Henry V a play that glorifies war? Or is it the reverse, a play that
shows the ugliness and inhumanity of war?
his brilliant victory against the French at Agincourt, the historical
Henry V has long been one of the most revered of English kings.
And for three centuries, everyone thought that Shakespeare's Henry V
was a portrait of the ideal king who embodied the four cardinal virtues
of justice, fortitude, temperance, and prudence. This is how Henry is
portrayed in Shakespeare's sources, the historians Hall and Holinshed.
In the play, before we even see Henry, we hear the bishops praising him
to the skies, saying how complete and miraculous has been his
transformation from his days as the wild Prince Hal. He is later
described as "the mirror of all Christian kings" (Act 2, line 6,
Chorus), and is presented as an epic hero, not unlike Aeneas in
Virgil's Aeneid, who gives all the praise for his success to
God. Henry appears to be the perfect warrior, the perfect man.
not everyone sees it like this. The first critic to see the play
differently was essayist William Hazlitt in the early 19th century, who
described Henry as an "amiable monster." Then in 1919, just
after the horrors of World War I had shocked all of Europe, Gerald
Gould claimed the play was ironic, and that Shakespeare "must have
felt revolted by Henry's brutal and degrading militarism."
Another critic, Mark van Doren, derided Henry as "a hearty
undergraduate with enormous initials on his chest." Although
Laurence Olivier's famous film version of the play, in 1944, was
wholly in heroic mode, 20th century views of Henry have tended toward
the skeptical and anti-heroic. This of course may say as
much about our own times as the play itself, but the question is valid:
What sort of a man was Shakespeare's Henry V?
case against Henry rests on several points. First, his dubious reasons
for going to war. The vital question is the validity of Henry's
claim to the throne of France, which is explained at tedious length by
the clerics in Act 1 scene 2. The French unearth what is called the
Salic Law, which says that no monarch can inherit the throne through
descent from the female line. But this is exactly Henry's
position. He was descended from Philip IV of France through the
female line: Philip's daughter, Isabella, married Edward II of
England, and produced Edward III, who unsuccessfully made a claim for
the French throne. Since Henry V was Edward III's
great-grandson, he renewed the claim to the throne.
modern eyes, this is a bad excuse for a war. That a king could invade
another country and justify it by some obscure trick of genealogy
strikes us as indefensible. To be fair, however, we might remember that
people in medieval times thought differently than we do. Regarding
Henry's claim to the French throne, for example, Peter Saccio in his
book, Shakespeare's English Kings, points out that "The inheritance
of property by the correct bloodlines was an extremely serious matter
in the Middle Ages and long after. It was an elementary premise
undergirding the whole social organization." Understood in that
light, Henry's claim may not seem so outrageous.
matters raised against Henry include his bloodthirsty speech at
the siege of Harfleur, and his order to kill the French prisoners,
which is often regarded as morally unjustifiable. The latter charge has
proved hard for Henry's defenders to refute. It is often cut in
performance, and both Olivier, in his 1944 film, and Kenneth Branagh,
in his 1989 movie version, omitted it.
has also been heavily criticized for the heartless way he
rejects his pal and drinking companion, the old rogue Falstaff,
and allows another old tavern chum, Bardolph, to be hanged. Against
this view, it might be argued that the King has responsibilities to his
office and his country that necessarily transcend merely personal
matters. On becoming King, he must follow his duty, not his
charge against Henry has been that he takes the cynical advice his
father offers him in Henry IV: If you want to keep the peace at
home, stir up a foreign war, which means that all your nobles have to
be out there on the battlefield with you, rather than at home plotting
modern variant of this time-honored political strategy has become known
as the "wag the dog" scenario, after Barry Levinson's 1998 movie
of that title in which an American president starts a fake war in
Albania to divert attention from a domestic scandal.
quite a rap sheet for the "ideal king," however brilliant a leader
he may have been. However, many of the points raised against him are
debatable, and we must be wary of judging historical characters by the
standards of today. This can often give a false picture. We have to
make up our own minds about Henry, bearing in mind that we can't see
this play through Elizabethan eyes. The last century saw two
world wars, and America suffered through the disillusionments of
Vietnam and Watergate: we no longer view war as a glorious or
heroic enterprise, often have little trust in our leaders, and condemn
wars of aggression. So our response to the play is conditioned by
the times in which we live.