Henry V: My Essay


Professor James P. Conlan – ENGL 4001 (OU1)

2 December 2008


Henry V: My Essay by Efrain Suarez

In fierce tempest he is coming…

Keith Dockray, in his book on King Henry V[1], notes the sometimes ambivalent nature of Shakespeare’s Henry V. Laurence Olivier was able to stage the play as a patriotic call to arms during WWII while Kenneth Branaugh later presented it as an anti-war, anti-tyranny drama. Once an icon of chivalry, for many Henry V became infamous as a religious fanatic, an imperialist warmonger, and a coldblooded killer, which to modern ears, should sound familiar. Our position will become clear as we go along.


And so this bending student and aspiring teacher will pursue this story and humbly pray your patience to read and judge kindly his essay.


I mentioned in class how I thought that Henry V shows us that history tends to repeat itself and how very strong parallels could be drawn from the imperialist King Henry V of England and another more recent world leader. This is why instead of using “Henry” or “the King” I will instead use “The Monarch”.

The Monarch is thinking about making a grab for another country (France). His advisors, for their own reasons seek to advice him on the legality of this idea not that that would have changed anything. The Monarch pauses and before anything else, puts the responsibility squarely on his advisor’s (Canterbury) shoulders[2] for his future actions.

For God doth know how many now in health

Shall drop their blood in approbation

Of what your reverence shall incite us to.

Therefore take heed how you impawn our person,

How you awake our sleeping sword of war. (1.2. 18-20)

He doesn’t say “don’t awaken” but “careful how you awaken”. And in the next breath asks for a legal loophole to make his claim.

May I with right and conscience make this claim? (1.2.95)

He presses his claim on France based on the issue of Salic Law. This law essentially prohibits a man from inheriting through the maternal line, or as Canterbury says, “No woman shall succeed in Salic land”. This question of inheriting through the maternal line is important, because it not only legitimates Henry’s claim to France, but later on his son’s claim as well once Henry marries Catherine of France. Canterbury, as advisor, essentially sidesteps the issue by telling Henry that the Salic Law cannot apply to France since it did not originate there, and that he therefore has a claim to the throne. It is interesting to note that later in the play the three traitors to the monarch were inspired precisely by the idea that the crown of England belonged in “right and conscience” to Anne Mortimer, daughter of the Earl of Mortimer[3].

By quoting the book of Numbers[4], the advisors can quote “conscience” but the legality or “right” is not mentioned and The Monarch conveniently doesn’t ask, even though he knows full well what’s at stake.

For never two such kingdoms did contend

Without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops

Are every one a woe, a sore complaint

‘Gainst him whose wrongs gives edge unto the swords

That makes such waste in brief mortality. (1.2.25)

It is Henry’s ability to make himself sound like  a Christian king, rather than a delinquent., and in so doing uniting the church behind him.

We are no tyrant, but a Christian king;

Unto whose grace our passion is as subject

As are our wretches fetter’d in our prisons” (1.2.241-243).

As a result, he is able to turn the civil wars in England into a unified crusade against France. This allows him to avoid the problems that Scotland normally poses and also to tap into Ireland and Wales for soldiers. His connection with the church further provides him with cash to undertake his battles. This contrasts strongly not only with his wild and undisciciplined youth, but also with the uncontrolled Dauphin who treats Henry V like a joke by sending tennis balls. Henry indicates that,

“His [the Dauphin’s] jest will savour but of shallow wit

When thousands weep more than did laugh at it” (1.2.295-296).


And off they go, in “fierce tempest”[5] to France. Meanwhile those who manufacture weapons and military clothing have their day and the military propaganda machine gets to work inspiring the soldiers on.

And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies.

Now thrive the armourers, and honour’s thought

reigns solely in the breast of every man.

They sell the pasture now to buy the horse,

Following the mirror of all Christian kings, (2.0.3)

What happens when the traitors[6] (or advisors who disagree) threaten The Monarch’s Plan? He throws a fit.

…See you, my princes and my noble peers,

These English monsters! …

Thou that didst bear the key of all my counsels,

That knew’st the very bottom of my soul,

That almost mightst have coin’d me into gold,

Wouldst thou have practis’d on me for thy use,–

May it be possible that foreign hire

Could out of thee extract one spark of evil

That might annoy my finger?

…And whatsoever cunning fiend it was

That wrought upon thee so preposterously

Hath got the voice in hell for excellence;

…But he that temper’d thee bade thee stand up,

Gave thee no instance why thou shouldst do treason…

…Why, so didst thou. Come they of noble family?

Why, so didst thou. Seem they religious?

Why, so didst thou. Or are they spare in diet,

Free from gross passion or of mirth or anger,

Constant in spirit, not swerving with the blood,

Garnish’d and deck’d in modest complement,

not working with the eye without the ear,

And but in purged judgement trusting neither?

…I will weep for thee;

For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like

Another fall of man. Their faults are open.

Arrest them to the answer of the law;

And God acquit them of their practices! (2.2.76-141)

And why is this revolt akin to another fall of man? The Monarch now sees himself as acting as god’s behalf and whosoever is not for the Monarch is now against him. This is why he will weep.

Of course The monarch has stopped worrying about the blood that will spill in this war, but that doesn’t stop Exeter from making King Charles of France worry about it.

(The Monarch) bids you, in the bowels of the Lord,

Deliver up the crown, and to take mercy

On the poor souls for whom this hungry war

Opens his vasty jaws; and on your head

Turning the widows’ tears, the orphans’ cries,

The dead men’s blood, the pining maidens’ groans,

For husbands, fathers, and betrothed lovers,

That shall be swallowed in this controversy.  (2.4.102-109)

So Henry blames King Charles of France for the suffering he will unleash on the grounds that Charles should yield his crown immediately or start a war.

And so begins the bloody constraint.[7] in Harfleur with The Monarch working up his troops into a bloody rage.

…when the blast of war blows in our ears,

…imitate the action of the tiger;

…Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;

Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;

Let it pry through the portage of the head

…Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,

Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit

To his full height. On, on, you noblest English,

…Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry, “God for Harry! England and Saint George!” (3.1.1-34)

Later The Monarch seeks out the governor of Harfleur and plays his card.

Take pity of your town and of your people,

Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command,

…If not, why, in a moment look to see

The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand

Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;

Your fathers taken by the silver beards,

And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls;

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,

Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confus’d

Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry

At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.

What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid,

Or, guilty in defense, be thus destroy’d? (3.3.105-120)

The issue of inheritance, one central theme in the play, is about of keeping families together. Henry makes this clear at Harfleur, where his rhetorical tactics heighten the impact of the violence, implying not only the massacre of soldiers and the trashing of the city, but also the erasing of whole families,[8] the ruin of paternal patterns, and the dishonor of all the mothers.

What becomes clear that what Henry is really threatening to destroy is the entire inheritance structure of the town, without which Harfleur would lose its identity. This connection between family and inheritance explains why Henry refuses to marry Catherine the first time King Charles offers her to him. Henry does not only need Catherine as his wife, he also needs the assurance that Charles will make him his heir. The placing of blame comes up again when Henry tries to make the governor of Harfleur accept responsibility for the rape and pillage he will allow his troops to pursue. The governor of Harfleur yields the town, begging for mercy as he does so. However, although Henry still refuses to take responsibility for his actions, he cannot escape the judgment of his troops. As will be seen in Act Four, they blame him for leaving behind widows and fatherless children.

Harfleur is taken, but King Charles intends to meet The Monarch with France’s sharp defiance[9]. He sends a messenger to the monarch with these words;

Thus says my King:

England shall repent his folly,

see its weakness and admire our sufferance

…tell him…

he hath betrayed his followers,

whose condemnation is pronounced. (3.6.108-122)

Yesterday and today, when the Monarch is cornered by his own actions, he is left with no recourse but to place himself and his troops in the hands of a higher power.

We are in God’s hand(s now)… (3.6.155)

And so once again the Monarch places the responsibility for his decisions on someone else’s shoulders.[10]

The chorus acts like a medieval CNN. The viewer entertains conjecture[11] with imagined wing[12] aided by images provided by the chorus. Far from being an impartial narrator of events as they unfold, the chorus calls the “traitors”

Three corrupted men…of hollowed bosoms

filled with treacherous crowns(2.0.22)[13]

and describes the scene of battle at Harfleur[14] in an almost majestic way.

The Chorus’ reminders that we are watching a theatrical representation of history also serve to remind us that history only exists in its representations.[15] So history is relative to who’s speaking.

In the play, fathers are figures whom sons must emulate, more often than not in the form of valor on the battlefield. (Sound familiar?)  Henry calls on the sons of England to duplicate their fathers’ exploits not only to avoid dishonor, but more generally to avoid losing their inheritance rights. (3.1.17-23) the interesting question here is whether he’s trying to convince just them or himself.

The Monarch doesn’t say “stay the course”, he says;

‘Tis good for men to love their present pains

Upon example; so the spirit is eased;

And when the mind is quick’ned, out of doubt,

The organs, though defunct and dead before,

Break up their drowsy grave and newly move,

With casted slough and fresh legerity. (4.1.18)

Once more the chorus sounds;

…The confident and over-lusty French

Do the low-rated English play at dice;

…And chide the cripple tardy-gaited Night

Who, like a foul and ugly witch, doth limp

So tediously away. The poor condemned English,

Like sacrifices, by their watchful fires

Sit patiently and inly ruminate

The morning’s danger; and their gesture sad,

Investing lank-lean cheeks and war-worn coats,

Presented them unto the gazing moon

So many horrid ghosts. O now, who will behold

The royal captain of this ruin’d band

Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent,

Let him cry, “Praise and glory on his head!”

For forth he goes and visits all his host,

Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,

And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.

Upon his royal face there is no note

How dread an army hath enrounded him;

Nor doth he dedicate one jot of colour

Unto the weary and all-watched night,

But freshly looks, and over-bears attaint

With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;

That every wretch, pining and pale before,

Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.

…And so our scene must to the battle fly… (Prologue, Act 4)

After this battle, we see the ambivalence inside the monarch’s head, as he speaks to a soldier disguised as a common soldier imitating in a way the descent of Christ to earth.


I think the King is but a man as I am. The violet smells to him

as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all

his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by,

in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections

are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop, they stoop

with the like wing. Therefore, when he sees reason of fears as we

do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are;

yet, in reason, no man should possess him with any appearance of

fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army. (4.1.99- 108)

The Monarch has a problem with the moral responsibility of this war[16], but not because of he is “but a man” but precisely because the reverse is true; and since the Monarch has consistently tried to pass the blame for the battle off onto others, William’s blaming of Henry for what happens to his soldiers in 4.1.128-134 amounts to heresy. It is Henry’s inability to accept personal responsibility for his actions that makes him challenge Williams. The Monarch’s violence, divinely sanctioned, is superior to the violence of the common individual;

The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not

their death, when they purpose their services…

Some peradventure have on them the guilt of premeditated and

contrived murder; some, of beguiling virgins with the broken seals

of perjury; some, making the wars their bulwark, that have before

gored the gentle bosom of Peace with pillage and robbery. Now, if

these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment,

though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God.

War is his beadle, war is his vengeance; so that here men are

punish’d for before-breach of the King’s laws in now the King’s

quarrel. Where they feared the death, they have borne life away;

and where they would be safe, they perish. Then if they die

unprovided, no more is the King guilty of their damnation than he

was before guilty of those impieties for the which they are now

visited. Every subject’s duty is the King’s; but every subject’s

soul is his own. Therefore should every soldier in the wars do as

every sick man in his bed, wash every mote out of his conscience;

and dying so, death is to him advantage; or not dying, the time was

blessedly lost wherein such preparation was gained; and in him that

escapes, it were not sin to think that, making God so free an

offer, He let him outlive that day to see His greatness and to

teach others how they should prepare. (4.1.146-172)

And with these ideas burned into their minds, they’re off to the battle of Agincourt. Instead of “mission accomplished” the phrased used is “The day is yours” (4.7.79). One cannot escape the irony of the Monarch, after leading his troops into such a tough and costly battle, requesting Non Nobis and Te Deum to be sung (5.0.117), once again perhaps attributing everything that has just happened to God’s will.

And at this point, as Mans states[17] in her introduction of the play, the battle clarifies and solidifies by way of war and bloodshed the pedigree of the winner while obscuring those of the loser, the Dauphin.

If, Duke of Burgundy, you would the peace,

… you must buy that peace

With full accord to all our just demands… (5.2.69-72)

Vae Victus…

So it’s pretty obvious that the wooing of Catherine is a farce.


This star of England. Fortune made his sword,

By which the world’s best garden he achieved,

And of it left his son imperial lord.

Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crown’d King

Of France and England, did this king succeed;

Whose state so many had the managing,

That they lost France and made his England bleed…

In th end, nothing ever really ends.





About the cover photo…


[1] http://www.renaissancemagazine.com/books/henry.html

[2] The sin upon my head, dread sovereign! , 1.2.96

[3] See Mans’ introduction to the play in The Norton Shakespeare, Second Edition, pg 1476.

[4] 1.2.98

[5] 2.4.99

[6] Grey, Cambridge, and Scrope

[7] 2.4.97

[8] See Mans’ introduction to the play in The Norton Shakespeare, Second Edition, pg. 1474

[9] 3.5.37

[10] 1.2.96

[11] 4.0.1

[12] 3.0.1

[13]Not unlike these days when pacifists are called unpatriotic

[14] 3.0

[15] http://phoenixandturtle.net/excerptmill/stetner1.htm

[16] See Mans’ introduction to the play in The Norton Shakespeare, Second Edition, pg. 1477

[17] in The Norton Shakespeare, Second Edition, pg. 1474


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