Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Chorus commands our imaginations to transport Henry to “Callice” [Calais] and then across the sea to England:
You may imagine him upon Blackheath;
Where that his lords desire him to have borne
His bruised helmet and his bended sword
Before him through the city. He forbids it,
Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride;
Giving full trophy, signal, and ostent
Quite from himself to God.
I’m afraid I’m imagining other reasons why Henry is not putting his supposedly battered gear on display…. Again, no evidence that he really involved himself on the battlefield.
Although comparisons with conquering Caesar have been declared always disparaging in Shakespeare (Goddard, I 259), the London populace,
Like to the senators to th’ antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conqu’ring Caesar in;
As by a lower but by loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious Empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him!
Orthodoxy will continue to insist that the General alluded to here is Essex and the Empress of course Elizabeth. But the Irish venture was a fiasco, and the Oxfordian proposal of a composition date in the 1580s and the reference being to Thomas Butler, Elizabeth’s commanding general in Ireland then, makes more sense (e.g., Ogburn and Ogburn 710). Or with Holland disguised under the Ireland reference, Chorus may be alluding to Leicester overstepping in the 1580s (Ogburn and Ogburn 734).
And then, making all of this a rather pointless exercise of our imaginations, we zip over again to France. The gap between the material from Chorus and what we see on stage has widened.
The phrase “Then brook abridgment” (44) — meaning “tolerate omissions” — puns on Brook’s Abridgment, published 1573/74, 1576, 1586, as the best legal textbook before Coke’s (Ogburn and Ogburn 737).
Fluellen is wearing a leek past the day (St. Davy’s day) on which it is a Welsh custom (see Asimov 491f). He tells Gower that Pistol arrogantly insulted him by mocking the custom, and when he sees Pistol he beats him and forces him to eat the leek. After subjecting him, Fluellen gives Pistol “a groat [fourpence] to heal your pate” (V.i.58-59): an instance of throwing money at someone to justify shoving something down that person’s throat.
Fluellen leaves, and Gower somewhat sanctimoniously insults Pistol too. Afterwards, Pistol reports further dejection in that he has learned that his wife — “Doll” as a misprint for “Nell”? (Asimov 512) — has died from “a malady of France” (V.i.82): syphilis.
Old I do wax, and from my weary limbs
Honor is cudgell’d. Well, bawd I’ll turn,
And something lean to cutpurse of quick hand.
To England will I steal, and there I’ll steal;
In other words, Henry’s wars have provided an education and opportunity for this final real result: a hardened criminal.
Act V is often seen as “the worst anticlimax in any of Shakespeare’s greater plays” (Goddard, I 261). The poet seems to have run out of material, so the act is viewed as an epilogue essentially. At best, the act serves as a culmination among the history plays, ending “as comedies conventionally do, with a marriage, one that will unite realms as well as hearts” (Wells 156).
But the real effect of this act is to show us the final Machiavellian insidiousness of Henry as he cuts such a sorry figure as a suitor — and it doesn’t matter, since the “conquest” here is already a done deal, a foregone conclusion (Goddard, I 263). So Henry greets the King and Queen as “our brother France” and “our sister” (V.ii.2), with Princess Katherine “our most fair and princely cousin” (V.ii.4). Historically, the Dauphin died two months after Agincourt (Asimov 509). Queen Isabel expresses the hope that Henry’s eyes have lost their murderous quality (V.ii.13ff), and the Duke of Burgundy makes an honorable speech about peace — “sincere, profound, and imaginative, a touchstone” (Goddard, I 262) — including some horticultural metaphors reminiscent of Richard II. But Henry reduces it to the level of concessions to his conquest, to “commodity”: “you must buy that peace” (V.ii.70). The French, along with the Queen, will review the list of demands while Henry speaks with the Princess. He demanded her from her father as a condition of settlement: “our capital demand” (V.ii.96).
It’s a bit horrifying that the country’s leaders act as if nothing has really happened. “What it all adds up to is that the Battle of Agincourt was the royal equivalent of the Gadshill robbery” (Goddard, I 260). The scene amounts to more forced leek-eating, but under the sugar-coating of Ceremony, which Henry had deconstructed earlier. What a hypocrite! “Henry V made himself into something that comes too close for comfort to Machiavelli’s ideal prince…. Richard III was a mere bungler: he was still conscious of his evil” (Goddard, I 267).
Henry’s “wooing” of Katherine — or as he calls her, Kate — comes off superficially as the charming comical awkwardness of a soldier wooing an aristocratic lady. But Katherine knows that “the tongues of men are full of deceits” (V.ii.117-118), and for all his insistences on lacking eloquence he certainly does go on for a long time speechifying at her. Katherine asks, “Is it possible dat I sould love de ennemie of France?” (V.ii.169-170). To Henry, and probably most others, the match with Katherine is a marriage of nations, not of humans. So Henry can answer that he is not the enemy of France — quite the opposite. That this marriage is about rapacity for land rather than love is clear from Henry’s rhapsodizing about France itself (V.ii.172-176). At best, after some banter about the language barrier, “I love thee cruelly” (V.ii.202-203), “he protests, letting slip a Janus-faced adjective” (Goddard, I 264). He thinks calling her “a good soldier-breeder” (V.ii.206) is an appeal to maternal instincts. (And besides, it’ll be Henry VI they produce, not the world conqueror Henry envisions here.) After substantially more dissertation from Henry, Katherine punctures the hypocrisy of all this — the pretense that any fate is in her hands — by noting that the match is entirely up to her father (V.ii.247). Although the Princess and Alice insist it is not French custom for ladies to kiss before marriage, Henry forces his mouth on hers.
The French nobles return, and Burgundy explains Katherine’s resistence as maidens’ natural modesty regarding Cupid. Henry declares, “Yet they do wink and yield, as love is blind and enforces” (V.ii.300-301). Historically, Henry married Catherine de Valois on 2 June 1420 (Asimov 517). Here, it may not be so much a marriage as a rape dressed up in “Ceremony.” With the French conceding all, the “conquest” is achieved and all look forward, incorrectly as the audience knows, to a lasting peace.
An Epilogue in the form of a sonnet distinguishes the speaker Chorus from the playwright:
Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,
Our bending author hath pursu’d the story,
In little room confining mighty men,
Mangling by starts the full course of their glory.
Small time; but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England.
The Epilogue points out the ultimate futility of all this pomp, manipulation, and warfare, since Henry VI will lose France, “Which oft our stage hath shown” (Epi. 13). So “The sense of history as progressive is replaced by the sense of history as cyclical” (Sutherland 124). At best, for Shakespeare, “his essential, his persistent, his heartfelt theme” is included in the leaving of a kingdom to a son (Ogburn and Ogburn 1199).
Henry V died on August 31, 1422. He was thirty-five years old and he had reigned not quite ten years. Ironically, the mad King of France outlived him, so that Henry V never succeeded to the throne he had won. (Asimov 518)
He died “probably of a fever complicated with stomach trouble, and, according to one account, after infernal visitations and acute pangs of conscience” (Goddard, I 247). God, I love this play!