Henry V

Henry V by William Shakespeare

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Men of few words are the best men.

This is a masterful play, likely one of Shakespeare’s most effortlessly enjoyable. Aided by the chorus, the story moves quickly; and there is none of the artificial machinery of Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies—mistaken identities, secret plots, and the like—but, instead, a story focused on one man’s glorious ascent. This is Henry; and his character is undoubtedly one of the greatest portrayals of a charismatic leader we have. He is the play. Just as he dominates everyone on the stage, so he dominates us, the audience.

The result is a mesmerizing patriotic spectacle. Even if you have grave reservations about the justice of invading France, and even if you can see through Henry’s rhetoric, it is impossible to resist his call to follow him. But how did Shakespeare himself feel about the hero king? One cannot be sure. Nevertheless, there is enough irony in the play to suggest that the playwright entertained his own doubts. Most telling, for me, was the conversation between the disguised Harry and the soldier Williams. After the soldier expands upon the horrors of war—limbs chopped off, men crying for a surgeon, wives and children left alone—he concludes that the king will be responsible for a great evil if the cause be not just. Harry then responds with a fine bit of extremely specious reasoning:

So, if a son that is by his father sent about merchandise do sinfully miscarry upon the sea, the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon the father that sent him. Or if a servant, under his master’s command transporting a sum of money, by assailed by robbers and die in many irreconciled iniquities, you may call the business of the master the author of the servant’s damnation.

Anyone, I suspect, can see the clear difference between a misfortune befalling a servant and a wound suffered by a soldier sent into battle. And this is just one example of Henry’s refusal to consider the ethical ramifications of his decisions. Later on, when Henry discovers that the baggage train has been attacked, the noble king orders his soldiers to cut the throats of every prisoner. He is, in short, remorseless in the pursuit of what he considers his birthright.

The central question that the play asks, then, is whether Henry’s brilliant, charismatic leadership in some measure excuses all of the bloodshed that results from his choices. Now that the idea of monarchy has lost its hold on our imaginations, the argument that any land belongs to a king “by right” sounds barbaric. It thus seems difficult to justify the invasion of France on any reasonable ethical grounds. After all, France is not ruled by a cruel tyrant; and the people of France will likely be no happier under Henry than under Charles VI.

Nevertheless, it is difficult not to root for the young king. And this is true of many historic conquerors, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon. They cloak themselves in glory and promise to inaugurate a new world, if only you follow them through the breach. Indeed, Fluellen explicitly compares Henry to Alexander, noting how the latter killed one of his best friends while drunk, just as Henry rejected his friend and mentor Falstaff. (And Mistress Quickly’s narration of Falstaff’s lonely death is one of the more affecting moments of this play.) It seems strange that these military conquerers have commanded so much praise throughout the ages. Plutarch’s Lives is little more than a compendium of so many Henrys. Yet as Voltaire said:

Not long since the trite and frivolous question was debated in a very polite and learned company, viz., Who was the greatest man, Caesar, Alexander, Tamerlane, Cromwell, etc.? Somebody answered that Sir Isaac Newton excelled them all. The gentleman’s assertion was very just; … those politicians and conquerors (and all ages produce some) were generally so many illustrious wicked men. That man claims respect who commands over the minds of the rest of the world by force of truth, not those who enslave their fellow-creatures: he who is acquainted with the universe, not they who deface it.

All this being said, it must be noted in favor of these conquerors that their less charismatic counterparts are not necessarily better in terms of the common good. In Richard II, the beginning of this tetralogy, Shakespeare gives us a portrait of just such an ineffectual king, a man who has the sensibility of a poet but not the strong will of a commander, and whose poor decisions result in a civil war. Historically, peace at home has often been kept at the cost of war abroad, and vice versa. Conquered land is seldom kept, but the state is strengthened in the meantime; and a country united against an enemy may be preferable to one divided by faction.

Clearly, a country at peace at home and abroad is preferable to either alternative. But historically speaking, this option has not often existed. I do not think this excuses the bloodshed of conquests, but perhaps it goes some way in explaining why these warlike men have so often been treated as heroes, when nowadays we are apt to see them as villains. That, and a play about Isaac Newton would likely not be as entertaining.

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