Monday, January 11, 2010

Shakespeare and Henry V

Henry V (Left), Shakespeare (Right)

Henry V, 1413-1422 C.E., is considered one of the greatest of English Kings. He was born in either 1386 0r 1387. The reason for this disparity is probably because of his status as the son of Henry of Bolingbroke who was not in line to the throne.1

Henry of Bolingbroke eventually got on King Richard II’s bad side was exiled in 1398 upon which Richard II took charge of Henry’s son Henry. Now the future Henry V apparently got along very well with Richard.2

The next year Henry of Bolingbroke invaded England while Richard II and young Henry were in Ireland and overthrew Richard II. Henry of Bolingbroke became Henry IV. Richard was confined to Pontefract castle and was almost certainly murdered at Henry IV’s urgings early in the following year.3

Because Henry, now Prince of Wales, liked Richard II, Richard’s murder apparently caused bad blood between father and son.

Now Henry IV’s claim to the throne was weaker than several others more specifically the Earl of March and so Henry IV’s reign was characterized by violence and rebellion and by a general atmosphere of repression and disorder.

Henry IV sought to expiate his sin of regicide by going on a Crusade but never actually did so. Henry, as Prince of Wales, showed considerable skill as a military commander dealing with the various rebellions against his father.

When his father died in 1413 Henry, Prince of Wales became Henry V King of England. Rather than consolidate the rather shaky Lancastrian hold on the English throne Henry let himself be dragged into the interminable Hundred Years War with France.

The contortions and convolutions need not detain us suffice to say that Henry won the battle of Agincourt, a spectacular, one sided, victory over a considerably larger French Army and in subsequent years Henry V was able to conquer Normandy and because of the vicious French civil war between the Burgundians and Armagnacs, climaxing in the murder of Jean, the fearless, Duke of Burgundy in 1419, was able to secure the Treaty of Troyes in 1420, which made him the heir of the French king Charles VI and married him to Charles VI’s daughter Catherine of Valois.4

This was success on a truly spectacular level. When Henry V died in 1422, of dysentery, having contracted it besieging the city of Meaux in 1421-1422, it seemed that his death forclosed the alleged dazzling prospects ahead of him.

Shakespeare and other writers have waxed eloquent over Henry V, creating in him the myth of the perfect ruler, and creating the image of a sublime man and supremely capable and good man, cut down in his prime. However, Shakespeare had beneath the enthusiasm indications of a different view.

For example there is the famous St. Crispin speech in Shakespeare’s play Henry V:
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
(Henry V, Act 4, Scene III)5
Certainly a rousing and heartfelt display of love of country and not surprisingly loved by English audiences to this day.

This play, along with Henry IV Parts I & II, by Shakespeare with its portrayal of an outstanding and seemingly ideal monarch has warmed the hearts of patriotic Englishmen for centuries and as coloured views of the English monarch by English Historians and Scholars.

Yet it is important to remember that Shakespeare was no Historian and that his Henry V was a literary creation not an historical character. Also underneath all of the patriotic bluster and huzzahs Shakespeare, being Shakespeare was not quite so blinded by patriotic fever. If Shakespeare’s 8 connected History plays6 are viewed together the story is darker. In the plays Henry IV becomes King by overthrowing and murdering the rightful King Richard II. This is a crime against the way the Universe should operate in Shakespeare's eyes. Henry IV is racked with remorse because of this crime and promises to go on Crusade. However he does not abdicate his ill gotten throne and so is punished by leprosy and eventually dies a loathsome and terrible death.

So apparently the father’s sin is punished and the son may reign in peace. Things are not quite so simple. Henry continues to deny the throne to the rightful heir The Earl of March and suppresses by brutal execution a conspiracy to place the Earl of March on the throne.

Shakespeare also gave Henry V a few choice lines indicating that this ideal King was far from ideal. His speech to the Governor of Harfleur is rather interesting in revealing a very unpleasant facet of Henry V’s character.

How yet resolves the governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit
Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves;
Or like to men proud of destruction
Defy us to our worst: for, as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh'd 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 flowering infants.
What is it then to me, if impious war,
Array'd in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do, with his smirch'd complexion, all fell feats
Enlink'd to waste and desolation?
What is't to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon the enraged soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore. Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command;
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O'erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil and villany.
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 confused
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 defence, be thus destroy'd?
(Henry V, Act 3, Scene III)7


This speech is sometimes cut out entirely and almost always cut so to remove the less congenial bits. Directors and audiences do not seem to want Henry V out of his own mouth to show what a monster he can be. So it is, if it is used at all, carefully cut. But then why should such a speech be a surprise coming from the son of a usurper who is a usurper himself and as such a violator of the proper order of the Universe. Such is in my opinion what Shakespeare is getting at, here at least.

Henry V by occupying the throne has inherited his father’s guilt and like his father he fails to show true penitence by abdicating but instead retains the throne. Henry V’s reburial of Richard II, the prayers he has said for Richard II’s soul mean nothing in the face of the refusal to abdicate. Henry V in the play realizes that to some extent; he says:

Imploring pardon.
(Henry V, Act 4, Scene I)8
Henry V wins the battle and it appears divine favour. He marries Katherine of Valois, daughter of French King Charles VI, and is made heir to Charles VI. It appears that God as forgiven him and granted him his protection. Yet it is all a delusion. Divine punishment is coming and Henry V dies young from disease caught trying to crush continued French resistance.

Henry V is succeeded by an infant who grows up to be a weak King and touched by madness inherited from his grandfather Charles VI of France. France is progressively lost to the resurgent Charles VII son of Charles VI. England falls prey to factions. One around the ruling house of Lancaster, and the other the rival house of York.

England succumbs to corruption, weakness, civil war and murderous violence. Henry VI and his heir Edward are murdered extinguishing the line of Henry IV. The house of York similarly is victimized by murder and violence. Only when Henry VII establishes the house of Tudor is legitimacy finally restored and the cosmic, divine balance disrupted by Henry IV’s overthrow and murder of Richard II righted.

On the surface it appears that Shakespeare takes seriously Henry V’s claim to the French throne and certainly it is easy to find in this play and the others in Shakespeare’s series of History plays passages indicating contempt for the French and bravo declarations of English rights and honour. Yet again that may be what Shakespeare is saying in parts of the play yet at the heart is a problem with thinking that Shakespeare was just a hyper patriot, “My country is always right” sort of person. The reason is simple if Henry V’s claim to the English throne is entirely illegitimate than his claim to the French throne is equally bogus.

Thus Shakespeare makes the speech given by the Archbishop of Canterbury9 in support of Henry V’s claim to the French throne a model of comic tediousness and absurdity. It is digressive, repetitious and convoluted nonsense. And why does the Archbishop support Henry’s claim? Well in the previous scene A group of English magnates including the Archbishop agree that in order to kill a Parliamentary bill that threatens to take away ½ of the Churches land to support Henry’s claim to the French Throne.10 Such is the less than honest reason given to support Henry V trying to conquer France in the play.

Thus despite all the surface depreciation of the French Shakespeare seems to recognize that they are right to reject Henry V’s claim and to violently resist it.

The stunning, indeed almost miraculous, victory at Agincourt is thus nothing but a fiendish divine trap to enmesh and entangle England so that divine punishment for the overthrow, and murder of a rightful King and his replacement with a usurper would be met out by the truly terrible and awful wrath of God.

It is forgotten that this celebration of patriotic sentiment the play Henry V contains within it the story of a illegitimate usurper trying to conquer a foreign country which he, with no legitimate basis, lays claim too. For all the surface patriotic posturing, which is what most audiences and frankly directors of the play hear, just underneath is a story of wicked usurpation, an unjust war of conquest and the inevitable righteous retribution that will inevitably come on the breakers of human and divine law.

1. Wikipedia, Henry V, Here.

2. Jones, Terry, et al, Who Murdered Chaucer?, Thomas Dunne Books, New York, 2006, pp. 110-112.

3. Seward, Desmond, Henry V as Warlord, Penguin Books, London, 1987, pp. 13-15. I suspect that Henry IV almost certainly never directly ordered Richard II’s murder but simply put out lots of hints that things would be so much better if Richard II was dead. Richard was probably suffocated and the usual cock and bull story put out that Richard died of natural causes.

4. IBID, pp. 51-158.

5. Shakespeare, William, Henry V, Here.

6. The Plays are in Chronological order, Richard II, Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, Henry V, Henry VI Part One, Henry VI Part Two, Henry VI Part Three, Richard III.

7. Shakespeare.

8. IBID.

9. IBID, Act 1, Scene 2.

10. IBID, Act 1, Scene 1.

I heavily used the following book. Sutherland, John & Watts, Cedric, Henry V, War Criminal & Other Shakespeare Puzzles, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000. The two essays in the book I relied on are Henry V, War Criminal?, pp. 108-116, Henry V’s claim to France: valid or invalid?, pp. 117-125.

Pierre Cloutier

1 comment: