Henry V, William Shakespeare’s enduringly popular history play, is a study of England’s campaign of 1415 to (re)take France. In popular culture and film, Henry V is most often portrayed as a patriotic affair, a Shakespearean precursor to today’s underdog sports films, with the climactic pre-battle “band of brothers” speech in the place of a coach’s pre-game pep talk. But those portrayals—most famously Laurence Olivier’s Oscar-winning 1944 film, which was explicitly designed to bolster British spirits during World War II—do not take proper account of Shakespeare’s Olympian perspective. Shakespeare views the nationalism espoused by his title character at a great remove, and what his play says about leadership and the moral, legal, and political challenges inherent in any military action remains startlingly fresh and complex. To wit: Scholars have long debated whether the United States’ presidency’s inherent executive power includes the residuum of “sovereign authority” once held by British monarchs or whether the Constitution limits the executive branch to its relatively scant enumerated powers. Whether or not English royal authority is truly a legal or historical source of the U.S. president’s executive authority, in practice, foreign affairs and warfare have proven to be spheres of action in which a president can most “be like a king.” The key issue Shakespeare addresses in Henry V is what truly motivates the “king.” Therefore, while Henry V deals with a late-medieval monarch’s military campaign, its most disturbing aspects remain uncomfortably relevant.
Since its debut, readers and audiences have had to grapple with the question of whether Shakespeare’s soldier-statesman Henry V is essentially a moral actor, a cynical political operator, or both at once. We see Henry’s approach on display as he justifies his decision to invade France, makes operational decisions during the campaign itself, publicly dispenses justice, and engages in moral bargaining with himself and others. Henry shows that he understands his ultimate political and military success may depend as much on maintaining a narrative about the moral necessity of his war against France and his image as a pious Christian king as it does on battlefield success or terrifying his French foes.
It is notable that the play’s opening scene immediately casts doubt on the legitimacy of Henry’s war aims. Before Henry appears, the Archbishop of Canterbury secretly tells his fellow ecclesiastics that he supports an English invasion of France because it would financially benefit the church. When the king enters moments later with his nobles, he asks for the Archbishop’s counsel on the justness of his dynastic claim to France:
My learnèd lord, we pray you to proceed
And justly and religiously unfold
Why the law Salic that they have in France
Or should, or should not, bar us in our claim. . . .
[T]ake heed how you impawn our person,
How you awake our sleeping sword of war.
The Archbishop lays out a long-winded and somewhat inscrutable legal-dynastic basis for Henry’s claim. Wanting a more concise answer, Henry follows up with a simpler question: “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” The Archbishop, who we already know has a corrupt motivation, goes so far as to accept all blame if his counsel is wrong: “The sin upon my head, dread sovereign.”
Henry is here asking for the medieval equivalent of professional expert advice on a question of international law, and he benefits from the church’s moral authority when he receives the answer he surely expected. While modern-day advisers to the president do not explicitly offer to take the “sin” of a given action upon themselves, a similar dynamic can exist today when subordinate military, policy, or legal advisers’ opinions prove central in portraying the legality or appropriateness of a particular foreign-affairs or security decision. A few high-profile examples from the past two decades include Office of Legal Counsel memos and senior military officials’ statements regarding enhanced interrogation techniques and the targeted killings of Anwar al-Awlaki and Qasem Soleimani. And then there was Colin Powell’s speech in support of the 2003 invasion of Iraq: It is fair to say that the deference he received stemmed more from his perceived expertise and moral authority as a famous retired general than from his then-current role as secretary of state. This was not surprising given that the military is one of the few institutions in America today that public opinion appears to hold in high regard. From George H.W. Bush’s decision to end the first Gulf War after 100 days onward, most presidents have relied on the expertise of “commanders on the ground” in determining when to end a campaign: Is this not a version of “the sin upon my head”?
This is not to suggest that such statements or opinions given by these recent American experts are cynical or financially self-serving, as the Archbishop’s appears to be in Henry V. Rather, decision-making in these matters in our day entails a complex interplay between the president, senior subordinates, and their attendant experts in determining the advisability or appropriateness of a given action. The reality of moral responsibility for senior decision-makers is not as simple as a unitary “buck-stops-here” model. Perhaps Henry V highlights that the nature of these “unequal dialogues” may be less modern or bureaucratic than one might assume.
A final comparison on these lines: Henry’s reliance on the Archbishop to sell his war and his thankful public acknowledgment of the Archbishop for his counsel is reminiscent of President Lyndon Johnson’s public acknowledgment of his senior civilian and military advisers minutes before announcing an escalation in Vietnam—advisers who, in the words of H.R. McMaster, “made possible [Johnson’s] deceit and manipulation of Congress and the American people.”
Immediately after his exchange with the Archbishop, Henry speaks with the French ambassador. Henry places the responsibility of his imminent invasion on the French prince who sent Henry an insulting “treasure” chest full of tennis balls:
[T]his mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gun-stones, and his soul
Shall stand sore chargèd for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down.
Much later in the play, on the eve of battle, Henry disguises himself as a common soldier and speaks with his men as they nervously await the dawn. We hear the thoughts of two soldiers. One questions the justness of the king’s cause, and another replies that the justness of the king’s cause is “more than we should seek after, for we know enough if we know we are the King’s subjects. If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the/ King wipes the crime of it out of us.”
But the other soldier is not satisfied:
But if the cause be not good, the King Himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry all “We died at such a place[.]”
For his part, Henry evasively changes the subject from his own responsibility for the war to the responsibility his soldiers bear for their own eternal souls:
[I]f a servant, under his master’s command transporting a sum of money, be assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant’s damnation. But this is not so. The King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers . . . . Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless … can try it out with all unspotted soldiers. . . . Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own.
Audiences familiar with the history play preceding this one—Henry IV, Part 2—may have yet further doubts as to the legitimacy of Henry’s claim, or his own belief in his claim. Henry V’s father, the ailing Henry IV, had counseled his son to take a “wag the dog” approach to calming domestic English politics: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels.” Further, in his soliloquy on the eve of battle, imploring God for his support, Henry openly expresses doubts as to the legitimacy of his claim to the English throne, which would seem to raise questions about any derivative claim he might make to France.
As the campaign progresses in Henry V, we see Henry use terrifying threats of mass slaughter against the French populace to achieve their surrender. During the siege of Harfleur, prior to ordering an assault on a breech in the town walls, Henry demands surrender by Harfleur’s governor and warns him that it is the town’s last chance to surrender peacefully:
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand, shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh fair virgins and your flow’ring infants.
What is it then to me if impious war,
Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do with his smirched complexion all fell feats
Enlinked to waste and desolation? . . .
Take pity of your town and of your people
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command,
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil, and villainy.
If not, why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Desire the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters,
Your fathers taken by the silver beards
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds…
That overwhelmingly brutal threat is never carried out. The town surrenders immediately and Henry orders his army to “[u]se mercy to them all.” His own words implicitly recognize the evil of what he is threatening—“murder, spoil, and villainy”—though he rhetorically shifts the onus to Harfleur, his soldiers, and “impious war” itself. Because the town surrenders, the audience is left to wonder how horrible of a slaughter Henry might have allowed—was he ready to rape and kill everyone, or was it just a clever tactic to ensure swift capitulation that would save lives?
THE FORMAL STRUCTURE of the play uses the hagiographic speeches declaimed by its Chorus to frame Henry as a conquering hero. The Chorus refers to Henry as a paragon, “the mirror of all Christian kings,” but the actions he takes muddy that view. Paul Cantor of the University of Virginia describes Henry V as Shakespeare’s Machiavellian solution to Christian kingship, a leader who combines the appearance of piety with the ruthless effectiveness necessary for success in war and politics. The late Norman Rabkin, who taught at Berkeley, sees that tension as an unresolved duality in Henry’s character, but if one views the duality through Cantor’s lens, that duality is actually evidence of Henry’s conscious ability to turn off and on his different personas as needed.
Harold Bloom calls Henry a “great Shakespearean personality,” one who is “veiled rather than complex.” He writes that “a king is necessarily something of a counterfeit, and Henry is a great king.” Henry’s veiled nature is exactly what makes him an effective ruler, Cantor argues: Henry does not bask in his sins, as does Shakespeare’s great villain Richard III. Machiavelli’s prince does not revel in his own ruthlessness; on the contrary, he outwardly conforms to society’s moral expectations as much as possible.
Henry offers a glimpse of this in the swift justice he dispenses on Bardolph, a soldier in his army who steals a metal tablet—a “pax”—from a church. Even though Henry knows Bardolph personally, he approves of the thief’s execution by hanging and issues what amounts to a general order to his army:
We would have all such offenders so cut off; and we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.
Paul Cantor suggests that Shakespeare was portraying a historical transition in the conduct of war. The English soldiers were mostly commoner foot soldiers whereas the French army was largely made up of mounted knights. Misbehavior by knights in Henry’s time would have been dealt with in courts of chivalry, but a modern army of citizen-soldiers required a king’s martial justice. In Bardolph’s case, Henry’s uncle, the Duke of Exeter, had sentenced Bardolph to hang; Henry learns of Bardolph’s sentence a few lines later and expresses his approval.
Henry could merely have quietly affirmed Bardolph’s sentence and continued on his way, but he chooses to use this instance of king’s justice to display to his army, and indirectly to the local populace, that he is a just Christian king, one who cares for his new French subjects as well. Justice and military discipline’s value to the politician and commander is propagandistic as well as practical. Shakespeare presumably intends the irony of Bardolph’s hanging for a stolen pax, critics have noted, since Henry himself could be said to have stolen the pax of an entire country.
Scholars have cited Henry’s “lenity” approach toward the French people, the threatened slaughter of Harfleur, and his order to kill battlefield prisoners as contrasting examples of Henry’s Machiavellian approach in finding a precise admixture of fear and kindness, or ruthlessness and mercy, to achieve his aims. Just because Henry’s approach might be Machiavellian, that does not mean his ultimate aims are wrongful; an effective Machiavellian approach can be consonant with the pursuit or achievement of the common good. Cantor argues that Shakespeare’s Henry V is the author’s attempt to come up with a portrait of as good a king as could be possible given the inherently tragic nature of politics—as an acknowledgment that a “good” king may have to commit evil acts out of necessity.
Most controversial among his actions in the play are Henry’s two orders during the battle of Agincourt to kill all of his army’s French prisoners. These troubling scenes are often left out of stage and film productions; Both Olivier’s movie and Kenneth Branagh’s significantly darker 1989 version omit Henry’s orders. It’s not clear why Henry gives the order twice, each within a different scene, and the text is silent on how to portray them on stage, if at all. Some critics have argued that Henry’s first order is merely an expression of anger in the heat of battle and that the order is not actually followed; others have suggested that the common soldiers taken prisoner are killed after the first order while the nobles are initially spared for their ransom value, but then are subsequently killed after the second. Henry’s stated reason for his first order is that the French army was reforming to renew its attack, implying that his much smaller army could not both fight a renewed French attack and guard its many prisoners at the same time. In other words, an expedient tactical decision.
But Henry couches his second order to kill the prisoners in the language of revenge. The French have just raided the English baggage train and killed all the noncombatant English boys that had been left there. One of Henry’s soldiers praises him upon hearing the second order: “The King, most worthily, hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner’s throat. O, ‘tis a gallant king!” But this dubious justification is undermined by the sequence of events. Henry learns of the slaughter of the English boys only after he gives his first order to kill the prisoners. Thus, commentators have argued that his second order to kill the prisoners might be nothing more than an effort to provide a post hoc justification for their killing.
But while Henry continually tries to shift the responsibility for his decisions onto others, we hear in his soliloquy the night before the battle that he recognizes that the weight of war rests, ultimately, “upon the king.” So while Henry consistently seeks to relieve himself of blame for his more unpleasant actions (a normal enough political goal), he does not simultaneously relinquish the power to take those actions. Shakespeare’s Henry V is an effective Machiavellian ruler in part because of this ability.
In the end, despite all of Henry’s successful political and military maneuverings, the Chorus’s epilogue reminds us that success in war and politics is fleeting. Even the best possible king is no match for the contingency of human affairs and his own mortality. Henry dies soon after the play concludes, and his successors, we are told, “lost France and made his England bleed.” The play that begins casting doubt on the morality of the action we are about to witness concludes with an expression of the limits of success, even for the king who “greatly lived” as the “star of England.”
Shakespeare’s Henry V portrays both the allure and terror of war in a way that is still compelling four centuries after its first performance, and it serves as an enduring lesson in the politics of war. In the character of Henry V, Shakespeare created a “peerless charismatic”—to use Harold Bloom’s epithet. He is a king who draws his subjects and the audience in and makes us complicit. Even if his actions are chilling, we do not really want to blame him.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.