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The play I will write about is Henry V by William Shakespeare was written in the time of Elizabeth I but refers to the events of 1415 when King Henry V led a war against the French. The play is the fourth in a series of history plays that Shakespeare wrote beginning with Richard II and continuing with Henry IV Parts 1 and 2. The two Henry IV plays chart the adventures of ‘Prince Hal’ who later becomes Henry V. Prince Hal did not stay in court and prepare to be a King but spent his time drinking in the Boar’s Head Tavern with characters such as Pistol, Nym and Bardolph, who are in this play and Sir John Falstaff.
On becoming King Henry had to renounce Falstaff, which broke Falstaff’s heart. It must be remembered that some people who would have seen Henry V would also have seen Henry IV where Henry betrays Falstaff and so Henry’s character would have this fact hanging over him from the previous play.
The play was performed in the 1590s and people still had strong memories of the Spanish Armada in 1588. Many people saw that conflict as a religious and righteous war as it was Protestant England against Catholic Spain. This made war a subject of some debate and whether a war could ever be ‘just’ considering the immense suffering that any conflict causes.
The play deals with this issue of war and while on the surface it puts England and Henry in a very good light, a strongly sceptical subtext runs throughout the play.
I have chosen a limited section of the play to analyse for this subtext, Act 1 scene 2 and Act 4 scene 1 as well as the chorus speech for Act 2. I believe these parts of the play to be the most interesting and relevant in relation to the area I have chosen to analyse. The play proper starts with a conversation between two powerful English Bishops, the Bishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely.
They discuss a new tax that the King is planning to put on the churches and how they would like to avoid it. They decide to do this by pushing the King into a war with France. They take this idea to the King in Act 1 Scene 2 and tell him of an ancient law that theoretically gives him some claim to France, although the long and ponderous way it is presented on stage from lines 33 to 95 makes the claim seem like an excuse to attack France (which of course it is) rather than a genuine reason. Henry agrees to the idea of the two bishops in line 96 when he asks ‘may I with right and conscience make this claim?
‘ This does not portray Henry in such a bad light as he is concerned with the moral right of the claim, but it is obvious to the audience that the claim is so antiquated that Henry would be able to see it was not really a good claim if he was really concerned with this issue. This is an example of Shakespeare giving Henry a rather shallow concern with moral issues on the surface but actually criticizing him in the subtext. Crucially this decision to invade France is made before the French ambassador arrives and actually gives Henry a reason to declare war by given him an insult from the Dauphin (the successor to the French throne).
But Henry has made his decision to invade his neighbouring country on the back of advice from two bishops who are trying to evade taxes, the morality of the war gets off to a rather dubious start. This would have been further bought home to the audience of the time as a dubious point as Bishops were meant to be morally right in everything they did or, so the theory ran, they would not be allowed by God to be in a position of such power in the Church. The fact that they are starting a war in order to evade taxes makes a mockery of this idea as well as making Henry’s campaign morally dubious.
The chorus is a literary and dramatic construct that Shakespeare touched upon in his earlier plays, particularly Romeo and Juliet. However in that play the chorus was just used to reinforce the point of the play before and after it happened. In Henry V the chorus has a much bigger role. The chorus speech at the beginning of Act 2 highlights several contradictions about Henry. It begins with the inference that ‘all the youth of England are on fire’, however this is in direct contrast to a decision made by Henry and his advisors in the previous act to lave some men behind in case Scotland decided to invade.
This puts some doubt into an observant audience mind about whether they totally trust the chorus. The chorus goes on to say on line 6 that Henry is the ‘mirror of all Christian Kings’, in other words, he is the perfect model of a good and righteous leader. Again an observant audience would not think that this was entirely correct, Henry only declared war because two vicars told him to do so in order to avoid taxes. This is not exactly a very Christian act and the war could hardly be called ‘just’.
This is an example of how Shakespeare makes the chorus seem very biased in his views and this reflects badly upon the things the chorus idea that Henry is so great which the chorus has been trying to promote. Also from lines 22 to the end of the play the chorus tells us about several traitors who have been bought off with French gold to try and kill Henry before he departs for France. This raises the issue that if Henry is so perfect why have three of his closest advisors turned traitor on him?
The final line of the Chorus’ speech says ‘Unto Southampton do we shift our scene,’ however Act 2 actually begins with a scene in the Boar’s Head Tavern in London so more doubt is placed in the mind about how truthful the chorus actually is. Many of the phrases in this chorus speech seem very patriotic and complimentary to Henry on one level, as the phrases I have focused on above show. However, if a thoughtful audience compares the information from this with that presented elsewhere in the play then many of the phrases put Henry in not so good a light.
Act 4 Scene 1 is a very interesting scene; it starts with the King discussing the impending Battle with the Lords of England. Henry then borrows a cloak from one his advisors and goes about the camp in disguise so he can learn the mood of his soldiers on the eve of a battle that many expect will see all the English die at the hands of the French. The chorus refers to this in his Act 4 speech, he says ‘Proud of their numbers and secure in soul the confident and over-lusty French do the low-rated English play at dice.
‘ These few lines in the chorus speech say that the French are rolling dice on how long the English will last, Shakespeare also refers to the French as ‘over lusty’ and this means that the French are almost too eager to go into battle and so these lines also serve to give the impression that the French are over-confident which would please a patriotic English audience. Later in the same chorus speech the chorus says when referring to the English army ‘the royal captain of this ruined band, walking from watch to watch, form tent to tent?
Let him cry ‘Praise and Glory on his head! For forth he goes and visits all his host, bids them good morrow with a modest smile, and calls them brothers, friends and countrymen. ‘ This section of the chorus speech is making reference to the King going about the camp in disguise and gives the impression that in doing this he is calming his soldiers and uniting them as it says in line 34 ‘And calls them brothers, friends and countrymen. ‘ The first soldier he talks to is Pistol, an old friend from his Prince Hal days.
The two speak in French to each other at one point but the other replies in English, this may be seen as Shakespeare trying to get across the point that the King does not communicate well with his subjects. The End result of the conversation is that Henry angers Pistol, so in trying to learn the mood of his troops the King has just succeeded in annoying one of them at least. This is in stark contrast to the lines in the chorus speech which I made reference to earlier.
The king has not comforted his troops at all but annoyed one of them and does not call all his troops countrymen as the speech suggests but actually when it comes one of his men disliking another because of his nationality he does not attempt to solve the problem but takes sides based on his own particular nationality. This does not make the King look like a very good leader, the night before an important battle he is deepening divisions among his own troops or at least making no attempt to mend these rifts.
Next the King comes across three soldiers Court, Bates and Williams. These three have not previously been mentioned in the play and Shakespeare probably uses them for the first time here so that the audience knows that they are neutral in their views to the King so any view they have on him will only be dictated by his actions in this play. As it turns out Bates and Williams look on the King very dubiously, in line 107 and 108 bates says ‘He may show what outward courage he will, but I believe, as cold as night as ’tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck.
‘ This means that Bates thinks all the courage Henry has shown is just a show and he would rather be back in the Thames up to his neck, as freezing cold as that would be rather than be where he is in France, about to battle the French. This is not a very complimentary view of Henry at all and Shakespeare may be trying to show that all Henry’s bravado and words hav not actually convinced his own men that he is genuine in wanting to fight.
Henry then gets into an argument with Williams who says that it will be the King’s fault if they all die in the impending battle, understandably Henry disagrees but then doesn’t back down when Williams starts spoiling for a fight. He and William even exchange gloves and on line 185 and 186 Henry tells Williams to give him a glove so that if thy both live they will recognize each other and fight. If Henry was ‘the mirror of all Christian Kings’ as suggested in the Act 2 chorus speech then would he really be going around the night before a battle and getting into fights with his men?
This scene can be taken several ways in its criticisms of Henry, at the least it gives the idea that Kings are not perfect and still annoy people an get into fights. At most it is a criticism of Henry himself and shows that his actions before the battle are far from those of a good leader. The scenes and chorus speech I have chosen to analyse show that Shakespeare wrote Henry V to be a patriotic rendition of Henry V’s campaign against the French on one level but on another it is actually criticising Henry for starting a war and for his subsequent actions.
The time in which the play was written Elizabeth was on the English throne. The subject matter of Henry V was potentially volatile for several reasons. Firstly there was no clear successor to the throne after Elizabeth died and in some parts of Henry V reference is made to the fact that Henry IV killed the rightful King in battle and took the throne and so there are others who have as strong a claim to the throne as Henry.
This could have upset many nobles in Shakespeare’s time as the talk of such things in a popular play could be seen as trying to encourage anti-monarchy feeling or trying to encourage anyone with a good claim on the throne to make a grab for power once Elizabeth had died. The play also deals with the morality of war and while on the surface it paints a very patriotic and glorious conclusion about Henry’s French campaign the subtext for many scenes is dubious about how moral the war actually was.
Apart from the obvious fact that the play made Henry seem as if he was going to war because two bishops wanted to avoid paying taxes the play also attacks the morality of war and Shakespeare may have been trying to signal that any war for whatever reason cannot be just as it causes immense suffering on both sides. This would clash with the accepted view of the conflict with Spain and the Spanish Armada, this was generally accepted to be a holy war (Protestant England against Catholic Spain) and it could not be faulted.
Because the play raises these issues much of the criticism of Henry and his war is not openly written about but rather covered by the patriotic chorus. However Shakespeare actually uses the chorus speeches to encourage the audience not to trust the chorus and some of the chorus’ words plainly contradict actions in the play. This creates a play that anybody reading or watching is encouraged to think about and see the many different meaning s of the text and think about whether war is actually so great, probably exactly what Shakespeare intended.
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