When Hoodlums Become Kings
The Life of Henry V
This play is about war but is it anti-war or super-patriotic? Well, both. This is Shakespeare, after all.
Being that it's Based on a True Story I really should analyze the whole Hundred Years War and the conflict over the wool industry that the Battle of Agincourt was a part of but that will have to wait for another time. King Harry is just too big to ignore, so he's what I'm going to write about here. I could call it Harry's War. He's a king and he's leading thousands to their death.
What kind of guy does that make him?
He wants this war. It's clear from the very start. Why? The usual. Macho power game. And he has plenty of supporters to help him play it. Eager or reluctant, they're all there: cardinals, lords, yeomen, old drinking buddies. And it all revolves around our old friend, young Hal, once hoodlum, now king. What a change! Or...?
Here's the way it goes: King Harry wants war, gets the church leaders to convince everybody it's legit, makes sure everyone knows he has God's support and help, rabble-rouses, threatens, punishes, manipulates and sweet talks. Sometimes all at once, friends and enemies alike. He is as aware of the tragedy of war as of its glories and shies away from neither. He is king and warrior. He is the aggressor. He is the invader.
The stage is set immediately by the Chorus who asks us to imagine
The warlike Harry...
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment (Prologue)
The violence and destruction of Harry's invasion is thus already established. And within a few minutes, the Archbishop of Canterbury explains to the Bishop of Ely that in order to avoid losing lots of land and money to the crown through a proposed bill he has already promised the king
As touching France, to give a greater sum
Than ever at one time yet,
Did to his predecessors part withal (Act 1.1)
That's fine with Harry, he thus already has money. But he wants assurance that it's OK that he invades France, knowing, as does God,
...how many now in health
Shall drop their blood in approbation
Of what your reverence shall incite us to (Act 1.1)
Clever Harry. Blame it on the archbishop! Who obligingly explains in a long, convoluted and not completely logical presentation of the long line of heritage leading to Harry's possession of the throne that of course Harry is also king of France.
Just to make sure that everybody knows he's doing the right thing Harry rephrases the question, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” (Act 1.1)
And they all clamor: you bet! “Unwind your bloody flag,” sums up the stance of lords and clergy alike. Hooray for blood and guts – you go get 'em, Harry!
At the gates of Harfleur Harry urges his soldiers on by lifting them up to his level and cheering them – or shaming them – into a macho brotherhood of fighters who prove that their mothers had bred them legitimately by warrior fathers and who set an example for the boys who might be more peaceful:
Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more...
...Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you called fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war (Act 3.1)
This guy, and this society, have some serious masculinity insecurities...
The English prevail and Harry once again shows that he doesn't shy away from gore and guts and rape if it's really necessary. Having defeated the defenders of Harfleur he tells the representatives of besieged townspeople that if they don't yield it's not his fault if his soldiers lose control. “The gates of mercy shall be all shut up” and his inflamed soldiers
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flow'ring infants...
...What is it to me, when you yourselves are the cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
...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 dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes...(Act 3.3)
Yuck. This is sickening. And this is the hero? What kind of monster is this Shakespeare who has the good guy say this horrible stuff? Well, just possibly he's not a monster but a clear-sighted author doing his job showing it like it is: war is hell and the good guys are just as guilty of atrocities as the bad guys.
Happily Henry doesn't have to let all this happen because the Harfleurians give up and the English enter the town. Peacefully, on the king's orders. “Use mercy on them all” (Act 3.3).
After that display of viciousness and slyly putting the blame for it onto others – the prospective victims and his underlings - Harry reverts into a nice enough fellow. He impresses the French herald Mountjoy by once again showing his milder side (immediately after approving the execution of his old pal Bardolph for petty thievery): “We here give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language. For when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom the gentler gamester is soonest the winner” (Act 3.6). Wise words from the mouth that had recently threatened rape and the impalement of babies. Is Harry a gentle saint in the context of his time, or is he this contradictory, or does war always make a person so? Of course he goes on to say that he really doesn't want to get his sick and weary soldiers into battle but if the French insist, “We shall your tawny ground with your red blood discolour” (Act 3.6).
The next time we see the king we are given “a little touch of Harry in the night”. (I just had to use that line spoken by the Chorus – I love it!) The king wanders incognito among his troops. This encounter deserves its own essay analyzing the class issues here but I will have to limit myself to the observation that the soldiers are sceptical to his claim that “the king is but a man” and so as vulnerable and afraid as anyone but still he wishes to be here on the verge of battle. They point out that they wish he was here alone in that case because that would save a lot of lives. It's the king's faults, they say, if these men die in a bad cause. This irritates the good king who tries to convince them that even though the king more or less forces them to go to war, it's their own problem if they get killed in it. Pretty shaky logic there, Harry. Later, alone with his thoughts, he does what Shakespeare's kings do, he feels sorry for himself because even the simplest slave, for lack of worries, sleeps better than he does, because he has everyone's lives in his hands. Well, you could go back to England and mind your own business, Harry.
I'm not even going to deal with the king's famous St. Crispian speech – the whole “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” thing from Act 4.3. It's pretty exciting of course and it does get the job done because against all odds Harry and his gang defeat the vastly more numerous French army.
With this victory comes, after awhile, the last scene I'm going to look at. The one in which Henry woos Catherine. Woos? He plays with her. Charmingly, it's true. He starts with
Fair Catherine, and most fair,
Will you vouchsafe to teach a soldier terms
Such as will enter at a lady's ear
And plead his love-suit to her gentle heart? (Act 5.2)
That's romantic, right? Well, it would be if she understood English and if she had any choice. But she doesn't and she doesn't. This is politics, not love. Lots of people died and Harry won the war, the kingdom and the princess. Still, he does take the trouble to sweet talk her in his clumsy way. She probably found him attractive enough. She knew the score and marrying him did make her queen of both France and England so we don't have to feel too sorry for her. Still, she doesn't understand what he says and as always, language is power. Harry uses it. They get married and don't live happily ever after. In case we haven't seen or read the Henry VI plays the Chorus tells us that Harry dies within a few years, the infant king succeeds him and the state around baby H6 “lost France and made his England bleed” (Epilogue). And that was that.
So what can we conclude from all this? Two things:
The first: Did Hal change from the hoodlum of the days when his dad H4 was king? Not really. He played around at war and robbery with his friends Falstaff and company as prince. As king his violence just got more serious and widespread and his winnings were greater.
And the second: Does this play glorify war or is it anti-war? Well, you tell me. But you're going to have to work hard to convince me that Shakespeare wasn't trying to tell us something with his repeated eloquence from various characters on the horrors of war. I think, if we looked really close at the play, we'd find that Shakespeare does what he always does – he leaves us unsettled, not sure whether or not we like these people, but uncomfortably suspicious that if we were in their shoes, we'd be pretty much like them. Don't you think?
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
- Greenblatt, Stephen. “Invisible Bullet” in Shakespearean Negotiations. 1988. I haven't directly used this essay in the text but my view has been influenced and the essay is essential reading in connection with this play and the other Henry plays.
- BBC 1979. Director: David Giles. Cast: King Henry: David Gwillim; Chorus – Alec McCowen; Katherine – Jocelyn Boisseau; Archbishop of Canterbury – Revor Baxtor. A straightforward competent production. I enjoy seeing it but there isn't so much sparkle.
- Olivier version, 1944. Director: Laurence Olivier. Cast: King Henry: Laurence Olivier; Chorus – Leslie Banks; Katherine – Renee Asherson; Archbishop of Canterbury – Felix Aylmer. There's just something about Olivier. I don't like him. He's so aware that he's Olivier and a Shakespeare Genius. As always a colorful production with brilliant stage settings but it puts me to sleep (literally, I missed the whole fifth act and had to run it again.) The scene between Henry and Katherine is oh so sweet and totally wrong. How the movie has gotten so much praise throughout the years I don't know.
- Branagh version, 1989. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: King Henry: Kenneth Branagh; Chorus – Derek Jacobi; Katherine – Emma Thompson; Archbishop of Canterbury – Charles Kay. And a whole slew of other favorites: Judi Dench, Ian Holm, Robbie Coltrane, Brian Blessed, Paul Scofield, a very young Christian Bale (with clear traces of the Batman to come), Michael Mahoney. I love this movie. (I know, I know, I say that about all of Branagh's Shakespeare movies.) It's totally convincing and compelling. There may be flaws and we may not be in total agreement with Branagh's interpretation but it is absolutely believable, including Harry as a sometimes uncertain blustering nice guy. The exchange between victorious Harry and grieving Katherine is perfect. It is also one of the strongest anti-war movies I have seen.
Seen on stage: No.