The Male Issue and The Kingship in The Henry V

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About this sample


Words: 1590 |

Pages: 3.5|

8 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Words: 1590|Pages: 3.5|8 min read

Published: Jun 29, 2018

Although the mighty king persona is almost always on display in the characters of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, the audience is at times presented with the inner workings found within the deep recesses of each monarch’s mind. The reader and ticket-payer is at once astounded with Henry Bolingbroke’s warrior-like audacity, but is then privy to his more “feminine,” calculating methods as a manipulative individual. Oppositely does the audience perceive Richard II who proudly claims to be the divinely sanctioned emperor, but when alone and deposed, he becomes despondent and pities his status as King. In line with his two predecessors, Henry V also appears to be two different people depending upon the situation; at once Harry is the consummate warrior-aristocrat, but when alone, he wishes only for the simple life of a commoner. In the plays Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, the notion of “monarchical reflexivity” plays an integral part in the way in which each king is viewed by his subjects and, extra-textually, by his audience. It would be easy for one to declare Richard II a weak fool, too wrapped up in his own despair to actually facilitate an escape or defense, and write him off as an aberration of English Kingship; in reality, however, his weakness is indicative of a more fascinating relationship between man and his role as a king. One also finds that the two following rulers, Henry IV and Harry, both find within themselves aspects of a seemingly conflicting dichotomy between the mortal man and the immortal notions of kingship.

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Richard II and Henry V outwardly seem, according to their demeanor and accomplishments as king, nearly opposites. Henry V is an astute warrior and diplomat – he is the gallant knight par excellence, while Richard II is a surreptitious backstabber. As a character in the play, one would be quite remiss to make any comparison between the two, but the audience is lucky enough to know that, in fact, the two are more closely related than one would originally think. As Richard II provides Bolingbroke with the crown in Richard II, he laments his position as newly deposed monarch and characteristically complains. Surprisingly, though, he offers no acts of defiance; here Richard doesn’t do anything that would make the audience think that he still desired to be king. In fact, his speech upon ironically coronating Bolingbroke implies that being a king promises nothing but emptiness. Richard says, “Now is this golden crown like a deep well/ That owes two buckets filling one another,” that is, from lowering one king, another king will be raised into the monarchical position (4.1.174-5). He continues, however, by saying that “The emptier ever dancing in the air,/ The other down, unseen, and full of water” (4.1.176-7). According to Richard, as one man moves deeper into the well, so another will rise up and become seated at the top – curiously, however, it is the emptier bucket that will finally achieve this top position. It seems to the reader that being crowned king will not manifest all of one’s greatest joys and desires; in fact, Richard is saying the opposite. In contrast to the empty role of king, as deposed monarch he will be “full of tears” and, ironically, seems proud that he will still be able to remain “king of those” (4.1.178, 183). Further in the scene Richard chooses to describe his kingly effects in rather surprising terms. He departs the “heavy weight from off my head” along with the “unwieldy scepter” to Bolingbroke instead of trying to preserve the ornaments for himself (4.1.194, 195). It is counter-intuitive that the audience would see a king physically dethroned in such a light manner and not be at least disgusted; Shakespeare certainly realizes this and counts on his audience to reflect after the play has ended. Perhaps, since Richard does put up no fight, he truly does find kingship to be empty and is fully resigned to rejecting it.

In a scene that curiously reflects the sentiments portrayed by the dethroned Richard II, the audience of Henry V is presented with Harry who, in echoing his predecessor, remarks upon the emptiness of being a king. Harry, disguised by Erpingham’s cape as a common soldier, declares to John Bates “I think the King is but a man, as I am. The violet smells to him as it doth to me; the element shows to him as it doth to me” (4.1.99-100). The speech that ensues serves two purposes; firstly it provides the audience with an amusing trick that the King is playing on his soldiers, secondly and more importantly, it acts as a mirror of Harry’s mind. For once, he does not have to appear brave or strong or cunning, he can simply say what he is thinking. This portion of the text sets Harry apart from his role as leader of Britain and shines a different light on this character as “but a man” (4.1.102). Just as Richard II finds his crown heavy and scepter “unwieldy,” so too does Harry find the pomp and ceremony of kingship to be stifling. He declares that the true emotions of a King must be barred and smothered, for though he feels fear, the King cannot “possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army” (4.1.106-8).

Later in the same scene, the audience is presented with the most prominent example of kingly dissatisfaction. When one could say that Richard’s apparent disgust with being a monarch is derived from the unpleasant circumstances surrounding the end to his reign, one cannot so simply dismiss Henry V’s misgivings. After the soldiers leave him, Harry continues to question the role and responsibility of king and wonders “What infinite heartsease/ Must kings neglect that private men enjoy?” (4.1.219-20). He decides that kings have the same depressing lot as do regular men save “idol ceremony” (4.1.222). The King wonders what good this ceremony is when he “suffer’st more/ Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers” (4.1.223-4). Towards the end of his speech, Harry declares that neither “the balm, the scepter, and the ball,” nor the “tide of pomp” or “thrice-gorgeous ceremony” could possibly grant the King the ability to “sleep so soundly as the wretched slave” (4.1.242, 246, 148, 250). It appears that Harry is echoing the opinions expressed by his predecessor Richard II at, oddly enough, completely opposite times in their reign. Harry, on the eve of a great military victory, is in the process of lamenting his position as unrivaled conqueror while Richard II mourns the worthlessness of kingship at the moment of his deposal.

Although both Richard II and Harry hold particularly serious doubts about the role and worth of the English King, Henry Bolingbroke presents a different aspect of the King versus man dichotomy. Although his son derides the kingly position as simply a man dressed up in ceremony and pomp, Henry IV believes that this is actually what makes the kingship so admirable. While the two converse about his inevitable ascension to the English throne at the midpoint of Henry IV Part 1, Henry IV broaches the subject of his relation to his subjects. While Harry is displeased with ceremony and the separation of the mortal human and the immortal notion of the divine right English Ruler, it is in this dichotomy that Bolingbroke revels. He scorns Richard II for allowing himself to become “So common-hackneyed in the eyes of men,/ So stale and cheap to vulgar company” (3.2.41-2). Henry IV, instead, desires to be wondered at “like a comet,” who, through ceremony “seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast,” parades through the streets and implicitly separates what it means to be a king from what it means to be a man (3.2.47, 58). As Henry IV continues, he mentions that, as he graces the multitudes with his presence, “men would tell their children ‘This is he’” (3.2.48). This quote is quite telling for the way in which Bolingbroke thinks others view him qua man and king; it separates “this,” that is to say, “King Henry IV along with all the ceremony and parade,” from “he”, the word used for any man. Both father and son feel that the entity of the English King is divided into two parts, the man and the immortal notion of “king;” Harry cannot handle the separation between the two halves, while his father seems to enjoy his status as untouchably divine.

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As Richard II’s reign comes to an end at the hands of Bolingbroke, and Henry V finally conquers the French at the battle of Agincourt, a peculiar trend begins to surface in the introspections of the three monarchs. Richard II finds the role of a king to be empty and unfulfilling, and he manifests his disgust through scornful remarks concerning his “heavy crown” and “unwieldy scepter.” Henry Bolingbroke, who succeeds Richard as the English ruler, instead finds the ceremony and immortal notion of “the king” to be a useful tool in exacting his goals. Within his speech it is clear he recognizes an irreconcilable separation of Bolingbroke as a man and Henry IV as a king. The audience can infer he simply chooses to ignore it. Harry, however, finds the dichotomy of man versus king to be almost unbearable. In what undoubtedly comes as a surprising revelation to the audience, Henry V paradoxically wishes, on the eve of his greatest military victory, to be a simple slave asleep back in England.

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The Male Issue and the Kingship in the Henry V. (2018, April 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from
“The Male Issue and the Kingship in the Henry V.” GradesFixer, 11 Apr. 2018,
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