Henry V Pro Patria Mori: War and Power in the Henriad
by William Shakespeare

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Pro Patria Mori: War and Power in the Henriad

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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

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

(I.1.17-24)

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 entire section is 9,717 words.)