Shakespeare’s historical drama, Henry V, is consumed with the overwhelming theme of war and how each character comes to justify or interpret it. Henry V himself, fearless leader of the English forces, embraces the war while glorifying and romanticising their efforts through his actions and speeches. Characters such as Michael Williams, however, are unsure about the King’s reasons for entering battle against France, yet continue to support the crown and fight anyway in their loyalty. In contrast to these noble outlooks on the war, Shakespeare also introduces characters that instead use the situation for their own benefit.
In the very beginning of the play, we already see the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely creating a clever, political strategy which is to distract King Henry with the war so that he forgets about the bill to confiscate church property. As well, the vulgar commoners Corporal Nym, Ancient Pistol, and Lieutenant Bardolph use their role in the war as soldiers in order to loiter, as they are cowards more concerned with thieving. But as the boy, former page of a Sir John Falstaff, comes to realize, war is totally random in the lives it takes and takes no account of whether a victim was fighting with just cause.
As soon as King Henry V makes the decision to enter a war with France, he attempts to rally and motivate those around him with his patriotic and confident views. In the third act, scenes one and two, Henry delivers a powerful speech, conjuring up the memory of the Englishmen’s warlike ancestors and appealing to all soldiers, noblemen, and commoners alike. This is the famous speech before the walls of Harfleur, which begins, “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” (3. 1. 1), a line often used as an inspiring call to battle. Henry V seems to celebrate and glorify war by turning war into poetry.
He uses images and metaphors from nature to urge his men into a state of uncontrolled ferocity for battle. As Henry says to his soldiers, “when the blast of war blows in our ears, / Then imitate the action of the tiger: / Stiffen the sinews, conjure up the blood, / Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage” (3. 1. 5-8). His speech also employs two other important tactics. First, he invokes English patriotism by calling upon, “you, good yeomen, / whose limbs were made in England” to “show us here / the mettle of your pasture; let us swear / That you are worth your breeding” (3. 1.25-28).
He reminds his men of their warlike ancestors and great historical battles. Second, Henry takes a non-traditional and democratic stance, saying that every soldier is as good as a nobleman. “For there is none of you so mean and base / That hath not noble lustre in your eyes” (3. 1. 29-30). By presenting the war in such an elegant and noble manner, Henry not only justifies his actions to himself, but also incites fever and hunger for battle in his troops. As the English noblemen gather before the Battle of Agincourt, they realize that the French outnumber them five to one.
Westmorland wishes that they had more troops to send in, but King Henry disagrees. In his awesome “St. Crispin’s Day” speech, Henry says that they should be happy that there are so few of them there, for each can claim a greater share of the honour when they win. This speech is meant to bolster the morale of his soldiers before they head into battle that they are almost certain to lose. Henry is trying to convince his men that they have all come there to fight for right; for honour, justice, and glory. To accomplish this, he makes fighting with him at Agincourt sound like a privilege, to capture more glory.
Again, Henry brings up the recurring theme of the bond between king and commoner. When he says, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” he is leading to the suggestion that each man, “that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile / This day shall gentle his condition” (4. 3. 60-63). That is, even a commoner will be made noble by fighting at the King’s side. The result will be a life-long honour that will elevate the soldiers above all others. And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by From this day to the ending of the world But we in it shall be remembered…
And gentlemen in England now abed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon St. Crispin’s day (4. 3. 57-67). Henry uses resonant and powerful language, which demonstrates his attitude and passion towards the war. The speeches that Henry V delivers, however, are not received so well by all, such as Michael Williams. Sitting at the campfire disguised as a commoner, Henry listens to Williams deliver his point of view that the soldiers do not know whether the king’s reasons for being in France are worthy or not.
He claims that the king’s moral responsibility is very important. “If the [King’s] cause be not good,” he says, “the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make… ” (4. 1. 134). Despite his doubts of the King and the war, Williams devotes himself to the cause because it is his duty as an Englishman. He recognizes that if the men die “badly,” they die in sin and are doomed to hell, yet he continues to fight. This demonstrates that Williams’ loyalty to the crown is more important than any feelings of doubt he may have towards the cause.
He handles himself much like Henry V in that his first priority concerning the war is not a selfish one as he puts his country and fellow men ahead of himself. At the very start of the play, Shakespeare introduces two characters that intend to manipulate Henry V and the war in order to better themselves. The bill that King Henry is considering at the start of the play would transfer Church assets to the crown, in order to open hospitals and poorhouses, as well as enrich the king’s own treasuries and fund his army.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely greedily do not wish to see this happen, as they would loose money and land, which have made the Church very powerful. They see the war as a way to distract King Henry from putting the bill into place. Canterbury and Ely therefore work out a trade, in which the church will give money directly to the king for the war, to avoid forfeiting still more money if the bill was to pass. When presented with a way by which to forgo the transfer of Church assets to the crown, greed dominates their thoughts towards the war and all they seem to care about is their own special interests.
Canterbury prepares and gives the noblemen In the throne a lengthy explanation of why Henry has a good claim to France, and Henry warns the clergymen, “For we will hear, note, and believe in heart / That what you speak is in your conscience washed / As pure as sin with baptism” (1. 2. 30-32). Even though, when presented with the idea, King Henry warns Canterbury that the lives lost in the war will be on his conscience, the two clergymen persist in their selfish quest.
Like Canterbury and Ely, there are other characters in the play that use their roles in order to benefit themselves. The three men, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol are soldiers fighting for the English. They are vulgar commoners whose only ambitions are to loot and steal from the French. Eventually, Bardolph and Nym are both sentenced to hanging for their deeds leaving Pistol, the worst of the crew. Pistol is the kind of man who only goes off to war now and then, but pretends to be a full time soldier back at home.
At the Battle of Agincourt, Pistol takes a French prisoner, Monsieur le Fer and tries to communicate, only with the help of the Boy who speaks good French. Monsieur le Fer says that he is from a respected house and family and that his relatives will give Pistol a rich ransom if he is allowed to live. Being very interested in money, Pistol accepts the bargain showing his greed and self-indulgence. The Boy, seeing this, complains about Pistol’s empty boasting and points out that, based on his selfish ways, Pistol is in no way deserving of this chance.
The Boy brings up and important point as he sees what has unfolded for the three greedy men, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol. Pistol, being the worst morally out of the bunch, is never punished for his ways. Bardolph and Nym had ten times more valour than this roaring devil i’th’ old play, that everyone may pare his nails with a wooden dagger, and they are both hanged, and so would be, if he durst steal anything adventurously, I must stay with the lackeys with the luggage of our camp (4. 4. 67-71).
Here the Boy shows the randomness of war in which it kills and lets live. The noble warriors, and not so noble warriors alike, do not always get what they deserve in war. In conclusion, throughout Henry V, the audience is bombarded with actions and thoughts all relating to the war cause. Each character has their own opinions and justifications relating to the war, some of them more self-serving than others. King Henry V and Michael Williams are alike in that they are loyal to the English cause and everything they do is motivated by patriotism.
Juxtaposing these characters, are men like Pistol and the clergymen who use the war in order to further themselves. They look at it as an opportunity not to benefit their country, rather their own self-interests. And despite these differences in motivation to further the war, all men seem to be at the mercy of its randomness. In Henry’s war, just because a soldier may have the noblest of intentions, he will not necessarily be rewarded for those efforts. Works Cited Shakespeare, William. Henry V, ed. Stanley Wells, Gary Taylor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.