Shakespeare’s Henry V and the timeless politics of power

King Henry V is a nationalist hero to the English, a villain to the French, and likely something in between to modern audiences.  Part heroic warrior, part self-serving, calculating politician, Henry’s rise prompts timeless questions about the nature of power in general.

Shakespeare’s Henry V is a subtly yet at times disturbingly contradictory character, a reformed party animal and prankster turned powerful politician and war hero.  Henry appears in three plays, constituting one of the world’s first true trilogies, or “quadrilogy” if you count Richard II which tells of the king before Henry’s father.  The three plays cover the story of his father’s struggles to maintain power against a rebellion of his own nobles, Henry’s own youth and ultimate ascension to the throne, and his triumph in war as king.  Your opinion on whether he is the hero or the villain depends almost entirely on your perspective, and unlike most of the playwright’s immortal canon, the era in which you live.  In one sense, Henry is self-evidently the hero of the play, uniting a strife torn England and triumphing over the French in the legendary Battle of Agincourt, a real historical event that occurred on October 25, 1415, St. Crispin’s Day.  He is presented as heroic and courageous, a natural leader that risks his life beside his own troops and rouses them to the height of valor, empowering his army to overcome overwhelming odds.  He is also shown as something of a man of the people, especially for a king in that era.  He cares deeply about his soldiers, even visiting them in disguise to better understand their feelings and morale as they head into battle.   He has a merciful side, urging his army to restrain themselves and enforcing these proclamations at great personal cost. 

In another sense, Henry V is a classic Machiavellian politician, cold and calculating to the core, a demagogue and nationalist if ever there was one, to the point where he unselfconsciously declares “God fought for us.”  The war with France was originally started under false pretenses, complete with an arcane legal rationale that would make a modern day White House Counsel blush in its obscurity.  The real goal seems to be to distract from conflicts at home and avenge a slight from the French prince.  To achieve these objectives, Henry slaughters tens of thousands, threatening women and children, even ordering the execution of an old friend.  Even before he was king, Shakespeare suggests that was an equally cold, calculating man, transforming himself into what is needed to advance his position at the moment.  In his youth, he had a well earned reputation as a rabble rouser and carouser, cavorting with men and women of questionable character and using these immature antics to remain beneath the notice of the larger court, placing himself outside the political machinations dominating the day. So extreme in this regard that his own father laments the “riot and dishonor stain the brow of my young Harry.”  He wishes could exchange the wayward prince for the son of rebellious nobleman, Lord Northumberland, saying, I “Should be the father to so blest a son, A son who is the theme of Honor’s tongue, Amongst a grove the very straightest plant, Who is sweet Fortune’s minion and her pride.”

At the time, he had many, many reasons to be concerned about his heir, or at least the way his heir was behaving in public.  The future Henry V, then Prince Hal, was bosom buddies with Sir John Falstaff, a fallen knight of ill repute and one of Shakespeare’ most intriguingly lovable characters.  He is overweight, vain, and boastful.  He spends his days drinking at the Boar’s Head Inn, is not above theft or living on the largesse of others.  In a typical exchange, Prince Hal teases him for this lifestyle:

…so fat-witted with drinking of old
sack, and unbuttoning thee after supper, and
sleeping upon benches after noon, that thou hast
forgotten to demand that truly which thou wouldst
truly know. What a devil hast thou to do with
the time of the day?  Unless hours were cups of
sack, and minutes capons, and clocks the tongues
of bawds, and dials the signs of leaping-houses,
and the blessed sun himself a fair hot wench in
flame-colored taffeta, I see no reason why thou
shouldst be so superfluous to demand the time
of the day.

Of course, Prince Hal partakes quite a bit himself, participating with glee in Falstaff’s schemes, egging him on to further depths of debauchery, sometimes playing his own tricks on him, even at the expense of others.  When Falstaff and his companions plan to rob a group of travelers in Henry IV Part 1, it seems an all too typical caper for the crew.  The errant knight falls upon them, promptly steals all their money and ties them up in the woods, leaving them for dead, but Prince Hal and his friend, Poins, don their own disguises and proceed to rob Falstaff.  Hal sees the bound and terrified travelers, yet seems to consider this all good fun before executing his plan, “The thieves have bound the true men. Now could thou and I rob the thieves and go merrily to London, it would be argument for a week, laughter for a month, and a good jest forever.” Immediately after Prince Hal ascends the throne, however, he banishes Falstaff from his presence, seemingly without a care, refusing even to speak to him directly at first.  Falstaff waits for the newly crowned Henry V to pass by in a parade, and calls out, “God save thy Grace, King Hal, my royal Hal.”  The King commands one of his attendants, the Lord Chief Justice to “speak to that vain man.”  When the King does speak to Falstaff himself, he delivers a withering rebuke from his newly elevated station, calling him “profane.”

I know thee not, old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs becomes a fool and jester.
I have long dreamt of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swelled, so old, and so profane;
But being awaked, I do despise my dream…
…Presume not that I am the thing I was,
For God doth know—so shall the world perceive—
That I have turned away my former self.
So will I those that kept me company.

Shakespeare makes it tantalizingly unclear from whence Henry V gets his newfound nobility and piety.  There are several hints that Prince Hal intentionally took on the role of a drunken, irresponsible youth in order to shine even brighter as king by referencing how the world shall “perceive” his change in manner, meaning he wanted everyone to underestimate him and planned to use that in the future.  Before banishing Falstaff, he tells the Lord Chief Justice, “I survive To mock the expectation of the world, To frustrate prophecies, and to raze out Rotten opinion, who hath writ me down After my seeming.” The word “seem” once again suggests it was all for show, to make his glory greater upon attaining the throne.  As King, Henry V almost immediately makes this prophecy come true in a confrontation with the French Ambassador, telling him he understands the thinking of the French Royal Court and why they underestimate him, “we understand him well, How he comes o’er us with our wilder days, Not measuring what use we made of them,” implying they were for some other purpose than mere carousing.  He continues, “For that I have laid by my majesty And plodded like a man for working days; But I will rise there with so full a glory That I will dazzle all the eyes of France.”

This speech also marks the first, but certainly not the last time Henry V threatens to unleash brutal violence on his enemies for refusing to give him what he wants.  In this case, the throne of France, but the French Prince has responded by sending him a treasure chest full of tennis balls instead, saying this is all he will ever see of the country.  Henry V is incensed, letting loose a tirade:

And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gun-stones, and his soul
Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn.

Alas, Henry V’s claim to the French throne is tenuous at best, based purely on a technicality and an internal political matter. The Bishops of Canterbury and Ely fear a bill before the Commons will rob the British Church of half their holdings, and they need a distraction to prevent such a thing from happening.  They decide to “convince” Henry V that he is technically king of France in addition to England, thanks to his great grandfather, Edward III, known as“the Black” by the French.  The Bishops claim it is the French who are lying, denying his rightful claim by insisting that women cannot inherit the throne in France, “No woman shall succeed in Salic land.”  The Bishops, however, argue that Salic land is actually Germany, not France, and in France women have inherited in the past.  Therefore, Henry is the rightful king.  In response, Henry makes a show of ensuring he has a legitimate claim, warning of the consequences of the war that would follow and asking outright, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?”  At the same time, an English king had not sat on the throne of France in generations.  Henry’s father was not king of France, nor was Richard II before him.  If possession is nine tenths of the law as they say, Henry has no real claim when at the moment, there is in fact a French king sitting on the throne with heirs of his own.  In addition, Shakespeare suggests that the other members of the Court don’t even understand the legal argument themselves.

Taken together, it is difficult to believe that Henry V truly believes he is entitled to rule in France, much less that a massive war is justified to make this claim.  He is clearly no fool, depicted throughout as a shrewd, smart, observant politician, yet here he seems to exhibit a willful blindness, though one that advances his own political goals.  Henry no doubt remembers the internal strife that marked his father’s reign, when the country faced rebellion after rebellion.  In Henry IV Part I, the gallant Hotspur challenges the king for the throne, causing a brief, but bloody civil war.  Henry’s father is ultimately victorious, though at significant cost to the country and the security of the throne.  Nor does the rebellion end there.  Hotspur’s father continues trying to overthrow the crown in Henry IV Part II, leading commoners to the cause.  There is yet another bloody war before Henry V ultimately ascends.  In Henry V itself, Henry refers to how his father essentially stole the crown from Richard II, “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 Than from it issued forcèd drops of blood.”

Therefore, he is keenly aware that England needs to be bound together in a single cause, and declares that everyone must devote every waking hour to the effort of conquering France, “Therefore, my lords, omit no happy hour That may give furth’rance to our expedition; For we have now no thought in us but France, Save those to God, that run before our business.”  Henry prosecutes the war itself with what we would today consider excessive, non-proportional vigor, taking the field with his army and threatening death and destruction to anyone in his path.  He is at times rousing, urging his men “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead. In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger.”  At others, he promises the spilling of huge amounts of blood, urging his enemies to surrender, “Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves Or, like to men proud of destruction, Defy us to our worst.”  The worst he threatens is a litany of horrors, defiling the town’s “shrill-shrieking daughters,” dashing their elders’ heads “to the walls” by their “gray beards,” and their “naked infants spitted upon pikes,” yet Henry is ultimately merciful.  After the town of Harfleur opens its gates, he urges his uncle, Exeter, “Use mercy to them all for us.”

Mercy for enemies and the foibles of men in war is a common theme in Henry V.  Early, the adroit Henry learns of treason in the ranks of his nobles, ensuring their fate by asking their opinion on how a man involved in a drunken incident should be treated, “We consider It was excess of wine that set him on, And on his more advice we pardon him.”  The traitors, however, urge him to be more forceful in his punishment, but then beg his mercy when their treachery is revealed.  Mercy sometimes comes at great cost to Henry as well.  He commands his army to treat the French people with respect and not pillage the countryside, but when one of his old friends from his time with Falstaff robs a church, he orders the man hanged even though they were close once.  Henry instructs his men after the hanging, “We would have all such offenders so cut off; and we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for.”  

The army ultimately arrives at Agincourt exhausted and sick, facing impossible odds.  The French outnumber them by over ten to one and Henry himself is not without doubt on the eve of the climactic battle, imploring God for help, “O God of battles, steel my soldiers’ hearts. Possess them not with fear. Take from them now The sense of reck’ning or th’ opposèd numbers Pluck their hearts from them.”  The following day, however, he shares none of these doubts when inspiring his men in the most famous speech of the play.  When Henry overhears a nobleman wishing they had more soldiers with them from England, he interjects, “What’s he that wishes so? My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin. If we are marked to die, we are enough To do our country loss; and if to live, The fewer men, the greater share of honor.”  He goes one step further, claiming any many who doesn’t want to fight can depart because “We would not die in that man’s company That fears his fellowship to die with us.”  In contrast, those that stay are his brothers, “From this day to the ending of the world But we in it shall be rememberèd—We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”  Henry and his army ultimately triumph over the French, killing some 10,000 compared to a mere 500-odd on the English side. (This is close to historically accurate, the English unleashed the long bow for the first time in a war and slaughtered the French from a distance.)  He proceeds to take the crown from the French king and woo his daughter, Princess Katherine as well, but the story ends on a somber note:  Henry V dies young, some six years after his triumph, leaving an infant son on the throne that loses France itself as the struggle between the two countries rages on, a conflict that would not be fully resolved until the start of World War II, hundreds of years later.

This brings us back to our original question:  Is Henry a hero, villain, or some combination of the two?  Clearly, the French would consider him a villain, invading their country without provocation, killing thousands, deposing the king, and riding off with his daughter.  Modern audiences are also likely to sympathize with the French even as they admire Henry for his other qualities, but in Shakespeare’s days rampant nationalism, demagoguery, and a desire to conquer your enemies wouldn’t have been considered the least bit objectionable or problematic.  France was a long time enemy of England, and therefore they got what they deserved, especially as Henry is shown to be merciful.  The play was also something of a clarion call to expand the British empire upon its release in 1599.  At the time, the Spanish and the Dutch were already rapidly expanding their holdings in South America and Britain was lagging behind.  The British Crown wanted in on the action to the point where they officially authorized outright piracy, sending Sir Francis Drake and others around the world to rob the Spanish and generally make trouble.  The play itself harkened back to English days of glory, suggesting they could come again.

Shakespeare’s own feelings are likely more nuanced.  It is difficult to say for sure, but some of the subtext suggests he was concerned about the personal and national costs of empire.  Henry’s companions from his time with Falstaff are all either dead or mad by the end of the play, sometimes at his own hand.  The companions themselves suggest that Henry is also personally responsible for Falstaff’s death, claiming he died of a broken heart after his banishment.  Further, the text itself makes it unclear how much Henry really cares what happened to his friends, or if he is even aware of everyone that died.  He is shown as merciful and with the potential for compassion, but it’s difficult to determine if this is anything more than show.  Though Shakespeare doesn’t directly comment on Henry’s political scheming, the amount of time he spends depicting Harry as a wayward youth and the number of mentions of how his earlier days help him shine brighter on the throne suggest he wanted the audience to be aware of Henry’s political nature.  The final sequence of the play, when he woos Princess Kate, can also be seen as additional evidence.  Henry has delivered rousing speech after rousing speech, never at a loss for words and a master communicator, and yet suddenly he pretends he’s a tongue tied boy when it comes to meeting a woman he could effectively kidnap.  It’s a charming scene, complete with an interruption by her father when Henry is more schoolboy than king, but it’s easy to believe at least some of it is an act designed to get what he wants.

There is an even deeper question lying beneath whether Henry is a hero, villain, or both:  Is it possible to be a great ruler without being a villain from someone’s perspective?  Does the political hero always have to play both roles?  It’s no secret that successful politicians generally need an enemy.  In the latter half of the 20th century, the American enemy was usually communism in general or the Soviet Union in particular.  As nationalism has fallen out of favor in establishment circles, politicians increasingly look inward for their opposition, and so the left paints the right as the enemy of everything American including democracy itself and the right does the same to the left.  The result is a figure like Donald Trump who is hailed as a hero on the right and a treacherous villain on the left.  Sometimes, it seems both sides can’t possibly be talking about the same person.  Shakespeare’s inclusion of the legal pretext for Henry’s war against France also helps illuminate the distinction:  A successful politician provides a seemingly legitimate rationale for their goals and actions, but what is legitimate to one faction isn’t likely to be legitimate to another.  George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Colin Powell delivered a complex presentation to the United Nations on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction program, but two years later his opposition declared that “Bush Lied, People Died,” and that he’d lied us into a war.  What might the common folk in England have said if Henry returned defeated?

In addition, Shakespeare also invites us to ask at what point does a false pretext become a crime in and of itself, and is building your leadership platform on a lie ever justified?  The rationale the Bishop’s present to Harry is convoluted and seemingly weak, but it’s also not clear they are outright lying about whether Harry has a claim to the throne.  They are instead making an argument predicated entirely on the final goal rather than an objective analysis of the facts.  In other words, they start from the assumption that Henry has a legitimate claim and then marshal only the details that support his claim, mentioning none that might undercut his position.  We might see echoes of this in President Bush’s argument for the Iraq War.  At the same time, we can easily imagine a leader that simply makes up the pretext entirely, or a leader manipulated by others to do what they ant.  President James K. Polk sent men into Mexico to provoke an attack, then claimed they were in Texas.  Right now, many believe Russian President Vladimir Putin is running false flag operations in Eastern Ukraine to provoke a war and claim it was the other side’s fault.  Most consider Putin the aggressor, but up until a few years ago when nationalism started to fall out of favor, most would’ve considered Polk the hero.  Why?

As usual, Shakespeare provides no easy answers.  Instead, he paints a complex, timeless picture of leadership, and allows the audience to decide, both on Henry as a man and on the essential contours of the politics of power. One thing is clear: Leadership requires a near constant compromise of principles, and therefore heroism is often in the eye of the beholder.

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