What kind of a king is King Henry V? Is he a good king or merely a successful one?
The qualities that make Henry universally admired include his bravery, his eloquence, his ability to appear regal or humble depending on the demands of the situation, and his willingness to step down from his position and talk with the common soldiers, as he does the night before the Battle of Agincourt. His less admirable qualities include his insistence on disowning his responsibility for other people’s deaths and his heartlessness toward his former friends.
Whichever qualities we find most striking in Henry, it is important to note that in order to be effective, it is essential that Henry appear to be good. Henry’s claim to the English throne is weak, since his father was a usurper, and for Henry to appear to be a legitimate king he has to seem like he has God on his side. Thus, for instance, he makes sure that the Archbishop of Canterbury publicly presents the arguments supporting Henry’s legal claim to the French throne, even though the arguments are logically tortured, and even though the audience already knows that it cannot trust the archbishop.
Shakespeare provides us with plenty of clues that Henry is self-consciously performing the part of the good king, but he doesn’t necessarily give us the sense that Henry is in fact bad. Henry V explores the idea that the qualities that make one a great king are not necessarily morally admirable ones—what makes a good king is not what makes a good person. Henry is willing to kill his former friends coldly and slaughter thousands of French people in the heat of battle to satisfy the demands of his throne; he must put his personal feelings second to the requirements of rulership and achieve the result he desires at any cost. Henry’s act of placing responsibility for the war on others helps him to achieve his goals, as it burdens others with the moral pressure of stopping the war. This behavior may make Henry seem unlikable, but it also makes him a great leader and leads directly to the triumph at Agincourt in Act IV. Ultimately, the answer to the question may be that there are no good kings—just effective ones.
Henry V spends a lot of time simply giving speeches to others (to the French ambassador, before the town of Harfleur, and before Agincourt, for example). What effect do Henry’s speeches have, and how are they important in the play?
King Henry speaks a great deal in this play, as he understands the power of his words to elicit action. Sometimes his speeches are meant to stir soldiers’ morale, as with the speech at the Battle of Harfleur in Act III, scene i, and before the Battle of Agincourt in Act IV, scene iii. Other times they are meant to intimidate, as when he speaks to the French ambassadors in Act I, scene ii or the governor of Harfleur in Act III, scene iii. Even when he is talking to his soldiers in disguise, as in Act IV, scene i, or courting Catherine in Act V, scene ii, Henry seldom gets interrupted and is usually able to sway the mind of the person to whom he is talking. Henry’s side always wins in battle or argument, partly because Henry uses his charisma as an effective tool: for Henry, the act of speech, or rhetoric, is a vital weapon of both persuasion and war.
Women are almost absent from the play, allowing male-to-male relationships to dominate. What do you think of the male bonding, or the structures of friendship and enmity between men, in the play? Which characters have these relationships and which do not? How does King Henry participate in these relationships?
Oddly enough, King Henry, the character around whom everyone else in the play revolves, spends much of his time alone—even when he is surrounded by a crowd. He is often surrounded by other people, but seldom talks to anyone alone or outside of formal war business. One exception is his interlude in disguise, in Act IV, scene i, in which he talks face-to-face with various soldiers, only to come away with a still stronger sense of the special position of a king.
In comparison to the sense of fellowship among Pistol, Nim, Bardolph, and the boy, or the friendship between Fluellen and Gower, Henry doesn’t seem to have any close friends. Falstaff, once a close friend, dies rejected in Act II, scene iii, and Henry has Scrope killed in Act II, scene ii, just before Scrope can attempt to assassinate him. It even seems dubious that Henry will find companionship with his future wife: Catherine, who barely speaks English, is marrying him for political reasons. King Henry exists in the strange isolation of power, a condition he touches on in his monologue the night before the Battle of Agincourt.
1. Some contemporary critics are uneasy with Henry V because they feel it glorifies war and imperialism. They note that when the play was produced during the World War II era, it was easily turned into patriotic propaganda. Do you agree with their assessment? Does the play present a realistic picture of war?
2. How does Shakespeare use individual characters to present a broad panorama of the various peoples and cultures that were part of Britain during Henry’s reign? What are some of these cultures, and how does Shakespeare’s evocation of them relate to the Chorus’s first speech before Act I?
3. Throughout the play Shakespeare employs a number of recurring metaphors to describe and characterize war. What are some of these metaphors? What do they have in common? How might they help the audience to picture a massive battle on a small stage?
4. How are marriage, families, and parenting treated in the play? How do they relate to the political realm?
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: