Henry V Holy War in Henry V
by William Shakespeare

Henry V book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Henry V Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Holy War in Henry V

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Steven Marx, California Polytechnic State University

Joel Altman calls Henry V 'the most active dramatic experience The experience Shakespeare ever offered his audience'.1 The experience climaxes at the end of the final battle with the arrival of news of victory. Here the King orders that two hymns be sung while the dead are buried, the 'Non Nobis' and the 'Te Deum'. In his 1989 film, Kenneth Branagh underlines the theatrical emphasis of this implicit stage direction. He extends the climax for several minutes by setting Patrick Doyle's choral-symphonic rendition of the 'Non Nobis' hymn behind a single tracking shot that follows Henry as he bears the dead body of a boy across the corpsestrewn field of Agincourt. The idea for this operatic device was supplied by Holinshed, who copied it from Halle, who got the story from a chain of traditions that originated in the event staged by the real King Henry in 1415. Henry himself took instruction from another book, the Bible.2

The hymns which Henry requested derive from verses in the psalter. 'Non Nobis' is the Latin title of Psalm 115, which begins, 'Not unto us, O lord, not unto us, but unto thy Name give the glory …' This psalm celebrates the defeat of the Egyptian armies and God's deliverance of Israel at the Red Sea. It comes midway in the liturgical sequence known as The Egyptian Hallelujah extending from Psalm 113 to 118, a sequence that Jesus and the disciples sang during the Passover celebration at the Last Supper and Holinshed that Jews still recite at all their great festivals.3 Holinshed refers to the hymn not as 'Non Nobis' but by the title of Psalm 114, 'In exitu Israel de Aegypto' ('When Israel came out of Egypt').4 The miraculous military victory commemorated in the 'Non Nobis' is the core event of salvation in the Bible, the model of all God's interventions in human history. That event is recalled and recreated in other psalms, in accounts of military victories like Joshua's, David's, the Maccabees', and archangel Michael's, and in stories of rescue from drowning like Noah's, Jonah's, and Paul's. Most scholars agree that the original source of these tales of deliverance is found in what they identify as the earliest biblical text, 'The song of the Sea' in Exodus 15: 'I will sing unto the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously …The Lord is a man of war, his name is Jehovah. Pharaoh's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea …Thy right hand Lord, is glorious in power: thy right arm Lord hath bruised the enemy.'5 Like 'The Star Spangled Banner', this song defines national identity by commemorating a miraculous underdog battle victory.

The place of the Agincourt story in Shakespeare's English history cycle resembles the place of the Red Sea victory in the Bible: it fixes the central moment both remembered and prefigured: 'Just as the first tetralogy looks back to Henry V as emblem of lost glory that shows up the inadequacy of his son's troubled reign, the second looks forward to his glorious accession …The progress of the two tetralogies, then, is a progress back in time to a dead hero …'6 Agincourt creates a national hero like Moses, but more importantly it testifies to the intervention of God on our side: 'O God thy arm was here, / And not to us, but to thy arm alone, / Ascribe we all …Take it God, / For it is none but thine' (4.8.106-12), says Henry, once again quoting scripture: 'For they inherited not the land by their own sword: neither did their own arm save them. But thy right hand and thine arm …' (Psalm 44, 3-4). Under penalty of death, all the euphoria and relief of victory must be channelled toward God: 'be it death proclaimed through our host / To boast of this, or take that praise from God / Which is His only' (4.8.114-16).

Henry is known as both the most religious and the most warlike of English kings. In this essay , I will explore some of the relationships between war, religion and politics that connect Shakespeare's play to the depiction of holy war in...

(The entire section is 8,401 words.)