Arguably, William Shakespeare created the historical play, King Henry V for propaganda purposes. Requested by King Henry’s distant relative Queen Elizabeth, the play portrays the main character, King Henry, in different aspects and facets. As a playwright of the time, Shakespeare felt he had to turn what was seen as a simple war hero into a complex character to make the play more interesting and to his liking. In this play Henry, upon his father’s death, rapidly changed from a wild, boisterous youth, to a responsible, powerful king, faced with the decision of invading France.
He won the battle with a small army against a large opposition and from his victory claimed a wife, Princess Katherine, from the French side. This essays intention is to explore Henry’s character, whether he has the qualities of a noble hero or a devious brute. We must keep in mind how Shakespeare wanted the audience, perhaps the ruling monarchy at that time, to digest this play and their interpretations of Henry’s character. The audience’s first impression of Henry is influenced by their first taste of the play, the chorus.
Read by the narrator, the chorus sets the scene for each act and summarizes part of the plot, introducing dramatic irony and different themes into the play. The chorus at the beginning Henry V gives you an idea that Henry is a very powerful and impressive king, as is the theme of the play. So great that ‘O For a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention, A kingdom for a stage, princes to act. ‘ (Chorus, line 1-3) In other words, the chorus is telling the audience that it is difficult for all the greatness and size of the battles to be presented on stage and if only there was another way to do that.
It portrays Henry as ‘warlike’ and refers to him in terms of mythological gods, ‘assume the port of Mars’. The chorus also talks of Henry’s brutish feats on the ‘vasty fields of France’. It shows Henry and the actual play as very ‘mighty’ and this can be interpreted as a brutish image, for example, he ‘did affright the air at Agincourt. This phrase taken from the chorus is alliterated by Shakespeare to draw the audience’s attention to it as is an important part of the play and portrays Henry as someone that can easily scare. The whole point of this chorus is to set a very powerful and controlling theme as the main purpose of this play
However, this image of a powerful and war-loving brute is contradicted in the beginning of the first act. Two of Henry’s church officials, Canterbury and Ely, confer about, in private, a situation that includes the king. In doing that they also discuss Henry’s character and his past, before he became king. According to these to bishops, he was a wild young man known as the madcap prince. However, when ‘the breath no sooner left his father’s body’, his character took on the transition from wild behavior with illiterate drunks and rioting to a model king.
Perhaps, as Ely suggests using imagery`, ‘The strawberry grows beneath the nettle, and wholesome berries thrive and ripen best nieghboured by fruit of baser quality. ‘ (Ely, Act 1,Scene1, line 60-63) Ely is trying to say that Henry has always been responsible, sensible and had great potential; it just took the right influences and circumstances to bring it out in his character. Though all the two bishops say about the young king shows signs of nobility, the key hero quality they reveal about Henry is that he is deeply religious, ‘a true lover of the holy church’.
This implies that he disapproves of sinning and therefore cannot be classed as a brute. He also shows this in the next scene when he and his officials resolve whether to declare war on France before the French ambassador arrives, they refer to ‘God’ frequently when discussing this situation. Henry also shows signs of being noble when considering war, showing he has given it a lot of thought and is aware of the consequences of his actions. When the French ambassador does arrive, an opposing side to the noble image of Henry appears.
The French ambassador, representing the Dauphin, presents a tun to the king. It contains a mocking gesture aimed at Henry’s inexperienced reputation. No sooner then this insult was put into place, Henry immediately decided to ‘play a set’ and strike ‘his fathers crown into the hazard, basically declaring war. On Henry’s part, this is a spontaneous action and could show that Henry has a short temper, which is not a good quality for a king to have. There may also be an element of power lust in Henry’s feelings, as a new king he’s getting a first feel of his control over a country.
Henry wants to prove to his country, and other countries, that he is capable of ruling and that he is a good king. However, he is proving his strength and braveness, as quoted here, ‘I will dazzle all the eyes of France’, in a devious, irrational way that involves the murder of countless innocent people. This is a perfect example of how Henry has behaved brutishly. Further on in the play there is another example similar to this one in which Henry sends his uncle Duke of Exeter to give the French King a proposal, surrender his crown or face consequences.
The language used to describe these consequences was horrific, images of destruction and death. For example, words and imagery like ‘threatening’, bloody’, ‘widows’, and ‘dead men’s blood’, are used for brutish realism, draw the audience’s attention and to stress the threatening purpose of the message. Either choice presented to the French King spells potential disaster, as his country would suffer anyway, Henry is being a brute by even suggesting them. From the language that Shakespeare uses for Exeter’s speech, this is probably an impression the audience is receiving from the play.
However, Shakespeare’s intended audience probably saw Henry’s actions as being strong and tough as that was the typical manner of good kingship in Shakespeare’s era. The French King was given a choice and should be grateful that Henry did not just charge into France and create destruction and total havoc. The French seem to respect him as a king, apart from the Dauphin who has been shown to be young and nai?? ve by sending Henry the tennis ball insult that partly triggered this whole siege. As the French king says, the Dauphin is ‘Much mistaken in this king (Henry)’.
Henry is described by the French king and the Constable with words and phrases like, ‘fatal’, ‘royally’, ‘courage’, ‘fierce’, ‘noble’ and ‘strong’. These descriptions represent a Henry in a positive light and Shakespeare does this to show that Henry intimidates other rulers. The French, not including the Dauphin, obviously view Henry as something as a strong, noble, caring and influential. Henry shows these also in person by his skill of bringing moral and courage to his army at the siege of Harfleur, which is defiantly a good thing to have as king.
Sometimes Henry doesn’t show the moral lifting skills that he is famous for. On his march to Agincourt, Henry’s old friend, Bardolph, was needlessly charged with death for ‘robbing a church’. Henry just let him be executed seemingly not caring that Bardolph was a good friend and a reminder of his wild and exciting past. Henry treated Bardolph as an ‘offender’ that did a horrendous crime, which it was not, and took his life for the sake of being an example to the rest of his army. To most people, this is showing cold-heartedness and abuse of power, which can be described as brutish.
Another example of Henry’s callous tendencies, though he doesn’t appear in this play, is Falstaff’s death. According to Nell Quickly and Henry’s old friends, the reason why Falstaff died was because, ‘the king killed his heart’. Henry earlier in the previous play, Henry IV, had rejected his dear friend to forget his untamed, careless past, though that is not necessary to become a noble king. As shown here, ‘The king hath run bad humours on the king; that’s; that’s the even of it. ‘ (Nym, Act2, Scene1, line 97-98)
What Henry did to his friends seems ruthless and brutish behaviour, he ended up making them extremely unhappy and seems to have been the main cause of the death of his best friend. There is no evidence, however, that Falstaff did die because of Henry’s rejection, more likely old age and bad living. His friends do seem to realize the sacrifices that Henry to make and respect his decision, ‘The king is a good king, but it must be as it may. He passes some humours and careers. ‘ (Nym, Act 2, Scene 1 His army also views Henry in a similar way, but as a very admirable, understanding and patriotic king.
The reason why he is very understanding of his army is the compassion he showed when he took the effort to disguise himself and visit his troops to find out their feelings of him and the coming battle. The outcome of his quest was dismal, his argument with Williams made him realize the pain and death he is causing. Though he argues against Williams, saying that he is not responsible for his soldier’s deaths and souls, he disturbed by the facts and consequences of the approaching battle.
For example, Williams says that,”We died at such a place’, some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon wives left poor behind them, some upon their children rawly left. ‘ (Williams, Act4, Scene 1, line 126-129) This outlines the consequences if one man dies and the grief it will cause. Not only that but, ‘few die well that die in a battle, meaning that to the soldiers it is not such a glorious thing to die in war. Williams really stresses the fact that, it is said that people should fight with a good heart, but there is never a good feeling when they are being killed.
There is no benefit to the men so they feel disheartened because they are fighting only for the king’s reasons. The choice of words here follow a very tragic and bitter theme aimed at Henry. For example, what really makes the king feel morose is when Williams says, ‘If these men do not die well it will be a black matter for the king that led them into it, who to disobey were against all proportion of subject. ‘ (Williams, Act 4, Scene 1, line 131-133) Henry now feels like he is the one leading his own men into such devastation.
As a response to this shocking realization, Henry has his own soliloquy where he cries a plea to God telling Him the burdens of his reign as king. He asks God many rhetorical questions asking him why there is so much ‘ceremony’ of being a king, he wishes he has the ‘infinite hearts ease must kings neglect that private men enjoy’ and all he gets is ‘poisoned flattery’. This means that being a king is only an image of greatness, he has no rest of being a king and everyone has to admire him to his face. This moment captures a side of Henry he can only confide to God, it shows Henry as not only noble, but compassionate and a mortal man at heart.
This is quite an emotional scene and the audience may be touched by his sincerity. Shakespeare does this because to make the play more interesting and maybe so there is a conflict of interest in the audience. Some maybe touched by the scene, some will admire his initiative of finding out himself how to compel his troops to fight a good battle the next day and some may see his despair as a weakness. The next slightly devious action by Henry is his claim on Katherine and his forced marriage to her. He doesn’t seem to care about her feelings of the marriage, all though she knows it will help improve ties between France and England.
She still has a right and she did not seem very willing or happy. No woman, no matter how important, would ever enjoy being a war prevention tactic. To Katherine it may almost seem as if she is a possession, to be used and disposed when her father feels is right. Henry is being a brute here by making and letting the French king give her to him. Their marriage signifies the end of the play. In Conclusion, this whole essay presents my opinion. It was extremely hard to balance this essay, as there are many more issues in the play that point to Henry as being more of a noble hero.
I do admit, however, that there is a slight element of deviousness in his actions, but they are only necessary steps to being a hero. The play portrays Henry as a real person under pressure and burdened with the responsibility of ruling a country. It seems that he is more servant to his country but presents himself as much more then that as to be careful he does not get a bad image or thrown over, so he can rule England well. I thought that he tried his best and even though he did not feel confident, to defeat France and has an amazing skill of understanding his soldiers, therefore knowing how to lift their morals.
Everything he does is noble and heroic, pardoning a few compulsory decisions that can be justified. All in all Henry was a good king and that was how Shakespeare wanted to portray him, only including a sense of deviousness and power to Henry’s image to show he can control, only letting his real self slip out once in a while. This keeps the audience interested in the play so they can find out what kind of person Henry is as it unravels his character throughout the play.