Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Henry V

Shakespeare's Henry V gives us the best of kings, the best of battle, and even a touch of comedic romance, all bundled into what may well be the most unapologetically patriotic of his plays. This is, in part, because of the dark troubles that preceded it in Henry IV parts I and II; Prince Hal is the lone Shakespearean monarch whom we get to see in the very process of coming of age, transformed from a young, impulsive party boy who takes advantage of his birth to dodge the bonds of law to a regal figure, an intuitive battle-leader and politician, who stealthily takes advantage of all who underestimate him.

At the opening, we see him still on the cusp of the Prince Hal/King Henry transformation. A gift of tennis balls from the French king in "lieu" of a promised  tribute -- galls his kibe. The scene was proverbial, the subject of a ballad that (as fate would have it) endured longer here in North America than in Britain. What will this new and untested monarch do? The audience immediately craves to know, and Henry's decision to go to war with France signals his readiness to embrace danger in order to defend his realm and reputation.

And danger arrives much earlier than anticipated, in the form of a plot to kill the young king by the Earl of Cambridge (his cousin), which Henry quickly quashes, foreshadowing his decisive manner with challenges yet to come. Further victories embolden him, and yet none is easily attained; as he readies his forces for what will become the Battle of Agincourt, he (and we) learn more of his inner mettle. Disguised, he walks among the ranks, both encouraged and dismayed by what he hears.

And herein lies a crux for all of Shakespeare's history plays: it's nearly always with the king that the audience's identification lies, and yet none of that audience -- or Shakespeare himself for that matter -- has any idea of what the experience of being a king is like. It's our idea of a king -- our notion of what sovereignty entails -- that fascinates Shakespeare. And so, just as he described Prince Hal's father Henry IV, we find that 'uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.'

And so, then, we share in this uneasiness. Looking at the play, up to the moment of its central battle, what stands out? What puzzles? What resonates, perhaps makes us think of the way power yet works today? Post your thoughts below, making sure to reference specific moments in the play as needed.


  1. What I find most interesting about the character of King Henry is the different parts of his character and how they work together or conflict with one another. He is warlike, but also pious. He believes in God, yet he want to take money and lands away from the church in Act One. We learn that he was a rebellious youth, but has apparently left his wild ways completely behind him. In Scene 3.3 he threatens to have his men rape the women of France and kill their babies if they do not yield to him. Yet in Scene 3.6, King Henry tells Montjoy that he doesn't want the French abused in any way, not even verbally. I think this shows that above all else, King Henry is crafty. He tells Montjoy that his troops are sick and weak. This appears to be true, but it's also a way to get Montjoy to think that perhaps the French don't need to prepare for battle. Right after this, he informs his brother that they are in "God's hand." Here, Shakespeare could be showing us that the king is pious, or he could be showing us that he uses religion to motivate and manipulate people.

  2. Claudina Pereira

    What stands out for me in the play is the notion that every person is out for their own interest. In Act I King Henry wants to take land and money from the church to aid him in his war. This goes to show that the amount of power that a person has plays an important role in determining what is right or wrong for them to do. Henry also shows kindness when he friend the drunkard man. When the fate of the nation or his life is at stake, he knows that he must act larger than his personal feelings. His advisors, the English clergymen, who preach the word of the lord, are actually greedy crooks who plotted to murder their king so he does not take anything away from their own personal affairs. King Henry showed maturity and kingship when he ordered his enemies to be executed. In Act II, scene IV, Henry is seen by the Dauphin as a shallow humorous youth. What the Dauphin does not realize is that Henry is now a man on a mission with more maturity. Dauphin attitude towards the situation only reveals his own naivety and youthfulness. Like the English Clergyman said in Act I, Scene I, Henry’s wild days were simply “The fertile soil for the mature flower of kingship.”

  3. After reading and rereading act 1 scene 2 where the bishop of Canterbury is explaining how no woman will hold the throne in the Salic island, I still have no idea what he's trying to say. Is he trying to prove that a woman did sit on the throne or that Queen Isabelle is somehow related to King Henry?

    Naomi Stewart

  4. There are so many things that stand out. First thing was in the beginning of the play when Canterbury tells us that King Henry in “the courses of his youth promised it not. The breath no sooner left his father's body, but that his wildness, mortified in him, seem'd to die too.” How someone in his youth could be so irresponsible and callus and everyone knows this but he still becomes King. Another part that stood out was concerning the Salique or Salic Law which in the play says” only applies to the Germans and not the French,” when it applies to the French as well but somehow not to King Henry. King Henry’s biggest concern is about how much money can be made and loss of life is less important to him. In regards to how power works today. Not much has changed in that area either since most of the people in power today are still crooks and are out for themselves only. King Henry also pretends to be a religious man but says:” Now are we well resolved; and, by God's help, And yours, the noble sinews of our power, France being ours, we'll bend it to our awe, or break it all to pieces: Is this something a religious man would say, not likely. King Henry appears to still be callus and irresponsible as he was in his youth, and does not seem to have changed at all with age.

  5. Although it is one of the more popular scenes, the scene where Henry received the tennis balls was one that particularly stood out to me. It seemed to be a good representation of where Henry was at in his life, as his response to the gift is somewhat clever, calm and witty, and yet his plan of action is one that is malicious and calls for war. The use of a tennis match as a metaphor for war was a very effective style of writing by Shakespeare. Henry seems to be on the verge of becoming a grown man, yet still a bit immature and that scene showcases that. Also, having taken a medieval history course, I found Shakespeare's depiction of war and religion to be very accurate as the role of the church in war was very different than today. I am also interested to know about why the comparison to honey has been repeated as well as Henry's relationship to all the characters.

  6. The things I found very interesting about the character King Henry is that he has so many different parts to his character/personality. He is a young King that is powerful and “ballsy” because he is willing to go to war so easily, after being insulted by getting the gift of tennis balls, and yet he is also very moral and cares about all of his people. It was confusing to keep up with the character of King Henry, on scene he is threatening to have his men rape the French women, and yet in another scene he tells Montjoy that he doesn’t want to abuse the French at all, very confusing. But I feel that this could help show the reader or audience, get a feeling for the struggle that King Henry had happening within himself. Half of him feels he has to be this vicious powerful King, but the other half doesn’t want to be that kind of ruler. I think King Henry is a good man to his people, even though he has too many different faces.

    Ashley Ricci

  7. Sarah Murphy

    King Henry in the play seemed to have many different personalities to his character. I never really understood that he is King of England but then he wants to get a an army together to go to France so that he can then also be the King of France too. Why does he need to be the King of England and France, isn't one enough?? I feel that KIng Henry can be a manipulative character in a way because at the end of the play he marries a women that has ties to France and in the end he will end up being the King of France one day. He has it all but then again it seems like he wants to be just like the "common" people in the play. Overall I think that he seems to be a good fit for a King, there are just many instances where it seems like he should not be one.