Henry Vwritten by William Shakespeare in 1599 is an extremely intricate historyplay. The play is ultimately the storyof King Henry V’s life during the 1400’s. The Battle of Agincourt in 1415, initiatedthe sequence of events surrounding the trial and tribulations England faced duringthe Hundred Years’ War. As one of Shakespeare’s most well-known works, it ispart of the chronological series of plays surrounding England’s rule and is nowone of the most renowned and studied history plays in the world. Many themesare weaved throughout the play, forcing critics and audience, alike, tostruggle to find the prominent theme or idea. However, if one was to focus onhow Shakespeare depicts the relationship between monarchs and the people theyrule, then it would seem to be extremely poignant to the play.
Shakespearepresents the figure of the play’s heroic yet ruthless protagonist, Henry V, tothe audience at the beginning of the play. We begin to realise Henry V’sprincipal concern is the nature of leadership and its relationship to morality,which furthermore suggests that the attributes that outline a good ruler arenot essentially the same attributes or qualities that define a good person.”Shakespeare’s King Henry V is an elusive, searching mediation on therelationship of law and religion to war, peace, and statecraft”1 (Delahunty. P.
129) Shakespearepresents King Henry V as an extremely virtuous and courageous leader: he isintelligent, focused, and is an inspiration to his men in times of need. Whenit comes to it, the King uses as much of the resources, at his disposal, toensure that he achieves his goals. Shakespeare creates a charismatic characterwith the ability to connect with his subjects and furthermore, makes plausiblethat Henry is the epitome of a good leader. However, with great power comesgreat responsibility and the King is forced to make decisions and behave in away that, were he a common man, might seem immoral and unjustifiable. Henry, asKing, does many things to fortify the stability of his throne, howeverquestionable they may be. He became a disloyal man, turning his back on hisfriends in order to focus on his Kingship, such as Falstaff, and he sentencedScrope to death in order to uphold the law. Although one might suggest Henrywas right as Scrope was plotting to assassinate him, his harsh punishment ofBardolph is less understandable, as are many other things the King does.
Therelationship between monarch and subjects sometimes becomes blurred in themiddle of such adversity. Although the King talks of favoring peace, once hismind is settled on a course of action, he’s ready to overlook and create immense,unprovoked, violence to attain his goal. “Even if Shakespeare does not acceptthe tradition, the play may be suggesting merely that the King still has a lot tolearn, and much criticism has seen him as maturing rather than remaining staticin the play.”2(Tebbetts. P. 11).
The King could just be learning along the way and,unforgivably, have made some mistakes, but the relationship here is quitenegative. England inthe early fifteenth century is the outline of the play, plummeting Henry V intoa storm of tense political situations throughout the land. The death of KingHenry IV shocked the nation, and the heir to the throne, his son, the youngKing Henry V, just assumed authority over England. The citizens of the Kingdom havebeen left restless and agitated in the midst of several ongoing civil wars.
Thepeople do not trust their new King, already establishing a hostile relationshipbetween the Monarch and his people. Furthermore, in order to gain the respectof the English people and the court, Henry had to neglect his uncontrolledyouthful past, where he used to associate himself with thieves and drunkards atthe Boar’s Head Tavern in a rough area of London. Due to this change ofcharacter, he became a royal leader in which the public wanted to follow, withthe Archbishop of Canterbury implying “the courses of his youth promisedit not”5 (Shakespeare. I. I. 25) and thepeople of England did trail behind him. “The city engaged in a give-and-takerelation with the sovereign, reaffirming its loyalty to his line of descent,while holding a mirror up to the magistrate.”3 (Crunelle-Vanrigh.
P.358). The relationship between ruler and people must be an equal one.
The Kingcan not be a tyrant but must rule the public fairly. This is more or less therelationship in Henry V. The men hetook with him to war in France are a substantial proportion of those whom herules over. Henry treats these men with huge respect, unless they’re plottingagainst him, of course. The relationship the King incorporates with hissoldiers is immensely important as it determines morale and unity. In contrastto the French, the monarchs think only of the deeds and honour of their nobility,however, Henry V “seeks to unite his nation by incorporating his commonsoldiers into the majesty of the realm”4. (Holderness, Potter. P.
79) Henry V, in an attempt to discover who his men are and what they anticipatethe war, in which they’re about to elicit in, will be like, disguises himselfas a common soldier and talks to many of the men in his camp. The King wants toknow these men, he wants to know how they’re feeling. He is showing compassionand in this, proves the relationship between both monarch and common man is firm.
The King, upon realising the French have outnumbered them in Agincourt 5 to 1,gives a powerful, inspiring speech to his soldiers. “We few, We happy few, weband of brothers. For he today that sheds blood with me, shall be my brother,be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition” 5 (Shakespeare. IV. III.
60-4). He creates a sense of togetherness, strengthening his relationship withthe soldiers. By inspiring his men to win the Battle of Agincourt despiteoverwhelming odds, Henry achieves heroic status, something his followers canlook up to and aspire to be. For a playthat uncovers and exploits the essence of absolute political power, there issomething remarkably autonomous in this revitalizing depiction of differentsocial classes and men of every nationality from Scotland to Ireland, as theirroles entwine in the war effort, as well as their relationship with the king,as he pursues his duties to rule, govern direction and momentum. The playmostly focuses on the Kings relationship with the men of the country, as thewar is the most poignant theme. During this time, women didn’t fight in thewars as they were at home with the children, however, sexist this may be.However, women are weaved throughout the play but do not play such asubstantial role.
They are merely property, as Holderness puts it: “MistressQuickly, now Pistol’s loyal wife; The French Queen, a diplomatic extension ofher husband and Katharine the French Princess. Katharine’s function is that ofan object of value in a political strategy”4.(Holderness, Potter.
P.80) The fact that they’re all associated with menconveys their relationship and status within the play. They are pawns belongingto men, used when needed. Throughoutthe play, it could become clear to one that perhaps Henry V has not made thecountry powerful due to positive relationship between noble man and monarch.Perhaps, he has just created a prevailing country in regard to militaryauthority under such rule. Graham Holderness argues that: “‘England’ in Henry Vis not a United Kingdom, only a victorious army; the King’s achievement is nota peaceful and harmonious commonwealth, but a barren military triumph whichconquers a land soon to be liberated from English rule” 6 . (Holderness. P 133)Despite this statement, there is no denying that Henry V created an extremelypoignant sense of unison during the battle of Agincourt, creating arelationship with the men in which he ruled over – for one moment, giving themthe illusion that class or society didn’t exist and that on that day, they wereone and fighting for their country, something in which they all shared, commonman and royalty.
The King was not on the right path in the beginning of hisleadership, and may not have been as equal to women as men but he created avastly positive relationship with his soldiers, when they truly needed it. “Regardingkingship and power, Shakespeare intended to promote the balanced combination ofTudor and Machiavellian political belief, in order to illustrate that the bestpossible ruler has both the pre-ordained right to rule, and the innatequalities that enable him to rule with political sophistication.”71Delahunty, Robert J. “The Conscience of a King: Law, Religion, and War inShakespeare’s King Henry V,” Journal of Catholic Legal Studies vol.
53,no. 2 (2014): p. 129-184.2L. Tebbetts, Terrell. “Shakespeare’s Henry V: Politics and TheFamily.” South Central Review Vol.7.
No. 1 (1990): pp. 8-19.3Anny Crunelle-Vanrigh. “‘Henry V’ as a Royal Entry.” Studies in EnglishLiterature, 1500-1900, vol.
47, no. 2, 2007, pp. 355–377.
JSTOR, JSTOR,www.jstor.org/stable/4625115.4Holderness, Graham, Nick Potter, and John Turner. Shakespeare: The Play ofHistory. New York: Palgrave, 1987.
Print.5Shakespeare, William, and Gary Taylor. Henry V. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Print.6Holderness, Graham. Shakespeare’s History.
Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd,1985. Print.7Mabillard, Amanda. Representations of Kingship and Power in Shakespeare’sSecond Tetralogy. Shakespeare Online.
19 Aug. 2000.