The Second Part of Henry the Fourth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. The Second Part of Henry the Fourth. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 673-757).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “Henry IV” | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War Timeline

Why Shallow ? He is partly a foil for Falstaff, believe it or not.  Even Jack sees through his old acquaintance’s claims to a riotous youth, his selective and creative memory about his own personal past.  Shallow is “shallow” because the currents of time, for him, run thin – there’s no depth or authenticity in him.  Falstaff is privileged for a while to be near the royal sunshine, at least while it’s clouded over.  He meets some of the great people of the times, like Henry IV’s sons as they march across the stage of English history.  But not Shallow.

The disorder of rebellion has transformed men from their proper selves – a theme that provides some of the more powerful rhetoric in the play.  The Archbishop comes in for criticism most of all since he turns his religious authority towards taking down the king.  This kind of distortion from right office and proportion is the dark potential in historical change.  Hal, by contrast, is more like Jove hiding himself to practice his deceptions before returning to Olympus.  He is friends with that old lord of misrule, Falstaff, who is constantly described as being almost like “Vice” in a morality play, but it turns out, as we are told from the outset, to be true that Hal is in league with providence and that his sense of time is redemptive.  Misrule is an education for him, a pattern by which to judge the wrongdoers he will later need to deal with sharply.  A prince royal or a king may be “but a man,” but it seems we aren’t to judge him on quite the same temporal scale as we judge others.

The source of Henry IV’s fear, we know already from the first play, is guilt because he had initiated his own rule at the expense of Richard II’s death, and the consequences have been violent revolt.  Now that peace is restored, he fears his heir will unleash the spirit of revelry and greed upon the kingdom, achieving only an anarchic reign rather than true succession, which had been the king’s best hope for a happy continuation of his dynasty.

In Act 4 note the parallel with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane – could you not wait with me even for an hour?  Yet we see the inappropriateness of this reference because Henry IV is no angel, considering how he came by the crown.

The play stages reflections on the private personal mythologies of men like Falstaff and Justice Robert Shallow, mythologies that have currency and scope only within such characters’ restricted social circuits.  But we know that such “personal mythologies” are by no means limited to small or middling characters; recall Owen Glendower’s sureness that the very heavens quaked with prodigies at his birth, or the manner in which Harry Monmouth, Bolingbroke, i.e. Henry IV, came by his crown.  Ever the public-relations expert, he is dealing with the necessity of crafting a legend and an image that the people will accept, casting this image before himself as an interpretive guide to his actions present, past, and future.  It seems that some (like Henry IV and Falstaff) are more self-conscious about this “creative” process, and try to use it to their gain, while others, like good Master Shallow, engage in it more or less unconsciously, to cover up the void of their present existence. (We notice Shallow’s concern for advancing age, the yawning grave – something Falstaff has shrunk from, too.)  Some, like Henry IV, see the limitations and perils of this drive to mythology, too.  Perhaps they use it after the manner of Plato’s well-intentioned philosopher kings in The Republic.  I suppose Falstaff is in his way just as reflective, though of course his way of dealing with it is to turn to cynicism and moral relativity that can have dire consequences for those who serve him, like the poor ragamuffins who are “peppered with shot” under his cowardly command.  Falstaff has certainly mixed with the great, taking his part in the weaving of history, thus showing that they are not gods.  Ultimately, Hal’s promise to maintain the lie that graces Falstaff’s absurd pretensions can’t be sustained: the great events and their aftermath demand better, and he is swept aside with nothing but a vague promise of possible rehabilitation, redemption.  But we know from Henry V that old Jack dies a sad, broken man, lost in his abandonment by the prince he loved.

The sentimental moments in WS’s portrayal of Falstaff are genuine, but their scope is ruthlessly limited by events and great personages from the tapestry of English history.  This is something his plays’ very structure is determined to bring home to us.  Word and sentiment can’t be permanently subordinated to action, and in the end, the world is not to be sacrificed to a quibble or a quibbling character.  On a more existential level, this “roasted manning-tree ox with the pudding in the middle” Jack, brimming with life and overflowing, bursting his proper confines, is reduced to his true dimensions: the ones left him by a life poorly lived and a decaying mass of flesh.  Everyone, as the meanest soldier in King Henry IV or V’s army might have told him, “owe God a death.”  It’s his privilege that no less a man than Prince Hal informs him of his responsibilities.

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

The History of Henry the Fourth (1 Henry IV)

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. The History of Henry the Fourth (I Henry IV) (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 595-672).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed “Henry IV” | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War Timeline

Act 1, Scene 1 (606-09, )

The play opens with a shaken King Henry IV, riddled with guilt over the death of King Richard II, repeating his pledge to turn the engines of war against foreign infidels in the Crusades. But there is to be no time for idealistic violence; the king’s past is upon him, and he must concern himself with matters at home. Harry Hotspur (whom Shakespeare makes out to be much younger than he really was) has saved the day for the king, who faces rebellious noblemen in the wake of his taking the throne from Richard, but now Hotspur tries to hang on to most of the prisoners he has taken. Nonetheless, the king cannot help but compare the gallant Hotspur with his own son Hal. While his soldiers face the obscene violence of Owen Glendower’s Welsh supporters, young Prince Hal shames his father with his “riot and dishonor” (85). The king could wish, he says, that this troublesome son were not a prince of the blood but rather a foundling left by a “night-tripping fairy.” Henry IV is at center stage of a violent, treacherous political theater, and his son is skipping about the kingdom seemingly without a care in the world, like another Richard II in the making.

Act 1, Scene 2 (609-13, )

The scene shifts immediately to the prince, but Shakespeare treats us to both sides of the young man—both the irresponsible jester and the king-to-be. John Falstaff is a lord of misrule similar to the sort of rogue you might find in late-medieval morality plays. Falstaff is eloquent and charismatic, but it is clear from the outset that he is not in charge even in his own quarters. Already, his friends are preparing to make a fool of him on Gadshill. He will become a robber robbed, and the reward for others will be, as Poins says, to listen to “the incomprehensible lies that this same fat rogue will tell”(186-87) when he is outed as a coward. Prince Hal will join in the fun, but he startles us with the self-possession that shines in his final speech of this scene: he “knows” his companions in a way that they do not know him. He comprehends their limited morality and lowborn status, and there can be no question of equality between such men as Poins, Falstaff, Peto, or Bardolph and the heir to the throne. Prince Hal’s father has always possessed the skills of an excellent actor, and continues to show a keen awareness for “public relations.” But Prince Hal demonstrates a clear grasp of this necessary aspect of kingship when he says, “I’ll so offend, to make offense a skill, / Redeeming time when men think least I will” ( 216-17). His virtues will shine more brightly because of his youthful flaws, like a diamond set in onyx. Hal is certain that time is his friend, and in this regard his sunny expectations make for the strongest contrast between him and his gloomy father, who has come to see time as more enemy than friend. For him, time brings not opportunity as it seemed to do in Richard II, but care and sorrow. As “Bolingbroke,” he took brilliant advantage of his exile and returned to triumph over the feckless Richard, but those days are gone.

Act 1, Scene 3 (613-20, )

The king has his hands full in trying to assert his dominance over Percy. Hotspur complains that he had intended to give up his prisoners, but his sensibilities were offended by the “popingay” (50) the king sent to inquire about them. This remark is a slap in the face to the king, who is outraged that Hotspur should make demands in favor of Mortimer, whom the king considers a traitor. After this freewheeling argument with Henry IV, Hotspur unburdens himself still more fully with Worcester and Northumberland, and we begin to see the seeds of further rebellion. Was it for this that Northumberland helped the present king to the throne? Worcester is already thinking such thoughts, and tries to turn Hotspur’s attention to a rational plan of attack. That’s no easy matter, given Hotspur’s high-spiritedness: “By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap, / To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon, / Or dive into the bottom of the deep…” (201-03), he exclaims, before Worcester is finally able to lay out a course of action that involves an alliance with the Archbishop of York and Mortimer. Worcester also explains the general logic of king/nobility relations in this difficult era: “The King will always think him in our debt, / And think we think ourselves unsatisfied” (286-87). There is no settled balance of power here; there are only uneasy, shifting alliances—apparently a typical state of affairs in feudal Europe (in spite of idealizing history books that talk about the Middle Ages as a time when everybody had a place and knew just what it was). Henry IV is a powerful king, but he came by his throne with help from others of no mean estate, and he will never feel secure in the loyalty of men who betrayed King Richard. The scene ends with Hotspur eagerly looking forward to the groans of battle—he is to factional strife as eager a suitor as Romeo to Juliet. Already, we begin to see a deep contrast between this hothead and the riotous, yet oddly self-possessed, Prince Hal, whose jesting ways we may come to see as flowing from the calm center of a hurricane of violence, betrayal, guilt, and consequentiality.

Act 2, Scenes 1-2 (620-24, )

Falstaff is easily winded—he has become a criminal weekend warrior, if indeed he was ever in shape to begin with. Structurally, we have cut from Hotspur’s deadly, vaulting ambition to this playful escapade on Gadshill. For Sir John, robbery turns out to be hard work, and frightening work at that.

Act 2, Scene 3 (624-25, )

Hotspur’s time is always cut short—time is not on his side, as it is for Prince Hal. It is obvious from the letter Hotspur is reading that some who do not wish the king well nevertheless find the rebels’ plot inadequate and hasty. When Kate enters, she tries to do what Portia later attempts with Brutus in Julius Caesar: she tries to get her husband to make her an equal partner in the dangerous venture at hand. But Hotspur will have none of this early modern feminism, and declines to fill Kate in on the details: “I well believe / Thou wilt not utter what thou dost not know, / And so far will I trust thee, gentle Kate” (110-12). Hotspur is affectionate with Kate, which lends him some vitality as a character, but he does not trust her, which limits his appeal.

Act 2, Scene 4 (625-27, )

Act 2, Scene 5 (627-39, )

This scene is full of playacting. Prince Hal teases a poor servant to warm up for his exchange with Falstaff, and then he declares that he will take on the persona of Hotspur and question Falstaff, who enters with a famous line, “A plague of all cowards, I say” (115). When Falstaff begins to recount his story, buckram men multiply. At last, the rascal claims he knew what was going on the whole time. Next we have a rehearsal for the father-son confrontation that the prince knows must soon take place. Falstaff does a poor job of imitating King Henry, so Hal switches roles with him. This comic playacting turns serious when the prince responds sharply to Falstaff’s plea, “banish plump Jack, and banish all the world” with “I do, I will” (480-81). When the sheriff shows up, Prince Hal promises Falstaff will make things right regarding the robbery at Gadshill. He even offers Sir John a place of honor in the coming wars, and insists that the men who were robbed will be compensated for their trouble. The heir to the throne has been trying out different styles, different perspectives and modes of conduct, but we can see that his thoughts have taken a turn for the serious now that his father’s moment of peril has come.

Act 3, Scene 1 (639-45, )

Hotspur’s charms are on display in this scene, but so are his flaws. He angers Owen Glendower by mocking the fellow’s penchant for mystical mutterings. Hotspur also quibbles about the amount of land allotted to him if the rebellion should prove successful, and even insists that the river Trent ’s course be altered to aggrandize his holdings. When Mortimer tries to explain how much restraint Owen Glendower is showing, given his irascibility, Hotspur is suitably unimpressed. The very course of nature must be altered to suit the prideful whims of these great men. In turn, he is accused by Worcester of “Pride, haughtiness, opinion, and disdain” (183). But Hotspur is at his best in jesting with Kate as Mortimer’s Welsh wife sings an incomprehensible tune in her native tongue.

Act 3, Scene 2 (645-49, )

King Henry now confronts his wayward son, laying bare the secrets of his success: Henry says he carefully managed his image with the common people, appearing so seldom and so impressively that, “I could not stir / But like a comet I was wond’red at” (46-47). The point King Henry makes is one that still applies today—whatever system of government a ruler may preside over, he or she cannot accomplish much without at least some regard from the public. King Richard evidently did not understand this basic fact of governance since he ruined his reputation with the nobility and cared little what the common people thought. King Henry bitterly compares his own son with Richard, and seems pleasantly surprised at the strong answer Prince Hal returns: “I will redeem all this on Percy’s head, / And in the closing of some glorious day / Be bold to tell you that I am your son” (132-34). He also assures the king that he understands something of the public relations lesson just given to him: “Percy is but my factor, good my lord, / To engross up glorious deeds on my behalf” (147-48). The march to battle begins on “Wednesday next.”

Act 3, Scene 3 (649-53, )

While Hal is gearing up for heroic exploits, Falstaff is quarreling with Mistress Quickly at the Boar’s Head Tavern. Sir John’s accusation against Quickly is a petty attempt to hide the fact that he owes her money, and his claim leads Hal to confess that he is the one who made himself acquainted with the worthless contents of Falstaff’s wallet. Hal informs Falstaff of the good news that he has procured him “a charge of foot” (186), i.e. a company of infantrymen, but Falstaff’s response indicates that he can’t see why the doings of the upper orders should inconvenience him—the aristocratic rebels, he says, “offend none but the virtuous” (191). His place is in the Tavern, and that’s where he would prefer to stay, knightly status notwithstanding. Falstaff’s orientation towards time is not providential, as Hal’s is, but is instead a form of denial: where T. S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock measure out his life in coffee spoons, Falstaff measures them with swigs of cheap liquor.

Act 4, Scene 1 (653-56, )

Things are going badly for the rebels since Hotspur’s father is ill and Glendower must delay his advance for two weeks. But Hotspur’s thoughts are only on his epic confrontation with “The nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales” (95). Hotspur is spirited and noble, but he lacks the capacity for development and doesn’t possess the practical regard for facts that a successful ruler must: a man who doesn’t care whether thirty thousand or forty thousand soldiers will oppose him is unlikely to win his battles for long.

Act 4, Scene 2 (656-57, )

Predictably, Falstaff has pulled a scam on the king’s dime, threatening to draft only those men he knows will pay good money to get out of their service, and he has filled the actual places with poor fools who have no options. But he has picked up “three hundred and odd pounds” (14), a knavish bargain. The prince begins to show his disgust at Falstaff’s dangerous dishonesty, and calls his soldiers “pitiful rascals” (64). Falstaff is beginning to appear as the parasite he really is, and his jests will end in the death of others who have done him no harm. At least at this point, it is difficult not to question the prince’s maturity since, after all, he has freely given such an irresponsible rogue the authority to command soldiers.

Act 4, Scenes 3-4 (657-61, )

Hotspur continues, among his confederates, to abuse King Henry roundly, castigating him for his “seeming brow of justice” (83), and pointing out that Henry owes his crown to the very people he now finds against him, for what they consider excellent reasons. Scroop, Archbishop of York, determines that he had better take precautions against King Henry, who is aware of his being in league with the rebels.

Act 5, Scene 1 (661-64, )

King Henry confronts the rebel Worcester, and the emptiness of the latter’s claims soon become apparent: Worcester complains that Henry promised to take only the Dukedom of Lancaster of which the greedy Richard had deprived him, but then usurped the kingdom. Strictly, this is true, but it is also beside the point since the promise itself was ridiculous. It would be fair to point out that sometimes the nobility and the monarch quarreled and then patched things up (at least temporarily), but Henry’s step of invading English soil during his period of banishment seems too extreme for such patching-up to work. His endeavor was an all-or-nothing affair, I believe, and in Richard II his promise hardly seemed credible even when he made it. It’s also hard to see how someone like Worcester, supposedly a savvy political operator, could have failed to perceive the hollowness of Henry’s “promise.”

Prince Hal offers to settle the dispute by single combat with Hotspur, but this chivalric gesture goes nowhere, and Hal in turn points out that the king’s offer of reconciliation with the rebels stands no chance of being accepted. Falstaff is already sick of the whole affair, and after complaining to the prince, “I would ‘twere bed-time, Hal, and all well” (125), he is inspired in that gallant’s absence to utter his famous definition of honor: “honor is a mere scutcheon” (140). The play in its entirety by no means sides with Falstaff in supposing that honor is a hollow emblem, but this anti-heroic view is acknowledged as a useful counter-narrative to keep the “heroics” of the history cycle in perspective. It is of course an ancient view—one has only to think of Homer’s Thersites in The Iliad to gauge its impressive pedigree.

Act 5, Scene 2 (664-66, )

Worcester points out the obvious; namely, that the king can’t mean to keep the promise of clemency he has just made, and it’s decided to keep this part of the news from Hotspur. Hotspur is as ready as ever to fight.

Act 5, Scene 3 (666-68, )

Blunt has bravely died in the king’s stead, as Douglas, his killer, finds when Hotspur arrives on the scene. The prince has had enough of Falstaff’s cowardly behavior. Alone, he admits that he has got his whole company shot to pieces, and then his jest comparing a gun with a bottle of sack (wine) falls flat with the prince, who rails at Falstaff, “What, is it a time to jest and dally now?” (55) Falstaff is nonplussed, and willingly forgoes “such grinning honor as Sir Walter hath” (59). As he says, honor sometimes comes to a man in the fog of war, even though his intentions are on anything but gaining honor. The after-narrative may speak kindly of him.

Act 5, Scene 4 (668-71, )

Prince Hal’s redemption of time begins to show in his actions during this scene—disdaining help for his slight wound, he rescues his father from the sword of Douglas . The king’s actions had brought him to this, we might say—it had brought him to a confused battlefield where a determined enemy sought to end his usurped reign. The redemptive answer to this threat is the prince himself. Henry’s ultimate legitimacy, it might be inferred, is none other than Hal, who, as we know, will go on to become King Henry V, whose brief reign would bring glory to England against the French at Agincourt. We learn in this scene that some had said Hal wished his father dead, and now that ugly slander is put to rest. But the prince has still more work to do, and he soon finds himself facing his nemesis Hotspur, whom he kills and praises to the heavens.

Falstaff, in spite of his principles, is also in the thick of battle, and just before the prince kills Hotspur, Falstaff saves his own hide by playing dead when Douglas challenges him. The fat knight is offended when Hal notices him and more or less sets him forth as he really is: “Death hath not strook so fat a deer to-day, / Though many dearer, in this bloody fray” (107-08). Well, it isn’t even so much the insult that gets to Falstaff as the certainty that he is dead—to be dead, says Falstaff, is to be “a counterfeit” (115-16), and then comes the immortal line, “The better part of valor is discretion” (119-20), which sounds like a twisted variation on Aristotle’s definition of virtue as the mean between cowardice and foolhardiness. To make matters still more absurd, Falstaff decides he might as well claim he killed the already dead Percy, and abuses his corpse with his sword. Caught in the act by Lancaster and the prince, Falstaff can only lie through his teeth to the very man who actually did kill Hotspur. Strangely, even before he hears the horn blast that signals the enemy’s retreat, Hal agrees to go along with Falstaff’s ridiculous pretension: “if a lie may do thee grace, / I’ll gild it with the happiest terms I have” (157-58). This indulgence may seem strange when we consider how intently Hal had come to look forward to this defining moment: killing Hotspur constitutes completion of the “redemptive” project he has promised the king, and by all rights the act should be trumpeted across the kingdom, not dissembled to serve the private interests of a rogue like Falstaff. One of my professors at UC Irvine remarked that perhaps this odd moment is a nod on Shakespeare’s part to the messiness or fogginess of the chronicles themselves—how difficult it is to know “what really happened” during history’s great events! It’s also true that at least Hal knows, within himself, what he’s made of, though that’s only a partial explanation since a great prince is not a private person but a public figure. Perhaps, too, Hal’s actions flow from the deep sense of English history with which Shakespeare endows him.  He seems secure in his triumph now.

Act 5, Scene 5 (671-72, )

Prince Hal shows magnanimity in pardoning the Douglas for the sake of his valor in battle, and there’s still more fighting to do before the rebels are entirely vanquished. Prince Hal will proceed to Wales, there to face Glendower and the Earl of March.

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

The Third Part of Henry the Sixth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare. The Third Part of Henry the Sixth. Folio. (The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 230-96).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s Henry VI | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War Timeline | Wars of the Roses

Notes coming soon ….

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93859-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

The Second Part of Henry the Sixth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare. The Second Part of Henry the Sixth, with the Death of the Good Duke Humphrey. Folio. (The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 147-218).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s Henry VI | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War TimelineWars of the Roses 

Notes coming soon ….

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93859-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

The First Part of Henry the Sixth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

Home | Questions | Commentaries | Guides | Links | OLLI

Shakespeare. The First Part of Henry the Sixth. (The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 309-72).

Of Interest: English Monarchy Timeline | RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s Henry VI | Historical Figures | 100 Years’ War Timeline | Wars of the Roses 

Notes coming soon ….

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93859-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

The Life of Henry the Fifth

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Histories

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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

Henry the Fourth, Pt. 2

Questions on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. The Second Part of Henry the Fourth. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 673-757).


1. In the “Induction” and then in Act 1, Scene 1, what is the present state of the rebellion against King Henry IV? What source or sources do the conspirators, chief among them Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland (father of Hotspur, whom Prince Harry killed in Act 5 of I Henry IV), use to gather their sense of where they stand? What is the cause of Northumberland’s rage from 1.1.136-60, and what do his angry words suggest to us about the nature and effects of rebellion?

2. Act 1, Scene 2, what is the argument between the Chief Justice and Sir John Falstaff? What is Falstaff trying to accomplish or gain at this point? How does this scene reflect on the ones preceding and following it, in which we hear the rebels assessing and debating their own prospects?


3. In Act 2, Scene 1, in what difficulty is Sir John embroiled with Hostess Quickly of the Boar’s Head Tavern, Eastcheap? How does he resolve it, if indeed what happens amounts to a resolution at all? What is the Hostess’ own perspective on the quarrel?

4. In Act 2, Scene 2, what is Prince Harry’s plan to expose Falstaff’s “true colors”? Reflect back to Prince Harry’s practical joke and raillery at Falstaff’s expense in Act 2 of I Henry IV: in consideration of Harry’s present reflections and devices throughout the scene, what change might we find in his way of evaluating Sir John’s shortcomings?

5. In Act 2, Scene 3, Lady Percy (the slain Hotspur’s wife) and Lady Northumberland (the Earl’s wife) try to talk Northumberland out of taking part in the imminent battles against the King. What arguments do they use, and in the process what contrast between Hotspur and his father the Earl emerges to the latter’s disadvantage?

6. In Act 2, Scene 4, Falstaff’s abuse of Prince Harry’s reputation and friendship is made plain. Consider the sweep of this scene in its entirety — the women’s exchanges with Falstaff, his driving out of fiery Pistol, and then Prince Harry’s exposure and mockery of his ungenerous and overly familiar prating. What basic error does such prating betray in Falstaff’s way of thinking about Harry? And more generally, what figure does old Sir John cut as a man in this scene, with regard both to his sentimental appeal for us and his stark limitations?


7. In Act 3, Scene 1, the King (Henry IV), steeped now in experience, meditates on the burdens of his exalted status. Aside from the famous remark, “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” (3.1.31), what can we learn from his thoughts on the subject of royal power and pomp, both when he is alone and when he speaks with Warwick?

8. In Act 3, Scene 2, we are introduced to Justice Robert Shallow. What is this character’s personal mythology; i.e., what view of his past has he built up for himself and for retail to others? What habits of speech reinforce his self-representation, and what motive/s might we suppose have led to the construction of such a narrative on his part? How does How does Falstaff assess this old acquaintance, and what advantage does he expect to gain from his brief reunion with Shallow?

9. In Act 3, Scene 2, while conversing with Justice Shallow, Falstaff sets about choosing some soldiers to serve under his charge in the fight against the rebels. Who are these prospective soldiers? What attitudes do they manifest about the wars, and as in I Henry IV (and/or Henry V if you are familiar with that play), what resemblances and contrasts are thereby underscored between the common person’s view of military violence and the views of their aristocratic “betters”?


10. In Act 4, Scene 1, King Henry IV’s supporter the Earl of Westmorland argues the rebellion with the rebels Archbishop of York (Richard Scroop) and Lord Mowbray. What points do they advance in favor of their struggle against the king, and how does Westmorland answer those points? Moreover, what error in military judgment does it soon become clear that the rebels have allowed themselves to commit?

11. In Act 4, Scene 2, Falstaff takes the rebel Sir John Coleville prisoner. We have heard Falstaff talk about military honor before, in 5.1 and 5.3 of I Henry IV. How does the rascal address this issue in the present scene? In addition, how do he and the king’s brother, Prince John, seem to regard each other?

12. In Act 4, Scene 3, what advice does Henry IV give the Duke of Clarence (i.e. his son Thomas) about Prince Harry? How does Warwick assure the king that all will be well with the heir apparent? In responding, consider the relation between Warwick’s response and what Prince Harry himself has said about his conduct thus far, for example in 2.2 and 2.4 of the present play, or 1.2 of I Henry IV? What continuity do you find?

13. In Act 4, Scene 3, Prince Harry reflects on the crown from lines 151-73, somewhat as the king himself had done in 3.1. How does Prince Harry’s emphasis differ from that of the king? Moreover, as the scene progresses with the awakening of the king to find his crown missing, what anxieties beset him about the reign to be expected of his seemingly reckless heir? How does the Prince convince him that his fears are groundless?

14. In Act 4, Scene 3, a reassured King Henry IV offers his heir Prince Harry a striking piece of advice about how a ruler may avoid the worst kind of trouble. What is that advice? What does it suggest about the king’s understanding of his subjects, and, more broadly, about human nature? (See 4.3.305-47; “O my son …”) Consider also what the king does immediately after giving this advice — how does it reflect on or alter your perception of the political counsel he has just given?


15. In Act 5, Scenes 1-2, what theory about “wise bearing or ignorant carriage” (5.1.64) does Falstaff set forth? What happens subsequently (in the second scene) between the Chief Justice and Prince Harry to call this theory into question? In the course of this interaction, what does Prince Harry say to demonstrate his grasp of the legal and formal or ceremonial aspects of his now supreme position?

16. In Act 5, Scenes 3 and 5, what are Falstaff’s expectations now that his old friend Prince Harry is king? What happens to those expectations when the king’s procession passes him by? Consider the manner in which the meeting between these two unfolds in the fifth scene: to what extent does “Harry” recognize his former companion, and what can we learn from the exact manner in which he does so?

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

Henry the Fourth, Pt. 1

Questions on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. The First Part of Henry the Fourth (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 595-672).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what problems does Henry IV (Bullingbrook from Richard II) enunciate at the play’s beginning? How does he mean to resolve them, and what is keeping him from carrying out his resolutions? How would you describe the pattern of his reign so far?

2. In Act 1, Scene 2, what concerns seem most proper to Sir John Falstaff, the play’s resident Lord of Misrule? What is he complaining about? What plot do Falstaff’s friends set in motion against him, and why?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, how does Prince Harry regard Falstaff and his other low-ranking friends at the Boar’s Head Tavern? How does the Prince respond to Falstaff’s jests? Why is he hanging around with such rascals in the first place, and what plan does he apparently have in mind for the future, now that his father is king and great events are in the offing?

4. In Act 1, Scene 3, we are introduced to Harry Hotspur, Henry Percy’s (Northumberland’s) son. What seem to be Hotspur’s characteristics? In what sense is Hotspur admirable, and in what sense flawed? What attitude does he take up towards the King and towards his familial elders Worcester and Northumberland?


5. In Act 2, Scenes 1-2, how do the robbery and mock robbery play out? How does Falstaff treat the people he robs — what does he say to them, and what do you draw from such comments regarding Falstaff’s self-image? How does he behave at the moment when he, in turn, is robbed of his spoils?

6. In Act 2, Scene 4, what additional things become apparent about Hotspur? What attributes does Hotspur’s wife, Kate (Lady Percy), possess? How well does Hotspur relate to her? Why, for example, does he choose to hold back information from her about his key role in the rebellion against King Henry IV?

7. In Act 2, Scene 5, what is Prince Harry up to at the beginning of the scene? Why does he associate with the Tavern’s “drawers” — what does he learn from them? Why does he make fun of the drawer Francis — how does Prince Harry’s remark at lines 5.2.86-88 (“I am now of all humours …”) perhaps explain the motivation for his jests regarding that common laborer?

8. In Act 2, Scene 5, what accusations does Falstaff level at Prince Harry and others upon re-entering the Boar’s Head Tavern after the robbery? How does Falstaff describe what happened during the robbery at Gadshill? How does Prince Harry undercut Falstaff’s lies, and what do Falstaff’s attempts to vindicate himself reveal about his outlook on life?

9. In Act 2, Scene 5, what is the serious point underlying Prince Harry’s comic play-acting the roles of King and Crown Prince (which latter, of course, he actually is) with Falstaff? Moreover, how does the play-acting carry darker undertones respecting Falstaff’s tenure as “Lord of Misrule” in Prince Harry’s life?

10. In Act 2, Scene 5, towards the end of the scene, how does Prince Harry deal with the lawmen who come looking for Falstaff because of his thievery at Gadshill? What promise does he subsequently make Falstaff about his place in the war against the rebels besetting Henry IV, and how does Falstaff react to that promise?


11. In Act 3, Scene 1, what do the rebels discuss? Why don’t Hotspur and Owen Glyndwr get along — what differences in outlook and personal expression keep them apart? What attributes does Glyndwr possess that differ markedly from Hotspur’s?

12. In Act 3, Scene 2, what reproaches does Henry IV make against his son Prince Harry, heir to the throne? What wisdom does he try to impart to the young man, and what unsavory comparison does he make between Prince Harry and King Richard II, whom Henry deposed back when he was still called “Bullingbrook”? How does Harry console and re-inspirit his father: how does he cast his imperfect past and what promises does he make for the present and future?

13. In Act 3, Scene 3, what is the nature of Falstaff’s quarrel with the Hostess and with Prince Harry at the Boar’s Head Tavern? What is Falstaff’s mood on the eve of the fight against the rebels Glyndwr, Hotspur, and others?


14. In Act 4, Scene 1, what is happening on the rebel side? How does Hotspur take the bad news he receives? How does he deal with the praise that Richard Vernon heaps upon Prince Harry, and what does Hotspur’s attitude towards his rival reveal about him?

15. In Act 4, Scene 2, what has Falstaff done in the wake of the Prince’s procuring for him “a charge of foot” back at 3.3.171? How does Falstaff apparently construe the significance of war? In what sense does his standing in the play begin to decline at this point?

16. In Act 4, Scene 3, how does Hotspur describe his kinsmen’s role in helping Henry Bullingbrook depose Richard II and become King Henry IV? How does Hotspur characterize King Henry’s reign up to the present time? How do the rebels’ prospects look at this point, just before their direct meeting with the King in the next Act?


17. In Act 5, Scene 1, how does King Henry IV counter the rebels’ interpretation of the events leading to the present’s imminent hostilities? What offer does the King extend to those massed to fight against him? Does it seem realistic? Why or why not? How does Prince Harry treat the reputation of Hotspur (here called Henry Percy)?

18. In Act 5, Scene 1, what “catechism” (see 5.1.127-39, “‘Tis not due yet …”) does Falstaff offer regarding the concept of chivalric honor? Why does he call it a catechism? How does his speech reflect upon or connect to the chivalric meeting we have just seen between the King, Prince Harry, and the enemies against whom they are about to do battle?

19. In Act 5, Scene 2, why does Worcester keep the knowledge of the King’s offer from Hotspur? What is Hotspur’s present attitude towards his rival, Prince Harry? How good a rhetorician or public speaker is Hotspur on the eve of battle? How do his skills compare with those of others in this play?

20. In Act 5, Scenes 3-4, what two “redemptive” acts does Prince Harry perform, in light of his previous promises to his father? Describe the Prince’s actions and what he says about them to others. Consider as well his brief meeting with Falstaff during this heroic scene: how does he react to his old friend’s behavior now?

21. In Act 5, Scenes 3-4, how does Falstaff conduct himself during the battle? Why does Prince Harry go along with Falstaff’s deceptive claim to have killed Hotspur? Doesn’t doing so undercut the redemptive storyline Prince Harry has been working up to since the end of Richard II and all through I Henry IV? Or is there a different way to understand Harry’s genial treatment of Falstaff at this point? Explain.

22. In Act 5, Scene 5, what is the kingdom’s status at the end of the play? How secure is Henry IV’s throne, and overall, what is your impression of him at this point? How do the victors deal with those they have captured, and what still remains to be done?

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

Henry the Fifth

Questions on Shakespeare’s Histories

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Shakespeare, William. King Henry V. (Norton Histories, 2nd ed. 759-836).


1. In the Prologue, what does the Chorus ask theater-goers to do? In what sense might the Chorus be said to give the spoken words of Shakespeare’s play the place of honor in their experience?

2. In Act 1, Scenes 1-2, the Bishops of Ely and Canterbury have their reasons (money, for the most part) for sending the young Henry off to France. But what specific arguments do they employ to convince him — what is Salic Law, and what do the Bishops say about Henry’s predecessor kings?

3. In Act 1, Scene 2, what qualities in Henry are brought to the fore by the Dauphin’s wicked present of “tennis balls” in place of a serious answer to his claims upon the French throne?


4. In Act 2, Scene 1, what seems to be Shakespeare’s principle in going back and forth between serious and silly, noble and low, as he begins to do here with the comic scene between Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym (Henry’s friends from Henry IV, Parts 1-2)? How does their quarreling compare to that of their betters?

5. In Act 2, Scene 2, how does King Henry set forth the moral of the treason and fall of Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey? Pay particular attention to his comments about Scroop.

6. In Act 2, Scene 3, how do Henry’s former friends Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym see the impending war with France? When they learn that old Jack Falstaff has finally died, what effect does his passing have upon them? What do they think is the cause of his death?

7. In Act 2, Scene 4, what contrast between the French outlook on war and the English one appears? How does Exeter, in his message to the King of France, undercut the expectations and rhetoric of Shakespeare’s French?


8. What perspectives on war do Act 3, Scenes 1-3, taken together, advance? Consider the remarks of Henry, Pistol/Bardolph/Nym, and the Welshman Fluellen.

9. In Act 3, Scene 4, the French Princess Katherine explores the presence of the English from her own perspective. What does she add to our understanding of the war and the French?

10. In Act 3, Scenes 5-7, how does King Henry’s insistence on hanging Bardolph for theft show about his grasp of proper kingship? How can we connect this part of the play with Fluellen’s failure to discern (at least initially) Pistol’s nature? Consider this question in light of Shakespeare’s perpetual interest in sorting out “seeming” from “being.”

11. In Act 3, Scene 7, what flaw in the Dauphin’s character reaffirms itself? How does the Constable undercut the Dauphin’s claims?


12. In Act 4, Scene 1, why does Henry wander about the camp on the eve of battle? What does he find out about the way some of his subjects (Williams and Bates) think of their part in the campaign? What argument does Henry use to bring Williams around, and what quarrel nonetheless remains between them?

13. In Act 4, Scene 1, when Henry is at last alone, how does he sum up his thoughts on the nature and responsibilities of kingship? What spiritual burden will he bring with him into battle, aside from anything to do with current events?

14. In Act 4, Scenes 2-3, contrast the Frenchmen’s high words before battle with what Henry and his English followers say. What assumptions do the French make about the English, and what proves effective for Henry in lifting the spirits of his men?

15. How do Act 4, Scenes 4-5 work together to show the French side’s shameful conduct?

16. In Act 4, Scenes 6-8, how much realism do you find in Shakespeare’s representation of the battle and the views characters take concerning war? And how does King Henry explain his unlikely triumph over the French?

17. In Act 4, Scenes 7-8, how does the quarrel between King Henry and Williams get settled? What moral principle does this settlement reaffirm?


18. In Act 5, Scene 1, what lesson about symbolism does Fluellen teach Pistol when the two meet? And what does Pistol plan to do now that the war is over?

19. Act 5, Scene 2, what strategy does King Henry employ to win Katherine’s heart and her assent to the marriage that will make him heir to the French throne? What objections does she make, and how does he deal with them?

20. Critics have long argued both sides of an obvious issue in Henry V: is the play pro-English and pro-war to the point of jingoism (a “jingo” is someone who is too quick to call for war, usually to promote national prestige), or should we say that Shakespeare is criticizing others for such attitudes? Or do you find that “either/or” argument simplistic? Explain.

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