Few will argue that the most influential and widely read Elizabethan poet and playwright is William Shakespeare. Though not much is known about the man, a few inferences can be made about his lifetime. Mary Shakespeare, Williams mother, bore him on April 23, 1564. William grew up in the town of Stratford- on- Avon and enjoyed a prominent upbringing with his three brothers and two sisters. However, when William reached thirteen, John Shakespeare, his father, began to fall into debt and lose his fortune. Because of these debts, the coat of arms he and his family was entitled to was withheld.
Eventually, William became involved in a traveling acting group which achieved the title of King Jamess Men. During his acting tenure, Shakespeare began creating plays. Eventually, the success of his thirty- seven plays allowed him to retire in prosperity and secure his familys coat of arms. Of those plays, Shakespeare wrote a tetralogy of histories consisting of the plays Richard II, Henry IV, Part I, Henry IV, Part II, and Henry V. The play, Henry V, involves a war between England and France in which a formerly irresponsible Henry V, now demure and matured, takes on a heroic role as the leader of the English army.
Despite the views of various critics, Henry V portrays the ideal hero through his actions and thoughts in Shakespeares play Henry V. Henry V, written by Shakespeare in the spring or summer of 1599, first performed on January 7, 1605 in the court of King James I. Acting as last in the series of the tetralogy, Henry V accumulates the characterization and former plots of the previous three plays. Most relevant to Henry V, was the fact that in the previous three plays King Henry, or his common nickname, Hal, conducted himself as happy- go- lucky and carefree.
When Hals capricious reputation became known to the French court, the French do not take Henry seriously when he expresses his intentions to invade France and to claim the French throne. When Shakespeare first composed the play, he relied on a variety of resources to help him with the plot. A few of these include Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1587), Henrici Quinti Angliae Regis Gesta, The First English Life of King Henry the Fifth (1513), and Famous Victories (before 1588).
Henry V takes place during the reign of Henry V. Clergy in the first scene describe Henrys transformation from a careless prince to a righteous king in the quote, “The breath no sooner left his fathers body, but that his wildness, mortified in him, seemd to die too” (I, i, 28-9). These clergymen, desiring the halt of a bill that would strip the church of much of its funds, inform Henry of their support and political clearance in his endeavors to claim the throne of the French kingdom as its rightful heir.
The French reject his claims and mock his threats by sending a casket filled with tennis balls, reminding him of his wild youth. In order to derail the small threat of invasion by bribing the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, and Sir Thomas Grey, loyal friends to the king, to assassinate Henry. This plan is quickly foiled by the kings brother, Bedford, and his uncle, Exeter. Henry hands down a punishment of death to the conspirators citing that when they were asked for mercy, they would give none, and now, when they ask for mercy, they shall receive none. I-II) In preparation for war, King Henry decides to split his army into two parts. One fourth of the army will accompany Henry in the invasion of France; the rest will stay behind and defend against the Scottish, who tend to invade when the English defenses are down. The soft- spoken French King Charles VI warns Prince Dauphin, responsible for sending the tennis balls to Henry, of the impending invasion. Dauphin refuses to send troops to Halfleur, the first battleground, and, therefore, Henrys forces easily obtain a surrender from the occupants of Halfleur.
Upon reaching Agincourt, Henry prepares for the next battle with the French, who have acknowledged the organization of the English army and have assembled near Agincourt. Act III, Scene 7 through Act IV, Scene 3 explain the conditions of both the camps. The French camp is full of cocky soldiers who fear no defeat in the next days battle. They boast of their horses and armor before they prepare to go into battle with a force five times the size of Englands. The English camp is portrayed with King Henry approaching the fellow soldiers and boosting morale among them.
He knows of the major deficit of soldiers that they have but believes that God will help them defeat the French. When the French messenger approaches Henry with the final ultimatum for surrender, Henry strongly rejects it and makes a heroic speech on how the English will win or die. The English fight the battle and emerge victorious; Henry credits the victory solely to God. He then accepts the French crown and courts the princess of France, Katherine. Since the play was written, Henrys heroism has been disputed.
Many have proclaimed that Shakespeares Henry was intended to be false heroism and that Henry plays the self- centered King. As stated in Swinburnes quote, “Gain, commodity, the principle of self- interest,isevidently the mainspring of Henrys enterprise and life”(205), Henrys entire purpose in attacking the French was to obtain the French throne for himself and his fortune. Swinburne continues to say that the clergymens support is needed to “varnish” the project to the public.
He suggests that Henry had every intention of invading France regardless of his right to the throne; the church served only to justify the act to the public. This critic also suggests that Shakespeare would be too much of a righteous person to be blinded by patriotism and would thus resist creating the “perfect” character. Shakespeare would recognize this as propaganda and would cease to record it. Another criticism toward Henrys character is the suggestion that he became influenced by the church.
Bradley suggests that the clergymen who verified Henrys right to throne did this knowing he would go to war and that would avert an impending decision on a bill forcing the church to give up over half of their lands. Had he been an ideal hero, he would have seen the politics involved in their sponsorship and halted the process to find the truth. Henrys unwillingness to show affection for other characters besides himself displays another example of Henry not portraying an ideal character.
The quote, “Henry is kindly and pleasant to every one as Prince, to every one deserving as King; and he is so not merely out of policy: but there is no sign in him of a strong affection for any one, such an affection as we recognise at a glance in Hamlet and Horatio, Brutus and Cassius [in Julius Caesar], and many more” (Bradley 210), displays this viewpoint and how Henry would be more ideal if he had a strong relationship with another character.
Despite all of the criticism of Henrys heroic character, the passages in the play strongly suggest that Shakespeare intended to make him an ideal hero. “[Shakespeare] paints him as endowed with every chivalrous and kingly virtue; open, sincere, affable, yet, as a sort of reminiscence of his youth, still disposed to innocent raillery, in the intervals between his perilous but glorious achievements” (Schlegel 192). Shakespeare has written this whole play around the fact that this character was ideally heroic.
It has been suggested that the entire tetralogy was intended to center around Henrys heroism and complement the reign of the Tudors in the English monarchy. Stoll suggests that the critics of Henrys character do not fully understand the time that the play was written. In Elizabethan times, this humble, Christian soldier would be seen as ideal rather than in contemporary times where humans can be picked apart to see all the faults that lie within them. Stoll also points out that Shakespeares praise of this character is so blatant that it seems he had no intentions of hiding a bad side to Henry.
Normally, Shakespeare is quiet in displaying the faults of many of his characters, only to see them negative sides of them in the end. Referring to a quote from Henrys rejection of the Frenchs ultimatum, Stoll states, “Thats the voice of a king, a man, an Englishman, and yet not quite that of any other that I know” (225). This observation shows that Henry is a voice to all levels of society and should be received positively by anybody. The basic characteristics of Henry also point out his ideal heroism. He has the manliness, the physical strength and ability, the personal courage, the generalship, the ruthlessness (as well as the mercifulness toward the poor and the weak), the piety (though not the bigotry and intolerance), and the exalted patriotic temper, which the chronicler Holinshed had attributed to the great popular hero of the land. ” (Stoll 224) All of these qualities serve to show Henrys ideal heroism in the play. Many of Henrys actions throughout the play help to disprove some of the theories to his negative impact on the play.
Before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry traveled from tent to tent as a commoner to each one of the combatants. He uses his social skills with the commoners that he learned from being the carefree prince to empathize with them and muster support against the opposition. Henry is also portrayed as being wholly religious. A common tradition when Caesar was victorious was to send a bruised helmet and battered sword before him to signal victory. “where that his lords desire him to have born his bruised and his bended sword before him through the city.
He forbids it, being free from vainness and self- glorious pride, giving full trophy, signal, and ostent quite from himself, to God” (V, prologue). This passage shows that Henry felt that he might offend God by doing that action and that God was the only reason the English won that battle. This belief validated Henrys true religiousness and discredits the theory that Henry needed the churchs backing for a “varnish. ” As for Henry showing no affection toward others, it can easily be disproved.
When Henry hears of the Duke of Yorks noble death with Suffolk, another nobleman, Henry responded, “For, hearing this, I must perforce compound with my full eyes, or they will issue too” (IV, vi, 34-5). In this statement, Henry appears so moved by the story about his friend, the Duke of York, and another loyal noble, that he is about to cry about it right there on the battleground. All of these examples solidify the arguments that Henry portrays the ideal hero in this play. Examples of this type of heroism and leadership can be seen in modern day examples.
One prime example would be a sports figure such as Michael Jordan leading on his team of the Chicago Bulls to victories. In the modern day, the battlefields of the past have shifted to the playing fields of todays sports. Jordan has personally taken control of many of his games and served as a leader to his team to generate motivation for winning. Instead of becoming overly boastful as many of todays superstars like to do, Jordan has maintained a humble life with his family. Another contemporary example that pertains to a time period two hundred years ago is the labeling of George Washington as the portrait as a hero and leader.
Upon fighting the Revolutionary War, Washington had no intention of entering politics and only wanted to retire. It took the coercing of many fellow Americans to get Washington to participate as president. The supreme humility and Christianity displayed by Washington helped define principals found in the basic framework of the United States government. After reviewing the suggestions of doubt concerning Henry Vs validity as a hero, the facts supporting Henrys heroism become more solid. Each one of the suggestions could easily be discredited and disproved, further verifying the fact that Henry in Henry V portrayed an ideal hero.