Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Ruthlessness of a Good King

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. To strengthen the stability of his throne, Henry betrays friends such as Falstaff, and he puts other friends to death to uphold the law. While it is difficult to fault Henry for having Scroop killed, since Scroop was plotting to assassinate him, Henry’s cruel punishment of Bardolph is less understandable. Also difficult to understand is his apparent willingness to unleash carnage on the women and children of Harfleur, which he threatens to do in an effort 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 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 a hero.

The Challenge of Redeeming the Past

As the final installment in a four-part series of plays, Henry V contains many echoes of events that have taken place in earlier installments. Not only has Henry V inherited the throne from his father, King Henry IV, he also inherited the sins his father committed both in pursuit of the throne and throughout his reign. Now that he has officially taken up the burden of kingship, Henry V seeks to redress the wrongs of his family’s past, thereby redeeming the Lancaster name and restoring its lost honor. Chief among the sins of the father was Henry IV’s involvement in the murder of his predecessor, Richard II. Henry IV is also culpable for having failed to unify Britain, instead allowing it to devolve into seemingly endless civil war.

Henry addresses the latter problem by taking his father’s advice to redirect the country’s violence outward. Henry IV gave his son this advice on his deathbed in Henry IV, Part 2: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out, / May waste the memory of the former days” (4.3.372–75). The war with France succeeds in unifying the country around an external enemy, causing the people—if only momentarily—to let go of “the memory of former days.” More difficult is the matter of Richard II’s murder, which continues to haunt Henry. His anxiety about this past sin becomes especially clear in act 4, when he prays before the Battle of Agincourt: “Not today, O Lord, / O, not today, think not upon the fault / My father made in compassing the crown. / I Richard’s body have interrèd new / And on it have bestowed more contrite tears / That from it issued forcèd drops of blood” (4.1.303–308). Not only has Henry mourned Richard personally, but he’s also erected “two chantries” (4.1.312) for him. Even so, he doesn’t know if it will be enough to help him win the battle to come.

Just as Henry seeks to redress the sins of his family’s past, he also endeavors to seed new memories that will later cause people to think back fondly upon his reign. The key example here is Henry’s famous St. Crispin Day speech, where he projects a future where he and his fellow “band of brothers” (4.3.62) will forever be able to look back on this day and take pride in their involvement. To his soldiers, Henry exclaims: “He that outlives this day and comes safe home / Will stand o’ tiptoe when this day is named / And rouse him at the name of Crispian. . . . Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot, / But he’ll remember with advantages / What feats he did that day” (4.3.44–53). Just as he hopes to erase the hateful memories of regicide and civil war from the past, Henry hopes to institute heroic memories of the victory soon to come. However, as the Chorus’s epilogue to the play mercilessly reminds us, Henry’s attempts to redress the past and sow the seeds for future memory soon fall apart with the disastrous reign of his son, Henry VI.

The Diversity of Britain

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 British 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 nationalities both emphasizes the diversity of medieval Britain 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, not all characters in the play are 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 consider, it would be unrealistic for Henry to expect universal support—another measure of pressure added to his shoulders. In this way, the play’s exploration of the peoples of Britain becomes an important facet of the play’s larger exploration of power. Just as the play considers the ruler, it also considers the ruled and the complex relations between them.