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War in Henry V: Causes and Costs




T. Brown after J.A. Houston. The death of the Earl of Warwick. Engraving, late 19th century

Henry V is a play about war, and the costs and the glory that come along with it. At the onset of the play the reason for England going to war with France is clear: birthright. King Henry feels, with the encouragement of his advisors, that the time is right to stake his claim to France by way of his kinship to Edward III. He believes his cause is just and therefore has little reason to question crossing the sea with his soldiers to claim what is rightfully his. However, just as Shakespeare’s Henry feels justified in taking this on and ultimately believes that God is on his side, Shakespeare also has us examining the tragic ramifications of going to war for a king’s cause.

 

War means devastation: loss of human life, the desolation of towns, and a people’s way of life. Indeed, these very things are cited in Henry V as reasons not to go to war, or at least for France to surrender. In 2.4, King Henry sends a message through the Duke of Exeter to the King of France bidding him to "take mercy / On the poor souls for whom this hungry war /Opens his vasty jaws" (2.4.110–12). He suggests that resigning the crown and kingdom can prevent the decimation of his people. Henry also delivers a potent message himself to the Governor of Harfleur following that attempted siege. He warns him to give over Harfleur to the English, "whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace / O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds / Of heady murder, spoil and villainy." (3.3.30–33). This reasoning and the realization that the King of France will not send reinforcements in time lead the governor to cede the town to the English. It should be noted that, despite these threats, Henry orders his soldiers not to loot and pillage the towns they pass through lest they be severely punished. Shakespeare makes this king all the more noble by not allowing his soldiers to take part in any further degradation of the French.

 

Another heady cost of war is the lives of the soldiers. On the eve of the battle at Agincourt, Henry prays for the strength of his men to accomplish the task at hand. He also visits them in the camps to get a sense of how they feel about their leader. He finds a soldier who doubts that the cause is worth the cost. A disguised Henry contends, along with another like-minded soldier, that the king’s cause is just and should be fought for without question or guilt. Another doubtful soldier, Michael Williams, retorts, "But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make" (4.1.138–9). He goes on to describe the gruesomeness of the battle field and the loss of his fellow soldiers. Despite these doubts, it is concluded that, "Every subject’s duty is the king’s, but every subject’s soul is his own." (4.1.182–3). At the end of the play, however, the Chorus tells the audience that Henry V’s son "lost France and made his England bleed." (Epilogue), losing everything his father had fought for.

 

What do you think? Does Shakespeare successfully allow us to examine war from all sides?

Do the causes of war justify the costs?

 


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