In Henry V, the culmination of his Henriad, Shakespeare presents a king who exemplifies the perfect combination of the Trinitarian elements within man. Importantly, he does so within the context of a play that, as Shakespeare admits several times throughout, is itself lacking in its ability to bring the three into harmony. He is a man, aware of the source and nature of his existence in the image of God, placed into a world that, while not entirely disordered, falls short of the ideal. Working within the limitations imposed by time, place, and circumstance, Henry works to redeem this macrocosm through the perfecting of himself as microcosm. In his examination of Shakespeare from “the perspective of value,” Robert E. Fitch concludes that “King Henry is Shakespeare’s portrait of the ideal leader of men at any time in any place.” Though Fitch rightly hesitates to agree with Georg Gottfried Gervinus’s assessment “that Henry is essentially Shakespeare himself,” Fitch perhaps does not go far enough in his own assessment. King Henry is not only Shakespeare’s portrait of the ideal leader; he is Shakespeare’s portrait of the ideal man. While he may not be Shakespeare himself, he is undoubtedly the sort of person whom Shakespeare desired to be.
He is, in fact, the sort of man any man of Shakespeare’s time would have desired to be. The ideal embodied in Henry V, says Theodore Spencer, “is the ideal of the whole Hellenistic tradition of the nature of man, whose specific function, reason, should govern the passions which spring from the senses he shares with the animals.” Moreover, according to E.M.W. Tillyard, due to the religious conflicts of the age “the battle between Reason and Passion … was peculiarly vehement in the age of Elizabeth.” In Trinitarian terminology, Henry is perhaps the only personality in Western literature who brings the Father, the Son, and the Spirit into perfect relation. Henry’s will and passions operate in perfect obedience to his reason.
This harmony of the Trinitarian nature of the human being is accomplished by Henry through his pursuit of “knowledge and wisdom,” a pursuit which, says Tillyard, “marks man from angel and beast” in Elizabethan thought. This is the central significance of the dialogue among the three churchmen in the opening scene of Henry V. While the exchange acts as a literary device which explains to the audience why the Henry V presented in this play will be so different from the Prince Hal encountered earlier in the Henriad, the explanation given is one that appeals explicitly to the Elizabethan understanding of the importance of wisdom and knowledge to the fullness of humanity. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s description of Henry hymns his wisdom and knowledge (1.1.39-53):
Hear him but reason in divinity,
And all-admiring with an inward wish
You would desire the king were made a prelate:
Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs,
You would say it hath been all in all his study:
List his discourse of war, and you shall hear
A fearful battle render’d you in music:
Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter: that, when he speaks,
The air, a charter’d libertine, is still,
And the mute wonder lurketh in men’s ears,
To steal his sweet and honey’d sentences;
So that the art and practic part of life
Must be the mistress to this theoric …
Henry’s “theoric,” as Shakespeare demonstrates it, consists of a fervent love for his nation not only in the abstract but in each of the particular persons over whom he reigns as king. Henry’s own description of the burdens of kings in 4.1 provides an insight into his philosophy of kingship. He begins (4.1.228-231):
Upon the King! Let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins lay on the King!
We must bear it all.
Henry’s love for his people is surpassed only by his love for God. Henry in fact mentions God more often than any other character in all of Shakespeare’s works. His utter reliance upon God’s judgment and mercy is evident throughout the play, but nowhere more than in his famous St. Crispin’s Day speech in 4.3, in which Henry adjures his men, who have expressed their concern at the overwhelming numbers of the French in comparison with their own English forces, “God’s will, I pray thee, wish not one man more” (4.3.23). “Rather proclaim it … through my host,” he continues, “That he which hath no stomach to this fight, / Let him depart” (4.3.34-36). Henry has taken upon himself the burdens of a king in his self-sacrificing love for his people and, in turn, placed his faith and hope in God whom he loves above all else.
This “theoric” of Henry is exhibited through his “art and practic” in his balance of justice and mercy. Fitch describes this balance as it appears in Henry’s actions; he exhibits “justice in dismissing Falstaff, mercy in giving him a pension; justice in the death penalty for the three traitors against the crown, but mercy for the man who railed against his person.” Even in his application of justice in the extreme case of the three traitors, Henry finds a balance with mercy (2.2.142-143):
Arrest them to the answer of the law;
And God acquit them of their practices!
He finds them guilty and orders them justly punished in accordance with the law. With the next breath, however, he offers a pray on their behalf that God might forgive their crime.
In short, as Fitch notes, Henry embodies all 12 of the virtues necessary to a good king as described by Malcolm in Macbeth (4.3.92-94):
As justice, verity, temp’rance, stableness,
Bounty, perseverance, mercy, lowliness,
Devotion, patience, courage, fortitude.
Even Henry’s enemy, the King of France, describes him as possessing “native mightiness and fate” (2.4.64). In possessing fate, or the element of the Father, as well as “native mightiness,” a combination of the Son and Spirit, Henry V is an exhibition of the Trinitarian nature of man in perfect harmony.
Henry does have his detractors, however. War-weariness and suspicion of strong political figures are two facets of the predominant mode of the West following the failures and atrocities of the strong centralized state systems of fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the communist Soviet Union. This has led some modern interpreters of Shakespeare’s plays to espouse negative views of the strong leaders presented therein. Orson Welles’s famous 1937 depiction of Julius Caesar as a figure much like Benito Mussolini is an analogy which falls far short if the character of Caesar is considered in all its complexity, but which is representative of this modern approach to certain characters. As he is by far the strongest leader presented in Shakespeare’s canon, Henry V has, of course, been the object of much of this derision of leadership. Henry V’s treatment by Harold Bloom in his popular Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human provides one representative example.
Bloom’s central complaint against Henry, the complaint from which all others flow, is what he sees as the injustice of Henry’s dismissal of Falstaff. According to Bloom, Falstaff is Henry’s “endlessly gifted teacher” who “prepares his own destruction not only by teaching too well but by loving much too well.” Henry, on the other hand, is the ungrateful and nearly sociopathic child who “loves no one.” He merely uses Falstaff to advance his own power and discards Falstaff when he is no longer useful. Bloom has turned the dismissal and pensioning of Falstaff by Henry, which Fitch uses as an example of Henry’s balance of justice and mercy, on its head. For Bloom, Falstaff dismissal is a demonstration of Henry’s lack of both justice and mercy. There is, however, an additional consideration which is noted by neither Bloom nor Fitch.
As the clergymen of the opening scene of Henry V discuss, Henry has matured a great deal since his time in the company of Falstaff. He has become a mature man as well as the King of England. Bloom is quite insightful in his characterization of Falstaff as “neither immoral nor amoral but of another realm, the order of play.” However, Bloom fails to appreciate the implications here for Henry. Henry has not cast off an old friend in the ruthless pursuit of personal power. He has, rather, grown up. The words of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:11 would fit well on the lips of Henry V: “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Falstaff as “play in its sweetest and purest sense” is essentially childish. In order to become a man, Henry had to put him away.
As a further example of Henry’s supposed hypocrisy, Bloom turns Henry’s words in his St. Crispin’s Day Speech against him. Where Henry tells those gathered with him that “he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother” (4.3.-61-62), Bloom rather assures that “neither we nor he believes a word he says.” On the contrary, Bloom continues, “the common soldiers fighting with their monarch are not going to become gentlemen, let alone nobles.”
Even before Henry speaks these words, however, the play has already offered a rebuttal to Bloom’s dubious interpretation of them. Henry V, to be perfectly Trinitarian, must also be perfectly Incarnational, and so he is. In the first scene of the same act (the fourth), Henry temporarily divests himself of the “ceremony” (4.1.237) which separates kings from their people. He descends among his men and becomes one of them. Henry imitates the Incarnation of Christ, as described in Philippians 2:6-7: “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” Henry so fully identifies with his men that, while speaking to one of them in his disguise, he assures him “the King is but a man, as I am” (4.1.103). Henry’s words about brotherhood in his St. Crispin’s Day Speech, which is delivered nearly on the heels of his incarnation, are far from empty. Indeed, they have already been fulfilled.
Certainly, none of these men are “going to become gentlemen, let alone nobles,” as Bloom reminds us. No society can function without differentiation in social class and no organization can continue to operate without delineation of rank. The desire for an absolute social equality within the English military or within the whole of English society is absurd and to condemn the reasonable for rejecting absurdity only compounds the absurdity. The Elizabethans knew this better than most societies since. Henry V itself contains arguably the most eloquent description of the Elizabethan perspective of the cooperation of the various social classes within an orderly and peaceful society of any literature of the era or any other (1.2.183-204):
Therefore doth heaven divide
The state of man in divers functions,
Setting endeavour in continual motion;
To which is fixed, as an aim or butt,
Obedience: for so work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor;
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-eyed justice, with his surly hum,
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone.
While those who hold to the unhealthily bloated modern notion of equality might scoff at such a perspective on society and the cosmos, it is a more complete picture than that offered by the current equality-via-enforced-homogeneity. In the Elizabethan understanding of world and society, “no part was superfluous,” says Tillyard; “it enhanced the dignity of all creation, even of the meanest part of it.”
Henry V would have failed terribly in his duties as king had he destroyed the social order in the adoption of some preposterously misguided ideal of equality. “There will never cease to be poor in the land” (Deut. 15:11); there will always be leaders and followers. The problem is not with kings and kingship. The problem is with tyrants. Christ’s description of leadership provides the formula by which the two may be distinguished: “You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mark 10:42-43). The king is the one who leads to serve; the tyrant leads to be served. Henry, in his incarnation, has proven the truth of his own words: “We are no tyrant, but a Christian king” (1.2.241).
The most frequent criticism of Henry V, and the only of the common criticisms which finds its mark, concerns his decision to slay the French prisoners in 4.6.36-38:
The French have reinforced their scattered men.
Then every soldier kill his prisoners!
Give the word through.
Alarmed at an apparent second wave of attack by the French, Henry orders the French prisoners of war held by his men killed as a precaution. The decision is an impulsive misjudgment for which Henry deserves all the criticism he receives. As Fluellen notes at the beginning of the following scene (4.7.1-4), which commences immediately following Henry’s loathsome order, “Kill the poys and the luggage? ‘Tis expressly against the laws of arms. ‘Tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offert;” though speaking to Gower within the context of the play, he seems at this point to turn to the audience with his question: “in your conscience, now, cos it not?” Gower turns Fluellen’s criticism on its head with his response, but the honest answer is that this slaughter of French prisoners is a violation of the conscience and the laws of war and a singularly terrible stain on the character of Henry. The next words that Henry speaks after the order to kill the prisoners grant an insight into the reason for Henry’s order: “I was not angry since I came to France / Until this instant” (4.7.54-55), he says. If even only for a short moment, Henry lost his Trinitarian balance.
It is with good reason that Henry V has been compared to King David by some scholars. Reverend James Bell’s Biblical and Shakespearian Characters Compared, as Fitch notes in his comments on the relationship between these particular Shakespearean and biblical characters, accesses the essence of each personality through analogy between them. “King Henry, like King David,” says Fitch, “blends in one person the two achievements that have always captured the imagination of men: he is a great fighter [in the Battle of Agincourt]; he is a great lover [of Katharine].” It might suitably be added: he is a great sinner. Both David and Henry are guilty of the greatest sin a man can commit against his fellow man; both are guilty of murder.
In a comparison between the two, however, Henry emerges as the ethical superior even of David, the archetypical biblical king. David’s murder was prompted by his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba, inspired by his lust for her. Henry’s murders, however, are the result of a love his country. Whereas David murdered for personal gain, Henry murdered out of concern for his men. While Henry’s motivations by no means excuse the slaughter of the French prisoners, they do present a contrast with David’s addition of sin to sin.
Henry’s status as a “great lover” presents a similar contrast with David. Whereas David takes Bathsheba to satiate his lust, Henry woos Katharine because he loves her and wishes to be loved by her in return (5.2.128-130): “I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say, ‘I love you.’ Then if you urge me farther than to say, ‘Do you, in faith?’” While David chooses a married woman, Henry chooses a woman who is so chaste she initially refuses to kiss Henry before their marriage (5.2.260-261). Whereas David uses his power as king to take Bathsheba from her husband and to have her husband murdered, Henry actively avoids the use of his power in his courtship of Katharine. Henry’s wooing of Katharine is the only scene in Henry V in which Henry does not call upon God to assist him. It is also the only scene in which Henry speaks almost entirely in prose, consciously communicating in a way that “is fit for thy [Katharine’s] understanding” (5.2.124). He wishes Katharine to freely choose to love him because his love for her is authentic.
This authentic, freely chosen love between Henry and Katharine leads to the final Trinitarian reconciliation at the end of Henry V. Whereas David’s first son by Bathsheba died in infancy as a result of David’s sin, the son of Henry V and Katharine will grow to be the next king, Henry VI. In the love between Henry V and Katharine which produces Henry VI, there is an analogy to the love of the primordial man and woman, Adam and Eve, which produced Seth (Genesis 4:25). St. John of Damascus saw in this family of Adam, Eve, and Seth an analogy with the Trinity. The love of Adam and Eve and the concomitant birth of Seth is a biblical moment of Trinitarian reconciliation following the fall of man in Genesis 3 and the first murder in Genesis 4; the love of Henry and Katharine and the concomitant birth of Henry VI is Henry V’s moment of reconciliation in the wake of the “fall of man” in 2.2.141 and the murder of the prisoners in 4.6.37. That England will flounder under Henry VI, as lines 11-12 of the short epilogue already presage, is immaterial to this moment, however passing, of perfect Trinitarian reconciliation, just as the eventual sinking of man into wickedness and the coming deluge are immaterial to the moment of Trinitarian reconciliation in the world’s first family. For a moment, Edenic paradise, “the world’s best garden” (Ep.7), has been restored.
Henry V, the perfect man, has been placed into an imperfect world. Shakespeare reminds us of the imperfection of this world in the prologues which precede each act of the play, prologues which Shakespeare himself more than likely read in the earliest performances of the play. The prologue with which the play begins is demonstrative. There, Shakespeare begs the audience’s “pardon” for “the flat unraisèd spirits that hath dared / On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth / So great an object” (1.0.9-11). The author, the actors, and the set are unable to provide the Spirit of the play. He therefore asks the audience to complete what is lacking through the use of their own imaginations.
In spite of the significant shortcomings of Henry’s world and despite his own sin, he is nonetheless able to bring about a momentary reconciliation and perfection within it. Theodore Spencer notes that “though to modern readers his behavior as Henry V by no means makes him a perfect individual, there can be no doubt that Shakespeare intended him to embody all that a king should be.” It is Henry’s Trinitarian composition and Incarnational activity which make him “all that a king should be,” the perfect man by Elizabethan standards, even by the perennial Christian standards which stand above those of any particular era, even if not by the degenerate standards of modernity.