Henry V

Henry V #

The Hal of Henry IV, ruled 1413 – 1422 aged 35.

Many scholars believe Henry V as the model of a good king. Several recent scholars such as Michael Bogdanov, have disobliging views, seeing in Shakespeare’s Prince Hal the archetype of the Machiavellian political animal. Others have a more balanced views.

As the oldest son of Henry IV, considered by many as a usurper of Richard II’s throne, Hal lost and regained his father’s favor. Well educated, he led a wild wasteful youth, and therefore was considered unworthy of the crown. To compensate he attempted to prove himself by taking his role seriously, believing he was guided by God’s hand.


He built trust by enforcing law and order protecting citizens from brigands. The taking of ‘prises’ (supplies commandeered for the king’s wars) caused disputes which often turned violent; and the purveyors who seized them were often accused of theft. Soldiers frequently turned to brigandage, forced to steal in order to feed themselves because of the difficulties and delays in organising prises. And campaigns ended with the discharge of large numbers of men who had got into the habit of living by plunder and ransom. Indeed, many were already felons, for it was Edward who first initiated the grand tradition of filling the ranks of English armies with criminals. In June 1294, pardons were offered to outlaws, fugitives and prisoners who were prepared to serve in wars.

Henry V came to the throne at the age of 26 and died nine years later, likely of dysentery. He was merely continuing the hundred years war with a fractured France over disputed territory and claims to duchies. France was engaged in civil wars between various factions with King Charles VI certifiable. Henry marries Catherine of Valois, on the promise of a large dowery, but it is assumed that the madness gene is passed on to their son, Henry VI.

In 1415 he arrives in France with 12,000 men. Following the prolonged five week siege of Harfleur he attempts to retreat to Calais to regroup. He has lost more than half of his men, mostly to dysentery while the rest have low morale. Historical evidence indicates that he executed many of its captured citizens, including women and children.

On the way to Calais, he is intercepted by a large French Army at Agincourt.

Despite being outnumbered five to one, several factors aided his spectacular victory. Heavy rain during the night favored the English. The large stakes planted in front of his band of long bow archers protected them from French cavalry. Strategic false manoeuvres caught the French vulnerable.

Despite the overwhelming victory, Henry spent the rest of his life shoring up his claims through military engagements attempting to be crowned King of France as well.

The English political ideal was framed by Shakespeare, in his Henry V, and he is often considered the furunner of Winston Churchill.

John Bell, not an historian, on the other hand says he learned a lot from Henry V as a leader:

• Be a team player, play low status and don’t pull rank.
• Lead by example.
• Listen to everyone in the team.
• Be an innovator; be bold, take risks, calculated risks.
• Be affable, good-natured.
• Be grateful.
• Be decisive, don’t prevaricate.
• Have a vision and a plan and know how to articulate them.
• Learn how to delegate; don’t be a one-man band.
• Be kind, be generous, be forgiving, be humble.
• Humility isn’t a passive or craven thing, it is just the understanding that every life has the same value.

Those last qualities have meant more to me the older I get, the more I see of life. And I note they are the qualities Shakespeare seems most to advocate in his final plays,

For a view of all monarchs see: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Kings-and-Queens-of-Britain-1856932

Quotes: #

BARDOLPH on why they should sign up for war:

Come, shall I make you two friends? We must to
France together: why the devil should we keep
knives to cut one another’s throats?

A public speaker today might take note of the oratorical skills of Henry V, he knows how to read the state of play. Unlike most politicians, he knows more than one tune. He can urge his troops over the top with stirring jingoism:

Harfleur #


‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead.’
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

Agincourt #


Or he can speak to them in a homely informal way before the fateful Battle of Agincourt, to allay their fears and reassure them that their actions will be the stuff of legend:

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.

Shakespeare makes several derisive references to war. In Julius Caesar he refers to “let slip the dogs of war”

Henry’s taking offence at the slight of a gift of tennis balls is hardly a just cause for risking hundreds of lives.

Describing bloody corpses seen “larding the plain” echoes Homer’s “sending many valiant souls of warriors down to Hades, leaving their bodies as spoil for dogs and carrion birds” and foreshadowing Wilfred Owen’s “Men dying as cattle” - the senseless slaughter as cannon fodder of modern war.

Shakespeare condemns the hypocrisy and wanton destruction of England’s needless invasion of a sovereign France, killing thousands who were merely defending their homeland with this epilogue:

“They lost France and made England bleed”.

Bloody-hunting slaughtermen’, #

  • sieges and ‘lechery’: what does Shakespeare tell us of war?

Published: April 25, 2022 The Conversation

Robert White Professor of English, The University of Western Australia

Only two days separate Anzac Day and Shakespeare’s (presumed) birthday and actual death-day. This proximity is coincidental. But amid a war in Ukraine, being reported in horrifyingly graphic detail from the point of view of the victims, and given Shakespeare is the world’s most-quoted, most-performed and most studied writer, it is reasonable to ask: what does he tell us of war?

In 26 of his 38 plays, Shakespeare includes a war in either foreground or background. In all these, anti-war invectives abound in epigrammatic phrases: “O, war thou son of hell” (Henry VI, part 2); “the hideous god of war”; “war and lechery confound all” (Troilus and Cressida); “dogged war bristle[s] his angry crest / And snarleth in the gentle eyes of peace” (King John).

Soldiers are regarded by civilians as cruelly taking “our goodly agèd men by th’beards” and indulging unbridled sexual violence in “Giving our holy virgins to the stain /Of contumelious, beastly, mad-brained war” (Timon of Athens).

For students and politicians used to reciting Henry V’s stirring “Once more unto the breach …” and “St Crispin’s Day” speeches before and after the battle of Agincourt, it is often assumed Shakespeare must support war and heroic values, epitomised in an “ideal king”.

However, the respective dramatic contexts undercut the King’s rhetoric. There are also strong arguments in the play that his invasion of France is illegal and unjustifiable, and he is guilty of war crimes, such as conscripting children, killing prisoners of war, and threatening a town with genocide. Soldiers are “bloody-hunting slaughtermen”. In “impious” war, bloody corpses are seen “larding the plain”.

Meanwhile, in other plays, some sympathetic and morally scrupulous characters condemn the tragic futility and violence of war. Hamlet meditates over a piece of worthless, depopulated scorched earth “wasteland”, over which “the imminent deaths twenty thousand men’ … [will] go to their graves like beds”, fighting “even for an eggshell” “which is not tomb enough and continent /To hide the slain”.

The saintly, pacifist King Henry VI quotes Christ’s words while brooding on the high moral ground of a hill overlooking battle in “civil butchery”, intra-family, mafia-like vendettas pitting families against each other and resulting in mutual slaughter of fathers and sons. In revenge plays such as Titus Andronicus and Hamlet, the cessation of one conflict is simply the prelude to the next in a succession ending only with the deaths of all antagonists, like today’s nightmare spectre of a sequence of retaliatory nuclear strikes.

An outspoken anti-war work #

Troilus and Cressida is widely acknowledged as among the most outspoken anti-war works of all time. It chronicles a squalid war waged over the forced abduction of a woman, who is regarded as little more than a symbolic trophy.

The prophetess Cassandra, speaking as much for future generations as her own, condemns the Trojan war, calling upon “Virgins and boys, mid-age and wrinkled old, /Soft infancy, that nothing canst but cry”, to weep in protest at the “mass of moan to come”.

The fate of the “heroic” Hector in the play is ignominiously humiliating: He’s dead; and at the murderer’s horse’s tail, / In beastly sort, dragg’d through the shameful field … Hector is dead, There is no more to say.

So much for heroism.

Another brutally dismissive epitaph – “Let’s make the best of it” – is uttered over the corpse of Coriolanus, the most single-minded, professional soldier in Shakespeare’s canon. “Chief enemy to the people”, he is a sociopath and prey to violent outbursts of anger. More machine than man, his role resembles the modern arms industry, owing allegiance to no national state and selling weapons indiscriminately to either side of conflicts.

Having turned against Rome and then against his new associates in arms, Coriolanus is finally hacked to death unceremoniously by Volscians baying “kill, kill, kill…”

He is remembered as one who,

“in this city [Rome] …
Hath widow’d and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury”.

Morally fallible military officers #

In these and other plays, Shakespeare places the blame for unjust and destructive wars squarely upon the heads of morally fallible military officers. For some reason, the playwright had a fascination for psychologically damaged, high-ranking soldiers, presenting them as case studies of “the military mind”.

Macbeth is introduced as a soldier credited with “unseaming .. from the nave to the chaps” and decapitating enemies. He rapidly descends into equally bloody regicide and embarks on a tyrannical reign, using hired killers to assassinate political rivals (Banquo) and slaughter innocent families of opponents (Lady Macduff and her children).

Othello’s default position as a general, even in marriage, is to trust his military ensign over his innocent wife, as a result turning his marriage into a misplaced battlefield of domestic violence and murder.

Henry V is predisposed to behavioural patterns of threatening, lying and blaming others for his own insecurities and faults. He is also a hopeless lover, curiously vowing to love Katherine “cruelly” and with the stated preference in love to “lay on like a butcher”. His hope that she will prove “a good soldier-breeder” comes as words spoken in the language of “plain soldier”. (Katherine’s silence suggests she does not express agreement!).

As a group these military officers are a sorry lot and (all but Henry) come to sorry ends, but the fundamental cause of their downfalls is the value system inherent in their training in a violent profession dedicated to war.

Respect for low-born soldiers #

However, Shakespeare respects and values low-born, often conscripted soldiers, who themselves have profound doubts about war. Their primary emotions are fear and concern for their families and future livelihoods.

Immediately following Henry’s “to the breach” speech, we have this exchange between low-ranking soldiers, first parodying the King’s rhetoric, then fearful, then homesick:


On, on, on, on, on! to the breach, to the breach!


Pray thee, corporal, stay: the knocks are too hot;
and, for mine own part, I have not a case of lives …


Would I were in an alehouse in London. I would give all my fame for a pot of ale and safety.

Later, Henry (in disguise, a kind of identity lie), is challenged by his own soldier, the dignified John Williams, who speaks from the heart for many a soldier over the ages. He questions leaders using the men to wage their own, personally motivated battles:

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 afeard there are few die well that die in a battle
for how can they charitably dispose of anything
when blood is their argument?

It is a quietly telling rebuke to the King who has led the invasion.

Maimed veterans #

Elizabethan drama, and its society, is littered with “Captain Stump” figures, army veterans who return physically maimed and traumatised. Williams recalls those audiences in the playhouse “pit” in Shakespeare’s Globe, potential conscripts to Elizabeth’s army, contemptuously dismissed by the recruiting officer as cattle fodder:

Tut, tut; good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder; they’ll fill a pit as well as better …

Shakespeare extends also to civilians his innate gift of empathy with victims, envisaging war from their point of view. Showing that the nature of war has barely changed over the centuries, except for the size and scale of lethal weaponry, are Shakespeare’s descriptions of siege warfare designed to shock and awe civilians into surrender, a strategy as much outlawed by medieval and early modern chivalric laws as the modern Geneva Conventions protecting civilians.

They are prescient of scenes in Kabul, Baghdad, Tripoli, Mariupol and too many other modern cities. There are several Shakespearean examples (see Edward III especially), but again Henry V is the main offender.

Calls to surrender #

In a lengthy ultimatum to the citizens of Harfleur in Normandy town, Henry offers them “mercy” if they surrender. He then itemises the consequences if they don’t, speaking not as a king but:

“as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts become me best”:
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie buried.

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,
In liberty of bloody hand shall range
With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass
Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants

Washing his hands of responsibility he repeatedly asks, “What is it then to me?” if his soldiers rape women and kill children, and the city is “Enlinked to waste and desolation”. As if morbidly fixated on licensing sexual violence, he repeats:

What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause, If your pure maidens fall into the hand Of hot and forcing violation?

Henry promises defiance will lead to “The filthy and contagious clouds /Of heady murder, spoil and villainy”. Yet again, the same threats come, still casting blame for violence on the citizens themselves:

Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters,
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls,
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds …

And all of these consequences, Henry, indifferent to imagined horrors or legal and moral constraints, outrageously warns, will be the fault of the helpless people of Harfleur!: “What say you? will you yield, and this avoid? /Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed?”.

There surely can be no more effective condemnation of war’s atrocities, from the mouth of one prepared to authorise them. The speech is not just an unadorned indictment of a composite war leader and soldier, but of war itself.

Since Shakespeare’s plays are still internationally performed with ever-changing contemporary applications, their treatment of war can on stage make the phrase “lest we forget” more than an empty slogan, implicitly prompting the question, “when will we ever learn?”.

By Robert White Professor of English, The University of Western Australia from The Conversation