Ace G. Pilkington
(originally published in Midsummer Magazine, Summer 1997)
Shakespeare's history is, of course, refashioned into drama--shortened, sharpened, and sometimes even shattered to suit the demands of his medium. In his Second Tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V), he has two plays that are close to historical truth and two that have been distorted by the large shape and larger wit of Jack Falstaff. Richard II being entirely and Henry V comparatively Falstaff-free are correspondingly closer to accuracy. Indeed, the main plot and the major motivations in Shakespeare's Henry V are as true in the world of facts as they are to their own universe of fictions.
Even Henry's wild youth and clear conversion on his accession to kingship, distorted as they have been by legend and enlarged by Shakespeare's own Falstaffian magnifying glass, have some basis in reality. Thus, Christopher Hibbert says, "The gay, even foppish, youth had become a grave and thoughtful man" (Agincourt [Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1992], 19). His father's death had prompted Henry to withdraw by himself for prayer "and now as he was anointed ... his devout and humble behavior impressed all who saw him" (Hibbert 19). As Christopher Allmand puts it, "Henry had gone through a moral and spiritual conversion" (Henry V [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992], 63).
The united England that Henry leaves behind him when he sails for France, so different from the angry factions that had haunted his father's reign, is also correct. In the words of Peter Saccio, "Although no group of real human beings could ever achieve such unanimity and uniformity as the magnates do in Shakespeare's version of Henry's court and Henry's camp, the dramatic effect constitutes, in its way, a reasonably accurate depiction of Henry's achievement in England" (Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama [New York: Oxford University Press, 1977], 70). The plot of Scrope, Gray and Cambridge, the only dynastic threat during Henry's reign, was undertaken on behalf of the earl of March, whom some considered the rightful heir to the throne. Henry's grip on his countrymen's hearts was so firm that the conspiracy was reported to Henry by the earl of March himself, who had earlier been released from house arrest and restored to a noble (if not regal) position on Henry's orders.
Regarding Harfleur, Shakespeare's history betters his instruction. His source told him that "The souldiors were ransomed, and the towne sacked" (Geoffrey Bullough, editor, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. 4 [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962], 388), but, in fact, Harfleur surrendered as a result of negotiation. Though citizens of Harfleur who were not prepared to swear allegiance to Henry were expelled from their city, "Harfleur was not sacked--as the French expected it to be--and the deported women were not only allowed to take what possessions they could carry but were even provided with small sums of money to help them on their sad way" (Harold F. Hutchison, Henry V: A Biography [New York: Dorset Press, 1967], 114).
The policy of leniency which Shakespeare's Henry expounds is also true to history. The English king regarded himself as King of France as well, and he saw the French as his subjects. Henry's soldiers were ordered to behave with decency and punished brutally when they did not. "The hanging of Shakespeare's fictional Bardolph for robbing a church is based upon a historical incident: a nameless soldier was in fact executed for such a theft" (Saccio 82).
The central event of Henry V, the battle of Agincourt with a startling English victory against seemingly insuperable French odds is also fact. "It has been calculated that the English casualties were only between 400 and 500, whereas the French were nearer 7,000" (Hutchison 125). Though Shakespeare's numbers are higher for the French and lower for the English, his nearly unbelievable report of the duke of York and the earl of Suffolk as the only noble casualties the English suffered is correct (Hutchison 125). However, as Saccio points out, "York perished, not by the sword, but by suffocation or a heart attack after falling off his horse. He was quite fat" (84). It was, of course, the deadly impact of the British longbows and not the direct intervention of the Almighty that was responsible for Henry's victory, but Shakespeare is again following history (and Henry) when he has his hero ascribe the result of the battle to God. Henry was (in life as in Shakespeare) looking for divine sanction for his royal position. Many still believed that Henry IV had usurped the throne. Indeed, when the negotiations between Charles VI and Henry V had broken down and it was clear that war was coming, the French replied, "With respect to those things to which you say you have a right, you have no lordship, not even to the Kingdom of England, which belongs to the true heirs of the late King Richard" (cited in Hibbert 40). There was no better answer to such an argument than a victory which seemed beyond the unaided capacity of Henry's mortal troops.
Even the fairy tale, romantic comedy elements in the play have their counterparts in reality. In spite of the politics swirling around them, Henry's wooing of Katherine and their love for each other are also based on fact. Desmond Seward makes it sound as though Henry wanted marriage with Katherine as part of the peace treaty, not for political but personal reasons, "The king ... was enchanted by the girl. He regarded her as the only possible bride for him, if contemporaries are to be believed." (Henry V As Warlord [London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987], 130-131). After their marriage, Henry wanted her with him even when he was involved in difficult siege operations and "had a house built for her and her damsels near his tents, which had been placed at some distance from the town so that the cannon might not disturb them" (Margaret Wade Labarge, Henry V: The Cautious Conqueror [New York: Stein and Day, 1975], 161).
If Shakespeare's Henry has more charm and less fanaticism than his real counterpart, if Shakespeare compresses a long and vicious campaign into a few glorious or humorous high points, he has still painted a remarkably true-to-life picture, complete with moral ambiguities and wartime cruelties. And the Chorus's speech with which Shakespeare ends the play, telling of Henry's death and his empire's destruction, yet balancing that with his continuing glory in the memories of his countrymen, is as objective a judgment as could be expected from the most disinterested of historians.
Essay on Henry V
The way Shakespeare wrote his plays were constructed on what was happening at the time. When he was doing the play 'Henry V' queen Elizabeth the 1st was on the throne (1558-1603). Like Henry she was a strong and powerful leader an excellent ruler of England but she spent a lot of time at war with the French and the Spanish.
Shakespeare then decided he needed a great monarch who was well respected that’s how he came to choose 'Henry V'.
Shakespeare's version of Henry V was so influenced on the audience which made them wish they could of fort for Henry in the great battle of Agincourt. Shakespeare describes Henry v as "the mirror of all kings"(act 2 line 6) shown in the chorus , throughout the play the Chorus acts like an narrator to help us almost paint a picture in are minds of what a type of leader Henry really is. The play clearly describes Henry been a very religious person like before battles he would stand up in front of his men and say a prayer to God and tell his men that God is with them and make his men feel like there playing a big part for there country .
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Henry is displayed by Shakespeare as a model King and military leader, and in comparison the English are portrayed as the better side as opposed to the less than adequate French side. Shakespeare was obviously somewhat biased when it came to his own country. Although Henry’s duties as a King seem flawless we question his character at certain points of the play when his friends become complications in his duties. He shows no favoritism towards Bardolph, who is caught stealing from a church. Henry had given orders for no looting and lets the execution proceed. Also, when Falstaff falls ill, the hostess certainly believes that Henry has acted in an unfeeling way to Falstaff: “the king has killed his heart” This could be considered cold hearted or it could be argued he is fair and firm.
Earlier on in the play Henry is betrayed by 3 of his most noble knights Cambridge , Scroop and Grey "we are no tyrant but a christian king….."-again referring to God illustrates the betrayal. (p.15l.241)
whenever he calls upon him. He also passes his glory on to God after winning the battle for when Montjoy tells him the day is his, Henry replies “Praised be God, and not our strength, for it”. This also shows how Henry feels God is always there for him, and he truly and sincerely depends on him. In these religious times, the fact that the King was a strong believer of God was good, for it influenced and helped his people’s faith. But Henry is only serious; he also has fun side, which consists of his humor and his wits.
These display his mental sharpness. At the beginning of the play Henry replies to insult with wit and intelligence. He replies to the Dauphins insolence by turning his sarcasm into a metaphorical speech.
The assault on the town of Harflur ends in glory after a speech spoken in words powerful enough for his men to gain morale and fight for Henry and their country. Henry is effective in his speeches, he uses sound and vivid images such as "set the teeth and stretch the nostrils wide..." which adds strong feeling to his speech. He gives merit to his men in his speech's "on , on you noblest English" in patriotic language. He compares his men to (greyhounds).
Henry delivers the rousing St Crispian’s Day speech before the battle of Agincourt and fires them all with enthusiasm (Act four, Scene three)
Henry gives an impression to the audience that he is loyal king to his people and country his talks before his battles are so meaningful his prayer b4 the battle of agincourt (act 4 scene1 , line 287)"o God of battles steal my soldiers hearts. Posses them not with fear . Take from them now" and as I mentioned earlier on immediately after the battle he would go straight to god and thank him . Shakespeare gives the audience the impression that Henry believed that his victories were in God hands.
As well been a strong powerful ruler he is a good influence to all his men (act4, scene 3 line 19) "whats he that wishes so?". He respects his men and calls them his brothers and will make them feel proud when the years to come of old age showing people that they were there on Saint Crispins day by showing there wounds and scars. When Henry said (act4, scene 3 line 60) "we few , we happy few, we band of brothers-for he today 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 abed". In away the audience could tell that he was under pressure but not at one moment did he show this to his men he makes his men feel confident and willing to fight not to be scared and worried. At the battle Henry very bravely was the only one wearing he kings armor he didn’t have any decoys. (people who would wear the same armor as the king but not actually the king to attract the target to the enemy)
I personally like Henry V because of his attitude towards things like with a good friend Bardolph he is a man for his word. I also admire how he is king and doesn't see himself more important than his men he considers himself just the same (soldier, warrior) when he uses the famous phrase "BAND OF BROTHERS".
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