Henry V The Hybrid Reformations of Shakespeare's Second Henriad
by William Shakespeare

Henry V book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Download Henry V Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Hybrid Reformations of Shakespeare's Second Henriad

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Maurice Hunt, Baylor University

Granted the late-medieval, early fifteenth-century settings of Shakespeare's 1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V, theater audiences are not surprised by the large number of references in these plays to Catholic practices and beliefs.1 What has proved problematic for commentators is the coexistence of Catholic elements with explicitly Protestant traits in Shakespeare's characterizations of Falstaff, Henry IV, and Prince Hal/Henry V. In what follows, I argue that different forms of this mixture either impede or undermine these characters' attempts during the Second Henriad to reform themselves ethically and spiritually, at least until a noteworthy blend of Catholic and Protestant traits enables King Henry V in the aftermath of Agincourt to achieve a relatively successful transformation of character. Many plays of Shakespeare are syncretic in matters of religion: Othello, for example, reflects a mixture of Protestant predestinarían and Catholic voluntaristic theologies.2 Having apparently committed himself in his portrait of Falstaff to satirizing the proto-Protestantism of his character's Lollard namesake Oldcastle, Shakespeare at the same time resolved to give the plays of the Second Henriad a late-medieval air, and hence perhaps found characterizations built upon a mixture of Catholic and Protestant components inevitable. What does not appear inevitable in the Second Henriad, however, is the sustained, thoughtful manner of the many critiques of Catholicism, Protestantism, and the Protestant Reformation entailed by the blend of anti-thetical religious traits within characters trying to reform themselves. Whether by accident or design, this dramatic phenomenon poses a question: how can individuals reform themselves in societies—like Shakespeare's—wherein Catholicism remained a strong threat to Protestantism by positing a contradictory route to reformation?3 An answer to this question emerges from Henry's third and most successful attempt at reformation. Getting to that end involves starting with Falstaff.

Falstaff's name in original performances of 1 Henry IV was Sir John Oldcastle, a conjuration of the Lollard martyr of the late fourteenth century. Shakespeare's apology concerning Falstaff in the Epilogue of 2 Henry IV—"for Oldcastle died a martyr, and this is not the man" (29-30)—clinches the earlier proto-Protestant allusion in Hal's calling Falstaff "my old lad of the castle" in 1 Henry IV (1.2.41).4 Elizabethan godly Protestants thought of the Lollard Oldcastle, executed for his purported attempts to purify English Catholicism and make the Word of God more meaningful to the masses, as a saint.5 Falstaff at one point tells Hal that the Prince is "indeed able to corrupt a saint" (1.2.90), ironically subverting the memory of the saint Oldcastle by reference to his namesake's tavern vices. Shakespeare's apology apparently grew out of objections that Oldcastle's Elizabethan heirs Sir William Brooke and his son Sir Henry Brooke raised over Falstaff's travesty of the Lollard's memory, including Falstaff's proto-Protestantism.6 A detail strengthening Falstaff/ Oldcastle's mock Protestantism involves his implication that men and women are to be saved by faith rather than merit (based on works): "O, if men were to be saved by merit," Falstaff comically says in an age when men were thought to be saved by merit, "what hole in hell were hot enough for [Gadshill]" (1.2.105-06). By Shakespeare's time, the dictum that Protestants primarily relied upon faith rather than merit acquired through spiritual good deeds had become a cliché;7 Falstaff, skeptical about being saved by merit, seems to rely upon his self-serving belief—a Lutheran tenet attributed by Elizabethan Protestants to the Lollards—that undemonstrated faith alone can save him near the end of a hedonistic life void of good deeds.

This reading suggests that Falstaff's Protestantism occasionally mocks central tenets or practices of Reformation Protestants. Falstaff's...

(The entire section is 12,783 words.)