Term Paper: Perplexing Personalities of King Henry V

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Henry V: The Ruler Has Two Faces

In Henry V by William Shakespeare, two truly dichotomous illustrations are created in reference to the king's character. In one sense, he's portrayed as a unanimously honored king -- one of the most remarkable leader's in England's history, who is most aptly painted as a revered and conquering hero, beloved and appreciated by all. Yet in the other portrayal is drastically distinct, coloring the king as a manipulative, Machiavellian leader who used his cunning rhetoric and the "singing violin" of his speech to push his men into dangerous, irresponsible battle for little other than personal glory. Shakespeare's characterization of King Henry is both complex and morally ambiguous, as some critics have observed. This paper will explain the fundamental concrete strain in the king's character: namely that he is a chameleon with a number of different personalities and he's adept at cunningly altering his persona and the manner in which he interacts with people, strictly dependent on the situation and his personal interest and agendas at the given moment.

As one scholar remarks, "The young king is a more complex person than he at first appears. There are many instances throughout the play where she shows himself to be a model king. His dignity stands out by comparison with the boastful, vain and foolish French" (Mulherin, 28). At the top of the play that's definitely at least, the impression given about the young king, however, the careful reader needs to keep in mind that it is actually nothing more than an impression -- there's no substance behind it.

As the Archbishop of Canterbury remarks:

The courses of his youth promised it not.

The breath no sooner left his father's body,

But that his wildness, mortified in him,

Seem'd to die too; yea, at that very moment 65

Consideration, like an angel, came

And whipp'd the offending Adam out of him,

Leaving his body as a paradise,

To envelop and contain celestial spirits. (I.i. 62-69).

This excerpt is entirely revelatory as it gives a strong impression of the young king as a virtuous and practically angelic ruler. However, the careful reader will know that people simply do not transform overnight in such stark and deliberate ways. Thus, even though the archbishop of Canterbury remarks that it's as if the wildness in the young king seemed to die when his father died, a more discerning reader will know to be suspicious of such alleged overnight transformation. Furthermore, one should be even more suspicious of the chosen description of the young king; he is simply described in far too otherworldly vocabulary, painting him in colors which are almost completely angelic and celestial. However, the duality inherent in the young king's personality -- the fracture in his character -- becomes readily apparent as the play progresses. The king is well versed in a sly and cunning rhetoric and uses it as a powerful tool to manipulate people at will and to achieve the details of his own personal agenda.

In Act III, before the walls of Harfleur, King Henry delivers one of the most famous speeches of the play, and perhaps one of the most famous speeches in all of Shakespeare's work; even so, this speech as noble as the words might seem on the page or on the stage is actually just an exercise in the shrewdest form of manipulation. From his opening plea of "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more," Henry unifies his men for his cause (III.i.1). To be clear, this is his cause and not theirs; it is in his personal interest to vindicate his own ego that he encourages them to go into battle once more. However, he is able to camouflage his vested interests, making the stakes at hand seem like a communal cause. This is first accomplished by abusing the notion of patriotism.

Henry's exploitation of patriotism is a two-part process: first, he exalts all things English and then compels his soldiers to prove that they are worthy Englishmen. This is extremely clever and extremely calculating. By revering all things English and creating this sense of zeal and intense national pride, Henry is now setting the bar extremely high, and it's up to the soldiers to now prove that they're worthy. In so doing, and in reminding his men of their warlike ancestors and great historical battles, he attempts to rouse a passionate nationalist fervor among his men and a sense of pride in them about their glorious heritage. Thus, there develops a strong implication that if these men want to do this noble heritage any justice, they must live up to it, and thus they must fight.

Second, Henry takes a non-traditional democratic stance, expressing an egalitarian view of fighting in batter by saying that every soldier is as good as a nobleman: "For there is none of you so mean and base / That hath not noble lustre in your eyes" (III.i.29 -- 30). With these words, Henry endows his men with an elevated stature, which he hopes will compel them to act in an elevated manner. This is a truly crafty and clever way to provoke his men to fight as in this case, the king is essentially eliminating the rigid, narrow and concrete class levels of society with one foul swoop. One could argue that the king, their trusted leader, is essentially telling them what they've always wanted to hear: there's no difference between them and a nobleman. The one thing they have to do to prove this to be true is to fight.

Another shrewd and arch manner that the King Henry is able to compel his men to fight is by presenting himself as one who truly does not wish them to. All parties are aware of the realities of war on some level -- these are the realities of pain, separation, injury and death. Given the tragedies which can occur, Henry cunningly presents himself as a fundamentally peaceful king who has been forced into making war. He doesn't want to risk the lives of his men and place his nation in chaos and instability, but his hand has been forced. This is of course, completely hypocritical, given the fact that Henry is the one who is invading France -- thus negating the appearance of "modest stillness and humility" he claims to prize (III.i.4). Still, one can argue that Henry V does not celebrate war so much as it celebrates Henry and his skillful political ability, which happens to involve using war to achieve his desired ends.

But the reader knows with certainty that King Henry is decidedly not a peaceful king. Henry is capable of appearing peaceful, but his actions consistently demonstrate a completely different sort of ruler. King Henry condemns Bardolph to death with apparent coldness. Gone is the self-professed sense of mercy with which Henry sets the treasonous drunkard free in Act II, scene ii. His decree here that "[w]e would have all such offenders so cut off" -- meaning that all looters should be hanged -- shows just how severe a man Henry has become (III.vi.98). In this instance, King Henry is cut off from all sense of compassion and mercy, because in that moment, it doesn't suit him to do so.

Some scholars aren't as aware of the shrewd manipulation present in the young king's actions, and foolishly take them at face value. "At Agincourt, he [King Henry] shares the anxieties of the common soldiers but his genuine courage and heroism inspire them to victory" (Mulherin, 28). This is a far too facile approach which represents a sweeping interpretation of the text, and one which is less than accurate, particularly when one examines the exact words that the young king chooses:

Gloucester, 'tis true that we are in great danger;

The greater therefore should our courage be.

Good morrow, brother Bedford. God Almighty!

There is some soul of goodness in things evil,

Would men observingly distil it out.

For our bad neighbour makes us early stirrers,

Which is both healthful and good husbandry:

Besides, they are our outward consciences,

And preachers to us all, admonishing

That we should dress us fairly for our end.

Thus may we gather honey from the weed,

And make a moral of the devil himself.


However, the words chosen by the young king actually don't reflect "genuine courage and heroism" meant to inspire others to victory as Mulherin concludes, but a shrewd and calculating way to ensure that one's troops continue to behave like carefully manipulated puppets. King Henry acknowledges the danger, which is extreme and then makes the entire mission seem as if it is a holy one. Lest any of his troops run off in fear or refuse to fight, the king has instilled the idea that the work they're all currently doing is actually God's work -- this work is so holy, it's practically divine. They all have the task and the mission of destroying all that is… [END OF PREVIEW]

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