By Dennis Abrams
Chorus, introducing the action
King Henry V of England (aka Harry)
Dukes of Gloucester and Clarence, Henry’s brothers
Duke of Exeter, Henry’s uncle
Duke of York
Earls of Salisbury, Westmorland and Warwick
Archbishop of Canterbury
Bishop of Ely
Traitors to King Henry: Richard, Earl of Cambridge; Henry, Lord Scrope of Masham; Sir Thomas Grey
Pistol, Nim and Bardolph, Falstaff’s former companions
Boy, formerly in Falstaff’s service
Hostess, formerly Mistress Quickly, Pistol’s wife
Captains Gower, Fluellen, Macmorris and Jamy, serving in Henry’s army
Sir Thomas Erpingham
John Bates, Alexander Court and Michael Williams, English soldiers
King Charles VI of France
Queen Isabel, Charles’ wife
Louis the Dauphin, their son and heir
Princess Catherine, their daughter
French noblemen: Constable of France; Dukes of Bourbon, Orleans, Berri and Normandy; Lord Rambures and Lord Grandpere,
Montjoy, the French herald
Govenor of Harfleur and Ambassadors to the English court
Perhaps the easiest play to date because of a reference it makes to the Earl of Essex’s campaign in Ireland, Henry V was almost certainly first acted in the summer of 1599.
As with Shakespeare’s other histories, the combination of Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587) and Halle’s Union (1548) provides the basic narrative. These were bulked out by The Famous Victories of Henry V (c. 1580s), Samuel Daniel’s poem The Civil Wars (1595), and John Stow’s Chronicles (1580) and Annals (1592).
While the Folio text (F1, 1623) was printed from Shakespeare’s own papers, the play had already circulated in a “bad” quarto version published in 1600 (Q1) and reprinted twice more.
Act One: (Continued from 2 Henry IV): The relationship between England and France has sunk to new depths. King Henry’s religious advisers are convincing him to claim the French throne, and the Dauphin has sent a barrel of tennis balls to the English king, mocking his youth and his reputation as a wastrel. Stung by the insult, Henry decides to invade.
The old king is dead, the new king, his still youthful son is on the throne, and the incessant wrangling for power that dominated the two Henry IV plays promises at least to recede. Henry V is eager to put the past to rest. Shunning the insidious figure of Rumour, who acts as the presenter to Part II, Shakespeare’s Chorus (who introduces the story at the beginning of each Act), in Henry V seems to have an altogether bolder message. Capitalizing on the sense of optimism and excitement that attends the play’s opening, he cries, ‘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.
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels,
Leashed in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment.
“Can this cock-pit hold/The vasty fields of France?’ the Chorus enquires, his voice charged with the strong vowel sounds that were the powerhouse of the Elizabethan stage, “Or may we cram/Within this wooden O the very casques/That did affright the air at Agincourt?” Though it’s certainly possible that Henry V premiered at the Curtain, a temporary home for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, it seems much more likely that it was at the new Bankside Globe – which had room for more than three thousand spectators, about one percent of London’s total population – that first played host to the Chorus’s ironic protestations. His speech brings patriotism and drama into creative alignment. This is to be the moment when history becomes HISTORY. (And just how are we to read the Chorus’s pronouncements? More on that to come…)
Our first introduction to the new King (the former rascal Hal) leaves us in no doubt that the “wildness” of his youth is past. (Or is just a mask? Or was his wildness a mask?). When the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Ely get together to discuss the possibility of a war in France, they are full of praise for a King they consider “full of grace and fair regard,” as Canterbury exclaims:
The breath no sooner left his father’s body
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seemed to die too. Yea, at that very moment
Consideration like an angel came
And whipped th’offending Adam out of him
Leaving his body as a paradise
T’envelop and contain celestial spirits.
The reformation is (seemingly) complete – and in explicitly religious terms, with an “angel” purifying the King from his earthly dross. One of Shakespeare’s sources, Edward Halle’s chronicle, emphasizes that Henry was a monarch “whose life was immaculate and his living without spot…the mirror of Christendom and the glory of his country.” The connection between godliness and Englishness might make us think of Gaunt’s description of the “blessed plot” in Richard II, but in Henry V, God’s support for the English cause is apparently never in doubt. “O God, thy arm was here,” Henry exclaims after his victory at Agincourt and the revelation that the English losses are miraculously and (unhistorically) slight. “Take it God,/For it is none but thine.”
One question that I had (and I’m guessing a lot of you did as well) while reading Act One was this: Why did the English think they had a claim to France? Here’s the answer, from Peter Saccio’s Shakespeare’s English Kings (well worth your time if you’re interested in the history behind the history plays):
“A larger claim lay in the background, however, an English claim to the crown of France itself. To grasp this, we must turn to the French royal genealogy. Philip IV of France (“Philip the Fair”), who dies in 1314, begot three sons, each of whom ruled France in his turn without begetting a surviving son of his own: Louis X (“Louis the Quarreller” died 1316), Philip V (“Philip the Tall,” died 1322), and Charles IV (“Charles the Fair,” died 1328). He also begot a daughter, Isabella, who married Edward II of England (died 1327) and bore him Edward III. [MY NOTE: Henry V’s great grandfather.] Upon the death of Charles the Fair, the French throne was claimed for Edward III in his mother’s right. The lords of France, however, understandably not wanting an English king, decided that no woman could transmit a claim to the French crown. (They had previously decided, with reference to Louis the Quarreler’s daughter, that no woman could herself wear the crown.) The Capetian dynasty thereby came to an end, and the French crown went to Charles the Fair’s cousin Philip of Valois, who became Philip VI. (This Philip acquired no lasting nickname.) Edward III was not immediately in a position to do anything about the matter. A dozen years later, however, when he had already gone to war in support of certain feudal rights he held in France, he chose to dispute the ruling: the English, after all, had no prohibition barring a brotherless woman from succeeding to the throne or passing on succession to her offspring. Edward proclaimed himself king of France and quartered the fleur-de-lys on his coat of arms. Henry V, in his turn, could press the claim for Gascony and the environs of Calais based on the treaty of Bretigny, or the claim for all of France based on his descent from Philip the Fair through Isabella and Edward. As a matter of fact, his byzantine diplomacy featured a carefully deployment of claims, as well as the use of several pretensions derived from other treaties and inheritances. The ancient duchy of Aquitaine, for example, of which Gascony was but a part, had been brought to the English crown in 1154, when Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine became king and queen of England; and Normandy could be claimed as his inheritance from William the Conqueror, although King John had lost it to the French two centuries before Henry V’s time.
Henry’s pretensions may look to us like an antiquarian and legalistic refusal to accept the verdicts of history. To a modern mind, claiming foreign territories on the basis of genealogical facts buried a century or more in the past appears to be not only a ridiculous move in itself but also a frivolous reason for starting a war. Consequently, the complicated harangue of the archbishop of Canterbury in the first act of Henry V, whereby he proves to his own and Henry’s satisfaction that there is no sound basis in French law for barring a woman and her issue from succession, is often read as and performed for comedy. Now it is true that Henry had other motives for invading France. The territories promised by the treaty of Bretigny were commercially important to the English: the Bordeaux wine customs alone constituted a major source of income for the English crown. Further, the prosecution of a foreign war minimized the chances of domestic revolt by nobles who would necessarily take the field with the king. But these were not the determining issues either to Henry himself or to Shakespeare. The inheritance of property by the correct bloodlines was an extremely serious matter in the Middle Ages and long after. It was an elementary premise undergirding the whole social organization. That is why Henry IV had gained the support of the English in deposing Richard II after Richard had confiscated his huge inheritance from John of Gaunt. Richard had committed other undesirable and alarming acts, but sequestering a magnate’s inheritance (except in cases of treason) was lawless tyranny. The settlement of property disputes in this period involved the hauling forth of ancient genealogical rolls as characteristically as, in modern business transactions, it involved the searching of title deeds. The lively importance of such considerations was still felt in Shakespeare’s time two centuries later. Four years after he had composed Henry V, the English crown passed to a foreign monarch, James of Scotland, because, as great-grandson of Elizabeth I’s elder aunt, James was the late queen’s nearest living relative. Naturally, a crown presented more problems than an ordinary piece of property would: the law was not as clearcut as to how they differed, and mundane political considerations often interfered with the execution of pure theory. When the French finally did acknowledge Henry V as “heir of France” in the treaty of Troyes, he had solidified his position by a series of indisputable military victories and had agreed to marry the French king’s daughter. Nevertheless, when Shakespeare’s Henry asks the archbishop, ‘May I with right and conscience make this claim?’ he is raising an honest and vital question, and the archbishop’s lengthy exposition constitutes an appropriate legal case. The archbishop may make much of persons we now know to be mythical (King Pharamond, Blithild daughter to King Clothair); he may also fall into incidental ironies when he announces that the whole matter is ‘as clear as the summer’s sun”); but the speech as a whole is not comic. As a matter of fact, it is almost verbatim Holinshed, altered only insofar as it is versified. Holinshed was no disciple of the comic muse.”
And with that, from Harold Goddard, an in-depth look at Act One, and, in particular the use of the Chorus:
“That Shakespeare loved England, all his plays, prove, and these historical ones in particular. But there is nothing, unless it be this play, to show that he was a flag-saver. To think of him as a jingo is as difficult as to think of him as a Jew-baiter. Our examination of The Merchant of Venice demonstrated, I hope, that he was not the latter. The charge that he was the former is equally worthy of examination.
But there are the Choruses of Henry V, it will be said, which all in themselves, without going any further, prove the point.
The Choruses of Henry V are indeed full of a windy chauvinism. But who said they are Shakespeare? Who said, I mean, that they represent the author’s ideas or attitude? A good many have said so, it is true, in the fact of the fact that they are like nothing else in the poet’s works that has ever been convincingly identified with his spirit.
The Chorus differentiates himself specifically from the author on his first appearance by asking the audience to
Admit me Chorus to this history,
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray…
“Me Chorus” is plainly not the author; and that the speaker of a prologue may be anything but the representative of the poet or the playwright is proved in most specific fashion by the Chorus-prologue of Troilus and Cressida, who ways:
Hither I am come
A prologue arm’d but not in confidence
Of author’s pen or actor’s voice, but suited
In like conditions as our argument,
To tell you, fair beholders, that our play
Leap’s o’er the vaunt and firstlings of those broils,
Beginning in the middle.
And the words of the Chorus in the epilogue of Henry V confirm the distinction:
Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen
Our bending author hath pursu’d the story.
The poet would not refer to himself as ‘our bending author.’ It is somebody else who is speaking.
Who, then, is the Chorus? He appears to be a mixture of several things. He is in part History filling in the gaps of the story by making abridgments of what is necessarily left out in the theater. He is in part the stage manager apologizing for that necessity and for the general inadequacy of the stage to the poet’s theme. (The stage is incapable of doing justice to the storm in King Lear, but Shakespeare creates no Chorus to point it out.) And, in accordance with one of the traditional functions of the Chorus, he is in part an abstract of average public opinion.
This last point is the crucial one. A military hero at the top of his success is always elevated by the populace into something like a god. And that is just the note that is struck with regard to the warlike Harry throughout these Choruses. But can anyone believe that Shakespeare in his own person would have called Henry ‘the mirror of all Christian kings’ and then let him threaten to allow his soldiers to impale French babies on their spikes and dash the heads of old men against the walls; or called him ‘this grace of kings’ and then let him declare of the prisoners,
we’ll cut the throats of those we have,
And not a man of them that we shall take
Shall taste our mercy;
that he would have pronounced Henry ‘free from vainness and self-glorious pride,’ after dedicating a good part of two plays to showing how he wanted to imitate the sun and astound the world by emerging suddenly, from behind clouds – and not only wanted to, but did?
Soldiers before battle are exposed to martial music and often given even stronger intoxicants, that when they begin to fight they may not be coldly aware of the exact nature of what is before them. Shakespeare offers the martial music of a Chorus before each act of this play, possibly with a similar motive with regard to his auditors and readers. As word music and rhetoric, they are indeed intoxicating. But poetry in any high sense, except perhaps for a few touches, they are not. We have ourselves to blame if we let them put is in a condition in which we cannot see what is going on before us in the play. Shakespeare’s procedure was quite justified. A playwright, he must get a hearing for his play. As poet, he must tell the truth. But to tell the truth about a great national hero at a time when patriotism is running high calls for courage. To tell it and to keep the piece in which you tell it popular calls for more than courage. Shakespeare did as life does. Life places both its facts and its intoxicants before us and bids us make out of the resulting clash what we can and will. So does the author of Henry V. Through the Choruses, the playwright gives us the popular idea of his hero. In the play, the poet tells the truth about him. We are free to accept whichever of the two we prefer. God does not indicate what we shall think of his world or of the men and women he has created. He puts them before us. But he does not compel us to see them as they are. Neither does Shakespeare.
Henry V opens with war on France being decided on. Henry would have resented it if someone had told him that. Who doesn’t resent being told that his mind is made up when he thinks it is still open? The resentment is a confession that is closed.
The previous play [Henry V, Part Two], ended with these words from John of Lancaster:
I will lay odds, that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France. I heard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleas’d the king.
Come, will you hence?
The present play, after a Chorus that forecasts the coming conflict, opens with a conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely that takes war for granted, though Canterbury does not refer to it in so blunt a term but, more tactfully, as ‘causes now in hand…as touching France.’ What the King’s brother, a little bird, a Chorus, and two Bishops agree in foreseeing is certainly coming. Henry has obviously made up his mind to follow his father’s advice to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.
War being deemed desirable, the next thing is to find a reason for it. The opening of the play is dedicated to a search for sound moral ground for the attack on France. Fortunately, for Henry, the Archbishop of Canterbury not only has such a sanction at hand but has a motive for bringing it forward. By a happy chance, he has discovered that what is good for the church coincides with what the King has decided is good for his kingdom. In Henry IV’s reign a bill had been introduced to confiscate the better half of the church’s wealth. Because of the troubled times it had never come to passage. But now it has been revived:
Cant: Thus runs the bill.
Ely: This would drink deep.
Cant: ‘Twould drink the cup and all.
Ely: But what prevention?
Cant: The king is full of grace and fair regard.
Ely: And a true lover of the holy church.
Cant: The courses of his youth promis’d it not…
and the two men digress from the subject in hand to comment on the miraculous changes that has come over Henry. ‘But, my good lord,’ says Ely, returning to the main point,
How now for mitigation of this bill
Urg’d by the commons? Doth his majesty
Incline to it or no?
Cant: He seems indifferent,
Or rather swaying more upon our part
Than cherishing the exhibiters against us;
For I have made an offer to his majesty…
This offer, he goes on to explain, is that the clergy shall make the greatest contribution ever recorded to the war chest of the sovereign. It will obviously be better for the church to make a large gift and so forestall confiscation than to give little or nothing and have its wealth expropriated.
Ely: How did this offer seem receiv’d, my lord?
(There is another word, also of five letters, that would define the nature of the proposed transaction more precisely than ‘offer.’ But it would be too much to expect either of these churchmen to employ it.)
With good acceptance of his majesty,
says Canterbury, answering Ely’s question,
Save that there was not time enough to hear,–
As I perceiv’d his Grace would fain have done…
and the Archbishop proceeds to tell of another trump card he had up his sleeve which an interruption prevented him from putting on the table before the King:
The severals and unhidden passages
Of his true titles to some certain dukedoms,
And generally to the crown and seat of Franmce
Deriv’d from Edward, his great-grandfather.
In a word, the Church will supply not only treasure for the war chest but a justification for making the war. What more could Henry ask? This is far more than his spiritual and political ‘father,’ the Lord Chief Justice of the previous play, would have had to offer in the circumstances. That may seem a cynical way of putting it, and Henry’s words, when he resumes the interrupted conversation in the next scene, seem to make it utterly unwarranted. The King begins by warning the Archbishop not to incite him to war on specious grounds. Think of the blood that will be spilt, he reminds him, every drop of which will be a just complaint against whoever begins an unrighteous conflict.
We charge you in the name of God, take heed…
Under this conjuration speak, my lord,
And we will hear, note, and believe in heart,
That what you speak in your conscience wash’d
As pure as sin with baptism.
Nothing could sound more moral and humane (though a suspicious mind might find a Chaucerian ambiguity in that last phrase. But we must judge Henry by his acts, not by his words.
The King must have an irreproachable reason for making war. The one thing that his claim to the French throne must be is clear. But when the Archbishop goes on to expound that claim, clear is the one thing it does not seem to be. The sixty-odd lines Canterbury devotes to it make one of the most complicated passages of pure exposition in Shakespeare and one of the most difficult to assimilate without an opportunity to study it minutely. No one could possibly take it in in the theater. Any stage director would be certain to cut it drastically. Yet attention to it in detail is indispensable to an understanding of the scene.
The gist of Henry’s claim rests on the fact that his great-great-grandmother was the daughter of Philip IV of France, the only bar to its legitimacy being the Salic law under which succession through the female line is illegal. Even if the title had been a technically good one, time had had the same effect on it as a statute of limitations. But its very age seems to recommend it all the more to the learned Archbishop. His speech consists of an elaborate piece of ecclesiastical casuistry with a highly ironical application to the situation in which Henry finds himself.
That situation itself, without any historical assistance, is ironical enough. Henry’s father had seized the English throne – with disillusioning consequences. His son now proposes to seize the French throne in the hope – shall we say, of wiping out his father’s sin? The Archbishop’s speech rubs in the irony, for all the genealogical details he cites fits with damning neatness the situation in which Henry finds himself, and tend to undermine the very claim they are brought forward to substantiate. How far the learned Archbishop is intentionally obscuring the issue, and how far it is obscuring him, is difficult at times to make out. But if the style is the man we are entitled to believe the worst.
To prove that Henry will not be a usurper if he seizes the crown of France in defiance of the Salic law he cites the cases of three French kings who themselves inherited through the female. The first one deposed another king (as Henry IV did Richard II). The second ‘usurped the crown’ by pressing his title
with some shows of truth,
Though in pure truth it was corrupt and naught,
(just as the Archbishop is urging Henry to press a similar title at the moment). The third, who was sole heir to this usurper (as Henry V was to Henry IV), was so uneasy in his mind about his title (as the first Henry was), that he could not keep quiet in his conscience (as the second Henry is now, by his present enterprise, proving that he cannot). The allusiveness of all this to the pending question makes cynical in the extreme the citation of titles ‘corrupt and naught’ as precedents in support of a chin supposed to be pure and substantial. It is like pointing to a dog’s mongrel ancestors to prove it a thoroughbred. But the effrontery of the Archbishop’s reasoning exceeds even this. The kings of France unto this day, he says to Henry in conclusion, want to bar your title to their throne because you inherit it through the female line, when, all the while, their own titles are crooked and were usurped from you and your progenitors because they were inherited in precisely the same way. The very thing that proves the title of a French king crooked – namely, inheritance through the female – serves, by some twist of ecclesiastical logic, to prove the title of an English king good. Heads you lose, tails I win. [MY NOTE: Any resemblance to certain weapons of mass destruction that had to exist because we couldn’t find them is strictly coincidental.]
Canterbury’s long argument and its conclusion, which he pronounces ‘as clear as is the summer’s sun,’ bewilder Henry as much as they do the reader. Or perhaps he prefers not to understand, that the responsibility may rest on the Archbishop. At any rate, quite as if he had not taken in a word of Canterbury’s magnificent effort, he merely reiterates his original question:
May I with right and conscience make this claim?
To which the Archbishop replies:
The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!
For in the book of Numbers it is writ,
When the son dies, let the inheritance
Descend unto the daughter.
The Book of Numbers! The Archbishop has been holding back his ace. All those tedious genealogical details, then, were only a foil against which the crowning precedent should shine forth. (Quite in Henry’s own style.) It was a considerable step back to the King’s great-great-grandmother. But Moses, or whoever wrote the Pentateuch, is an even more venerable authority. When, in the next act, Exeter, in Henry’s name, demands that the French King resign the crown and adds, as he presents his sovereign’s pedigree:
That you may know
‘Tis no sinister nor no awkward claim,
Pick’d from the worm-holes of long-vanish’d days,
Not from the dust of old oblivion rak’d,
He send you this most memorable line,
In every branch truly demonstrative.,
we remember the learned Archbishop’s researches and the Book of Numbers, and perceive that Exeter’s vehement denial that there is anything shady or far-fetched in Henry’s claim is the poet’s oblique way of telling us that shady and far-fetched is exactly what it is.
And there is irony in this scene at a still deeper level. Henry bases his title on inheritance through the female line. But by this very rule under which he claims the French, he must surrender the English throne, for, allow inheritance through the female, and Edmund Mortimer, who is descended from the third son of Edward III through his grandmother, has a prior claim over Henry, who is descended from the fourth son. Shakespeare leaves it to anyone who will to remember this little fact. With it, the play is one thing; without it, quite another.
Cheerly to sea! the signs of war advance,
cries Henry when the decision to cross the Channel is announced,
No king of England, if not king of France.
‘I am not worthy to be your king,’ he means, ‘if we cannot beat these Frenchmen.’ But attending to truth rather than to meter, the line ought to read:
No king of England, if king of France.
Between war and law, Henry is bound to lose. If he wins the war, he confirms inheritance through the female and is ‘no king of England.’ If he loses it, he is no king of France.
We interrupted the Archbishop at the Book of Numbers. Let us return to his speech. ‘Gracious lord,’ he exclaims, passing from learning to exhortation,
Stand for your own! Unwind your bloody flag!
Look back into your mighty ancestors!
Go, my dread lord, to your great-grandsire’s tomb,
From whom you claim.
It is indeed a tombstone claim.
For in his tomb lie my affections,
Henry, we may recall, said of his father. Now they go still deeper into the family burial chambers. Could anything make clearer the atavistic character of the change that is coming over Henry than these references to blood and ancestry and graves? His nobler self is regressing not merely into his father but into ‘the fathers.’
In what follows one might imagine that the nobler self makes a final attempt to assert itself, for Henry says nothing for forty lines, while Canterbury, Ely, Exeter, and Westmoreland vie with one another in urging him to rouse himself like ‘the former lions’ of his blood to ‘forage in the blood of French nobility’ as did that ‘lion’s whelp,’ the Black Prince, in his great-grandfather’s day. Their verbal violence suggests both a suppressed thirst for blood on their own parts and a fear that Henry is hesitating to give the final word. Your subjects’ hearts have already left their bodies and lie pavillioned on the fields of France, says Westmoreland.
O let their bodies follow, my dear liege,
cries the Archbishop,
With blood and sword and fire to win your right;
In aid whereof we of the spirituality
Will raise your highness such a mighty sum
As never did the clergy at one time
Bring in to any of your ancestors.
Fire, blood, lucre, and spirituality! The witches’ brew in Macbeth scarcely exceeds that.
It is evidently at just this moment that Henry overcomes any lingering scruples. With the tension removed, all these men, including the King, let themselves go a bit and their metaphors grow correspondingly revealing. The Scots, who are likely to attack England when her back is turned, are called petty thieves, snatchers, and weasels who suck princely eggs. England is an eagle in prey – and a cat. But the Archbishop’s comparison is a worse giveaway than any of these. He likens human polity in a well-ordered state to that of the bees. The bees, it turns out, have nearly everything in their community that men have except archbishops and armies. No high churchmen of the hive are mentioned. And as for fighters, this is the way the Archbishop tries to squeeze them in:
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor.
As if bees hovering above flowers, or the fruitful communion of the two, could be compared to the clash of enemies on the battlefield, or honey to the spoils of war! The Archbishop is as deficient in his science as he in his symbolism. His childhood was plainly not spent in the meadows of Stratford. And his logic, that theological and ecclesiastical specialty, is no better. The bees are united and harmonious in a perfect division of labor, he says, ‘therefore’ Henry should ‘divide’ his forces into four parts, attack France with one, and leave the other three for home defense. What these two kinds of division have to do with each other only a mind more concerned with words than realities could figure out. What fun Shakespeare must have had making such a fool of his Archbishop, knowing all the while that his audience would swallow his utterances as grave political wisdom.
The King evidently accepts them as such, for as the Archbishop concludes, he gives the order:
Call in the messengers sent from the Dauphine.
Now are we well resolv’d.
The French ambassadors enter and ask whether they shall speak their sovereign’s intent plainly or veil it in diplomatic language.
Henry tells them to speak out:
We are no tyrant, but a Christian king;
Unto whose grace our passion is as subject
As are our wretches fetter’d in our prisons:
Therefore with frank and with uncurbed plainness
Tell us the Dauphin’s mind.
The metaphor is worth noting, for it is presently going to escape, as prisoners sometimes do, and stab its user in the back. ‘Whatever praises itself but in the deed,’ Shakespeare was to write a year or two later, ‘devours the deed in the praise.’ He knew it already.
Accepting Henry’s invitation not to mince their words, the ambassadors declare that the Dauphin thinks Henry’s claims (to certain lands in France – they have not yet heard his claim to the throne) ‘savour too much of your youth,’ a plain allusion to the part Hal had taken in robberies; that he cannot dance and revel himself into French dukedoms. Therefore he sends Henry, in satisfaction of his claims and as more appropriate to his spirit, a tun of treasure. The treasure turns out to be – tennis balls!
This allusion to his gay youth touches Henry where he is sorest. On the instant his passions, which a moment before he had boasted were his subjects and prisoners, break their chains in such a threat of violence that it sounds more like the barbarous license of some Goth or Norseman in the days of Beowulf than the utterance of a supposedly responsible monarch. Go tell the Dauphin that
many a thousand widows
Shall this mock mock out of their dead husbands;
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn.
Diplomatic insults have often precipitated wars, and it isn’t easy even for the Mirror of all Christian Kings to be twitted in the presence of his court on the subject of his misspent youth. Yet somehow all those widows and mothers and unborn babies seem more than an equivalent for a few tennis balls.
Intoxicated by his own strong speech, the King becomes so consumed with this idea of dominating France that England begins to see like a mere side issue, a vacation spot where he has given himself up to gaiety while absent from his ‘home,’ the throne of France:
We never valu’d this poor seat of England;
And therefore, living hence, did give ourself
To barbarous license, as ‘tis ever common
That men are merriest when they are from home.
(What would Faulconbridge and John of Gaunt have said to that?) But when I come back to that home, Henry declares,
I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yes, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.
That same metaphor of the sun is still troubling him! Possessing him rather, we should say, for the son is now turning from a glorious thing into a deadly one.
Evidently the ‘barbarous license’ that the rejection of Falstaff supposedly ended forever did not include the barbarous license of speech in which Henry indulges in this interview with the ambassadors. But something within his unconsciousness (where the rejected Hal, it should be remembered, now resides) is evidently uneasy and attempts to strike a balance by making Henry introduce references to God, three in a score of lines, immediately following his bragging outbreak. This is one of the King’s most interesting psychological symptoms. Those tennis balls shall turn to cannon balls, he boasts in one breath, and the Dauphin’s soul at the Judgment Day shall be charged for the vengeance they bring.
But this lies all within the will of God.
he adds in the next breath, as if catching himself up, ‘in whose name…I am coming on,’ he concludes in a third breath, ‘to venge me.’ He cannot leave himself out after all. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord – and Henry V of England is my instrument. So read’s Henry’s revised version.
And thus the first act ends. One wonders whether any who find it lacking in drama may possibly have missed some of the irony.”
My apologies if this went on too long…I found it fascinating, hope you all did as well. So…is it now possible to see the play as something other than a patriotic ode to Henry and England?
Our next reading: Henry V, Act Two
My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning