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A Modern Perspective: Henry V

By Michael Neill

“It is not the literal past, the ‘facts’ of history, that shape us, but images of the past embodied in language.”

—Brian Friel, Translations

The Life of Henry V is a “history play” in more senses than one: it is a play about how history is made, and also how it is remade; it is a representation of past events while being at the same time an examination of the uses of the past; and it is a play whose own reconstruction of history consciously intervened in the historical process.

As the text itself reminds us, Henry V was the latest of a series of English history plays in which Shakespeare had dramatized the fifteenth-century conflict between the royal families of York and Lancaster. This century-long period of turmoil had already received considerable attention from such chroniclers as Edward Halle and Raphael Holinshed, the creators of what is sometimes called the “Tudor myth” of English history. They described a long-drawn-out dynastic crisis that followed the deposition and murder of Richard II—a crisis that, after the brief heroic respite achieved by the Lancastrian Henry V, erupted in civil war (the Wars of the Roses) under his son, Henry VI. Reaching its bloody climax in the reign of the Yorkist Richard III, the national ordeal was at last brought to an end by Richarďs overthrow at the hands of the first Tudor king, Henry VII, grandfather of Elizabeth I. (See “The line of Edward III.”) In the narrative constructed by these chroniclers, the murderous confusions of fifteenth-century history served only to demonstrate the providential scheme by which God revenged the murder of a rightful king (Richard II) and purged the nation of its crimes before placing the Tudors on the throne and restoring the English people to their status as God’s elect.

Shakespeare’s English history plays absorb this reading of past events from Holinshed, their principal source, but they also subject its assumption to skeptical questioning. The Tudor myth and its lessons about God’s special providence to the English are particularly prominent in Richard II and Richard III, the dramas that mark the historical beginning and end of the cycle; but one finds traces of the myth even in Henry V, whose hero, facing overwhelming odds at Agincourt, broods “upon the fault / My father made in compassing the crown” and promises to redouble his penance for Richard II’s death (4.1.303–16). Nevertheless, the plays differ so markedly in their approach to history that it is difficult to subject the entire cycle to the unifying interpretive scheme once promoted by such scholars as E.M.W. Tillyard and Lily Bess Campbell.1 Indeed, like the “Shakespeare” who was said to have produced it, the “cycle” is something of an artificial construct, since the plays were not even composed in chronological sequence. Shakespeare turned his attention to the supposed “original sin” of Richard’s murder only after his so-called “first tetralogy”—the group of plays dealing with the reigns of Henry VI and Richard III—was written. As a result the “second tetralogy,” composed of Richard II, Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, seems in many ways less like the first half of a cycle than the second part of a deliberately parallel sequence, whose ending conspicuously undercuts the explicit providentialism of Richard III (the culminating play of the first tetralogy) by presenting Henry V’s victories as a triumph of de facto power.

In all of Shakespeare’s histories, moreover, we are repeatedly made aware of competing schemes of explanation that undercut the public certainties of official history. Nowhere are such conflicting explanations more apparent than in Henry V. This play is, admittedly, often staged as a piece of patriotic pageantry; but such a staging is possible only if (as in Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film) the text undergoes extensive and highly selective cutting. In the uncut script, the heroic values and high rhetoric that glamorize King Henry’s conquests are exposed to repeated interrogation by the down-to-earth skepticism of Henry’s common soldiers and by scenes of parodic satire featuring his former Eastcheap companions, Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym. Yet there is no denying the persuasive power of the famous set speeches for which the play is most often remembered: neither the unheroic realism favored by Kenneth Branagh’s post-Falklands film (1989), nor even the mud-stained anti-heroics of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Vietnam-era version (1964), were sufficient to silence the work’s emotional nationalism.2 Any production that is true to the text must take account of its conflicting voices; and the inevitable effect is to confront the audience with the fact that “history,” after all, consists not of objective events but of the stories that are told about them.

This makes Henry V seem suspiciously close to the work of such contemporary dramatists as Brian Friel, whose Making History presents the sacred narratives of Irish nationalism as simply another form of ideologically motivated story-telling. Yet that resemblance may be less anachronistic than it appears. National history has always been an instrument of nation-building, and this was something the Renaissance well understood. For in contrast to post-Enlightenment historians, with their pretense to scientific “objectivity,” Renaissance writers were perfectly frank about the ideological purposes of history. (This was true whether they saw the past as a demonstration of Christian providence, a storehouse of morally instructive examples, or a testing ground of political theory.)

For those who wrote defending Elizabethan theater, indeed, the capacity of historical drama to arouse patriotic fervor was one of its principal justifications. “What can be a sharper reproof to these degenerate effeminate days of ours,” demands Thomas Nashe in his Pierce Pennilesse (1592), than to witness “our forefathers’ valiant acts, that have long lain in rusty brass and worm-eaten books . . . raised from the grave of oblivion”; and Nashe singles out the presentation of Henry V and of Talbot (the hero of Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1) as outstanding examples of such theatrical consciousness-raising.3 The play in which Nashe saw Henry V “leading the French King prisoner, and forcing both him and the Dolphin [i.e., Dauphin] to swear fealty” must have been one of the earlier dramatizations of Henry’s reign; but it was surely Shakespeare’s Henry V that Thomas Heywood remembered when he returned to the same theme in his Apology for Actors (1612):

. . . what English blood seeing the person of any bold Englishman presented . . . doth not hug his fame, and honey at [i.e., delight in] his valor, pursuing him in his enterprise with his best wishes, and as being rapt in contemplation, offers to him in his heart all prosperous performance, as if the personator were the man personated, so bewitching a thing is lively and well-spirited action, that it hath power to new mold the hearts of the spectators and fashion them to the shape of any noble and notable attempt. What coward, to see his countryman valiant, would not be ashamed of his own cowardice? What English prince, should he behold the true portraiture of that famous King Edward the Third, foraging France, taking so great a king captive in his own country, quartering English lions with the French flower-de-luce, and would not be suddenly inflamed with so royal a spectacle, being made apt and fit for the like achievement? So of Henry the fifth.4

Heywood has in mind precisely the kind of patriotic pageant that the Chorus is so anxious to have the audience discover in Shakespeare’s Henry V; and just as Heywooďs spectators find themselves “pursuing” their ancestral heroes on their triumphant path of French conquest, so the members of Shakespeare’s audience are urged to “follow” Henry’s fleet to Harfleur, imaginatively enlisting themselves in the ranks of England’s “culled and choice-drawn cavaliers” (3.Chor.18–25). In all of this, Henry V deliberately appealed to the patriotic emotions of a country whose national identity had been shaped by a long war with Catholic Spain. Nothing is more characteristic of the English self-image in this period than the simultaneous sense of aggressive triumphalism and besieged vulnerability that characterizes the play’s treatment of the French war. At one moment the Chorus’s imagination catches fire at the “majestical” spectacle of Henry’s vast invasion fleet (“A city on th’ inconstant billows dancing,” 3.Chor.16); at another the Chorus stresses the pathos of an island nation imagined as a “little body with a mighty heart” (2.Chor.17), its predicament epitomized in the plight of the “poor condemnèd English” at Agincourt (4.Chor.23), a tiny “band of brothers” (4.3.62) surrounded by a sea of hostile foreigners. For the Elizabethan audience Henry’s insistence that the victory has been God’s work (4.8.110–25) must have echoed similar explanations for the miraculous defeat of the overwhelmingly powerful Spanish Armada a decade before the play was written; and the appeal was not merely a nostalgic one, but seems designed to muster support for what was seen as the latest phase in the struggle against the Catholic enemy—Elizabeth’s attempt to complete the conquest of Ireland. The Act 5 Chorus invited them to recognize in Henry’s successes a pattern for the crucial Ulster campaigns of the Earl of Essex and his successor, Lord Mountjoy. Just as Henry’s return from France is presented as a Roman triumph in which the citizens of London “Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in,” so, the Chorus suggests, they may soon pour out to welcome a successful Elizabethan general “Bringing rebellion broachèd on his sword” (5.Chor.33). Plainly the Queen’s Irish wars provided an essential context for the play’s original reception, just as Churchill’s struggle against Hitler in the 1940s did for Olivier’s film.

The Chorus’s attempts to recruit the “imaginary puissance” of an audience whose “thoughts . . . must deck our kings” (Pro.26–30) are couched as an apology for the technical limitations of Shakespeare’s playhouse, but they are actually an assertion of its power, insisting on drama’s active participation in the shaping of history. We may see this power emblematized in the third-act Chorus. There, in a trick of remarkable theatrical bravura, the Chorus (in collaboration with the stage technician) makes it appear as if the power of the audience’s patriotic imagination has succeeded in bringing to life onstage the noisy assault of Henry’s siege artillery:

Work, work your thoughts, and therein see a siege. . . .

Suppose th’ ambassador from the French comes back. . . .

The offer likes not, and the nimble gunner

With linstock now the devilish cannon touches,

Alarum, and chambers go off.

And down goes all before them.


That said, there remains something oddly tentative about the Chorus’s encomium for “our general,” with its careful parenthetical reservations (“by a lower but by loving likelihood,” “As in good time he may,” 5.Chor.30–32), which suggests a less than wholehearted commitment to this “application” of history. Whether we suppose these lines were written as a salute to Essex recently departed for Ireland or as a gesture to Mountjoy in the wake of Essex’s disastrous return, the entanglement of the Irish wars with the overreaching designs of Elizabeth’s former favorite, Essex, meant that there were good reasons for circumspection. Perhaps the dramatist, sensing the risk of comparing an ambitious contemporary “general” with a man who made himself dictator of ancient Rome, was hedging his bets.5 Such hesitations might help to account for a more general ambivalence in the play’s treatment of military expansionism. As we shall see, that ambivalence is reflected in sometimes glaring discrepancies between the Chorus’s heroic vision of history and the actualities of Shakespeare’s dramatization; but it is also apparent in a pervasive skepticism about the way in which the characters fashion history to their own political purposes—one that inevitably reflects on the play’s own manipulation of the past.

Thus, just as the Chorus uses Henry’s victories to rally enthusiasm for Elizabeth’s Irish wars, so Henry and his supporters use the stories of his heroic forebears, Edward III and Edward the Black Prince, to boost English morale and justify Henry’s cause. A considerable portion of Act 1 is given over to the lengthy genealogical history by which the Bishops of Canterbury and Ely demonstrate the justice of Henry’s claim to the French throne, firing up his ambition with strategic recollections of his “mighty ancestors, . . . those valiant [English] dead” whose histories of triumph on French soil will provide a pattern for his conquests (1.2.37–100, 107–26). The French, naturally, have a different narrative of that past—one that stresses French suffering and the “black name” of their enemy (2.4.53–66); but their version of history remains subordinate to that mobilized by Henry, who challenges his troops to model themselves upon their “fathers of war-proof, / Fathers that, like so many Alexanders, / Have in these parts from morn till even [i.e., evening] fought” (3.1.19–21). Such emulation, he insists—looking forward to a time when “our history shall with full mouth / Speak freely of our acts” (1.2.238–39)—will ensure that his knights in turn will become makers of history and figure in the heroic narratives of their own descendants.

The audience will of course be conscious that the “full mouth” of history has indeed found a voice in Shakespeare’s own text—most notably in the vaunting speech of its Chorus. Yet the Chorus itself remains uneasily aware of other voices, as if remembering that “the life of Henry V” has already been the subject of numerous tellings and retellings in a whole variety of genres. Indeed, even to those in the original audience who had not “read the story” in the chronicles (5.Chor.1), it would have been familiar through numerous popular anecdotes, ballads, and (not least) earlier dramatic versions—no fewer than three of which had been staged in the previous twelve years, reflecting the militant national mood created by the war with Spain. Through its peculiar narrative self-consciousness, the Chorus reminds the audience that what they are witnessing is not a transparent representation of “the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt” (Pro.14–15), but a piece of more-or-less inadequate historical reconstruction that can never fully satisfy the expectations it exploits. The power and coherence of the players’ representation must depend not only on the enlisted imaginations of the audience, but (as the Epilogue implies) upon the careful shaping of history by which Shakespeare has separated his material from the mere contingency of events: “Thus far with rough and all-unable pen / Our bending author hath pursued the story” (Ep.1–2; emphasis added). The tone of the Epilogue marks a surprising collapse in the rhetorical confidence of the Chorus: in the Epilogue he wanly confesses that the dramatist can take the story no further because, beyond the celebratory-marriage ending, which gives the play its satisfying sense of formal completeness, lies the debacle of Henry VI’s reign. Only upon the stage can The Life of Henry V end with the hero at the height of his achievement, his betrothal to the French princess apparently sealing his claim to the throne of France; and the Chorus’s disconcerting reminder of the disintegration of Henry’s empire after his death emphasizes the arbitrary nature of such closure. Where the French Queen has invited us to see Henry’s “incorporate league” of kingdoms as a harmonious resolution instituted by divine providence (5.2.371–80), the Chorus finally recognizes only the erratic violence of “Fortune.”

Other details in the text remind us that the play’s beginning is as arbitrarily imposed as its ending: just as the Epilogue looks forward to a future that has already become history in Henry VI’s spectacles of catastrophe (“Which oft our stage hath shown,” Ep.13), so the Pistol scenes, with the nostalgically evoked death of the King’s former archcrony, Sir John Falstaff, serve as an uncomfortable reminder that Henry V forms a sequel to the earlier histories of Henry IV—though the narrative it presents is not quite “the story, with Sir John in it” promised by the epilogue to the second part of that play. The survivors of Henry’s former life, Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, and the dying Falstaff, represent the freight of personal history that the King carries into the play and that cannot be quite so easily banished as the Bishop of Canterbury’s glib metaphors proclaim:

The breath no sooner left his father’s body

But that his wildness, mortified in him,

Seemed to die too. Yea, at that very moment

Consideration like an angel came

And whipped th’ offending Adam out of him,

Leaving his body as a paradise . . .


The Bishop’s Garden-of-Eden allegory suggests a perfect congruence between Henry’s Edenic self-restoration and the regal prowess through which his kingdom is transformed to “the world’s best garden” (Ep.7). But the persistence of the Eastcheap crew compromises both transformations. Falstaff, it is true, dies even before he can make his promised reappearance, and the other denizens of Eastcheap are progressively marginalized, degraded, and purged from the action: Lieutenant Bardolph and Corporal Nym are condemned for petty theft and consigned to humiliating offstage deaths, while Ancient Pistol is cudgeled out of the play to join the vicious ranks of discharged soldiery who haunted the streets and highways of Shakespeare’s England (5.1.88–90). But this marginalization does not occur before these characters have enacted a counternarrative that is profoundly threatening to the predominant voice of official history.

Henry V lurches to and fro between, at the one extreme, the Chorus’s intoxicated visions of chivalric glory and the King’s charismatic oratory of martial brotherhood, and, at the other, the degraded, increasingly vicious buffoonery of Eastcheap. Thus in Act 2 the Chorus’s heady proclamation that “all the youth of England are on fire” (2.Chor.1) serves merely to usher in the burlesque fury of Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph: “Pistol’s cock is up and flashing fire will follow” (2.1.53–54); while, instead of Henry’s brotherhood of eager knights, “Following the mirror of all Christian kings / With wingèd heels, as English Mercurys” (2.Chor.6–7), we are shown only this trio of cutpurses preparing to travel “sworn brothers to France” where “profits will accrue” (2.1.12–13, 109–10)—reminding us that Mercury was, among other things, the god of thieves.

War, wrote the Renaissance humanist Erasmus, citing such classical heroes as Alexander the Great, was the work of “insane robbers,” a kind of “brigandage, all the more immoral from being wider spread.”6 When Bardolph is hanged for stealing “a pax” (a tablet imprinted with a crucifix), Henry declines to “know the man,” coldly wishing “all such offenders so cut off” (3.6.104, 109–10); yet the detail of this trivial theft reminds us that the King himself has stolen the pax (peace) of two entire kingdoms. The implication that Henry’s war of conquest may, when stripped of its rhetorical gilt, amount to nothing more than theft on a grand scale repeatedly surfaces through such ironic parallels between the heroic main plot and the scenes from Pistol’s world. Early in the play an unlucky coincidence of metaphors threatens to collapse English martial prowess into the opportunist banditry attributed by the Bishop of Ely to the Scots:


For once the eagle England being in prey,

To her unguarded nest the weasel Scot

Comes sneaking and so sucks her princely eggs . . .


PISTOL . . . let us to France, like horse-leeches, my

boys, to suck, to suck, the very blood to suck.


Pistol’s summons is itself a perverted echo of Henry’s own “Now, lords, for France, the enterprise whereof / Shall be to you as us, like glorious” (2.2.191–92); and the sequencing of scenes makes the French king’s alarmed “Thus comes the English with full power upon us” (2.4.1) seem more like a direct response to Pistol’s corrupt bravado than to Henry’s earlier command, “Cheerly to sea. The signs of war advance” (2.2.201). At Harfleur the King’s famous rallying cry “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more” (3.1.1–2) is almost immediately travestied in Bardolph’s “On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!” (3.2.1–2); while at Agincourt the King’s stirring oratory and pious appeals to the god of battles (“And how Thou pleasest, God, dispose the day,” 4.3.140) serve only to announce Pistol’s grotesque victory over Monsieur Le Fer—a scene whose literalization of Henry’s promise to “cut French crowns, and . . . be a clipper” (4.1.236–37) further confuses the King’s regal ambition with Pistol’s mercenary desire for gold (“give me crowns, brave crowns,” 4.4.37). Most damaging of all, perhaps, remembering Erasmus’s adage that “war [is] but murder shared by many,”7 is the way in which the heroic rage that causes Henry to order the killing of his French prisoners is parodied in Pistol’s sanguinary cry of “cuppele gorge” (4.4.36)—a cry that in the quarto version is repeated at the end of 4.6 in response to the King’s command.

The skeptical light in which such episodes cast the main action seems to confuse even the loyal Fluellen. His misguided effort to justify the butchery of the prisoners leads him to an embarrassing comparison between Henry and the classical hero whose name he unluckily pronounces as “Alexander the Pig” (4.7.14): through Alexander’s murder of Cleitus, the Welshman stumbles on a history of betrayed friendship that the high plot has struggled hard to forget:

As Alexander killed his friend Cleitus, being in his

ales and his cups, so also Harry Monmouth, being

in his right wits and good judgments, turned away

[Falstaff] the fat knight with the great-belly

doublet. . . .


Henry may not have killed Falstaff, but the Hostess has insisted that he “killed his heart” (2.1.86), and for a protagonist who constantly appeals to the values of the “heart” (“a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon,” 5.2.169), the charge is extremely compromising. “Brotherhood” will be a recurrent theme of the democratic rhetoric with which Henry rallies his beleaguered troops in France; but the thieving “brotherhood” (2.1.107) of Eastcheap both devalues the term in advance and serves as a constant uneasy reminder of older claims upon a prince who once proclaimed himself “sworn brother to a leash of drawers” (Henry IV, Part 1, 2.4.6–7)—a prince whom Shakespeare first introduced talking about a highway robbery with the man who, in the early acts of Henry V, lies dying in Pistol’s tavern, Sir John Falstaff.

Such destabilization of official history is by no means confined to the satiric world of Eastcheap. Thus the drum-roll of the opening Prologue, with its promise to introduce “the warlike Harry . . . assum[ing] the port of Mars” (Pro.5–6), gives way, in a carefully calculated anticlimax, to the self-interested scheming of the Bishops of Canterbury and Ely. Their primary motive for encouraging the King’s French designs is, it rapidly emerges, simply to preserve the wealth of the Church; and for most audiences, the arguments by which the venal Canterbury seeks to vindicate Henry’s claim to a foreign throne serve only to arouse, by their pompous contortions, the very doubts they profess to quell (1.2.37–100). The true function of Henry’s spiritual counselors is nicely indicated by the Machiavellian twist that Canterbury gives to a piece of familiar Protestant doctrine: “miracles are ceased, / And therefore we must needs admit the means [i.e., acknowledge the natural ways] / How things are perfected” (1.1.70–72). This maxim of pragmatic wisdom might serve as a motto for the action that ensues, in which the rhetoric of God’s special providence to the English is always accompanied by a hard-headed realism about the practicalities of war and politics.

The play, indeed, is full of demonstrations of the ruthless “means” by which power maintains itself: thus, for example, the penitent conspirator Scroop expresses gratitude that God has “discovered” his plotting (2.2.158), but we already know that it was actually the King’s intelligence network that exposed the conspirators (“The King hath note of all that they intend, / By interception which they dream not of,” 2.2.6–7). Even the comradely warmth of that “little touch of Harry in the night” celebrated by the Chorus (4.Chor.29–48) can be seen as another form of espionage, in which a disguised Henry sets about testing morale in his camp. Fittingly, however, the effect of his surveillance is to raise once again the very uncertainties about the justice of the war that Canterbury sought to allay. Brooding on the consequences of death in battle, the stubborn Williams demands to know what consequences soldiers must face “if the [King’s] cause be not good” (4.1.138)—a challenge to which, significantly enough, Henry’s elaborate reply can offer no real answer. By the same token, the egalitarian language of “brothers, friends, and countrymen” (4.Chor.35), which the King uses to persuade his followers of the essential unity of their common cause, is undercut by Williams’s sullen reminders of class difference: the King, Henry declares, has vowed not to be ransomed; “he said so,” Williams shrewdly replies, “to make us fight cheerfully, but when our throats are cut he may be ransomed, and we none the wiser” (4.1.199–201; emphases added). Williams’s suspicion about the manipulative character of Henry’s rhetoric is justified, we might think, by a telling linguistic detail: in the oration before Agincourt the King proclaims that “he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition” (4.3.63–65); but once the crisis has passed the language of brotherhood is conspicuously reserved for his royal peers—for his blood brother Gloucester (4.7.178) and for his defeated rival, “brother France” (5.2.2). No wonder that Williams bristles at attempts to buy him off, refusing Fluellen’s twelve-penny blandishments and, by implication, the King’s crowns too (“I will none of your money,” 4.8.70).

Recalcitrant as Williams may be, however, he can maintain his resistance only by a retreat into silence. His voice is suppressed as the other inconvenient voices—like those of the Pistol crew, the Act 2 conspirators, and the turbulent Irishman Macmorris—are variously suppressed or discredited. Yet the very fact of such suppression can serve to draw attention to the official narrative’s management of historical fact. Take, for example, the hidden story of the Earl of Cambridge. While the motives for Cambridge’s conspiracy are carefully excluded from the play, the Earl’s hint—his dark insistence that something other than “the gold of France” (2.2.162) inspired his plotting—would have been enough to remind better-informed playgoers of the intrafamilial struggles that motivated Cambridge and of the dynastic dispute that would ultimately lead to Cambridge’s Yorkist descendants deposing Henry’s own son. Just as Henry remains conspicuously deaf to Fluellen’s enquiry about the condemned Bardolph—seeming as unwilling to “know” his disgraced friend as he is eager to “know” the gallant enemy, Montjoy (3.6.104, 118, 142)—so the play itself appears anxious not to “know” the truth of Cambridge’s cause or even to acknowledge that Cambridge was the brother of the loyal Duke of York whose “testament of noble-ending love” bathes the field of Agincourt in the glow of eroticized sacrifice (4.6.27).

In such ways the text draws attention to the suppressions and elisions involved in its own shaping of the past. Rallying his dispirited followers before Agincourt, Henry seeks to persuade them that they too are makers of history and that their names are destined to become “familiar . . . as household words” in a narrative that they themselves will fashion:

This story shall the good man teach his son,

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,

From this day to the ending of the world,

But we in it shall be rememberèd. . . .


In Henry’s persuasive fantasy, the telling of this story will be the prerogative of those whose actions it records—veterans of the fight. But the play itself has already shown us that making history is never such a straightforward business; and that far from being privileged to fix the meaning of the events they help to create, the “makers” of history will always remain at the mercy of the true fashioners of history—politicians, chroniclers, and (not least) playwrights. Like the other survivors of the battle, Pistol will return to England with his own version of events (“patches will I get unto these cudgeled scars, / And swear I got them in the Gallia wars,” 5.1.91–92); but neither his story nor those of the play’s other common soldiers will be allowed the “full mouth” that is granted to the King’s “history.” And not even the King will remain immune from the distortions of representation; for even as Henry projects into an admiring future his “official” version of Agincourt, authenticated (like Pistol’s) by the survivors’ battle scars, the audience will be aware that what they are actually witnessing is someone else’s telling of the story—a narrative mediated by the urgent interventions of a Chorus who openly strives to dictate their reading of events in the teeth of ambivalences that persistently outrun his control.

These ambivalences do more than call in question the play’s apparent adulation of the hero; they cut to the very heart of the national project in whose cause his martialist values are enrolled. The words England, English, and Englishman appear more often in Henry V than in any other of Shakespeare’s plays: repeated with incantatory insistence, they remind us of the play’s deep involvement in that process of national self-definition which saw the emergence of England as Europe’s first true nation-state.8 The historical Henry V belonged to a late feudal world in which the boundaries of a state were still determined from the top by the accidents of dynastic inheritance; Shakespeare’s king belongs to an emergent world of nation-states whose boundaries would increasingly be legitimated by appeal to a shared history and heritage, a common language and culture. For such states foreign wars became the anvil on which ideas of national difference were hammered out. It is through their confrontation with the French that Henry’s followers experience what it means to be English.

The nationality they discover is one that claims their allegiance by right of nature; and it is only the failure of all England’s children to be “kind and natural,” the Chorus insists, that prevents this small nation from fulfilling its imperial destiny (2.Chor.19). In fact, however, the play puts too much pressure on the definitions of nationality to allow such ideas of “natural” allegiance to remain self-evident. Henry seeks to knit up the internal divisions of his kingdom by following his father’s advice to “busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels” (Henry IV, Part 2, 4.5.213–14). Yet his foreign war, ironically enough, also serves to expose contradictions in the very idea of “foreign” and “native.”

The problematic nature of “English” identity has been foregrounded from the beginning by reminders that Henry’s kingdom (like Elizabeth’s) consists not of a single, united people but of two only partially unified islands, in which the interests of several ethnic groups exist in uneasy association or open conflict. Across the northern border lies that “giddy neighbor” Scotland, whose predatory history (as Henry tells it) dangerously mimics England’s relations with France—

For you shall read that my great-grandfather

Never went with his forces into France

But that the Scot on his unfurnished kingdom

Came pouring like the tide into a breach . . .

Girding with grievous siege castles and towns


—prompting the aggressive domino theory articulated by the Bishop of Ely: “If that you will France win, / Then with Scotland first begin” (1.2.174–75). This is the logic of expansion that has already brought under English control two other Celtic territories whose representatives figure prominently in the play—figures through whom the very notion of “Englishness” is subject to significant interrogation.

The troops of “noblest English” whom Henry urges into the breach at Harfleur (3.1.18) prove, when we actually encounter them in 3.3, to be a volatile mixture of Scots, Irish, Welsh, and English—an ill-assorted company who seem as likely to turn their swords on one another as upon the French. Among them are two men, Fluellen and Macmorris, in whom the dream of ethnic incorporation is respectively represented as dream and nightmare. It was no accident that Shakespeare should have chosen a Welshman and an Irishman to fill these roles. For if Wales, where the Tudors were able to capitalize on their own Welsh origins, had been absorbed with relative ease into the English body politic, Ireland (as Elizabeth’s campaigns demonstrated) remained an intractable anomaly—in name a separate kingdom attached to the English crown, but in practice a colony subject to the full rigor of military conquest. While the compliant Welsh were merely mocked as provincial mountain men, the “wild Irish” were demonized as a savage and disorderly people whom only the force of imposed English law could redeem from feuding barbarity.9 Thus while Fluellen and Macmorris are both characterized by a dangerous wildness of temper, Fluellen’s irascibility is shown to arise only from his passionate excess of loyalty, while Macmorris’s reveals him as a true denizen of what Elizabethans dubbed “the Land of Ire.” The Welsh captain is received into full membership of the English nation—first by Henry’s graceful acknowledgment that his natal Welshness makes them fellow countrymen (4.7.111), and then by Fluellen’s demonstration that his “native garb” is no more than a comic disguise for an Englishness more real than Pistol’s jingoistic counterfeiting:

GOWER . . . You thought because he could not

speak English in the native garb, he could not

therefore handle an English cudgel. You find it

otherwise, and henceforth let a Welsh correction

teach you a good English condition.


Macmorris, by contrast, is reduced to spitting incoherence by the very mention of the word “nation”: “What ish my nation? Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?” (3.2.125–27)

His sensitivity is perhaps understandable, given the hybrid surname (a Gaelicized version of Anglo-Norman Fitzmaurice) that appears to identify him with a group who inspired particular horror in English propaganda about Ireland—members of English settler families who, by adopting the manners, customs, and language of the natives, had become “more lawless and licentious than the very wild Irish” themselves.10 Like the fantasy of “going native” in later times, the spectacle of such “degeneration” opened the imperial imagination to the disturbing possibility that the project of incorporating conquered peoples might lead only to a fatal corruption of the national body politic that it was designed to enlarge. So potentially disruptive to the idea of national harmony fostered in the play is this frustrated English-Irishman that he must be banished from the action. The problems raised by Macmorris, however, do not vanish with his disappearance at the end of 3.3.

In the immediate wake of Agincourt Fluellen demonstrates his impassioned loyalty by bringing to light what he takes to be Williams’s participation in “a most contagious treason” (4.8.21). The reassuring effect of this comic replay of the Cambridge conspiracy is compromised, however, by Williams’s surly resistance to the Welshman’s blandishments. That this rebuff (echoing the quarrel with Macmorris) should be delivered to Fluellen is especially significant, given the Welshman’s pivotal position in the play’s construction of national identity. Moreover, if the play has difficulty convincing itself that to be Welsh, or Scots, or perhaps even Irish, is only to belong to a subspecies of English, it has even greater problems accommodating the French, who are assigned a dangerously contradictory role in the play’s treatment of nationality. On the one hand, Henry’s policy is meant to draw together his subjects (English, Scots, Welsh, and Irish) by violently enacting their difference from the French—arrogant and caste-conscious foreigners; on the other, his conquest is aimed at abolishing that very difference through an “incorporate league” in which “English may as French, French Englishmen, / Receive each other” (5.2.379–80).

This contradiction (a significant one, given the play’s immediate political context) is of precisely the same kind that appears in contemporary English accounts of the Irish question. In Edmund Spenser’s View of the Present State of Ireland, for example, at one moment the Irish are represented as irremediably alien barbarians who can be dealt with only by conquest and extirpation; at the next they are merely errant subjects who need only be brought within the fold of English law, language, and culture “to bring them to be one people [with their conquerors], and to put away the dislikeful concept [i.e., hostility] both of the one and the other.”11 In Henry V the tensions between nationalist exclusivism and imperial expansionism are smoothed away by the convenient device of a marriage between Henry and the French princess, which symbolically reconciles the paradox of “French Englishmen” through the sacramental fiction of “one flesh.”

But Shakespeare is too honest a dramatist to give himself entirely to the finessing involved in this sly appropriation of the conventional ending of romantic comedy. Indeed, the play makes it apparent that the ideal of a hybrid nation, ruled over by “a boy, half French, half English” (5.2.216), is only the mask for an incorporation as violent and peremptory as that which “the general of our gracious empress” (5.Chor.31) was trying to initiate across the Irish sea. Crucial here is the scene of translation (3.4.54-55) that immediately follows the siege of Harfleur—a scene that, like Pistol’s encounter with Monsieur Le Fer, highlights the linguistic gulf between the rival kingdoms. In this brief but telling episode, the French princess, as if reading in the fate of Harfleur the sign of her own surrender, undertakes the Englishing of her own body, beginning with the hand (a metonymy for marriage) and ending (by accident of translation) in the middle region with “Le foot [i.e., the obscene foutre], and le count [i.e., gown, but also pudendum](3.4.55). The meaning of Katherine’s carefully cataloged body will have been perfectly apparent to an audience accustomed to thinking of conquest in gendered metaphor in which the conquered is necessarily feminine. The effect here, in the wake of Henry’s threats at Harfleur, is to emphasize the brutality of conquest by drawing attention to the work of nation-building and empire upon actual women’s bodies:

What is ’t to me, when you yourselves are cause,

If your pure maidens fail into the hand

Of hot and forcing violation? . . .

            . . . why, in a moment look to see

The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand

Desire the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters.


The point is disconcertingly reiterated in the final scene of national “spousal” (5.2.374). Though customarily played for its superficial charm, this scene is quite explicitly a scene of enforcement—a civil rape in which the conqueror’s will is summarily imposed upon the conquered:

KATHERINE  Dat is as it shall please de roi mon père.

KING HENRY  Nay it will please him well, Kate; it shall

please him, Kate. (5.2.257–59; emphases added)

The language and bluff manners of this final scene troubled Dr. Johnson, who expressed his incomprehension that “Shakespeare now gives the King nearly such a character as he made him formerly ridicule in Hotspur” (the aggressive and blunt-spoken warrior of Henry IV, Part I).12 But (as Katherine’s remark about the tongues of men being full of deceits [5.2.120–21] suggests) all Henry’s “speak[ing] . . . plain soldier” is by no means as plain as he pretends (5.2.156). As much “false French” as it is “true English” (5.2.229–30), more bluff than genuine bluffness, his transformation into blunt “King Harry” is another consciously contrived linguistic performance to add to Canterbury’s admiring list (1.1.41 ff.)—a performance whose calculated naïveté allows him (“most truly-falsely,” 5.2.199) to translate Katherine to his own purposes, converting her to “the better Englishwoman” in the process (5.2.126–27). “My royal cousin,” asks Burgundy, “teach you our princess English?” And Henry’s reply is perfectly nuanced: “I would have her learn, my fair cousin, how perfectly I love her, and that is good English” (5.2.293–96; emphases added). The bawdy transports of the conqueror’s wooing make entirely plain what is at stake in the “possession” of this princess, what it means to “move [her] in French” (5.2.189, 194–95)—or, rather, to translate Katherine into English “Kate”:

. . . I love France so well that I will not part with a

village of it. I will have it all mine. And, Kate, when

France is mine . . . you are mine. . . . So the maid

that stood in the way for my wish shall show me the

way to my will.

(5.2.180–84, 339–41)

Henry is determined to persuade us that even the French can be subsumed in an “English” empire—figuring Katherine’s “broken English” not as the broken-hearted and confused speech of the country that he threatened to “break . . . all to pieces” (1.2.233), but as the “broken music” of a French heart that may soon be Englished: “if you will love me soundly with your French heart, I will be glad to hear you confess it brokenly with your English tongue. . . . Therefore . . . break thy mind to me in broken English” (5.2.107–10, 254–55). But after their one-sided linguistic duel, Katherine’s mouth, like those of the play’s other dissident voices, is effectually silenced—“stopped” by the kiss of possession that signals the end of her speaking part (5.2.286) and denies her any part in the political maneuvering that ties up the conditions of her marriage.

It would be misleading, of course, to pretend that Henry V is in any sense a pacifist play, much less that it is involved in some wholesale undoing of nationalist ideology. But it is remarkably open-eyed about the pragmatic necessities entailed by the cause it serves; it understands the cost of its ideals and it never shrinks from exposing who it is that will have to pay. Behind the merely rhetorical horrors of Harfleur lie the terrible, routine savageries of the European wars of religion and the indiscriminate massacres that defaced the progress of imperial expansion. Even as Shakespeare envisaged that scene of pillage in which old men are “taken by the silver beards / And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls” while “naked infants [are] spitted upon pikes” (3.3.36–38), the Irish cleric Peter Lombard was describing a similar massacre of the innocents visited on the Irish of Munster in the wake of the Desmond rebellion (1579–83). “Without distinction of age, sex, rank, or deserts,” the English soldiery

shot them with muskets, or ran them through with swords. Some they hung on trees by the wayside or on gallows, amongst whom was sometime seen the cruel spectacle of mothers hanging on crosses, the little one still lying or crying on their breasts strangled in their hair and hanging from this new fashioned halter; and other children wherever met or found it was an amusement and sport to toss in the air with spears or lances, or to pin them to the ground, or to dash them against rocks.13

The greatness of Shakespeare’s play lies in its sober recognition that this, sooner or later, is how “culled and choice-drawn cavaliers” will behave—that “so many Alexanders” can also prove so many pigs.

  1. See E. M. W. Tillyard, Shakespeare’s History Plays (London: Chatto & Windus, 1943); and Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare’s Histories: Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy (San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 1947).
  2. For an account of Branagh’s interpretation, usefully detailing his cuts to the text, see Robert Lane, “ ‘When blood is their argument’: Class, Character and Historymaking in Shakespeare’s and Branagh’s Henry V,” English Literary Renaissance 61 (1994): 27–52; a more detailed political comparison between his film and Olivier’s is offered by Graham Holderness, “Reproductions: Henry V,” in his Shakespeare Recycled: The Making of Historical Drama (Lanham, Md.: Barnes and Noble, 1992).
  3. Thomas Nashe, Pierce Pennilesse, The Unfortunate Traveller and Other Works, ed. J. B. Steane (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 113.
  4. Thomas Heywood, An Apology for Actors (London, 1612), B4: spelling modernized.
  5. For a discussion of the possible reference of these lines to the Earl of Essex or to Lord Mountjoy, see Warren D. Smith, “The Henry V Choruses in the First Folio,” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 53 (1954): 38–57.
  6. Erasmus, “Dulce bellum inexpertis” (“War is sweet to those who know nothing of it”), in M. M. Phillips, ed., Adages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964), pp. 333, 320.
  7. Ibid., p. 320.
  8. A fascinating account of how literature contributed to this process of national self-definition is to be found in Richard Helgerson, Forms of Nationhood (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).
  9. See Michael Neill, “Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare’s Histories,” Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994): 1–32.
  10. Edmund Spenser, A View of the Present State of Ireland, ed. W. L. Renwick (London: Eric Partridge, 1934), p. 82; spelling modernized.
  11. Ibid., p. 197.
  12. Cited from Arthur Sherbo, ed., Johnson on Shakespeare, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, 16 vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958–90), 8:565.
  13. Peter Lombard, The Irish War of Defence 1598–1600, tr. Matthew J. Byrne (Dublin: Cork University Press, 1930), pp. 15–17.