Pro Patria Mori: War and Power in the Henriad

Download PDF Print Page Citation Share Link

Last Updated on May 14, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9717

Jean-Christophe Mayer, Université Paul-Valéry—Montpellier III

Illustration of PDF document

Download Henry V Study Guide

Subscribe Now

Now for our consciences: the arms are fair
When the intent of bearing them is just.

1 Henry IV, 5.2.87-88

The words of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the opening scene of Henry V are strangely thought-provoking: 'List his discourse of war, and you shall hear / A fearful battle rendered you in music' (I.1.44-45)1 Looking beyond Henry's undeniable talents as an orator, one might wonder if it is the quality of Shakespeare's language that sometimes brings to the surface hitherto unsuspected feelings of patriotism in the minds of even the most sceptical of individuals. Kenneth Branagh's 'post-Falklands' film of Henry V—shot in a period when the mood of the nation had largely veered to condemnation of armed conflict—still causes us to side and empathize with the victor at one point or another, either consciously or less so.2 Only a taste for Concordia discors can explain why the sound of drums is such sweet music to our ears. Indeed, Shakespeare's history plays seem to provide the natural terrain for a confrontation of opposites. G.K. Hunter defines the genre as 'involving both warmth of identification with the nation and the national story and also a colder analysis of political behaviour.'3 The Archbishop of Canterbury's incitement poses a further problem in that it highlights the relationship between the language of power—of the sovereign in this case—and the resulting human conflict. War and power, in their numerous permutations and variations, are notions which underpin much of the political journey of those who wield the royal sceptre in the Henriad. As it is most likely that 'the basic unit of Shakespeare's theatre was the single play,' the present study will concentrate on the resonances of these notions in the three plays without—one hopes—implying any overall plan or purporting to sound the depths of the dramatist's creative mind.4

Shakespeare's opening gambit in 1 Henry IV relies upon the King's dubious distinction between civil war and a so-called holy war which would unite the nobility around a common religious enterprise—the crusade. After trying to exorcise the horrid ghost of 'civil butchery' (I.1.5-9), Henry sets out to convince his listeners that some comflicts can be holy. Mystification and mysticism merge as Henry paints a pretty picture of war, daubed in the colours of religion and soldiery:

The edge of war, like an ill-sheathèd knife,
No more shall cut his master. Therefore, friends,
As far as to the sepulchre of Christ

Whose soldier now, under whose blessèd cross
We are impressèd and engaged to fight

Forthwith a power of English shall we levy,
Whose arms were moulded in their mothers ' womb
  To chase these pagans in those holy fields


Ironically, the only response Henry obtains is Westmorland's news of further civil war. Mortimer's men have been defeated by the Welsh and savagely massacred. Divested of its holy garb, war reveals its vilest aspects again, while the vocabulary used by Westmorland echoes Henry's own description of civil conflict: 'butcherèd' (42), 'beastly', 'shameless' (44). War is inhuman and its violence unspeakable: ' .. . as may not be / Without much shame retold or spoken of.' (45-46) The holy project, which is already 'twelve month old' (28) is postponed indefinitely.

It is worthwhile to remind ourselves of the crucial political role played by the Crusade in the Middle Ages. Henry's predicament stems from his inability to unite men around a common cause. The notion of homeland, or patria, is not firmly established. It is troublesome to ask men to die for a cause which, particularly under the influence of Augustinian thought, was construed at best as secondary: the only patria deserving human sacrifice was the patria aeterna, the Celestial City. The Crusade allowed the sacrifice of human lives as it was a defensive war, waged pro defensione (necessitate) Terrae Sanctae. In the the course of the thirteenth century, however, the notion of 'Holy Land' began to be equated with that of 'homeland'. Thus, gradually, any war could bear the title of crusade. Because the religious and the secular spheres were not clearly distinct in medieval times, a war waged against the King was a war against the Church and hence against the Holy Land. In this period secular power increasingly borrowed a sacredness belonging to the Church. The State, for instance, competed with the Church to become a corpus mysticum. Death pro patria was thus a sacrifice for the corpus mysticum of the State, which was as worthy as the Church's own corpus mysticum.5

Henry IV depicts the State at a somewhat embryonic stage. The sovereign still needs the Crusade in order to unify the kingdom and mask the basic horror of war. In Henry V a further stage is reached, seemingly. The mystique of the Crusade to the Holy Land is no longer useful for the State has developed its own mystique. In other words, Henry IV is at pains to achieve the fusion of two traditional roles played by medieval kings: the role of the thiudans, or sacred person, and that of the reiks, the warrior ruler, 'a person of rank in whom one-man authority is invested but one in whom sacred personal connotations are minimal.'6

The necessity of war is far from established by the ruling powers in 1 Henry IV. The State's all-encompassing warring demands fail to reach certain spheres of society. The tavern scenes in particular are deliberately set outside the linear historical time of human conflicts. The opening lines of 1.2. are revealing. Sir John's question about 'the time of day,' is promptly turned into an irrelevance by Hal: 'What a devil hast thou to do with the time of the day?' (6) The reality of the conflict is, for a while, only allowed to filter through to the tavern world. Sir John is the prism through which history is turned into what it really is—a grotesque masquerade. The outside world has become a mere narrative:

There 's villainous news abroad. Here was Sir John Bracy from your father; you must to the court in the morning. That same mad fellow of the North, Percy, and he of Wales that gave Amamon the bastinado, and made Lucifer cuckold, and swore the devil his true liegeman upon the cross of a Welsh hook [ . . . ] (2.5.336-41)

The war finally takes over as Hal announces at the end of the scene: 'We must all to the wars.' (547) The King of Misrule's health deteriorates thereafter and the characters are at once caught in an irrevocable string of events leading to war. It is profoundly ironical that Sir John, the Prince of Disorder, interprets war as another type of disorder which is destructive to his person: 'And now I live out of all order, out of all compass.' (3.3.18-19)

But power itself is in deep crisis. The power of arms is the sole source of legitimacy and sovereignty. The feudal war lords were the makers of Henry's power and the King's greatness amounts to the sum of their good will, as Worcester arrogantly points out: 'And that same greatness too, which our own hands / Have holp to make so portly.' (I.3.12-13) The insolence of Hotspur, full of tales of knightly prowess, widens the gap between the values of war and those of politics ('policy'): 'Never did bare and rotten policy / Colour her working with such deadly wounds.' (I.3.107-108) 'This vile politician Bolingbroke' (239), 'this king of smiles' (244)—to quote Hotspur again—is fighting the battle for the definition and independence of his office. Like Richard II—who made untenable absolutist claims to power—Henry strives to place political power on a different ground than the battlefield. Having replaced Richard II at the helm, Henry has yet to gain 'the means of self-authorization.'7

In 3.2 Henry expounds to Hal his concept of politics. The maintaining of power for Henry involves the necessary manipulation of appearances. One is even entitled to borrow heavily from religion and make use of the half-hidden and of false miracles:

Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,
My presence like a robe pontifical—

Ne 'er seen but wondered atand so my state,
  Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast,
And won by rareness such solemnity.


If this strategy is the sure path to power, it does not for all that guarantee the durability of such power. Death, and indeed violent death, is the old enemy of kings. Henry cannot afford to put his office at risk by waging war like the feudal lord he once was. When forced to fight at last, he transfers his political craftiness to the battlefield. In disguising his true self, Henry manages to transform war into a semblance. The king (or rather his lookalikes) is everywhere and nowhere. The essence of kingship seems for a brief moment to be almost without reach of the bloody sword of war:

DOUGLAS: [ . . . ] What art thou
That counterfeit 'st the person of a king?
The King himself who, Douglas, grieves at heart
So many of his shadows thou hast met
And not the very King.


The innate danger in Henry's successful strategy is that kingship will disperse itself in its many shadows. Henry has momentarily defeated war and death but the underlying question in Douglas's words could be: is the real king real? Sir John points out that illusion is the price to pay for life. Sir John, the very counter-image of power, sheds indirect light upon the mechanisms of conservation of power: 'Counterfeit? I lie, I am no counterfeit. To die is to be a counterfeit, for he is but the counterfeit of a man who hath not the life of a man.' (5.4.113-16) In order to survive the fat knight has played a practical joke on war. But so has Henry, who runs an ultimate risk if his strategy comes full circle. As David Scott Kastan perceptively writes, 'the theatre [. . . ] works to expose the mystifications of power. Its counterfeit of royalty raises the possibility that royalty is a counterfeit.'8 The last line of 1 Henry IV—spoken by the king—confirms the political malaise which continues to affect the ruling power of the realm in spite of its momentary victory over feudal lords whose existence is closely linked to military might. The conflict between war and power is not resolved: 'Let us not leave till all our own be won.' (5.5.45)

The King is remarkably absent from 2 Henry IV until the third act where—clad significantly in a dressing gown—he appears somewhat weary. The rebels hold the stage and while they are gradually given more space the question of their lawfulness arises. The banner of 'Rebellion' is not one that is prone to rally the more hesitant, Morton points out (I.1.193-4). But legitimacy can be swiftly acquired. Newly dressed in mystic attire, feudal conflicts bear close resemblance to Holy War, outward legitimacy being one of the prerequisites of a well-established power. Henry is not the only privileged user of the concept. A Holy War has also the obvious advantage that it is willed by God and not by men, which in fact conceals remarkably well underlying political motives. Morton tells how religion has effected this transformation:

[ . . . ] But now the Bishop
Turns insurrection into religion.
Supposed sincere and holy in his thoughts,
He's followed both with body and with mind,
And doth enlarge his rising with the blood
Of fair King Richard, scraped from Pomfret stones;
Derives from heaven his quarrel and his cause


The name of Richard II is now part and parcel of what is historically preestablished and may be used to disguise rebellious 'innovations.' Rebellion, legitimacy and treason are words which are caught in the incessant linguistic exchanges of the play and may signify their complete opposite. Semantics in many ways is only an epiphenomenon—the force that moulds words and coins new meanings is military might. Yet, because the power of arms is unsure, meaning always fluctuates. What is certain, and what Morton demonstrates, is that, to quote Robert Ornstein:

[ . . . ] in rebellion, as in most human enterprises, nothing succeeds like success. A successful rebel, John Harrington shrewdly observed, is no rebel at all: 'Treason doth never prosper; what's the reason? / For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.' This cynical epigram is not the gospel according to Machiavelli—it represents good, though maliciously phrased, Tudor theology: God defends the right of whoever wins.9

Thus, defending the right of a so-called worthy cause is not something that men easily consent to. Samuel Daniel, looking at the reign of King John, made a similar observation. His analysis of human psychology is acute: 'men beeing content rather to embrace the present, though wrong, with safety, then seeke to establish anothers right, with the hazard of their owne confusion.'10

2 Henry IV is an unsure linguistic universe, in which values constantly vary in their meaning. Rumour in the play's Induction appears on stage as an allegorical character. Pierre Sahel's astute analyses of rumour in Henry VIII may also serve to describe the unhealthy world of 2 Henry IV: "Within the play, rumour is not necessarily either true or false—it simply exists. It evolves, circulates [...] . heedless of communicating any precise message, sometimes coactive with what is unreal, sometimes co-joining with something. [ . . . ] There is a constant interaction between events and reports. Rumour may seem to create reality."11

It is no surprise that the notion of war itself becomes affected by the relativity of truth. Despite their indignant claims, the motivation behind the characters' use of armed conflict is unclear. In 1.3 the rebels try to rationalize the aims of the conflict. Lord Bardolph argues that it is crucial to limit the part played by chance in their project: 'For in a theme so bloodyfaced as this, / Conjecture, expectation, and surmise / Of aids uncertain should not be admitted.' (22-4) The Archbishop of York then displays his knowledge in the mechanisms of power by describing Bolingbroke's rise to the throne (87-100). The ironic outcome of the scene, however, is summed up in a parting comment by Hastings: 'We are time's subjects, and time bids be gone.' (110) The evidence gathered from this scene indicates that the rebels are not in control of the very historical process they initiated.

War is irrevocably estranged from its overall political, or strategic, objectives. The prospect of new armed conflict even fails to rally former followers. Northumberland, in 2.3.67-8, suddenly decides to retire to Scotland: 'I will resolve for Scotland. There am I / Till time and vantage crave my company.' The rebels are time-servers and it is very quickly obvious that war is synonymous with personal ambition. 4.1 is a case in point. When the Archbishop of York, Thomas Mowbray, Lord Hastings and Coleville meet Westmorland and then Prince John for a parley, the sum of their grievances does not turn out to be so impressive. York pompously but rather perfunctorily hands over to Westmorland a list of grievances (166-7), paradoxically accusing 'time,' a few lines later, to have turned him into a rebel to the Crown: 'The time misordered doth, in common sense, / Crowd us and crush us to this monstrous form' (259-60).

The result of the perversion of warlike values—and one might say almost the finishing touch—is Prince John's betrayal of the traitors, at the end of the same scene, when after the mock reconciliation of the rebels and of the King's party, the Prince proceeds to their arrest. Honour—a word much used, perhaps overused, by the rebels—has no place in a context of warfare. John's sophistry wears the respectable garb of religion, as the 'Holy War' argumentation is brought back into fashion: 'God, and not we, hath safely fought today.' (347) The supreme irony of course is that there has been no fighting—war amounts to a subtle rhetorical device. There is something unsavoury in the way the characters manipulate moral values, so much so that the prevalent imagery in the play is often related to disease and illness. War is associated to disease. Falstaff, in 1.2, sheds some light upon their possible relationship. Apparently suffering from gout (or indeed 'pox'), but forced to play his part in the war, the plump surfeited knight claims: 'I have the wars for my colour, and my pension shall seem the more reasonable. A good wit will make use of anything. I will turn diseases to commodity.' (247-50) Falstaff is a counter-image to the State and his ailment a symptom of more general matters. The conflict is the perfect way for him to transform a personal illness into one seemingly inflicted by the disciplines of war. In the same way, but in a broader perspective, the war aptly conceals the malady of the body politic. Falstaff is hence one who knows how to feed and thrive on the illness of the State.

The continuous disrespect of the fat knight towards authority finds its counterpart in the barons' discontentment. What better illustration, furthermore, of this intestine war than Falstaff s celebrated appendix: his belly. The rebellious belly is a familiar threat to the commonwealth. The imagery is borrowed from the field of organicist theories of the State. Unlike the belly in the tale told by Menenius in Coriolanus—against which all the other members of the body rebel—Falstaff s unruly appendix represents a latent threat to the State with which it is implicitly at war. Francis Bacon in the essay entitled Of Seditions and Troubles warns that:

This same multis utile bellum is an assured and infallible sign of a state disposed to seditions and troubles. And if this poverty and broken estate in the better sort be joined with a want and necessity in the mean people, the danger is imminent and great. For the rebellions of the belly are the worst. As for discontentments, they are in the politic body like to humours in the natural, which are apt to gather a preternatural heat and to inflame.12

Falstaff s official role in 3.2 is to lead a recruitment board and enlist men for the war. The scene verges on the burlesque as the men in question turn out to be all affected by some disease—whether real or imaginary. The onomastics of their names bears witness to the degenerate state of the kingdom and of its future army (Mouldy, Feeble, Wart). Bulicali, with his rather sturdy-sounding name, seems fit for service and yet even he claims to be affected by illness: 'O Lord, sir, I am a diseased man.' (176) Interestingly, his disease is related to his having served the sovereign: 'A whoreson cold, sir; a cough, sir, which I caught with ringing in the King's affairs upon his coronation day, sir.' (178-80) Moral disease is not uncommon either among the potential recruits. Mouldy and Bulicali bribe Bardolph and Falstaff into giving them their freedom again. In this context, Feeble's patriotic comments have an indisputable ironic ring to them: 'By my troth, I care not. A man can die but once. We owe God a death. I'll ne'er bear a base mind. An't be my destiny, so; an't be not, so. No man's too good to serve's prince.' (232-5) The subtle dialectics of war and money have only just begun.

But how can this war be justified? War, it seems, is organically necessary to the body politic as a means to purge it from its diseased humours. The Archbishop of York in 4.1 borrows from organicist theories of the State in order to legitimize the rebellious uprising. His use of a field of imagery that can be perceived as traditional officializes a rather dubious political stance:

[ . . . ] we are all diseased,
And with our surfeiting and wanton hours
Have brought ouselves into a burning fever,
And we must bleed for it
of which disease
Our late King Richard, being infected, died


According to the Archbishop, the surfeited belly of the State should diet. War is the only way 'To diet rank minds, sick of happiness, / And purge th'obstructions which begin to stop / Our very veins of life.' (64-6)

What the Archbishop does not quite make clear is that the real cause of these disorders is not so much organic and natural as quite simply political. Conflicts of ambition arise when power is enfeebled. Samuel Daniel's Archbishop of Canterbury in The Civile Wars believes that the sovereign's health commands the state of the commonwealth: 'Our Health is from our head: if that be ill, / Distemp'red faint, and weake, all the rest will.'

The semiotic expression of the crisis affecting the seat of power is the King's bed in 4.3. Its very horizontality smacks of illness and ultimately of death. The bed is the place where power is often a prey to worry and insomnia; but when the sovereign has given himself over to sleep, it is also the place where power is the most vulnerable, the most exposed to overthrow. Henry is ill and—as he gradually leaves the realm of the living—he becomes naturally more distanced. The dying man's recurring thoughts about the Crusade acquire otherwordly colours. This earthly world is no place for his Holy War; he will soon be fighting it in another world: 'We will our youth lead on to higher fields, / And draw no swords but what are sanctified.' (3-4)

Henry's distance is a source of clear-sightedness for him also. The King admits that his power—if not acquired by theft—was originally the result of a transaction: 'And now my death / Changes the mood, for what in me was purchased / Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort.' (327-9) More importantly, Henry exposes war for what it is: a political stratagem. To establish the State on firm ground, he advises Hal to 'busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels, that action hence borne out / May waste the memory of the former days.' (342-4)

The use of 'foreign quarrels' in politics is one which both statesmen and political thinkers have emphasized and more often than not recommended. The last words of those who belong to the lower social orders in the play are significant. The Lord of Misrule and his companions have been defeated by the forces of political order. Prince Hal has awakened from his disorderly dream and 'ten mile' now have to separate him from his most unruly subjects. Further conflict—this time with France—looms near. Pistol, as he is about to be carried off to prison with his companions and probably from thence to the French wars, reiterates what could be a motto: 'Si fortuna me tormenta, spero me contenta.' (5.5.94) Hope ('spero') is precisely the stuff politics is made of. Francis Bacon noted that:

Certainly the politic and artificial nourishing and entertaining of hopes, and carrying men from hopes to hopes, is one of the best antidotes against the poison of discontentments. And it is a certain sign of a wise government and proceeding when it can hold men's hearts by hopes, when it cannot by satisfaction; and when it can handle things in such manner as no evil shall appear so peremptory but that it hath some outlet of hope [...] .

A well-orchestrated war mystique offers the illusory prospect of hope and glory, casts aside civil dissensions and unites the people around their newly-respected sovereign. The author of the Art of War, Niccolo Machiavelli, argues that war should be the Prince's main concern and occupation as it is so tied up with the nature of his office:

A Prince then ought to have no other ayme, nor other thought, nor take anything else for his proper art, but warr, and the orders and discipline thereof: for that is the sole arte which belongs to him that commands, and is of so great excellency, that not only those that are borne Princes, it maintains so; but many times rayses men from a private fortune to that dignity. And it is seene by the contrary, that when Princes have given themselves more to their delights, than to the warres, they have lost their States; and the first cause that makes thee lose it, is the neglect of that arte; and the cause that makes thee gaine it, is that thou art experienc'd and approv'd in that arte.13

These recommendations capture the mood of the play's conclusion. Rumours of war creep up again but no reasons whatsoever are given—only that conflict seems inevitable. The horrors of civil strife are not dispelled yet but Prince John announces war with France with a measure of excitement and perhaps a little too much lightness:

I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France. I heard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the King.
Come, will you hence?


The ritualistic drums of war are close at hand as Henry prepares a Holy War that will be closer to home, unlike his father who fell both tragically and ironically short of a more distant project: 'In that Jerusalem shall Harry die.' (4.3.369)

Moody Prior's appraisal of Henry V is one which does not give much importance to the political intricacies of the play. It is at once disconcerting and slightly misleading:

It [Henry V] celebrates in its hero a national ideal that bends the facts of history to the services of a concept which is out of touch with the realities of power and which in consequence evades experience and eludes expectation. In the perspective of the plays which preceded it, Henry V appears as a theatrically handsome fulfillment of an obligation, performed with skill but without deep conviction.14

That the play is 'out of touch with the realities of power' is a statement that can and will be severely qualified. It is perhaps a little hasty also to be so dismissive about the play and to call it 'a theatrically handsome fulfillment of an obligation', that is to say an obedient version of history destined to please the ruling powers. That playwrights and Shakespeare in particular had to take into account the wills of their Royal Patrons is an evidence which does not require to be demonstrated at length by critics—whether their vantage point is New Historicism or not. There is some sense in David Norbrook's remark that 'There is no need for twentieth-century readings to be more royalist than the King's Men.'15 All more so as—one might add—criticism of the play's 'jingoism' was well-established since the nineteenth century.16

Conservative views of Henry V stem no doubt from the fact that the play does outwardly make use of what might be called a mythology of war naturally highlighting all of its heroic aspects. The Prologue to the play and the choruses serve that cause. But the dialogue that they begin with the audience is in fact far from straightforward. Despite its epic style and mythological references, the Prologue's chorus formulates an almost immediate apology. Its sole desire is admittedly to portray war in the most faithful of ways. Its apparent frustration is due to the supposed limitations of the medium of representation—theatre:

Can this cock-pit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

(Prologue, 11-14)

Yet, these are merely rhetorical questions. The real questions may be elsewhere. On the eve of the battle of Agincourt, the chorus expresses the same type of apology. In this speech, the more noble aspects of war do not get their due—but is this not deliberate?

And so our scene must to the battle fly,
Where O for pity, we shall much disgrace,
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt. Yet sit and see,
Minding true things by what their mock'ries be

(Act 4, Chorus, 48-53)

Art is about choice and the 'battle scenes' have certainly been carefully selected according to symbolic or indeed critical criteria, as we shall demonstrate. If Agincourt does not receive the same treatment as in the chronicles, it is perhaps because war does not deserve such an elevated treatment. As William Babula put it, 'Shakespeare is not limited by his theatre, he has chosen to present Agincourt in the worst way possible.'17

There is of course no direct criticism of war in the play, nor should we seek explicit condemnations of so complex a phenomenon in a work of art. What there is, however, is much debate about it. It is probably not by chance that a comic character, the Welsh Captain Fluellen, turns out to be the main proponent of a view of warfare that can only be called ideal, mythic, or indeed bookish. In 3.6 Fluellen makes references in his heroic similes to half-legendary figures of the Greco-Roman world: 'The Duke of Exeter is as magnanimous as Agamemnon.' (6-7), while Pistol is 'as valiant a man as Mark Antony.' (13-14) Gower warns him that he might be slightly misled in his romanticized view of war: 'But you must learn to know such slanders of the age, or else you may be marvellously mistook.' (80-82) It soon appears that Fluellen sees the world through the spectacles of part-legendary literary history. He is so well-read or well-versed that he is quite unaware that warfare is more inclined towards the breaking of its own rules than towards the observance of regulations: ' . . . there is no tiddle-taddle nor pibble-babble in Pompey's camp. I warrant you, you shall find the ceremonies of the wars, and the cares of it, and the forms of it, and the sobriety of it, and the modesty of it, to be otherwise.' (4.1.71-5) Henry remarks knowingly that Fluellen's beliefs are 'a little out of fashion.' (4.1.83)

As in Henry IV war seems to creep up on the characters unawares. In 1.1 there is a sudden acceleration of historical time towards war which is unexplained and to some extent irrational. But some wars, to quote Bacon, are not founded on clear rational causes: 'Neither is the opinion of some of the Schoolmen to be received, that a war cannot justly be made but upon a precedent injury or provocation. For there is no question but a just fear of an imminent danger, though there be no blow given, is a lawful cause of war.' What is more irrational than 'fear', even if purporting to be just? In more ways than one, this first scene renders 1.2 perfunctory. Even before the Archbishop of Canterbury's Salic Law speech and the diplomatic incident of the 'Paris balls' the fate of the kingdom is sealed.

What Shakespeare helps to unveil in this first scene is the collusion between Church and State when dealing with matters of war. Before Henry appears on stage he is portrayed and eulogized by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. Political power is glorified by religion:

CANTERBURY: [ . . . ] Yea, at that very moment
Consideration like an angel came
And whipped th' Offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a paradise
  T'envelop and contain celestial spirits.

Hear him but reason in divinity
And, all-admiring, with an inward wish
You would desire the King were made a prelate


The fact that the king is referred to as a 'prelate' should not surprise us for the terminology has an historical justification. In the medieval understanding of the word 'Church' were comprised both the clergy and the laity. Thus, to talk of conflicts between the Church and the State is, by and large, an anachronism. 'Clergy and laity were epitomized in priests and kings and focalized as priesthood (sacerdotium) and kingship (regnum)"18 The Church and the State had not yet become independent bodies. The only distinction made was that the sovereign remained—theoretically—a minister of the priests and their subordinate, as John of Salisbury demonstrated with vigour:

The sword is therefore accepted by the prince from the hand of the Church, although it still does not itself possess the bloody sword entirely. For while it has this sword, yet it is used by the hand of the priest, upon whom is conferred the power of bodily coercion, reserving spiritual authority for the papacy. The prince is therefore a sort of minister of the priests and one who exercises those features of the sacred duties that seem an indignity in the hands of priests.19

In this way, Henry has to obtain the Church's consent before he wages war on France—hence the Salic Law speech. This, as has been suggested, is the theory. From the thirteenth century onwards these conceptions started to change gradually. In case of war in particular the sovereign acquired special powers and an unprecedented degree of autonomy. The king was no longer bound by the law, or 'saying of the law'—the jurisdictio aspect of his office. In becoming in times of crisis the gubernator (the holder of the tiller), the sovereign gained prestige, independence as well as sacredness:

It was on their expertise in statecraft, in the arcana imperii or secrets of power, in judging the fluctuations of times and seasons, events, circumstances, and human wills, that outstandingly successful rulers . . . based their claim to a mysterious and quasi-divine authority. The sphere in which they operated was that of the inscrutable providence of God, and success in that sphere seemed providential; it argued that they were divinely commissioned to exercise power. But the statecraft of pure policy was detached from either jurisdiction or legislation, for it had nothing to do with the establishment and maintenance of rules of law. It was a mysterious, in a sense an irrational, art of coping with the unique, the contingent, and the unforeseen, at the point where all hope must be abandoned of bringing things under legal control.20

With the help of the Church, Henry is about to become one of these successful rulers. If the prelates contribute to the making of the sacred image of the sovereign, they are fully aware of the political strategy which the King is using. The priests have rationalized the workings of power. Ely knows that ' . . . the Prince obscured his contemplation / Under the veil of wildness' (I.1.64-5) and that sudden changes and apparent miracles mask a well-calculated process. Canterbury is quite plain regarding the matter:

It must be so, for miracles are ceased,
And therefore we must needs admit the means
How things are perfected.


The dialogue between the two churchmen takes on thereafter a far more prosaic tone. The Church is about to be dispossessed and urgent action needs to be taken to prevent this. What in fact we discover as the scene unravels is that the Church has concluded a deal with Henry:

CANTERBURY: For I have made an offer to his majesty,
Upon our spiritual convocation
And in regard of causes now in hand,
Which I have opened to his grace at large:
As touching France, to give a greater sum
Than ever at one time the clergy yet
Did to his predecessors part withal.


War, both for the clergy and for Henry, is a transaction and a diversion. Henry exorcises the ghost of civil dissension by uniting the nation around his 'holy' person while the Church funds the King's campaign in order to keep the better part of its possessions. The clergy will also help legitimize the war by establishing Henry's so-called claim to the Frenh throne. War thus involves a whole nation in the realization of private interests, which have more in common with the world of commerce than with that of diplomacy or politics.

Henry's is clearly not a just war. In the light of Augustine's writings, who coined the concept, his war could be regarded as downright theft: 'to make war on one's neighbours and from them to move on against the rest, crushing and subduing peoples who have given no offence, out of mere lust for dominion—what else can this be called except brigandage on a grand scale?'21 Erasmus in The Education of a Christian Prince states that monarchs have a natural tendency to wage war for war's sake and certainly not for any humane or moral reason: 'All monarchs are cut from the same cloth. Some busy themselves with collecting the sinews of war; some, with generals and machines; but hardly any plan for the betterment of human life, which is the basis of everything else and which applies with equal importance to everybody.'

War, it seems, has to play its necessary part in the making of Henry. Might is right, as Samuel Daniel explicitly pointed out about Henry's father, Bolingbroke: 'Thou neuer proov'dst the Tenure of thy right / [ . . . ] / Till now: and, now, thou shew'st thy selfe Chiefe Lord, / By that especial right of kings; the Sword.' War is also the moment when the Sword acquires a measure of autonomy from the Church and when the sacredness of the prelate is irresistibly transferred to the sovereign. Tamburlaine's companions, Usumcasane and Theridamas express this idea unambiguously. If acquiring power in the terrestrial city is the ultimate goal of life on this earth, then a King—on his own political terrain—is superior to God:

USUMCASANE: TO be a King, is halfe to be a God.
THERIDAMAS: A God is not so glorious as a King,
I thinke the pleasure they enjoy in heaven
Can not compare with kingly joyes in earth.


Far from the political ideals of Augustine and Erasmus, the particular portrayal of warfare in Henry V shows that the ethics which existed at the outset of the play still prevail. The battle of Agincourt is only glimpsed at in the play. But what glimpses we get as in 4.4—one of the only scenes which contain any fighting—are on the mock-heroic mode. Pistol, in a position of superiority, uses grandiloquent terms, which would get him a part in a comic version of Tamburlaine, to subdue a French gentleman. Being offered some money by the Frenchman in exchange for his life, the English 'hero' accepts the deal: 'Tell him, my fury shall abate, and I the crowns will take.' (46) This micro-picture of Agincourt reiterates the simple truth that war is nothing else than a transaction verging on theft imposed by the mightiest on the weakest. Shakespeare's Agincourt says much about the real ethics of warfare. Politics and piracy are akin even in the most civilized of cultures. Jean Bodin in his Republic draws a parallel between pirates and some modern statesmen:

[ . . . ] et quoy qu'ils ['les chefs des pirates'] semblent vivre en amitié et société, partageans egalement le butin, comme on disoit de Bargule et de Viriat, neantmoins cela ne doit estre appellé société, ny amitié, ni partage en termes de droit, ains conjurations, voleries, et pillage: car le principal poînct, auquel gist la vraye marque d'amitié, leur defaut, c' est à sçavoir, le droit gouvernment selon les loix de nature.23

The ultimate transaction of course—which is perhaps not an act of piracy but a gigantic confidence trick—is the one which Henry tries to conclude with God on the eve of Agincourt. 'Five hundred poor have I in yearly pay / Who twice a day their withered hands hold up / Toward heaven to pardon blood.' (4.1.295-7) Repentance for Henry has a price and victory is as much bought as fought for.

Rose Zimbardo's statement that Henry V is "full of warfare, yet empty of conflict" should be qualified if not altogether reversed.24Henry V is full of latent unresolved political conflict revolving around the notion of war for instance, and yet, it is empty of warfare, as one observes when one tries to list the few scenes which actually depict warfare as such.

On the eve of the battle of Agincourt, when the mood ought to be reconciliatory, the King, in disguise, decides to pay a visit to the more humble members of his army. What he uncovers in so doing is misunderstanding and a patent absence of faith in the rightfulness of the common cause. Henry is here testing the limits of his political power. Despite the medieval notion that the king derived his authority from God—rex dei gratia—, "there was no absolute secular monarchy in this period, perhaps because the necessary means of communication and control were lacking."25 Spreading the Good Word to the lower orders is thus a means of consolidating the royal basis of power. Henry's monarchy is at an intermediary and still rather fragile stage in its transition towards more absolutist tendencies. However hard Henry tries to lend a sympathetic ear to his subjects, his enterprise is doomed to failure from the start. Absolutism—even in its nascent form—entails the subjection of the individual; it is not a system which takes into account the freedom of its subjects. As the medieval historian Henry Myers explains:

Before monarchy as a European institution could become truly constitutional, it had to develop sufficiently absolutist tendencies to dispose of feudal competition. Only later, after experiencing abuses of absolute monarchy and after absorbing the fact that a medieval balance of estates was neither possible nor desirable, could political theorists stop equivocating about the need for institutions to insure that kingship would indeed be the embodiment of the people's will and interest which medieval political theorists from John of Salisbury through Sir John Fortescue had made it out to be.

The mood at the outset of the scene is not particularly conflictual. Henry underlines the very humanity of the king when divested of the attires of power: 'I think the King is but a man, as I am. [ . . . ] All his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man, and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing.' (101-07) Shakespeare's Henry is not far from other popular kingly characters such as Peele's Edward I, Heywood's Edward IV, or the monarchs of George a Greene. Yet this is where the parallel stops for Henry encounters hostility in the ranks of his own soldiers. The popular and perhaps populist dream of the happy meeting of king and subject is radically shattered. Henry cannot be solely the private man he once was. The essence of authority is more complex and the roles he has to play cannot be severed. As Anne Barton suggests, Shakespeare "used Henry's disguise to summon up the memory of a wistful, naive attitude toward history and the relationship of subject and king which this play rejects as attractive but untrue: a nostalgic but false romanticism."26

Henry's notions of 'just cause' and 'holy war' are in fact totally alien to the lower ranks. Even the King's private self is unable to sway his sceptical subjects:

KING HARRY: [. .. ] Me thinks I could not die anywhere so contented as in the King's company, his cause being just and his quarrel honourable.

WILLIAMS: That's more than we know.

BATES: Ay, or more than we should seek after. For we know enough if we know we are the King's

Undertones of civil dissension are also to be felt. Williams conjures up a vivid and accusing picture, resembling a medieval danse macabre, in which the severed limbs of soldiers come back to haunt the King's conscience on Judgement Day. This is a particularly interesting picture as what is symbolically portrayed here is the dismemberment of the traditional body politic. The members revolt refusing to show solidarity to the common cause of the body. What is more, these severed members form—re-member—a new body of reproach and sufferance:

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 their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument? (133-42)

What this picture brings to the fore at the same time is the realistic effects of war—the butchery which ensues. The irony is that a creature of flesh and blood, identical to them, is sending soldiers to their deaths in the name of a cause which is far from clear. The argument used by Williams stems from a definition of power which is dangerously radical. Power—stripped of its mysticism—is precisely what people have given over to a person of flesh and blood. And it is for this person that people accept to lose their lives. This view, which has the potential of considerably undermining the sacred aura of authority, is well expressed in the writings of Etienne de La Boétie:

[. . . ] et tout ce degast, ce maleur, ceste ruine vous vient non pas des ennemis, mais certes oui bien de l'ennemy, et de celui que vous faites si grand qu'il est, pour lequel vous alles si courageusement a la guerre, pour la grandeur duquel vous ne refuses point de presenter a la mort vos personnes: celui qui vous maistrise tant n'a que deus yeulx, n'a que deus mains, n'a qu'un corps, et n'a autre chose que ce qu'a le moindre homme du grand et infini nombre de vos villes, sinon que l'avantage que vous luy faites pour vous destruire. . . . comment a il aucun pouvoir sur vous que par vous? Comment vous oseroit il courir sus, s'il n'avoit intelligence avec vous?27

But Henry's spurious personal logic strives to cover up any such dissonances. The King, responding to Williams in a long didactic speech, actually reveals himself as a cunning logician, if not a 'trickster-king,' as Phillip Mallett has nicknamed him.28 'The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant, for they purpose not their deaths when they propose their services,' says Henry (154-7). Service is part of the contract but death is not, according to the sovereign. Death is God's domain and violent death is a form of moral punishment. This is certainly a bizarre form of Christian logic: 'Now, if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God. War is his beadle. War is his vengeance. So that here men are punished for before-breach of the King's laws, in now the King's quarrel.' (165-70) Henry's subtle sophistry makes war and death a godly business totally disconnected from its political cause, i.e. 'the King's quarrel.' Henry is unable to accept responsibility for the massacre he has wilfully prepared. As W. L. Godshalk put it, 'the subtle politics of non-responsibility are Henry's forte.'29

'Every subject's duty is the King's, but every subject's soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as every sick man in his bed: wash every mote out of his conscience,' adds Henry (175-8). The King continues to separate duty to the ruler from religious ethics, that is, duty to the King of kings. In his current predicament, it is an advantageous argument. Yet, it is in contradiction with his earlier claims that his war with France is a holy war, and that the King's quarrel is God's quarrel, in other words that ethics are not distinct from reason of State. The nature of the socalled contract which binds King and subject is no longer clear. 'The Crown,' writes M. M. Reese, 'which is the symbol of majesty, is the higher self of every subject, calling him to great deeds and sacrifice.' He adds: 'The cease of majesty occurs when king and subject no longer realise their partnership in greatness.'30 What Reese calls 'greatness' is certainly a moot point for it smacks of royal mystique, but the conclusion to be drawn from his comments is that Henry cannot honestly claim to reconcile absolutist demands with the peoples' right.

When one looks beyond the King's set piece on the vanity of royal pomp ('ceremony'), a colder lesson in politics appears:

No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave
Who with a body filled and vacant mind
Gets him to rest


The running of a state is a relentless task and behind the mystical veil sovereignty is as much earned by action as it is outwardly sustained by words. Tamburlaine's private thought on the essence of his power is a good illustration of this truth: ' .. . for all my byrth, / That Vertue solely is the sum of glorie, / And fashions men with true nobility.'

But what of peace in Henry V? The end of war naturally reflects the preexistent divide between king and subject. For the more lowly, peace comes with a sense of personal loss. 'History,' as Nicholas Brooke wrote, 'has no place for tragedy.'31 Pistol's 'Nell is dead / I'th'spital of a malady of France.' (5.1.77-8) War, not unlike Nell's venereal disease ('a malady of France', significantly), has been a shameful business. Pistol returns to England to be a thief and a bawd.

In contrast, 5.2 depicts the English and French nobles seemingly reunited as a happy family. War for them has been a 'family business' almost: 'Peace to this meeting, wherefor we are met. / Unto our brother France and to our sister, / Health and fair time of day,' are Henry's opening words in the scene (1-3). The scene has also decidedly more prosaic aspects. If war was based on transaction, peace, one hastens to add, is no different. 'You must buy that peace,' says Henry to the Duke of Burgundy (70). Katherine, the French princess, is a commodity that will be part of the bargain: 'She is our capital demand' (96). The difficulty for Henry is now to change from the warrior-king that he was into the royal suitor that he must be. This change is part of the comic aspect of the scene. But it can only be an incomplete change for the two roles are impossible to reconcile fully. A few discordant notes are sounded in the midst of the romantic comedy. Henry cannot completely rid himself of the language of commerce: 'Give me your answer, i'faith do, and so clap hands and a bargain. How say you, lady?' (129-31) Nor can he at times make us forget the bitter role he played in the war: ' [ . . . ] I could lay on like a butcher,' he warns Katherine (141-4). As for Burgundy, his part in the transaction could be equated with that of a bawd—'Is she not apt?', asks the good Duke (!) (283) As Pistol would have it, war may turn men into bawds.

Henry V's Epilogue brings only incomplete resolution. This is not the war to end all wars—far from it. The reason is that 'Henry's reign, one could argue, is war itself—its masterpiece being Agincourt.'32 Naturally, Henry's legacy is more war. His issue will have a baneful lot, even if, for a fleeting moment, 'the world's best garden he achieved." (7) The sword will have more blood—blood that will be spilt when the longpostponed and dormant civil war of Henry V finally breaks out. From a stage history point of view, this prediction is already an artistic truth ('Which oft our stage hath shown' [13]).

That war is not a necessary but rather an inevitable ill amounts to a truism which is not worth debating. However, the conclusion that might be drawn after examining the plays of the Henriad is that, if any justification for human conflict is required, it should be sought in the realm of politics rather than in that of religious ethics. The suggestion that some wars can be just should be, as Erasmus points out in the Education of a Christian Prince, somewhat qualified:

Some princes deceive themselves that any war is certainly a just one and that they have a just cause for going to war. We will not attempt to discuss whether war is ever just; but who does not think his own cause just? Among such great and changing vicissitudes of human events, among so many treaties and agreements which are now entered into, now rescinded, who can lack a pretext—if there is any real excuse—for going to war?

The greatest deception of all—which Erasmus does not mention, perhaps precisely out of political prudence—lies in the constantly renewed ability of the ruling powers to substitute the ideal for the real. Is this to disguise the uneasiness caused by the inescapable separation of ethics and politics in the modern world? What remains clear is that deception seems to be the only means to justify the concept of death pro patria.


1 All references to Shakespeare's plays are taken from: William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986).

2 Some would have us think that these effects were intended and that the film is an echo of the Thatcherite imperialistic show of strength and its accompanying militaristic patriotism during the Falklands war: "the Falklands war bequeathed to British culture a decidedly ambiguous interest in war, not entirely unconnected with the characteristic emotions of patriotism." Branagh himself, in his interpretation of Henry, has been viewed as an icon of the Thatcherite self-made man: "Branagh too talks like a winner, and Henry V offers him better than any other play in the repertoire what might be called a yuppy dynamic, a mythology of success and self-definition rather than struggle." (Graham Holderness, Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama [London and New York: Harvester, 1992] 201, 202). This is a path which is perhaps too easy to follow—one which, at all events, the present article will not tread.

3 G. K. Hunter, 'Religious Nationalism in Later History Plays,' in Vincent Newey and Ann Thompson, eds., Literature and Nationalism (Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 1991): 88.

4 G. K. Hunter, 'Shakespeare's Politics and the Rejection of Falstaff,' Critical Quarterly 3.1 (1959): 234. Hunter adds convincingly that "the requirement to keep details of the whole cycle in mind seems to take the plays out of the theatre, or at least to imply a coterie audience-response more proper to Bayreuth than the Globe." (234-5)

5 The argument is borrowed from Ernst Kantorowicz's more complex analyses in: 'Pro Patria Mori in Medieval Political Thought,' American Historical Review 56 (1951): 472-92. Pro Patria Mori—which serves as the title of this article—is taken from Horace's second Roman Ode (III,2).

6 Henry A. Myers, Medieval Kingship (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1982) 4-5. The subsequent reference to this book is to pages 297-8.

7 Leonard Tennenhouse, Power on Display, The Politics of Shakespeare's Genres (New York and London: Methuen, 1986): 83.

8 David Scott Kastan, 'Proud Majesty Made a Subject: Shakespeare and the Spectacle of Rule,' Shakespeare Quarterly 37.4 (1986): 464.

9 Robert Ornstein, A Kingdom for a Stage, The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1972): 26-7.

10 Alexander B. Grosart, ed., The Complete Works in Verse and Prose of Samuel Daniel, vol. 5 (New York: Russell, 1963) 30. Subsequent references to Samuel Daniel are respectively taken from: vol. 2, 96 and 155.

11 Pierre Sahel, 'The Strangeness of a Dramatic Style: Rumour in Henry VIII,' Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985): 150.

12 Francis Bacon, The Essays, ed. John Pitcher (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985) 103. Subsequent references to Francis Bacon are respectively extracted from pages 106 and 117.

13 Niccolo Macchiavelli, Nicholas Machiavel's Prince [Facsimile reprint of the 1640 English translation] (Amsterdam and New York: Da Capo P, 1968): 111.

14 Moody E. Prior, The Drama of Power, Studies in Shakespeare's History Plays (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973): 341.

15 David Norbrook, "What Cares these Roarers for the Name of King?: 'Language and Utopia in The Tempest" in Gordon McMullan and Jonathan Pope, eds. The Politics of Tragicomedy, Shakespeare and After (London: Routledge, 1991): 24.

16 For a detailed account of this type of criticism see Zdenek Stribrny, 'Henry V and History,' in Arnold Kettle, ed. Shakespeare in a Changing World (London: Lawrence, 1964): 85.

17 William Babula, 'Whatever Happened to Prince Hal? An Essay on Henry V,' Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 55-56.

18 Walter Ullmann, Medieval Political Thought (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970): 17.

19 John of Salisbury, Policraticus: Of the Frivolities of Courtiers and the Footprints of Philosophers, ed. and trans. Cary J. Nederman (Cambridge UP, 1990): 32.

20 J.G.A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton UP, 1975): 28.

21 Quoted in Andrew Gurr, 'Henry V and the Bees' Commonwealth,' Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 62. Subsequent quotations from Erasmus are taken from the same article, pages 63 and 64.

22 Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine Part I in The Complete Works of Christopher Marlowe, ed. Fredson Bowers, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1973). The subsequent reference made to Tamburlaine is from the same edition, 5.1.188-90.

23 Jean Bodin, Les six livres de la République, vol. 1 (Paris: Fayard, 1986): 30.

24 Rose A. Zimbardo, 'The Formalism of Henry V,' in Anne Paolucci, ed., Shakespeare Encomium, The City College Papers I (New York: Enterprise Press, 1964): 16.

25 Antony Black, Political Thought in Europe 1250-1450 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1992): 137.

26 Anne Barton, 'The King Disguised, Shakespeare's Henry V and the Comical History,' in Joseph G. Price, ed., The Triple Bond, Plays, Mainly Shakespearean, in Performance (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State UP, 1975): 99.

27 Etienne de La Boétie, De la servitude volontaire ou Contr'un, ed. Nadia Gontabert (Paris: Gallimard, 1993): 87.

28 Phillip Mallett, 'Shakespeare's Trickster-Kings: Richard III and Henry V,' in Paul V.A. Williams, ed., The Fool and the Trickster, Studies in Honour of Enid Welsford (Cambridge: Brewer, 1979): 64.

29 W.L. Godshalk, 'Henry V's Politics of Non-Responsibility,' Cahiers Élisabéthains 17 (1980): 12.

30 M.M. Reese, The Cease of Majesty, A Study of Shakespeare's History Plays (London: Arnold, 1961): 109.

31 Nicholas Brooke, 'Reflecting Gems and Dead Bones: Tragedy versus History in Richard III, ' Critical Quarterly 7.2 (1965): 126.

32 My translation. 'Le règne de Henri c'est, pourrait-on dire, la guerre même et son chef-d' œuvre, c'est Azincourt.' Pierre Sahel, 'Henri V, Roi idéal?,' Études Anglaises (1975): 3.

Source: "Pro Patria Mori: War and Power in the Henriad," in Cahiers Élisabéthains, Vol. 51, April, 1997, pp. 29-44.

Unlock This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-hour free trial

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


The Hybrid Reformations of Shakespeare's Second Henriad

Explore Study Guides