Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Stratfordians date this play from the spring of 1599, just before publication of a “newly corrected” edition with the hyphenated Shake-speare name on it (Ogburn and Ogburn 1039), and based on a topical interpretation in the Chorus in Act V (the General = Essex; the Empress = Elizabeth, who had sent him on an Irish campaign). But Oxfordians have pointed out how little sense that allusion would make and instead propose a composition in the early- or mid-1580s (e.g., Ogburn and Ogburn 710)and the reference being to Thomas Butler, Elizabeth’s commanding general in Ireland. According to J.Q. Adams, there was a Henry V play before 1588 at the Bull in Bishopsgate (Ogburn and Ogburn 729). See Ramón Jiménez, “‘Rebellion broachèd on his sword’: New Evidence of an Early Date for Henry V.” The Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 37.3 (Fall 2001): 8-11, 21.
The main reasons for thinking that Shakespeare wrote the play titled The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth in the 1570s and revised the play into the two Henry IV plays and Henry V are given by Ramón Jiménez, “The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth: Key to the Authorship Question?” The Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter 37.2 (Summer 2001): 7-10. The 11th Earl of Oxford, who plays so large a part in Famous Victories, has disappeared in favor of the glory going to the king; Shakespeare matured (Ogburn and Ogburn 29). The secretaries and “University Wits” attached to Oxford may have added touches, but nothing like to the extent of 1 Henry VI (Ogburn and Ogburn 730).
Despite the implications in the epilogue to Henry IV, Part 2, probably written in the planning stages of Henry V, Shakespeare changed his mind about continuing with the character of Falstaff. His presence would tend to undermine any seriousness. “Shake-speare, after stuffing his resurrected Lollard with his own inspired irreverence, re-dedicates him on the desperate altar of patriotism; all in the context of an Elizabethan John Wayne war movie” (Eldridge).
The historical Henry V was a national hero and successful warrior king against England’s traditional enemy, France. He was the strongest English king before Henry VIII. Henry ascended the throne at the age of 25 in 1413 and died in France at 35 probably of fever complicated with stomach trouble, and according to one account after infernal visitations and pangs of conscience (Goddard, I 247). His imperialist real estate grab did not last long after death under the weak monarch Henry VI.
The standard view is that the material for once was too much for Shakespeare. Military victory is epic, maybe lyrical, but not dramatic matter. “As a propaganda vehicle, the play was superlative, drawing upon ‘true events’ from the country’s past to dramatize how a ragtag, disparate group of people with little in common except one dread sovereign could still achieve a difficult objective, and do so against tremendously long odds” (Farina 126). While “A spirited and stirring piece of drum-beating and flag-waving,” it remains history instead of being transmuted into drama (Goddard, I 215). It can even be considered jingoistic (Asimov 450). On these terms, one must subscribe to militaristic values to like this play. Perhaps Prince Hal was “lovable”; but “King Henry is [at best] merely admirable and, at that, more admirable from a distance” (Asimov 449). This would all be easier if we were given more reason to condemn the French (Wells 155), but presumably the Elizabethan audience would have: Shakespeare is writing in patriotic times.
Yet Shakespeare, while loving England, as Bloom repeatedly reminds us, cared little for the State (which tortured Thomas Kyd, branded Jonson, and maybe murdered Marlowe). And this is the culminating masterpiece after a set of other historical successes. So a closer look is required, and it reveals a lot, indeed an entire reading which contradicts the standard view expressed even in Cliffs Notes and the 1944 Laurence Olivier film. “But grant that Henry is the golden casket of The Merchant of Venice, fairer to a superficial view than to a more searching perception, and instantly the play becomes pervaded with an irony that imparts dramatic value to practically every one of its main scenes” (Goddard, I 266).
Oxfordian perspectives include the notion that the play originally reflects events of 1586, such as the arrest of the Babington conspirators (Clark 772). The propagandistic features would have been particularly timely with war with Spain on the horizon for England, and Oxford’s 1586 annuity can be accounted for (Farina 128), as well as the anonymity: “any play would have been more effective if credited to a commoner rather than to a royally subsidized nobleman” (Farina 126).
“O for a Muse of fire that would ascend / The brightest heaven of invention!” So calls “Chorus,” represented by one actor, wishing for adequate skill to convey the glorious material regarding “warlike Harry” (5): perhaps “A kingdom for a stage” (3). Chorus apologizes for the inability to show on stage — the Globe being a “wooden O” (13) since it is “an apt description of the multisided structures built in the Bankside district along the Thames” (Garber 392) — battlefields in France and the other scenes necessary for a martial epic. The audience members’ imaginations will have to supply these, and horses, and armies. We’ll have to “divide one man” “Into a thousand parts” (24) to people the stage: in other words, become butchers? Ultimately, “’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings” (28). It finally sounds as if unless we imagine all this to be glorious, the history itself that we’re about to see is pretty sleazy. And it is.
The “ciphers to this great accompt” (17) may also be “the supernumerary O’s, men who worked with O[xford] upon this final draft of the play” (Ogburn and Ogburn 737).
Traditional interpretation would have this prologue to be Shakespeare’s own perspective, but do Choruses ever speak for Shakespeare and convey his own attitude? See Troilus and Cressida for a similar distinction between Chorus and the playwright specified (Goddard, I 216). Just one play ago in Henry IV Part 2 this role was filled by the unreliable “Rumor”! And the Epilogue in Henry V here confirms the distinction by referring to the poet separately.
So what is Chorus? Among other things (such as a bridge between times and locales), Chorus’ voice is “an abstract of average public opinion” (Goddard, I 217), which elevates Henry to the “mirror of all Christian kings,” practically a god (Goddard, I 217). Chorus offers intoxicating martial music before the battle, a warm-up before the show — but admits to dealing in the delusional (as regards stagecraft). Chorus gives the rah-rah popular idea of this hero and asks us to put an even greater spin on the events and the character; but we may see the truth in the drama itself. Look at the “history,” or truth, unadorned by the nationalistic propaganda. Vero nihil verius.
The Archbishop of Canterbury explains to the Bishop of Ely the current church concerns: that a bill before the previous king, Henry IV, had been delayed successfully because of “the scrambling and unquiet time” that it was (I.i.4) , but it’s not clear how the new king will lean. This bill would amount to a land grab and deplete the church’s coffers significantly, confiscating the better half of the church’s wealth. And an estimated thousand-pound annuity is referenced (I.i.19).
Yet, frets Canterbury, all we know about Henry V is that whereas he was a reprobate youth, “In preparation no doubt for the oratory to come, the Archbishop makes much of Henry’s new-found rhetorical skill” (Wells 153). Henry’s transformation may indicate that he is morally upright now! (Yikes.)He has dissociated himself from vile “popularity” (I.i.59). The churchmen are therefore hopeful: “The strawberry grows underneath the nettle” (I.i.60); and grasses grow quicker at night (I.i.65). It may be worrisome to us thatthese church officials are praising dark nighttime phenomena and that they seem to be at ease announcing by rote that the ages of “miracles are ceased” (I.i.67) — whither faith? But as a result of their uncertainty, the church has sent an enormous “offer” (I.i.75) or “sum” (I.i.79) as a bribe, uh, war-chest donation to Henry, earmarked for what is taken for granted to be his pet cause, war with France.
King Henry V and his lords listen (presumably) to what the Archbishop has researched concerning Salic law, an obscure legal point involving land and inheritance. This is part of the process starting with the temporary pretense that Henry is openminded and undecided about war with France, and then on to a trumped-up justification for the war. (Sound familiar, 21st century?) Before the Archbishop speaks, Henry gives him a long warning about what he is about to say, since thousands of lives hang in the balance. It may signal that Henry is a splendid and concerned king, but after a while it just sounds as if it’s placing responsibility on the Archbishop for what is to come. And finally Henry insists that “what you speak is in your conscious wash’d / As pure as sin with baptism” (I.ii.31-32) — “a suspicious mind might find a Chaucerian ambiguity in that last phrase” (Goddard, I 220), and for a moment our ears hear “as pure as sin….”
The several dozen lines of Canterbury’s explanation are completely unclear. Henry’s great-great-grandmother was daughter of Philip IV of France. Although Salic law makes succession through female line illegal, the French seem to be hypocritical as regards this restriction (see Asimov 454f). But there’s a statute of limitations on this kind of nonsense; and there’s irony in this too. Henry’s father seized the English throne, now his son proposes seizing the French throne (to wipe out the father’s sin)? The Archbishop’s speech applies to Henry’s situation and undermines the claim. The three cases of French kings inheriting through the female line apply to Henry IV and V, with references to usurpation and guilt echoing Henry IV’s situation. Further, if we allow inheritance under the female line, Edmund Mortimer, who is descended from the third son of Edward III through his grandmother, has a prior claim to the English throne over Henry, descended from the fourth son (Goddard, I 222). Just note the pedal point: “deposed” (I.ii.65), “usurp’d” (69), “usurper” (78), “Usurp’d (95).
Then, after obfuscating everything, the Archbishop concludes, “So that, as clear as is the summer’s sun…” (I.ii.86), and most productions have everyone laughing. Henry then reiterates the initial question as if nothing had been explained: “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” (I.ii.96). The Archbishop supplies Henry with exactly what he really needs: “The sin upon my head, dread sovereign!” (I.ii.97). He assures Henry that Henry is not responsible here. Now comes the would-be trump card: biblical authority. A phrase from the Book of Numbers taken out of context is trotted forth, making all the previous mumbo-jumbo irrelevant anyway. All this is very shady and far-fetched. But “In Henry’s vision, the growing inner self requires an expanding kingdom” (Bloom 324).
In 1586, Leicester’s disobedience to the Queen in assuming the sovereignty of the Netherlands (and risking Spanish reprisals therefore) may have motivated the creation of Canterbury’s speech (Clark 773-774). This incident may also be responsible for the later reference to general coming from Ireland, lines “generally construed as alluding to Essex in 1599 (Clark 774).
Henry overcomes any lingering scruples after the lords join in rallying him with appeals to ancestral pride in his bloodthirsty forefathers. The council hashes out the problem of leaving the Scottish border undefended, thanks to Henry’s ability to take seriously the study of history and its lessons. There’s a nice discussion of “government, though high, and low, and lower” (I.ii.180), which includes the Archbishop’s bee analogy: “doth heaven divide / The state of man in divers functions” (I.ii.183ff) just as the beehive has a king (?), merchants, soldiers, architects. “The bees, it turns out, have nearly everything in their community that men have except archbishops and armies” (Goddard, I 223) — although there is reference to the “lazy yawning drone” (I.ii.204). And the analogy is suspicious in its assertion that among bees, “Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings, / Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds” (I.ii.193-194). Bees on flowers is not exactly the same as Englishmen killing Frenchmen.
So Henry is resolved: France will be defeated.
Either our history shall with full mouth
Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave,
Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,
Not worshipp’d with a waxen epitaph.
Now Henry calls in the French ambassadors. He notes that the coronation gift comes from the “Dolphin” (Dauphin — son of the king of France), not the King himself. The message is fairly dismissive of Henry, recalling his irresponsible days (possibly now a sore point with him), and the gift is tennis balls, an allusion to Henry’s gaming youth and “a symbol of frivolity” (Garber 394). Henry, with controlled fury, takes this as mockery and bends a tennis conceit to an issue of war. Although we hear him insist, “We are no tyrant, but a Christian king, / Unto whose grace our passion is as subject / As is our wretches fett’red in our prisons” (I.ii.241-243), he rails at length against what he considers a mockery of his royalty:
… for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands;
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dolphin’s scorn.
It seems as if Henry catches himself at this point, and adds, “But all this lies within the will of God” (I.ii.289). Afterwards, Exeter says, “This was a merry message” (I.ii.298), and he may not mean this grimly; he may be expressing surprise that Henry reacted so strongly and viciously. [A similar moment occurs in The Merchant of Venice, from Bassanio to Antonio (I.iii.142).] But we’ve already just seen the lengths this administration will go to in order to justify war — why not exaggerate the significance of tennis balls? Why not turn them into tennis balls of mass destruction? Henry announces his resolve: “we have now no thought in us but France” (I.iii.302).
The former Prince Hal has “matured” into what Yeats called “a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant” (qtd. in Bloom 320). Maybe worse. “Being the son of a usurper who had gained the throne by the overthrow and murder of Richard, Henry V did not have a legitimate claim to the throne of England, let alone that of France” (Sutherland 122). Again, familiar.