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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas
explored in a literary work.
In presenting the figure of its heroic yet ruthless protagonist, Henry V’s
predominant concern is the nature of leadership and its relationship
to morality. The play proposes that the qualities that define a
good ruler are not necessarily the same qualities that define a
good person. Henry is an extraordinarily good leader: he is intelligent,
focused, and inspiring to his men. He uses any and all resources
at his disposal to ensure that he achieves his goals. Shakespeare
presents Henry’s charismatic ability to connect with his subjects
and motivate them to embrace and achieve his goals as the fundamental
criterion of good leadership, making Henry seem the epitome of a
good leader. By inspiring his men to win the Battle of Agincourt
despite overwhelming odds, Henry achieves heroic status.
But in becoming a great king, Henry is forced to act
in a way that, were he a common man, might seem immoral and even
unforgivable. In order to strengthen the stability of his throne,
Henry betrays friends such as Falstaff, and he puts other friends
to death in order to uphold the law. While it is difficult to fault
Henry for having Scrope killed, since Scrope was plotting to assassinate
him, Henry’s cruel punishment of Bardolph is less understandable,
as is his willingness to threaten the gruesome murder of the children
of Harfleur in order to persuade the governor to surrender. Henry
talks of favoring peace, but once his mind is settled on a course
of action, he is willing to condone and even create massive and
unprovoked violence in order to achieve his goal.
Shakespeare’s portrayal of the king shows that power
complicates the traditional distinctions between heroism and villainy,
so that to call Henry one or the other constitutes an oversimplification of
the issue. As Henry himself comments, the massive responsibilities
laid on the shoulders of a king render him distinct from all other people,
and the standards that can be brought to bear in judging a king
must take that distinction into account. A king, in Shakespeare’s
portrayal, is responsible for the well-being and stability of his
entire nation; he must subordinate his personal feelings, desires, dislikes,
and even conscience wholly to this responsibility. Perhaps, then,
the very nature of power is morally ambiguous, which would account
for the implicit critique of Henry’s actions that many contemporary
readers find in the play. But within the framework of judgment suggested
by the play, there is no doubt that Henry is both a great king and
The play opens with the Chorus reminding the audience
that the few actors who will appear onstage represent thousands
of their countrymen, and, indeed, the characters who appear in Henry
V encompass the range of social classes and nationalities
united under the English crown during Henry’s reign. The play explores
this breadth of humanity and the fluid, functional way in which
the characters react to cultural differences, which melt or rupture
depending on the situation.
The catalog of characters from different countries both
emphasizes the diversity of medieval England and intensifies the
audience’s sense of Henry’s tremendous responsibility to his nation.
For a play that explores the nature of absolute political power,
there is something remarkably democratic in this enlivening portrayal
of rich and poor, English and Welsh, Scottish and Irish, as their
roles intertwine in the war effort and as the king attempts to give
them direction and momentum.
Interestingly, this disparate group of character types
is not unanimous in supporting Henry. Many of them do admire the
king, but other intelligent and courageous men, such as Michael
Williams, distrust his motives. It is often seen as a measure of
Henry’s integrity that he is able to tolerate Williams’s type of
dissent with magnanimity, but the range of characters in the play
would seem to imply that his tolerance is also expedient. With so
many groups of individuals to take into account, it would be unrealistic
of Henry to expect universal support—another measure of pressure
added to his shoulders. In this way, the play’s exploration of the
people of Britain becomes an important facet of the play’s larger
exploration of power. As the play explores the ruler, it also examines
Ace your assignments with our guide to Henry V!