize for “debasing” the great, it may portray a humble spokesman to the dominant class, a propagandist, if unreliable (Walch 67). This would support the view that Shakespeare in his career, like Henry, eventually abandons the popular for self-advancement (Helgerson 240).

Unlike the prologue, however, the epilogue evades direct apology, allowing alternative readings. The historian-playwright may consider himself of the dominated party, albeit positioned to take the reins of history, maximizing or minimizing value and affect. The epilogue's curious diction thus suggests double-voicedness, in rough, all-unable, bending, pursued, confining, and mangling. “Rough” may be read as brutal rather than unskilled, “all-unable” as limited but not impotent, “bending” as crouching rather than subservient, “pursued” and “confining” as capturing and imprisoning the mighty men, and “mangling” not as botching but as maiming, the way mangle is used when Pistol captures a French soldier: “Or mangled shalt thou be by this my sword” (4.4.35; see also 2.4.60). An unofficial, disadvantaged historian “debase[s] great things,” realizing that “[a]dvantage is a better soldier” in order, as Machiavelli instructs, to maximize mangling the “full course of their glory.”


Understanding how Henry V conceives effective historiography as maximization of affect through minimum labor, we can now return to the vexing love question of the final scene. From the start, one notices how much sheer effort Henry goes to (Goldman 58-64), laying on blunt soldier's charm but speaking six times as many lines as Catherine. In this tour de force attempt to achieve the most affect in the shortest time (compare a darker version, Richard III's wooing of Lady Anne), Shakespeare raises the affective stakes by making this encounter their first, whereas in the play's historical source they had met several times before.

While Catherine's waiting woman sometimes translates, Henry begins by asking that Catherine teach him the terms by which to woo her (5.2.99), downplaying his victory and placing himself at personal disadvantage (Barton 106). Asking if she likes him, he responds to her puzzlement by mock-explicating like: “an angel is like you, Kate” (108). He then addresses her accusation of male deceitfulness by protesting that if she spoke English better, she would find him a “plain King” who can only speak his love directly, and follows up with his tradesman's offer to “clap hands and a bargain. How say you, lady?” (128-29)—evoking a market comically old-fashioned rather than emergent. At her reticence, he launches an elaborate apology for his eloquence, inadequate compared with his military and athletic prowess, and proclaims the superiority to good looks of “a good heart” that “never changes.” He concludes by rhetorically leaping from humility to bravado: “If thou would have such a one, take me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king. And what sayst then to my love?” (157-61). After Catherine's uncomfortable, topic-shifting reply—“Is it possible dat I sould love de ennemi of France?”—Henry, logic-chopping, declares that she would not be doing so, since he “love[s] France so well that I will not part with a village of it, I will have it all mine; and, Kate, when France is mine, and I am yours, then yours is France, and you are mine” (163-68).

Proceeding good-naturedly, he asks, “But Kate, dost thou understand thus much English? Canst thou love me?”—to which she responds ambiguously, “I cannot tell” (182-84). Henry renews his rhetorical assault, one-upping his bluntness to propose sex: they will “compound a boy, half French half English, that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard” (193-96). To her again ambiguous response, “I do not know dat,” Henry follows in labored French with hyperbolic praise of her beauty, responding to her skepticism by again disparaging his looks but offering her sovereignty over England, Ireland, France, and “Henry Plantagenet” (222-23). To his final “Wilt thou have me?” she finally concedes, albeit noncommittally: “Dat is as it shall please de roi mon père” (229). At this he offers to kiss her hand and then her lips, dismissing her outrage at his violation of the French custom against premarital kissing—“O Kate, nice customs curtsy to great kings”—and following with his well-known boast of affective sovereignty, “We are the makers of manner, Kate” (252). Requesting her to be “therefore, patiently and yielding,” he concludes, “You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate. There is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the tongues of the French Council” (250-58), between which lines, presumably, he takes his kiss.

I add emphasis to “presumably,” since the kiss is only implied, though it is inevitably performed onstage. Is Henry, however, necessarily praising a kiss completed or, rather, doggedly continuing his comical badgering? The kiss maintains the scene's capability of being deromanticized, serving an implicit romantic ideal of laborless love, situated against the historical.

What does Henry's considerable affective labor accomplish? Having her both accept his offer and love him would naturally legitimate his conquest, preventing its appearance as “symbolic rape” (Howard and Rackin 215). If Catherine does not kiss—a possibility I raise provisionally—the moment iterates her repeated resistance to Henry's charms and his failures at closure.13 Shakespeare experiments with perverting the romantic comedy form, as he does in the wooing of another French princess, in Love's Labour's Lost (741-802), where the increasingly bullish courtship is also interrupted, not “end[ing] like an old play, / Jack hath not Jill” (5.2.851-52). History may interrupt love, as both plays end with the sudden entrance of a father, as foreign king.14

In the light of affective advantaging, the scene in Henry V appears a more complicated historical process than it might otherwise seem, and Catherine's nuances of indirect speech acts and conversational implicatures, like those of the epilogue, appear more complex than interpreters often think. For instance, the conventional question “Do you love me?” and answer “I love you” are studiously evaded. Despite his claim to the contrary, Henry's speech and questions are almost direct, never expressions of love but rather citations of love expression. His first reference to his “love-suit” (101) is followed comically by the far less passionate “Do you like me, Kate?” (106). Trying to describe his simplicity, Henry says, “I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say, ‘I love you’” (125-26), the citation and the word directly underscoring his indirectness. Does Henry say he loves her, or how he would say he loves her? Rejecting the romantic cliché about dying for love, he backs off from near insult with “yet I love thee, too” (148)—although rendering love almost an afterthought. Inviting her to “take a king,” he asks her what she says to “my love” (161), a question not about love but about speech about love. The ambiguous assertion that he “love[s] France” is embedded in the self-amusing logic play about property, and his boast “Come, I know thou lovest me” overreaches his game in maximizing her own affect for her. When he finally declares “I love thee cruelly,” the implausible adverb of maximization undercuts the otherwise direct speech, as does his urging her to “mock him mercifully” (189-90). His additions of emphasis continually make the audience suspect that he protests too much, culminating in his seemingly blunt declaration “By mine honour, in true English, I love thee, Kate” (206-07).

As if more undercutting were conceivable, Henry's line further contextualizes this “love” by implying his precipitous onstage sexual arousal: “I dare not swear thou lovest me; yet my blood begins to flatter me that thou dost” (208-09). This reduces the entire persuasion to the state of the king's member; his lengthy speeches, bursting with love citations, serve as rhetorical autoeroticism, working love up (while in The Famous Victories Henry loves her from the start) and locating proof of her love in his rather than her body. The scene's work frustration is all the more comedic if Henry does not procure the kiss until later during a public ceremony (5.2.330). Asked about the wooing afterward, Henry speaks not of success but of his hope that through his “English lesson” (bawdiness intended) he would “have her learn … how perfectly I love her” (263-64). Final undercutting occurs in the astonishingly crude jesting between Henry and Burgundy about how pliant Catherine will be when close-eyed (“wink and yield”; 277), in bed. Like the wooers of Love's Labour's Lost, another interrupted comedy of not getting it, Henry persists in just not getting it.

Despite his indirectness, Henry continually jumps the affective gun, desiring desire at first sight while pragmatically engaged in its contrary, love's labor. Here, too, he follows the model of the advantaging soldier-historian in anticipating his object's future moves. Hardly a “light-hearted gallant” (Reese 331), Henry demonstrates yet another Elizabethan meaning of the term advantage—namely, the lead that one takes when aiming ahead of a moving target.15 Perhaps from her reticence and a performance tradition of coyness, Catherine is usually viewed as static and innocent, submitting altogether out of force. But as target, she uses language equally mobile and evasive, as if she, too, is conscious of the future position and is perhaps outrunning Henry's aim and prophetic love declarations. Like the psychoanalyst who looks for the present when the analysand mentions the past (Connerton 26), she may look to the future when Henry describes the present. Her drawing attention to his masculine ploys and to the political situation of French loss seems savvy enough, but she responds opaquely, “I cannot tell wat is dat,” “I cannot tell,” and, to his prediction she will be a “good soldier-breeder,” more cryptically, “I do not know dat” (193-98). Does Shakespeare portray her linguistic limitation to render her innocently susceptible to the king's charms, as critics have thought, or might we consider a more tactical use of her silences,16 that she learns English during the all-French language lesson scene (a scene putting the audience at disadvantage) not because she is “capitulating in advance” (Jardine 11) but in order not to use English? Is not her final assent—if the arrangement pleases her father, “[d]en it sall also content me” (232)—a way of derailing Henry's goal by deferring “love,” if it is love, or if it will be love, to the future? Is Henry's “Kate” a shrew of silence?

Context and character require further understanding in a scene as polysemic as that of Falstaff's death. It is as if advantage-mongering Henry thinks of the scene as already having occurred—a usable moment, like the imagined future veteran's battle anniversary, which produces blind affect in the present. While we must not forget, as love-demystifying critics remind us, Catherine's conquered status, augmenting this fact may deny her agency altogether. Her interpretive diminution thus occurs variously: she is “childlike” (Porter 118); a “trophy” (Ornstein 200); a “symbol of unity” (Reese 331); mere audience “titillation” (Howard and Rackin 206); an “innocent but sexy teenager” (as Loehlin describes her portrayal in a 1984 production by the RSC; Loehlin [103]); a “victim … bride … innocent bystander” with “girlish … refreshing purity” (Wilcox 63, 71); or even critically invisible (Campbell). A fault line, however, is opened by Alan Sinfield, who notes that Catherine need not be played as entirely submissive in performance (130), and by Jean Howard, who concedes that the relationship, though not “mutual,” may involve the couple's “creating” love mixed with self-interest. But Howard closes off this theoretical opening more conventionally: “in reality Catherine is a prize of war; in reality she has no choice as to whether or not to marry Henry; in reality affection probably does not matter,” the play working to disguise “these facts” (149).

And yet, like the onstage kiss, are these self-evident “realities” inevitable, or do they still encrypt a tacit model of love? Certain circumstances cast doubt on the image of Catherine solely as victim. The idea of automatic prize is questionable, since Shakespeare makes clear that every aspect of the victory is a negotiation; even earlier, conquering Harfleur, Henry specifically rejects Catherine (“the offer likes not,” says the chorus of act 3) when she is offered up along with some “petty and unprofitable dukedoms” (31-32), her value then insufficiently maximized. While the situation seems “primarily policy” (Traversi 197), it is hardly all “settled” (Williamson 328), since the French king, even after resounding defeat, does not hesitate to add new conditions right up to the end. When Henry sends his lords offstage to negotiate, he assigns them completely free reign to alter the treaty however they see fit. Although his rhetoric is commercial, he does not assume Catherine's exchange value in advance:

          take with you free power to ratify,
Augment, or alter, as your wisdoms best
Shall see advantageable for our dignity,
Anything in or out of our demands.

(5.2.86-89; emphasis added)

Albeit his “capital demand,” Catherine is pointedly one of several, “comprised within the fore-rank of our articles” (5.2.96-97).

About the assumption she has no choice, one might ask, choice of what? Her deference to her father is actually a choice to refuse responsibility for choice, reminding us of the complex shifts in early modern arranged-marriage tradition, which offered choices a modern perspective might not register.17 She has the choice whether to love or even like him, as we see distinctly in the subtle, evasive love dialogue. But does affection really “not matter”—is Henry only “pretending” that it matters if she loves him (Williamson 329)? Must we view Henry as affectless statesman-king, a “dead man walking” (Ellis-Fermor 47)? Aside from its certain value in conferring legitimacy on Henry, affection may be necessary for a functioning state (McEachern, “Henry V” 306). The queen's concluding blessing for future amity may be not a romanticized “feminine” standpoint but rather a consciously political one, especially given her pointed announcement that a “woman's voice may do some good” to restrain men's petty bickering in the negotiations (5.2.93-94; Jardine 8). In Shakespeare's popular dramatic source, The Famous Victories, the princess is explicitly a negotiator herself, directly questioning Henry's “unreasonable demands” after the war, overtly calculating her present opportunity to become queen (339). Must we assume that Shakespeare's princess has no similar intentions of power or resistance—or that, with her silences, ambiguities, and guarded speech, she is not already negotiating, interrupting Henry's history?

Another widely ignored aspect of the play's historical narrative casts further doubt on Catherine's supposed “refreshing purity.” When the princess asks whether or not she could “love de ennemi of France” (a more political question than in the Quarto, where she asks if she could love the enemy of her father), it is typically assumed that the salient context is just the English victory. Forgotten is what Henry must remember from the immediate past: her family hired English nobles to assassinate him, to have him “coined … into gold,” the conspiracy dramatically exposed earlier when he sentences them to death for treason (2.2.95). While the play may reveal a theme of family and national unity (Pierce 229), here unity becomes bloodthirsty; the couple are no Romeo and Juliet, and romancing is more like negotiating with a mobster family.18 Shakespeare registers the possibility that animosity may erupt at any moment, when Catherine, potentially a “fatal bride” (Frye 56), might again act to defend France. Given this dramatic tension, the language lesson's focus on Catherine's body takes on ominous shadings, since Henry's plan to “compound” a boy with her invites the audience to think of the consequences of enemies' sharing the household, even the bed.19 Shakespeare does not stop there but invites us to infer “deep bawdy” thoughts of these sexual intimacies of the powerful (Hedrick, “Flower”): Henry's humorous remark about how his father's thinking of “civil wars” during sex produced the son's “stubborn outside” and “aspect of iron” to “fright ladies” (5.2.210-13) is strangely echoed when Henry and Burgundy later joke about Catherine in bed.

The imagined bedroom scene thus grants Catherine far more than the conceivable power of refusing the legitimating “gift” of marriage (Tennenhouse 69); she also has the power to produce the macho kind of son Henry needs. Following the folklore tradition that conditions during sex determine the child's nature, we make further inferences when we learn that the product of their sexwork, Henry VI, became the ineffectual youth described by the ironic epilogue as having lost France and made England “bleed” (12). In Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2, moreover, the son's ineffectuality is underscored by the nobles' complaint of his failure to get a dowry with marriage: “match[ing] with her that brings no vantages” (1.1.127), another synonym for “advantage.” Catherine's continued resistance to Henry's rhetorical wooing may thus signal not reconciliation but resistance, in bed. This puts into relief the anxiety underlying Henry's repellent joking (almost always omitted in Henry-glorifying performances, but see E. Smith 232) about how Catherine in bed will close her eyes and, “like flies at Bartholomew-tide … endure handling, which before [they] would not abide looking on” (5.2.284-87). With this wishful snapshot of maximized submission, Henry again speaks as recorder of imagined future victory, historiopornographically.

The “‘wooing scene’” may thus be more deeply and comically political than heretofore realized, portraying less coercion than hubris riding for a fall: Henry finally meets his strategic match in a sister to the women their French lords feared “mock at us” by threatening to produce enemy “bastard warriors” with the English soldiers (3.5.31). Catherine's agency is exemplified through her body, befitting the selective vocabulary of the English language lesson scene, as she works to learn English words for body parts, such as hand and neck. Rather than “innocently learning a new language” (Hart 180) or anticipating defeat, she may be preparing for victory or, if defeated, for resistance. Along with the women's bawdy, multilingual jesting about words for lips, chin, and forehead, we might italicize her interest in the new words nails and elbow—an interest that invites imagination of a far less loving dalliance, a more volatile combination producing not love but hate. As if by coincidence, a compositor of Shakespeare's Quarto performs the couple's risky, graphematic marriage through a typesetting error ascribing the first speech of the scene not to “Henry” or “Kate” but to a nonexistent conflation named “Hate” (G1r).

Catherine's disadvantaged position in the wooing scene, following the economic logic of the most achieved with the least, thus marks a formal reversal of the play's prior perspective: as the defeated nation, she is to Henry after Agincourt what Henry was to the French beforehand, interrupting his monumentalizing historiography and acquiring transversally the tactics of disadvantaging.20 Just as Henry is the would-be historian of the main part of the play, the scene's reversal transfers the role of disadvantaged historian to Catherine, as the new historical underdog, who later in widowhood marries Owen Tudor to alter the entire English dynastic line. Still later, after Shakespeare's time, her body is forcibly kissed again: Samuel Pepys ecstatically remembers kissing Catherine's two-hundred-year-old, decomposed corpse exhumed at Westminster Abbey, a “performance” Joseph Roach interprets as continuing her submissive, theatrical role as the “voiceless vessel of collective memory” (29). In any case, Catherine writes the future of the alliance and of England with her body, thereby desentimentalizing the concept of caring labor and blocking an allegorical representation of Henry as History and Catherine as Love. Shakespeare's anamorphic ending distorts the figure of soldierhistorian into the mother as counterhistorian, perhaps in accord with the era's humanist critique of warfare (Woodbridge 168) and with the shift of the historian figure from soldier to courtier (Woolf, Idea 24). Yet, like Henry or Blundeville's historian who can make much out of little, her body will produce monumental, dynastic consequences by doing a very little little, a sexualized version of chaos theory.

The scene instructs us that to make love can be to make history, to constitute a social saying and a social doing (Certeau 69, 49). Memory and history can be written or “sedimented” in the body (Connerton 72), where the “explosive pertinence of a remembered detail” may undo prescriptive, official history (Davis and Starn 6). Even less romantic and more materialist than usually interpreted, the scene does not, however, foreclose the potentiality of love, no more than of hate, despite its coercive context.

Joan Scott has argued that for feminist historiography the two chief identity roles for women have been the orator and the mother (286). Catherine, while seeming a figure of the latter, embraces both, except that her mode of speech becomes the body. Yet her action, described here as “little,” is not really that, since it involves not only the dangers noted but also a broader context: the considerable risks of early modern childbirth, conferring on her the authority of the historian in danger, only at home, in bed. Not long after the play's creation, the English reading public sought out this newly authoritative mode in voices of the popular “mother's manuals,” first-person legacies sometimes prophetically addressed by a dying mother to her unborn child (Joceline; Poole; Brown).

The novel economic concept of affective labor was especially derived, it may be recalled, from the underwritten caring labor of mothers. In Henry V, other forms of affective labor and love turn out to link dynastic past to dynastic future. If Catherine, mother in potentia, somehow remains a disturbing signifier of love, perhaps it is love as Jean-Luc Nancy theorizes it, an “interrupter of myth” (61), even interrupting its own theorization.

The play provides a final, subtle check on the totalizing victory, mythologizing speech, and overreaching imagination of its king-historian. Henry's last demand—simultaneously a concession and a linguistic ultimatum—is that his new father-in-law must address the English king in future correspondence as “dear son and heir” in Latin or in French (5.2.308-14; Hodgdon 203). The issue is raised, however, because the French king in a final act of offstage resistance has apparently balked at this. Called to account by Exeter, he responds with the same sort of evasiveness we heard from his daughter: “Nor this I have not, brother, so denied, / But your request shall make me let it pass” (5.2.315-16). A little little resistance from the French family, in the historiographic form of family letters, signals a future moment when dead mothers can even defeat dead soldiers. Or perhaps its ambiguity signals what Pierre Bourdieu envisions as the “miraculous truce” by which masculine “domination seems dominated” through “endless labour” (110).

Shakespeare's innovation in Henry V is to render historiography as affective labor, linked to the labor of conception. On it he models war and theater, economics and love. The chief question for love as labor is not, it seems, the conventional, binary “Do you love me?”—the question asked in the memorially “bad” first Quarto, hence probably not “originating” with Shakespeare. That question simplifies Shakespeare's stronger style of quirkier dialogue into the iterative language of conventional love, isolates the lover dyad from all social conditions and processes, and thus ultimately keeps love apart from history—a configuration of assumptions underwriting attempts at mystifying or demystifying a representation of lovemaking.

What alternative question best weds love to history, on the same page? Shakespeare, in his more politically ambiguous Folio version (Patterson 78), uses a less common phrase, a variation he found in the anonymous popular drama Famous Victories. Its unconventionality seems to have stuck in his imagination, perhaps because in that old play it is uttered three times by the king to the French princess. Shakespeare makes it his Henry's, in keeping with the king's immediate and complex political situation, with the play's special understanding of history, and with history's risky proximity to the camp of whatever we take to be love. Although quoted earlier, it bears repeating at the end. Citing this more materialist line from his source, Shakespeare has Henry ask his dangerous lover this remarkable open-ended question of affect-in-making, itself a historiographic moment: “Canst thou love me?” (emphasis added).


  1. See, e.g., Reese 331; Ellis-Fermor 100, and Alteri's summary and view on the “inevitable” jarring of genres (239).

  2. Unless otherwise noted, The Norton Shakespeare is the source of quotations from Henry V (1454-1523) and other Shakespeare plays.

  3. LaCapra urges not dichotomizing facts and mythologizing (63). For arguments against the “fictionality” grain, see Skinner's recuperation of the empirical, Spivak's revisions of White and LaCapra (Critique 202-07), Gossman's complex view of the relation of history to literature, and Danto's opposition to “prophetic” history that presumes to offer “accounts of the past based upon accounts of the future” (13)—the kind of history I argue Henry and later Catherine perform.

  4. For a thorough account, see Bahti 183-203. For a corrective to the simplified view of Ranke's supposed empiricism, see Krieger 15.

  5. Compare the rescue of the dead to Greenblatt's famous desire to “speak with” the dead (Negotiations 1).

  6. Woolf, Reading History 26. See Woolf (Idea and Reading History) and Levy for Tudor-Stuart historiography's development. For thorough accounts of the cultural dimension of the market, see Agnew; Bruster; Halpern; and Leinwand.

  7. Kill ratios are not universal criteria, for “cost tolerance” affects their significance: Ho Chi Minh predicted that even if the Americans killed ten times as many Vietnamese, the Americans would “tire first” (Rosen 168). Suicide missions, however, involve the counterintuitive but maximizing logic of using the dead as soldiers.

  8. The Renaissance French law of inheritance adopts the metaphor: le mort saisit le vif (“the dead seizes the living”; Kantorowicz 393).

  9. See, e.g., Halbwachs; Baumeister and Hastings.

  10. For the film's politics, see Hedrick, “War Is Mud.”

  11. The past-haunted Henry IV, Part 2 seems less interested in collective fantasy than in private memory; history is less a site of social struggle; the dead are less available for intervention.

  12. The “economic” perspective is also psychoanalytic, for Freud used “quota of affect” to explain the economy of repression (“Autobiographical Study” 13).

  13. In further “deep bawdy” (Hedrick, “Flower”) we might speculate about a parallel (possibly through actor doubling) between Catherine and Nim, who also refuses to kiss (2.3.51), or even Catherine and Pistol, whose comic comeuppance is his being forced to eat Fluellen's leek “because you do not love it, nor your affections and your appetites and your digestions does not agree with it” (5.1.23-25).

  14. In Love's Labour's Lost, however, that entrance is the devastating announcement of the French king's death.

  15. An Elizabethan gunner's manual explains that without a quadrant one has to “guess what advantage will reach the mark” (Bourne 19). One suspects an embedded bawdy pun on target, slang for female genitalia.

  16. For silence as theorized historiographic issue, see Sider and Smith.

  17. The change to companionate marriage, for instance, involved the transitional situation of women's having, if not independent choice, then veto power over certain arrangements (Stone 180-93).

  18. Although we might recall Lady Capulet's desire to hire an assassin to eliminate Romeo. For criminality as cultural imaginary with transversal potential through society, see Reynolds.

  19. Xenaphon's household manual Oeconomicus, frequently reissued in English in the era, considers how an enemy might be included in household goods if the householder “knows how to use and order it to advantage” (Hutson 94).

  20. For theorization of transversality, realized as “Shakespace,” and its relation to love, see Hedrick and Reynolds.

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Further Reading

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Ayers, P. K. “‘Fellows of infinite tongue’: Henry V and the King's English.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 34, no. 2 (spring 1994): 253ff.

Discusses the duplicitous nature of Henry's “plain speech.”

Bach, Rebecca Ann. “Tennis Balls: Henry V and Testicular Masculinity, or According to the OED, Shakespeare Doesn't Have Any Balls.” Renaissance Drama n.s. 30 (2001): 3-23.

Examines Henry's claim that English soldiers are more masculine than the French.

Baldo, Jonathan. “Wars of Memory in Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 47, no. 2 (summer 1996): 132-59.

Explores the importance of the collective memory of a nation, particularly in battle, to its national identity in Henry V.

Barber, Charles. “Prince Hal, Henry V, and the Tudor Monarchy.” In The Morality of Art: Essays Presented to G. Wilson Knight by his Colleagues and Friends, edited by D. W. Jefferson, pp. 67-75. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969.

Advances an ultimately negative evaluation of the Henry V, contending that in this play Shakespeare presented “an uncritical glorification of the Tudor monarchy and its ideals.”

Berman, Ronald S. “Shakespeare's Alexander: Henry V.” College English 23, no. 7 (April 1962): 532-39.

Contends that Shakespeare drew his characterization of Henry from Plutarch's Life of Alexander.

Craik, T. W., ed. Introduction to King Henry V, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-112. London: Routledge, 1995.

Presents an overview of Henry V, including commentary on its sources, variations in texts, criticism, and noteworthy performances.

Hall, Joan Lord. “Themes.” In Henry V, pp. 77-93. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Examines various themes in Henry V, including such themes as order and disorder, the testing of a monarch, and war.

Kezar, Dennis. “Shakespeare's Guilt Trip in Henry V.Modern Language Quarterly 61, no. 3 (2000): 431-61.

Contends that Henry V shows Shakespeare to be conflicted on the issue of ethical responsibility.

Knapp, Jeffrey. “Preachers and Players in Shakespeare's England.” Representations, no. 44 (autumn 1993): 29-59.

Examines Shakespeare's representations of churchmen in Henry V.

Mattox, John Mark. “Henry V: Shakespeare's Just Warrior.” War, Literature & the Arts 12, no. 1 (spring-summer 2000): 30-53.

Demonstrates how Shakespeare portrayed Henry as a just warrior engaged in a just war.

McEachern, Claire. “Henry V and the Paradox of the Body Politic.” Shakespeare Quarterly 45, no. 1 (spring 1994): 33-56.

Speculates on the Elizabethan response to Henry's personification of the nation in Henry V.

Rabkin, Norman. “Either/Or: Responding to Henry V.” In William Shakespeare's Henry V, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 35-59. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

Contends that Shakespeare deliberately made Henry V ambiguous in order to force his audience to decide for themselves whether the play glorifies Henry or satirizes him.

Tiffany, Grace. “Shakespeare's Dionysian Prince: Drama, Politics, and the ‘Athenian’ History Play.” Renaissance Quarterly 52, no. 2 (summer 1999): 366-83.

Contends that Plutarch and Plato's representations of Alcibiades were the sources of Shakespeare's Henry V and that Shakespeare used classical and Renaissance descriptions of Socrates as a source for the character of Falstaff.

Ward, Bernard M. “The Famous Victories of Henry V: Its Place in Elizabethan Dramatic Literature.” Review of English Studies 4, no. 15 (July 1928): 270-94.

Argues that Shakespeare based his entire Henry trilogy on The Famous Victories of Henry V, an anonymous play of the 1580s.

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Henry V (Vol. 79)


Henry V and the Chivalric Revival

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