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Shakespeare’s Henry V

William Shakespeare is one of the most famous and influential writers of all time. His plays not only portray the past, but also aspects of love and hate, humour and tragedy. Henry V, written by Shakespeare, using Raphael Holinshed’s historical chronicles, appealed to many of the citizens of that time, as it presented an insight into their country’s past, as well as ‘feel-good’ nationalism. It would have been performed on stage at a time when Henry VIII had secluded the country from all contact with the Church of Rome. Providing the audience with its country’s past glories and triumphs, the play counter-acts this feeling of seclusion and loss of identity with glorified achievement and renewal of patriotism.

Henry V continues Shakespeare’s series of historic plays; it follows Henry IV and is the predecessor to Henry VI. In Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2, the audience is introduced to Henry V. Henry is young and considered ‘wild’ as his days were spent in the ‘Boars Head’ among the likes of his dear friend, and father-figure, Sir John Falstaff, and the other members of the ‘Eastcheap Mob’ (Henry’s ‘greener days’ are later referred to and mocked at by the French Dauphin). Once crowned King, these days, as well as the people who shared them with Henry, are quickly forgotten, and Falstaff soon dies of a ‘broken heart’, due to the disownment his “son-figure” has pursued. We soon see the change, and it is evident that it is for the better, later on in the play when we witness Henry go to war with France.

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Not only is Henry filled with confidence and fuelled by ambition; he has also gained the ability to grasp the essence of war and the ability to persuade with an evocative manner, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more.” The chorus eloquently suggests that Henry is “the star of England” and the mirror of all Christian kings. Are they correct in their assumption: is Henry a great king, or does William Shakespeare merely include this as a biased opinion to enforce onto the audience, so as to prosper the basis of patriotism already built earlier? The play begins with the chorus’s prologue to the play. Naturally, Shakespeare provides the chorus with words so descriptive and elegant that the apology for lack of realism is forgotten, as is the stage and theatre, and, instead, the open planes of Agincourt are forcefully seen in one’s ‘mind’s eye’. No more are we an audience, but a witness.

Shakespeare portrays Henry as a very religious king; whether this is to promote Henry or to express his own opinions as to what principles a King should have, especially whilst Henry VIII was on the thrown at that time, and the Roman Church had been cut off from England, indicating that religion wasn’t too high on Henry VIII’s agenda. There is evidence throughout the play that Henry was a religious king, “a true lover of the holy church.” From Shakespeare’s view, a good king always appreciates his creator and knows that it is God who will guide and look after him, so it would have been important to include as many thanks to God from Henry and his men to prove that they actually show appreciation. At the news of winning the war against France, Henry immediately acknowledges that it was not his leadership, nor the strength of his army, that won the war for England, but God, “Praised be God, and not our strength for it!” This is very important as it indicates positive Christian ethics, which are vital for an English King.

Henry possesses such true and honest characteristics that his personality shines throughout the play. For on hearing his victory, he requests for the numbers dead, on both English and French parts. This shows the understanding and empathetic side of Henry, as he knows what the French king feels, and therefore wants not just to mourn for the loss of his men, but for the French men as well. Henry is also compassionate, this is displayed in the request of both side’s numbers. Shakespeare wants the audience to recognize Henry as the familiar lad from the Boars Head, but he also wants the audience to become adherent to Henry’s ‘better’ side. Shakespeare feels this ‘new’ side of Henry needs to be accepted as he has created a persona for a character in one play, and now in a different play he is altering that persona, therefore Shakespeare needed to justify and show other character acceptance of it. In the first scene Canterbury and Ely discuss Church matters, they talk about Henry and how the death of his father brought about the death of his ‘wild’ side, “The breath no sooner left his father’s body but that his wildness, mortified in him, seemed to die too.”

However, Shakespeare knew that no one is perfect; no one has the ability to consolidate the contra-side to their personality. To induce a sense of realism and structure to Henry, Shakespeare displays Henry’s other side. This benefits the play as the audience can relate to Henry as the person, not a distant, perfect, God-like King. The instances where Henry’s alter ego, as it were, are up-rooted are fairly brief, but immensely intense. The reply to the gesture sent by the French Dauphin is one example of Henry’s intensity and sudden vendetta, “His jest will savour but of shallow wit when thousands weep more than did laugh at it.” The reply to the gesture could be seen as positive or negative Henry as not only does it show intensity, which may be an asset, but also Henry’s intelligence as the message could just be to scare the French. Another example of this is when Henry speaks to the Governor of Harfleur. Perhaps Henry is bluffing in this speech, as one is led to believe otherwise as evidence suggests that Henry was compassionate and was a marvellous persuasive rhetoric speaker, “With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass your fresh fair virgins, and your flowering infants.”

Although Henry had many loyal and faithful men, he also had a few un-loyal ones. On preparing to set sail for France, Henry confronts the three traitors in a debatable manner. He gradually builds up the pressure whilst speaking to them; he somehow knows that they are traitors. Some may say that prolonging the traitor’s agony was unjust and inhumane; whilst others hold the view that Henry had every right to make the traitors squirm. Henry is presented with a case where a decision needs to be made as to what to do about a man who was a little drunk the other night. He tells Exeter to set free the man, but Scroop, Grey and Cambridge (traitors) disagree and express that they think that the man should be punished, “that’s mercy, but too much security,” “let him be punished.” Cleverly, Henry turns the discussion around, saying that if he were to hang this man for drinking and “railing against our person” then what would be the punishment for a more severe crime, like capital crime. Henry gives them their commissions and says, “Read them, and know I know your worthiness.” What is on the commissions is a mystery, but it was enough to make all three confessed. Does the fact that Henry has traitors who disagree with his judgements mean that Henry is a bad king? Or could it be that the traitors were just greedy?

For a king with such loyal men (excluding the odd few), Henry would never know what opinions they conceive about him, however, the fact that one of his best friends planned to kill him in a conspiracy might have given him some feedback. Thus, Henry decides to find out by disguising himself as a soldier and ask others around a campfire. Is the deceiving of his men justifiable, or is this a cry for normality and a sense of being a person rather than a figure, in an unreachable position where formalities preside over him? Truth hurts and Henry is left to ponder the opinions his men have expressed, “O hard condition, twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath of every fool, whose sense no more can feel But his own wringing!” Henry starts to question his authority and returns to the pain his father has brought upon him; Henry IV killed the true king, King Richard, and Henry has prayed for Richard’s soul, as he feels responsible and ashamed for his father’s actions, “Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay, who twice a day in their withered hands hold up toward heaven, to pardon blood…and solemn priests to sing for Richards soul.” “What have kings that privates have not to, save ceremony?”

This Henry asks in an insecure plea. To some extent, sympathy paralyzes one’s emotions at this point, as Shakespeare puts the audience in Henry’s position. This emphasizes the audience’s view of Henry being a great king, but one in suffering. A shocking moment in the play sees Henry hang one of his best friends, Bardolph, for robbing a church. The principal ethics of Henry are shown here when he faces a paradox, should he hang his best friend and set an example, or should he let Bardolph free as everyone has their weak spontaneous moments? “We would have all such offenders so cut off.” Henry’s decision is justified as a King cannot show leniency to one person, and not another, he had to set an example. He goes on to say, “In our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language,” this indicates Henry’s compassion and fairness. He believes that “the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.”

Shakespeare adds depth to the play by including what is happening to the other side: this does not just add depth but promotes Henry as a good King as the French have such vain egotistical leaders. The disparity between the English and the French attitudes is immediately seen at the first appearance of the French, “I have the best armour of the world,” “the best horse of Europe.” Shakespeare intentionally makes the French bicker pointlessly between one another as it indicates lack of leadership and shows how obsequious and over-confident the French are, the Dauphin is too exuberant and is in denial, he thinks that England “is so idly kinged, by a vain, giddy, shallow, humorous youth.” The Dauphin is highly hypercritical. For such a young, inexperienced king one would wonder how Henry manages to lead his army. This wonder is replaced with assurance at the mercy of Henry’s speech; the extended metaphors, the alliterations, sibilance’s, emotional blackmail, emotive imagery and repetition (generously given by the puppeteer, Shakespeare) all manipulative and persuasive, bring about the climax of what Henry is: he is the man, the soldier, the King, and the lover!

After defeating the French, negotiations begin. Henry is granted the French King’s daughter and is granted her hand in marriage. However, Henry decides to try to woo Katherine beforehand so as to try to make the relationship work- he does not have to, Katherine has no choice. This is a great part of Henry’s character, he shows passion, care, insecurity: this is a side to Henry that the audience has not witnessed before and is another attempt from Shakespeare to make Henry look as good as possible; perhaps also this is an indication as to what Shakespeare thinks about Henry VIII, in that, he should try to make the relationship work before marriage. Henry seems very nervous and, at first, a little reluctant. He soon progresses and finds out that courage on the battlefield isn’t the same as courage in the bedroom.

To conclude, one is manipulated to believe that Henry V was a great man and King, whose principles are strongly religious and are just and fair. However, one must acknowledge that Henry V, as it has been presented, is a creation, an adaptation of what Raphael Holinshed researched and of what William Shakespeare interpreted Henry to be like, or to what an ideal king should consist of. Furthermore, Henry, as Shakespeare viewed him, was a true star of England, who did give great, inspirational speeches to persuade his army, who did woo Katherine, and who did choose his responsibilities over friendship. However, the true Henry lies in Shakespeare. Shakespeare is the creator, the puppeteer; Shakespeare is the man who wrote the speeches, it was he who wooed Katherine.

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