Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

The Tun of Tennis Balls

It was traditional in the early modern period for kings and queens to show respect for their counterparts in other kingdoms by sending gifts fitting for royalty. It’s therefore quite insulting when the Dauphin of France sends the king of England a tun, or chest, of tennis balls, which comments discourteously on Henry’s reputation for being a careless pleasure-seeker. In this way, the “gift” symbolizes the Dauphin’s scorn for Henry. However, the tennis balls fuel Henry’s rage, and he uses the Dauphin’s scorn to motivate himself. The tennis balls thus also come to symbolize Henry’s burning desire to conquer France. The king indicates as much when he develops an elaborate metaphor that likens the coming war to a tennis match: “When we have matched our rackets to these balls, / We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set / Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard” (1.2.272–74). As he goes on to tell the French ambassador, the Dauphin’s jests have initiated a deadly match in which these tennis balls will become cannonballs.

The Lion

Emblems of kingship play a key symbolic role in each of the Henry plays. In Henry IV, Part 1, the chief emblem of the king was the sun, and in Part 2 it was the crown. Now, in Henry V, Shakespeare introduces a new symbol of kingship: the lion. As the proverbial king of the jungle whose status is guaranteed by his excellence as a hunter, the lion offers a suitably fierce symbol for the militaristic King Henry V. The Bishop of Canterbury introduces this symbolic link between the lion and kingship when advising Henry to go to war with the French. He tells the king to invoke the memory of his great-uncle, who “[Made] defeat on the full power of France / Whiles his most mighty father [Edward III] on a hill / Stood smiling to behold his lion’s whelp / Forage in blood of French nobility” (1.2.112–15). The Duke of Exeter likewise calls on Henry to act “as did the former lions of your blood” (1.2.129). Henry adopts this symbol for himself in act 4, when he likens the French to “[t]he man that once did sell the lion’s skin / While the beast lived was killed with hunting him” (4.3.98–99).

The Crown, the Scepter, and the Robe

The crown, the scepter, and the robe are all emblems of the king of England. For Henry, however, these physical objects are all virtually meaningless. Somewhat paradoxically, then, they symbolize the hollowness of symbolism itself. Henry suggests as much in his soliloquy about ceremony in act 4, scene 1. There, he names several emblems of kingly power and dismisses them all: “I know / ’Tis not the balm, the scepter; and the ball, / The Sword, the mace, the crown imperial, / The intertissued robe of gold and pearl, / The farcèd title running ‘fore the King, / The throne he site on, nor the tide of pomp / That beats upon the high shore of this world” (4.1.268–74). For Henry, none of these signs of power can actualize power in the real world. This is a lesson he’s learned from recent history. Neither Richard II nor his own father, Henry IV, commanded real power over his subjects despite having sat upon the throne. Likewise, neither the crown, the scepter, nor the robe of a king is capable of “beat[ing] upon the high shore of this world.” In their stead, Henry cultivates the more genuine power of honor and political influence.