The central theme of Henry V is kingship which unveils true relations between the main characters and poetical situation in the country. Shakespeare vividly portrays a monarchy and its role in the life of ordinary citizens and royal persons. Henry cannot rely on the sacred name of the king, since the divine right has been canceled by his father’s act of usurping the throne.
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Shakespeare highlights that Henry V has a moral right to the throne because of his royal ancestry and heroic nature.
From the very beginning, Henry is depicted as a kingly paragon; Canterbury expresses wonder at this new king’s attributes in the opening scene. Shakespeare portrays that Henry V, King of England, must prove his fitness to rule through appropriate choices and actions. As well as being a great orator, Henry excels in four areas: he can “reason in divinity,” he is an expert in “commonwealth affairs,” his “discourse of war” is highly impressive, and he can expound on “any cause of policy” (i.e., argue about politics). It is possible to assume that Shakespeare is intentionally reluctant to tarnish Henry’s heroic achievements by reminding the audience, early in the play, that Henry’s claim to the throne was not accepted by every faction and that finally, his son lost the crown to the York family. Through the character of Henry Shakespeare focused on tactical skills important for a king.
In order to defend Henry, Shakespeare portrays that the stability and order of the kingdom partly depend on Henry’s proving his qualities as a strong leader (so that the theme of order and disorder is linked to that of kingship. Moreover, war may temporarily unite England, but it creates havoc and disorder in France; the images of the wasted garden do more to convince the audience of the importance of a unified kingdom than does Canterbury’s complacent speech. In particular, Burgundy’s dignified exposition of what happens to civilization in wartime, when “hateful docks” and “rough thistles” stamp out the “cowslip, burnet, and green clover” (V. ii. 49-52), drives home in realistic detail the disorderly “savagery” in a society where peace is “mangled.” In Canterbury’s speech, Shakespeare depicts order and underlines that a divided rather than a strongly unified kingdom is better for England. The prelate is urging Henry to partition England in four and to trust that the commonwealth will continue to run smoothly in his absence so that he can deploy one-quarter of the male population in his war against France.
In its context, it is certainly a piece of special pleading by the clergymen which is a reminder to Henry that he can achieve the throne of France if his subjects who are left at home cooperate obediently. Social harmony is thus promoted a little too stridently. Yet the monarch, described as “busied in his majesty,” is strangely passive, content merely to survey the labors of his underlings–the pillaging soldiers and the toiling porters. The progression of the imagery suggests that order at home is easily achieved. Canterbury defenses the concept of unity in diversity–“That many things, having full reference / To one consent, may work contrariously”–with a series of images from nature (fresh streams meeting in one salt ocean) and human culture (arrows flying to one mark, lines converging in the dial’s center). This takes him smoothly to the main point at issue, the military campaign:
So may a thousand actions, once afoot,
End in one purpose, and be all well borne
Without defeat…. (Shakespeare II. I 211-13).
Beneath this idea of harmonious order in the state lurk rebellious segments, barely kept in check; the Scots are threatening to pour into England “like the tide into a breach” and suck the “princely eggs” of “eagle”
The Hostess in Henry V is depicted positively; she offers the nurturing qualities of affection and sympathy in a play where the hero is shown submerging those characteristics in the interests of strong masculine leadership. in the scene when Henry claims to the throne of France through the woman, the Hostess calls out to the three Eastcheap comrades, when Falstaff is dying, “As ever you come of women, come in quickly to Sir John” (Shakespeare II. i. 120-21). She readily diagnoses Falstaff’s terminal condition as the result of a devastating emotional loss (to her he is a “poor heart” because “the king has killed his heart”), and she shows compassion by defending his death as a “finer end” than that of any “christom child” (Shakespeare II. iii. 11-12).
Queen Isabella, at the top of the social scale, can also be seen as an important counterbalance to the acquisitive concerns of the men, both English and French, at the end of the play. It is she who looks into Henry’s eyes and is relieved that they have lost their “venom” against the French. It is she who accompanies the negotiators, offering a woman’s voice should the bargaining reach a sticking point Finally, after the match between Henry and Katherine is sealed, it is Isabella who envisages political stability in terms of a strong personal relationship when she prays that “God, the best maker of all marriages, / Combine your hearts in one, your realms in one!”( Shakespeare II, i371-72). To leave her out of the last scene, as Branagh’s movie does (by giving her speeches to the men), is to silence the woman’s voice for peace and amelioration at the end of this war-driven play.
It is possible to say that Shakespeare approves Henry’s claim to the throne of France, thus he criticizes the war, as the main tool to achieve this aim. Shakespeare portrays that war is not strictly necessary to become a king of France. Only by sleight of hand can he turn the French into the initiators; the campaign is more a political opportunity for him to prove his prowess as a leader and a conqueror. Nevertheless, Henry is not depicted as an aggressive warmonger. It is Canterbury who, for pragmatic reasons, urges Henry to “unwind your bloody flag” while Exeter reminds him to emulate his ancestors, the “lions” of his “blood.” Acknowledging both the “waste” and the responsibility incurred, Henry’s vision of war is sober:
For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops
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Are everyone a woe, a sore complaint
‘Gainst him whose wrongs gives edge unto the swords
That makes such waste in brief mortality. (Shakespeare I. ii. 24-28).
Through the character of Canterbury, Shakespeare explains that the King is ready to call in the Dauphin’s ambassadors, he closes the debate with “Now are we well resolved” (I. ii. 222). Not only has the issue been clarified, enabling him to proceed, but he is fully resolved to go ahead with his military campaign whatever Henry’s other possible motives (desire for a heroic enterprise to unify England or the need to busy “giddy minds with foreign wars” as his father advised), it is clear that winning France is also a personal quest for him–a means of proving his prowess asking. “No king of England, if not King of France!”, is registered in his attitude to the affair. Either he will succeed magnificently and rule France “in large and ample empery,” or he will die in obscurity with no memorial tomb, his deeds uncelebrated (Shakespeare II, ii, 234-235).
In order to support his main idea, that Henry has a right to the throne of France, Shakespeare establishes this character as an accomplished orator, a pious man of God, a statesman-politician, and a military leader. All of these roles are manifested as the play progresses. When Henry first appears on stage, in I. ii, he is very much on trial. Not only is this the first time that the theater audience sees him, but he is still a relatively new king who needs to make a strong initial impression on the inner circle of noblemen. As a decisive ruler, he must take command of the situation and display his control publicly. Henry’s first words, referring to the legitimacy of his title in France, are “We would be resolved,”
In sum, Shakespeare claims that England has a right to the throne of France but depicts Henry’s double nature. From the very beginning, he misleads readers and portrays negative traits of Henry’s character and a king. Then, he defends Henry and underlines his rights for the throne and heroic nature. Throughout the play, Shakespeare states that nothing be stolen from France by England. There is the possibility that Princess Katherine might sabotage Henry’s plans for unifying the two kingdoms by failing to exercise her duty and conform to his grand design. In spite of some negative characteristics and traits of Henry, Shakespeare underlines the importance of a strong monarchy.
Shakespeare, W. Henry V. (eds). Braunmuller, A.R., Orgel, S. Penguin Classics; New edition, 1999.