Henry V completes the second Tetralogy of Shakespeare's History Plays, and this work restates a problem first dealt with in Richard II: Can sensitivity and warmth—the spiritual values that elevate human life—coexist with the ruthless strength and shrewdness that a ruler needs to govern? In Henry V this question can be plausibly answered in two ways that seem to be mutually exclusive. Some readers find the play a patriotic tribute to Henry, who is seen as an ideally heroic leader who takes England to new heights of power and defeats a traditional enemy; he is an hero suited to the threatening times England endured in the late 16th century, when the play was written, and the play has been popular in times of national crisis ever since. Alternatively, though, the play is a mordant commentary on politics and war, in which Henry is a Machiavellian militarist, a cold-blooded, power-hungry hypocrite who uses religion to justify the horrors of an unnecessary war. This anti-heroic view has found its audience primarily in recent decades, but the observations that war is hellish and that it is often conducted for selfish ends are not new, and Shakespeare could easily have found them suitable material for a play.
Both readings are equally valid, and they may reflect Shakespeare's own ambivalence towards the subject of power. In either interpretation, Henry V is a powerful dramatic work whose epic quality is plainly intended to invoke the grandeur of the ancient world, whether seriously or sardonically. For instance, the use of the Chorus, itself a direct reference to ancient Roman drama, places the action in a timeless, semi-mythical context. Such lines as the Prologue's desire ‘O for a Muse of fire' (Prologue. 1) and the description of the night as filling 'the wide vessel of the universe' (4.Chorus.3) are unquestionably grand, and they lend a monumental air—ironic or otherwise—to the work. A sense of great moments passing into legend is often called forth in this play, as when Henry declares, 'Then call we this the field of Agincourt, fought on the day of Crispin Crispianus' (4.7.92-93).
However, Shakespeare remains committed to the great portrait of the common people of England that he began so successfully in the Henry IV plays. A group of new characters, led by Fluellen, provides a glimpse of Henry's army. Part of their function is to exemplify the stalwart bearing of the common soldier, lending dignity to Henry, but they also offer a frequently humorous cross-section of the British public. In 3.2, known as the 'international' scene, Gower, Macmorris, Jamy, and Fluellen represent England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales respectively in a tribute to British unity under Henry. Jamy and Macmorris are simple stereotypes, but Fluellen and Gower have more depth. Likewise, Henry's conversation with Bates and Williams in 4.1 is humanly complex and real and stirs our feelings in preparation for his important soliloquy on the difficulties of kingship (4.1.236-290). These vignettes reveal that Henry's strength derives from his subjects, who in turn respond to him and are proud to be British.
However, the world of the Boar’s Head Tavern, familiar from 1 and 2 Henry IV, is treated less sympathetically. Falstaff dies off-stage almost immediately, and the Hostess' role is brief, if poignant. Then Bardolph and Nym die ignominiously, and the Boy is killed in an atrocity of war. Finally, Pistol is humiliated by Fluellen in 5.1. These incidents serve both interpretations of the play, for, while they may represent a defeat for anarchy by the new order of the epic hero, at the same time they present Henry as an unforgiving, unfeeling politician who can cite principles of discipline while permitting an old friend to die.
Earlier, the account of Falstaff’s death makes this point more explicitly. We hear of his illness and death in two sentimental scenes, 2.1 and 2.3, that give emotional resonance to his Eastcheap cronies; Pistol and Nym, in particular, are otherwise little better than mindlessly vicious. Their grief lends them a pathos that helps sustain the epic quality of the play, but, on the other hand, Falstaff’ss final agony is expressly attributed to Henry's cold and Machiavellian nature—'The king hath killed his heart' (2.1.88), the Hostess says, referring to Falstaff’s rejection in 2 Henry IV—and this contributes to the play's sardonic and cynical viewpoint.
Various sorts of evidence reflect the likelihood that Falstaff was originally the chief comic character of the play, and Shakespeare's deletion of the fat knight is indicative of his purposes. Henry's central role could only be compromised by the presence of so massive a personality; in either interpretation Falstaff’s cheerful immorality would only distract from its primary focus, be it an epic vision of England's greatness or a biting assessment of Henry's calculating militarism.
Henry's invasion of France and the victory at Agincourt were already legendary peaks of English glory in Shakespeare's day, and national pride is patently evident at many points in the play; several passages—especially 3.1.1-34 and 4.3.56-67—have been standard items of patriotic rhetoric since they first appeared. However, the play is not merely rousing pageantry; the morality of Henry's war is questioned throughout. The major justification for the war is presented by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1.2.33-95, and while this speech may be read with great solemnity, it also has a more ironic side—for example, in Canterbury's assertion that his complicated and legalistic argument makes Henry's claim to the French crown 'as clear as is the summer's sun' (1.2.86). That the archbishop and not Henry makes the argument demonstrates Henry's manipulative nature: he places the onus on the archbishop, cautioning him, in 1.2.13-28, that the justification of war is a mighty responsibility, but he refuses to accept that responsibility when Williams makes a similar point in 4.1.
More boldly, the play commingles with its sense of heroic chivalry several passages that are explicit condemnations of war, including Henry's 'conjuration' to the archbishop just mentioned. Best known is Burgundy's plea for peace in 5.2.24-67, in which the plight of a war-torn land is movingly evoked. Significantly, Henry's response is the cool insistence that France must 'buy that peace' (5.2.70).
Most important, the savagery of war is repeatedly described in vivid speeches that compellingly counter the heroic idea of warfare that they ostensibly promote, beginning subtly with the archbishop's strangely inappropriate equation of war booty with the peaceful activity of bees gathering honey and quickly escalating to Henry's inflamed response to the Dauphin's mockery in 1.2.261-296. At Harfleur the king describes in grisly detail the fate the town will undergo if his soldiers loot it (3.4.1-41). While Henry is in fact merciful to the citizens—because they do in fact surrender, sparing him the trouble of a battle—his graphic threat is a stark reminder of the horrors of war. Williams' description of a battle also illustrates the terrifying reality of warfare, in terms that are far from conventionally heroic rhetoric:'. . . all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle' (4.1.137-138).
Moreover, the only actual combat we see involves Pistol, who is systematically deplored throughout the play. He is decried at length for cowardice, vanity, and downright criminality by Gower in 3.6 and the Boy in 3.2 and 4.4. Further, Pistol makes us aware of a frequent consequence of war, the social havoc that can be wreaked by hardened and embittered soldiers returning to a civilian population. Having failed in war, he declares that he will become a professional thief on his return to London (5.1.89-95).
Thus the evils of war are abundantly demonstrated, even as the triumph of English arms is glorified. Both messages are strongly reinforced by the seemingly anticlimactic courtship scene, 5.2. First, Henry's development as an epic hero is brought to its proper climax by his marriage; he woos his bride briskly, with joyous predictions of a happy marriage and fine offspring. He is now a complete hero whose fine traits and accomplishments can be carried forward into the future. Moreover, the supremacy of England over France is again emphasized. However, Henry's aggressive wooing of Katharine may also be seen as an extension of his brutal conquest. In addition, the final bankruptcy of Henry's cause is frankly, if subtly, asserted: Henry predicts great heroism for his son, but we know that this son will become the ineffectual Henry VI, under whom England's French conquests will be lost; this is expressly mentioned in the Epilogue. These references remind us, as they reminded Shakespeare's original audience—to whom all of these matters were much more familiar—that Henry V actually presents a mere interlude in the bloody and tragic tale of England's disruption by the selfish ambitions of feuding aristocrats. This heavy irony chillingly closes the play on a note of failure and resignation that does much to offset the epic nature of the story.
Some critics view the play's ambiguities as unintentional, claiming that Shakespeare intended a portrayal of heroic idealism but failed to present it convincingly, perhaps due to an unconscious revulsion against authority. Others assert that the play's emphasis on Henry's Machiavellian nature conflicts with his status as a national hero, resulting in a confused political statement. Perhaps a compromise position permits the fullest response: Shakespeare may have accepted Henry's status as a hero while also being aware of the sordidness of political life. In the Tetralogy that closes with Henry V, Shakespeare developed his ideal of a King whose human sensitivity matches his capacity for ruthlessness, but in doing so, he perhaps discovered the limitations imposed on this ideal by the nature of power.
Shakespeare's instinctive response to the irreducible complexity of life was to be further reflected in the great plays of the next several years. Julius Caesar, another play about power and idealism, followed almost immediately; the great tragedies pose questions about the reliability of human motives, whether political or otherwise—questions that are implicit in the ambiguities of Henry V. The need for social order is an important issue throughout Shakespeare's work; however, so is an evident distrust of those who hold authority. We can only conclude that the playwright recognized the paradox that underlies much political thought from the late Middle Ages to the present: the only forms of power that seem fully moral—such as those outlined in Thomas More’s Utopia and its successors—are impossible to achieve. Thus the ambivalence of Henry V reflects our most profound political ideals as well as our most disturbing fears of political power.
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