Henry V as a Bad Actor, or is He Just Bad

Shakespeare’s Henry V is behind me in my quest to read all of Shakespeare. I did like it, but I still don’t like Henry.Henry V Public Domain Image from http://media1.shmoop.com/media/images/original/prince-hal-henry-v.jpg

He’s moved from being dissipated, feigned friend Prince Hal (Henry IV, pt 1),

  • to dedicated Prince Hal hero of battle (Henry IV, pt 1),
  • to King Hal who abandons former friends and embraces those he detested (Henry IV, pt 2),
  • to (Henry V) King Hal
    • who upon slight pretense tears husbands from wives, fathers from children to go “aconquering” in France,
    • who slaughters the French soldiers (and in real life starves French women and children),
    • who then woos the French princess assuring her he is no enemy of France, but indeed the friend of France, “for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it.” (The last part I believe.)

There is a pattern in Shakespeare’s Hal. I heard from someone—I think it was Peter Saccio–that Hal is essentially an actor, taking on these new roles and personae. He apparently is great at the theater, but I wouldn’t want to be his friend. He uses Falstaff and his friends; he uses his father; he uses the ecclesiastical leaders (and they use him); he uses the men and families of England; and finally he uses the princess Catherine.

For all his great speeches and his daring dos, he is not a sincere human being. He gets everything he wants, but like many uncontrollably ambitious people, he leaves behind ruin. I can only look forward to Henry VI to be rid of him.

There are some famous high points, especially Henry V’s speech to rally his men against horrible odds at Agincourt on the day celebrating two legendary (legendary in the sense they probably never existed) Saints Crispin and Crispinian. But Henry’s compelling, patriotic words (see the end of blog) contrast with the more realistic words of Williams, a soldier in the King’s army. As the King—incognito—visits his soldiers in their camps, they await and speak of the coming morning and accompanying coming battle. Williams tells the unrecognized King (in a quote I used at the end of Beyond the Wood),

But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, We died at such a place; some swearing; some crying for a surgeon; some upon their wives left poor behind them; some upon the debts they owe; some upon their children rawly left. I am afeared there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

The words would have burned the heart of a noble, thoughtful, self-examining soul. But Henry V was no noble soul and self-interest his crest. In response, he can only complain that anyone would blame him for the state of the soul of a man who dies in battle. He assures Williams it is the soldier’s duty to clear his soul with God.

At the end of Henry IV, Shakespeare promised the popular Falstaff would appear in Henry V. He keeps his promise, sort of. We hear of him dying, “the King has killed his heart,” and we hear an informal eulogy by his friends, but we neither see nor hear him directly. But Shakespeare has been redeemed by Kenneth Branagh. In his 1989 film adaptation, Branagh borrows scenes from Henry IV to bring Falstaff into the play. I actually like the film better than the play. Henry is more heroic, the language clear, the emotion strong. I think it’s a film non-Shakespeare lovers can enjoy.

Words that came to my mind as I read the play and watched two different film adaptations were horrors of war, the destruction a King could do, flimsy excuses for war, confusing patriotism with government self-interest and substituting pride for the needs of the people.

A middling three Bards is all I can muster for King Hal:Henry V earns three bards



Quotes I like for various reasons:

Henry V (in hypocrisy): Therefore take heed how you impawn our person, how you awake the sleeping sword of war: We charge you, in the name of God, take heed; for never two such kingdoms did contend without much fall of blood; whose guiltless drops, are every one a woe, a sore complaint ‘Gainst him whose wrongs give edge unto the swords that make such waste in brief mortality.

Pistol: Knocks go and come; God’s vassals drop and die; and sword and shield in bloody field doth win immortal fame. Boy: Would I were in an alehouse in London! I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.

Boy: …He hath heard that men of few words are the best men; and therefore he scorns to say his prayers, lest a’ should be thought a coward: but his few bad words are matched with as few good deeds….

Boy: They would have me as familiar with men’s pockets as their gloves or their handkerchers: which makes much against my manhood, if I should take from another’s pocket to put into mine.

MacMorris: The town is beseeched, and the trumpet call us to the breach; and we talk and…do nothing: ’tis shame for us all: …’tis shame to stand still; it is shame, by my hand; and there is throats to be cut, and works to be done; and there ish nothing done….

Orleans: Ill-will never said well.

Boy: The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.

Fluellen: I need not be ashamed of your majesty…so long as your majesty is an honest man.

King Henry V: Praised be God, and not our strength, for it!

Williams: All offences, my liege, come from the heart.

King Henry V: A good leg will fall; a straight back will stoop; a black beard will turn white; a curled pate will grow bald; a fair face will wither; a full eye will wax hollow: but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon; or rather, the sun, and not the moon—for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly.

King Henry V (extracted from MIT):

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more, methinks, would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Next Up: It’s No Surprise–King Henry VI, Part One

Tags: , ,

6 Responses to “Henry V as a Bad Actor, or is He Just Bad”

  1. Chris Hunt Says:

    Apparently the reason Falstaff doesn’t appear in Henry V is that William Kemp – the actor who first played the role – fell out with Shakespeare and left the company before Henry V was first performed. No Kemp meant no Falstaff.

  2. admin Says:

    Thanks for the insight. I didn’t know about him, and you sent me on a quick search for Kemp info:

    Kemp (sometimes Kempe) may have been referred to in Hamlet. Check out the short Kemp bio at Shakespeare-online.com: http://ow.ly/ukfRv

    Shmoop.com mentions Kemp leaving as possible reason for non-appearance of Falstaff. Another possibility it raises is Shakespeare left out Falstaff because Henry V would have been ruined by Falstaff going to fight in France: http://ow.ly/ukg5p

    Thanks again for bringing Kemp into the picture.

  3. patricia Says:

    I appreciate seeing Henry from your perspective. I admit that on first reading and then watching beautiful films of Henry V I was really taken in by his soldierly persona and forceful speeches, but of course, there is much more to him. I am not a very good student of history and am only now wrapping my mind around the concept that those historical European rulers felt that they had the right to take over provinces in other countries through marriage and other family relations leading to untold conflicts. It is fascinating. I am a novice remember , so I only came to realize this after reading the biography of Louis xiv by Levy.
    again thank your for your insight. I hope you do not mind that I joined your discussion.

  4. admin Says:

    Thanks for your comments. Henry V was a “national” hero in Shakespeare’s time, so it’s remarkable that Shakespeare put in more than just that one facet of the King.

  5. Andrew W Says:

    I’ll bite. In real life, Henry V had his character flaws, and to look at him through the prizm of, and judge him by todays standards, he falls short of being a noble, humane and enlightened monarch. But Henry didn’t live in modern times. The issues he had to deal with as ruler of England, and his view of the world are completely foreign to our modern-day sensibilities. Yet, some of us judge him as if he were a modern day totalitarian tyrant.

    Henry was, and perhaps still is viewed as a hero in English history. The English victory at Agincourt is still viewed by many historians as one of the great underdog stories. Shakespeare was no iconoclast, and he probably knew that to ridicule or mock Henry in his play would ensure failure, and perhaps professional suicide on his part. Only in modern times can a critic attempt to destroy a hero of the past, and solely for the sake of iconoclasm! The shame!

  6. admin Says:

    Thanks, Andrew.

    I do tend to agree with you that most of the time we can’t or must be very careful when we judge historical figures by modern standards.

    In Henry as Shakespeare presents him, I do see him as consistent with his times, which weren’t the most compassionate. Of course, he like all humankind is driven by very modern passions, including in his Shakespearean-built case out-sized ambition.

    In the end, I still don’t want him as my next door neighbor or feigning friendship with me.

    I suppose you could read Shakespeare’s apparent Henry V hero worship as subtle mocking. It’s all in how you read it (or speak it).

    I share your distaste for destroying historical figures by looking past the good they’ve done and seeing only their weaknesses. But I do like see them as whole human beings, with strengths and weaknesses, thus making the positive they accomplish all the more amazing.

Leave a Reply