The Life of Henry the Fifth

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Shakespeare, William. The Life of Henry the Fifth. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 759-836).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s Henry V | Historical Figures | Agincort (Britannica) | 100 Years’ War Timeline

Henry V and Tudor Pride

Shakespeare’s ideal sovereign seems to have been Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603), who had a strong sense of prerogative but also evidently felt deep responsibility for the well-being of her subjects. Elizabeth knew how to play politics like a true Machiavellian operator. Her reign was marked by what today we would call a shrewd concern for public relations—that is, for managing the Queen’s image and keeping the various subsections of the populace as favorable as possible towards her policies. The Cult of the Virgin Queen encouraged by Elizabeth’s officials and courtiers proved a successful means of maintaining order. (She never married, partly because that would have meant diminished power for herself and an increase in dominion for her continental Catholic suitors.)

What about Henry V, the subject of the present drama? Henry must have been high on the playwright’s list of proper kings, judging from the accolades he receives in the history play that bears his name. Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV after taking the crown from Richard II in 1399, was the son of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt was a son of King Edward III) and John’s wife Blanche of Lancaster.  So Henry Bolingbroke’s son, upon ascending the throne in 1413 at the age of 26 as Henry V, continued the Lancastrian line.

That Henry V was a Lancastrian matters because the first Tudor King, Henry VII (who vanquished the Yorkist Richard III at Bosworth Field in 1485), was himself head of that great house by virtue of his mother Margaret Beaufort (great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt by his third wife Katherine Swynford). The Tudors, therefore, favor the Lancastrian side of English history, not the Yorkist side. It would be natural for Shakespeare (who in his history plays partly follows Raphael Holinshed’s Tudor-friendly Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland) to offer a flattering reconstruction of the Lancastrian Henry V, and I think that is what we get in the historical play Henry V.

Modern cultural materialist critics have offered a counter-reading that sees irony everywhere one looks in plays such as Henry V; but then, critics in any era recast their favorite authors to suit their own ideological convictions.  After all, every generation must re-examine the past to find out what is still valuable. It’s interesting to read The Tempest, for example, in part for what it has to say about how colonizing Europeans treat “others” like Caliban, and it’s worthwhile to study Othello for its engagement with early-modern European ideas about racial difference. I can sympathize with the excellent Regency republican William Hazlitt when he criticizes Henry V for its willingness to applaud a king Hazlitt considers a brute bent on imperial conquest. In a lecture from The Round Table, Hazlitt writes, “Henry, because he did not know how to govern his own kingdom, determined to make war upon his neighbours. Because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France” (Collected Works of William Hazlitt, eds. A.R. Waller and Arnold Glover.  London: J.M. Dent, 1902.  pg. 285.)

That is a frank and authentic response to an attitude Hazlitt finds offensive in his countrymen. Still, critics ought to impose some limits on themselves when they work with centuries-old material. Claiming that Macbeth is a nihilist manifesto or that in Henry V Shakespeare is laughing up his ruffled sleeve at monarchy may be “sexy,” but it is ultimately unconvincing.  It is hard to see how the most valued member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men during Elizabeth I’s reign and then of The King’s Men theater company for James I could possibly be anti-royalist. Shakespeare seems to me a believer in the Renaissance’s prime image of earthly order: the Great Chain of Being, wherein everything has its place and God sanctions the order of things. He is neither an anarchist nor a murmerer against the political order of Elizabeth Tudor or James Stuart. In his plays, the human order generally draws its order from the providential, if not always easily discernible, plan of God, and monarchy is not to be flouted without consequence.

This is not to say that Shakespeare is a shameless mouthpiece for the powers that be. We can see from Henry V and other plays that he doesn’t support monarchy blindly: the strengths and weaknesses of his characters amount to something like a Mirror for Magistrates (the title of a moralist book that went through a number of editions around Shakespeare’s time).  He never tears the institution of kingship down, but in the end the advice Henry V himself gives in our play holds good: “the King is but a man.” And a “man,” in the view of Renaissance authors, is for the most part a collection of virtues and vices just like every other individual, high-born or not. There are plenty of sin-riddled or otherwise wrongheaded rulers in Shakespeare’s canon, and they never fare well. But this leads us to a consideration of Henry V as a character. 

Romantic poets such as Coleridge, in his Lectures on Shakespeare, have written about the way many of this playwright’s characters manage to be both strong individuals and yet representatives of a class of people. Coleridge says of Nurse Alice in Romeo and Juliet, “The character of the Nurse is the nearest of any thing in Shakespeare to a direct borrowing from mere observation; and the reason is, that as in infancy and childhood the individual in nature is a representative of a class,—just as in describing one larch tree, you generalize a grove of them,—so it is nearly as much so in old age” (Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare …, Vol. 1.  London: William Pickering, 1849; “Notes on Romeo and Juliet, 155).  Coleridge suggests that there is something generic about the Nurse’s eccentric behavior as an individual.  She is an uneducated but good-hearted old woman, and all such people show similar tendencies in their speech and conduct.  Henry V is the very type of a good king. He achieves this paradigmatic status because over the course of three plays (I and II Henry IV plus Henry V), Shakespeare allows “Prince Hal” or “Harry” to transform himself from a rascal into a sovereign of iron will and implacable virtue, the burden of which role is at times lightened by the sense of humor that comes from being kicked around by life enough to acknowledge one’s own limitations, amongst them spiritual error and common mortality.


Act 1, Prologue and Scene 1 (770-72, chorus issues appeal for metadramatic assistance; Canterbury explains to Ely how he will divert Henry from taking church lands: funds for war will be offered)

The Chorus calls upon the audience to flesh out the play with imagination: “may we cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt?”  (770, Prologue 12-14) the Prologue chorus makes an admission that history plays in particular call for a level of realism they can’t deliver; the field of action is simply too vast to be taken in on a little stage, and we must turn to metadramatic awareness and reflect on the representational limits of what is before our eyes.  The prologue speaker refers to the actors onstage as zeros: each is a “crooked figure” (770, Prologue 15) and as such, he asserts, when coupled with the imaginative powers of a willing audience, he can take on an almost miraculous power to multiply and transform the little scenes we see on stage to suggest the sublime events and figures English history.  As for the grand temporal sweep of that history, the prologue speaker himself begs leave to take care of that: “Turning th’accomplishment of many years / Into an hourglass” will be his task (770, Prologue 30-31).

In the first scene, the prelates’ motive is to take pressure off their own estate–Parliament has called for taking some of their lands, and they need to create a diversion of the sort that occurred during the reign of Henry IV.  Canterbury points out that if this reiterated bill is successful, “We lose the better half of our possession” (770, 1.1.8), consisting of the Church’s secular holdings in England.  Giving the new king money to wage war in France would be a good investment: Canterbury proposes that with regard to France, the Church should “give a greater sum / Than ever at one time the clergy yet / Did to his predecessors part withal” (772, 1.1.80-83).  But the French ambassador is about to be granted an audience with King Henry, so the churchmen had better get to work.

Act 1, Scene 2 (772-79, Canterbury justifies Henry’s claim; Henry counters the Dauphin’s mocking gift)

The priests cite a confusing historical record to refute the Salic law barring claims based on a female’s rights–Edward III had claimed France based upon the fact that his mother Isabella was the daughter of Philip IV of France and Joan I of Navarre.  Edward’s claim started Hundred Years’ War on the Continent, 1337-1453.  Shakespeare is having fun at the expense of the dry historical record.  What matters is the now of the play’s setting, so Canterbury is perfectly comfortable making light of the musty old foundation for current claims: “So that, as clear as is the summer’s sun, / King Pépin’s title and Hugh Capet’s claim, / King Louis his satisfaction, all appear / To hold in right and title of the female …” (774, 1.2.86-89).  Canterbury insists that Henry V must take his place amongst a series of English kings who have asserted their claim to rule France: he tells Henry that his fellow monarchs “expect that you should rouse yourself / As did the former lions of your blood” (775, 1.2.123-24).  Henry is quickly resolved to do precisely this, and Canterbury tells him to take one fourth of England’s available troops to France to prosecute his claim, and Henry declares, “France being ours we’ll bend it to our awe, / Or break it all to pieces” (777, 1.2.224-25).

Next comes the Dauphin’s mockery of King Harry.  The French heir still thinks of Henry V not as a mature ruler but as a prodigal youth, the very one that many of Shakespeare’s audience will know from the delightful Henry IV plays in which “Prince Hal,” close companion of the rascally knight Sir John Falstaff, causes his father so much anxiety before finally taking on the responsibility that properly belonged to him.  The claim is that Harry is still playing games; thus the tennis balls. Tennis developed from a medieval French game called jeu de paume, like handball.  The Dauphin offers this gift along with the contemptuous admonition, “let the dukedoms that you claim / Hear no more of you.” (779, 1.2.256-57).

Harry’s bold response stuns the court: “tell the Dauphin / His jest will savour but of shallow wit / When thousands weep more than did laugh at it” (778, 1.2.295-96).  He has full command of state policy and martial rhetoric, and shows that he understands the deadly nature of the “game” he is about to initiate.  We notice the extreme threats of violence: war has always been about doing damage to civilians, even back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.  What we deign to call “collateral damage” is not incidental; it is of the essence.  Medieval war was largely about wearing down the capacity of a people to support long-term struggles.

Act 2, Chorus and Scene 1 (779-82, Chorus-speaker emphasizes military / economic preparations, Pistol and Nim argue about Nell and debts; Pistol a war profiteer; Hostess says Falstaff is gravely ill)

The Chorus sets forth a tableau in which “all the youth of England are on fire” (779, Chorus 1) and there is vast care and expenditure in preparation for the coming expedition.  But there is a serpent in the bosom of Henry’s court: the Chorus gives us advance notice of the treason about to be attempted by three devious men: Richard, Earl of Cambridge; Henry, Lord Scrope of Masham; and Sir Thomas Grey, knight of Northumberland.  The French have offered them money to assassinate Henry before he leaves for the continent.

In Southampton, Pistol and Nim quarrel over Nell (780, 2.1.15-17), whom Pistol has married, and about a debt Nim wants to collect from Pistol, who at first says only, “Base is the slave that pays” (782, 2.1.86).  Pistol is full of bombastic talk (781, 2.1.40-45), and he plans to become the camp sutler: he is a corrupt war profiteer (782, 2.1.100-02).  Hostess Quickly informs everyone that Falstaff is dying, and Nim reminds us that the gregarious, carefree old “Prince Hal” who consorted with him has undergone a transformation as deep as death, too: “The King hath run bad humours on the knight” (782, 2.1.106-10).

Act 2, Scene 2 (782-86, treason of Scrope, Grey, and Cambridge discovered, punished as threat to the realm)

Scrope, Grey and Cambridge’s treason is revealed before Henry’s assemblage, and they are denounced and sent to their deaths (783-84, 2.2.40-77).  Scrope was close to Henry, and the treachery of this denier of mercy to the common man is painful to Henry (784, 2.2.91-101), who laments, “May it be possible that foreign hire / Could out of thee extract one spark of evil …?” (784, 2.2.97-98).  The King’s two bodies doctrine applies: Henry doesn’t take the threat to him personally, but these guilty men have threatened the realm, so they must pay (786. 2.2.170-73).  With this logic, Henry’s transformation from a private, prodigal son to a public man, a genuine king, is complete.

Act 2, Scene 3 (786-87, Falstaff is dead, Hostess eulogizes him; Pistol again shows himself a war parasite)

Pistol tells the audience that Falstaff is dead (786, 2.3.5).  Hostess Quickly speaks with great affection about Falstaff, recounting his dying moments, ending with “… all was as cold as any stone” (786-87, 2.2.9-23).  But that old rascal Sir John is a remnant of Henry’s past.  Pistol’s intentions about the wars are none too honorable: “Let us to France, like horseleeches, my boys, / To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck!” (787, 2.3.46-47)  Pistol and his ilk are parasites who revel in afflicting the military host.

Act 2, Scene 4 (787-90, Charles VI takes Henry’s ambassador Exeter’s demands seriously; Dauphin doesn’t)

Charles VI (788-89, 2.4.48-64) returns his counselors’ memory to the first strife between France and England: the victories of Edward the Black Prince (eldest son of Edward III, father of Richard II, grand-uncle of Henry V) at Crécy and Poitiers.  He sees the continuity of English stock and valor: “Think we King Harry strong” (788, 2.4.48), he says and admonishes the Dauphin and the Constable to “fear / The native mightiness and fate of him” (789, 2.4.63-64).  Exeter’s demand on Henry V’s behalf is stern: to the French king, he declares, Henry “bids you then resign / Your crown and kingdom …” (789. 2.4.93-94).  The Dauphin scorns this demand and tries to justify his gift of some time back: “matching to his youth and vanity, / I did present him with the Paris balls” (790, 2.4.130-31).  The French king doesn’t share the young man’s attitude, and Exeter’s comeback in Henry’s defense is effective: once a prodigal, “now he weighs time / Even to the utmost grain” (790, 2.4.137-38).  No one is playing anymore, at tennis or otherwise.

Act 3, Chorus and Scenes 1-2 (791-93, Henry arrives in France and rejects Charles VI weak offer; contrasting portraits of Henry stirring troops, Pistol and Nim quarreling)

The Chorus informs us that Henry has embarked from England, sailed for France, and made his way to the French port town of Harfleur.  England, says the Chorus-speaker, has been left largely unguarded (791, Chorus 20-21) since all the young men made their decision to follow Henry to France.  A siege is building against Harfleur, and King Charles VI has offered through his ambassador “Catherine his daughter, and with her, to dowry, / Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms” (791, Chorus 30-31), which offer Henry rejects.

Shakespeare’s method for capturing the variety of experience is often to give us competing portraits or vignettes: in the first scene we hear Henry stirring his troops towards the coming battles with martial rhetoric: “there is none of you so mean and base / That hath not noble lustre in your eyes” (792, 3.1.29-30).  Henry apparently sees the unifying force of military endeavor: it can make all those ordinary men he beholds into something extraordinary, connect them in ways they hadn’t imagined, give their lives meaning it wouldn’t otherwise have. 

In Scene 2, the vignette gives us the ordinary person’s perspective: a servant boy to Nim and Pistol exposes them to us as cowards and thieves: “three such antics do not amount to a man” (793, 3.2.29-30).  This servant boy is yoked to three men who are not good enough to serve him, and he is painfully aware of it: “I must leave them, and seek / some better service” (793, 3.3.47-48).

Shakespeare gives us a sense of the complexity underlying the heroism of even the grandest military campaigns: the underbelly of war consists of fierce doubts and anxious hopes for personal betterment.  Heroes larger than life and self-conscious parasites share the field with those who are just trying to survive.  There’s more going on than initially meets the eye: as with any complex endeavor, motives abound and they inevitably conflict when those who act upon them cross paths. 

To be reckoned with are both the “big picture” that writers of historical narrative generate from their study of events and claims, and the untold individual perspectives (fragmented, biased, partial) that can only be conjectured and conjured with one’s understanding of human nature as the starting point, at least when the events in question happened more than a lifetime ago.  (Oral history sometimes makes it possible to give us a remarkable sense for the ordinary person’s angle on things–Studs Terkel’s The Good War is a fine instance of oral history that addresses the experience of the men and women who participated in World War II.)  But this isn’t to say we are being treated to easy relativism: the servant boy’s outing of Pistol and Nim demonstrates that it is possible, at least sometimes, to cut through the pretension and the rhetoric and just tell the truth.

Act 3, Scene 3 (793-96, Fluellen the ideologue quarrels with MacMorris; Henry the realist threatens Harfleur with utter destruction and outrage)

Fluellen prattles in Welsh dialect about method: “the mines is not according to / the disciplines of the war” (793, 3.3.4-5).  He’s a military historian (794, 3.3.36-42), but quarrels with Capt. MacMorris when the latter tells him that “It is no time to discourse” (794-95, 3.3.46, 59-71).  Fluellen is courageous, but he’s also a pure ideologue in his love of war’s professional side.  Fluellen is loquacious, has a comic Welsh accent, and even ends up talking sometimes while others are fighting. Even so, his vehemence (“look you, now” and “in your conscience!”) is as honorable as Henry’s occasional exuberance—Fluellen speaks as he does from an excess of uprightness and national pride, not from unworthy motives, and his over-fondness for talk about “the disciplines of … the Roman / wars” (794, 3.3.38-39) stems from admirable erudition in military history.

King Henry harangues Harfleur’s defenders, paying tribute to the stark violence of war: “Take pity of your town and of your people / Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command” (795, 3.3.105-06, see 104-20).  This is the dreadful reality that we must contrast with Fluellen’s ideal.  Henry himself realizes that he has only the thinnest control of the violence involved in wartime action: anarchy is never far from the field of battle.  But the gambit works, and the town of Harfleur surrenders, prompting Henry to order that his men “Use mercy to them all” (796, 3.3.131) while the coming on of winter and illness drives Henry to declare a temporary retirement to Calais.

Perhaps in the speech just mentioned Henry seems to revel at length in the horrors his men will inflict on the defenseless town, but his purpose is blunt and (arguably) even humane, as the concluding rhymed couplet of his speech makes clear: “Will you yield, and this avoid? / Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed?” (796, 3.3.119-20)  Henry is a talker, but he’s much more than that: he is a doer whose words suit his purposes and his actions.

Act 3, Scene 4 (796-98, Catherine of Valois learns some English from her maid Alice)

Catherine and her maid Alice practice their English.  This is Agincourt’s lighter side, with differences reduced to linguistic felicities and embarrassments, culminating in Catherine’s declaration that certain English words are not only ugly-sounding but also “corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non / pour les dames d’honneur d’user” (797, 3.4.48-49).  We also get a sense of what the wars between the English and French mean from a woman’s perspective, though here that perspective consists in remaining oblivious.  Aside from France itself, Catherine is the prize for Henry.

Act 3, Scene 5 (798-99, Charles VI encourages his military leaders to confront Henry boldly)

King Charles VI bids his sufficient army to bring Henry prisoner to him: “Go down upon him, you have power enough, / And in a captive chariot into Rouen / Bring him our prisoner” (799, 3.6.53-55).  Around 1400, France, even after the C14 plague killed perhaps one-third of the people, had around 11 million inhabitants.  Compare that with England’s 3 million.  Some of the Elizabethans’ slights against the French are English propaganda, of course, but it seems true enough that the advantage lay with the French.  Late-medieval France was a wealthier and more populous land than England, even if both countries were often beset with internal power struggles.

Act 3, Scene 6 (799-802, Fluellen catches on to Pistol’s fraudulent self-presentation; sides with Henry against condemned Bardolph; Henry refuses ransom to Charles VI, commits cause to god)

Fluellen is fooled into taking Pistol for an honorable soldier until the latter begs him to intervene for Bardolph, who is to be hanged for robbing a church: “let not Bardolph’s vital thread be cut / With edge of penny cord and vile reproach” (800, 3.6.42-43).  Fluellen flatly refuses to honor this request: “if, look you, he were my brother, I would desire the Duke [Exeter] to / use his good pleasure” (800, 3.6.48-49).  Fluellen is now determined to expose Pistol for what he is–he cannot stand such a gap between appearances and reality: “If I find a hole in his coat, I will tell him my mind” (801, 3.6.78).

Henry, citing principle, shows no mercy for Bardolph: “We would have all such offenders so cut off” (801, 3.6.98): riot and advantage-taking against the common people cannot be allowed when one is “gamester” for a territory like France (801, 3.6.102-03).  Henry also refuses ransom to the French king, pledging only “this frail and worthless trunk” (802, 3.6.140, see 139-42), and places himself in God’s hands.

Act 3, Scene 7 (802-05, French arrogance on the eve of battle: Bourbon’s talk of war-horses)

The French rehearse their arrogance regarding the English prospects.  Bourbon (or the Dauphin in some versions) poeticizes about his horse: “I will not change my horse / with any that treads but on four pasterns” (802-03, 3.7.11-12).  Orléans, Rambures, and the Constable jest about Bourbon’s valor, and the Constable concludes with comic irony, “I think he will eat all he kills” (804, 3.7.85).  They all expect victory.  Bourbon is a bit like the Welsh ideologue Fluellen, except that he talks of horses and not counter-mining operations: both love the idea of war above all, though they also show genuine spirit.  The Dauphin, too, is a fine talker, but his career will be cut tragically short by Henry’s “band of brothers.”

Act 4, Chorus and Scene 1 (805-12, English anxiety, Henry makes his rounds before battle: power of example; meets Pistol; Fluellen admonishes Gower [808]; Henry argues with Williams about responsibility [808-09]; Henry meditates on ceremony [811], is penitent about his father’s usurpation)

The Chorus-speaker describes the evening calm before the storm, with the French awaiting their victory and the diminished, anxious English forces hanging on until morning comes.  He previews the English Henry’s night-time walk through his encampment to give heart to his soldiers as “A little touch of Harry in the night” (806, 4.0.47). As for the audience, our task consists as usual in, “Minding true things by what their mock’ries be” (806, 4.0.53).

The King speaks to Erpingham about setting an example: “‘Tis good for men to love their present pains / Upon example” (4.1.18-19).  He understands the mass psychology of battle, the importance of exemplary conduct.  Montaigne suggests in his essay “Of the Inconsistency of Our Actions” that our virtues fluctuate with circumstance and desire: yesterday’s virtuous woman is shameless today, and the courageous man of a recent battle is just as likely to turn and run next time.  In sum, “We float between different states of mind; we wish nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly” (Norton Anthology of World Literature, 2nd ed., Vol. C 2654, see also 2655-56). 

Henry’s insistence on personal presence and exempla seems to flow from that kind of awareness.

As “Harry le roi” (a nom de guerre that an Englishman might pronounce “Leroy”), Henry goes on a walking tour, meets first with Pistol, who praises the king but threatens Fluellen: “Tell him I’ll knock his leek about his pate / Upon Saint Davy’s day” (807, 4.1.55-56).

Meanwhile, Fluellen is busy lecturing Gower on not being fool enough to let the opponent hear his carryings-on: “If the enemy is an ass and a fool and a prating cox- / comb, is it meet, think you, that we should also, look you, be / an ass and a fool and a prating coxcomb?”  (808, 4.1.76-78)  Gower agrees to pipe down.

The king in disguise meets the rural soldier Williams, who speaks with a mix of fear, distrust, and anger.  But first to the more amenable Bates, Henry argues that nobody in the host should speak ill of their changes before the king: “I think the King is but a man, as I am”  (808, 4.1.99); the point is that a ruler is approximately as susceptible to despair and paralysis as the ordinary soldier or mid-level commander: all are linked in a chain of responsibility for the welfare of one another’s outlooks and bodies. 

But the key to Henry’s response is directed at Williams.  The king’s groundedness and view of the big picture in morals and politics shows in this exchange with this humble but almost threatening subject, who tells him, “if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a / heavy reckoning to make …” (809, 4.1.128-29).  Against this charge Henry sums up his argument with the thought, “Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every / subject’s soul is his own” (809-10, 4.1.164-65).  To a thorough philosophical materialist, this exchange would be pointless because both parties speak of end things, of Christian eschatology: they talk of mortality and eternal judgment following the resurrection of the dead. It’s easy to see whose argument is the better in such a context: the soul is more than the body, so the King can send his subjects off to fight in a foreign war without being held responsible for their physical demise, even if the cause should turn out to be unworthy. Henry neither wants his men to be killed nor can he answer for the state of their souls at the point of death—that is something only they can answer for. The point is that Henry can relate to his subjects at their own level, yet he retains the superior perspective of a man operating on a higher plane of experience and understanding.  Not knowing who he’s talking to, Williams takes Henry’s words ill, and strikes up a quarrel with him to be finished later, when time permits.  The two men exchange gloves (810, 4.1.190-97). 

Alone at last, King Henry meditates on his own burdens as monarch: he asks of the “ceremony” (811, 4.1.231) that makes a king, “Art thou aught else but place, degree, and form, / Creating awe and fear in other men?” (811, 4.1.228-29; see 213-87).  He is responsible for everyone, or so they think: only peasants sleep well (811, 4.1.249-50).  The gap between the person and the symbol is huge, potentially infinite.  Perhaps, then, monarchy is a projection of the subjects’ own desires, an investment in something symbolic, something larger than themselves on which the king in his material person is then expected to make good.It is well to emphasize at this point the penitential structure of Henry’s kingship: much of what he does here in France is meant as an active way to wash the blood from his father’s hands, some of which attaints him as well: he prays to the “God of battles” earnestly, “O not today, think not upon the fault / My father made in compassing the crown” (812, 4.1.275-76).  All in all, Henry’s soliloquy suggests intense awareness that the life of kings is not their own: they are actors on a grand stage, and all eyes behold them; few are the moments when they can, as Henry does now, turn inward and converse with what they find there.

To appreciate fully the maturity of this young king as Shakespeare casts him on the eve of Agincourt, 1415, we must remind ourselves of the road Henry has traveled to get to this point.  In I Henry IV, back when Henry V was still the prodigal son “Prince Hal” and as such a thorn in his father’s side, Henry had spent much of his time with hard-drinking rascals like the jolly knight and sometime highway robber Sir John Falstaff and his friends (some of whom we meet in Henry V). 

Henry’s father found that such brazen behavior violated his own “public relations” principle that a great prince is more prized by making himself scarce than by mingling with low company (Norton Histories 645-47, 3.2.29-91).  That failure to appreciate the dignity of his office is among the chiefest of the faults in Richard II that Henry Bolingbroke, soon to be Henry IV, used with such ruthless effectiveness against his predecessor king, who “Mingled his royalty with cap’ring fools” (646, 3.2.63).  Even so, this “mingling” was Prince Hal’s way of getting to know his subjects, the better to govern them.  So in I Henry IV, the Prince is busy trying out various roles, learning how the various subjects in his future kingdom think and live. In Act 1.2 of that play, Hal himself describes his antics in providential terms: “My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault, / Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes / Than that which hath no foil to set it off” (Norton Histories 613, 1.2.191-93) and pledges to himself that his reformation will amount to “Redeeming time when men think least I will” (613, 1.2.195).  In other words, kingly virtue has always been Henry’s redemptive goal, whatever capers he may have committed on his way to the throne. That may or may not have been true of the real Henry, but it seems true of Shakespeare’s character, who goes from “Hal” to the ultimate warrior-king Henry V, October 1415’s victor at Agincourt against an imposing French army.

All of the above makes Henry V, 4.1 the successful culmination of a long process.  “Prince Hal’s” method has always been that of an actor, a grand one who has play-acted and workshopped his way to present glory, interacting with all manner of citizens from the common tavern to battlefields full of fiery nobility. His is not so much a romantic, unique, nameless, intimate self but is rather the product of trying out many different stations and styles on his way to appreciating his one true office—that medieval, relational term for defining a person by his or her role in life, entailing as it does certain responsibilities within the political and social order. If you’re going to be a king, you have to understand, in Shakespeare’s terms, that you must play a role on the “stage” of life. That such a role means taking on grave burdens and enduring potentially harsh consequences in no way makes it less a role than if the person were simply strutting across the theatrical boards.  Henry’s playful past has also imbued him with the medieval and Renaissance truth that the king has not one body, but two—a natural body that desires, breathes, and dies, and a body political or civil whose boundaries go beyond the personal and the physical. The King is in part a walking “office” or set of duties, and this transpersonal aspect of him is what promises political continuity as well as (to borrow Thomas More’s term in Utopia) the “majesty” that comes with respect for whatever is larger than material affairs and ordinary humanity. On the development of this theory, see Ernest Kantorowicz’s 1959 book, The King’s Two Bodies: a Study in Medieval Political Theology.

Act 4, Scene 2 (812-13, French continue to think the battle will be easily won)

French cockiness continues: “A very little little let us do / And all is done” (813, 4.2.33-34).

Act 4, Scene 3 (814-16, Henry rouses the troops just before battle begins: “band of brothers” [815])

Henry now makes his most rousing battle speech, with its great summation, “Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by / From this day to the ending of the world / But we in it shall be rememberèd …” (815, 4.3.57-59ff).  His comparatively tiny “band of brothers” (815, 4.3.60) will take the palm for honorable exploits, come what may (57-62 key).  At this point, Henry V is the perfect Tennysonian king: such are for glory, not long life, and they never shrink from lending flesh, blood and bone to the symbolic power that belongs to them.  For the last time, Henry refuses Montjoy’s entreaty to give in, and the latter departs suitably impressed: “Thou never shalt hear herald any more” (816, 4.3.128).

Act 4, Scene 4 (816-18, Pistol captures a Frenchman; serving boy says English camp is unguarded)

Pistol captures a French gentleman prisoner, whose offer of 200 crowns to spare his life he promptly accepts (817, 4.4.40-43).  This is a comic scene, but it kicks off several scenes that highlight the confusion or “fog” of war: it’s hard to tell one person from another, and morals become muddied.  The serving boy makes an ominous announcement: Bardolph and Nim have both been hanged for thievery, and at present the English camp is only guarded by boys such as himself (818, 4.4.60-68).

Act 4, Scenes 5-6 (818-19, the French are losing and grow desperate; Henry orders his prisoners’ throats cut because of French reinforcements)

The French are losing, and they throw order to the winds; says the Constable, “Let us on heaps go offer up our lives” (818, 4.5.17).  Meanwhile, King Henry orders the first batch of French prisoners’ throats cut “The French have reinforced their scattered men” (819, 4.6.36).  What is Henry’s motive?  The French have reinforced their numbers.  At the beginning of the next scene, Gower has apparently heard that the king gave this order because the French burned his tents.

Act 4, Scene 7 (819-23, Fluellen rages at killing of boys in camp; English are the victors and Welsh pride abounds; Henry sets up a trick on Fluellen and Williams)

This scene along with 4.8 rounds off the battle: when Fluellen learns that the youngsters in the English camp have been slain, he remonstrates against this violation of “the law of arms” (819, 4.7.2).  Henry is infuriated at recent events in the camp, and orders the killing of a second batch of prisoners (820, 4.7.47-57).  But in truth, the day (Friday, 25 October 1415) is over and the English have won; the battle takes its name from a nearby castle: Agincourt.  Fluellen’s Welsh patriotism a is a bonding point with Harry: “I do believe your Majesty takes no scorn to  / wear the leek upon Saint Tavy’s day” (821, 4.7.93-94).  Williams enters again, and Henry (who is too high in rank to accept a challenge from a commoner) plays a trick: he gives Williams’ challenge-glove to Fluellen, who now becomes liable to the incensed soldier’s assault; Henry sends Warwick and Gloucester after the hothead Fluellen to make sure nobody ends up getting killed (822-23, 4.7.140-41, 155-68).

Act 4, Scene 8  (823-25, Williams strikes Fluellen; Henry tells Williams the truth about their duel; dead tallied for both sides; non nobis humility, back to Calais and thence to England)

Williams strikes Fluellen, who accuses him of treason because he thinks the blow was struck in remembrance of the Duke of Alençon, whose glove Henry falsely told him it was (823, 4.8.13-17).  Henry is almost like the merry Prince Hal of I & II Henry IV for a moment, as he enjoys telling Williams that he is the person the common soldier had in fact insulted and challenged.  But Williams handles himself well, saying, “Your majesty came not like yourself” (824, 4.8.49), and both Henry and Fluellen forgive him.

The French and English dead are tallied, with the report being that 1500 of the French nobility have been slain, and perhaps 10,000 ordinary soldiers; the English are said to have lost few–almost none, in fact (825, 4.8.96-100).  My understanding is that the French greatly outnumbered the English but that they put their nobility up front and when the English killed so many of them, the rest of the French soldiers weren’t much use.  But the battle was more complex than that, and the casualties given in Shakespeare’s play sound rather dubious–perhaps several hundred English died, and many times that amongst the French.

Henry commands the singing of Psalm 115 “Non nobis,” and the canticle “Te Deum” (825, 4.8.117). The first in the Vulgate Latin runs, “Non nobis, non nobis, Domine / Sed nomini tuo da gloriam” (Psalm 113 / 115)  Essentially, both pieces oppose pretensions to human autonomy and pride.  It’s time to return to the port city of Calais and thence home to England.

Act 5, Chorus and Scene 1 (825-28, 1421 now; Fluellen humiliates Pistol with Welsh leeks; Pistol will return home to England and steal and lie about his exploits: war’s unheroic dimension)

The Chorus-speaker sets the current year as 1421, two more invasions into France behind, the year before Henry V’s death and six years after Agincourt (825-26).

Fluellen and Pistol are at odds over Saint David’s Day, the day of homage to Wales’ sixth-century CE patron saint David.  Legend has it that seventh-century CE King Cadwalladr ordered his men to wear leeks during a battle with the Saxons, those post fifth-century Germanic invaders of England.  Anyhow, Pistol has insulted Fluellen about his Welsh heritage, and Fluellen forces him to chomp down some of the Welsh vegetable Pistol mocked (827, 5.1.29-46). 

Pistol is humiliated, and worse yet, he informs us, his Nell is dead.  But he’s not quite done for: Shakespeare is true to the complexities of character and events.  The retelling of Henry V’s reign can’t be all about heroic battles and diplomatic triumphs because that would do violence to a proper understanding of the human beings who made all those things happen.  Pistol laments, “bawd I’ll turn, / And something lean to cutpurse of quick hand. / To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal….” (828, 5.1.76-78).  The statement has a certain eloquence to it, and the pun on “steal” reinforces the pathos of this unheroic character’s probable future: Henry said everyone who came back from the war in France would be remembered eternally (815, 4.3.57-59ff), but that hardly rings true for an aging malcontent like Pistol: with no honorable role to play back home, he’s sure to meet some ignominious fate.

Act 5, Scene 2 and Epilogue (828-35, Charles VI agrees to terms; Henry plays suitor to Catherine: deeds must give way to words; Epilogue mentions Henry VI’s loss of France)

Burgundy has worked hard to bring the French and English kings together, replacing fighting with binding words, and at last it pays off (828, 5.2.24-27).  King Charles VI gives the medieval equivalent of “my people will get back to your people,” but in essence he must agree to the terms (829, 5.2.77-82).

Henry V must now try his hand at being a suitor for the hand of Catherine of Valois, and he proves both clumsy and charming: “I know no ways to mince it in love…” (830, 5.2.125).  Catherine has some trouble understanding Henry’s word-puzzles, which are not as adroit as his military campaigns (831, 5.2.165-69).  The fifth act is partly interested in the interplay of words and deeds: the former are seldom as efficacious as we wish, while the latter are usually more complicated than we like.  Words often call for deeds, but deeds usually give way to words, too, if affairs are to come to satisfying completion.

“[N]ice customs curtsy to great kings” (833, 5.2.250) is Henry’s answer to Catherine’s concerns about it not being the fashion for French ladies to kiss before marriage.  Again the merely human dimension of the king appears when he plays the role of tongue-tied suitor.  Henry says there is “witchcraft” (833, 5.2.256) in Catherine’s lips, more than all the eloquence of her father’s counselors.  As for fashion-setting, well, nothing’s set in stone: war’s violence changes territorial markers, and in a nicer key, simple gestures can change frosty fashions.  Tradition?  Says Henry, “We are the makers of manners, Kate, and the / liberty that follows our places stops the mouth of all find-faults” (833, 5.2.252-53).  Just as Shakespeare doesn’t seem to trust easy statements about “human nature,” neither does he put all his stock in people’s reiterations of what is and is not “traditional.”  The English king is already following a tradition in re-proffering his great-grandfather Edward III’s claim to the French throne: long before René Girard, Shakespeare knew that we mostly desire what others desire, sensitive-souled concerns about “the way things are done” and even the basic legitimacy of one’s claims notwithstanding. 

The Epilogue (835) makes brief but significant reference to the brute fact of history that what Henry V won, his rather feeble son Henry VI lost right back during his tumultuous, interrupted reign that drove England into its period known as “The Wars of the Roses,” ending only with Henry Tudor’s putting-down of the Yorkist King Richard III in August, 1485.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake