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Themes

(Shakespeare for Students)

Kingship
Henry establishes his right to kingship by fulfilling the qualities required of a true king in several different ways. He focuses on both securing his right to the English crown and capturing the French throne. He follows the advice given to him by his father at the end of Henry IV, Part Two, to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." He accomplishes this task by waging war on France and asserting his claim to the French throne, which was denied his great-great-grandmother because of the Salic law which made succession through the female line illegal. The war against France establishes both Henry's legal and moral right to the throne: by discrediting the Salic law and defeating the French army, Henry captures the crown; and by accepting responsibility and showing concern for his subjects, he earns the ethical right to kingship as well.

Henry's moral growth and acceptance of his role as king is seen throughout the play. Some of the characteristics of kingship include the king's relationship to his counselors, his divinity, his valid succession, and the burden of kingship. As king, Henry serves as the link between personal order and political unity and is required to show complete dedication to his office. He cannot allow selfishness or weakness to interfere with his duties as king. Most critics agree that although Henry struggles to achieve a balance between the demands of the crown and his own personal desires, by the end of the play he accepts his role and learns to integrate his humanity.

Language and Imagery
While analysis of the language in Henry V has yielded a variety of critical interpretations, most scholars concur that the kind of rhetoric used makes a significant contribution to the play's theme, tone, and meaning. Some critics point to the strenuous effort that the language requires of its speaker and requests of its audience and how this effort relates to the atmosphere of activity found in the play. Still others focus on the disputative tone of the language and its parallel to the dominant theme of war. This mode of speech can be traced throughout the play, as it begins with a tone of agreement (the choric appeal to English nationalism, the request for cooperation between the performer and the audience, and the first scenes showing the church and state working together), moves to dispute and war, and then concludes with a return to peace. Criticism of the imagery in Henry V also concentrates on the transition to war, particularly through Shakespeare's use of death imagery.

Critics have often debated whether the language of Henry V equals that found in the first three plays of the tetralogy. A number of scholars contend that the language is flatter and less powerful than that of the previous plays. However, others maintain that because the prose is so natural and deceptively close to common speech, the depth and artistry of the language is more subtle and no less artful than in the more prominent speeches.

Epic Elements
Shakespeare's use of epic elements in Henry V has elicited much critical attention. By far the most panoramic of his plays, Henry V dramatizes an epic theme and celebrates a legendary hero. According to several scholars, the play, therefore, fulfills most of the formal requirements of classical epic: its hero is of national significance; it emphasizes destiny and the will of God; its action is impressive in scale and centers upon war; and it includes a narrator, an invocation to the Muse, a large number of warriors, battle taunts and challenges, and other...

(The entire section is 879 words.)