Make your own free website on

henry v

literary theory
reading women's writing
the novel
modern american literature
decoding advertisements

Henry V: The Mirror of All Christian Kings

Like Reason and Passion, Youth and Age, War and Peace was one of the great polarities at the heart of the humanist movement, splitting it into two opposing sides: militarists vs. pacifist. Militarists like Machiavelli idealized the king as soldier and scholar and saw war as necessary for order while Pacifists like Erasmus argued that a king should be jurist and philosopher and criticized the military ethos as irreligious and impractical.

Shakespeare presents Henry V as the “the mirror of all Christian kings”. Yet there is an implied irony which continually surfaces throughout the play in the frequent references to the brutality and hypocrisy of the “Good King”.

It is perhaps for this reason that Henry V is one of the most controversial and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays. It has been read both as a celebration of the chivalric battles of a national hero and as a dark satire on warfare and the abuse of power. Between these two antithetic views several readings have tried to reconcile the possibilities, yet Henry V continues to remain at the center of a long-standing critical debate.

Purposefully Ambiguous?

This ambiguity at the heart of the text has drawn many critics such as Alexander Leggatt to the conclusion that “Shakespeare is setting the material out before us, leaving its contradictions intact and inviting us to make of it what we can.”

Norman Rabkin takes this view even further, noting that: “Shakespeare created a work whose ultimate power is precisely the fact that it points in two opposite directions.”

However it has been argued that it would be difficult for a reader (even more so for a spectator) to preserve this state of moral suspension and still enjoy the play.

Unambiguous Valour:

Many critics such as A.R Humphreys take a different view of the supposed contradictions. Although admitting that “if looked out closely, certain features complicate the impression of simple zest and conviction the unreflecting reader is likely to form”, he maintains that “common sense long ago decided that the play’s subject is unambiguous valour and that it’s spirit is expression in Henry’s Agincourt speech. It works…at a speed which prevents awkward questions…charged with a rich and compelling emotion”. He explains that Shakespeare’s imagination was “engaged at a brilliantly effective level for dramatic evaluation” not “the deeper levels of thoughtfulness” he has shown himself capable of elsewhere.

Certainly, Henry V is memorable for it’s powerful use of rhetoric both to intimidate and to inspire. The numerous long speeches work together with the hyperbolic chorus to sweep away thought in a flood of patriotic passion, stirring the war fever inspired by Essex “the General of our gracious Queen, from Ireland coming.”

The King takes pains to be seen acting with “right of conscious” in everything he does. His war is a war of chivalry and honour - Henry himself is not only described as godlike (“Mars” and “Jove”) he also claims God’s authorization for his actions – “In God’s name…lay aside…borrowed glories.” 

In his fight to regain a lost Eden he unties England under one banner. We see a range of different characters, diverse and individual, yet working for the same goal – under Henry’s leadership, Welsh, Scots, Irish are one.

Henry’s concern for his people is apparent. He cares about their views and is able to win their trust because he has ‘walked with them'. He reverses the pattern of most kings who rise and then fall, his previous experiences (as Prince Hal) helping him to keep in touch with ‘the ethos of the everyman’.

The most chivalric of rationales for war is his wooing of Katherine. Here we may well admire his simplicity and honesty and we realize that the “openendedness” of chronicle achieves some closure with the prospect of marriage and sexual consummation, in the same way as the barriers of communication created by divergences in nationality, gender and language are dissolved in the lingua franca of Katherine’s English and Henry’s French.


However the impression given by this account ignores the strong contrasting tonality of passages that seem to undermine the chivalric rationale for war. These passages occur throughout the play: as, after the chorus’s promise of two might monarchs we eavesdrop on two greedy clerics, talk of “the youth of England…aflame” with patriotic feeling leads to the Eastcheap gang’s profiteering plans, Henry’s rhetoric of war is followed by the Boy’s more human fear and the foot soldiers reluctance to go “into the breach”, and in the final act we see the demobilization of Pistol, the last of Prince Hal’s old friends, into beggar and pickpocket.

A.R Humphreys argues that these inconsistencies have receives undue attention because of the nature of the play which “undertakes to justify and explain all that is done in a nation’s name.” To some extent this is clearly true. Whereas it is ironically amusing to hear Nym’s anti-heroics so soon after Henry’s rhetorical rant, too much can be made of it as ironic deflation – cowardly soldiers out for loot are realistically portrayed as part of war, but how far can they be considered authorities on it’s values?

It seems rather as if the play, while it demands heroism, admits the reasonable case against it. In Stephen Greenblatt’s words: “The play undermines chivalric rationales for war not to attack militarism but to support it with pragmatic rationales that recognize and answer pacifist objections.”

A Dark Satire:

This is in direct contrast to Gerald Gould’s view that “Henry V is a satire on monarchial government, on imperialism, on the baser kinds of patriotism and on war.” He points out that Henry’s war is unjustified and in fact only a re-enactment of his father’s crime of usurping the throne, although Henry himself seems to see no parallel at first, as he sees no parallel between “Eagle England” right to “be in prey” and the “weasel Scots” same 'right'. Henry seems to be acting upon his father’s advice to “busy giddy minds with foreign battles.”

This false war is waged with “unscrupulous brutality” symbolized by the killing of the prisoners and then portraying this act as revenge- this, Gould points out, is marked with “the old hypocrisy” and “confusion of motive”, leading us, perhaps, to the conclusion that Shakespeare intended to critique militarism with pacifist irony. 

Henry’s “unscrupulous brutality” does seem to be unambiguous in some parts of the play. His ruthlessness to his former friends, esp Falstaff, is often emphasized in readings that see the play as a satire discussing the issue of the abuse of power. For example: Gould’s argument is clinched when he points out that Henry’s ingratitude to Falstaff is juxtaposed to Scroop’s ingratitude to Henry.

The King seems to unable to accept any responsibility for the consequences of his actions. He continuously lays this responsibility on others: on the Archbishop, the Dauphin, the French King, and even the citizens of Harfleur. The Archbishop, Henry says, is responsible for the justification for the war and the French have only themselves to blame for his invasion of their country, because they did not take the alternative he gave them to submit. As he makes clear to the citizens of Harfleur, he will not bear any responsibility for the carnage his soldiers inflict on them, because it could all be avoided if they take his offer of surrender. Thus he indicts them for the same crime he absolves his own soldiers of – serving their King.

His courtship of Katherine verges on conquest. Although the fact that this is the longest scene between French and English may indicate that he meets more resistance than he expected at this final “battle”, it is of course Katherine herself who calls into question his attempts to fashion their situation of political bargaining into a private courtship. Her response is conditional “Dat is as it shall please de Roi mon pére”, reminding us of what is going on in the other room and showing that she is fully aware of her commodity status as the “capital demand.” To her question as to how she should be expected to love the “enemy of France” the King gives the ironic, almost Hamlet-like reply that he “love[s] France so well” he will not “part with a village of it”. When she protests "les dames et demoiselles pour etre baisees devant leurs noces, il n'est pas la coutume de France", he replies "nice customs curtsy to great kings" and so "stops the mouth" of the fault-finder.

Such glaring contradictions to the chivalric vision/illusion lead some, such as Gould, to see the whole play as covertly ironic. William Hazlitt’s comments support this argument in some aspects, at least partially. He points out that Henry “because he did not know how to govern his own kingdom invaded his neighbours,” and “because his own title to the crown was weak, he laid claim to that of France.”

The Amicable Monster:

This point clarifies the ambiguities to some extent. While we condemn Henry for his brutality, his lack of emotion and inability to accept responsibility for his actions, we nevertheless recognize that though he may not be ‘an admirable man’, he is presented as an ideal King, with intractable resolve and the ability to subordinate personal feelings to the needs of his title, throne and nation. His invasion of France is can be seen as more an attempt to ensure his ‘rightful’ claim as King after his father’s usurpation than the result of his sense of injustice at the French King’s “borrowed glories”. 

The play is thus witness to the struggle between man and king. This is brought to the forefront by the two, often deliberately intersecting plot-lines: the predictable (and therefore necessarily non- dramatic, seeing as drama, tension and suspense are very much linked), historical story of the King and the comic plot which is dramatically interesting but compelled by a group of ‘nobodies’ whose presence is a reminder of history’s forgetfulness of common man.

An extension of this argument leads to the motivation for the rejection of Falstaff. While he is a sufficient companion to Prince Hal we realize that a historically dignified King cannot be allowed remain friends with the fat knight who is portrayed as a ridiculous figure. King Henry must cut him out of his historical life as history cuts ‘the masses’ out of its annals.

This rejection instigates an amusing but revealing discussions between Fluellen and Gower, where Fluellen refers to Falstaff as “the fat knight…I forget his name”, further proof that history cares for monarchs not masses, despite Henry’s promise that everyone who fights “ be he ne’er so vile...shall be remembered”.

Fluellen seems to argue that it is Henry’s rejection of his personal feelings that allow him to be great. Shakespeare however, might at the same time be implying that it allows him to be “Pig” (Fluellen’s big) but not great, as his rejection of feelings leads to a loss of humanity.

This is how Henry V becomes as Hazlitt observes "a very splendid pageant, a very amiable monster."

Shakespeare seems to indict Henry here, for mimicking history which cuts out people of ‘base’ quality, or ‘common people’ as of no consequence, and thereby renders itself insipid and unreliable. (If the entire play is composed solely of Henry’s melodramatic rants and raves and rhetorical flourishes….)

The Historic Role/the Dramatic Role:

Shakespeare sees that history is not a straight line, and that historical narratives are always warped in the shape of famous people. Henry V may have been his attempt to reinsert the complexity into this ‘straight line/one truth’ portrayal of history, through the use of contradiction and irony, not because he thought he thinks he will succeed but to demonstrate that ‘historical drama’ is to some extent an oxymoron. Whereas Drama embraces complexities (which only serve to make it more dramatic), History at times attempts to suppress them, and so they return again as at the end of the play the chorus informs us that Henry’s son undoes everything his father achieved.

All these achievements are based on two points: Prince Hal’s rejection of his ‘dramatic’ role and King Henry’s accepting his ‘historic role’.

Initially, there is some sense of a struggle with this choice. In his speech to Scroop for example, he lapses from the royal ‘we’ to the self-referential ‘I’ and despite his claim to act for the welfare for the nation in ordering the traitor’s execution, he is clearly influenced by his personal emotions (bitterness/revenge). However, this is a brief lapse. From the beginning he accepted his role (“Consideration, like an angel came…”) and by the end there are no more lapses, for he has rejected this for the simple battle cry of the ruler: “No King of England if not King of France.”

Yet the King sees this as necessary. Shakespeare shows that Henry’s position is not secure through the traitor’s plots and through the soldier’s questions. The King may be aware of this, but he is only able to explore and fully appreciate these doubts while in disguise. His responses to William are full of dramatic irony: “The King is but a man as I am”, and obviously on some levels is paralleled with Christ’s ‘coming to earth’, yet the scene also emphasizes the King’s personal vulnerability, and perhaps tries to show that he too needs “a little touch of warmth.”

A Machiavellian View:

In disguise, his disguise thins: Henry Le Roi speaks more frankly than the King, but ironically the soldiers react as if it were only manipulative dissimulation. This is a re-enactment of the first scene where the clergymen describe the King’s transformation since becoming king, mixing the language of religion with imagery of violence/war, e.g.: “The breath no sooner left his father’s body/But that his wildness…/Seemed to die too.”“Consideration, like an angel came/ And whipped the offending Adam out of him.”

The King realizes that not only will he be required to cut away all complexities with the swift absolutism history demands, he must also constantly deceive and manipulate others so he can preserve his image and repel any undermining of his authority and of the justification for his war…the justification he has bought with a promise given to the Archbishop to not do something (not passing the bill).

Shakespeare implies through Henry (in soliloquy) that Kings are nothing without ceremony; and his royalty and divine right are nothing but dissimulation, so the ceremony of appearing to be royal and superior – dissimulation – is in itself the very essence of kingship. He seems to discover the meaning of the Mystery of State, and to see it as saying that dissimulation is not only a requirement for rule, but it is in itself a divine activity. 

Yet, although it is perhaps only now he fully appreciates this, he has been practicing and carrying out this theory from the beginning, when only he could take anti-war positions (apart from the church, whose co-operation in this matter he has secured, again by playing a negative role) in order to generate pro-war arguments from his allies and his court (who know what’s best for them) and thus tease out their support.

He construes his rescue from the traitors’ plot as evidence of God’s protection (God/King/Man motif) and portrays it as a sign of God’s help in the coming battle: he creates miracles, and although his subjects know that “miracles are ceased” they too feel compelled to portray him as ‘a wonder.’ 

As his rhetoric is necessary to inspire, so his ruthlessness in approving the execution of Bardolph is seen as necessary for discipline, to intimidate. This at first seems a little contradictory, but it is governed by Henry’s aims to conquer, which necessitate both approaches. An example is his bloodcurdling speech at Harfleur, emphasizing the suffering of the ‘innocents’ , which achieves (his aim of?) surrender without bloodshed.

Such pragmatic rationales not only justify brutality but in fact demand it against those who resist and thus threaten his position. By distancing himself from complexities he is able to, as Hazlitt noted “lay all the blame and the consequences of his actions on those who do not submit” echoing the ultimate Machiavellian idea that the end justifies the means.


Shakespeare’s play, in Harry Berger's words, records "the familiar story of disenchantment…fall from a sacramental conception of kingship to a Machiavellian concept of it," and, as Gunter Walsh has argued "it shows the official ideology up for what it has become...the instrument of power." However, perhaps Shakespeare also intends us to admire Henry’s effectiveness in using this power to ‘fulfill’ (and hold onto) his role.

Ultimately, the play seems to both celebrate and undermine all the themes it has brought together. Perhaps Henry is the ‘mirror of all Christian kings’ because, like all successful leaders, he is prepared to take any steps and make any sacrifices (even those not his to make) in order to achieve what he wants.

written: 2004
Creative Commons License