Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Male Interaction

There are almost no women in Henry V. Catherine is the only female character to be given many lines or presented in the domestic sphere, and most of her lines are in French. With this absence of women and the play’s focus on the all-male activity of medieval warfare, the play presents many types of male relationships. The relationships between various groups of men—Fluellen and Gower; Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim; and the French lords—mirror and echo one another in various ways. The cowardice of the Eastcheap group is echoed in the cowardice of the French lords, for instance. Perhaps more important, these male friendships all draw attention to another aspect of Henry’s character: his isolation from other people. Unlike most of the play’s other male characters, Henry seems to have no close friends, another characteristic that makes the life of a king fundamentally different from the life of a common citizen.

Parallels Between Rulers and Commoners

Henry V presents a wide range of common citizens. Some scenes portray the king’s interactions with his subjects—Act IV, scene i, when Henry moves among his soldiers in disguise, is the most notable of these. The play also presents a number of mirror scenes, in which the actions of commoners either parallel or parody the actions of Henry and the nobles. Examples of mirror scenes include the commoners’ participation at Harfleur in Act III, scene ii, which echoes Henry’s battle speech in Act III, scene i, as well as Act II, scene i, where the commoners plan their futures, mirroring the graver councils of the French and English nobles.

Read about how Shakespeare explores the connection between rulers and commoners in another play, Richard III.

War Imagery

The play uses a number of recurring metaphors for the violence of war, including images of eating and devouring, images of fire and combustion, and, oddly, the image of a tennis match. All of this imagery is rooted in aggression: in his rousing speech before the Battle of Harfleur, for example, Henry urges his men to become savage and predatory like tigers. Even the tennis balls, the silly gift from the Dauphin to Henry, play into Henry’s aggressive war rhetoric. He states that the Dauphin’s mocking renders the tennis balls “gunstones,” or cannonballs, thus transforming them from frivolous objects of play into deadly weapons of war (I.ii.282).