The Ironies of Success in Politics: An Introduction to Shakespeare’s Henry V
[A lecture prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina-University College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University). This text is in the public domain, released August 1999, and may be used, in whole or in part, by anyone for any purpose, without permission and without charge, provided the source is acknowledged. This text was last revised on January 21, 2000]
Shakespeare’s Henry V is a curious work. Unlike most of Shakespeare. s other plays, it seems to present no continuing complex story, nor does it explore any significant character development into a new awareness of anything. It is apparently designed more than anything else as a celebration of a particular personality, Henry V himself, in his various capacities as king. In the course of the play we see him performing the many different major functions of kingship: in council, carrying out royal justice, negotiating with the enemy, leading a military expedition, arranging a royal marriage, and so on. In all of these Henry is quickly and spectacularly successful. Hence, the play seems to lack the characteristic rhythm of a complex dramatic narrative, in which the conflict has a certain dynamic tension, some significant clash or complex character development.
This feature of the play has led some commentators to describe it as having a certain “epic” quality, meaning that the major purpose of the play seems to be to present a series of episodes of Henry as king in such a way as to celebrate his virtuoso performance, his unqualified success at everything he carries out. That quality is emphasized particularly by the presence of the Chorus, who announces the major demarcations of the play, each one involving an important shift in the scene and in the main political activity--in effect, announcing that now we are to witness one more illustration of Henry. s success.. So in this play there is no sense at all of the incompetence of Richard II, the sickness of Henry IV, the ingenious plotting of Richard III, or the moral evasiveness and self-defeating duplicity in earlier plays. Henry V would seem to present the triumphant answer to all the questions raised about modern politics in the earlier plays.
This aspect of the play is underscored by the way in which Henry himself dominates the scene. In no other play by Shakespeare is a single character so prominent, with such a large proportion of the lines assigned to him. No one in the play emerges as at all significant in comparison with this central character (minor characters, like Pistol or Fluellen, may be more dramatically interesting than Henry, but they are hardly as important as he is in the action). Any opposition from rebels at home or French nobles on the battlefield is quickly and peremptorily dealt with. So we have here no continuing sense of a conflict of personalities (like, for example, the conflict between Bolingbroke and Richard in Richard II or between Henry IV and Falstaff and Hotspur Henry IV, Part 1, and so on). The play, from start to finish, puts Henry on display as an unopposed triumphant theatrical presence.
How are we supposed to deal with this? What is Shakespeare. s purpose in subordinating any complex or interesting plot or character conflict to the celebration of an individual personality? Clearly, the answer has something to do with a desire to celebrate in Henry V the qualities of a totally successful monarch. If Henry IV raises the question “How in the modern world of Machiavellian dealing can politics be possible?” then this play would seem to supply the answer. Here we have the successful modern politician writ large. No other political figure in all of Shakespeare is as consistently efficient and successful as Henry.
For many readers, however, the play raises more complex possibilities. Yes, indeed, Henry is spectacularly successful, without peer in the world of modern politics, victorious in all encounters. But what has that cost him? To what extent does this play, for all its celebration of the great and glorious king, also call attention to the liabilities that come with such success? Or, put another way, just how much is the tribute to Henry V undercut by a complicating irony?
In order to address these issues in this lecture, I’d like to focus for a moment on Henry’s success (trying to explore some answers to the question about what it is exactly that makes him such a successful leader) and then move onto the more disputed territory of the play’s ironic possibilities.
HENRY THE MIRROR OF ALL CHRISTIAN KINGS
That Henry is consistently successful is an obvious feature of the play. We not only see that for ourselves, but we are always being told by various figures in the play just how marvelous Henry is. Everyone, from the clergy, to the powerful nobles, the military officers, the common men, even the French enemy, constantly acknowledge how much they admire Henry. In the one plot against him, the major conspirators instantly repent (once they are found out), and do not voice any complaint against Henry himself.
All this is clear enough. However, things get a little more complex if we ask ourselves just what, if anything, makes Henry a great king. Does this play illuminate for us particular personal qualities which enable Henry to be so much more successful than his predecessors? If so, just what does he possess or do to make his political actions so successful?
On the face of it, that question is at first rather perplexing, because we don’t see Henry debating various options, thinking his way through a particular problem, or even facing complex personal dilemmas. With one notable exception (which we will discuss later) we never see him alone, wrestling with alternatives, assessing whom he should trust or what he should do. What we do witness is Henry acting once all that personal decision making which illuminates someone’s character has already taken place somewhere else--we see him carrying out in action among other people what he has decided to do. How or why that decision was reached is not explored in any great detail.
What does stand out, in the absence of such a close glimpse of Henry. s personal characteristics, is his ability to adopt whatever public persona the situation requires. Whatever public style he needs to adopt to cope properly with a situation, he adopts completely and successfully, and when the situation changes he changes to meet a new circumstance.
So, for example, we see Henry at the start as a keen listener, letting his leading nobles and churchmen have their say about the decision whether or not to go to war, and stepping into the discussion decisively only when necessary and appropriate. Later he can, to the satisfaction of everyone, stage his royal justice in the unmasking of the conspirators. On the battlefield he can intimidate the citizen of Harfleur into surrendering, mix easily with the common soldiers, rally his troops with the most famous battlefield speech in English literature, and finally switch to the colloquial ease of a prosaic wooing scene with Katharine. It. s almost as if we are seeing a different personality in each of these situations.
We should already be familiar with this quality from Henry IV, Part 1, where Prince Hal is able to move smoothly from tavern to court to battlefield, seamlessly fitting in to these very different situations by adjusting his behaviour and (most importantly) his language to the new setting. Once the situation he has to deal with is over, the role he has adopted to cope with it can be abandoned. Faced with fighting Hotspur, Prince Hal can present himself as the full flower of chivalric honour; once that task is accomplished, he can drop the role. It is no longer necessary.
Henry, in other words, is, above and beyond all his other talents, a consummate actor. He has that most important Machiavel skill, the ability to adjust who he is so as to adopt the role best suited for effective political action in a given situation. And this quality is most apparent in Henry’s astonishing ability with language. He is an absolute master of political rhetoric, and Henry V is, more than anything else, a constant tribute to this talent.
Allied to this (perhaps it’s the same thing) is Henry’s astute sense of politics as theatre. Always on public display, Henry has an unerring sense of manipulating a situation (or, to sustain the theatrical metaphor) of directing situations so as to emphasize his royal authority, his decisive public presence. And the key talent required for this to work effectively is Henry’s sense of his own script.
At the start of the play, for instance, we follow the decision to go to war with France. It is not immediately clear just what Henry himself wants to do. From the way he conducts the royal council, it seems clear that he wants to assess the situation, to let everyone else speak--not so much to find out if he is justified in fighting the war but rather to gauge the temper, the political climate, of the meeting.. He quickly learns that, whatever the justification, everyone is keen to fight. At that point, he can step in decisively (in his answer to the message from the Dauphin) and deliver his belligerent answer--a strategy which puts him right in the spotlight, and enables him to confirm and appeal to the warmongering spirit of his nobles. All this has been made possible by Henry. s astute sense of the need to sound out his nobles before having to deal with the French ambassador. To achieve that, he has to rely upon the key quality his father showed in Richard II, the ability to listen to others, rather than making his own decision and imposing it on others.
In the next episode, in which Henry deals with the conspiracy against him, he, once again, stages a carefully arranged scene of theatrical politics. Instead of simply confronting the conspirators with their treachery, Henry lulls them into his theatre, so that he can step up and deliver a lengthy lecture on the importance of friendship and condemn them out of their own mouths.
What Henry is doing, in effect, is inviting his leading nobles to act as spectators in his own drama, to see him as the leading character dominating the action, calling the shots (not behind closed doors in closely argued debate or with open displays of his own power) but by the theatrical enactment of his pre-eminence. Henry’s speech on friendship, like his lengthy response to the French ambassador, has no particular effect on the action (in either case the English are going to war and the conspirators are going to be executed), but they are essential to the style of Henry’s political leadership front and centre, providing his powerful nobles a sense of shared agreement, voicing their common feelings in response to a situation he has carefully orchestrated to give him the opportunity to do that. He makes himself the splendid spokesman for their common desires.
Henry, in other words, like his father (and very unlike Richard II) obviously has an intuitive sense of the importance of language and a theatrical royal public presence as a central tool of effective political leadership. He is fully committed to the concept of kingship as efficient role playing, responding to the demands of a situation in a manner that most effectively deals with that situation and, at the same time, reinforces the image of royal authority. Unlike Richard, Henry is not in love with any particular role: how he acts is always determined by a shrewd appreciation for what the realities of the situation demand. Hence, he never falls into Richard. s mistake of thinking that a particular role is itself the political reality--for Henry every role is a temporary tool used to keep control over a potentially troublesome situation.
What makes this aspect of Henry’s political style most clear is the puzzling detachment he seems to have from the emotional content of the role he has to play. What I mean by that is that Henry is fully capable of using the most emotionally charged language in his public pronouncements, but the emotions he expresses are entirely bound up with the role, so that, once that moment is dealt with, he can quite dispassionately switch gears and effortlessly move into the next moment.
For instance, Henry can raise persistent royal doubts about the morality of his actions in going to France--the situation requires that he display such moral concerns. But once the theatrical display of the Archbishop’s reply and the various responses to it have taken place (without, for us, providing much of a convincing rationale), Henry can move on without any moral qualms into his warrior mode. The solemn moral language he uses, in other words, has no really deep meaning for him: the sentiments are those which the situation demands, nothing more, nothing less.
Similarly, Henry can deliver a very emotionally charged lecture on friendship to the conspirators (in 2.3), rehearsing the enormity of their betrayal, as if they are (or were) people particularly close and dear to him, and then, once the men are led away, instantly forget about that completely, and switching personalities abruptly and without any transition: “Bear them hence./Now lords for France, the enterprise whereof/ Shall be to you, as us, like glorious.” The speech on friendship has done its work--served to highlight in a theatrical way the nature of royal justice--but the power of the rhetoric has no effect on Henry beyond the moment he uses it to act the role of the grieving monarch. After all, if these conspirators were indeed the very closest of friends (as Henry’s speech suggests that they were) and if he were as emotionally hurt as he describes, it would seem rather odd that he could condemn them to death without any lingering emotional effect.
This ability of Henry to detach his own feelings from the words he is expressing accounts for the curious quality of many of his best known speeches, especially the threats to the citizens of Harfleur (3.3). Henry can simultaneously repeatedly indicate the extreme violence which will occur to the citizens if his soldiers take the town and disclaim his own involvement in the process (“What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause” and so on). The speech is famous as an example of excessive military rhetoric, but what’s curious is that it seems to be given here because that’s what the situation demands, rather than anything Henry passionately feels. Once the governor of the town surrenders, Henry drops the tone completely and instructs Exeter to “Use mercy on them all.” Is Henry a military butcher or a merciful conqueror? Well, that depends upon the immediate context.
Similarly, when faced with a potentially disastrous military situation before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry can talk sympathetically with the soldiers, seeking to rouse them, pray to God for guidance, and then deliver a wonderfully inspiring speech to his troops, justly famous as a rousing preparation for battle (a quality one senses he has learned or observed in Hotspur). Then, once the victory is complete, he can switch to the pious Christian thankful for his deliverance, and later to the rough colloquial wooer of the French princess.
All of these changes are, of course, politically effective (that is, they secure the desired short-term goals), and the play strongly suggests that the fact that Henry can move so quickly and effortlessly from one political role to another, with no apparent emotional strain, is his major political asset, since it enables Henry to be the most flexible of political operators. But the characteristic inevitably raises the key question: Who is the real Henry? What is there under all the role playing?
HENRY THE MAN
Answering questions about Henry’s real personality are inherently difficult, simply because, with one notable exception, we never see Henry except in a public role. For most of the play, Henry simply is the role he is playing at the moment, and the sum total of the various roles doesn. t add up to a coherent personality. In fact, that totality raises some awkward questions.
If Henry is as pious as he likes to appear--demanding a moral justification for going to war, constantly invoking the name of God in all his public pronouncements, insisting on the importance of mercy, and so on--then why does he go to war in the first place? How can he threaten such immoral violence on Harfleur, kill the prisoners of war, execute Bardolph (once his friend or crony, in the days of hanging out with Falstaff), and so on? Or how can he at least not manifest some momentary misgiving? Is there not some logical inconsistency here, especially since he seems to do it all so easily, without inner debate or emotional strain? Henry seems to invoke principles which he himself then denies in his actions.
Many commentators on this play have seen in this inconsistency an important source of irony in the presentation of Henry’s character, an irony that was present also in the portrayal of his father, Bolingbroke. This irony to some extent (just how much is a matter of dispute) undercuts the sense of celebration in Henry’s success, because it seems to suggest that success in modern politics, the major demand of an effective Machiavel style, requires a thoroughgoing hypocrisy or, beyond that, smothers the individual’s distinctively human personality under the need for the various public roles demanded of the king.
This possibility raises the complex and perhaps pessimistic notion that success in politics requires the sacrifice or repression of one’s humanity. Modern politics requires constant attention to the proper display and use of royal power, a scrupulous attention to the languages of the various roles which manifest that power, and an ability to move among these roles with none of the usual scruples or demands on one’s own self-interest or moral awareness. The most successful Machiavel is merely the totality of the effective roles he is required to play. In a sense, the more effective the leader, the less fully human he is, and, vice versa, the more fully human being one is, the less suited one is for full political rule.
This point is made explicit in the one moment we see Henry alone in 4.1, in a soliloquy before the battle. Most of this speech explores the nature of his own life, particularly his total commitment to “ceremony”--a word which sums up Henry’s sense of what is required of him as king: “Art thou aught else but place, degree, and form,/ Creating awe and fear in other men?” His tone here suggests a certain weariness in the face of the awareness that such “ceremony” has nothing to do with the most essential things about life, which the common man can enjoy without the responsibilities of being a hypocrite.
The very term “ceremony,” together with the way Henry talks about it, suggests something theatrical, a collection of props (“The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,/The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,/ The farced title running fore the king. . . .”) and the theatrical staging associated with these props. None of these, Henry admits, can answer to the deepest desires and fears of human beings. In fact, some of the most cherished desires of human life (like a good night’s sleep) must be surrendered as the price of these ceremonial props. In that sense there is something artificial and false (and perhaps dehumanizing) about them.
Henry’s reflections on these matters do not, however, lead him to any new awareness or any new actions. And they certainly do not reveal any doubts about what he has done or is doing--there is no slackening of purpose here. For the speech itself, although expressing a certain weariness, goes nowhere emotionally (into anger, uncertainty, or frustration, for example). So it’s worth asking what we are supposed to make of this moment. There’s little sense that Henry has any unease which interferes with his ability to rule effectively (before and after this moment), but the fact that he does have this moment suggests that his success might come with a heavy price, his own awareness of how his commitment to Machiavellian politics is corrupting his life. That assessment is probably too serious, since Henry. s speech expresses no regret for any decision he has made, no sense of what he might have been, no apology for any harm to anyone else, so we might be tempted to write it off as an expression of his understandable anxiety before the battle (especially given that his conversation with Williams may have touched a raw nerve, reminding Henry of the necessary hypocrisy of his royal authority).
That sense makes the prayer he now offers up particularly interesting. Henry wants God to assist him in the coming battle (for obvious reasons). He feels he has to persuade God that he’s worthy, and so he lists a number of "ceremonious" things he has done to atone for his father’s usurpation and execution of Richard. Whatever Henry’s moral sense, it doesn’t seem to include anything very personal about his own feelings or his own more questionable actions. It’s as if he is treating God rather like one of his own subjects--trying to impress Him with a list of his public actions. Given that he has just completed a discussion with Williams about the king’s moral responsibility for the killings that will occur in the war--an issue which should be of major concern for anyone who sincerely wants to live up to the highest standards of Christian morality—Henry’s prayer is, as so much of his talk, strangely dispassionate, detached from any powerful emotional centre (one only has to compare this prayer with that of Claudius in Hamlet to sense this difference). Here he is alone, of course, with no subjects standing by. That fact makes his tone all the more interesting, as if in private he’s as detached and theatrically calculating as in public (even before God).
So this intense private glimpse into Henry’s mind doesn’t help all that much to reveal anything significant about the man underneath the role playing (except to offer the insight that there is no private man under the public roles). We get no detailed sense of Henry’s conception of himself as a person or as a leader, other than a sense of weariness with the effort of maintaining a public show. But that weariness does not offer an insight into any complexity of character--it seems more like a momentary mood at an anxious time. Henry’s real personality remains as elusive as ever.
At the same time, we might still wonder about why Shakespeare puts this scene in the play. The content adds nothing to what we need to know about the upcoming battle, and it does not (as mentioned above) suggestively illuminate complexities in Henry. s character. It seems rather to highlight the lack of such inner complexity, to call attention in an ironic way to the extent to which Henry. s Machiavellian political tactics have colonized or suppressed or coarsened his moral sensibilities. Or is it the other way around? Is Henry’s successful political style the result of a person with relatively coarse moral sensibilities (or none at all) to begin with? And is such inner emptiness the necessary requirement for effective political leadership in the modern world?
It would be wrong, I think, to see Shakespeare as delivering here (or elsewhere in the play) a firm answer to such questions. But the scene definitely raises them. To the extent that we become aware of these interrogatives, our sense of Henry’s triumphs will, of course, be significantly undercut.
FURTHER COMPLICATING IRONIES
These questions we might want to raise about the extent to which certain ironies qualify our sense of Henry’s character, leading us to wonder about what personal price the successful leader pays for committing himself so thoroughly to modern politics, have encouraged many people to point out other ways in which this celebration of Henry’s success also seems consistently to undercut that success, so that we are left wondering just how we are to understand just what political success might finally mean.
These ironic qualifications are so pervasively present in this play that there seems little doubt that Shakespeare wants to complicate our response to Henry, to learn, as it were, that political success may be more immediately problematic than we had originally thought from the ease with which Henry deals with all the problems he faces.
I don’t propose to go through all the elements in detail, but let me list a few (you can explore them in greater detail later on).
A. The Morality of War
The central issue in this play is the invasion of France and the glorious victory at Agincourt. Yet the play does not spare us explicit references to just what war involves and repeatedly forces us to focus on the morality of Henry’s decision to go to war. Again, we might well ask ourselves why Shakespeare does this, why, that is, he confronts us with the morality of Henry’s political actions, rather than just appealing the the nationalistic sense of England’s greatest military hero, papering over the complexities instead of raising them insistently.
The moral issue surfaces at the very start of the play, and it is raised repeatedly by King Henry himself. At the same time, Shakespeare seems to go out of his way to point out that the justification for invading France is at least questionable and at most totally spurious.
The justification of the war (the legal justification) is given to the Archbishop. Yet, before we hear him provide his best counsel, we learn that he is hopelessly compromised, since in a private conversation in the immediately preceding scene he clearly indicates that his first desire is to preserve the property of the Church and that he will do whatever he needs to in order to prevent passage of a law expropriating Church property. That short opening scene has no ostensible purpose except to call into question the moral authority of the highest spiritual representatives of the kingdom.
And the legal justification for the invasion is deliberately ridiculous, a pedantic, hair-splitting, and largely incomprehensible example of special pleading, whose own wording (“So that, as clear as is the summer sun. . . .”) calls attention to its own absurdity. If Henry is seeking moral reassurance, a firm and justifiable reason for the killing which will ensue (as he reminds us), then the Archbishop’s speech, if anything, simply highlights the lack of anything which might possible pass moral muster. (For those who are fully in touch with the legitimacy of Henry’s claim to the throne, there’s an added irony here, because the very logic which Henry uses to justify his invasion of France would disqualify him in favour of Mortimer and the rebels whom Henry is about to execute in the next episode--although the play does not explore the legal basis for their conspiracy).
So why is this scene here? Or why does Shakespeare so deliberately emphasize the trumped-up nature of Henry’s excuse for going to war? It seems inescapably obvious that Shakespeare wants us to see that, for Henry, it’s the appearance of a moral discussion that matters, not its substance. No morally intelligent man could possibly be satisfied with the reasons given for going to war. Does this mean that Henry is a warmonger just going through the motions or a brutally stupid man (morally) who is ready to accept the Archbishop’s logic or who is fooled by the Archbishop’s conniving?
Only a particular production can clarify this issue for us. I like what Kenneth Branagh’s film does here: the discussion is Henry’s opportunity to sound out his senior advisors about the war, to take the political temperature. Having the Archbishop present the legal case provides such an opportunity--what matters more than the logic of this argument is the reaction to it of those listening. Once Henry sees the united enthusiasm for the war, he makes his decision (with, to judge from the acting in that film, some reluctance). He recognizes what role the king now has to play: his independent moral sense is irrelevant, for the situation requires him, in the name of keeping some domestic peace, to declare war on France.
[Olivier. s film, which seeks to make Henry an unambiguous hero, tries to neutralize the moral complexities of this scene with the Archbishop by turning it into farcical comedy. This may disguise the moral seriousness but it doesn’t entirely resolve them, because this interpretation leads one to wonder why Henry would attend to such a clown]
In any case, the scene drives an initial ironic wedge between Henry’s moral language, his constant references to God and his insistent statements about how he desires to do what is right, and his actions. We are invited to wonder just how much Henry’s moral language and his publicly expressed desire to do his Christian duty are anything more than public relations. This realization need not amount to a personal indictment of Henry (although it might); one could react to it (and this is how I incline to see it) as an illumination of modern political reality. In a world ruled by an absence of trust and the importance of power, the system requires someone extremely skilled in manipulating others into some form of cooperative endeavour, even if that involves a war with little justification. Fighting the French at least stops the English from killing themselves. But some public show of moral deliberation must be retained.
[Those who remember Bolingbroke’s instructions to his son about how to be an effective ruler understand clearly the real reason for the war against France: it is designed to unite the powerful quarrelsome English nobles in a common enterprise. Hence, all the talk of moral justification is clearly a mask over a common and effective Machiavellian strategy for consolidating royal power.]
The other clear occasion when the issue of the morality of the war is thrust upon the spectator is the famous discussion Henry has with Williams, the common soldier (in 4.1). This exchange is worth attending to closely, because Williams has a much finer appreciation for the heart of the moral issue than does the Archbishop. Williams makes the key point that unless the king’s cause is just, then he has a reckoning to make when divine judgment is handed out for all the killing that occurs. This, of course, is the king’s responsibility, because the subjects do not have the choice about whether they fight or not and why. Unlike the king, the common troops have no freedom of choice in going to war or not.
Henry’s response--that war is God’s way of punishing people for their bad deeds and that, therefore, the deaths in war are the responsibility of those whom war kills--is notoriously illogical (and the play later confirms this by killing the boys, the young lads who have not had time to commit all the sins Henry lists). Henry’s subsequent irritation with Williams (which leads to an exchange of gloves as gages for a quarrel) may well stem from his sense that Williams has touched a raw spot.
Once again, the relevant question to ask is why Shakespeare would include this scene, which adds nothing to the plot, but which does raise a complex moral issue only to have Henry, in effect, talk it away in a chop logic worthy of the Archbishop. It strikes me that this scene, once again, forces us to confront the unwelcome irony about modern politics: it will not bear clear moral scrutiny. Henry cannot answer Williams persuasively because Williams is right. Once again, the scene unmasks the moral emptiness which Henry’s frequently pious language papers over. Characteristically, however, Williams’s objection does not arouse any deep moral pondering in Henry himself. He concentrates instead on a short lament about the difficulties of being a king.
B. THE ISSUE OF FRIENDSHIP
In this business of the ironic qualifications to Henry’s successes, as many have pointed out, the issue of Falstaff arises once again. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Shakespeare has a deliberately ironic intention in placing right after the scene in which Henry denounces the conspirators for violating the dearest bonds of friendship with a scene (one of the finest in all Shakespeare) where Falstaff’s death is reported and we witness the genuine grief of his cronies--together with the explicit accusation that Falstaff died of a broken heart because of Henry’s rejection of him.
That accusation is, of course, overblown, but it serves to remind us, once again, of the gap between Henry’s public rhetoric, loaded with words of value, and his political actions, which seem to ignore or violate those words. As with the issue of the morality of the war, the evaluative terms, the sense of moral intelligence, stands exposed as a rhetorical ploy--a necessary tool in the public political world, but with no personal meaning.
Here again, we don’t need to translate this into a personal condemnation of Henry--it may be yet another ironic insight into the price of political success, a reminder (for those who remember the tavern of Henry IV, Part 1) of what Henry has had to repudiate in order to assume the mantle of leadership left to him by his father.
That ironic point is clearly underscored when Bardolph is condemned to hang for stealing from a church. Bardolph, of course, is an ex-crony of Prince Hal’s from the tavern days. But such friendship has no place here--not even if Bardolph’s theft is extremely minor compared to what the English are trying to do, namely, steal a kingdom by force. To achieve that they have broken the peace upon which the good life depends. Bardolph, significantly, has stolen a church item called a pax, the Latin for peace. But the peace he steals will cost him his life. Henry’s theft of peace, which kills hundreds of men and devastates the land (as the Duke of Burgundy points out) will make him a famous monarch, celebrated for his virtue.
SOME FINAL SUMMARY COMMENTS
The play ends with what looks like a devastating irony in the Epilogue spoken by the Chorus, which opens by reminding us of Henry’s great glory and then indicates that within a generation all his achievements were squandered by his successors. Hence, all the military and political gains of this most wonderful king have no lasting effect. The last thing we learn in Henry V seems to pull the rug out from under everything that it has celebrated. If none of this lasted, then what is the point?
That question may well lead us to some complex thoughts about the nature of modern political life. For if Henry is, as the play clearly shows us, the most successful modern politician, and if his achievements come at a huge personal cost and are very short-lived, then success in politics would seem to be a problematic undertaking, carrying a huge personal cost (to the effective ruler) and no guarantee of lasting stability.
This impression is hard to deny, especially because the play does not offer us any viable alternative to the style of politics as practised by Henry. That becomes clear in Shakespeare’s treatment of the French royal court. Here there is much talk of traditional honour. And the French nobility are clearly fond of fine things, horses, poetry, well-crafted armour, witty conversations--the familiar trappings of the medieval world. They belong, in that sense, to a world which has not yet converted to modern political life.
But the French are also rather silly and weak, no match for the ruthless efficiency of Henry’s armies and aggressive policies (a quality stressed by the repeated references to how much beef the English eat). If there is anything in them to admire (in contrast to the English), that is sadly out of date. Significantly, the only women in the play live in the French court (other than Mistress Quickly), and they quickly become appropriated by the English for political purposes.
Thus, there’s a sense here that the style of politics exemplified by Henry is necessary in the modern world. However much we may assess its ironic limitations and, perhaps, long-term inefficacy, there is simply no other way to proceed. Certainly, those who, like the French, try to rely upon traditional chivalry are swept aside in the face of the sheer efficiency of Henry’s political hypocrisy. More positively, if we look at this play in the context of the entire second history cycle, we can see that Henry does succeed, if only temporarily, where his predecessors failed: he does unite his powerful and factious nobles behind him. For a short interlude, there is no more civil war.
This element is reinforced in the sub-plot featuring the soldiers of different nationalities: English, Irish, and Welsh, who may argue amongst each other but who are united in their obedience to and respect for King Henry. The most prominent of these, Fluellen, significantly is Welsh, a member of the same people as Glendower, who in the earlier Henry IV plays were among Henry IV’s most dangerous and powerful enemies. Whatever else we might like to say about Henry’s theatrical royal power, it has imposed some measure of unity upon potentially factious divisions among the people he rules.
However we assess that, what may be emerging in Henry V is something very pronounced in some of the plays which follow the second history cycle: a division of political experience into two separate and equally unsatisfactory worlds. The first is the brutally efficient and (in its own terms) successful world of Machiavellian politics, a dangerous world exclusively run by men, empty of fun, music, women, fine things, a world totally committed to the efficient use of power through deception for survival, and the second is the world of fun, pleasure, women, fine manners, good food, and so on, a world which is fatally weak politically.
Such a division lies at the heart of Hamlet’s Elsinore, characterizes the differences between the Trojans and the Greeks in Troilus and Cressida, and is a major theme in Antony and Cleopatra (among other plays). If we see such a division beginning in Henry V (and how important we make it will depend to a large extent on the weight we give to the ironies which qualify our response to Henry’s successes), then this play becomes considerably more than a simple unambiguous celebration of the wonderful virtues of the Mirror of All Christian Kings.
This view of Henry V also reminds us just how far Shakespeare’s political vision in the history plays has come since the Henry VI trilogy, among his very first plays. What began as a deliberate attempt to court popularity with lots of battles, high rhetoric, and a simplistic notion of historical success and failure has evolved into something much more complex, mature, and elusive, and something which invites us to reach a fuller understanding of our own political life.