Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: James D. Mardock
Peer Reviewed

Henry V: General Introduction


1"Small time": the subject of the play

The fullest of the two earliest versions of Shakespeare's Henry V gives the play a title that might seem to misrepresent its subject matter. Upon opening their expensive new book in 1623, buyers of the large, folio collection of the late William Shakespeare's plays were promised The Life of Henry the Fift. As with Shakespeare's other "life" titles -- Julius Caesar, Henry VIII, King John, etc. -- what they went on to read, however, was not a full "life" in the modern biographical sense, or even the greatest-hits version of the life that we might expect in a dramatization. Those who, decades earlier, had bought the shorter, first-published version of the play, the inexpensively-printed quarto of 1600, met with a more specific title that both accurately reflects the play's subject matter and identifies the selling points of the play and its printed script: The Cronicle History of Henry the fift, With his battell fought at Agin Court in France. Togither with Auntient Pistoll. But the Quarto version's title is also misleading: the battle of Agincourt is not an addendum, but the play's main event; every scene leads up to or follows directly from the climax of England's most one-sided and famous victory.

2Shakespeare's earlier English history plays could conflate decades of history into two hours of stage time. The two-part Henry IV, for example, covers the title king's entire reign, from 1400 to 1413. The three parts of Henry VI depict half a century of events, from 1421 to 1471, and Richard III makes the years from 1478 to 1485 seem like a few hectic weeks. Admittedly, King Henry V's reign and life were short; he died in 1422 at the age of thirty-five. "Small time," says the play's epilogue, "but in that small most greatly lived / This star of England" (TLN 3372-73). But even so, Shakespeare's Henry V takes a strikingly narrow focus both chronologically and thematically, depicting a total of some eight months in the year 1415 and a day in 1420, a small time indeed. Guided by a Chorus, an early-modern version of the device from Greek drama who serves to mediate between the audience and the events depicted in the play, we follow the build-up to King Henry's war to claim the French throne, the first wave of that war (the 1415 invasion of Picardy culminating with Agincourt), and the aftermath of the war with the 1420 Treaty of Troyes, including Henry's betrothal to the French princess Catherine. The scenes present little by way of plot, and even the war itself, depicted in acts three and four, is peculiarly fragmented and short on scenes of actual battle. The "Alarums and Excursions" that characterize other Shakespearean representations of war -- offstage noises and players as soldiers running across the stage or engaging in small skirmishes that represent the larger conflicts -- are almost absent. The only combat we see, Pistol's capturing of the French soldier Le Fer at Agincourt, immediately gives way to Le Fer's surrender and comic haggling over his ransom.

3Despite its subject matter (and despite the Quarto's title), Henry V is not a "Chronicle History" in the sense that it strictly follows the chronicle sources -- it is rather, as Alexander Leggatt puts it, an "anatomy," in whose episodic quality lies its purpose: "[w]e are not so much following an action as looking all round a subject, often in a discontinuous way. This includes not only characters and events but attitudes towards them, even ways of dramatizing them" (Leggatt 114). The play, that is, consists of a set of arguments about kingship, about politics, about power, and about English identity, all converging on the character of Henry and the multiple views of him that the play produces. Henry V emerges as less a history of England than an exploration of the role of the individual in history. It is in this way of a piece with the other plays in Shakespeare's "second tetralogy" of English history plays: Richard II, 1 Henry IV, and 2 Henry IV. His earlier sequence of four history plays, to which Henry V is the last of what Hollywood would call the "prequels," depicted the consequences of Henry V's early death and the unhappy reign of his son Henry VI, "Whose state so many had the managing / That they lost France and made his England bleed, / Which," as Henry V's epilogue reminds us, "oft our stage hath shown" (TLN 3378-80). The earlier tetralogy has the feel of medieval dramatic genres, the morality play and the mystery cycle. The primary agent in the plays is divine providence, and their master plot is one of human defiance of God and divine retribution, carried out through a series of curses and counter-curses that redound upon the cursers' heads. The earlier plays partake in allegory and typology, with symbolic characters such as 3 Henry VI's nameless "Father who hath killed his son" and "Son who hath killed his father" (TLN 1189-90), and miraculous events (drawn from the chronicle sources) like the ominous appearance of three suns in the sky in 3 Henry VI (TLN 677-93) or the bleeding of a long-dead corpse in Richard III (TLN 232-33). Richard of Gloucester even embodies the likable villainy of the medieval vice figure with whom he explicitly identifies (R3 TLN 1662). The more mature second tetralogy abandons this medieval framework in favor of a more human scale. Bookended by plays that depict the defining dramatic moments of their title kings' lives -- Richard II and Henry V -- the two parts of Henry IV, despite their title, are less about King Henry IV and the troubles that attended his reign than they are about the journey Prince Hal takes to the kingship, and the way he overcomes the legacy of his father's crime in deposing Richard II.

4The Chorus's declaration to the audience that "'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings" (TLN 29) is more than a plea for imagination to patch the holes in dramatic representation. More than the life of Henry, the play is about perspectives on Henry, about the way he is clothed and constructed by the thoughts of his subjects and his audiences. It operates on a strategy of parallax: that is, a change in or distortion of perception resulting from seeing from these different perspectives; the play's different viewpoints effectively produce different Henrys. Defining the king, or rather triangulating these parallactical and often conflicting definitions of him, is the play's main business, and its major movements are structured by a logic of viewing, rather than doing.

5We can see the first movement of the play, from the Prologue to 2.1, as the mustering of perspectives. Indeed, these scenes present a barrage of them. Not a scene goes by without someone knowingly asserting some aspect of Henry's character, but in almost every case, that assertion is made in ambivalent contexts, or qualified almost as soon as it is uttered. The pattern is foreshadowed by the Chorus's portrait of "the warlike Harry," an image subtly called into question by the curious phrase "like himself" (TLN 6). What does it mean to be like oneself? Similarity is, by definition, not equality, so the apparently tautological simile emphasizes the instability of selfhood; if Henry can be like himself, then he can as easily be unlike himself, and being collapses troublingly into seeming. The bishops in 1.1 speak approvingly of the king's new character: his learning, his piety, and his diplomatic skill. But they remind us in the same breath that his reformation was miraculously sudden and that "[t]he courses of his youth promised it not" (TLN 64). Their wonder at the king's moral volte-face suggests that it is too good to be true; if indeed "miracles are ceased" (TLN 108), then there must be some more mundane explanation, and as a theologian Canterbury must recognize that the offending Adam is never truly whipped out of the mind's garden.

6The mustering of perspectives continues in the council scene of 1.2, which reinforces both of the contradictory views of Henry that the bishops offer. Henry presents very little evidence of his true character in the scene other than the apparent weighing of the "right and conscience" of his claim (TLN 243); he speaks only thirty-one of the scene's first 136 lines. But the clerics and peers fill in Henry's silence to construct him as the perfect warrior-king in the image of his ancestor Edward III. He is the heir of "these valiant dead" and their deeds, with his own "puissant arm" and "in the vary May-morn of [his] youth, / Ripe for exploits and mighty enterprises" (TLN 262-63, TLN 267-68). He is a lion of the royal blood, with the "cause, and means, and might" for the war (TLN 271-72). This English portrait of Henry is immediately contrasted with a French caricature, as the dauphin's ambassador draws an outdated picture of Henry as a man who "savor[s] too much of his youth," fitter for the dance floor and the tennis court than for the battlefield. That the English, and Shakespeare's play, embrace one of these perspectives over the other is inevitable, and the disjunction between the dauphin's view and that of the English peers fuels Henry's final, magnificent, rhetorical push into war. The parallax remains, however: both perspectives on Henry are plausible and both remain in play as the drama continues.

7The second Chorus speech reinforces the play's multiplicity of viewpoints by describing Henry with a rather ambiguous optical metaphor. On the surface, the epithet "mirror of all Christian kings" (TLN 468) seems complimentary. The primary sense is that Henry will be an exemplar for Christian kings to imitate (OED I); indeed this sense of mirror predates the more common sense of "reflective surface." The play's chronicle sources repeatedly use the word in this sense to describe Henry's qualities, and Shakespeare may have derived this precise line from Edward Hall's comment about Agincourt, in which the sense of exemplar is clearly intended: "THIS battail maie be a mirror and glasse to al Christian princes to beholde and folowe" (fol. 52). But a mirror, in the more common sense (OED II), is an imitation of reality, not the other way around; the comparison of Henry to a mirror may suggest two-dimensionality, falseness, and even, since mirror images are reversed, opposition to whatever set of values one associates with "Christian kings."

8The Chorus promises a scene set in Southampton featuring King Henry and the "youth of England . . . on fire," but that promise is immediately undercut, as the scene that follows depicts another group of characters offering a unique view of Henry, the companions of his former dissolute life. Neither young nor particularly afire with eagerness for war, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol round out the play's first movement with another ambiguous, if not contradictory set of assertions. The rejection of Falstaff (2 Henry IV)Bringing news of the mortal illness of Sir John Falstaff, whose company Henry abjured upon his accession in 2 Henry IV, the Hostess declares that "[t]he king hath killed his heart" (TLN 587), an assessment that meets no objection from Nym, though while he agrees that "[t]he king hath run bad humors on the knight" (TLN 619), he cannot bring himself to complain, openly at least, of Henry's rejection of Falstaff. "The king is a good king, but it must be as it may," says Nym, who then adds a comment conspicuous for its careful neutrality: Henry "passes some humors and careers" (TLN 623-24).

9The play's second movement (2.2 to 2.4) examines the immediate implications of these different perspectives on Henry, the high stakes of committing to one view of the king, and the consequences of failing to choose the right view. In 2.2 Henry teases from the traitors Cambridge, Scrope, and Grey a series of opinions about the way he, the king, is viewed: "Never was monarch better feared and loved" (TLN 654) by subjects with hearts "create of duty and of zeal" (TLN 660). The traitors' opinion is thick with dramatic irony, of course, and it is also immediately undercut: first by the revelation that at least one subject is capable of railing drunkenly against the king, and then by Henry's exposure of the traitors' plot. Seeming is not being, Henry himself points out -- the traitors, after all, seemed dutiful, grave, learned, noble, and religious (TLN 756-60) -- and the disjunction between seeming and being in these English monsters extends even to "the full-fraught man, and best" (TLN 768). The traitors' attempt to coin Henry into gold comes from their failure to view his seeming correctly, and their pleas for the mercy that he had earlier seemed to have in abundance fall upon his deaf ears. In the following scene, we hear of Falstaff's death, another fatal consequence of taking the wrong view of Henry, and in 2.4 we see such an error of perspective in action, as the Constable of France tries in vain to convince his dauphin that he is "too much mistaken in this king" (TLN 919). The constable is the only Frenchman, and perhaps the only character in the play, with a clear view of Henry's seeming and his being, an awareness that "his vanities forespent / Were but the outside of the Roman Brutus, / Covering discretion with a coat of folly" (TLN 925-27).

10The constable's moment of awareness leads into the play's third act and its third major movement, as Henry's invasion begins in earnest. The audience is imaginatively pressed into service as part of his army -- "Follow, follow! / Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy (TLN 1061-62) -- and forced into an unmediated perspective on Henry, even as his behavior becomes most difficult to interpret: is the "unto the breach" speech inspirational, or is it shocking in its reduction of men to tigers, cannons, cliffs, and so much building material with which to "close the wall up"? How are we to take Henry's brilliantly calculated good cop / bad cop routine before Harfleur, alternately threatening its most vulnerable citizens and piously solicitous for their safety? This third movement, meanwhile, extends the problem of perspective -- of judging between seeming and being -- beyond Henry: Macmorris does not know Fluellen to be as good a man as himself (TLN 1250); the French cannot justify their preconceptions of the English with their experience of fighting them (TLN 1394-1405); and Gower warns Fluellen to be on guard against the Pistols of the world, lest he be "marvelously mistook" (TLN 1527-28).

11Just before the climactic battle of Agincourt, we briefly get a fourth movement, in which Henry's own perspective on kingship threatens to emerge. "[T]he king is but a man," he opines to his soldiers, "His ceremonies laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man" (TLN 1952-56). This sentiment, repeated in the play's only soliloquy, a disquisition on those ceremonies' feebleness and lack of substance, seems to get at the heart of the matter: Henry is aware that kingship involves skillful manipulation of the parallactical views of his subjects. This revelation of self-awareness, though, is heavily ironized by the fact that Henry is in disguise as "but a man" when he makes these observations to his soldiers, and ironized all the more by the context of the preceding Chorus speech, which describes a Henry visiting his host openly, "[t]hawing cold fear" with his "largess universal, like the sun" (TLN 1834, TLN 1832). We never see this version of Henry, but even in the Chorus's speech, his kingly qualities are compromised by the suggestion that they are mere seeming: the speech draws attention to the difference between his fearless "royal face" and his internal dread of the upcoming battle (TLN 1824-25); Henry "overbears" the "attaint" of the pallor that fear should give him, not with bravery, but "cheerful semblance" (TLN 1828-29).

12During and especially after Agincourt, the play moves into its fifth and final movement, in which the perspectives of the other characters on Henry, and the perspective of the audience, are both replaced by the inevitable perspective of history. Starting with Gower's declaration that, whatever Henry's battlefield actions, "'tis a gallant king" (TLN 2535), the end of the play hardly relents in its presentation of Henry as the epic hero of the brightest moment in England's past. Whatever his motives for the invasion of France might have seemed to be, Henry's reaction to the miraculous victory is one of modest piety. Arguably for the first time in the play, the Henry we see on stage seems consistent with the Chorus's celebratory historical view in 5.0, which rehearses the patriotic narrative of English victory for "those who have not read the story" (TLN 2851); the last perspective the play offers on Henry, that is, is the perspective of the chronicle. Likewise, the play's epilogue privileges the unified perspective of history, reminding us again that what we have been watching is not reality, but a "story" that the playwright has only roughly "pursued" (TLN 3369). But in their injunction to the audience to accept this dramatic version, the Chorus's final lines remind us of the contingency of any one perspective. The meaning of the character of Henry depends even at the last upon the audience: it is our thoughts that deck this king.

13Theater and kingship

13Given its focus on audiences and its episodic nature, the lead actor of Henry V might be forgiven for struggling to find the character's arc. At first glance, Henry seems not to change from scene to scene, but rather to start each situation from a similar place, distanced from his interlocutors by his office, his singular perspective, and goals and motives that are often difficult to fathom. Only once does the king take the audience into his confidence, and his sole soliloquy -- itself bemoaning the fact that he can never be one of us -- feels, for all its beauty, like "rhetoric, rather than revelation" (Granville-Barker 292), as if trying to accomplish a schoolboy's exercise of proving that kings suffer more than their subjects do, with their blissfully ignorant, carefree sleep.

14Nowhere, even in Henry's repeated assertions that his soldiers are his brothers, does Shakespeare allow his audience to partake in a semblance of Henry's emotional life; we share neither his elation nor his suffering, in the way we do Hamlet's, Antony's, and even Brutus's. One of the reasons that King Henry seems almost a different man than the Prince Hal of the Henry IV plays is this refusal to bring the audience (to use an anachronistic metaphor) behind the curtain. Famously, in 1 Henry IV, Hal interrupts his madcap adventures with Falstaff and his cohort to declare his motivation to the audience and absolve himself of the accusations of immorality leveled at him by his rivals and his family alike. He maintains the "humor of . . . idleness" (TLN 297 [[ No such work ]]) only to deceive expectations, but in doing so he's playing a long con that he reveals only to the audience:

when this loose behaviour I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt'ring o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
(TLN 310-16 [[ No such work ]])

Audiences familiar with the Henry IV plays might expect to remain backstage, as it were, in Hal's confidence even after the pretended "reformation" does come, as confirmed by the bishops in Henry V's first scene, but as this play continues, it becomes clear that we are all as much victims of the con as anyone else. As King Henry, he keeps the audience firmly in their seats, the stage's fourth wall (to use another anachronistic metaphor) firmly erected.

15Critics, especially in the mid-twentieth century, have traced a perceived falling-off in quality in Henry V to this theatrical distancing and the attendant flattening of the character. As Una Ellis-Fermor puts it, Henry is "never off the platform," a king, but not truly a man, who "automatically delivers a public speech where another man utters a cry of despair, of weariness or of prayer" (45). But Henry's lack of a private self is part of the play's argument about the inherently theatrical nature of politics, of warfare, and of all social life. Henry may not speak to us as equals, but he does implicitly invite us to marvel at his theatrical virtuosity; the play is a master class in dramatic artifice, a point explicitly made before Harfleur when he equates warfare with theater, instructing his soldiers in the art of actorly deception: they are to "imitate the action of the tiger" (TLN 1089), to "disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage" (TLN 1091), to transform themselves from men into something else -- beasts, machines, rocks -- suited to the violence of the task at hand.

16The apparent lack of an arc to Henry's character, the disconnection from scene to scene, is a result of the play's subordination of overarching plot to the dramatic moment. As Adrian Lester says of his performance in the role at the National Theatre in 2003, "Never before have I played a character where it is so essential to play every scene for all its worth, without trying to make connexions with other scenes" (Lester 151). Henry's journey is a series of plays in miniature, performances with escalating stakes. In council he performs the role of pious yet warlike king for the French ambassadors and for his own peers. Before Harfleur, with its governor as audience, he stakes the lives of his men and the city's inhabitants on an elaborate, sadistic bluff. His performance on the eve of Agincourt convinces his dejected, almost rebellious soldiers of their duty and the morality of their cause.

17Both the climax and the resolution of the play come in the form of performances. Henry's "God of battles" prayer (TLN 2141-58) is less supplication than bargain, a declaration of the pious actions that make him a king deserving of divine intervention on his behalf: re-burying the body of Richard II, building chantries, and funding constant masses for the murdered king's soul. This is one more performance, this time for an invisible audience of one, and a performance that Henry explicitly admits is an attempt to divert attention away from the taint of his father's sins: "Not today, O Lord, / Oh, not today -- think not upon the fault / My father made in compassing the crown" (TLN 2144-46). And the upshot, as with all of Henry's performances, is presented as resounding success: God favors Henry to the tune of ten thousand French casualties to the English twenty-nine.

18The only audience that challenges Henry and interrupts his broken train of successful performances is the princess, Catherine. When Henry is left alone with her, we may be as sure as he is that he will -- or shall (see TLN 3236 n.) -- get his way. But Catherine repeatedly resists his theatrical maneuvers and forces him into changing tactics. His initial attempt to perform the role of wooer, in blank verse, is stymied by her lack -- pretended or not -- of the English to understand him. He responds by shifting into prose, and into the pose of bluff English yeoman, less capable of wooing eloquently than of playing leapfrog. Catherine proves too shrewd, despite her broken English, to fall for this tactic, and she neatly exposes Henry's theatrical shape-shifting for what it is: he does have false French enough to deceive (TLN 3206-7), but she will not be pulled from the political realities of the moment, and her objectification as an article of the treaty, into the genre of romantic comedy. When she calls Henry's bluff, his final response is to invite her backstage, so to speak: if he succeeds in wooing Catherine at all, he does so not with a virtuoso performance, but by making "you and I" into "we" (TLN 3257-58). Catherine, having refused to become another gullible audience, becomes one of the actors, one of the "makers of manners" that cannot be confined by a country's fashion.

19Haunting us in our familiar paths: Henry V as a haunted play

In 1997, when the newly-reconstructed Globe Theater in London opened its doors, its management -- enthusiastic about the prospect of christening the new "Wooden O" with the Chorus's opening words -- chose Henry V as its inaugural production. An audience anecdote relates that during one performance, when Mark Rylance knelt as King Henry to deliver his prayer to the "God of battles," his desperate, anguished plea for God to pardon his father's sins in determining the outcome of the upcoming battle, one of the "groundlings" standing in the theater's courtyard broke the silence of the moment by shouting, "Oy Rylance! You're Henry, not Hamlet!" For this audience member, agonized soliloquies were the stuff of tragedy, the province of the self-doubting, melancholy prince of Denmark, not of King Henry, crowd-pleasing stirrer of patriotic fervor.

20That audience member's discomfort in the face of King Henry's one soliloquy in the play, however, reflects a dark counterpoint to the play's patriotic, celebratory narrative. In 1599, the year in which he wrote Henry V, Shakespeare's turn to tragedy was underway as he wrote Julius Caesar -- with its protagonist haunted by the ghost of a father figure he has killed -- and he may already have been in preparation for the following year's Hamlet, the tragedy of a man driven to distraction by the incursion of his father's ghost into his world. Even his two turn-of-the-century comedies, As You Like It and Twelfth Night, operate under the shadow of dead fathers, Rowland de Boys and Sebastian of Messaline. Henry V, the last chapter of Shakespeare's great cycle of histories, is the story of a man and a world no less haunted by the ghosts of the past.

21As the characters repeatedly emphasize, the French campaign that culminates in Henry's miraculous victory at Agincourt is an echo of past glories, a later phase of English action in France during the dynastic struggles that would come to be known as the Hundred Years' War. King Edward III, the great-grandsire from whom Henry claims (TLN 250-51), had initiated open military conflict in the Hundred Years' War by invading France in 1346 with his son Edward the Black Prince, defeating the French decisively at the Battle of Crécy. Or at least that is the neat, heroic story that Shakespeare's characters make of the messy struggle for dominance, turning a period of war actually characterized by raids, backstabbing treaties, and petty alliances into a triumphant, near-mythic memory of spectacular chivalric victory. The Battle of Crécy is mentioned or alluded to four separate times in the play, by English and French alike. Crécy, with the fathers that killed and died there, is the symbolic impulse for Henry's war, the battle that wouldn't die.

22Understandably, when viewed from a French perspective, the image of the first phase of the war as a specter is most explicit. The French King is still troubled by English ghosts: as he fearfully reminds his court, young Henry is descended from "that bloody strain, / That haunted us in our familiar paths . . . When Crécy battle fatally was struck" (TLN 941-44). It is not only the French, however, who feel the burden of the past as a haunting: Edward III haunts the English king as much as the French. King Edward, as Canterbury relates (closely following Holinshed's chronicle), watched happily from a hill as his son Edward the Black Prince defeated "the whole power of France" (TLN 254) seemingly single-handedly. It is specifically this image of King Edward's fatherly approval that the bishops call to mind to press Henry to war, and they do so explicitly in the language of conjuring the dead. "Go . . . to your great-grandsire's tomb," Canterbury advises; "Invoke his warlike spirit" (TLN 250-51). Ely calls upon Henry to "[a]wake remembrance of these valiant dead" (TLN 262), and Henry will enthusiastically undertake this act of memorial conjuration in his famous rallying speech before Harfleur. He is a king burdened by the question of his own father's legitimacy to rule, and a son deeply concerned, as the Henry IV plays demonstrate, with fatherly approval, and his speech calls the paternity of his soldiers into question, tying their own legitimacy to the matter of how well they emulate their own forefathers, the near-mythical soldiers at Crécy:

On, you noble English,
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof,
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument.
Dishonor not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you called fathers did beget you.
(TLN 1100-6)

By the end of the play, the repeated allusions have made Crécy a metonym for all English victory, one that even threatens to eclipse Henry's achievement at Agincourt. Immediately after Henry gives his battle a name, and thus its own place in the chronicle, Fluellen conjures a reminder of the earlier battle:

KING HENRY
Then call we this the field of Agincourt,
Fought on the day of Crispin Crispianus.
FLUELLEN
Your grandfather of famous memory, an't please your majesty, and your great uncle Edward the Plack Prince of Wales, as I have read in the chronicles, fought a most prave pattle here in France.
(TLN 2620-25)

Haunting fathers, in Shakespeare's play, come to impel history itself.

23In the broadest understanding of Tudor historiography, the deposition and murder of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke, later Henry IV, was the primal sin that could only be expiated by the Wars of the Roses. If Shakespeare had concentrated in his first tetralogy on that expiation, and on the redeeming power of the Tudor dynasty as represented by Richard III's defeat by Henry Tudor at Bosworth field, the second tetralogy focuses on the aftermath of the sin itself, which haunts both Henrys' reigns and is redeemed only contingently and temporarily -- as the epilogue of Henry V admits -- by the glory of the younger. Through the Henry IV plays, Shakespeare never lets his audience forget the ghost of Richard II; the guilt of his death shapes the character of Henry IV and impels the plots against him. The ghost is even imagined to join his power to the rebels that trouble Henry IV's reign: in 2 Henry IV, the Archbishop's uprising is "enlarge[d] . . . with the blood / Of fair King Richard, scraped from Pomfret stones" (TLN 264-65). King Henry IV's last advice to his heir is to avoid the dissension that troubled his own reign by using war to distract his subjects' attention from the usurpation of the throne:

Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels, that action hence borne out
May waste the memory of the former days.
(2H4 TLN 2750-52)

With his royal father's advice in mind, Henry's invasion of France, which makes up almost the entire action of Henry V, may be seen as a successful attempt to avoid Richard's ghost. But although it is mentioned only once in Henry V, the deposition of Richard sends ripples through the play, an undercurrent that loses no strength for being repressed. When Henry's lords and advisors discuss his claim to the throne of France, Charlemagne gets more attention than Henry's own father, whose usurpation of the throne is glossed over: Richard II and Henry IV are as conspicuous by their absence in the discussion as the prior two royal generations, Edward III and the Black Prince, are by their ubiquity. The bishops of Canterbury and Ely seem unable to refer to the civil wars that plagued Henry IV's reign in anything but oblique terms, but they nevertheless remind us in the very first lines of the play of the "scambling and unquiet time" of "the last king's reign" (TLN 42, TLN 40).

24The most explicit expression of this haunting comes in Henry's prayer on the eve of Agincourt. Henry thinks of himself as complicit in, and his reign as dependent on, "the fault / [his] father made in compassing the crown," and he gives us here the play's only glimpse of his early reign, in which he seems to have been primarily concerned with laying Richard's ghost to rest: he has re-buried the murdered king's body in Westminster and devoted considerable treasure to praying Richard's soul out of purgatory. The climactic battle is staked on the wager that God will weigh these attempts favorably against the sin of Richard's murder, and the play suggests that the gamble is successful, though the epilogue reminds us that the ghost of Richard would continue to haunt England after Henry's glorious but all-too-brief reign.

25The epilogue to Henry V also reminds us that Shakespeare had already dramatized that haunting, in the first tetralogy's depiction of the Wars of the Roses and the disastrous reign of Richard III. Just as Henry and his contemporaries struggle and ultimately fail to put the historical ghosts of past glories and murdered kings to rest, Shakespeare is also in competition with the shades of their past, haunted by ghosts of his own making. These ghosts suggest their presence in various ways, both subtle and obvious. The traitor Cambridge hints obliquely that his treason was motivated not primarily by gold, "Although I did admit it as a motive / The sooner to effect what I intended" (TLN 785-86). What he intended was to supplant Henry as king in favor of his own progeny, and as Shakespeare's audience would have known primarily from his earlier history cycle, that progeny was the house of York, one side in the civil wars that cycle dramatized. Shakespeare's unhistorical account of Suffolk and York dying in each other's arms serves as another reminder of the coming civil wars, and Shakespeare's previous dramatization of them: this York's son would kill this Suffolk's brother in those wars (see TLN 2495-2511 n.). Most ghostly of all is the appearance of "Talbot" as one of the names that Henry imagines becoming household words after the battle of Agincourt (F TLN 2297). No Talbot fought at Agincourt, and the fact that the name appears only in F suggests that it may appear in error. As Shakespeare's audience were well aware, however, a father and son of that name are the heroes of the French wars Shakespeare had depicted in 1 Henry VI; whether the slip was intentional or unconscious, the mention of Talbot is the result of the memory of the earlier play intruding into the representation of Agincourt (see TLN 2297 n.).

26The most insistent ghost haunting Shakespeare's play is that of Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare's most enduring comic figure, who easily took top billing in the Henry IV plays: Falstaff's is the largest role in each, and in 2 Henry IV he has more lines and stage time than the king and Prince Hal combined. Although his role as a sort of chaotic surrogate father to Hal declines as the plays go on -- the two share almost no stage time in the second part, which ends with the newly-crowned Henry V's outright rejection of the fat knight and his banishment from the royal presence -- the audience would surely have expected his continued existence as a comic foil to the high rhetoric and international scope of the history plays. At some point when Henry V was in the planning stages, Shakespeare seems to have planned "to continue the story (with Sir John in it)," as the epilogue to the 1598 2 Henry IV, spoken by the actor playing Falstaff, promises (TLN 3345). The first audiences of Henry V could well be forgiven for any disappointment they may have felt for a play with a gaping Falstaff-shaped hole in it.

27Some evidence suggests that the plan to include Falstaff as a character in Henry V may have survived beyond the 2 Henry IV epilogue. John Dover Wilson argues that in some earlier version, "Falstaff once larded the sodden field of Agincourt" but had been cut from the play, with much of his comic business transferred to Pistol. Dover Wilson points to two textual ghosts of Falstaff as evidence for this hypothesis. The act two chorus promises to shift the scene first to Southampton and then to France, but 2.1 and 2.3 take place in London instead. Following George Ian Duthie, Dover Wilson explained that this odd disjunction, which continues to puzzle editors, resulted from Falstaff's death having been inserted as an afterthought, and the Chorus's lines remaining unchanged (Wilson, Henry V 113-15). Additionally, in 5.1 Pistol mentions the death of "my Doll" (TLN 2976), which many editors emend to "Nell," the name of Pistol's wife. Dover Wilson sees the Folio's reading as an oversight, explaining that when Pistol's cowardly soliloquy was delivered by Falstaff, the line referred to Doll Tearsheet, whom Pistol clearly despises (see TLN 575-77), but who associated enough with Falstaff to be called "his" at 2 Henry IV TLN TLN 3239 (Wilson, Henry V 115).

28Whether we accept Dover Wilson's hypothesis that Falstaff was cut from the play at a late stage, his absence is undeniably felt in both surviving versions of the play. Though unnamed in the first act, Falstaff is the chief of the "companies unlettered, rude, and shallow" to which the bishops complain that the youthful Henry was drawn (TLN 96), and since his influence lies behind the dauphin's mocking gift of tennis balls, he is an indirect cause of the war with France. Act two puts the business of courts and royal chambers aside for two scenes preparing for and reacting to Falstaff's death, scenes that are no less tragic for their low comic contexts or the Hostess's malapropisms. Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph are not only Falstaff's former companions, but also echoes of his swaggering and his equivocating cowardice, as are the bickering captains who, after all, do no more charging the breach in Harfleur's wall than the Eastcheapers do. Even during the battle of Agincourt, Gower and Fluellen ensure that "the fat knight with the great belly-doublet" (TLN 2571-72) is seldom out of thought. Falstaff may not lard the field of Agincourt, but his ghost certainly stalks it.

29So heavily does the fat knight's ghost loom in the play without him that many standalone productions have found it necessary to include him even though Shakespeare did not. Both Laurence Olivier's film of 1944 and Kenneth Branagh's of 1989 include flashback sequences featuring lines from the Henry IV plays and casting George Robey and Robbie Coltrane as their respective Falstaffs; Olivier's film additionally dramatizes an original Globe audience vociferously complaining about Sir John's absence. Nicholas Hytner's 2003 National Theatre production featured Adrian Lester's Henry watching video of his younger self consorting with a Falstaff played by Desmond Barrit, who had memorably played the role at the Royal Shakespeare Company three years earlier.

30What happened to Falstaff? Why did Shakespeare not continue the story with Sir John in it, as promised? The historiographical tradition of Henry throwing off his youthful companions was as old as his reign itself, and through repetition it, like the likely apocryphal tennis ball anecdote, had become central to Henry's myth, but his rejection would not have precluded Falstaff joining the army and following the king at a distance as Bardolph and Pistol do. Falstaff's absence may have something to do with the departure of the actor who played him from Shakespeare's playing company. If, as Dover Wilson and (more extensively) David Wiles have convincingly argued, the character was created by the Lord Chamberlain's Men's principal comic actor Will Kemp, then Kemp's parting ways with the company sometime in 1599 might have occasioned a Falstaff-less rewrite of the play. On the other hand, there is no reason to suppose that Shakespeare was hampered by personnel difficulties in making the decision to kill Sir John. We have no evidence for why or precisely when Kemp left the company; he could as easily have parted ways with them as a result of Shakespeare having killed off one of Kemp's most popular characters (Wiles 117).

31Practicalities of casting considerations aside, the critical tradition, for a century and a half, found Shakespeare's discarding of Falstaff to have been the single most important aesthetic decision in the play's composition. For many readers, Falstaff has been seen to haunt Shakespeare as much, if not more, than he haunted Henry. A. C. Bradley wrote in 1902 that Shakespeare intended us to approve of Henry's decision to discard Falstaff, but that by the time he wrote Henry V, the character of Sir John, and his audience's sympathies, had gotten beyond the author's control: "We wish Henry a glorious reign . . . but our hearts go with Falstaff . . . to Arthur's bosom or wheresomever he is" (260). In this assessment, Bradley echoes both the practical Samuel Johnson -- who remarked in his edition of 1765 that Shakespeare had to kill Falstaff because his imagination could "contrive no train of adventures suitable to his character" -- and the sentimental Maurice Morgann, whose long 1777 essay on Falstaff, in attempting to refute the opinion that Falstaff is a coward, established the tradition of seeking an emotional connection between Falstaff and the reader or audience.

32Arguments such as Bradley's and Johnson's notwithstanding, surely when taken in the context of the play's composition in 1599, the absence of Falstaff must be taken as an intentional authorial decision. As James Shapiro has eloquently argued, the year 1599 was a turning point in Shakespeare's career, a year whose plays all seem to prefigure Hamlet in their emphasis on the ghostly influence of dead father figures. At a time when he was turning from the histories and the comedies that had characterized his dramatic output for the past decade and toward a string of great tragedies and darker, more problematic comedies, the playwright was preoccupied with his own artistic past. For Shakespeare, Henry V represents an attempt to lay the ghost of the history play, along with the ghost of Falstaff, to rest.

33Remembering with advantages: history and historical drama

The theme of haunting in Henry V may be seen as an example of a larger issue in the play, that of memory and its relationship to the telling of history. Haunting is, after all, merely an aggressive, metaphysical intrusion of memory into the mental worlds of the living. The ghosts of the dead cry "remember me," and their descendants, among them historians and playwrights, comply. And Henry V seems particularly concerned with the workings of memory. As Gary Taylor has noted, Shakespeare uses the word memorable only four times in his surviving work, all of them in this play (Taylor 1982 149), which contains eighteen other explicit verbal references to memory, more than any other play except Hamlet. The climactic passage with this regard is Henry's "Saint Crispin's Day" rallying speech before Agincourt, where he imagines a future England -- the present of the play's performance -- in which the battle will have become history, the story that "the good man [shall] teach his son" not only in 1599, but in a hyperbolic assertion of permanence, "to the ending of the world" (TLN 2299, TLN 2301). In Henry's fantasy, he and his men will have become secular saints, displacing Crispin and Crispian as objects of a communal celebration for which their bodies will become relics, as the veteran "strip[s] his sleeve and show[s] his scars" (TLN 2291). The performance of the play itself becomes the fulfillment of Henry's prophecy.

34This trope is not merely an assertion of patriotic military solidarity, however. Holding historical collective memory up to scrutiny is the chief method by which Shakespeare produces the play's characteristic ambiguities, and Henry's imagined veteran, "[h]e that shall see this day and live old age" (TLN 2288) is a metonym for the disjunction between the past and the memory of it. The assertion not only of the permanence of the memory of Agincourt but of its augmentation -- "all shall be forgot, / But he'll remember, with advantages, / The feats he did that day" (TLN 2292-94) -- is often played for gentle humor, an acknowledgement of the very human tendency to embellish the memory of our deeds. But the play also shows that such embellishment can be transgressive as well as harmlessly celebratory: Gower bemoans the existence of cowards like Pistol, who memorize the facts of a battle only to lend authenticity to their pretended valor, as one of the "slanders of the age" (TLN 1527), and Pistol himself evokes Henry's imagined veteran when he promises to show off the "cudgeled scars" he received from Fluellen, "[a]nd swear [he] got them in the Gallia wars" (TLN 2982-83). This theme of reshaping the memory of war persists beyond the exaggerations of veterans real and imagined; the play argues that remembering with advantages, for good or ill, is the very definition of history. Shakespeare repeatedly highlights the workings of historiography, and demonstrates that history does not consist in the facts as they happened, but in the enacting of a directed, biased, collective memory. History, that is, is the history play.

35Shakespeare himself remembers with advantages, of course, departing from his own understanding of historical fact when it suits him to do so. But he does not seek to hide the fact that history is a construct, and one function of the Chorus's repeated emphasis on the inadequacy of dramatic representation is to highlight the artifice involved in historical memory: the epilogue's wry self-portrait of Shakespeare as the play's "bending author" (TLN 3369) recalls Henry's disingenuous injunction to Canterbury, forbidding him to "fashion, wrest, or bow" his reading of German history and the Salic Law (TLN 161), and it suggests an intention that gives the lie to the equally disingenuous apology that Shakespeare has been forced by the strictures of theater to reduce the story to episodes, "mangling by starts the full course of their glory" (TLN 3371). Shakespeare, like the French, like Canterbury, like Henry himself, is unafraid to gloss history unjustly for his purposes.

36Certain conservative critics, particularly in the early twentieth century, sought to defend Shakespeare's bending and mangling from accusations of dishonesty. Thus John Marriott in 1918 argued that "though Shakspeare does subordinate history to drama; though he compresses and fore-shortens; though he is careless as to details, he never falsifies the essential verities; he never misleads" (Marriott 163). And Charles Montague distinguished between truths and truths, between facts and facts, arguing that what Shakespeare presents is the "moral fact of an Agincourt," which is perceptible only if we put aside historical fact: Shakespeare depicts the "truth" of Agincourt by subordinating the historical events themselves to the "essential nature" of the event (Montague 171): "So, through particular untruth, a universal truth is achieved" (174). E. M. W. Tillyard, one of the mid-century's most influential critics of Shakespeare's history plays, saw Shakespeare as participating in the propagation of the so-called Tudor myth, a "universally held and still comprehensible scheme of history: a scheme fundamentally religious, by which events evolve under a law of justice and under the ruling of God's Providence, and of which Elizabeth's England was the acknowledged outcome" (Tillyard 320-21). This teleological and historically reductive reading of Shakespeare's use of history was dismissed by later critics, particularly the new historicists and cultural materialists of the 1980s, but even Tillyard's detractors agree that Henry V does seem to be involved in the ideologically-inflected production of history. What early critics tended to miss is the extent to which Shakespeare is aware of the artifice of historiography.

37Henry V repeatedly dramatizes the process of making history. The Chorus speeches that begin every act are notable for their disjunction from what a modern newscaster would call "facts on the ground." Each of the Chorus's speeches is a celebratory act of communal memory in which he insistently, imperatively implicates the play's audience as co-creators: "Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them" (TLN 27); "'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings" (TLN 29); "there [in Southampton] must you sit" (TLN 498); "Work, work your thoughts" (TLN 1069); "Now entertain conjecture of a time" (TLN 1790); "now behold / In the quick forge and working-house of thought" (TLN 2872-73). But the Chorus's portrait of Henry's war is radically undercut by the scenes that follow these communal celebrations. In act one, the promise of the "warlike Harry" assuming the "port of Mars" gives way to an inglorious scene of scheming bishops. The second Chorus promises that "all the youth of England are on fire" (TLN 463), but precedes an act filled with bickering old men going to war only reluctantly and for ignoble motives (not to mention three traitors and a dying Falstaff). Act three's Chorus promises early triumph for the English -- "down goes all before them" (TLN 1079), but Shakespeare's siege of Harfleur is a battle of desperate rhetoric, internecine squabbles, cowardly foot-soldiers, and sadistic threatening on the part of the king. In act four, the Chorus's beautiful portrait of the eve of Agincourt promises "a little touch of Harry in the night," but the king's surreptitious visits to his soldiers, which look like nothing so much as panoptic surveillance, result in quarrels with Pistol and Williams, a far cry from the beneficent inspiration that the Chorus describes (TLN 1817-36). The fifth act Chorus, describing Henry's triumphal entry into London and his return to France to make peace is so uncomfortably at odds with the scene that follows it -- the Welsh-English squabbling that results in beating and forced leek-consumption for Pistol -- that many eighteenth-century editors simply relocated the leek scene before the Chorus. In every case, the audience is encouraged, even ordered to participate in the Chorus's vision, only to be confronted with the fact that that vision, and by implication the history play itself, is an overt act of remembering with advantages.

38The most radical example of Shakespeare's scrutiny of the artifice of history comes in act four, where he confronts us with the rewriting of events even as they unfold. Henry's infamous order to kill the French prisoners occurs in 4.6, in the heat of battle, and his reasons are clear: "The French have reinforced their scattered men" (TLN 2521) in order to make another attack, and in such a critical moment, guarding prisoners becomes a wasteful use of manpower. In the scene immediately following, Gower declares that the killing of the prisoners was in retaliation for the cowardly French attack on the boys guarding the luggage train, for which Henry is to be praised: "wherefore the king most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner's throat. Oh, 'tis a gallant king" (TLN 2533-35). At a remove of only eleven lines in the Folio text, Gower's reinterpretation must appear to the audience to be flatly incorrect, but the play never contradicts his error, and we are confronted with a false historiography that the characters of the play tacitly endorse. The morality of Henry's order has been much discussed, but what is clear is that Shakespeare alters his chronicle source in Holinshed (see TLN 2520-22 n.) in order to show that the process of rewriting history has already begun. As the scene continues, so does its exposure of flawed historiography, as Fluellen's mock-Plutarchan comparison of Henry to Alexander the Great -- based on each of them being born near a river containing "salmons" -- threatens to undermine the play's earlier use of Alexander as a serious typological precursor to Henry (TLN 87, TLN 1102; see Spencer 16). Finally, lest we miss the point, Shakespeare links this battlefield historiography, the immediate act of remembering with advantages, to his own dramatic fiction. The discussion of Henry's gallantry and his comparison to Alexander leads Fluellen to the fat knight who may or may not have been killed by Henry's dismissal; and in a reminder that strategic remembrance also requires strategic forgetting, Fluellen admits, "I have forgot his name" (TLN 2573).

39Henry himself remembers with advantages, and Shakespeare is concerned to highlight his doing so. An examination of Shakespeare's strategic alterations of his chronicle source in the play's first two scenes will demonstrate this. Canterbury's speech in 1.2 is nearly a direct, though versified, quotation of Holinshed's Chronicles, retaining even Holinshed's factual errors (see TLN 224 n.). This might lead readers to the misapprehension that Shakespeare narrowly followed his source for this scene and adopted its arguments and biases. In fact, the playwright subtly alters the course of events presented in Holinshed in order to present a more savvy, manipulative picture of Henry as the agent behind the war. In Holinshed, Canterbury is the clear instigator, and Henry's voice in the build-up to war is almost entirely absent. The process starts, as it seems to do in Shakespeare's play, with the commons' proposal to reapportion church property, and in Holinshed the bishops' ploy to urge war as a distraction is much more explicitly stated than in Shakespeare:

to find remedie against it, they determined to assaie all ways to put by and overthrow this bill: wherein they thought best to trie if they might mooue the kings mood with some sharpe inuention, that he should not regard the importunate petitions of the commons. (545)

The archbishop then delivers his speech regarding the Salic Law to the privy council, and the lords whip the assembly into a frenzied mood, all without the participation of the king, whom Holinshed presents more as object than agent:

the duke of Excester used such earnest and pithie persuasions, to induce the king and the whole assemblie of the parlement to credit his words, that immediatelie after he had made an end, all the companie began to crie; Warre, warre; France, France. (546)

And in a passage whose import Shakespeare omits, Holinshed reminds his readers of the clerical motive and the priests' successful gambit: "Hereby the bill for dissoluing of religious houses was cleerlie set aside, and nothing thought on but onelie the recovering of France, according as the archbishop had mooued" (546). Only after this point of no return does Holinshed's Henry send ambassadors to demand the surrender of the French crown and "certain dukedoms" (TLN 396).

40Shakespeare's reordering of events makes clear that Henry is the agent behind the war, and that the "bill urged by the commons" (TLN 113), despite its appearance in the first scene, is merely a tool for the king's use. In the play's second scene, the archbishop delivers his Salic Law speech, but he does so at Henry's instigation and, as Canterbury anticipates, "[w]ith good acceptance of his majesty" (TLN 126; see TLN 408 n.); and unlike in the chronicle, it is Henry himself who makes the decisive move to war ("Now are we well resolved" [TLN 369]). The French ambassador makes clear that Henry's demands to France have already taken place -- that is, before the archbishop's justification of them -- and that the purpose of the embassy is to present the dauphin's response (TLN 395-406). In Henry's hands, this response, the mocking gift of tennis balls, becomes the immediate public impetus for war, and the previous events -- the prior English diplomatic aggression and even the speech on Salic Law that we have just heard -- are swept under the carpet; the king himself, not the bishops, uses rhetoric as a distraction from less attractive realities. The overall effect of Shakespeare's alterations of his chronicle source is to change Holinshed's picture of a pious king acceding to the influence of his counselors into a portrait of a shrewd, unilateral manipulator of piety and polity alike, capable of rewriting his own history even as it unfolds. In Henry V, the last play of Shakespeare's eight-play cycle seems to hold historiography itself up to scrutiny -- particularly the type of communal historiography performed on battlefields, at public memorials, in political discourse, and on stages -- even as he himself participates in it.

41"Still a Giddy Neighbor": Englishness and the foreign

The Old Vic theater in south London opened its doors in 1951, after a long postwar closure, with Glen Byam Shaw's production of Henry V. In his mostly negative review, Evening Standard critic Milton Shulman's most interesting remark concerned the audience's sensitivity to modern topicality (2 Feb. 1951). Shulman noted that the line "these English are shrewdly out of beef" (TLN 1781-82), which had drawn bitter spirit-of-the-blitz laughter throughout the years of meat rationing, continued to please, but he was disappointed that only he found the opportunity for a knowing smile in the French lords' characterization of the English as "Foolish curs, that run winking into the mouth of a Russian bear" (TLN 1771-72). By 1951, the enemy had changed, but the Shakespearean inside jokes were expected to remain current.

42That a newspaper critic should be surprised and aggrieved at his fellow theatergoers' inability to find a cold war context for a sixteenth-century bear-baiting joke illustrates the curious place that Henry V occupies in the English historical imagination. Shakespeare's play has somehow made a brief, mercenary, politically-motivated campaign in 1415 France into a primary model for the fashioning of English identity. As suggested by the lines Shulman's review emphasizes, though, despite its stirring rhetorical linkage of Harry, England, and Saint George, the play produces its idea of Englishness less through the figure of the titular king than through representations of England in discursive tension with the foreign. In Henry V, any attempt, however subtle, to define or celebrate the English character is undercut by the English doing the celebrating or by the foreigners doing the defining; the enemy, so to speak, has always already digged himself countermines. The play does not so much portray English identity as delimit it by means of rhetorics of difference placed in the mouths of English and foreign characters alike. Directors who see the play as an assertion of national identity ignore Shakespeare's conditional, oppositional, conflicted view of Englishness at their peril.

43Because of its position as the central fulcrum of the eight contiguous English history plays, Henry V cannot really extricate its central character -- arguably the one successful monarch in the lot -- from the dominant arc of rebellion and civil wars that tie the tetralogies together. Bookended by the clerics' reminder of the "scambling and unquiet time" (TLN 42) of Henry IV's reign and the epilogue's promise that England will bleed again all too soon, the triumph of Henry V is only a brief respite from the primal curse afflicting the heirs of Edward III.

44Although Henry V contains the words "England" and "English" more than any other Shakespearean drama, any elegiac celebrations of the British island and its glories, in the vein of John of Gaunt's famous speech in Richard II (TLN 681-709) are conspicuously absent from this play; such moments are instead reserved for "fair France," the "world's best garden" (TLN 3345, TLN 3374), with "her almost kingly dukedoms" (TLN 374). The play's picture of the English, even in the comparative unity of Henry V's reign, is characterized not by concord, but by fracture. We open with a reminder from Canterbury that the government is factious: commons ranged against clergy and lords, with the crown's leanings unsure. The stylized grouping of the four captains -- English, Welsh, Scots, and Irish -- sometimes read as a celebration of unity under Henry's benevolent imperial rule, is a study in the barely controlled internecine animosity that permeates Shakespeare's picture of the Agincourt campaign. "Be friends, you English fools," cries Bates, "we have French quarrels enough" (TLN 2071-72), but his plea goes unheard by anyone, even the king.

45At those spots in the play where Englishness is most explicitly defined by English voices, it is so defined in the negative, or in the subjunctive mood. Henry's most famous speech builds to a jingoistic battle cry, but it repeatedly betrays the king's suspicion that his men are not quite English enough (whatever that may mean). The English may be noble (or at least, as in the Folio's spelling, "Noblish"), and their ancestry may be "war-proof" (TLN 1100-1), but Henry calls that ancestry in question as soon as he asserts its quality: "Dishonor not your Mothers; now attest / That those whom you called fathers did beget you" (TLN 1105-6). His praise of the "good yeomen, / Whose limbs were made in England" (TLN 1108-9) is likewise immediately undercut by his insistence that they prove such nativity to be an advantage: "show us here / The mettle of your pasture. Let us swear / That you are worth your breeding" (TLN 1109-11). Henry may claim to "doubt [it] not," but the call to prove the quality of his men's English upbringing suggests that doubt persists.

46Even the Chorus, whose ostensible role is to beat the play's most patriotic drum taps, employs the conditional in his praise of England:

O England, model to thy inward greatness,
Like little body with a mighty heart,
What mightst thou do, that honor would thee do,
Were all thy children kind and natural!
(TLN 478-81)

This is, of course, our introduction to the traitors, and so such a tone of lament is understandable, but it furthers the ambivalent picture of England in the play, fatally subverting the speech's opening claim that "all the youth of England are on fire" (TLN 473) even more than does the juxtaposition of that claim with Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym, the least young, ardent, and hearty (and therefore least English?) of the troops.

47The traitor scene inserts the three unkind, unnatural children -- Cambridge, Scrope, and Grey -- troublingly into the preparation for war. For all the claims of providential resolution to the treason crisis that end the scene, it proposes no alternative to the traitors' "unkindness" (i.e. their alien, foreign behavior), no sense of true Englishness, no sense of what a kind and natural child would look like. The king's accusation exposes them as inhuman: "See you, my princes and my noble peers, / These English monsters" (TLN 713-14), but the phrase is intriguingly ambivalent. Are the traitors monsters in their failure to behave like Englishmen? Or is their Englishness part of their monstrousness? The etymology of monster -- from the Latin monstrare, to show -- suggests ambiguous wordplay, as if treason is a demonstration of Englishness. And the upshot of treason is not to clarify by contrast the nature of true Englishmen, but rather to call virtue itself into question: "And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot / To make the full-fraught man, and best, indued / With some suspicion" (TLN 767-69). Treason taints every Englishman, just as the first "fall of man" taints every human. What, then, is "natural" Englishness, and who, if anyone, has a claim to it? The scene has no answer to that question.

48The chief means of portraying national identity in Henry V, however, is not this negative and conditional definition of English nature, but the silhouette of Englishness that emerges from comparative discourse with the foreign. A positive picture of England can only be limned, apparently, with reference to the non-English. Henry repeatedly repays the French in the coin of battlefield taunting; the English may be unclear on the mettle of their pasture, but at least they know they are not the French. Their comparative paucity of heraldic feathers is proof of their courage: "Good argument . . . [they] will not fly" (TLN 2360). Henry figures the English constitution quantitatively, using his soldiers' French counterparts as a unit of measure: "when they were in health, I tell thee, herald, / I thought upon one pair of English legs / Did march three Frenchmen" (TLN 1598-1600), and even as he admits the blame for his English boastfulness, he attributes it to a Gallic infection; in France, even the climate is arrogant: "this your air of France / Hath blown that vice in me" (TLN 1601-2). In his wooing of Catherine, one of the rare moments when Henry nearly states outright a positive English characteristic, he again requires a foreign figure -- the outspoken and decidedly resistant figure of Catherine herself -- to do so. The princess declares her distrust of the tongues of men, full as they are of deceits, and Henry replies with an unexpected bit of praise: "The princess is the better Englishwoman" (TLN 3111). In an act of rhetorical colonization, Henry appropriates her suspicious French response and redefines it as English virtue.

49The French, in their court and in their tents before Agincourt, give voice to Shakespeare's idea of foreign stereotypes of the English: they are barbarians, "bastard Normans" (TLN 1389); they endure their impossible weather by drinking "barley broth," "A drench for sur-reined jades" (TLN 1398); they sympathize in nature with the mastiffs they breed (TLN 1776-77), subsist on "great meals of beef" (TLN 1779), and lack "intellectual armor" (TLN 1765-66). These scenes are rich in dramatic irony, of course, but it is remarkable that the fullest, most evocative images of Englishmen in the play come from their enemies. Apparently the English even have a reputation in hell for being easily tempted, thanks to the traitor Scrope:

If that same demon that hath gulled thee thus
Should with his lion gait walk the whole world,
He might return to vasty Tartar back
And tell the legions, "I can never win
A soul so easy as that Englishman's."
(TLN 750-54)

50It is not only the French who contribute to the play's silhouette portrait of Englishness. The character of "good Captain James" (TLN 1202-3) may have been intended as a positive (if anachronistic) portrait of a Scotsman appropriate to England's late sixteenth-century alliance with the captain's royal namesake King James VI, but the play's general view of the Scot -- "Who hath been still a giddy neighbor to us" (TLN 292) -- derives from the historical animosity between the nations, bred by the "auld alliance" between Scotland and France and found in Shakespeare's chronicle sources (see TLN 293-301 n.). When Henry and his counselors wish to hear England's glory "exampled by herself" (TLN 303), the Scots become the villainous vermin in a historiographical animal fable: if England invades France, the expectation is that Scotland will attack, "Playing the mouse in absence of the cat, / To 'tame and havoc more than she can eat" (TLN 318-19). These Scottish "coursing snatchers," in effect, produce the image of "the eagle England" (TLN 315) by inhabiting the historical role of "the weasel Scot" (TLN 316).

51The Welsh presence in the play cannot reflect the same xenophobia, of course, since its central figure and hero is "Welsh, you know" (TLN 2635). For the same reason, Captain Fluellen's role never quite becomes the comedic butt that his obsession with the Roman disciplines, his excessively precise humor, and his occasional malapropisms promise. The conclusion of his role does, however, illustrate the play's pattern of employing the foreign to define English national identity, and it does so in the ambiguously celebratory fashion characteristic of that pattern. The most English thing about Fluellen, as Gower's admonition to the well-beaten Pistol attests, seems to be his affinity for violence:

You thought because he could not speak English in the native garb he could not therefore handle an English cudgel. You find it otherwise, and henceforth let a Welsh correction teach you a good English condition. Fare ye well. (TLN 2971-74)

This is not a lesson in ethnic tolerance; it is a xenophobic statement of national identity. Only by beating Pistol -- who has himself failed Gower's test of true Englishness -- does Fluellen finally achieve "a good English condition" himself.

52In Henry V, the role of the foreign in the making of Englishness calls all such identity formation into question, and productions that take assertions of national identity as their starting point must either acknowledge this aspect of the play or produce anemic and shallow exercises in flag-waving. By contrast, Edward Hall's Royal Shakespeare Company production in 2000 perfectly captured the play's insistence that Englishness may only be examined through the lens of England's discourse with the foreign. As the program's lengthy opening essay made clear, the driving force of the production was a consideration of English national identity. Another section of the program collected quotations of national stereotypes -- both foreign and domestic -- under the heading "So who are the English?" a question answered most fully (with respect to the play) by Andrew Marr's contribution to the program notes:

This is a robust, crowded country of tempestuous and often violent people, generally skeptical of authority . . . but who can be rallied and directed by inspired leadership…. What is stunning about the England of Henry V is…just how relevant this old, old story of medieval conquest still seems to the nation of football hooligans, spin doctors, self-glorifying leaders and migrants on the make.

53The production was unpopular with critics, largely for the very characteristics that made it successful in its stated goal of reflecting on the meaning of Englishness, and particularly relevant to the aspect of the play I have been tracing here. The staging was broadly, at times cartoonishly, stylized, with cascades of tennis balls raining from the flies and national flags large enough to drape over the entire stage. Hall's dramatization of Englishness, as the constant presence of cast members onstage as a liminal audience made clear, was always a mediated one, always in quotation marks. When we saw Nym as a soccer-jersey-wearing thug threatening Pistol with a switchblade, we were watching a foreigner's stereotype of English hooliganism, a stereotype then brought into question by Joe Renton's generally sympathetic portrayal of Nym. The running gag of the English inability to pronounce foreign words -- "Calliss," "Dawfin," "Harflurr" -- came across as seen through the filter of continental Europe's stereotype of the ugly Brit abroad, but the mockery was gentle enough to expose the stereotype as such.

54The production was equally effective when it caricatured English attitudes toward France. Scene shifts from England to France were comically marked, for example, with accordion versions of "La Vie en Rose." The implications of national caricature were most striking in the "English lesson" scene, in which Catherine Walker's princess, a lingerie-clad teenager, was surrounded by onlooking cast members in English military uniforms, singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" in laughably thick Maurice Chevalier accents. Hall's production was certainly not subtle, but its playful ironies captured the complications built into Henry V's presentation of national identity. What Hall understood is the intrinsic function of the foreign to the play's shaping of an English national identity that Shakespeare's play could never, in the contexts of his history cycle, render as simple or monolithic. Englishness, for Shakespeare, is always a conversation.

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.