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If the [King’s] cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day [Judgment Day], and cry all, ‘We died at such a place’—some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them . . . some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle.
Throughout the play, Henry has been arguing that he is in no way to blame for damage caused by his war, but Williams challenges Henry’s claims, arguing that the king has the greatest moral responsibility. In doing so, Williams evokes the image of the shattered family, just as Henry does in Act III, scene iii, when he threatens the town of Harfleur.
Yet, even in disguise, Henry continues to deny all responsibility on behalf of the king. In his answer, Henry ignores most of Williams’s argument, choosing to focus his rebuttal on Williams’s statement that men who die in battle die badly—that is, die in sin and are condemned to hell. This technical religious point is largely tangential to Williams’s argument. Henry ignores the larger question of whether the king is responsible for his soldiers’ deaths. Henry seems really to believe in Canterbury’s legal justification for his invasion of France. Moreover, he seems really to believe himself the king of France and that the man currently sitting on the throne is not the real king. Because he writes off the invasion as justified and ordained by God, Henry doesn’t concern himself—or, at least, he feels that he is not required to concern himself—with the issue of his moral responsibility.
Henry’s belief in his right to the throne of France may seem dubious to modern readers—it makes little sense that a bloody war in which an invading foreign monarch conquers another culture could really reestablish the proper order of things. Indeed, even Shakespeare seems to question Henry’s logic at times. But it is important to remember that although Shakespeare definitely allows for an ironic, or critical, reading of Henry’s actions, Henry’s thinking is not out of line with the ideas of the post-medieval era. Therefore, it is not fair to write off Henry’s certainty that he is blameless as a mere disguise for insatiable power-lust.
Finally, Henry’s heartfelt prayer at the end of the scene gives us an interesting glimpse into one of his insecurities. He nurses a lasting concern over the dubious way his own father, Henry IV, got the crown—a process that included the overthrow and murder of the previous king, Richard II. (Shakespeare covers these events in the first play of the tetralogy, Richard II.) Henry V has tried to atone for Richard’s death with purchased prayers, but he still seems to be haunted by it, a doubt that makes sense given Henry’s own intractable notions of the rights of kingship and his own unbending certainty that he is the true king of France. After all, under Henry’s logic, if his father stole his crown, then he is not the true king even of England.
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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