The Life of Henry the Fifth
— a play of triumph

The message contained in
The Taming of the Shrew is confirmed by Shakespeare's play about King Henry the Fifth. To start with we shall have a few words to say about this special type of story and shall contrast Henry the Fifth with plays we have already discussed as a continuation of our typology of plays in chapter 9 (first section).

The hero of
The Taming of the Shrew is reminiscent of the crafty women of the comedies. Petruccio, Rosalind and Viola all wish for something they cannot immediately have and which can only be achieved through planning and hard work. The similarity between wise observers and scoundrels is that both kinds of characters may be devious and express opinions they do not hold. The difference is that while the scoundrel pays lip-service to fine ideals which he lacks, the wise hides those he has, as Viola keeps secret a love which had better not be displayed until the loved one has shown himself more dependable in practice. Another important difference is that between women and men, since the male is the stronger and can therefore act quite openly: Petruccio uses force whereas Viola has recourse to cunning. With most men their power is limited to the strength of their own bodies and the command they can exercise over their families and immediate surroundings. But the kings of past times possessed, personally, the power of political authority in addition. When such a leader is victorious by his efforts and qualities and through good fortune, we face a triumph.

The great classical tragedies of the theatre therefore have three different typical counterparts, each based on one of tragedy's main properties:

The first characteristic is greatness, since stature and perspective are necessary for a tragedy. The greatness can be of an external kind, as with a king; but it can also take the form of goodness or understanding. The opposite possibility is found in the smallness of
comedy, neither our good nor our bad sides rising above the ordinary — with Ibsen's Peer Gynt as a borderline case with a kind of inverted stature caused by his incredibly commonplace self-centredness, even if this, too, is insufficient to create a full-fledged tragedy.

The second characteristic is the presence of valuable qualities, which differentiates heroes from villains within the frame of greatness. King Richard the Third is ‘great’ both as a king and as a consistent character, but so utterly dangerous that the result fails to be felt as tragic. His story is, as mentioned already, a

The third major aspect of the tragedy is the downfall of the hero. The counterpart is the dramas that let the protagonist win instead of lose. Usually this results in comedies about ordinary people, with a happy ending. But world literature offers a few stories which combine the qualities of greatness, goodness and success into those exceptional plays that we can call
plays of triumph, clearly different from comedies, villain-plays and tragedies.

Such a triumph-play is
Henry the Fifth, written several years after The Taming of the Shrew. There are many exciting similarities between the comedy and the historical play and a fine inner development. The basic parallel lies in a wise and strong hero. The character of King Henry makes this play into the most forceful reply in all Shakespeare's production to every interpretation of him as an absurd dramatist.

The ‘absurd’ in Shakespeare is found
in individuals who fail. Richard the Third, Macbeth, Timon, King Lear, and Lear's companion Gloucester all come to see the world as meaningless. Of these the Earl of Gloucester expresses perhaps the strongest desperation about what he feels to be an incomprehensible universe: “As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods; They kill us for their sport.”

The antithesis to absurdity is meaning. Peter Alexander apparently finds no meaning in
Henry the Fifth, stating (p xviii) in his introduction to his edition of Shakespeare (1951; London, Collins): “With Falstaff gone, there is little left for Henry V but pageantry; yet this opportunity for costume effects and patriotic verse may have been not unwelcome to Shakespeare as a suitable opening for the new Globe Theatre in 1599.” But then, apparently without misgivings Alexander also lists Troilus and Cressida as a comedy.

All types of Shakespearean plays in reality contain equally important contributions to the discovery of meaning. The tragedies, though, are usually inexplicit, illuminating meaning only through its opposite. The clearest direct expression of meaning emerges in plays with a happy end; in other words it is found in the comedies, along with the very few stories of leaders with better qualities than average. Shakespeare has found such an unusual human being in the midst of the troubles and chaos of the civil wars. Henry the Fifth of the Hundred Years' War is the protagonist of the historical play most carefully
avoided in Jan Kott's analysis.

What goes before

The background is related in
King Richard the Second and Henry the Fourth. Richard (cf chapter 8 "Limitation and background") spoils England's peace through a weak and partial rule. He is very much concerned that everyone should at all times respect and obey the office of king but rather less concerned about what his own actions as king ought to be. His exiled cousin Henry Bolingbroke defies his banishment, comes back, and takes over. Henry's initial cause is just — to regain his lands and take the title inherited on his father's death. But he goes beyond the bounds of his legitimate aims, and the results are shown in the two plays about Henry the Fourth.

King Henry is opposed by powerful noblemen with motives ranging from valid criticism to personal ambition. They rise against him, but are hampered by disagreements and lack of experienced, concerted action. The Earl of Northumberland has helped Henry against Richard but is quickly just as dissatisfied with the successor. Northumberland's courageous son, young Hotspur, becomes one of the leaders of the revolt, which ends temporarily in the defeat of the rebellion at Shrewsbury, Hotspur being killed. The insurgents fall out among themselves, there is further dispute, treachery and unrest.

In this way England's best resources are wasted in fruitless civil wars which cripple the campaign in France, an undertaking that started in the time of Edward the Third and his son Edward the Black Prince. Henry the Fourth has long since faced the responsibility which the manner of his own accession to the throne bears for the subsequent problems. On his death-bed he advises his eldest son and successor, the coming Henry the Fifth, to try to avert further strife and internal power struggle by directing military efforts towards foreign lands instead.

First, however, some words on the prince's personal development. We hear briefly of young Henry in
King Richard the Second, and he gains in importance through the two plays about Henry the Fourth. Everything that happens is contrary to what people expect.

As a youngster Henry — nicknamed Hal — is reputed to be a “madcap”, who keeps company with the knight Sir John Falstaff and his riff-raff group of jolly rascals, labelled “irregular humorists”. A mixture of exuberant and scoundrel, Falstaff lives in a world of food, drink and fornication. He is cunning and clever but only to his own advantage. He manages to twist every situation into an excuse for himself. His not inconsiderable verbal powers and every bit of his learning are used not to clarify or analyse but to play with words in a sophistic manner so that they become meaningless.

Falstaff is without personal courage but is nevertheless an unsurpassed braggart. He is indifferent to honour if it in any way threatens his life. Although taking part in the battle at Shrewsbury, he cannot lay claim to great valour: He simply falls down and pretends to be dead when pressed. Prince Hal fells the splendid Hotspur, Falstaff throws the corpse on his own back and claims to have struck down the enemy himself!

A thoroughbred coward, Falstaff is still hilarious, since along with his cowardice he is endowed with a Peer Gynt-like lust for life and pleasure. Such a companion suits the absurd Shakespeare of Jan Kott perfectly (cf chapter 8 "What kind of mechamism?" and "Limitation and background", chapter 10 "Text as a sign of something else"), with his message that life is without moral meaning, confirming and continuing the bitter words of the psychopathic Macbeth (chapter 11 "The personality disintegrates"). But the development in the group of plays we are at present considering makes any identification of the dramatist with his drunkard very unlikely. There is, on the contrary, an increasingly serious confrontation with Falstaff.

Sir John Falstaff lies, steals and cheats. The individuals in his band let each other down as often as they do outsiders. With his mates Falstaff attacks and robs some travellers on their way to Canterbury. As an officer he fails the prince in a tight situation. When given money to enlist soldiers for the king against the rebels, the knight engages a few sorry specimens; most of the money is squandered on liquor and brawling parties.

The character receives his coup de grace in
The Merry Wives of Windsor. Here the pot-bellied knight exhibits the most conceited ideas about his erotic attractions; and though he is chastised in an extremely humiliating way, he learns nothing.

On young Prince Henry becoming king, the undiscerning Falstaff expects to be among the most powerful in the kingdom. He entertains great hopes of being revenged on such a person as the Lord Chief Justice, which, given the exalted position he takes it for granted he is now to hold, will be an easy matter. When he turns up for the coronation procession, however, disrespectful and cocky, the young king scornfully turns his back on him. Henry's former crony is banished instead of being promoted and is thrown into prison for a murder he has had some part in together with his friends and their mistresses.

So how funny is Falstaff? — In fact, the humour seems rather caustic; Shakespeare has clearly employed Falstaff as an instrument to show us some of the destructive forces he is exploring through the history of the civil wars, Falstaff's special function being to express the dissolution brought about on social levels below the high aristocracy.

The outcome of Prince Hal's association with this despicable character is that the prince has his understanding of the world sharpened. In addition to sowing his wild oats, he studies his companions and comes to realise how people think and reason, to understand snobbery, flattery, and the widely varied motivations of people in different walks of life.

From early on there are scenes that show him never to have been without critical distance to the dishonourable excesses of Falstaff's rowdy behaviour. Thus he pays back the money Falstaff stole from the Canterbury travellers. On a couple of occasions he disguises himself in order to observe the knight, one being the incident of the robbery on the highway, another a tumultuous evening of drink and debauchery in the company of whores and rogues at the Boar's Head Tavern.

Several times there are quick switches between scenes of criminal and riotous activities and serious, quiet deliberations at the palace centring on the political situation, King Henry the Fourth's insights into his own failings, and his attempts at restoring order, peace and prosperity to his kingdom. One such abrupt change has the crown prince called from a light-hearted dinner party to his father's death-bed, where we witness the great dialogue of the crown prince with his father, the dying king, about England's future.

The prince has already shown himself possessed of qualities worthy of a coming ruler. He is courageous at Shrewsbury and magnanimous afterwards when letting the brave Earl of Douglas go free. When the battle of Shrewsbury draws near, Henry the Fourth talks seriously to his eldest son, pointing out the danger of their situation and acknowledging that the insurgents indeed have a case, not least because young Henry at present is behaving as irresponsibly as Richard the Second did when Henry rose against him. The crown prince really takes this to heart. While Falstaff weakens the king's war effort by his activities, the king's sons fight the leaders of the revolt with plan and energy. During his father's illness Henry is genuinely sorrowful regardless of the fact that his father's death will bring him to power.

The king dies, his son takes over. Once the leadership is his, the prince is transformed from the curious Hal to the authoritative Henry. The wild escapades of his youth may perhaps have been due mainly to a craving for excitement, in the way many intelligent youngsters venture into shady social milieus out of boredom? Anyway, in the face of the formidable challenge, to intellect and energy, of governing England, he certainly rises to the occasion. Noblemen in the service of the state during his father's reign, as well as young Henry's brothers, are uncertain what to expect from a king with his record. Henry the Fifth, however, is straightaway clear about his intentions: They are not to fear him — “This is the English not the Turkish court”. Previous antagonisms are forgotten; he will govern without rancour, in such a way that “No prince nor peer shall have just cause to say, 'God shorten Harry's happy life one day.'”

An extraordinary quality setting Henry apart from many rulers is his willingness to listen to honest arguments from others. At the start of his reign he criticises the Lord Chief Justice for having been instrumental in sending him to prison when he was crown prince. The Lord Chief Justice counters by asking him to consider the circumstances that had led to such a step, what the prince's behaviour had been and the threat it had posed to his father in his execution of the office which it is now young Henry's own responsibility to discharge. Henry not only listens to this plain speech, he accepts it as correct. Through such episodes his personality grows in stature and realism, and he gains, besides, responsible helpers who are not afraid to speak their minds to him.

Royal splendour

Henry the Fifth is twenty-five years of age when he assumes power and he reigns for nine short years. No part of his success comes free; every achievement is accomplished only through engaging every one of his capabilities to its full extent. The play about the adult prince relates the story of a ruler who is a lustrous ideal, exemplary both as a king and as a human being.

Absolutely central is Henry's complete understanding of what the role of king demands of an individual who is, behind the trappings of his office, just a man like other men. He seeks full information, assesses it carefully, then makes his decision and acts. In everything he is motivated by consideration for the totality. He creates real solidarity with his noblemen, his officers and the common people, community of interests and mutual dependence built on generous trust and service rendered. His most striking characteristics are intelligence and forethought, care, courage and the ability to take vigorous but considered action.

The king is a tiger in war and against everyone who fails in honourable behaviour. During the siege of Harfleur he warns the town that it will be wiped out of existence if resistance continues, as no one will be able to stay his impatient troops. At the battle of Agincourt the English let their French captives live; but when it turns out that they killed the boys guarding the camp, the king is relentless: Their throats are cut and no further mercy is to be shown.

He is equally strict with his own side. The leaders of a treasonable plot before the campaign against France are executed on the spot, though they all profess regret. One of Henry's old drinking companions robs a church and is hanged in spite of Pistol asking for mercy on his behalf. On the other hand, the king sets free a harmless citizen who has in a state of drunkenness only insulted him personally: A king must be able to tell important from unimportant. On Harfleur surrendering, the citizens are to be spared all further humiliations of defeat and any soldier who offends will be hanged. Henry makes up for his father's transgressions against Richard the Second by endowing new chapels and poor-houses.

Such is the conduct of the king in the varied circumstances of his life. As a leader he matches his attitude toward people in every instance to their behaviour. Before leaving for the mainland he settles matters at home. While Parliament wants to confiscate most of the worldly goods of the church, the king lets the bishops make a large voluntary contribution instead. He is never frightened by threats. Murder plots he ignores until really documented. With proof on the table he exposes the traitors' hypocrisy in having advocated harsh punishment for the drunkard who abused him. Then the guilty are led out to die.

Hotspur did not bother to read the letters bearing important information brought to him by a messenger before a decisive battle. Saturninus and Tamora actually kill an unwelcome messenger. Cleopatra and Richard the Third do not hesitate to thrash the bringers of unfavourable news, and Cleopatra finds that a messenger shows “good judgement” when he says what she wants to hear. Messengers who bring unwelcome information to King Henry, on the other hand, are praised for the responsible way in which they discharge their difficult and unpleasant mission.

Before the battle of Agincourt the king, concealing his identity, sounds out the morale among his soldiers. One of the men holds that the leader will always receive more consideration than the ordinary soldier. Henry contradicts him, receives a sharp answer, dislikes the remark and answers back. The two challenge each other and agree to fight it out if they meet again. The king lets one of his officers carry his own agreed means of identification, and accepts the result when the courageous soldier strikes the officer, since the soldier had sworn that he would strike, and since part of their disagreement concerned whether the king would stand by his word.

The emphasis on personal modesty is extended to everybody. After the historic battle at Agincourt the victorious King Henry forbids all boasting. For the soldiers to be proud is natural, but the honour belongs to God, even after a battle in which the aristocratic army of France counted ten thousand fallen while England's archers, largely commoners, lost only about two dozen.

The warrior proposes marriage

In the last act King Henry asks for the hand of the French king's daughter, in order to create peace through a strengthened political alliance. Shakespeare's views on the relationship between the two major sides to our personality can be discerned by comparing Henry's behaviour in this process with the attitudes he has shown regarding state and power.

The king is quick and to the point, he asks the princess if she likes him and declares his own feelings: “I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say, 'I love you'”. He scorns putting his suit in the form of exaggerated promises, and dislikes swearing oaths too easily, offering Princess Catherine fidelity in the following way: “And while thou livest, dear Kate, take a fellow of plain and uncoined constancy, for he perforce must do thee right, because he hath not the gift to woo in other places”.

Henry is no hypocrite swearing immortal feelings. He knows well that life changes. Human beings grow older and discover new sides to existence. A king has a thousand tasks which demand his time; so if the princess says no, he will in no way use force. He distances himself from windbags — “these fellows of infinite tongue, that can rhyme themselves into ladies' favours, they do always reason themselves out again.”

He also speaks easily and openly about the circumstances of his situation. Is the princess afraid of a marriage which can be taken as treason against her own native country? If so, there is little to fear, inasmuch as the suitor considers France to be his new homeland. Furthermore, he wishes to belong to her as well. When he belongs to her and France to him, there is nothing outside which she can betray through their union.

The end gives us the author's views on the partners in a marriage, as an expansion of the conclusion of
The Taming of the Shrew. True, the king talks of the princess as ‘his’ and therefore as a kind of property. But he equally describes himself as hers. There is no difference between the two when they are united. The French princess is to have her special position in their joint kingdom, “as my sovereign Queen”. If she finds much to criticise in him to start with, she should remember that he is young and will improve with time. The king knows full well what he is talking about; he started out in the company of Falstaff but has now won half France — the fertile garden of Europe — and is in complete command of himself.

The self-confidence of the victor is present all along. When the pact is agreed to, Henry proceeds to kiss his fiancée — like the great Napoleon, riding to meet Marie Louise in good time before the wedding in Notre Dame. Princess Catherine reminds Henry that kissing before marriage is not the custom in French circles, but the king sets her objection aside as confidently as he swept aside the too heavily armoured French knights at Agincourt: “...  nice customs curtsy to great kings. .... we are the makers of manners, Kate”.

This is King Henry in love. He is basically the same towards women as he is as a soldier and a statesman. The similarity to Petruccio is striking — it even covers such a detail as the nickname they both have for their chosen spouse, when they call their reluctant partners ‘Kate’.

From fame to growth

Henry anticipates many of the best sides of the Hamlet who follows later. Is there, then, no blemish on Shakespeare's “star of England”?

We make no quarrel with Shakespeare because his Henry the Fifth may not be strictly the historical Henry. A more relevant objection is perhaps his attitude to battle and fame. Remembering the misery of Troilus and Cressida (chapter 5 "The origin of aggressiveness"), are we now to understand that war is commendable after all?

It is a fact that Henry finds glory and conquest important. When some officers and soldiers of his army are frightened by the numerical superiority of the enemy at Agincourt, the king is more worried that people will take part who are not suited to the game of war. He himself is a man of superabundant resources and brave as a lion, willing to stake everything. The fewer the participants, the greater honour if they are victorious after all! He shows genuine care and concern for his soldiers, and is consequently so certain of them that he offers anyone who has no stomach for the fight leave to depart and travelling money!

The justification lies in the background: the abundance of manpower of the times. Each of the groups that appear in the text shows us part of the reason why war is considered practically a necessary relief. The rebellious aristocracy get impatient when the international situation is too quiet and end up in treason or revolt, the major issue in the plays about Henry the Fourth. The common English soldier goes the same way, as illustrated by Falstaff and his friends. We note that Falstaff has had his death placed close to that of the traitors before the expedition to the mainland. His companions take part in a violent quarrel before departure and are characterised as “dogs”, “cullions” and “swashers”. Pistol's instructions to his wife include “Trust none”. Indeed lack of community feeling seems a trade-mark for them all. They go to France to get rich, but soon long for home and the alehouse. If they are not much good in war, they gladly make use of the opportunity it affords for theft and general misbehaviour. Pistol's Nell is reported to have died from venereal disease. Two of the cronies are hanged as common criminals. Pistol does somewhat better for a while, but after Harfleur he again quarrels with the king's compatriot, brave Fluellen. He later keeps up his resentment of Fluellen, ridiculing the Welsh soldier's badge, a leek carried by all Welshmen in their cap in memory of the victory at Poitiers.

The third group is people from Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These border-lands contain a surplus of vigorous folk who dispensed their energy in destructive rebellion during the reign of Henry's father. Now they are absorbed through the son's courageous effort on the other side of the Channel.

In other words, the king has a number of good reasons for launching his campaigns abroad. Still, the text seems to glorify England at the expense of France. We sense a certain onesidedness close to chauvinism in the illustrious Henry, and together with the emphasis on honour and glory this certainly seems to be a weakness from our present-day point of view.

It must be said, however, that there are reservations and reasoned assessments everywhere. English society is valued more highly than French, but
arguments are given. The French aristocratic leaders are unrealistic, their self-esteem correspondingly inflated. The French are far too fond of their good life to be good warriors, while the English come from much less luxurious conditions. The Welsh and Scotch are even stronger than the English proper, as evidenced by the clash between Pistol and Fluellen. The king calls himself a Welshman and expresses pride in his connection with Fluellen. There is therefore never any question of English self-glorification at the expense of everybody else.

Furthermore, King Henry will let his original homeland recede into the background in favour of France. For his southern neighbours he develops a feeling of solidarity and unity spreading in ever widening circles. Next the king aims at full union between the kingdoms, a European community long before its time. As a last step the net is cast even further, towards a wider pact against enemies at a very great distance, the Turkish threat. We would then have a union without restriction to special tribes or peoples. This goal is an expression of the very strong forces that propel the English civil wars. It finds a parallel in Germany under Bismarck, when the German nation was united through three short wars with relatively little bloodshed. Tackling such a task deserves to be linked to the idea of undying fame.

So ends the story of King Henry the Fifth. We are allowed to glimpse the basic forces that unfold when older, limited societies develop into larger ones. Within this framework Henry represents power, thoughtful care, and restraint. Although there is no complete explanation of the background that lets Henry develop into the personality that he is, we receive an increasingly clear picture of principles that would let human beings live together peacefully in an extended community.