Henry V

Ah, friends, do you feel as if we’ve passed a hurdle? We have; this marks the end of the tetralogy that began with Richard II. We’ve also finished said goodbye to Henry V after three plays. We jump right into the next tetralogy (technically written before this tetralogy) with Henry VI next week.

A lot happens in this play, and in a short space so let’s dive right in.


We pick up much where we left off in Henry IV Part 2: Henry V sits as king and, as foreshadowed by the chorus at the end of the last play, England is about to enter a war. Because politics in the High Middle Ages were incestuous and confusing (we won’t even touch the time when there were three popes claiming legitimacy at the same time), the King of England also held lands and titles in France and was, by extent, a vassal to the King of France. Although Henry V is assured by his advisors that his claims are legitimate the French crown ultimately rejects them.

Henry and his counselors had already decided to go to war with France over these entitlements but the French response gives Henry all the excuse he needs: instead of diplomatically saying, “Sorry, the titles aren’t yours,” the French Dauphin (the heir to the French throne) replies by mocking Henry and his former playboy ways with a gift of tennis balls. Henry tells the Dauphin’s messengers to inform their master what he can do with his tennis balls and prepares to go to war.

Henry then shows us how cunning and cutthroat he’s become; he first pardons a prisoner, showing mercy, and then sentences three of his trusted advisors to execution for taking part in a French assassination plot against him. The way Henry handles the situation reminds us a lot of Henry IV, though Henry V has a bit more flair. And thus the English head to France.

Meanwhile, no one in the French court seems to take Henry seriously. They mock him and seem overconfident in France’s ability to withstand any paltry attacks from the English. As such, they don’t send reinforcements to the town of Harfleur, which Henry sacks rather easily.

A bit of a step back here. Earlier in the play we meet up with some old friends from the previous plays: Bardolph, Ancient Pistol, the boy (Falstaff’s page) and Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the tavern. In a rather shocking moment we learn of Falstaff’s death without his ever appearing in the play. This is one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters (both in Shakespeare’s time and now), and he just kills him offstage; it’s a bit jarring.

I bring this up not just to acknowledge Falstaff’s death but also to talk about Bardolph’s fate. Henry had decreed that his soldiers aren’t to do any harm to French citizens or their property (Henry wants the French to like him, after all; he intends to rule them), Bardolph goes and loots a church, stealing a small communion plate. Because of this, Bardolph is sentenced to death and Henry shows neither mercy nor familiarity with his former-friend’s name. (Mind you, it’s possible for an actor to convey both recognition and dismay at this moment, but nothing is specifically written into the play.) Our Hal has come a long way from his wastrel ways.

So, the English have just taken Harfleur. Do the French finally take this threat seriously? Not at all. The English are reportedly sick and tired and the French outnumber them 5 to 1; this should be an easy victory for the French. The two sides prepare for battle.

In the middle of the battle, after it seems that the fighting has abated, we find out that French soldiers have stolen upon the English luggage and killed all the boys and young men who weren’t taking part in the battle. Enraged, Henry orders the execution of all prisoners. Soon after, the battle is over and the French are defeated.

The Battle at Agincourt is a surprising victory for the English. Henry considers this a miracle after being so heavily outnumbered, with about 10,000 French deaths to only 30 for the English (which are pretty accurate numbers according to Holinshed [see the Nota Bene in the last post]). Henry decrees that the victory goes to God alone.

(Of course, that’s a neat bow to tie on a representation of a good Christian king. The reality? Heavy rains put the French, in their heavy armor and on horseback, at a disadvantage, as did the English use of the longbow, which had fallen out of favor on the continent but which allowed the English to pick off the French after they broke ranks.)

Henry proceeds to have all of his demands met by the French, marries the French princess Katharine, and becomes heir to the French throne. A happy ending for the English, right? Well, yes, but the Chorus isn’t done with us yet: he reminds us that things go south with the reign of Henry VI, and thus we’re set up for next week…

Of Interest

Oh, Hal, my Machiavellian king (see the Nota Bene on the post for Henry IV Part 1 regarding Machiavellian characters). Seriously, I don’t agree with Machiavellian sentiment at all, but I love a cunning character, and Hal can be ruthless.

(Interesting fact: Machiavelli wasn’t Machiavellian; he never actually wrote “the ends justify the means;” this was a liberal interpretation of a section in The Prince and other writings by Machiavelli, but nothing comes close to this sentiment. Now his wife, on the other hand, was amazingly Machiavellian…)

Remember that in Henry IV Part 2 Hal’s father worried that his son wouldn’t be able to handle or hold the throne. Obviously, he needn’t have worried; Henry V seems to understand kingship better than either Richard II or Henry IV ever did: it’s a role to be played, a responsibility. While Richard never seemed to embrace the responsibility aspect, Henry IV seemed too practical to follow the ceremony of kingship. Henry V, by contrast, fully understands the responsibility of his station and the importance of ceremony in the role of king. He also seems to understand that the traits that make a good king are not necessarily the same traits that make a good person. He essentially threatens to murder children (specifically, to impale infants) to broker peace and surrender from Harfleur; it’s not very moral, but it does stop the fighting.

One thing we note in this play is a lack of women. Except for the very end of the play the only time we even see a woman is in Eastcheap with Mistress Quickly or the small scene where Katharine tries to learn English (and that scene is mostly in French, partly representing the different, softer life that Katharine leads contrasted to the baser, violent lives of the men in the play). The emphasis, then, is on the relationship of men to men. While there’s a lot to be written on this (the group from Eastcheap as mirrors for the French, for instance) the one thing I’ll comment on is this: while there are various male relationships happening across the play, Henry himself is a very solitary, isolated figure. It’s one way kingship is set apart from all other stations, and it’s even starker when we consider Henry’s former relationships in the two Henry IV plays and the fact that Henry has to order Bardolph’s execution. Perhaps Henry knew the isolation he’d endure when he took the crown and so was indulging in friendship while he could. It’s a bit tragic, really.

It also puts an interesting spin on the final scene with Henry and Katharine. Henry seems a bit bumbling, though charmingly so. It contrasts with the eloquence he exhibits in the rest of the play (and also in both parts of Henry IV). Could he be having that much trouble talking to a girl? I think not. In fact, I think this is strategy on Henry’s part: he’s acting like a charming fool, and it puts Katharine at ease. Keep in mind that theirs is a political marriage. What’s more, Henry has just defeated Katharine’s country in a decisive victory, is making demands on her father, and had killed a lot of Frenchmen. That could be a really tense marriage. To counteract this, Henry puts Katharine at ease by acting both as a courtly, besotted lover and a naive youth. It’s genius, really.

Moving on, what’s up with the Chorus? This is the first time we’ve had an introduction to every act, but it serves a good purpose. Keep in mind that Elizabethan theater didn’t have much in the way of scenery or props; Shakespeare had to set the scene mostly with words. Here, we have a story that spans the English Channel and includes a mighty battle. Shakespeare decided to include a Chorus to paint each scene, telling the audience about each location and preparing their imaginations for the action to follow. In fact, the entire first prologue is both setting up the action to come and asking the audience to suspend reality.

The Chorus does a fine job of getting the audience excited for what’s to come (battles! Horses! Agincourt!), but directly after the Chorus has roused the audience and gotten them ready to see two mighty foes duke it out, we’re suddenly plopped into a scene with two clergymen. It’s a bit abrupt, right? Eh, it makes a point. The two clergymen are a bishop and an archbishop who are planning to encourage England to go to war with France for their own gain. This definitely isn’t a flattering portrayal of the Catholic Church, and it’s not meant to be. Keep in mind that Elizabeth I, current monarch of England, is the daughter of Henry VIII, who is famous for breaking with the Catholic Church a and creating the Church of England  after the Catholic Church wouldn’t approve of Henry’s divorce.

This is the same anti-Catholic sentiment that led to the desecration of many medieval manuscripts; some were destroyed or discarded, used as binding waste in other books and such (most manuscripts were written on parchment, which is similar to leather and helps with structural integrity); some, like Books of Hours, were in private hands and left mostly intact save for excisions of any mentions of popes or references to/images of St. Thomas More (an English saint martyred for standing up to the king). Such practices are isolated to areas with under English control, including the west of Ireland.

(What? I’m a rare book librarian and a medievalist; you expected me to not comment on something like this? Be thankful you only got a few sentences and not a 30-minute rant.)

One last bit: turn, if you will, back to Act 1 Scene 2 with Henry’s reaction to the tennis balls gifted to him by the Dauphin. The symbolism here is amazing. Henry takes the tennis balls and turns them into a vehicle for his message. The game is on, the match is set, and the tennis balls shall turn into cannonballs. It’s an eloquent and witty speech, even using the word “mock” as onomatopoeia for the sound of the tennis ball striking the ground during a tennis match. (I bet you never thought you’d see “onomatopoeia” used after high school English class, right?)

Nota Bene

How do we view war in Henry V? Is it a patriotic tale, recounting English military prowess and a decisive victory, or is it a tale of the horrors of war and the plight of common soldiers under the ruthless lead of their superiors? Is it pro-war or anti-war?

Short answer: yes.

Henry V is somehow both a patriotic and a sobering look at war. Just as characters and scenes jump between blank verse and prose (more on the meaning of that in the Nota Bene here), so too we jump between the valor of warfare and the base, crass nature of war.

On one hand we have two of Shakespeare’s best-known speeches: the one beginning “Once more unto the breach, dear friends…” and the St Crispin’s Day speech. (Renaissance Man? Anyone?) Both of these speeches are rousing and patriotic. On the other hand we have a view of the English soldiers. The night before the Battle at Agincourt Henry walks among his troops to speak with them (as a man, not as their king) and gauge his soldiers’ feelings. We get an interesting view from this: we see and hear common soldiers talk about war and their king. Some are fearful, some ready for battle, some wish they were home, some question the King’s motives. It’s a surprisingly diverse representation. (We also get a look at stereotypical representations of different cultural groups throughout the play: Fluellen is Welsh, MacMorris is Irish, Jamy is Scottish, and Pistol is a common Englishman.)

We’re constantly bombarded with images of eating and devouring, of fire and aggression. Henry’s war seems idealized, but then we have to remember that Henry orders the execution of all French POWs. How can the two views be rectified? They can’t, and they’re not meant to be. As mentioned above, the traits that make a good king are not necessarily the same traits that make a good person and Henry knows this. Does ordering the death of all the POWs make Henry a good person? Not at all. Does it make him a good king? It certainly helps his cause, and it’s in reaction to the atrocity of the death of young boys at the hand of the French.

Keep in mind also that we’re viewing Henry’s actions through modern eyes and sentiments. How would his actions have been viewed in the early 15th-century, when the play takes place? Or even at the end of the 16th-century, when the play was written? Being a king means one has to take one’s entire kingdom into account when making any actions. It’s a completely different set of morals.

(Interesting tidbit: in 2010 there was a mock trial of Henry V for war crimes, with Supreme Court Justices Alito and Ginsberg serving as judges. After a tied audience vote and much debate, the judges eventually decided that Henry was guilty of war crimes. Though keep in mind, this is again based on our modern views on warfare and it’s been argued in the past that Henry is absolved of any guilt because no one died (by the hands of the English, at least) that hadn’t taken part in the fighting.)

Next week, onto Henry VI Part 1!


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