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of a king is King Henry V? Is he a good king or merely a successful
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
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
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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Henry V!