Henry 5 Speech Analysis Essay

C. H. Hobday (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Imagery and Irony in Henry V," in Shakespeare Survey, No. 21, 1968, pp. 107-14.

[In the essay below, Hobday explores the use of death imagery in Henry V and its emotional significance for Shakespeare, noting that he "constantly juxtaposed the fine talk of honour and religion with the realities of human greed and cruelty."]

During the last century and a half many of the most distinguished Shakespearian critics, from Hazlitt to J. Dover Wilson, have disputed over the character of Shakespeare's Henry V. When such a debate has continued so long, without showing any sign of reaching a conclusion, it seems reasonable to assume that the division of opinion among critics may reflect a division in Shakespeare's own mind, and that his emotions may have rebelled against his conscious intentions in writing the play. One criterion by which we can attempt to ascertain the feelings with which he wrote is through his image-clusters, which afford a clue to the emotional associations which certain words possessed for him. In Henry V one image-cluster plays an especially significant part, that associated with death.

Some two dozen images were linked in Shakespeare's mind with the idea of death, and can be roughly divided into seven groups: bones, leanness, pallor, rottenness, and ghost; hollowness, grave, vault or cave, earth, and womb; mouth or teeth, and eating; eyes and weeping; war, cannon, blood, and fire; sea, rocks, and wind or storm; and lion or tiger and roaring. The train of thought linking many of these ideas is obvious enough. Shakespeare saw death personified as a meagre, white-faced, ghostly figure, a rotting corpse, a skeleton, or a monster feeding on men—hence the association with the mouth and eating. Death, weeping, and hence eyes is a natural sequence of ideas, but the connexion between them is strengthened by the fact, which Caroline Spurgeon noted [in Shakespeare's Imagery, 1935], that when Shakespeare thought of a skull it was often the empty eye-sockets which first came into his mind. The grave, vaults, and earth are obviously connected with death, but they are also linked with one another, with the womb and caves, with cannon, and with the skull and its eye-sockets, by the common idea of hollowness. The association between the last three groups of images may have arisen from the fact that Petruchio refers to roaring lions, the sea, winds, cannon, thunder, battle, and fire when enumerating louder noises than that of a woman's tongue (The Taming of the Shrew, I, ii, 201-10); the speech has nothing to do with death, but tongue may have suggested mouth, and hence Death the devourer. Again, the story of Pyramus and Thisbe may have contributed to bring together in Shakespeare's mind tomb, hole (hollowness), lion, roar, mouth, blood and death: in Titus Andronicus Pyramus is mentioned in a passage containing a long sequence of death-images (II, iii, 227-49). Finally, lions and tigers are linked with the sea by the application of 'roaring' to both (Romeo and Juliet, V, iii, 39; Hamlet, I, iv, 77-83).

This complex of images seems to have possessed an intense emotional significance for Shakespeare. It is found in passages relating, not merely to death, but to the murder of the innocent—the murder of Gloucester (2 Henry VI, III, ii, 141-76), the appearance of the ghost to Hamlet (I, iv, 47-50, 77-90), Lear's entry with the dead Cordelia (V, iii, 258-61), the discovery of Duncan's murder (Macbeth, II, iii, 69-103), and the appearance of Banquo's ghost (III, iv, 71-101). It occurs, too, at moments which mark a turning-point in the action of a play, such as the death of Gloucester, the final parting of Romeo and Juliet (III, V, 17-20, 56-9), or Northumberland's announcement of Bolingbroke's return (Richard II, II, i, 263-70). In Henry V such a turning point comes at the end of Act II and the beginning of Act III with the outbreak of war, and it is here that Shakespeare's death-imagery is concentrated.

Death-imagery dominates Exeter's warning to the French king:

Therefore in fierce tempest is he coming,
In thunder and in earthquake, like a Jove,
That if requiring fail, he will compel;
And bids you, in the bowels of the Lord,
Deliver up the crown, and to take mercy
On the poor souls for whom this hungry war
Opens his vasty jaws: and on your heads
Turns he the widows' tears, the orphans'
The dead men's blood, the pining maidens'
For husbands, fathers, and betrothed lovers
That shall be swallowed in this controversy.
(II, iv, 99-109)

More death-images follow in Exeter's defiance to the Dauphin:

He'll call you to so hot an answer of it
That caves and womby vaultages of France
Shall chide your trespass, and return your
In second accent of his ordinance.

The theme of Exeter's first speech, it will be noticed, is the death of innocent. He, of course, blames the French king, but it would be a poor diplomat who could not prove the other side responsible for any war. The question remains, whom did Shakespeare himself hold responsible?

Death-imagery (wind, sea, dead, ordnance, mouths, cannon) continues throughout the following chorus, with which we move from peace to war, and the first fifteen lines of Henry's speech before Harfleur (dead, blast, tiger, blood, eye, cannon, rock, ocean, teeth). If it is not heresy to say so, this passage is surely very badly written. Rhetoric has been defined as the will doing the work of the imagination, and by this criterion the speech is not poetry but rhetoric. Shakespeare's imagination is not engaged, and he forces the note. The result, when Henry issues detailed orders on the exact expression to be worn in battle, is unintentionally comic.

The implications of the death-images in this speech are disturbing. Henry's picture of the breach in the wall packed tight with corpses looks forward to Octavia's horrifying image:

Wars 'twixt you twain would be
As if the world should cleave, and that slain
Should solder up the rift.
(Antony and Cleopatra, III, iv, 30-2)

Again, why should Henry order his men to 'imitate the action of the tiger'? Why not the lion? To Shakespeare the lion was a noble beast with a 'royal disposition' and 'a vice of mercy', but the tiger was above all cruel and merciless. Heroic figures such as Richard I, the Black Prince, Julius Caesar, and Antony are compared to lions in his plays, but the six characters who are compared to tigers—Aaron, Tamora, Queen Margaret, Richard III, Goneril, and Regan—are all notorious for cruelty. The details of the expression which Henry's soldiers are to assume are full of significant echoes. 'Hard-favoured rage' suggests 'hard-favoured death' (1 Henry VI, IV, vii, 23) and 'that devil's butcher, hard-favoured Richard' (3 Henry VI, V, V, 77-8). 'Let the brow o'erwhelm it' recalls the 'overwhelming brows' of the apothecary in Romeo and Juliet (V, i, 39), whom Shakespeare seems to envisage as an incarnation of death; note the death-images running through the scene (vault, pale, meagre, bones, earthen, thinly, death, fired, cannon's womb, eyes, food, grave). 'Now set the teeth' is echoed in Antony's lines in another passage full of death-imagery:

Men did ransom lives
Of me for jests: but now I'll set my teeth
And send to darkness all that stop me.
(Antony and Cleopatra, III, xiii, 180-2)

Setting the teeth for Shakespeare was evidently associated with refusal of mercy in battle. 'Stretch the nostril wide' echoes Warwick's description of the murdered Gloucester, 'his nostrils stretched with struggling' (2 Henry VI, III, ii, 171). Thus these fifteen lines contain a whole succession of images associated not only with death but with cruelty and murder.

That such images recur almost continuously through a passage of about a hundred lines, and are placed in the mouths of Henry himself and his spokesman, can hardly be accidental. They would seem to suggest that, whatever Shakespeare may say about Henry, in his heart he regarded him as a murderer. Faced with the demand to depict such a man as a hero, he took refuge in the irony which permeates the whole play, and constantly juxtaposed the fine talk of honour and religion with the realities of human greed and cruelty.

Such a contrast occurs at the very beginning of the play, when immediately after praying for a muse of fire Shakespeare introduces two bishops who discuss how they can prevent Church property from being confiscated for public and charitable purposes, and decide to encourage the King to invade France. An audience in Protestant and anti-clerical London would automatically have assumed that the two Popish prelates were up to no good, and would have thought the confiscation of Church property an excellent idea. Shakespeare probably sympathized with their views. His Catholic bishops and cardinals—Beaufort, Pandulph, Wolsey, Gardiner—are an unsavoury bunch, in contrast with the Protestant Cranmer; the Bishop of Carlisle in Richard II might be cited as an exception, but even he takes part in a murder plot. The terms in which Shakespeare refers to the use to which the Church's wealth might be put—

to relief of lazars and weak age,
Of indigent faint souls past corporal toil
(I, i, 15-16)

—have an emotional note, unlike Holinshed's dry 'for reliefe onelie of the poore, impotent, and needie persons,' which suggests that he would have favoured its use for such purposes. That the bishop's testimonial to Henry's Christian virtues is interpolated in the middle of their plot to frustrate the relief of the poor would seem to throw some doubt upon its value.

In defence of the bishops, Dover Wilson points out that they do not initiate the idea of the war. Shakespeare's own views on its origin can be found in 2 Henry IV, where Henry IV advises his son 'to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels' (IV, V, 214-15) in order to divert attention from the weakness of his claim to the throne, and at the end of the same play it is suggested that Henry is planning to

bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France.
(V, V, 112-13)

This fact lessens the Archbishop's guilt, but it only increases Henry's.

Dover Wilson goes on to argue that 'the sole connection between the subject of the Archbishop's speech (on the Salic Law) and the question of Church lands is that both are spoken of in the conversation of the two bishops which constitutes the opening scene'; that in the 'perfectly legitimate desire' of removing any temptation for the King to finance his war by expropriating Church property the Archbishop offers him a large subsidy towards its cost; and that there is 'not a hint of a bribe on the Archbishop's part, still less of his provoking the King to war in order to protect Church property'. This argument ignores Shakespeare's text. If there is no connexion between the Church property question and the Archbishop's support for the war, why should the play open with a completely irrelevant discussion? There is not a word anywhere about Henry's being tempted to finance the war at the Church's expense. On the King's attitude towards the Church property bill, the Archbishop says that he seems

rather swaying more upon our part
Than cherishing th'exhibiters against us;
For I have made an offer to his majesty,
Upon our spiritual convocation,
And in regard of causes now in hand,
Which I have opened to his grace at large,
As touching France, to give a greater sum
Than ever at one time the clergy yet
Did to his predecessors part withal.
(I, i, 73-81)

That word for is decisive; Henry does not support the bill, because the Archbishop has offered him a large subsidy. If this is not a bribe, what is it? When later the Archbishop urges the King to war he again reminds him of his offer:

O let their bodies follow, my dear liege,
With blood and sword and fire to win your
In aid whereof we of the spiritualty
Will raise your highness such a mighty sum
As never did the clergy at one time
Bring in to any of your ancestors.
(I, ii, 130-5)

The virtual repetition of lines from the Archbishop's earlier speech is clearly intended to emphasize that the motive for his support of the war is his fears for the Church's lands. When the spokesman of the 'spiritualty' advocates a policy of 'blood and sword and fire' for fear that Church property will be used to relieve 'indigent faint souls', Shakespeare's irony becomes Swiftian in its saeva indignatio.

The Archbishop's argument in support of Henry's claim to the French throne—that a claimant descended in the female line from the senior branch of a royal house takes precedence in the succession over one descended in the male line from a junior branch—in reality proves, not that Henry is the rightful King of France, but that he is not the rightful King of England. As Shakespeare himself had twice demonstrated at length in earlier plays, the house of Mortimer was descended in the female line from the third son of Edward III, through whom Henry claimed the French throne, whereas the house of Lancaster was descended in the male line from the fourth son (1 Henry VI, II, V, 71-8; 2 Henry VI, II, ii). To assume that Shakespeare regarded Henry's claim to the French throne as justified is therefore to assume that he was incapable of reasoning. As he saw the matter, Henry put forward a legally unjustifiable claim to the French throne because he had no legal right to the English throne either. The suffering which the resultant war was bound to cause the innocent is repeatedly stressed in the play—in Exeter's speech already quoted, in Henry's threats to the citizens of Harfleur (III, iii, 1-43), in Williams's reflections on the King's responsibility (IV, i, 140-53), and in Burgundy's description of desolated France (V, ii, 38-62). Hence when Shakespeare reached the actual outbreak of war, his feelings found expression in his imagery.

There is an implied comment on the nature of the war in the fate of Bardolph. Holinshed states that Henry had a soldier hanged for stealing a pyx (a box for consecrated wafers); Bardolph is hanged for stealing a pax (a tablet depicting the crucifixion, which was kissed by the communicants at mass). The Quarto text, which reads 'packs', shows that 'pax' in the Folio is not a misprint. J. H. Walter comments that 'Shakespeare, who surely must have known the difference, may have substituted "pax" for some reason not now clear'. The reason seems clear enough; Shakespeare equates Bardolph morally with Henry, who has stolen the peace of England and France.

Through tattered clothes great vices do appear:
Robes and furred gowns hide all. Plate sin
with gold,
And the strong lance of justice hurtless
Arm it in rags, a pigmy's straw does pierce it.
(King Lear, IV, vi, 168-71)

Even if Shakespeare wrote 'pax' by mistake for 'pyx', the slip was surely a Freudian one; his unconscious mind insisted on giving vent to his real feelings about the war.

His divided mind is most apparent in the Agincourt scenes. There is much in them that is eloquent and deeply felt—the preliminary chorus, the Crispin's day speech, the description of the deaths of Suffolk and York. But the most moving passage of all is Williams's indictment of Henry: 'But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, "We died at such a place"; some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left' (IV, i, 140-6). In his laboured reply Henry answers Williams's suggestion that he is responsible for the fate of his subjects' souls, but completely evades the issue of his responsibility for the death of their bodies and the sufferings of their dependants. Left alone, he whines in an orgy of self-pity that his subjects do not appreciate 'what watch the king keeps to maintain the peace' (IV, i, 300). Shakespeare's irony here is palpable enough.

After the heroics of the Crispin's day speech, the first we see of the actual battle is Pistol extorting a ransom from his prisoner. This is indeed to reduce Agincourt to a 'brawl ridiculous'! As for Henry's contribution to the victory, it is apparently confined to an order for the massacre of the prisoners. Walter defends this order on the ground that 'he is moved to rage by the treacherous attack on the boys and lackeys in his tents', but in fact when he gives it all Henry knows is that 'the French have reinforced their scattered men' (IV, vi, 36)—another example of how his defenders are forced to ignore Shakespeare's text. Shakespeare's own ironic comment, which he puts into Gower's mouth—'the king most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. O,'tis a gallant king!' (IV, vii, 8-10)—is typical of the method of the play in its juxta-position of the patriotic illusion ('most worthily', 'gallant') with the stark reality ('cut his prisoner's throat'). In the Quarto text, which may preserve Shakespeare's original intention, immediately after Henry gives his order Pistol utters his catch-phrase 'Coupe le gorge!' In the very next line we learn that the French have massacred the boys in the English camp. Thus Henry, Pistol, and the chivalry of France are shown within a few lines to move on the same moral level.

Then there is what Sherlock Holmes would have called the curious incident of Henry's fight with Alençon. In earlier battle scenes Shakespeare had introduced completely unhistorical hand-to-hand combats between leading figures on the two sides—Richard III and Richmond, Henry himself and Hotspur. When his sources for this play of all others afforded him an opportunity to show a historical combat between his hero and a French nobleman, one would have expected him to seize on it eagerly, yet all we hear of the incident is a passing reference after the battle (IV, vii, 161-8). Walter seeks to explain the omission by suggesting that 'physical prowess in Henry was not at this point the most important quality. It is Henry's spiritual strength, his faith and moral courage which inspire and uphold his whole army'—the spiritual strength and moral courage, presumably, being shown in the order for the massacre of the prisoners. The real explanation surely is that by this time Shakespeare could not bring himself to show Henry as a heroic figure. There is something Brechtian in his depiction of Agincourt, not as a heroic feat of arms, but as a brutal and sordid affair of plunder and massacre.

It may be objected that this conclusion attributes to Shakespeare a pacifism alien to the Elizabethan age. Such an argument ignores historical facts. By 1599 the Spanish war had been in progress for over ten years, and the country was weary of it. The popular mood is often reflected in the drama of the last years of the century. The pressing of unwilling workmen, recruiting scandals, the neglect of the disabled soldier, and the stealing of their soldiers' pay by corrupt officers are frequent themes for protest or satire. The author of I Jeronimo, for example, wrote:

O dear Andrea, pray, let's have no wars.
First let them pay the soldiers that were
In the last battle ere more wretches fall.
(I, ii, 31-3)

Shakespeare's implicit condemnation of the Archbishop in Henry V is paralleled in the priest's speech in Fulke Greville's Mustapha:

we are untrue
And spiritual forges under tyrants' might;
God only doth command what's good for you,
Where we do preach your bodies to the war&
(IV, iv, 45-8)

The hero of The Shoemaker's Holiday, when commissioned to serve under Henry V in France, prefers to stay at home and carry on a love affair. Dekker apparently finds nothing dishonourable in such conduct; the moral of the play might in fact be 'Make love, not war'. It would be surprising if Shakespeare had not been affected by the widespread anti-war feeling.

If he found Henry V so unsympathetic, why did he write about him at all? Presumably he had no choice. He had committed himself to write such a play in the epilogue to 2 Henry IV, and was under an obligation to his company—perhaps under pressure from them—to supply it. There may also have been a demand for a patriotic play that would arouse public enthusiasm for Essex's Irish campaign. If there was, Shakespeare failed to supply it; his incidental compliment to Essex, the leader of the war party, in the chorus to Act V could hardly be more tepid. Once engaged on the play he did his best to supply what was expected of him, but his own feelings would insist on asserting themselves. This may explain why he did not keep his promise that the play would have 'Sir John in it.' The case put forward by Dover Wilson and Walter for believing that Falstaff appeared in the first draft is a strong one, but their suggested reasons for his subsequent omission are unconvincing; neither Will Kempe's absence nor Lord Cobham's hypothetical objections prevented the Chamberlain's Men from continuing to act the Falstaff plays. It seems more probable that Falstaff acted as Shakespeare's mouthpiece, and that he re-wrote the play without him because he realized that his patriotic play was turning into a satire on war. Two such stars as Henry and Falstaff could not keep their motion in one sphere, and with Sir John in it Henry V might have done for the Hundred Years' War what Troilus and Cressida did for the Trojan War, with Falstaff playing a similar role to Thersites. Bernard Shaw was probably not far from the truth when he suggested that 'it was to expose and avenge his mistake and failure in writing Henry V that he wrote Troilus and Cressida'.

This does not mean that Shakespeare was necessarily insincere when he wrote, say, the Crispin's day speech. He was repelled by the callous cynicism of Henry V's aggression against France, but his imagination and his sympathies were stirred by the Dunkirk situation of a small English army with its back to the wall. That is why the Harfleur speech is so bad and the Crispin's day speech so good. Like most of us, Shakespeare had something of the patriot and something of the pacifist in his make-up. He was no more inconsistent than the arch-pacifist Tolstoy, who wrote the great epic of Russian patriotism and, long after he had reached the conclusion that war is always wrong, wept with shame at the news of the surrender of Port Arthur. Much of the interest in Henry V arises from the tensions in Shakespeare's mind between conflicting emotions, and between his own feelings and the external pressures to which he was subjected. We may apply to him what a contemporary has written of poets in general: 'The poet is always a double man, an internal émigré, a hostage in enemy country. His task is to try and reconcile the short-term public demand and the long-term private vision and to express the tension which this task necessarily brings with it' [Lacieu Rey, New Left Review, no. 38].

Michael Goldman (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: "Henry V: The Strain of Rule," in Shakespeare and the Energies of Drama, Princeton University Press, 1972, pp. 58-73.

[In the following essay, Goldman examines the great speeches of the Chorus and of Henry, commenting on the relation they create between the actors and the audience.]

Henry V is a play of great addresses. They make for a vital bond of pleasure that joins us to the play; it is absolutely essential to any satisfying production that the actors be capable of all these speeches demand. The grand declamations of both King and Chorus induce a kind of theatrical kinesthesia … ; they make us want to act. I doubt that anyone can read the play through without reading some of these speeches aloud— and, if at all possible, loudly. They are display arias for the commanding actor; they stimulate us to share his noticeable effort, to be aware of the glory and labor involved in making authoritative sounds. They carry with them, in the most patent and seductive form, the pleasures, the rewarding effort of persuasive, masterful public performance. Their verse is wonderfully suited to the accents of a man speaking to a crowd, a confident man, practiced in exertion but working hard, raising his voice, stilling and exhorting the group around him. Their content, too, seems to echo their physical appeal. Significantly, all but one of the half-dozen famous speeches of the play have in common a concern for encouraging their hearers to make some kind of demanding effort, whether of action, feeling, or imagination. These speeches insist on what is strenuous, and Henry V's dominant atmosphere is of strenuous activity. The play communicates a sense not exactly or not primarily of strain, but of straining effort, of life that is arduous, exigent, and sometimes exhausting.

Once it is recognized that the Chorus sounds very much like the King, much of the play's method becomes clear. Like Henry, the Chorus is a man whose job is to rouse his hearers to unusual effort. The straining note is struck from the start, and may well be the primary reason for the Chorus's existence, since none of the theories ordinarily advanced to account for Shakespeare's unparalleled reliance on the device is satisfactory. Elsewhere he uses a chorus to provide a back-ground or set a mood (Romeo and Juliet) or to direct our attention to a special aspect of the scene to follow (2 Henry IV). But nowhere else does he use it to call attention to the inadequacies of his stage, which is of course no more inadequate to this story than to the material of the other histories. Here, however, the notion of inadequacy is insisted upon, as is the effort we must put forth to make up for it:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
(Prologue, I-4)

The playwright and the resources of his stage are deficient, but so are we, and we are asked to perform all kinds of brain-work to convert the work of the actors into a convincing spectacle.

At the same time, the Chorus develops a complementary sense of the size and energy of the subject, both of which are pictured as being held in with difficulty, barely restrained or contained:

&at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine,
sword, and fire
Crouch for employment.

Can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?

Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confin'd two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.
(Prologue, 6-8, 11-14, 19-22)

It is a "swelling" scene—and the epithet not only means "magnificent" but carries the modern meaning (common in Shakespeare's day) as well; some distending energy within the scene threatens to break it apart. We are asked not to imagine many men where we see one but to "divide" one man "into a thousand parts." As the Chorus says in his second appearance, the project we are engaged in is to "force a play."

Introducing the third act, the Chorus returns to the charge. The effort of the enterprise described is caught in the contrast between the delicacy of the sails and the huge vessels they move through the water, and the effort is echoed in the sound and movement of the verse:

Behold the threaden sails,
Borne with th' invisible and creeping wind,
Draw the huge bottoms through the furrowed
Breasting the lofty surge.

The audience is enjoined to strain its minds, to apply the same effort to imagining the war. Commands to "suppose" and "think" give way to "Follow, follow," "Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy," and "Work, work." The Chorus continues to remind us that this is not a battlefield, not an ocean, but merely a theater. Its soaring language, like the effort of imagination it enjoins, seems to be part of the struggle to overcome the limits of performance. The firing off of "chambers" in the theater—an effect repeated in the following scene—adds to the sensation of stupendous energies at work. Here and in other choruses we seem to hear continual reverberation—the womby earth being trampled by horses, ordance going off, armorers busily hammering. Echoes, loud sounds, and hollow chambers are regularly referred to. In the fourth chorus, the universe is a "wide vessel" filled first by night and low sounds, then by the clang of armorers, cock-crow, and the approaching clamor of battle. There are descriptions of horses, too, by the Chorus and the French nobles, that help sustain this aural atmosphere:

Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful

Piercing the night's dull ear;
(IV, Prologue, 10-11)

When I bestride him, I soar, I am a hawk; he
the air; the earth sings when he touches it;
(III, vii, 15-17)

Mount them, and make incision in their hides,
That their hot blood may spin in English eyes,
And dout them with superfluous courage, ha!
(IV, ii, 9-11)

Our ears are assaulted and roused to gratified awareness by the repeated suggestion of vast spaces to be filled by energetic outbursts, by the strain of producing the energy, and by the energy itself straining to be set free.

I have suggested that the figure of the Chorus rousing the audience to cooperation and excitement is rather like the figure of Henry addressing his men. Just as the Chorus's speeches emphasize effort and strain and the making of much out of little, so throughout the play we are aware of the effort and strain of leading an army, of making a kingdom bigger, of turning a man into a soldier, and indeed of turning a man into a king. Immediately after the Chorus has begun Act III by urging us to follow, grapple, and work, and with the "devilish cannon" still echoing in our ears, the King enters. His men carry scaling ladders; we are in the midst of battle. Henry V, like the chorus before him, exhorts his hearers to make a strenuous imaginative effort; he asks them to transform themselves, to change their size, shape, and strength, to eke out the performance with their minds:

Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height.
(i, 7-17)

The soldier's task of preparation is described as a violent muscular contortion. He must strain his muscles so that his eye pries through his face till it sticks out like a cannon—and of course it is a brass cannon, with all the sense of metallic echoing sound this brings in. "On, on," he cries to the troops, as the Chorus has cried "Follow, follow" and "Work, work" to us. Physical limitation overcome by supreme effort is Henry's theme here, and it is also the method of his speech, which requires a great physical effort from the speaker. It makes a splendid noise; it is full of demanding emphases and syntactical elaborations. From a vocal stand-point, the speech is a remarkable athletic exercise, and a directly gratifying one for the actor who can manage it. Theatrical tradition leaves no doubt of the speech's power to excite and charm an audience—a point which needs to be stressed in the light of some influential—and useful—modern criticism. It is misleading to conclude from the extremity of its verbal figures that the speech is meant to project a feeling of the grotesque or unpleasant. To do so, to find as Traversi does [in An Approach to Shakespeare, 1956] that there is a "strong flavor of artificiality& something forced, incongruous, even slightly absurd" in the speech is, I think, to consider the words out of theatrical context, without concern for the acting opportunities, the physical presence and rhythms of the scene. True, the actor runs a terrific obstacle course on the way to his final self-assertive shout:

Cry, "God for Harry! England and Saint

If he allows the absurd or incongruous to emerge along the way, he will fail to negotiate it. One might say of a running track lined with hurdles and patches of water, "There is a strong flavor here of falling flat on one's face," but the obstacles are there precisely to celebrate the virtues of those who do not fall flat, and to clothe their skills in wonder.

This is the play in which Falstaff dies; and the scenes—early in the play—in which we learn of his death and see what his friends are now like, help to set its tone. A number of critics have noticed the element of darkness or chill which the treatment of Falstaff contributes to Henry V, and all may at least agree that it does add to the sense of strain creeping into its genuinely heroic occasions.

The opening scenes of Act II show us first Hal's old friends and then some of his new friends—the traitors Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge. Scroop was Henry's "bed-fellow (ii, 8)& [who] didst bear the key of all my counsels& knew'st the very bottom of my soul (96-97)." His new friends betray him (or like Canterbury and Ely deal with him on a political level where intimacy can only be an illusion or a danger); his old friends think he has betrayed Falstaff. The comedy of Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph of course echoes the serious action ("On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!" shouts Bardolph as Hal's Harfleur speech concludes), but it also develops the sense of strain. Nym and Pistol are cowards who feign different kinds of toughness. What we laugh at are the kinds of effort they make in doing so. Nym pretends to a tight-lipped laconic ominousness:

I cannot tell. Things must be as they may.
Men may sleep, and they may have their throats about them
at that time; and some say knives have edges.
(II, i, 22-25)

Pistol, on the other hand, is like Henry and the Chorus, a great vocal artist and exhorter. His speeches even impress Fluellen for a time. Pistol and Nym's performances are at least good enough to take each other in; they frighten one another thoroughly in II, i. Theirs is not the effortless improvisation of their former leader, but a perpetual straining to perform. Falstaff is shifty and always ready to retreat, but one never feels he is seriously concealing his real self. He is his facade, and his bravura is always accompanied by a wink. Pistol and Nym cower inside their affections.

Falstaff's old gang forms a particularly scabrous appendage to an army that grows increasingly weak and ragged as the play progresses. There are a number of references to its condition, and at one point the stage directions are unusually explicit (I give the Folio wording):

Enter the King and his poor Soldiers.
(III, vi, 91)

In part this points up the greatness of Henry's victory at Agincourt. It allows us, too, to see Henry as the shepherd of a small enfeebled flock. But the plight of the troops also helps sustain a kind of ratty counterpoint to the strenuous music of triumph. Consider the following sequence of exhortations, all of which are heard within some 74 lines:


Follow, follow!
Grapple your minds etc. &
Work, work &
(III, Prologue, 17ff.)


Unto the breach&
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry, "God for Harry! England and Saint
(III, i, 1-34)


On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the
(III, ii, 1-2)


Up to the breach, you dogs! Avaunt, you
(III, ii, 21-22)

Bardolph's is already an unheroic parody in the familiar vein of the Elizabethan comic underplot, but Fluellen's echo cuts deeper. We are reminded that there are men who have to be scolded and perhaps whipped into battle. "You dogs!" is finally but a basic-English translation of what the King calls his soldiers:

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips.
(III, i, 31)

It is not only famine, sword, and fire that "leash'd in like hounds& crouch for employment" at King Harry's heels.

It is this picture of the army, set against the more exalting music of grand effort, that will be in the audience's minds as the fourth act begins with its scenes of the King moving among his men. These encounters turn out differently from what Henry expects, and, more important, from what the audience has been led to expect. The Chorus, ending its night-piece, seems to prepare us very fully for what is to come:

For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile,
And calls them brothers, friends, and country-
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
& every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal like the sun
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.

The problem is that the King does not do this—at least in the scenes that follow. It could perhaps be argued that the Chorus is simply describing what the King has been doing up to now, but the Chorus sounds as if it is providing an introduction rather than a bridge, and the scene starts out as if we were indeed about to see the kind of thing the Chorus has described. On the basis of sound generalship alone, to say nothing of what we have just been told, we might expect that Harry would want to go round the camp, as the King, and say a few good words to individual soldiers, as he does to Sir Thomas Erpingham, reassuring them, with a judicious use of the common touch, that the King has their interests at heart and is a good fellow to boot, "a bawcock and a heart of gold," as Pistol would say.

Instead, the King disguises himself. The effect of his subsequent conversation on the soldiers cannot fairly be called encouraging; it is disconcerting at best. He tries, in the character of a private man, to draw them out about his character as a king, and his trouble seems to be that he cannot maintain both roles simultaneously. Even with Pistol, things go a little oddly. We do not get the expected joke, patented in Henry IV—and consequently what Shakespeare's audience would be waiting for—of the rogue behaving badly when he thinks the Prince isn't watching. Pistol does not criticize Hal as Falstaff does when the Prince is disguised as a waiter in 2 Henry IV. But there is something out of key and embarrassing about his praise of Henry, if only because he insists too vulgarly upon the King's human qualities.

With Bates, Court, and Williams, Henry insists at length on the humanity of the King:

For, though I speak it to you, I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it does to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me; all his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man; and though his affections are higher mounted than ours, yet, when they stoop, they stoop with the like wing. Therefore, when he sees reason of fears as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are &

(IV, i, 104-114)

This is in service of a rather special argument:

Summary: Act IV, scene iii

If we are marked to die, we are enough
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

(See Important Quotations Explained)

The English noblemen, gathering before the Battle of Agincourt, realize that the French outnumber them five to one. Westmorland wishes that they had with them some of the men who sit idle in England. But King Henry, entering and overhearing him, disagrees. In his famous St. Crispin’s Day speech (so called because he addresses his troops on October 25, St. Crispin’s Day), King Henry says that they should be happy that there are so few of them present, for each can earn a greater share of honor.

Henry goes on to say that he does not want to fight alongside any man who does not wish to fight with the English. He tells the soldiers that anyone who wants to leave can and will be given some money to head for home. But anyone who stays to fight will have something to boast about for the rest of his life and in the future will remember with pride the battle on this day. He adds that every commoner who fights today with the king will become his brother, and all the Englishmen who have stayed at home will regret that they were not in France to gain honor upon this famous day of battle. The soldiers and noblemen are greatly inspired, and morale rises dramatically.

The French are now ready for the battle. Montjoy, the French messenger, comes to the English camp one more time, asking King Henry if he wants to take the last opportunity for peace and surrender himself for ransom, instead of facing certain defeat in battle. Henry rejects the offer in strong though courteous terms, and the English organize and march into battle.

Read a translation of Act IV, scene iii →

Summary: Act IV, scene iv

As the battle rages across the field, Pistol takes a French prisoner. The scene is comic: Pistol, who cannot speak French, tries to communicate with the Frenchman, who cannot speak English. Fortunately, the boy is present. He speaks very good French and is able to translate, though the hotheaded Pistol makes communication difficult. The terrified soldier is convinced that Pistol is a nobleman and a ferocious fighter.

The French soldier, who gives his name as Monsieur le Fer, says that he is from a respected house and family and that his relatives will give Pistol a rich ransom if Pistol will let him live. Pistol is very interested in money and accepts this bargain, and the grateful Frenchman surrenders as a willing captive. As the boy follows them offstage, he complains about Pistol’s empty boasting, saying that Bardolph and Nim both had ten times as much real courage in them as Pistol. The boy reveals a surprising and unsettling fact: Nim, like Bardolph, has been hanged for stealing.

Read a translation of Act IV, scene iv →

Summary: Act IV, scene v

The French camp is in disarray, and the French soldiers’ cries reveal that, against all expectations, the English have won the day. The French troops have been routed and scattered. Astonished and dismayed, the French nobles bewail their great shame and contemplate suicide. But they decide that rather than surrender in shame and defeat, they will go down fighting and return to the field for one final attempt.

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