Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: James D. Mardock
Peer Reviewed

Henry V: General Introduction


55"Reformation in a flood": Henry V and Protestant historiography

In the play's opening scene, the Archbishop of Canterbury, describing the king's seemingly miraculous conversion from a reprobate prince to a king "full of grace and faire regard" (TLN 61–62), exclaims that "Never came reformation in a flood, / With such a heady currence" (TLN 73–74). The word reformation is anachronistic in the mouth of a fifteenth-century English cleric (see TLN 73 n.), but for Shakespeare's audience, however, the word would have been loaded with significance for the local practices of Christianity. Henry V is very much a play concerned with Reformation, not only that of its title character, but in the sense specific to the religious contexts of English history.

56As many recent critics have argued, Henry V seems more sympathetic to reformed views than the Henry IV plays had been. A long tradition starting with John Dover Wilson (1943, 15-35; see also Poole 65-69, Hunt 201) has seen the portrait of Falstaff as a satire on the hypocrisy of a certain type of Protestant, but some have traced in the second tetralogy, or in Henry V itself, a move toward the endorsement of reformed theology. Timothy Rosendale, for example, sees Henry V as the embodiment of a Cranmerian "sacramental" view of kingship. Camille Wells Slights traces the specifically Protestant view of conscience and independence from the Church in King Henry's character from the beginning to the end of the play (see TLN 1967 n.). Phoebe Jensen argues that the Hal of 1 Henry IV explicitly rejects Catholicism, and that as king he redefines Crispin's Day as a Protestant holiday (Jensen 191-92); and Michael Davies sees in Prince Hal's rejection of Falstaff a conversion to a distinctly Calvinist heroism. As I will argue, while the play, despite its historically medieval and Catholic setting, is certainly engaged with sixteenth-century Reformation debates, it presents an irreconcilable tension between the views of traditional and reformed Christianity, and articulates an anxiety that is neither dispelled nor replaced by a confident Protestantism.

57Like so much of Henry V, Canterbury's metaphor for Henry's apparent moral and political reformation points in two directions at once, to two apparently contradictory religious connotations of the flood of reform: the deluge in Genesis and the flood that proceeds from the mouth of the many-headed dragon of Revelation (see TLN 73 n.). Both resonances put the archbishop's anachronism into conversation with sixteenth-century religious controversy, and although Canterbury speaks of the reformation of an individual and not that of the English church, the fact of a medieval prelate applying the term to a heroic English King Henry would inevitably call recent religious history to mind. Moreover, Shakespeare's portrait of this particular archbishop and this particular king plays upon multiple, conflicting strains of popular English historiography, and it positions his play firmly in the contexts of the English Reformation. It does so, however, in ways that resist a confessional reading; this is a play about reformation, both personal and historical, but it is neither Protestant nor Catholic, unless it is both at once.

58Canterbury, though he appears only in the first two scenes, provides an excellent illustration of the play's confessional ambivalence. On the one hand, since unlike King John, which sets an English king against the Roman church, no one in this play is marked as antagonist for his Catholicism, Canterbury's role as a specifically Catholic prelate does not set him apart from the other characters. Timothy Rosendale argues that as far as this play is concerned, "[t]he Roman origins of the bishops' power are entirely irrelevant" (130). Since he provides the legal justification for Henry's claim to France, Canterbury is associated positively with the history of Agincourt and with Henry's legacy as a hero of England and Christendom. Canterbury even shows signs of reform himself. He voices the view of cessationism (see TLN 108 n.), an anachronistically reformed opinion that might endear the cleric to an orthodox Protestant, and as Maurice Hunt argues (188), his speech on the commonwealth of bees (TLN 334-60), with its emphasis on the virtue of work, might even be recognizable to English audiences as a Protestant sermon.

59We know from the play's opening scene, however, that Canterbury's argument for war masks the church's pecuniary interest; he schemes to send the king to France to prevent the seizure of ecclesiastical property for the crown. Canterbury's goal, to keep church wealth from being used for the royal levy and for legitimate charity, marks him as unpatriotic and morally suspect. Moreover, for an audience whose memory included the dissolution of religious houses and the seizure of church property by another King Henry (see TLN 50-57 n.), Canterbury is on the wrong side of Christian history, and his Wolsey-like manipulations of the king lend themselves to a hostile, radically Protestant, anticlerical response. Moreover, as Shakespeare knew well from his source material in Holinshed's chronicle, this archbishop, Henry Chichele (c. 1364-1443) was infamous as a persecutor of Lollards -- those followers of Wycliffe who were seen by Elizabethan English Protestants as their spiritual forebears -- and in particular as the signer of the death warrant of the Lollard martyr John Oldcastle, burned to death in 1417.

60The fact that Oldcastle was the original name of the fat Sir John that Shakespeare later rechristened Falstaff is well established (see, for example, Chambers 1: 381). The accepted reason for the change is censorship by the powerful Cobham family that celebrated their descent from the proto-Protestant martyr, but as James M. Gibson points out in his recent survey of critical arguments regarding the origins and implications of the change (94), very little substantial evidence has ever been adduced for its specific motives. In any event, Shakespeare's choice to change the character's name, under compulsion or not, enabled the play to exploit a peculiar sixteenth-century historiographical paradox. Along with the battle of Agincourt, Henry's reaction to the unrest surrounding Lollardy -- focused on the suppression of Oldcastle's riot and the execution of its leader -- was a defining event of Henry V's reign. After the Reformation, Henry could no longer be positively remembered for both of these accomplishments without considerable strain on Protestant historiography: the hero of Agincourt could be reclaimed as a recipient of divine favor and a sign of God's patronage of England, but his role in the Oldcastle affair could no longer support a celebratory treatment.

61Some Protestant historiographers tried apologetically to reconcile Henry's two legacies: Holinshed minimizes Henry's role in Oldcastle's persecution, having the king urge the clergy "rather by gentleness than by rigor to reduce him to the fold," and places the blame squarely on the heads of the prelates (544; see supplementary materials, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, "The Oldcastle rebellion"), and even the usually fiercely polemical John Bale goes no farther than to say that Henry acted "farre otherwyse than became his princelye dignite" (13r). John Foxe's Acts and Monuments, by contrast, condemns Henry in no uncertain terms. Foxe has Henry personally admonish Oldcastle for his proto-protestant heresy, and when he hears Oldcastle call the pope antichrist, the king "gave [the Archbishop] his full authority to cite him, examine him, and punish him according to their devilish decrees" (Oldcastle Controversy 205). Henry, in Foxe's narrative, not only aligns himself with Oldcastle's clerical enemies, he "angrily" refuses all appeals and orders Oldcastle's arrest before departing on his French campaign, leaving the Lollard to be executed in his absence (Oldcastle Controversy 207).

62The renaming of Shakespeare's fictional Oldcastle would seem to free his play's portrait of Henry from the taint of Oldcastle's martyrdom, and allow Shakespeare to pursue the historiographical tradition that remembered Henry as the hero of Agincourt. But just as Falstaff's ghost haunts the play, traces also linger of the more explicitly fatal rejection of the historical Oldcastle by the historical Henry. The bishops' praise for the king in the opening scene marks him not only as a "true louer of the holy Church" (TLN 63) but as a "sudden scholar" (TLN 72), indeed a doctor of divinity: " Hear him but reason in divinity, / And, all-admiring, with an inward wish / You would desire the king were made a prelate." (TLN 79-81). In the immediate context of Shakespeare's play, this is peculiar; other than Henry's rather choplogic response to Williams on the battlefield regarding the king's responsibility for his subjects' souls (see TLN 1995 n.), we see no evidence in the play of such theological expertise. But an audience familiar with both the enduring popular legacies of Henry's life -- not only his victories in France, but his handling of the Oldcastle affair -- would hear in Canterbury's words the echo of the narrative of Henry personally trying to convince his imprisoned Lollard friend of the error of his heretical views. Because Oldcastle was "highly in the king's favor," writes Holinshed, Henry chooses to discuss with him personally the "certain points of heresy" that he is accused of holding:

He himself sent for him and right earnestly exhorted him and lovingly admonished him to reconcile himself to God and to his laws. The Lord Cobham not only thanked him for his most favorable clemency, but also declared, first to him by mouth and afterwards by writing, the foundation of his faith and the ground of his belief, affirming his grace to be his supreme head and competent judge (544)

Shakespeare's history plays, since for whatever reason they had erased the name of Oldcastle, avoid overtly tarring Henry with the responsibility for martyring him. But although the epilogue to 2 Henry IV insists that "Oldcastle died a martyr, and this [Falstaff] is not the man" (TLN 3348), Henry V subtly belies the distinction. As Gregorio Melchiori has pointed out, Archbishop Chichele, in a grisly, literal way, caused Oldcastle to die of a sweat, as Shakespeare jokingly suggested would happen to Falstaff (2 Henry IV TLN 3346–47). By underscoring the king's alignment with Henry Chichele, and putting praise of Henry's role as theologian into the Archbishop's mouth, Shakespeare keeps the Oldcastle affair in the audience's minds, refusing to reconcile the two historical Henrys and their very different interpretations. Henry is implicated by cultural memory as the killer of Oldcastle's body as well as Falstaff's heart. Within the king's fictional relationship with the fictional version of the martyr rings the historiographical echo of Henry as Catholic defensor fidei -- or alternately as the villain of the Lollard movement.

63The tendency of the religious aspect of Henry V to point in two directions at once climaxes in act four, before and after the battle of Agincourt. On the surface, the history of Agincourt as retold by Shakespeare supports an interpretation that blends nationalism with a particularly Protestant piety. After the final death tolls are announced and the magnitude of the miraculous English victory becomes clear, Henry and his men wonderingly accept the role of grace in the outcome. The king forbids the boasting of the victory without the disclaimer that "God fought for us" (TLN 2841), piously commands the singing of the Non nobis, giving all glory to God, and declares the English the most "happy men" (i.e. the luckiest, most favored by "hap," TLN 2847). Shakespeare furthers the sense of the miraculous by eliminating the discussion of Henry's famous strategies -- the use of the pike wall against cavalry and the technological advantage of the English longbowmen -- that feature in nearly all other accounts of the battle (see Drayton's ballad in the supplemental materials). Instead, Shakespeare's Henry suggests that the battle was won "without stratagem, / But in plain shock and even play of battle" (TLN 2828–29). This strain of piety is traditional to all forms of Christianity, of course, but the emphasis on grace might appear particularly Protestant. By faith, not works, were reformed Christians saved. By faith, not by works, do the English achieve victory.

64When we look at the prayer Henry delivers to the "God of battles" the night before Agincourt, however, Shakespeare's apparently Protestant portrait of the victory is by no means clear. The prayer is more a bargain than anything else. Henry asks for victory, or at least the chance of victory, in exchange for the deeds he has done, the steps he has taken to assuage the dynastic guilt consequent upon the deposition of Richard II:

I Richard's body have interrèd new,
And on it have bestowed more contrite tears
Than from it issued forcèd drops of blood.
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay
Who twice a day their withered hands hold up
Toward heaven to pardon blood, and I have built
Two chantries where the sad and solemn priests
Sing still for Richard's soul.
(TLN 2147–55)

In the play, the gambit is of course a resounding success: the English win at Agincourt with a score of 25,000 slain Frenchmen to twenty-nine English. The deeds of penitence that Henry offers here are predicated on the belief in the reality of purgatory; the chantries and almoners are vicarious penitents, praying on both Henry's behalf and his father's to lessen Richard's stint. This is how the historically Catholic Henry would have prayed, and Shakespeare derives the details from his chronicle sources. But the belief that the living could pray efficaciously for the dead, was precisely the set of beliefs that Luther sought to challenge in his debate on indulgences at Wittenburg. To a Protestant audience, Henry here epitomizes the papist idolatry that the English Church had shed.

65The prayer's final lines, however, would seem to give the historically Catholic king a prescient sense of the post-Reformation inefficacy of such works: "More will I do, / Though all that I can do is nothing worth, / Since that my penitence comes after all, / Imploring pardon." (TLN 2155–58). Taken by itself, the sentiment seems to marks Henry as an orthodox Protestant. He abandons his futile efforts to bargain with the almighty, and relies on grace to deliver him from his enemies. Indeed, the line forcibly echoes Calvin's view of predestination: "necessitie, if a man haue an eye vnto it, doth alwayes import a constraint, so that all that euer we can doe shall be nothing worth" (Sermons vpon Deuteronomie 7).

66Moreover, the speech is not only a prayer; it is also the tail end of the play's only soliloquy. In the Henry IV plays, Hal had taken the audience into his confidence with direct address a number of times, producing a congregational, public subjectivity. In Henry V, the character soliloquizes only here, in prayer, in a moment of "debate" between Henry and his "bosom" (TLN 1877). We are brought into the space of his conscience -- the private confessional space of reformed Christianity -- as Shakespeare conflates Henry's divine audience with his theatrical one, and both are asked to pass judgment upon him as a Christian king.

67Camille Slights, Gary Taylor, and David Womersley have argued that the prayer's end demonstrates Henry's conversion to a reformed view of salvation, and by implication Shakespeare's appropriation of the national hero for a Protestant nation. I would argue, conversely, that the king's concession of futility marks a moment of anxiety about, or even defiance of, the illogic of the Calvinist view of works. Several editors have remarked on the seeming absurdity of the speech's closing lines. All penitence, after all, comes "after all." All penitence implores pardon. If penitence cannot be achieved or its sincerity bolstered by works, then penitence itself is futile, and the simple Pauline assertion that "[i]f we acknowledge our sinnes, he is faithful and iust to forgiue vs our sinnes" (1 John 1:9) is meaningless.

68The historical fact of the miraculous victory to follow may or may not obscure the fact that the prayer resolves nothing in regard to what kind of Christian this "mirror of all Christian kings" might be. It gives no clue as to a confessional argument on the part of the play, as neither Henry's legalistic, Catholic gambit, nor his assertion of Protestant sola fide allays his anxiety. The speech ends neither with the confidence in the efficacy of Henry's works or in his own state of grace, but on this note of unanswered and ineffective penitence. Henry's promises of penance are undercut by his apparently Protestant acknowledgement in their worthlessness, but replaced by nothing other than the knowledge of his own responsibility: for the outcome of the battle, for his sin, and the burden of his subjects' souls: "all things stay for me" (TLN 2163).

69Ultimately, Shakespeare's Henry is not his historically Catholic original, or the Protestant hero of a wishfully reimagined English history; he is a both/and, either/or figure, both the synthesis and the binary opposition, in the same way that the player's body reads as both player and character, that the play's "now" is both the "then" of history and the time passing in the playhouse. In the final scene, Henry offers his prospective bride the curious promise of a son "that shall go to Constantinople and take the Turk by the beard" (TLN 3196-97): curious because the Ottoman Turks would not occupy Constantinople until some thirty years after Henry V's death. This son will never exist, of course; soon after he is mentioned, the Chorus reminds us of Henry's actual son, who "lost France and made his England bleed" (TLN 3379). What Henry offers his audience, perhaps, is a fantastic vision of confessional as well as national unity in a world of religious division: the cross of George and the fleur-de-lis, Protestant England and Catholic France joined against the common enemy of a foreign religion. But this fantasy, as the anachronism underscores, is logically impossible. Like Thomas More's Utopia, it takes its meaning from its impossibility.