Shakespeare Notebook 2023: “Henry V”

In my post on 1 & 2 Henry IV, I made a case that, against the likes of W.H. Auden, I take Prince Hal to be a basically sincere and honourable character–something which I think continues, albeit with more complexity, in Henry V.

By way of a very short summary: persuaded that he is the rightful heir to the throne of France, Henry V–fully reformed from his wastrel ways seen in Henry IV–launches an invasion. He ultimately leads his men to a decisive victory at the Battle of Agincourt, growing more and more into his kingship along the way. The play ends with Henry wooing Katherine of Valois, the King of France’s daughter, and being adopted as heir to the French throne.

Now, to say I find Henry to be basically sincere and honourable is not to say I don’t also think he is a canny political operator–far from it. It is clear, for instance, that Shakespeare read Machiavelli, and was highly influenced by him in the history plays. Likewise, Shakespeare clearly read Aristotle, and Henry V (it seems to me) interacts very obviously with Aristotle’s Ethics. In Act IV.7, for example, the Welsh captain Fluellen describes Henry as “magnanimous” during an extended comparison with Alexander the Great. “Magnanimity” is the traditional translation of Aristotle’s virtue of megalopsychia (εγαλοψυχία), perhaps better rendered as “great-souledness”. We could talk about exactly what megalopsychia is until the cows come home, but, roughly, it is the crown of all the virtues, possessed only by the greatest of men who possess all other virtues, and are rightly regarded as a cut above the rest of us. The great-souled man, however, is not necessarily synonymous with what most of us regard as virtuous heroes–his great-souled vision may spur and entitle him to act in ways which pusillanimous (i.e. small-souled) men such as us find dubious, since, in his great-souledness, he is not subject to the same constraints. If Shakespeare is presenting Henry as Aristotle’s great-souled man, this may not be entirely synonymous with our normal idea of a chivalric white knight.

Yet, as stated in my post on Henry IV, I don’t feel the text warrants an interpretation of Henry as a Machiavellian cold fish. Consider, for example, his prayer before the Battle of Agincourt. Having just spoken to various regular soldiers whilst disguised as one himself, Henry, alone once again, falls to his knees in prayer:

O God of battles, steel my soldiers’ hearts; 
Possess them not with fear; take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if th’opposed numbers
Pluck their hearts from them. Not today, O Lord,
O not today, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interred new,
And on it have bestowed more contrite tears
Than from it issued forced drops of blood.
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a day their withered hands hold up
Toward heaven, to pardon blood: and I have built
Two chantries where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard’s soul. More will I do,
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Imploring pardon.

Henry refers here to the original sin underlying his reign–the usurpation of Richard II’s throne by Henry IV, Henry’s father, and the former’s Thomas-a-Becket-style death. This act tortured Henry IV, and Richard II concludes with him vowing to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to make atonement for himself. The inability to do so haunts him throughout Henry IV; guilt over the “fell working” by which he won the throne dominates his dying speeches, and he must content himself with dying in the Jerusalem Chamber of his palace, rather than in the holy city itself (2 Henry IV 4.5).

In his prayer above, Henry V is still keenly aware of the bloodguilt of his throne. Just as his father hoped to atone via a pilgrimage, Henry has hoped to atone through acts of charity and piety. Yet some will read this as simply another political move from the young king–he has played everyone else, and now he is trying to play God. Auden is of this mind:

“There is a questionable religious atmosphere in Shakespeare’s history plays. Only scoundrels like Richard III and Henry V talk of religion. The clerics in Henry V are depicted in a bad light, they don’t want to lose their lands, and they speciously justify Henry’s claim to France. Henry gives himself away. He doesn’t know God in a personal way, but thinks he can manage him. His offer of two chantries in penance for the killing of Richard is a bribe.”[1]

Yet, were Auden’s reading of Henry correct, then the prayer should have ended at “More will I do.” But it does not, and Auden simply ignores the final three lines of the prayer: “Though all that I can do is nothing worth,/Since that my penitence comes after all,/Imploring pardon.”

In this solitary moment, we find Hal not mulling his political schemes as he does in his famous Act 1, Scene 2 speech in 1 Henry IV (“I know you all, and will awhile uphold/The unyoked humour of your idleness”), but praying. Henry here acknowledges a limit, even a bankruptcy, to the good deeds he has performed–deeds definitive of medieval piety: reverencing relics, almsgiving, masses for the dead. These are all, of course, deeds which the Reformers roundly condemned with regard to justification, and all such practices were, by Shakespeare’s day, an increasingly distant memory.

Article 31 of the 39 Articles openly condemned masses for the propitiation of the quick and the dead as “blasphemous fables and dangerous deceits”; Homily XI of the Second Book of Homilies, “Of Alms Deeds” directly refuted the teaching that almsgiving could be a cause of justification. These formularies had been in people’s minds and ears for decades by the time Shakespeare penned Henry V, and so I find it hard not to hear a distinctly Protestant note in Henry’s prayer. He seems to acknowledge that, since his penitence “comes after all”–by which I take him to mean after the events of Richard II–his good deeds cannot atone for either his father’s sin or Richard’s own soul (presumably thought to be in purgatory). The shortcomings of such pious acts are foregrounded–yet Henry says he will continue to do them. There’s no full-throated Reformed doctrine of justification here then, but the open critique of pious acts central to pre-Reformation faith is, it seems fair to say, a Reformation one. I made a similar point at the end of my post on The Two Gentlemen of Verona. And this moment of moral frankness from Henry strengthens my view that interpreters who see the young king as either a power-hungry shell devoid of morals, or as an Aristotelian great-souled man who is beyond them, are quite mistaken.

  1. W.H. Auden, Lectures on Shakespeare (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 109).


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