“This brilliant and subtle work will always be popular; I could say ‘for the wrong reasons,’ except that all reasons for Shakespeare’s eternal popularity are correct, one way or another.”

Henry V

An Introduction

By Dennis Abrams


With its dramatization of the miraculous triumph by the English at Agincourt under the youthful at one time wastrel king, Henry V is often thought of as Shakespeare’s most overtly patriotic flag-waving play.  Often rousing productions have made it into a symbol (if not a cliché) of England and English resoluteness.  Stirring excerpts have passed into the language, politicians often cite it as their favorite play; even the history books seem to remain enthralled with Shakespeare’s boyish king.  But by the same token, the play’s overt patriotism (or seemingly overt patriotism) means that it has sometimes been treated warily by writers and directors embarrassed by its supposedly nationalistic message.  Director Michael Bogandov transformed it into a crudely jingoistic pantomime in the 1980s (I’ll be including scenes from this production as we go through our reading) and audiences at the National Theatre in London recently saw a production that drew stark parallels between fifteenth-century France and twenty-first century Iraq.  But there are (not surprisingly), more complex meanings to the play than the surface jingoism might indicate.  Henry V does not shy away from the savage realities of conflict, and while it does celebrate martial glory and heroism (and sees the beauty of each), those who ignore its complicating counter-currents are missing out on much of what the play is about.  Like all great works of art – the play contains within itself the potential to be constantly understood in radically and creatively different ways.


From Harold Bloom:

“This brilliant and subtle work will always be popular; I could say ‘for the wrong reasons,’ except that all reasons for Shakespeare’s eternal popularity are correct, one way or another.  And yet Henry V is clearly a lesser drama than the two parts of Henry IV.  Falstaff is gone, and King Henry V, matured into the mastery of power, is less interesting than the ambivalent Prince Hal, whose potential was more varied.  The great Irish poet W.B. Yeats made the classic comment on this aesthetic falling away in his Ideas of Good and Evil:

[Henry V] has the gross vices, the coarse nerves, of one who is to rule among violent people, and he is so little ‘too friendly’ to his friends that he bundles them out of door when their time is over.  He is as remorseless and undistinguished as some natural force, and the finest thing in his play is the way his old companions fall out of it broken-hearted or on their way to the gallows.

I read the play that Yeats read, but much Shakespeare scholarship reads otherwise.  Henry V is now most widely known because of the films quarried from it by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh.  Both movies are lively patriotic romps, replete with exuberant bombast, provided by Shakespeare himself, with what degree of irony we cannot quite tell but are free to surmise:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England, now a-bed,

Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.


That is the King, just before the battle of Agincourt.  He is very stirred; so are we; but neither we nor he believes a word he says.  The common soldiers fighting with their monarch are not going to become gentlemen, let alone nobles, and the ‘ending of the world’ is a rather grand evocation for an imperialist land grab that did not survive Henry V’s death, as Shakespeare’s audience knew to well.  [MY NOTE:  And as we who read Henry VI, Parts 1-3 know as well…]  Hazlitt, with characteristic eloquence, joins Yeats as the true exegete of Henry V and his play.

He was a hero, that is, he was ready to sacrifice his own life for the pleasure of destroying thousands of other lives…How then do we like him,?  We like him in the play.  There he is a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant…

This cannot be bettered, but is that all Prince Hal matured into:  an amiable monster, a splendid pageant?   Yes; for this, Falstaff was rejected, Bardolph was hanged, and a great education in wit was partly thrown away.  Shakespeare’s ironic insight remains highly relevant; power keeps its habit through the ages.  Our nation’s Henry V (some might say) was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who gave us the Bay of Pigs and the enhancement of our Vietnam adventure.  Some scholars may moralize and historicize until they are purple with pride, but they will not persuade us that Shakespeare (playwright and man) preferred his amiable monster to the genius of Falstaff, and his splendid pageant to the varied and vital Henry IV plays.”


And obviously, it’s not just Bloom who feels Falstaff’s absence.  From Tony Tanner:

“The unimpeded triumph of Henry V seems to have necessitated the death of Falstaff.  The usually accepted reason for his exclusion from the play is the continued opposition of the Brooke family who were Oldcastle’s (Falstaff’s original name, and, perhaps, remote source) descendants.  A further justification, or explanation, is often offered – to the effect that Shakespeare couldn’t have Falstaff up to his usual deflationary fun and games at Agincourt.  Not, that is, if Agincourt was to remain the glorious, indeed almost miraculous, British victory enshrined in history-chronicle-legend.  And if – if – Henry is to be allowed to appear unequivocally as the great saintly warrior English king, he must be entirely protected and insulated from the caustic, irresistible whiff of parody and burlesque which Falstaff’s mere presence inevitably diffuses. So far, so understandable.  But you can also find a stronger attempt to demonstrate the entire appropriateness of the death of Falstaff on the grounds that he has been superseded, that Henry has truly outgrown him and left him definitively behind.  Here is the Arden editor, J.H. Walter:  ‘The play gains in epic strength and dignity from Falstaff’s death, even as the Aeneid gains from Dido’s death, not only because both accounts are written from the heart with a beauty and power that have moved men’s hearts in after time, but because Dido and Falstaff are sacrificed to a larger mortality they both ignore.’  The account of his death given by the Hostess of the London tavern (Mistress Quickly as was), is indeed not only very moving…it is also quite unforgettable.  But as for being ‘sacrificed to a higher morality’ – that is more questionable.  And Henry will not be compared to Aeneas, but to Alexander – Alexander the Great, certainly; but more specifically, and very pointedly, Alexander the killer of his best friend.  Falstaff’s death is laid squarely at Henry’s door.  ‘The King has killed his heart’ – and:

Nym:  The king hath run bad humors on the knight; that’s the even of it.

Pistol:  Nym, thou hast spoke the right;

His heart is fracted and corroborate.

Nym:  The King is a good king, but it must be as it may:  he passes some humors, and careers.

‘Run bad humors’ is usually glossed as ‘vented his ill humour’; and ‘humors and careers’ as ‘wild and freakish behavior’ (as in ‘careering’) – we should not forget those ‘bad humours’ and that wildness, no matter how regal a performance Henry contrives.  And for all his terminal banishment, Falstaff is evoked once more and to devastating effect, at what I take to be the most critical point in the play – to which I will come in due course.  Falstaff does not haunt Henry – Shakespeare’s Henry is hardly a hauntable man:  but, I maintain, his absence haunts the play.

Henry V – ‘this star of England’ as the concluding choric epilogue calls him – as fixed in, or perhaps we should more properly say by, both chronicle history and popular legend as the ideal king; both pious saint and patriotic hero – unlike Richard II, with whom he was often compared (or, more accurately, contrasted).  For Holinshed, Shakespeare’s main source for this play, Henry was ‘a paterne in princehood, a lode-starr in honour, and mirrour of magnificence’; while Sir Walter Raleigh, looking back on English kings, asserted that ‘None of them went to worke like a  Conqueror; save onely King Henrie the fift.’  Many works had been written seeking, or offering, to describe the ideal king, or perfect ‘Christian Prince,’ and the prescribed virtues, gifts and characteristics, seem obvious enough – he should be learned, just, and merciful; he should not seek vengeance and should always show self-control (no ‘running bad humors,’ perhaps then); he should allow himself to be counseled by wise men, and be gracious and familiar with humble people (supposedly Henry’s forte, though, as we shall see, ‘a little touch of Harry in the night’ is not quite what people think it is); he should be constantly concerned with affairs of state, and should banish flatters and parasites (out goes Falstaff); he should command obedience, remember his responsibility for his people (particularly in war), live as a Christian, and make an honourable marriage (Henry gets round to this at last, and tolerably brusquely).  You can go through the play – some have – and find evidence that, checked against a list of such requisites, Henry scores nearly one hundred percent – at times, indeed, in a rather heavy-handed and even too obvious way.  He seems to have lost his habit of irony, and makes speeches of such bombastic patriotism that another age would surely have found them unashamedly jingoistic.  Curiously – or, perhaps not so curiously – Henry V has found something less than full favour in the eyes of some of the most English, ‘patriotic’ critics.  Tillyard seems positively to dislike him, writing disparagingly of his lugubrious, pedestrian thoughtfulness, his orotund, detached eloquence; his pious platitudes.  Writing of the histories, John Masefield found Henry ‘the one commonplace man in the eight plays.’  Dr. Johnson, more tellingly, says, ‘I know not why Shakespeare gives the king nearly such a character as he formerly ridicule in Percy.’  What these, and many other critics are saying – among other things – is that, as Tillyard complained, this Henry is ‘utterly inconsistent with his old self’ and that ‘it is not the same man speaking.’  As a result, says Tillyard, ‘the play constructed round him shows a great falling off in quality.’  Is this right?  Did Shakespeare somehow unaccountably “nod” between writing Henry IV Part Two and Julius Caesar and Hamlet (within a year of Henry V)?  Was the obligatory theme of the perfect king too intractable, or ungrateful, for his questioning, heterdox mind?  Did it require too tight a reining in of his wonderful, roaming ironies?  Was the elimination of Falstaff too high a price to pay?  Is the flat poetry, the conventional piety, the strident patriotism Shakespeare’s – or is it Henry’s?  Is Henry V as triumphalist as it sometimes sounds, and is often thought to be?  These are real questions – though it is not clear to me that they are susceptible of definitive answers.”

So is the play’s jingoism to be taken seriously?  Are Olivier’s and Branagh’s takes the “correct” ones?   Or…is there something else going on here?  Irony perhaps?  Does Falstaff’s shadow lay heavily across the play?  Obviously a lot more to this play than meets the eye.  And hopefully, by the time we’re done, we’ll be able to answer some of these questions.


Our next reading:  Henry V, Act One

My next post:  Sunday evening/Monday morning

Enjoy.  And enjoy your weekend.

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