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Analysis of ‘Henry V’

Henry V is a history play that Shakespeare wrote in about 1599.  It is part of the second of two tetralogies he wrote to chronicle the history of England’s kings.  The first tetralogy, among his very first plays, were Henry VI, parts one, two, and three, and Richard III, his first great play; the second tetralogy dealt with the years before the first, and are thus a ‘prequel tetralogy,’ so to speak–Richard II, Henry IV, parts one and two, and Henry V.  While most of these plays are dark and gloomy, sometimes even tragic in tone (indeed, Richard III is fully titled The Tragedy of King Richard III), Henry V is largely the one ray of sunshine in the whole cloudy chronicling.

Here are some famous quotes:

1. “O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend/The brightest heaven of invention.” –Chorus, Prologue to Act I, lines 1-2

2. “We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;/His present and your pains we thank you for./When we have match’d our rackets to these balls,/We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set/Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.” –Henry, Act I, scene ii, lines 259-263

3. “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.” –Henry, III, i, 1-6

4. “This story shall the good man teach his son;/And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,/From this day to the ending of the world,/But we in it shall be remembered–/We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,/This day shall gentle his condition;/And gentlemen in England now a-bed/Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,/And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.” –Henry, IV, iii, 56-67

The main theme running through this play is that of pride, in all of its variations and permutations: arrogant, overweening pride, wounded pride, honour, shame, humility, and even maidenly bashfulness.

The play opens with the Chorus humbly admitting that an Elizabethan stage cannot properly show the vast fields of France (see Quote #1, above), or a battle with hundreds of knights either marching or on horseback.  Thus, with the play’s producers’ pride held firmly in check, the Chorus, speaking on their behalf, asks us, the audience, to use our imaginations to fill in the play’s imperfections, and to judge it kindly.

When King Henry V is presented with tennis balls, a gift meant as a slur on his abilities as a king, his pride is wounded (see Quote #2).  The sender of this insulting gift is the arrogant Dauphin of France, next in line to be the French king…except for Henry.  While feeling his power threatened by King Henry’s plans to invade France and claim the country as his by right, the Dauphin haughtily presumes that Henry is the same reputedly dissolute youth of his earlier years as a prince, and imagines Henry must be a similarly feckless king now.

With the ‘moral’ sanction of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely (who would rather their king invade and loot France, causing death and destruction there, than deprive the English Church of funds, for such is the arrogance of the Church’s sense of entitlement), and now angered by the Dauphin’s proud provocation, King Henry promises to “play a set” with those tennis balls that will so shock the Dauphin as to turn his pride into shame.

Speaking of shame, when the king is in Southampton preparing to cross the English Channel to France with his men, he uncovers a plot engineered by three traitors, Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, who have been suborned by France to kill Henry.  When his knowledge of the plot against him is shown to the traitors, they admit to their guilt and shame, wishing only death for themselves, as their pride knows that receiving the death penalty willingly is the only honourable way out.

Other dishonourable knaves in the play show their pride in other ways.  Nym and Pistol squabble over who gets to have Mistress Quickly, hostess of the Boar’s Head tavern.  Pistol has already married her, but Nym is too proud to accept this.  Pistol comments on Nym’s excessive pride, saying, “O braggart vile and damned furious wight!”  A swordfight between them is stopped just in time by Bardolph.

Meanwhile, in France, the Dauphin continues to scoff at what he considers Henry’s weak resolution, saying the French court should consider the preparation for war to be little more than “a Whitsun morris-dance.”  Even his fellow courtiers cannot endure his presumption.  The king of France humbly holds his pride firmly in check when he acknowledges the strength of Henry and his family, who have shaken and shamed France in defeats in war in the past.  Indeed, the other courtiers (apart from the Dauphin) realize how much Henry has changed, and the Duke of Exeter, visiting the French king, relays the contempt of the English onto the proud Dauphin.

Already in France, Henry’s men have besieged the castle in Harfleur, where he urges them to carry on fighting (see Quote #3).  During peacetime, it is proper to be modest; but during war, one should fight as proudly as a tiger.

Later during that scene, we see such soldiers as the Welsh Fluellen and the Irish Macmorris proudly arguing over whether Ireland is deserving of the scorn Fluellen gives her, and whether Macmorris’s supervision of the digging of the mines is up to standard in “the disciplines of the war”.

The French princess and Alice discuss learning English; but the French princess is shocked at how some English words sound dangerously close to certain rude words in French.  Namely, Alice mispronounces ‘gown’ as ‘con,’ a French word that refers to a certain part of the female anatomy–one that in English also begins with a c; the other word, ‘foot,’ is mispronounced so as to sound like the French word for a certain intimate bedroom activity, a word for which the English equivalent also begins with an f.  The princess’s pride would rather not allow her to degrade herself by saying words of such an immodest sound.

When the French learn of Henry’s victory at Harfleur, they feel their pride wounded, and fearing that their women will dishonour them by preferring Englishmen as lovers who will litter France with bastard sons, the French king will have his army meet Henry’s with their “sharp defiance,” and his herald, Montjoy, is to send Henry a warning: either pay a ransom for the damages he’s caused France, or be her prisoner.  The Dauphin’s pride is wounded at not being allowed by his father, for the moment, to join the other French to fight Henry.

Montjoy meets with Henry and gives him the French king’s warning, saying proudly, “Though we seem’d dead, we did but sleep; advantage is a better soldier than rashness. Tell him we could have rebuk’d him at Harfleur, but that we thought not good to bruise an injury till it were full ripe. Now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial.”

Henry proudly replies, “forgive me, God,/That I do brag thus! This your air of France/Hath blown that vice in me. I must repent./Go therefore, tell thy master here I am;/My ransom is this frail and worthless trunk,/My army but a weak and sickly guard;/Yet, God before, tell him we will come on,/Though France himself and such another neighbour/Stand in our way.”

On the night before the battle of Agincourt, in a tent in the French camp, the nobles all show proud impatience for the sun to come up, so they can kill the English and prove the valour of the French.  The Constable brags that he has “the best armour of the world,” and the Duke of Orleans brags of his horse; but the Dauphin’s boasting of his horse is so excessive that it annoys the other French nobles.

Meanwhile, in a tent in the English camp, Henry borrows a cloak from Sir Thomas Erpingham to cover himself with, and thus keep his identity unknown to his men as he goes about to learn of their true feelings about him and the next day’s battle.  In bringing himself down to their level, he briefly forgoes his royal dignity and pride, and humbles himself, for he needs to know how his men really feel.  And with “A largess universal” he “doth give to every one…A little touch of Harry in the night.”

When he encounters Williams’s proud disdain of the king’s–to him–questionable justification for war, and the risk of his men’s lives, Henry gets angry, and the two proud men agree to a personal quarrel after the battle, if both men survive.

The next morning, the English are daunted by the far greater number of French adversaries they must face.  Then King Henry approaches, and in his St. Crispin’s Day speech (see Quote #4), he proudly speaks of how he covets honour, greedily wanting as large a portion for himself, and for each of his men–however smaller a number they may be in total–as possible.  Indeed, he is content to allow any men without a stomach for the immanent battle to return to England.  And those men in bed in England on this day will, in the future, feel greatly wounded pride in the presence of any who have fought with the king on St. Crispin’s Day.

This rousing speech fires up the pride of Henry’s men, whose fear has been changed to steely valour.  In the ensuing battle, their smaller number gloriously defeats the over-confident French (thanks in no small part to the English archers and their use of the effective English longbow).  The pride of the French changes to the heaviest shame.

Their shame increases by their ignominious act of killing all the boys in the English camp, a deed that infuriates King Henry.  But when he learns of the huge number of dead French as against the small number of English dead, he forbids himself pride, insisting instead that God won the battle for him.  He has his men sing ‘Non nobis’ and ‘Te Deum’ to show their humble thanks to God.  After this moment of humility, Williams is made to realize that the man he was to quarrel with would have been the king himself, and Williams must humbly beg Henry’s forgiveness.

Later, Fluellen makes Pistol, who has insulted the Welsh, swallow his pride by force-feeding him a leek, the symbol of Wales.

When the English and French kings meet, with their respective nobles, to go over the terms of the peace treaty, Henry has a private meeting with the French princess, whom he hopes to marry.  As he woos her in English, she replies in her still far-from-perfect English; then he swallows some pride in speaking just-as-broken French, moving her only to laugh at him.

Finally, he asks to kiss her, but her maidenly modesty won’t permit her to do so, for her pride won’t allow her to dishonour herself.  But he proudly insists that kings and (future) queens are the makers of manners (“nice customs curtsy to great kings”), and then gets a kiss from her.

The play ends with the Chorus reminding us of how England, after her glorious victory over the French, all too soon would feel her pride wounded when the poorly-managed English kingdom of the child King Henry VI would lose France.  This story, of course, had been presented many times on the London stage, in the Henry VI tetralogy mentioned above.

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About Mawr Gorshin

I write and self-publish mostly erotic horror (find me on Amazon and Literotica), but I blog about a variety of topics, including literary and film analyses, anarchism, socialism, libertarian Marxism, and psychoanalysis.

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