Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles (Henry V) was Shakespeare’s primary source for the historical events described in Henry V. Shakespeare also would have likely read one or more of the several Latin biographies of Henry V, such as the Henrici Quinti Angliae Regis Gesta, written while Henry was still the reigning monarch. Shakespeare altered his sources to reflect a particular didactic theme — a theme present in not onlyHenry V, but also in all of the plays that comprise the second tetralogy. The plays work toward an analysis of what qualities the right ruler for England must have, and Shakespeare’s changes to the character of Hal reflect this analysis. The political savvy and consecrated authority that a good ruler must possess finally unite in the character of Henry V. From the first time we see him, with the lads in Eastcheap, we know he is already much like his father; much like the Machiavellian Prince. In the Chronicles, Holinshed mentions that Hal caroused with pickthanks and rabble-rousers “with whome he spent the time in such recreations, exercises, and delights as he fancied.” (Holinshed, p.141). But the time Hal spends in Eastcheap, drinking and stealing, is not reported in the Chronicles. The scene is no doubt incorporated into the play for the sake of comedy, but it also shines a light on Hal’s nature and his motivation for consorting with the likes of Falstaff. We soon see that Hal is not simply having a good time – Hal is politically motivated:
So when this loose behavior I throw off, And pay the debt I never promised, By how much better than my word I am, By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes, And like bright metal on a sullen ground, My reformation, glittering o’er my fault, Shall show more goodly, and attract more eyes, Than that which hath no foil to set it off. I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill, Redeeming time when men least think I will. (I.ii.214-223)
What Hal reveals in this speech is not, as some suggest, a sinister nature and a desire to betray his friends, but, instead, he reveals his plan to achieve popularity amongst the people he knows he will one day rule. Hal has every intention of leaving behind his life of wine and petty-theft. His mischievous behavior is merely part of a political maneuver to look as good as possible when he does finally gain power. In addition, his association with Falstaff and the others gives him a relationship to the common people that will be vital to his reign as Henry V. This passage foretells how successful Hal will be when he obtains the throne. In the words of Machiavelli: . . . experience shows us that in our times the rulers who have done great things are those who have set little store by keeping their word, being skillful rather in cunningly confusing men . . . (Machiavelli, p.61).
Later in the play, in more passages unique to Shakespeare’s work, we see just well Hal’s plan has worked. During the battle to crush the rebels, Hotspur and his men are expecting to see the ‘nimble-footed madcap Prince of Wales.(IV.i.97-109). What they do see, however, is Hal, in full gear, ready to fight, and they are amazed:
Hotspur: Where is [Henry’s] son, . . . And his comrades that daff’d the world aside And bid it pass? Vernon: All furnish’d, all in arms, All plumed like estridges that woo the wind; Bating like eagles having lately bath’d, Glittering in golden coats like images, . . . And gorgeous as the sun at midsummer: . . . I saw young Harry with his beaver on, His cushes on his thighs, gallant’ly arm’d, Rise from the ground like feathered Mercury, And vaulted with such ease into his seat, As if an angel dropp’d down from the clouds . . . And witch the world with a noble horseman. (IV.i.94-110)
This rather normal scene of a prince in armor, mounting his horse, would not strike awe into the hearts of seasoned soldiers, if it were not for Hal’s cunning plan to ‘falsify men’s hopes’. His reformation has indeed attracted many eyes. Even when Hal simply challenges Hotspur to a duel, he receives praise:
Vernon: No, by soul, I never in my life Did hear a challenge urg’d more modestly . . . . . . And, which became him like a prince indeed, He made a blushing cital of himself, And chid his truant youth with such a grace As if he master’d there a double spirit Of teaching and learning instantly. (p.121)
Thus, not only has Hal’s time in Eastcheap brought him closer to the common people, but it has helped him seem like an extraordinarily strong and valiant future ruler in the eyes of the nobility.
When Henry does inherit the throne he maintains the wonderful image he has molded for himself in Henry IV, Part I, and he proves to be a shrewd decision-maker. He is also a good military strategist (I.ii.136-139). Although it is not explicit, there seems to be some potent Machiavellian maneuvering occurring in the scene with the Dauphin. Before the Dauphin comes in to state his case, Henry has already decided to invade France. He says:
Now we are well resolved, and by God’s help And yours, the noble sinews of our power, France being ours, we’ll bend it to our awe Or break it all to pieces . . . (I.ii.221-225)
Henry, according to the above passage, has every intention to move full force against France. However, he still hears the Dauphin, so that he might seem deliberative and merciful:
We are no tyrant, but a Christian king, Unto whose grace our passion is as subject As is our wretches fett’red in our prisons. Therefore with frank and uncurbed plainness Tell us the Dolphin’s mind. (I.ii.241-245)
But when the Dauphin presents to Henry what he calls “a tun of treasure”, and it consists of nothing more than tennis balls, Henry is outraged and refuses to be lenient. This series of events is chronicled in Holinshed, but they take on a deeper significance in the play when viewed in conjunction with Henry’s passion to be the perfect ruler.
The Dauphin could not have made things easier for Henry. With this inane gift, he has insulted Henry and has given him the motive he needs to fight a war that is deemed necessary on suspicious grounds without remorse. Henry can now assume his “lion persona” (Machiavelli, p.65), and show his strength:
When we have match’d our rackets to these balls, We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard. . . . And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his Hath turn’d his balls to gunstones, and his soul Shall stand sore charged for the wasteful vengeance That shall fly with him . . .
Some might think that this reaction is merely because Henry has been insulted and that he is acting out of personal spite, but if we consider the whole portrayal of Henry as the cunning man who ‘falsifies men’s hopes’ to achieve political advantages, we must assume that his actions are based on more than feeling personally embarrassed. To react so harshly for no other reason than ridicule would be a move Richard II would make. As we saw in the early part of Henry IV, Part I, as he gained the reputation of a lowly rabble-rouser, Henry can take ridicule if it brings him further to a desired political end. It is not so much the insult that prompts him to wage a full-scale assault on France, it is that the insult gives him the justification for declaring war because France has mocked the monarch – which is mocking England herself. And his loving, patriotic subjects will not stand for that. Moreover, Henry’s reply, full of pomp, convincingly passes the blame onto the Dauphin. Henry makes it seem that whatever Henry does to France is the Dauphin’s fault entirely. Henry declares, because of this rather trivial insult, it is God’s will that he fight with France: “But all this lies within the will of God/To whom I do appeal and in whose name/Tell you the Dauphin, I am coming forth/To venge me as I may and to put forth/My rightful hand in a well-hallow’d cause.”(II.i.289-293 ).
Some critics believe that Henry’s reason for going to France is entirely noble and moral. As Lily B Cambell writes: “Henry IV has advised his son to ‘busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels;’ but that advice is passed over in the new play, and both Shakespeare and Henry V are justifying the war on high moral grounds . . . “(Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare’s Histories [London: 1964], p.261). Textual evidence, however, does not seem to support this argument. Before the Dauphin’s messenger arrives, Henry does discuss matters with the archbishop and does seek his solemn advice, asking “May I with right conscience make this claim”, and, of course Canterbury agrees, but I see no real moral high ground presented, especially if we consider that the archbishop clearly has a personal desire to wage war. Canterbury’s assertion that his complicated and legalistic [and dubious] argument makes Henry’s claim to the French throne ‘as clear as the summer’s sun’, has to be read ironically. (Charles Boyce, Shakespeare A to Z [London: 1992], p. 200). In addition, Henry’s desire to receive from Canterbury the permission to go to war – to ‘with right conscience make this claim’ – stems more likely from a need to put the weight of the decision on someone else’s head, rather than a true desire to ensure he has a completely rightful and moral claim to the French land. “That the archbishop and not Henry makes the argument [to wage war] demonstrates Henry’s manipulative nature; he places the onus on the archbishop. He cautions him in I.ii.13-28, that the justification of war is a mighty responsibility, but he refuses to accept that responsibility when Williams makes a similar point in IV.i.” (Bryce, p.266). Thus, in this scene, it appears that Henry has proven to be a true Machiavellian ‘prince’; he now has license take his fathers advice and busy the giddy minds of his subjects in foreign quarrels, and also obtain a large amount of precious land for the realm, and he has rested the onus on the heads of the Archbishop of Canterbury and on the Dauphin of France while he will go on to accept all the praise in true Machiavellian style.
Once on the campaign, it becomes obvious that Henry knows well the art of war. And, according to Machiavelli, “being proficient in this art is what enables one to [maintain] power . . . . A ruler who does not understand military matters cannot be regarded highly by his soldiers, and he cannot trust them.” (Machiavelli, p.52). In the Chronicles, Holinshed reports that Henry “sent the word, that, except they would surrender the towne to him the morrow without anie condition, they should spend no more in talke about the matter. Yet at length the king was contented to grant them truce vntill nine of clocke the next sundaie . . . (Holinshed, p.155). But, in the play, Henry does not tell others to ‘send them the word’, he himself goes to the gates of the town and yells a warning to the people:
If not [surrender]—why, in a moment look to see The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand Defile the locks of your shrill-shreaking daughters, Your fathers taken by the silver beards And their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls, Your naked infants spitted upon pikes . . . (Henry V, III.iii.33-37)
Henry does not leave the dirty work up to others, he moves right in and does it himself – in a way that only Henry could, using his showmanship to achieve the capture of the town. In the play, moreover, the response of the town is immediate. They do not need the days granted them to decide given to them in Holinshed. Not only does Henry get the town without a fight, but he no doubt looks all the more powerful and amazing in the eyes of his soldiers because of this shrewd political move.
Combined with his incredible ability to govern with strength and intelligence, Henry is a legitimate king. His father knows that the stain of his usurpation will not affect Henry V:
By what by-paths and indirect crook’d ways I met this crown; and I myself know well How troublesome it sat upon my head: To thee it shall descend with better quiet . . . . . . For all my reign hath been but a scene Acting that argument; and now my death Changes the mode: for what in me was purchas’d, Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort; So thou the garment wear’st successively. (Henry IV, Part II, IV.v.183-200)
Henry V, with a clear conscience and the Lord on his side, has the Divine Right of Kings. He has biblical, (and, therefore, God’s), permission to govern England as seen in the following passages: “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice” (Proverbs 8,16) and “. . . to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomever he will, and set it up over the basest of men.” (Daniel 4,17). Although Henry V has this divine right, and is accountable only to God, he believes that his license to rule is not based simply on his status as anointed king, but equally based on his ability to shoulder the responsibility that comes with this appointment, leading the people justly by making shrewd and calculated political decisions. Richard II is sanctioned, but he uses his power, not to promote England and make her and her people stronger, but to satisfy his personal desires. Richard’s motivation behind his political decisions is at times jealously, greed, and vanity, but never is it concern for the realm.
Conversely, Henry IV, at least outwardly, appears to make all his political decisions based on what is best for the nation, knowing that he alone can shape England’s destiny. Even the usurpation Henry believes to be in the best interests of the people. At first, his intentions are to see justice done and ‘weed out’ those flatterers who led Richard astray: “You have misled a prince, a royal king/A happy gentlemen in blood and lineaments/By you unhappy and disfigured clean.” (Richard II,I.i.8-10) When Richard presents him with the crown, he accepts it, no doubt partially out of greed, but primarily out of the belief that he can serve England better. However, as a usurper, Henry IV does not have the legal or moral right to rule because he has not obtained the crown through the law of primogeniture, and therefore, lacks the divine privilege of rule granted to only those who gain the throne legitimately. As a result, Henry IV has a reign tainted with both external and internal disorder. He has incurred the wrath of God, as foretold by Richard, York, and Carlisle, and it seems that no matter how many rebellions he could stop with his leadership capabilities, that many more would arise, as his divine punishment dictates that he will have no peace. Thus, when Henry V ascends the throne with the unification of Richard’s divine authority and his father’s political sophistication, we see the perfect monarch ruling over England, and we see also the amalgamation of two divergent political philosophies. In the tetralogy, the rigid Tudor doctrine which places complete emphasis on a ruler’s accountability only to God combines with the equally extreme Machiavellian theory that the ruler must be accountable only to the people, and only a great statesman has the right to govern. This fusion of the two main, opposing political philosophies of the sixteenth century makes the tetralogy a work of political theory, and the subtle manner in which the plays promote this theory, makes the tetralogy a work of genius.
Boyce, Charles. Shakespeare A to Z. New York: Roundtable Books, 1990.
Bullough, Geoffery. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.
Campbell, Lily B. Shakespeare’s Histories. London: Methuen, 1980.
Figgis, John Neville. The Divine Right of Kings. Cambridge: University Press, 1914.
Froissart, John. Chronicles. New York: Macmillan & Co., 1899.
Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. Quentin Skinner. Cambridge: University Press, 1988.
Shakespeare, William. King Richard II. Peter Ure, Ed. Cambridge: University Press, 1946.