Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility;
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger:
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood.
— King Henry V, Act III, Scene I
It’s been far too long since my last deep dive into the works of Shakespeare. I actually got through Henry V rather quickly, even using my usual methods of reading, listening to a full cast audio production, watching a few select film versions, and ultimately reading it again. But for whatever reason, I couldn’t bring myself to write about it. Not right away, at least. Part of it is the usual too many irons in the fire, and part of it was just this nagging feeling that I needed to let it simmer a while so that maybe I could pull something more from it that eluded me at the conscious level. The Bard has that effect on me. I can never tell if that’s because that’s legitimately what these plays do to people, or if we’re taught to look for ideas that will elicit that effect because scholars claim it so. I’m sure scholars have some effect on this front, but I suspect that they’d have little enough to discuss if not for Shakespeare’s insights and poetic wordplay.
The thing is, I don’t think any of the insights were supposed to be subconscious. Audiences of his day were meant to get it on some level in a single performance. I am very fortunate indeed to be able to access his original script and numerous performed translations of it at the push of a button. The simple fact is that I’m not nearly as smart as all that, so I need every advantage I can get. I struggle to meet the Bard’s challenge. It’s a challenge I’m happy to meet, and I’ll get there in the end, but it’s still a struggle that requires complete immersion on my part. I must “summon up the blood.”
As it’s been a while, and because I do like to keep these posts self-contained if possible, I should remind readers about the Bard’s motivations in regards to his regal nemesis, Queen Elizabeth I. I’ve contended that as a closet Catholic, Shakespeare has called out the queen – as well as her family line and a great many before the Tudor dynasty – as usurpers and bastards, ill-deserving of the Divine Right of Kings. This has been his sword and shield through King John, Richard II, and Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. John was smote by God Himself, Richard was undone by the usurper Henry, and Henry began the cycle of illegitimacy that plagued England with corruption and devastation throughout the latter half of the Hundred Years War, through the Wars of the Roses, and into the Tudor dynasty. And as incredible as it seems, Elizabeth has even recognized this under the belief that Shakespeare didn’t know what he was doing. After all, to tear down one monarch in history is to tear them all down, and surely that wasn’t his intent. “Know ye not that I am Richard?” she is reported to have exclaimed. Aye, Bess. He knows all too well.
With this setup in mind, we explore new territory in Henry V. In the newly-ascended Hal, Shakespeare has an icon of Holy Deliverance that, especially when held alongside Elizabeth for comparison, offers a prime example of what a true English monarch should look like in the Bard’s eyes. Though his father usurped the throne, Henry inherited it under English law through the line of succession. But wait, so did Elizabeth, right? Well… there are technicalities that Shakespeare would have used for justification of his claims. Elizabeth’s mother Anne Boleyn would be seen as a mistress, not Henry VIII’s true wife according to Catholic eyes. This is why the separation with the Church happened, leading the country into the turbulence of Reformation, all because England’s true queen, Katherine of Aragon, couldn’t provide a male heir… or because Henry was simply bored with her after so many years. According to record, both Mary and Elizabeth were declared bastards before eventually being put back into the line of succession. Edward VI was born to the next wife, Jane Seymour, and declared the rightful heir first. To a Catholic like Shakespeare… no. Edward, too, would be a bastard. His Protestant ways and blasphemous heritage from a traitorous line meant that God smote him early. Lady Jane Grey famously takes the throne for nine days. Smote. Henry’s eldest daughter Mary ascends the throne. She’s Catholic, she’s the rightful heir as Henry V was, but she’s cursed with Tudor dementia from Shakespeare’s point of view, and… not to put a fine point on it, but she’s a woman, and Shakespeare clearly has issues with that. Five years on the throne, some horrific actions in the name of God, and God smote her back. Which brings us to Elizabeth: another bastard, another woman, and another Protestant. In Shakespeare’s mind, she’s pretty much the Anti-Christ. If not, she’s certainly the bane of all England.
So why does Henry V get a pass in Shakespeare’s eyes? For starters, he’s male, he’s born into the line of succession, and he’s Catholic. He’s also a great war hero. Following in the stead of Edward III, his victory at Agincourt against that most hated foe – the French flower of chivalry – is the stuff of legend. It’s almost like his father’s usurpation was cleansed in the fires of battle. Wait, didn’t Elizabeth do this too? The Spanish Armada was turned back under her command ten years previous in 1588. Does that account for nothing? Well… no. Keep in mind, the Spanish are Catholic. It’s almost as though Shakespeare can forgive them for trying to take down Elizabeth as it’s their God-given mandate or something. I suspect he’d feel differently had they succeeded based on what I know of the Reconquista, but who can say for certain? This is all one big thought experiment. If he had to pick one, would it be more important for Shakespeare to be Catholic or English? I contend it probably didn’t matter much, so long as the French get no say in the matter. And so far as the Bard is concerned, Henry V did his part to see to it that wouldn’t happen.
It’s also worth noting that, unlike Elizabeth, Henry V died young at the age of 36. What killed him? Well, if you think like my version of the conspiracy-minded Bard, it was Henry’s “treason” in the form of marriage to the French Catherine of Valois, whose infant son by Henry ascended to the throne upon Henry’s death… punishment by the Almighty for sleeping with the enemy, no doubt. Some might call that a unification of the thrones. Apparently God thought otherwise, because He sent Joan of Arc a few years later – to Shakespeare’s mind, the ultimate in humiliating punishments to a devout Englishman. What further proof could the Bard need that God was standing firmly against England for its transgressions? And then because Joan proved the leadership of the half-French Henry VI to be so incompetent, we got the end to the Hundred Years War that started off so promising for England, followed by the Wars of the Roses that irrevocably messed up England’s leadership from the top down. So basically, Elizabeth’s reign is just the latest manifestation of Divine Wrath earned through a cycle of mortal madness at the level of the throne. England gets punished internally, and France gets to keep its kingdom as a persistent mockery to the English.
I know, I know… I’m making a lot of assumptions, but we have these great plays that seem to support the ideas of the (admittedly stereotypical) English Renaissance mindset in play as I’ve presented, as well as the known facts of the era. It also helps that in running such thought experiments from the would-be point of view of a fun house mirror version of Shakespeare, I exonerate myself from being wrong about any of it. So before Henry V died young, he used his Catholic throne for good and gave the French a proper stomping that would be remembered to the end of history as a top quality English king should. Shakespeare knows a good tale when he hears one, and Hal is exactly the sort of poster boy the Bard needs to hold up against Elizabeth for all to see. All that remains is how to properly frame these righteous and noble deeds of Divine conquest.
If anything can be said to be true of the Bard and his work, it’s that he’s complex. Henry is anything other than a one-dimensional superhero. On the surface, he’s everything an English king should be: noble, brave, modest, laser-focused on his objective, and possessing of a great sense of humor. Anyone would be so lucky to be like Hal. But traditional heroism isn’t enough for our Bard. Victory can only be snatched from the jaws of defeat if there is struggle, both within and without. If actions speak louder than words (which seems anathema to a Shakespearean play, does it not?), then Henry’s actions define him more than his verbal proclamations. And keep in mind, those verbal proclamations already hold mighty weight as the words of a righteous king.
What are these actions of Henry that I speak of here? I’ve already mentioned his sense of humor, which we’ve evidenced in three plays by this point. The crown isn’t nearly enough to keep him on the straight and narrow, and his humor leads to the invasion of a nonaggressive country. That’s right, I said it. France has already been beaten into submission by this point in history, and even though their very existence is an Englishman’s worst consideration, Shakespeare is nonetheless effective in making them sympathetic. How do you do this? By eliminating the nobility from the attack. Henry is seen to invade in an unprovoked attack simply to prove his worth to his people… to save face over the incident involving a tennis ball. And then he tells his victims that should they not surrender, any further carnage is their own fault. This was how the game was played back then, though in any age it’s usually recognized as the deeds of a monster. What led him to this? Divine Right as a king (which Shakespeare himself believed in), combined with a seemingly legitimate claim to the French throne. Where does this claim come from? If you go all the way back to King John, his mother, Eleanor (Elinor) of Aquitaine married Henry II, effectively ceding her holdings to the English throne by every metric Shakespeare would have understood. At the time, England’s monarch was considered a vassal of France, but Edward III’s refusal to kneel gave rise to a new understanding, one that young Henry intended to exploit for the sake of appearances. As a result of this vainglorious move most worthy of Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, thousands were slaughtered.
To further build up appearances, Henry must prove to his people that he has abandoned his old ways. Three of his noble friends are convicted of treason, and Henry has them executed to show this delineation between Prince Hal and King Henry. On the battlefield, he offers impassioned speeches, and his troops take the town of Harfleur against overwhelming odds. But the French are a steadfast opponent, outnumbering the English five to one at the field of Agincourt. Another now-famous speech upon St. Crispin’s Day, another victory against impossible odds, and Henry has at last earned the respect of his people by standing as one of them. To seal his victory, he marries Catherine of Valois, daughter of the French king, forcing that king to appoint Henry as his heir.
How does this compare to Elizabeth, seeing as how the Bard is throwing Henry in her face? Elizabeth thwarted the Spanish, as mentioned, but gained no ground in any kind of counterattack. A year before that, Mary Queen of Scots was executed for conspiracy to take the English throne, but there was no counterattack of any kind against Scotland. Instead, the line of succession passed to Mary’s successor James VI, who in short order would become James I of England. While this hasn’t happened yet at the time Henry V was written, the proverbial writing was on the wall. Elizabeth wasn’t getting any younger, she had no heirs of her own, and the corrupt Tudor dynasty would come to a crashing halt sooner rather than later. England would quickly become a vassal of Scotland due to Elizabeth’s shirking of her queenly duties and lack of battlefield acumen. Or, if you want to carry the through-line of misogyny here, it comes down to Elizabeth being merely a woman. To Shakespeare, and indeed to many in that time, Elizabeth’s womanhood denied her the strength to keep her country English. After all, God was already against her. So, one more Divine punishment loomed… the line of Protestant monarchs would continue, this time adding Scottish insult to injury. Worse still, we know the savage and maligned Scottish were frequent allies of the hated French. It’s as if Shakespeare is using the patriotism of Agincourt to rub salt in the perceived wounds of his people. For this reason, the Bard uses his Chorus in the epilogue to beg the audience to tolerate the play. Henry was a good king, the Bard tells us, but he was still mortal. The monarchs on the throne have pretty much ruined it for everyone since then. Thanks, Bess. Much appreciated…
Of course, if you’re French at this time in history, this kind of propaganda is so much sour grapes from an otherwise righteous victory. Agincourt wasn’t the end of the war, it was the slap in the face that inspired the French to ultimate victory, inciting an English civil war when their nobles turned on one another. From the Scottish perspective, that internal rot is just desserts from all that back there, from Edward I (the Hammer of the Scots) through to Mary’s beheading at Elizabeth’s command. Quite the little soap opera, with Divine justice meted out. Perception defines reality.
Essentially, Henry V is a study of leadership by weight of morality. The deeds of a good king are not necessarily the deeds of a good person, and vice versa. Henry is a truly great king by the standards of the age, charismatic, intelligent, and focused. He uses all available resources to see his goals met for the glory of God and England. He’s able to inspire his men to do the impossible in his name. But were he a common man, his deeds and motives would be unforgivable. He would paint himself as a monster. He speaks of peace while steeling himself for war. He speaks of friends while executing those he so named. Through Henry, the power of the throne is revealed to be so much more complex than the simple quest of good vs. evil. A king, therefore, is different than the common person, and must ever be so for the well-being of his people. His own feelings must be subservient to the good of his country. In this subordination of his feelings, Henry moves from unprovoked villain to conquering hero, and Shakespeare is tossing the gauntlet at Elizabeth’s feet to prove herself worthy of the same before it’s too late for England. Know ye not that if ye are Richard II, ye must also prove to be Henry V? For Shakespeare, it was time for Bess to live up.