Though a substantial number of scenes focus on other characters, Henry directly initiates nearly all of the significant action in the play, and he is without question the play’s protagonist and hero. Henry is an extraordinary figure who possesses a degree of intelligence and charisma only briefly glimpsed in Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays. There Henry V appears as a pleasure-seeking teenage prince who wrestles with his role as an heir to the throne.
Perhaps Henry V’s most remarkable quality is his resolve: once he has set his mind to accomplishing a goal, he uses every resource at his disposal to see that it is accomplished. He carefully presents himself as an unstoppable force to whom others must actively choose how to react. This tactic may seem morally questionable, but it is a valuable psychological weapon that Henry uses to pressure his enemies into doing what he wants. Again and again, Henry acts in a manner that would be deplorable for a common citizen but that makes him an exemplary king. For example, Henry often draws criticism from modern readers for refusing to take responsibility for the war in France. He even tells the French governor at Harfleur that if the French do not surrender, they will be responsible for the carnage that Henry will create.
Another extraordinary quality Henry possesses is his facility with language. Henry’s rhetorical skill is a forceful weapon, the strength of which nearly equals that of his army’s swords. With words, Henry can inspire and rouse his followers, intimidate his enemies, and persuade nearly anyone who hears him. With Henry’s speeches, Shakespeare creates a rhetoric that is, like Henry himself, at once candidly frank and extremely sophisticated. Henry can be cold and menacing, as when he speaks to the Dauphin’s messenger; he can be passionate and uplifting, as in his St. Crispin’s Day speech; and he can be gruesomely terrifying, as in his diatribe against the Governor of Harfleur. In each case, Henry’s words suggest that he is merely speaking his mind at the moment, but these speeches are brilliantly crafted and work powerfully on the minds of his listeners. Henry has a very special quality for a king: the ability to present himself honestly while still manipulating his audience.
Shakespeare does not comment explicitly on Henry’s motives for invading France, but it seems clear from his speeches about the weight of his responsibility that Henry is not motivated exclusively by a lust for power or land. Henry clearly takes the mantle of kingship very seriously, and he is dedicated to fulfilling the obligations of his exalted rank. He mourns his inability to sleep the untroubled sleep of the common man, hardly the behavior of a man dedicated to the pleasures of power. It also seems clear from Henry’s undeniably uplifting speeches that Shakespeare intends for us to see Henry as a hero, or, at the very least, as an estimable king. Insofar as Henry is a hero, he is made so by his commitment to his responsibilities above his own personal feelings. Along with his faculty of resolve, this commitment makes him the king he is; though it sometimes causes him to make questionable personal decisions, it also helps to mitigate the effect of those decisions in our eyes.
The young, pretty princess of France does not play a very active role in the progress of the narrative, but she is nevertheless significant because she typifies the role played by women in this extremely masculine play. The scenes that center on Catherine and her tutor, Alice, depict a female world that contrasts starkly with the grim, violent world in which the play’s men exist. While the men fight pitched battles, yoking the course of history to the course of their bloody conflicts, Catherine lives in a much gentler and quieter milieu, generally ignorant of the larger struggle going on around her. She fills her days mainly with laughing and teasing Alice as the latter attempts to teach her English.
The fact that Catherine’s scenes are in a different language from the rest of the play’s scenes dramatically underscores the difference between her lifestyle and that of the men: where the soldiers speak a hard, rhythmic English, Catherine speaks in a soft, lilting French. These differences point to the fact that, while Catherine’s life may be more pleasant than that of the men, the scope of her existence is extremely limited and has been chosen for her: she has become beautiful, pleasant, and yielding because she has been raised to become whatever will make her desirable to a future husband. These qualities have been determined by the masculine value system around which her culture is structured.
Catherine’s father hopes to marry her to a powerful leader in order to win a powerful ally, and thus Catherine has been molded into the graceful and charming woman that a powerful leader is likely to want. Shakespeare uses Catherine’s English lessons with Alice to highlight her role as a tool of negotiation among the men. As the English conquer more and more of France, Catherine’s potential husband seems likely to be English. Catherine thus begins to study English—not because she herself desires to speak the language (we are given almost no insight into what Catherine herself might desire), but because her father intends to marry her to his enemy in order to end the war and preserve his power in France.
Fluellen, along with Jamy and MacMorris, is one of the three foreign captains in the play. These three characters broadly represent their respective nationalities—Fluellen, for instance, is a Welshman, included in part to represent Wales in the play’s exploration of the peoples of Britain. As a result, Fluellen embodies many of the comical stereotypes associated with the Welsh in Shakespeare’s day: he is wordy, overly serious, and possessed of a ludicrous pseudo-Welsh accent that principally involves replacing the letter “b” with the letter “p.”
However, Shakespeare also makes Fluellen a well-defined and likable individual who tends to work against the limitations of his stereotype. Though he is clownish in his early scenes, he is also extremely well informed and appears to be quite competent, especially compared to the cowardly lot of commoners from England whom he orders into battle at Harfleur. Like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Falstaff in the Henry IV plays, Fluellen tends to steal the scenes he is in and to win the affection of his audience. The fact that Shakespeare wrote such a role for a Welsh character is a strong sign that Fluellen is intended as far more than a comic compendium of ethnic stereotypes.
I just finished Henry V, the 19th Shakespeare play, in my quest to read all the Bard by his 450th birthday next year. If you're interested, visit my blog to find out what I thought of it and more on what I thought of Henry:
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