Henry V
written by William Shakespeare in 1599 is an extremely intricate history
play.  The play is ultimately the story
of King Henry V’s life during the 1400’s. The Battle of Agincourt in 1415, initiated
the sequence of events surrounding the trial and tribulations England faced during
the Hundred Years’ War. As one of Shakespeare’s most well-known works, it is
part of the chronological series of plays surrounding England’s rule and is now
one of the most renowned and studied history plays in the world. Many themes
are weaved throughout the play, forcing critics and audience, alike, to
struggle to find the prominent theme or idea. However, if one was to focus on
how Shakespeare depicts the relationship between monarchs and the people they
rule, then it would seem to be extremely poignant to the play. Shakespeare
presents the figure of the play’s heroic yet ruthless protagonist, Henry V, to
the audience at the beginning of the play. We begin to realise Henry V’s
principal concern is the nature of leadership and its relationship to morality,
which furthermore suggests that the attributes that outline a good ruler are
not essentially the same attributes or qualities that define a good person.
“Shakespeare’s King Henry V is an elusive, searching mediation on the
relationship of law and religion to war, peace, and statecraft”1 (Delahunty. P.129)

 

Shakespeare
presents King Henry V as an extremely virtuous and courageous leader: he is
intelligent, focused, and is an inspiration to his men in times of need. When
it comes to it, the King uses as much of the resources, at his disposal, to
ensure that he achieves his goals. Shakespeare creates a charismatic character
with the ability to connect with his subjects and furthermore, makes plausible
that Henry is the epitome of a good leader. However, with great power comes
great responsibility and the King is forced to make decisions and behave in a
way that, were he a common man, might seem immoral and unjustifiable. Henry, as
King, does many things to fortify the stability of his throne, however
questionable they may be. He became a disloyal man, turning his back on his
friends in order to focus on his Kingship, such as Falstaff, and he sentenced
Scrope to death in order to uphold the law. Although one might suggest Henry
was right as Scrope was plotting to assassinate him, his harsh punishment of
Bardolph is less understandable, as are many other things the King does. The
relationship between monarch and subjects sometimes becomes blurred in the
middle of such adversity. Although the King talks of favoring peace, once his
mind 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 accept
the tradition, the play may be suggesting merely that the King still has a lot to
learn, and much criticism has seen him as maturing rather than remaining static
in 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 quite
negative.

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England in
the early fifteenth century is the outline of the play, plummeting Henry V into
a storm of tense political situations throughout the land. The death of King
Henry IV shocked the nation, and the heir to the throne, his son, the young
King Henry V, just assumed authority over England. The citizens of the Kingdom have
been left restless and agitated in the midst of several ongoing civil wars. The
people do not trust their new King, already establishing a hostile relationship
between the Monarch and his people. Furthermore, in order to gain the respect
of the English people and the court, Henry had to neglect his uncontrolled
youthful past, where he used to associate himself with thieves and drunkards at
the Boar’s Head Tavern in a rough area of London. Due to this change of
character, he became a royal leader in which the public wanted to follow, with
the Archbishop of Canterbury implying “the courses of his youth promised
it not”5 (Shakespeare. I. I. 25) and the
people of England did trail behind him. “The city engaged in a give-and-take
relation 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 King
can not be a tyrant but must rule the public fairly. This is more or less the
relationship in Henry V.

 

The men he
took with him to war in France are a substantial proportion of those whom he
rules over. Henry treats these men with huge respect, unless they’re plotting
against him, of course. The relationship the King incorporates with his
soldiers is immensely important as it determines morale and unity. In contrast
to 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 common
soldiers 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 anticipate
the war, in which they’re about to elicit in, will be like, disguises himself
as a common soldier and talks to many of the men in his camp. The King wants to
know these men, he wants to know how they’re feeling. He is showing compassion
and 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, we
band 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 with
the soldiers. By inspiring his men to win the Battle of Agincourt despite
overwhelming odds, Henry achieves heroic status, something his followers can
look up to and aspire to be.

 

For a play
that uncovers and exploits the essence of absolute political power, there is
something remarkably autonomous in this revitalizing depiction of different
social classes and men of every nationality from Scotland to Ireland, as their
roles 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 play
mostly focuses on the Kings relationship with the men of the country, as the
war is the most poignant theme. During this time, women didn’t fight in the
wars 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 a
substantial role. They are merely property, as Holderness puts it: “Mistress
Quickly, now Pistol’s loyal wife; The French Queen, a diplomatic extension of
her husband and Katharine the French Princess. Katharine’s function is that of
an object of value in a political strategy”4
.(Holderness, Potter. P.80) The fact that they’re all associated with men
conveys their relationship and status within the play. They are pawns belonging
to men, used when needed.

 

Throughout
the play, it could become clear to one that perhaps Henry V has not made the
country powerful due to positive relationship between noble man and monarch.
Perhaps, he has just created a prevailing country in regard to military
authority under such rule. Graham Holderness argues that: “‘England’ in Henry V
is not a United Kingdom, only a victorious army; the King’s achievement is not
a peaceful and harmonious commonwealth, but a barren military triumph which
conquers 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 extremely
poignant sense of unison during the battle of Agincourt, creating a
relationship with the men in which he ruled over – for one moment, giving them
the illusion that class or society didn’t exist and that on that day, they were
one and fighting for their country, something in which they all shared, common
man and royalty. The King was not on the right path in the beginning of his
leadership, and may not have been as equal to women as men but he created a
vastly positive relationship with his soldiers, when they truly needed it. “Regarding
kingship and power, Shakespeare intended to promote the balanced combination of
Tudor and Machiavellian political belief, in order to illustrate that the best
possible ruler has both the pre-ordained right to rule, and the innate
qualities that enable him to rule with political sophistication.”7

1
Delahunty, Robert J. “The Conscience of a King: Law, Religion, and War in
Shakespeare’s King Henry V,” Journal of Catholic Legal Studies vol. 53,
no. 2 (2014): p. 129-184.

2
L. Tebbetts, Terrell. “Shakespeare’s Henry V: Politics and The
Family.” South Central Review Vol.7. No. 1 (1990): pp. 8-19.

3
Anny Crunelle-Vanrigh. “‘Henry V’ as a Royal Entry.” Studies in English
Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 47, no. 2, 2007, pp. 355–377. JSTOR, JSTOR,
www.jstor.org/stable/4625115.

4
Holderness, Graham, Nick Potter, and John Turner. Shakespeare: The Play of
History. New York: Palgrave, 1987. Print.

5
Shakespeare, William, and Gary Taylor. Henry V. Oxford University Press, 1998.
Print.

6
Holderness, Graham. Shakespeare’s History. Dublin: Gill and Macmillan Ltd,
1985. Print.

7
Mabillard, Amanda. Representations of Kingship and Power in Shakespeare’s
Second Tetralogy. Shakespeare Online. 19 Aug. 2000.