As in a large part of his plays, Shakespeare portrays Henry V very realistically, sketching him along the way and making his character extremely believable; during his ranging speeches and monologues we feel as if we’re there, despite the Chorus’ apologies for having such modest conditions like the stage. The playwright reveals to us the kingly qualities of Henry, such as his firm leadership, realistic sense of judgement, loyalty to his kingdom and support for his people, all of these being conveyed by his great oratorical abilities which had a great impact on the post-medieval society. However, Shakespeare also provides his audience with food for thought as he makes us question ourselves whether Henry’s tendency to detach himself from responsibility and to instead use God’s will and support of the battle as a justification is morally reprehensible.
King Henry’s qualities are first revealed through indirect characterisation as the two bishops talk highly of him. They praise him for being “full of grace and fair regard”, qualities which shall be later revealed through the King’s actions. Moreover, they are right in commending his intelligence and skill of manipulating language as when we “Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs,/…The air, a chartered libertine, is still,/ And the mute wonder lurketh in men’s ears.” However, this is a newly formed moral character as the characteristic of his youth was “wildness”. According to the bishops, “Consideration like an angel came” after the death of his father, persuading Henry to suddenly mature into a compelling figure upon the death of his father.
While Henry is preparing for the meeting with the French Ambassador in Act 1.2, we first notice about the king his precaution and lack of impulsiveness as he wishes to discuss through “some things of weight” before greeting the Ambassador. By asking Canterbury questions whether they actually do have a right to claim the Salic law, thus land, conveys that Henry is actively involved in decisions and makes thoroughly thought choices. Moreover, another piece of evidence supporting his cautiousness is the fact that after Canterbury’s lengthy explanation of why the King has a right to make territorial claims, he still inquires whether he can “with right and conscience make this claim?” This again highlights his well balanced decisions before he takes action and thus his lack of impulsivity, which we tend to think characterises superficial kings.
Furthermore, while we and even the Shakespearian audience might question at times the futility of such a war caused simply by a new fact discovered by the bishops, in the post-medieval society of King Henry V to go to war for even the smallest of territorial gains which would offer the kingdom greater influence was a perfectly justified motive. Nonetheless, before going to war, even Henry acknowledges the consequences of waging war against the French “For never two such kingdoms did contend/ Without much fall of blood”. This idea of him understanding and contemplating upon the effects of war and not wanting it to be pointless underlines his quality of pragmatism. Moreover, Henry’s realistic sense of judgement is also conveyed by his consciousness of England’s borders, weighing out the other problems that an invasion on France might give way to, for example not being able have enough men to defend England when “the Scot, (…) will make road upon us/With all advantages.” Throughout the play, Henry’s kingly qualities are also more subtly revealed by contrasts between the English and the French. This is extremely effective for the Shakespearian audience as by lowering the French in the audience’s minds, the English are automatically propagated to the top, with Henry being superior to the French king, prince or any French nobleman. Therefore, Henry’s realistic qualities are revealed by the contrasting French arrogance as they boast that “I will trot tomorrow a mile, and my way shall be paved with English faces.” This clearly is opposing Henry’s steady focus, as he does encourage his men telling them that they will be victorious yet he is also rational in realising the English disadvantages as “We would not seek a battle as we are”.
Hence the previous contrast outlines the superficiality of the French nobility who clearly underestimate Henry and his men. The Constable claims his certainty that “when he shall see our army/ He’ll drop his heart into the sink of fear/ And for achievement offer us his ransom.” In fact Henry refuses any type of ransom, but the dramatic tension conveyed by the French arrogance elevates Henry even higher in the eyes of the audience. Once he wins, it is not only the victory and Henry’s leadership that will make him a hero but also the idea that he was underestimated by the French who preferred to instead insult him and his men, “What a wretched and peevish fellow is this King of England, to mope with his fat-brained followers so far out of knowledge!” While Act 3.7 implies that in the French society importance is given only to decadent, superficial nobles as Shakespeare does not portray any French commoner in the play, on the other side of the coin, the English society also looks at commoners.
This lies in line with the attention Henry gives his men, showing that he cares about his people and thus about his country. He does not patronise or look down on his men, instead showing respect for them, claiming that their “blood is fet from fathers of war-proof,/ Fathers that like so many Alexanders”, thus comparing their blood to that of Alexander the Great. His speeches are meant to heighten a certain pride and will to fight in his men as well as to encourage them and to raise their morale. He rises up to his responsibility of acting as a role model to the rest of the men, as he tries to keep them thinking positively by he himself claiming that “There is some soul of goodness in things evil”. The fact that he wants to “Do my good morrow to them” and see them in their camp on the morning before the battle shows a certain attachment that he has for his soldiers. I think that this feature was seen as an even greater quality in King Henry V’s society when the King was seen as almost synonymous to God or God’s representation on Earth and he is anointed by Him. In one of his most famous speeches, Henry again encourages his soldiers and raises their morale when they seem to have a defeatist attitude or when they would rather not fight due to low number of men by telling them that “The fewer men, the greater share of honour”. This also shows Henry’s personal attitude and understanding of this war and battle, as an honourable thing rather than simply power-seeking.
He also gives his men the opportunity to leave if they have “no stomach to this fight” thus raising morale dramatically as his men know that he does not simply regard them as pawns fighting for the King only. The climax of his speech is reached when the King declares that “For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother” which convinces his men that glory and unity in battle are worth dying for; again one of the reasons why this is so convincing for the soldiers and for us is if we try to understand and look at the society in which they lived, the King’s speech is full of nobleness and to be called a King’s brother is of great pride. Therefore, this shows dedication and respect for his men, a quality which cannot be attributed to the French. Another contrast that conveys the rarity of such nobility as Henry’s is the attitude of the French to their dead soldiers- “For many of our princes- woe the while!-/Lie drowned and soaked in mercenary blood”, therefore showing that they see the men of their own country as inferior and not worthy of their attention. Shakespeare has made this contrast even more poignant as Henry orders that all of his dead men – the majority of whom were commoners- be buried and that “Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum,/The dead with charity enclosed in clay”, which highlights his respect for them.
A King’s oratorical abilities are vital to his success, especially in the post-medieval society, when he was the men’s only source of information and motivation in battles. Nonetheless, these are not only useful for addressing his men but also for diplomacy as again, Henry manages to translate his intentions and moods through the language and tone used. He changes his tone and language according to his audience and purpose as for example, after having received the mocking present from the Dauphin, he keeps his calm and responds in a sarcastic tone, “We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us/…We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set/Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard”. Hence he intelligently uses the same metaphor of tennis to talk about the upcoming war. However, to show that he is serious about it, there is a sudden change of tone, as it becomes menacing and cold when he claims that “this mock of his ( the Dauphin)/ Hath turned his balls to gun-stones”. Then in Act 3.3 he is delivering a speech in a gruesomely terrifying tone to the Governor, with the purpose of intimidating him into believing that “I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur/Till in her ashes she lie buried./…And the fleshed soldier…/…mowing like grass/Your fresh fair virgins and your flowering infants”. This is evidence of his ability to emulate his speeches onto his audience and purpose as when he is delivering his St Crispin’s speech his tone completely differs and is one of national ardour and encouragement.
Among other kingly qualities revealed by Shakespeare is his devotion to his promises. He had promised the Ambassador that “We are no tyrant but a Christian king” and that he would not kill them. It is commendable that he managed to stick to his promise even after the Ambassador delivered him the mocking present. Therefore, he is a fair King. However, this fairness must not be mistaken for unnecessary leniency; he shows no mercy to traitors even if they are his acquaintances as in the case of the three noblemen “who conspired against our person”. The same applies to Bardolph’s case, who, despite being an old friend of Henry’s, is sentenced to death as the King voices his approval of such a punishment, stressing how important it is that the conquered France is treated with respect and “such offenders so cut off” if they don’t abide by his rules. While some may criticise Henry for being merciless, I think this is laudable as it shows that he is not corrupt and that he places his nation above his personal life; after all, he is a figure of authority and must show his men that rules are not to be broken.
His kingly loyalty is another quality that Henry possesses as in Act 2.2. he is talking as if him and the nation are one and the same- “Touching our person seek we no revenge,/But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender”. His consistency and loyalty to the battle again show his dedication to his own nation as well as its causes as he declares that he “would not wish himself anywhere but where he is”, thus revealing wholehearted support for the battle.
Although one may doubt the substance of his reasons for the war, through his speeches about the weight of responsibility, as Henry envies the sound sleep of “the wretched slave” who doesn’t know “What watch the King keeps to maintain the peace”, he clearly is not motivated by lust for power and land. His rule is not driven by power hunger or luxuries as it’s not “The intertissued robe of gold and pearl,/…(nor)The throne he sits on…” that offer him happiness but he instead is dedicated to fulfilling the obligations of his elevated rank.
However, criticism is brought to Henry V due to his tendency to detach himself from responsibility. He even tells the French governor at Harfleur that if the French do not surrender, they will be responsible for the carnage that Henry will create as “What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause”. He also refuses to take responsibility for the death of his soldiers since “the King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant” because “Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own.” He appears to truly believe in the fact that he is meant to be king of France and that the man sitting on the throne is not fit for that position. Because he writes off the invasion as justified and ordained by God ( an idea which is confirmed at the end, when Henry says that “God fought for us”), Henry doesn’t concern himself-or, at least, he feels that he is not required to concern himself-with the issue of his moral responsibility.
Furthermore, in present days, one may argue that while Henry is precautious, on the other hand, he is impulsive in the sense that he gives way to fury. At a first glance we might think that Henry ordered that the French prisoners be murdered to avenge the killing of the English boys in the camp. This may seem morally decadent in our days, but in the post-medieval society he is praised as being “a gallant king” for doing so. However, it may also be argued that Henry thought that the French were rallying, which then justifies his reasons for killing the French prisoners.
In conclusion, I think that Shakespeare portrays Henry as a distinctive, heroic king who seems to be fully dedicated to the causes of England. The fact that neither his father, who seems to have made “the fault (of)…compassing the crown”, and his son who “lost France and made his England bleed” don’t appear to possess all of Henry V’s qualities makes them so much more valuable. Albeit the presence of things that we might morally condemn in our present society, we also have to consider that maybe for Henry V’s society they were the things to do in order to be a commendable king.