Henry V Princes, Pirates, and Pigs: Criminalizing Wars of Conquest in Henry V
by William Shakespeare

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Princes, Pirates, and Pigs: Criminalizing Wars of Conquest in Henry V

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Janet M. Spencer, Wingate University

"The figure who exceeds the law as its master and the one who exceeds it as transgressor," Christopher Pye explains of Henry V and the traitors Cambridge, Grey, and Scroop, "are indeed bound by an unspoken—perhaps unspeakable—knowledge about the origins of power."1 In Shakespeare's Henry V, Henry takes great pains to conceal his capacity to exceed the law by seeking religious legitimation of, or by displacing moral responsibility for, decisions based ultimately on royal prerogative. And for a great number of producers, theatergoers, and literary critics he succeeds admirably.2 Nevertheless, his decisions to exercise royal power mark him as a figure of legal excess, an identity given specific significance by the "figures and comparisons" drawn between England's warrior-king and the celebrated conqueror whom Fluellen calls "Alexander the Pig."3 The play provides numerous explicit allusions to Alexander the Great, supporting Fluellen's assertion that "there is figures in all things" (4.7.33). But the episode from Alexander's life that best voices the intuitive, unspoken knowledge about the origins of power, Alexander's encounter with the pirate Dionides, is partially suppressed by an ambiguous series of variations capable of unspeaking the dangerous knowledge it confesses. Even so, the anecdote hovers over the central acts of the play, trailing its associations with debates concerning the morality of wars of conquest and, more important, with what conquest's defiance of law reveals about the origins of power. The pirate anecdote was a commonplace used by Augustine, John of Salisbury, Chaucer, Gower, Lydgate, Boccaccio, Erasmus, and other Continental authors; Shakespeare's familiarity with it shapes the exchange between Enobarbas and Menas in Antony and Cleopatra.4 In the story Alexander's men seize a pirate who, when brought to Alexander for judgment, defends himself by equating the thefts of pirates with those of conquerors, "barring the fact," as Erasmus tells the tale, "that [conquerors] have greater forces and a bigger fleet to harass a larger part of the world with their plunderings."5 Though the story's moral varies from one version to another, all contain its two key elements: Dionides's comparison of conquerors to pirates and Alexander's pardon of that indictment. These elements encode the polar limits at which a sovereign could exercise the royal prerogative to transcend the law: war's deployment of force to exceed the law of nations and the pardon's restraint of force to override civil law's right to execute convicted felons. Although Shakespeare avoids replicating the pirate anecdote too closely, he frames the conquest of France with Henry's pardons of free speech—that of the unnamed soldier in Act 2 and that of Michael Williams in Act 4. And despite Falstaff's absence from the play, he maintains the presence of Henry's former compatriots in crime. In an important sense the structure of the anecdote clarifies the structure of the play and, more interestingly, allows the play to voice otherwise unspeakable knowledge about the origins of power.

Despite the European pursuit of territory throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the morality of conquest could not simply be assumed; the primary justification for war was, in fact, recovery of territory lost through conquest. Theodor Meron explains that most of the rules of jus gentium concerned warfare. These laws supplemented the laws of chivalry which regulated the individual conduct of Christian knights—not Christian nations—at war. Although, as Meron observes, both the Hundred Years' War and Shakespeare's theatrical accounts of it precede the emergence of modern international law, the requirements of a just war were carefully articulated in multiple sources and formed important criteria for determining cases involving ransom and booty in European courts of chivalry. "A just war," Meron explains, "could legitimize criminal acts...

(The entire section is 10,037 words.)