In Act I of Henry V how does Shakespeare portray the character of the King?

By writing this play, Shakespeare was hoping to inspire the people of England because at that time there was a possible threat of war from Spain or Ireland. He was trying to create the feeling of patriotism so writing about Henry was a good idea because he was the epitome of a brave, courageous king. He was able to inspire his men to great victories such as the Battle of Agincourt, where the English won against the odds. Many of the English were tired, fatigued before the battle and they were up against the best French knights. This play was made into a film during the Second World War to inspire the British against the Nazis. You could say it was propaganda because it was trying to promote the governments view.

In the prologue it’s basically apologising because it is not possible to produce the atmosphere of the great battles in the play. So the audience is asked to be imaginative in order to behold the events of the play, transferred from a vast battlefield to the theatre. The chorus sets the scene for the rest of the story.

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The prologue is also written to glorify King Henry. It suggests that he is powerful and successful by saying ‘Then should the warlike Harry, like himself, assume the port of Mars’. This alerts us to some of the play’s most powerful war themes. Harry (or Henry) is likened to the Roman god of War, Mars. This immediately paints a picture of a great warrior in our mind and suggests that he is God-like.

Henry is said to have total control over what he does and brings. ‘(Leashed in, like hounds) should famine, sword and fire crouch for employment’. Shakespeare uses personification here by bringing the three aspects mentioned in the quotation to life. He says that Henry controls them like a man controlling his hound. Shakespeare continues this further by saying that they crouch at his side waiting for his command. Henry knows what his actions will bring. It suggests that Henry has the power to control the effects of war.

At this time the Church was in some of trouble. Canterbury tells Ely about a bill, which could take land away from the church. Henry is now a true man of the Church and is likely to support the Church. But even so the cunning Bishop of Canterbury has a plan that will divert his mind from the bill, and that is Henry’s possible claims to land in France. He says to Ely ‘For I have made an offer to his majesty’. If there is a war to get the land the Church will pay some money for the campaign. Also in the conversation between the bishops, it brings you up to date with what is currently happening.

Henry had spent his youth (known as Prince Hal) mixing with bad company, filling up his time with ‘riots, banquets, sports’ and did not behave like a prince or a possible future king. He was sociable who loved to go to public places, in particular taverns. Canterbury talks about Henry as if he were a strawberry that ‘grows underneath the nettle’. By this he means that under the influence of his one-time friends Henry was behaving like a common person. But now under eye of the lords he was looking more like the perfect king.

Now he is described by Canterbury as ‘full of grace’ and a ‘man of God’. In other words that he is behaving more like a king. Henry now understands well the affairs of state, politics and the tactical needs of warfare. He uses speech eloquently (‘sweet and honeyed sentences’) to lead his subjects. This change has only come about after the death of his father. It is compared to a flood as it came so quickly taking all the evil from within him with it. It’s a bit like the flood in the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. He sounds like the perfect king with no faults, yet the bishops think that they can sway his decision by flattering him. This is a possible weakness but it makes him more human and not god-like and so the story is more believable.

His kingly qualities are shown again because he is respectful of the church elders. He is clearly in command of the situation and knows what is going on. The king is prepared to listen to he advice of those who are more experienced than him and thinks before he speaks. When Henry speaks he says ‘We would be resolved’ and so he speaks for all the lords present suggesting unity. Before Canterbury speaks, Henry tells him not to bend the truth to ‘fashion, wrest, or bow your reading’. He also informs him if the information he gives regarding the Salic law is untrue it will result in an unjust war with France killing innocent people. Henry knows that he is subjected to flattery and so advises Canterbury to try not to flatter him.

‘Shall drop their blood in approbation’. This suggests that the King does not want the people of England to die needlessly, but whatever his decision, they will support him. Again he emphasises the point that the war has to be a just war and if it is not then the English won’t have God’s backing to help them win the war. He takes his duty as King of England very seriously.

Henry has the authority to stop Canterbury and exercises this by stopping Canterbury while he is speaking. May I with right and conscience make this claim?’ He does this because Canterbury has gone of the point of whether or not they can go to war and has started to ramble on. He needs a straight answer because it is such a burning issue. This shows that he has a thorough understanding of the situation and is decisive.

After the second part of Canterbury’s speech it is time for Henry to make his decision. The lords and the bishops put pressure on the King to try to flatter him. Canterbury reminds him of his ancestors saying that they were warlike people. ‘Who on French ground played a tragedy.’ Exeter compares the former king’s of England to lions by saying ‘As did the former lions of your blood’. Lions are the Kings of the jungle and are noble beasts. He is asking Henry if he is going to be a lion as well. It is what his ancestors would have wanted. This speech by the lords inspires the audience making their heart swell up. This patriotism is what the people needed in the 1590’s and the 1940’s because of war.

His decision is to go to war but it is not yet final. This proves that he is susceptible to flattery. The lords may know this weakness already or their speeches are genuine patriotism. It is Henry’s destiny to get the land, which is rightfully his, back. That is another one of his weaknesses; he is egocentric. This makes him more human and not god-like as portrayed before by comparing him to Mars. He has a reputation to live up to.

Even though he is flooded by all of this, he keeps his head up and is cautious. ‘But lay down our proportions to defend against the Scot’. He may be trying to tell the lords to not get carried away and rush into things but plan carefully. He is pragmatic. He will not move on until a possible solution is found to the problem. He is concerned with what is practicable. Here Shakespeare is elevating him to a position where he seems to have so many qualities.

The problem about Scotland is overcome quite easily. Again he is being flattered by the lords who compare England to an eagle, which is majestic and Scotland as being lower, the weasel. Shakespeare uses alliteration to make the Scottish sound sinister and snake like. ‘Comes sneaking, and so sucks her princely eggs’.

Canterbury compares the state of a man to the work of ‘honey bees’. This is an important image as it stresses the unity of the nation. Canterbury is basically saying that all the parts of the nation work in different ways in which to achieve one goal, like the bees do. Everyone has his or her place working hard and Henry is like the Queen bee keeping everything going and running perfectly.

As a result of the bribe from the church and the flattery, Henry decides, more or less to go to war with the French. Once again Henry goes at it whole-heartedly delivering his speech. He gives a feeling of union by saying ‘we’ instead of ‘I’. He calls upon God and his lords to succeed. He begins to show some of the qualities of leadership and determination that eventually win the war for England. He will either rule over France or die trying to win France. If he doesn’t fight he is not worthy of remembrance.

The ambassador brings with him a message and a chest. The message is that France will not give up land and so sends some treasure. The chest is opened to find ‘Tennis balls’. The tennis balls are obviously an insult to the king from the Dauphin but he shows self-control and majesty and thanks the Dauphin for the present. The tennis balls are an insult because it makes fun of Henry’s past. To show how eloquent he is Henry uses the extended metaphor of the tennis ball theme throughout the conversation. He shows how confident and assured he is by saying that God will only be on his side not France’s. ‘ By God’s grace’. He accepts that he was wild and reckless but now he is a changed man and not what he is assumed to be.

The tone in his voice then changes because he threatens the Dauphin that he will turn ‘his balls to gun-stones’. He is now angry because this insult has hurt his pride. He is also angry because of the deaths the war will cause all because of the insult of the tennis balls. The Dauphin will be blamed for the loss of life.

‘For many a thousand widows shall this his

mock mock out of their dear husbands, mock

mothers from their sons, mock castles down’.

There will be more people crying for the dead than laughing at Henry’s attempt at war. He is a good politician because he shifts the blame. He again says that God is on his side and that he is a good Christian king. The reason for the war is a ‘hallowed cause’. It is not personal revenge but punishment from God because of the Dauphin’s evil deeds. This is a declaration of war.

As soon as the ambassador is escorted out Henry orders the preparations for the coming war to begin. The play ends positively by showing that he is determined to gain his land.

Henry’s character heroism, that he is a good Christian, he is eloquent, he is inspirational and rational. His weaknesses are that he is subjected to flattery, his vanity, and his personal pride. The character of Henry could be different because it depends on whether the actor can portray these qualities of Henry’s or not.