Monday, 22 March 2021

Henry V

1/ The play is the final part of Shakespeare’s second tetralogy: Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2, and then Henry V.

One thing is unusual: I thought that a play, unlike a novel or a short story, didn’t have narration—Henry V has some kind of narration. Some of Shakespeare’s plays may have a prologue (like Romeo and Juliet) or an epilogue (like Henry IV, Part 2), but this one starts with a prologue and a chorus at the beginning of each act, which is to narrate the story rather than just address the audience.  

2/ Let’s see: 

“KING […] France being ours, we’ll bend it to our awe, 

Or break it all to pieces.” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

King Henry V (previously Prince Hal) is not very likable in this play. I’ve been told that Henry V is a patriotic play and the King is a good king (often contrasted with Richard II), but I find it hard to see it that way. Look at the threats he gives Harfleur, for example: 

“KING […] If I begin the batt’ry once again, 

I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur

Till in her ashes she lied buried. 

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up, 

And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart, 

In liberty of bloody hand shall range

With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass 

Your fresh fair virgins and your flow’ring infant. 

[…] What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause, 

If your pure maidens fall into the hand 

Of hot and forcing violation?...” 

(Act 3 scene 3)

King Henry doesn’t sound like a saint, does he? He keeps repeating these horrific images, then tells the men of Harfleur to pity their town and surrender: 

“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 dashed to the walls;

Your naked infants spitted upon spikes,

Whilst the mad mothers with their howls confused

Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry

At Herod’s blood-hunting slaughtermen.” 


These words are threats and they are meant to scare, but the phrase “foul hand” is curious nevertheless—he’s using it for English soldiers. What about the Herod image? 

Now look at these lines some time later from the Prince of France to other Frenchmen, including the King:

“DAUPHIN By faith and honor, 

Our madams mock at us and plainly say

Our mettle is bred out, and they will give

Their bodies to the lust of English youth,

To new-store France with bastard warriors”.

(Act 3 scene 5) 

That’s funny. 

3/ Henry V doesn’t only glorify war. Look at this line, for example: 

“BOY Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety.”

(Act 3 scene 2) 

Note that Shakespeare gives this line to Falstaff’s boy, not Bardolph, Nym, or Pistol, whom we all know to be cowards and braggarts. The boy is young but clever, and sees through them all—look at his lines at the end of the scene: 

“BOY […] I must leave them, and seek some better service. Their villainy goes against my weak stomach, and therefore must cast it up.” 


One of the best scenes of the play is the night before the battle of Agincourt, when the King disguises himself and goes among his men. See this exchange between him and a soldier named John Bates, talking about the King and the cause: 

“BATES He may show what outward courage he will; but I believe, as cold a night as ‘tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck; and so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here.

KING By my troth, I will speak my conscience of the King: I think he would not wish himself anywhere but where he is.

BATES Then I would he were here alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men’s lives saved.” 

(Act 4 scene 1) 

The war isn’t at all glorified here. A few lines later, another soldier named Michael Williams speaks:

“WILLIAMS But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all “We died at such a place”, some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. […] Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it; who to disobey, were against all proportion of subjection.” 


Shakespeare does give King Henry a speech to defend himself, but he also gives the soldiers these lines, which save the play from being a simplistic play that idealises Henry and glorifies the war. 

William Hazlitt doesn’t seem to be a fan of the King:

“Because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France. Because he did not know how to exercise the enormous power, which had just dropped into his hands, to any one good purpose, he immediately undertook (a cheap and obvious resource of sovereignty) to do all the mischief he could.” (Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays


“Henry declares his resolution 'when France is his, to bend it to his awe, or break it all to pieces'—a resolution worthy of a conqueror, to destroy all that he cannot enslave; and what adds to the joke, he lays all the blame of the consequences of his ambition on those who will not submit tamely to his tyranny.” (ibid.) 

4/ Henry V has a soliloquy before the battle to Agincourt, thinking that the only thing a king has that others lack is ceremony, and he thinks to himself: 

“KING […] No, not all of these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony, 

Not all these, laid in bed majestical, 

Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave

[…] And but for ceremony, such a wretch,

Winding up days with toil and nights with sleep,

Had the forehand and vantage of a king.

The slave, a member of the country’s peace, 

Enjoys it; but in gross brain little wots

What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,

Whose hours the peasant best advantages.”


This echoes King Henry IV’s soliloquy in the earlier play. 

“KING HENRY IV […] How many thousand of my poorest subjects

Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,

Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frighted thee, 

That thou no more wilt weight my eyelids down

And steep my senses in forgetfulness? 

Why rather, sleep, liest thou in smoky cribs,

Upon uneasy pallets stretching thee

And hushed with buzzing night-flies to thy slumber,

Than in the perfumed chambers of the great,

Under the canopies of costly state,

And lulled with sounds of sweetest melody?

O thou dull god, why liest thou with the vile

In loathsome beds, and leav’st the kingly couch

A watch-case or a common ’larum-bell?

Wilt thou upon the high and giddy mast

Seal up the ship-boy’s eyes, and rock his brains

In cradle of the rude imperious surge

And in the visitation of the winds,

Who take the ruffian billows by the top,

Curling their monstrous heads and hanging them

With deaf’ning clamours in the slipp’ry clouds,

That, with the hurly, death itself awakes?

Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose

To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,

And in the calmest and most stillest night,

With all appliances and means to boot,

Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” 

(Henry IV, Part 2, Act 3 scene 1) 

(I’m putting up the entire soliloquy because it’s so good, and better than Henry V’s). 

Like father, like son. The irony is that Henry IV was defending his country and his throne against rebels, whereas now Henry V is the one waging war, the one invading another country.

That being said, what a stirring speech that King Henry V gives before the battle of Agincourt. 

5/ Tony Tanner brings up the possibility that Henry V wages war to follow his father’s advice:

“KING HENRY IV […] Therefore, my Harry,

Be it thy course to busy giddy minds

With foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out,

May waste the memory of the former days.”

(Henry IV, Part 2, Act 4 scene 5) 

That is interesting. 

6/ Henry V, now that he’s king, has changed a lot and generally feels very different, but I don’t think he has turned into a completely different person. See the way he tests and tricks the traitors so that they cannot ask for mercy. See the way he disguises himself to go among his men and hear the truth. See the way he plays a prank on Williams the soldier. All that is like Hal.

However it’s true that Hal has killed a part of himself when banishing Falstaff. In order to be a good king, a fair king, he has to set aside his personal feelings and former friendships, and destroy part of his humanity—that is why, because he’s a good king, he doesn’t react upon hearing that his former friend Bardolph’s condemned to be hanged.  

7/ People sometimes talk about great writers on the sentence level. I think Shakespeare’s the greatest writer on the phrase level. 

Just look at the Chorus at the beginning of Act 4 for example: “creeping murmur”, “poring dark”, “the foul womb of night”, “paly flames” (paly= pale), “drowsy morning”, “the cripple tardy-gaited night”, “lank-lean cheeks and war-worn coats”, etc. 

8/ Tony Tanner has some criticisms of the play:

“That Henry seems to have it all so effortlessly his own way. No shadows fall on him; he is not beset by doubts; he never loses his mental footing, or misses a step, as it were.” (Introduction) 

Henry V is, in many ways, the weakest in the tetralogy and it’s perhaps one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays. 

Tony Tanner does point out, though, that Henry V isn’t saintly and perfect as people say. I like his analysis of Fluellen’s speech in Act 4 scene 7—Tony Tanner then says:

“The unavoidable implication of Fluellen’s inspired concatenation is that this is a king who, when it comes to it, is willing to kill his enemies and his friends.” (ibid.)

Beneath his public exterior of piety, chivalry, and regality, Henry can be a man of “rages, furies, wraths, cholers, moods”.

The essay should be read in its entirety, but the most interesting bit is that Shakespeare removes everything about Henry’s tactics for the battle of Agincourt. There are no details whatsoever, as though they have no strategy and rely on God. 

9/ Much has been said about Nell Quickly’s account of Falstaff’s death, so I won’t say more. Instead, I’d like to draw attention to the final scene of the play: when courting Katherine of France, Henry doesn’t come across as very nice, does he?  


  1. Good write-up. Also it's interesting to note that Shakespeare writes the play to basically imply that the entire expedition was forged by cynical priests who were wary about taxes (or something like that). My edition of the play (Oxford) noted that many productions eliminate/truncate the clergy's lines that open the play, but I think that those lines are essential for interpreting what follows. Rather than a heroic invasion, Shakespeare seems to be (and not even with excess subtlety) saying that Henry V was just tricked by scheming Archbishops into launching an unnecessary war.

    I agree that it is a weaker play than the other Henrys, but there are some really great spots, like that conversation you cited above with the Dauphin and other French noblemen. I loved all the scenes with the French noblemen.

    1. Yeah I noticed those lines, though I thought that he also wanted to invade France and just wanted an excuse, a justification of sorts.
      Henry V isn't a really bad play, I think, but after Richard II and the 2 Henry IV plays, it's just much weaker. I'm not sure what to make of the dissonant notes in the play, like how much they undermine the whole patriotic tone.


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