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Is the Shakespeare’s Character of Henry V a Practical Case?

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In Henry V, Shakespeare presents the king as a man who is exceptionally deft with his use of language and politics. Henry conquers France in a relatively short amount of time with a small army, and after his victory he declares, “Let there be sung Non nobis and Te Deum,” (IV.viii.123) which indicates his desire to give God all of the credit for defeating the French. Given Henry’s Machiavellian mode of kingship, however, his actual religious conviction can be called into question. Since his power as the King of England is derivative of the Divine Right of Kings, he needs God to be on his side to maintain legitimacy, and this concept is all the more important in his case because of the fact that he inherited the crown from a deposer. In order to fortify his legitimacy, Henry poses as a pious king and through his language presents the idea that God fights for England, but he only calls upon the deity when it suits his purpose.

From the beginning of the play, Henry uses religion as a foundation for his desired conquest as he questions the clergy about the legality of his claims in France. When he asks, “May I with right and conscience make this claim?” (I.ii.96) the Archbishop gives him a biblical reference from the book of Numbers as evidence that his claims are lawful. Henry then goes on to subtly invoke God into his language of conquest as he calls on “God’s help” (I.ii.222) and “God’s grace” (I.ii.262) to accompany him in his pursuit of the French throne. After receiving the insulting gift from the Dauphin, Henry’s determination to invade France becomes even stronger, but he still places God first in his language. He commands his nobles to mobilize their forces so that, “God before/ We’ll chide this Dolphin at his father’s door.” (I.ii.308) With God set up as his forerunner, Henry is ready to carve his way into France as if it were a holy crusade. Men will be more willing to die for their king if his cause is favored by God and is not simply a boyish spat between rival princes. Henry plays on the religious conviction of his subjects in his rousing, charismatic battle speeches.

The first verbal spark that Henry uses to incite his troops is his speech in front of Harfleur when he tells his men to take on the guise of war. After calling upon the warrior within them, Henry gives his men a battle cry that invokes God in his name, “Cry, ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'” (III.i.34) Henry carefully chooses his words so that they will have the weight and effect that he desires. In this case, he wants his countrymen to believe that God is on their side, making their cause righteous, and he also wants to personalize himself to his laymen by calling himself Harry instead of his kingly title. From the soldiers’ perspective, they are fighting a divinely sanctioned war with their friend Harry leading them, and their leader knows how to strengthen their spirits when necessary.

Sick, tired and outnumbered, the small band of English soldiers begin to despair when Exeter declares the odds as “…five to one” in favor of the French who “…all are fresh,” (IV.iii.4). Hearing Westmerland’s desire for reinforcements, Henry is compelled to motivate his troops, and he does so by sanctifying the battle scene. Although St. Crispin is only the patron saint of shoemakers and not part of the canon of major Christian figures, Henry uses his holiday to bring a sense of nobility to the fight. The king tells his troops that they will always remember the Feast of Crispian as a day when their mettle was tried and proved. Instead of remembering the battle as simply being on October twenty-fifth, the soldiers’ memories will recall that they fought on a day that honors a Christian martyr, which makes their sacrifice all the more honorable because it has religious implications. This speech is essentially pure propaganda, because of the fact that Henry is conjuring up an outmoded saint in order to sanctify his bloody conquest in the eyes of his followers. Westmerland’s change of heart is indicative of the success of the king’s words as he does an about face from wanting reinforcements to exclaiming, “God’s will, my liege, would you and I alone,/ Without more help, could fight this royal battle!” (IV.iii.75). With his expedient religious language, Henry motivates his beleaguered “band of brothers” to face the massive French army with renewed vigor fueled by the sanctity that their king imparts upon the day and their cause. Henry clinches the scene by his final religious entreaty, “And how thou pleasest, God, dispose the day!” (IV.iii.134). This cry turns the conflict into a trial by combat like that in the beginning of Richard II, in which the combatant who is in the right will be victorious because he has God on his side, and if the soldiers follow this logic, then their cause can be seen as righteous because it was God who chose the victor. While these speeches are examples of Henry’s public use of religion he makes an important entreaty to God in a private soliloquy in the first scene of Act IV.

At this particular point in the play, Henry recalls his father’s ascension to the throne with a sense of foreboding as he pleads with God to “…think not upon the fault/ My father made in encompassing the crown!” (IV.i.294). Although this seems like an honest prayer to heaven, this speech has a certain hollow ring to it. To begin with, it is in verse, which suggests that the language is duplicitous, and Henry’s efforts to exonerate Richard are constituted by a series of quantitative measures that lack moral quality and direct participation by the king himself. Henry states,

“Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,

Who twice a day their withere’d hands hold up

Toward heaven, to pardon blood; and I have built

Two chauntries, where the sad and solemn priests

Sing still for Richard’s soul.” (IV.i.298-302)

These efforts, while appearing to be sincere, are essentially an attempt by the shrewd king to establish a price for forgiveness of his father’s transgression that Henry so dubiously dubs as an “encompassing,” and even though this speech is done in private, all of the lamentations he describes are visible to his subjects. Any Englishman who recalls Bullingbrook usurping Richard will see that his heir is making a costly effort to seek forgiveness. By manipulating the Christian doctrine of forgiveness, Henry is once again seeking to establish a legitimate foundation for his kingship in the wake of his father’s questionable actions. Despite his lack of honest religious conviction, Henry’s prowess as a military king makes him a successful conqueror and the outnumbered English win France, and the king is quick to credit God with the victory.

As soon as Montjoy tells Henry that he has won the day, he states, “Praise be God, and not our strength, for it!” (IV.vii.88), which brings Henry’s insinuation that the battle was a religious trial by combat in which the English were righteous to fruition. Throughout the play he made claims to the righteousness of his cause, and with a decisive victory it is easy for Henry to cement his claim to divine legitimacy. Any common Christian soldier would certainly have his faith strengthened by his king’s words and triumph2E Henry drives the point home with more heavenward praise,

“O God, thy arm was here;

And not to us , but to thine arm alone,

Ascribe we all! …Take it, God,

For it is none but thine!” (IV.viii.106-112)

The thousands of dead Frenchman and the hundreds of dead Englishmen then, are portrayed by Henry as having died in a holy crusade approved by God, and what began as a prideful dispute between two young rulers has become a war sanctioned by heaven. In the chorus that opens up Act V, it is said that Henry does not want the medieval equivalent of a ticker-tape parade, because he is “…free from vainness and self-glorious pride,” (V.20) but the fact that the chorus states this characterization so plainly leads it to be a questionable assessment. Henry came to France to expand his empire, and his exceptional leadership abilities made his campaign a success. There is no indication, other than Henry’s own assertions, that God had any part in the battle whatsoever.

As the heir to a man who took the throne by force and not by inheritance, Henry needs to ensure that his own claim to the throne is not called into question, lest he have to fight off an insurrection like the one that threatened his father, and there is no better legitimacy than can be granted by the Creator Himself. With his exceptional charisma and use of language, Henry portrays himself as having earned the approval of God, whom his power is supposed to derive from in the first place. Henry’s subjects see that he publicly exonerates Richard with lavish proceedings, they hear him claim that God is on their side, and they win a battle in which the odds were stacked well against them. In the eyes of a religious public, their divinely anointed king has proven his legitimacy by earning the favor of their higher Lord and brought them a decisive victory against an historical rival. In the eyes of a close reader of Henry’s character, however, it can be seen that Henry is a shrewd politician who is constantly using religious language to indirectly assert his own authority. By displacing the credit of his victory to God, he is crediting himself as being God’s true representative on earth and not simply the capable son of a usurper. Religion is a practical political expedient for Henry that firmly establishes his hold on the crowns of both England and France, and his use of God’s name is not a result of any true sense of religious conviction.

Works Cited

The Riverside Shakespeare 2nd edition. Edited by Evans, Tobin, et al. Houghton Mifflin Company. New York, 1997.

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