Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: James D. Mardock
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Henry V: Critical Reception


1"Your thoughts … must deck our kings": critical interpretation of Henry and his war

Given the narrow focus of the play, it should come as no surprise that the history of the critical reception of Henry V has largely been the history of readers attempting to explain, accommodate, or otherwise deal with the ambiguities of Henry's character. As his defining moment is a campaign of conquest, his journey crowned by bloody warfare, criticism has overwhelmingly focused on "arms and the man," on the nature of "the warlike Harry," and on the arguments the play has been seen to make about war, patriotism, and power. The fascination with the play seems to lie in its steadfast refusal to take a stand, to resolve the apparent binary between the portrait of war as a glorious adventure and war as an unholy mess, between Henry as the mirror of all Christian kings and as a general who threatens rape and infanticide and orders the cutting of prisoners' throats. Other Shakespearean protagonists have received complicated critical responses, of course, but none has provoked such firmly polarized interpretations.

2The most frequently discussed focal points in the play are those scenes that heighten this binary portrait of Henry and his war. These are also, not coincidentally, the scenes that have frequently been cut or strategically rearranged in productions that wish to iron out the play's ambiguities. The first two scenes, for example, can be read as simply patriotic, or as demonstrating the Machiavellian wranglings of realpolitik. The traitor scene seems to undercut claims of national unity, as does the scene with the bickering captains. Henry's threats to Harfleur have been the focus of much ethical and moral discussion, both justification and condemnation. His conversation with Williams -- in which the king deftly turns the soldier's moving ethical argument over the king's responsibility for his soldiers' lives into a theological discussion about his responsibility for their souls -- has been read as evidence both of Henry's traditional piety and of his rhetorical sleight of hand. Henry's winning gestures toward the democracy of the battlefield -- asserting that "there is none of you so mean and base / That hath not noble luster in your eyes" (TLN 1112-13) and joining men of every rank into a "band of brothers" (TLN 2303) -- sits awkwardly with his list of English dead, carefully broken into men "of name" and the other sort (TLN 2824). His wooing of Catherine either gives the play the resolution of a romantic comedy, or coldly illustrates a political power play tantamount to rape.

3Critics have tended to approach the binary portrait of Henry that such elements produce in two main ways, each presuming knowledge of authorial intention: either by explaining away or denying the apparent conflict by demonstrating that Shakespeare could have intended only one interpretation and that the other pole of the binary is illusory; or by attempting to reconcile the opposition, to find a way in which the play might demonstrate both sides, its ambiguity being the whole point. The former response tended to dominate earlier criticism, while the latter emerged more strongly in the twentieth century.

4Those readers who play down the ambiguities in the portrait tend to argue that we are meant to take the Chorus's aggrandizement of the ideal hero-king at face value, that Shakespeare's portrait of Henry was intended as unproblematically positive. The real question that divides such critics is whether such a portrait is successful, whether it should be read as a strength of the play or its fundamental weakness. This question has tended to be determined by a critic's own historical contexts. Thus when John Stuart MacKenzie approached the play in 1920, his argument that Henry seems a troublesome hero has much to do with his exercise in post-war moral stock-taking. While Shakespeare intended us to regard Henry with sympathy and admiration, the horrors of World War I make such a view impossible. The best MacKenzie can say of Henry is that his deep flaws, his lack of scruples, his shifting series of manipulative poses are unintentional; he is an "unconscious poseur" who simply "does not really understand himself" (MacKenzie 43). And John C. McCloskey's 1944 reading of the character as "a savage barbarian unrestrained by Christian ethics in his ruthless pursuit of victory" is informed by McCloskey's revulsion at the twentieth-century notion of "total war" (McCloskey 36).

5The Romantic critic William Hazlitt wrote the first extended critical study of the play as a whole, in his 1817 Characters of Shakspear's Plays. Hazlitt's reading, the first to take a scathingly negative view of Henry, is no less informed by his historical contexts, in this case disgust with Napoleonic militarism combined with a streak of antimonarchial radicalism. Though he appreciated the poetry of the more splendid passages, Hazlitt considered Henry V "but one of Shakspear's second-rate plays" (210). Hazlitt lamented the play's celebration of might as right and of morality selectively applied according to rank, but "[s]uch," he writes, "is the history of kingly power, from the beginning to the end of the world" (205). Hazlitt assumes that Henry is intended by Shakespeare to be seen as a hero, but in the play he comes off as "a very amiable monster"; we enjoy this pageant of violent patriotism only in the way we enjoy seeing a caged beast (206). We "feel little love or admiration for him" as a historical king (205).

6Hazlitt's book initiated a mode of character-based Shakespeare criticism -- a tendency to judge the success of a play based on moral judgments of characters' decisions, as though they had an existence outside the confines of the play -- that was to dominate the nineteenth century, reaching its apogee in A. C. Bradley at the turn of the twentieth. His radical attack on the character, however, was met with much opposition. In 1841, for example, Thomas Carlyle praised the play, which he saw as a sort of national epic, for its "noble Patriotism. . . . A true English heart breathes, calm and strong, through the whole business" (Carlyle 113). Edward Dowden's influential and often reprinted study of 1875 focused entirely on the character of the king. While Dowden did not ignore the play's moral ambiguities, he argued that Henry was the playwright's "ideal of the practical heroic character," the ideal of a king in the real world (66, Dowden's emphasis). By the criteria of Victorian practicality, though, Dowden's Henry certainly has fewer rough edges than in many interpretations, with all the virtues of a bourgeois gentleman: "[h]is courage, his integrity, his unfaltering justice, his hearty English warmth, his modesty, his love of plainness rather than of pageantry, his joyous temper, his business-like English piety" (75).

7Free from the nationalist impulses of the English, nineteenth-century German critics of the play made important innovations and anticipated several later critical approaches, but they too found it difficult to shift the focus away from the characterization of the central figure. Hermann Ulrici, drawing upon the arguments of A. W. Schlegel and anticipating critics like E. M. W. Tillyard, argued that apparent weaknesses in the characterization of Henry and its "want of an interesting plot" come from a misconception about its genre -- a history is neither tragedy or comedy -- and its specific place in the larger organic cycle of Shakespeare's history plays. But Ulrici was also forced to engage with the tradition of character-based reading; even as he dismisses Hazlitt for his "blind hatred" of monarchy, he participates in Hazlitt's approach. While acknowledging Henry's historically disputable claim to France, Ulrici insists upon the king's "moral power, his manly energy and his truly moral mind" (Ulrici 2: 250). G. G. Gervinus, in 1875, was one of the first critics to attempt to read the play in the political and national contexts of the 1590s: he finds in it unashamed post-Armada patriotism and a commentary on Henry IV of France. Gervinus finds in the play a patriotic argument about idealized kingship, and asserts that Shakespeare's histories deal with the public sphere rather than the private, but like Hazlitt he focuses entirely on the characterization of Henry: "The whole interest of our play lies in the development of the ethical character of the hero" (340). Gervinus's reaction to Henry is among the nineteenth century's most conservatively defensive: the king is "a many-sided man" and able to adapt to the situation at hand, but his character is without contradiction, indeed "incapable of dissimulation" (344).

8The nineteenth century did see a return to Hazlitt's criticism of Henry's character in William Watkiss Lloyd's Critical Essays of 1875, if anything a more excoriating view of Henry than Hazlitt's and an even more essentialist mode of character criticism. Lloyd, anticipating many later negative assessments of the king's character, writes that Henry cynically plays upon the bishops' greed and anxiety to secure a war in a questionable cause, a war that Lloyd characterizes as a second crime to secure the results of the first: i.e., Henry IV's regicide (252-53). Lloyd notes the choplogic of Henry's debate with Williams, and finds in his soliloquy and prayer before Agincourt "as much of weakness of mind and superstition as hypocrisy" (253). Even the apparent humility of the post-battle prayer is "at best refinement of pride, whether audaciously claiming to be the representative and arm of the divinity, or mounting to the fantastic trick of partnership with or even generosity to God" (254). Unlike Hazlitt, though, Lloyd vindicates the playwright of Henry's sins; Shakespeare is merely describing "the basenesses that are compatible with glories of this class, and the essential narrowness of the minds to which the glory of simple military achievement is all-sufficient" (255-56).

9While nineteenth-century character-based criticism can demonstrate the ambiguities within the play, the limitation of the approach is that it encourages the individual critic to deny those ambiguities and to take a side. Nor is such a response confined to the nineteenth century; the denial of the play's ambiguities is a remarkably long-lived critical strategy. As late as 1954, A. P. Rossiter, in an essay about the unrelenting ambivalence that he found to characterize the moral environment of Shakespeare's histories, argued that Henry V, alone among those plays, allows for only a "one-eyed" approach, and called the play "a propaganda-play on national unity, heavily orchestrated for the brass" (Rossiter 165).

10In 1919, however, Gerald Gould's "New Reading of Henry V" suggested an alternative to the critical tradition of emphasizing only one half of the play's insistently binary protagonist. Gould argued that critics who, like Hazlitt, suppose that whatever their own feelings about Henry, Shakespeare must have liked him, miss the point: Henry V is unfailingly ironic, a deft satire on monarchy, debased patriotism, imperialism, and war (42-44). Is Henry's war about his rightful inheritance or is it to "busy giddy minds"? According to Gould, it's both, and the contradictory motives for it expose Henry's insincerity. In 1 Henry IV, the rebel Mortimer's claim to the throne can only be denied by denying female inheritance, an irony that would not have been missed by the audience, and an irony, Gould argues, that forms the only justification for the otherwise extraneous Salic Law scene: "unless its intention is the obvious cynical one, there is no intention at all" (50). Against A. C. Bradley (see above), Gould argued that our love for Falstaff was not a dramatic failure on Shakespeare's part, but rather the conscious design of a playwright who hated the "unscrupulous brutality" that Hal/Henry represented and used Falstaff and his rejection to underscore the king's flaws (Gould 42, 46). The immediate juxtaposition of the traitors' execution with the death of Falstaff is yet another of the ironies that contribute to the play's implicit critique.

11Gould's influence on twentieth-century criticism is hard to overemphasize. Postwar criticism of the 1920s and '30s continued to produce some one-sidedly heroic/patriotic readings of the play, but sophisticated scrutiny of the play's ironies and ambivalences and of Shakespeare's consciously multivalent arguments would gain traction throughout the ensuing decades. The 1940s, unsurprisingly, saw a resurgence in conservative arguments for a heroic Henry, as the Second World War became the overwhelming interpretive context: G. Wilson Knight's The Olive and the Sword sought to muster Henry V as a source for "refuelling [the] national confidence" at the same time as Laurence Olivier's film version of the play was pressed into the service of the War Office (Wilson Knight, Olive 4). But even John Dover Wilson, who sought in his 1947 edition to recuperate Henry's heroism in the face of the anti-Henry legacy of Hazlitt, concedes that the play is more complex than the pre-Gould reductively patriotic readings would suggest. Henry is not Shakespeare's ideal, Dover Wilson argues, hearkening back to Dowden's treatment, but a successful king in a flawed world. Wilson's conception of war is informed by his moment, but by arguing that Shakespeare's was similarly influenced by his, Dover Wilson finds a way to counter Hazlitt's attack:

[Henry's] war against France is a righteous war, and seemed as much so to Shakespeare's public as the war against the Nazis seems to us. Once this is realized, a fog of suspicion and detraction is lifted from the play; the mirror held up in 1599 shines bright once more; and we are at liberty to find a hero's face reflected within it. (Wilson, Henry V xxxiv)

This move, anchoring a critical interpretation in the beliefs and habits of mind that can be claimed for Shakespeare and his original audience, is characteristic of the brand of historicism pioneered in the 1940s by Dover Wilson's contemporaries, E. M. W. Tillyard and Lily B. Campbell. As its subtitle indicates, Campbell's 1947 Shakespeare's 'Histories': Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy, like Dover Wilson, took it as read that Shakespeare's plays reflect his age, indeed that for the playwright's contemporaries "the chief function of history was considered to be that of acting as a political mirror" (15). "Each of the Shakespeare histories," Campbell writes, "serves a special purpose in elucidating a political problem of Elizabeth's day and in bringing to bear upon this problem the accepted political philosophy of the Tudors" (125). Like Tillyard's, Campbell's understanding of Shakespeare's political arguments is that they are basically conservative and grounded in contemporary orthodoxy, though her exhaustive examination of non-literary, non-philosophical texts and contexts of the "problems" she identifies in the plays is more specifically focused than the more essentialist "Elizabethan world picture" that Tillyard's 1942 book of that title -- a companion volume to Shakespeare's History Plays -- constructed. Campbell reads Fluellen's insistence on "Roman disciplines," for example, as a parody of contemporary disputes about classical and modern (gunpowder-based) warfare and tactics as seen in late sixteenth-century military treatises; and she discusses the morality of Henry's Agincourt campaign in the contexts of Elizabethan tracts and sermons about just war, finding a parallel between Henry's deliberations with his bishops and Robert Dudley's 1585 correspondence with his own Archbishop of Canterbury, John Whitgift, about the justice of military action in the Low Countries (Campbell 268-71). The brand of scholarship that Campbell and Tillyard initiated has often been disparaged in the past seven decades as reductive and reactionary, but with the exception of Richard Simpson's 1874 essay "The Politics of Shakspere's Historical Plays," their attempt to read Henry V in the political contexts of its time -- today such an ingrained approach that ignoring such contexts is virtually unthinkable -- was an innovation. By placing Shakespeare's plays into a discourse with the ideas of his times, however conservative they assumed the playwright's voice to be, they built upon Gerald Gould's assertion that the play contains ironic complexities by giving concrete textual support to the polyvocal Elizabethan conversation in which Shakespeare participated.

12One of the most influential late twentieth-century readings of Henry V was Norman Rabkin's 1977 essay, "Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V." Like many twentieth-century critics, Rabkin discussed the duality of the play and its main character, but rather than asserting, as Gould had, that Shakespeare had an ironic, satirical purpose, or that he was forced to split Henry into good king and flawed man as, for example, Dover Wilson and Una Ellis-Fermor had argued, Rabkin sees the duality itself as the play's raison d'être. Critics who attempt reductively to paint Henry as either good or bad, or to reconcile the disparate views with irony, he argues, miss the point (Rabkin 279). The Rabbit-Duck Optical Illusion, J. Jastrow, "The mind's eye," Popular Science Monthly 54 (1899), 299–312. Like the famous image from gestalt psychology that can be seen as either a rabbit or a duck, but not both at once, the play resists any attempt to find a compromise position between the binary interpretations, forcing its audiences and readers to make a choice:

In Henry V Shakespeare creates a work whose ultimate power is precisely the fact that it points in two opposite directions, virtually daring us to choose one of the two opposed interpretations it requires of us (Rabkin 279).

Rabkin focuses on the role of the audience, taking at the key to the play the Chorus's assertion that it is our thoughts that must deck our kings. He demonstrates that the original audience would have been trained to expect one play by the comic festivity of 1 Henry IV and quite another by the Machiavellian politics and darker tone of the second part. Which version of Henry V we encounter, the rabbit or the duck, depends on a variety of factors, but the fundamental point is irresolution:

The terrible fact about Henry V is that Shakespeare seems equally tempted by both its rival gestalts. And he forces us, as we experience and re-experience and reflect on the play, as we encounter it in performances which inevitably lean in one direction or the other, to share its conflict. (293)

In his stress on the "intransigently multivalent" nature of interpretation and of representation (295), Rabkin laid the groundwork for later critics, notably Larry Champion (1980), Phyllis Rackin (1990), and Claire McEachern (1996), who, reading Henry V in a similarly dialectical fashion, see Shakespeare calling attention to the problem of contingency and perspective in historiography itself.

13In the 1980s, two similar critical approaches began to dominate Shakespeare studies, both of which sought to explore the cultural work done by such multivalent, paradoxical texts as Henry V, and both of which used the play to describe early modern English culture in terms of complicated binary oppositions. The criticism that would come to be called the "new historicism" -- to distinguish it from that of Tillyard and Campbell -- was inaugurated in large part by Stephen Greenblatt's 1981 essay "Invisible Bullets." Greenblatt's approach -- heavily influenced by French philosopher of history Michel Foucault and his theory that state power works to suppress the potentially subversive, transgressive agency of the individual -- advocated the pursuit of a "cultural poetics," reading literary texts alongside other non-literary products of the culture that produced them. His essay thus uses cartographer and reputed atheist Thomas Harriot's 1588 description of North American natives and Thomas Harman's sensationalist catalogue of the London underground, A Caveat for Common Cursitors (1566), to build a theory of how social order was built and sustained in the Elizabethan period by incorporating the subversion that threatened it, in order to contain that subversion. Greenblatt then turns to the character of Prince Hal, whom he sees as a "conniving hypocrite" shoring up the power that he will one day exercise as King Henry, a power that amounts to "glorified usurpation and theft" (41). But moral judgment is not really Greenblatt's aim; he sees Henry's career with Falstaff and the Eastcheap contingent as a concerted effort to obtain the language and theatrical skills of his future subjects, the ability to mimic their voices in order to repress the threats they represent. Henry V is, for Greenblatt, the ultimate illustration of the Foucauldian model of power. Potentially subversive elements in the play -- the Cambridge treason, the bickering captains, the argument with Williams, and the accusations of Henry having killed Falstaff -- are repeatedly voiced only to be disarmed, their "potential dissonance being absorbed into charismatic celebration" (Greenblatt 58). "In this play," writes Greenblatt, "moral values -- justice, order, civility -- are secured through the apparent generation of their subversive contraries" (51).

14The rather cynical moral that readers took from Greenblatt's essay (including the many critics who would embrace and emulate his approach over the ensuing decade) was that true resistance to power was and is impossible, that subversion is always already contained, already part of the workings of power. "[I]t is not at all clear," Greenblatt writes, stepping briefly into stage criticism, "that Henry V can be performed as subversive" (63). He acknowledges that Shakespeare's theater, even subject to Elizabethan state censorship, could potentially demonstrate "containment subverted" rather than "subversion contained" -- even if it did not do so in the histories (65) -- but for the most part the new historicist model would stress, as Foucault did, that institutional power has the upper hand in the binary. As new historicism took hold in America, Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield laid the foundations -- especially with the publication of their Political Shakespeare (1985), a volume that reprinted Greenblatt's essay -- for a similarly politicized, historicized approach in England that came to be known as "cultural materialism." Where the new historicist master narrative was supplied by Foucault and posited "power" as a sort of abstract agent, Dollimore and Sinfield were more influenced by the theories of Marxist Louis Althusser, and more interested in the specific material conditions that enabled the Elizabethan practices of ideology, which they define as "those beliefs, practices, and institutions that work to legitimate the social order -- especially by the process of representing sectional or class interests as universal ones. . . . Ideology is not just a set of ideas, it is a material practice, woven into the fabric of everyday life" (Dollimore and Sinfield, "Instance of Henry V" 210-11). Where Greenblatt stressed power's use of representation to contain subversion, they would argue that ideology, even in the Elizabethan state, is never entirely successful, precisely because "to silence dissent one must first give it a voice, to misrepresent it one must first present it" (215). Dollimore and Sinfield read Henry V as an ideological text presenting a fantasy of national unity written in Elizabethan contexts -- Essex's failure in Ireland and subsequent rebellion, religious nonconformity both Catholic and Protestant, and enclosure riots -- that threatened English stability. As it constructs its celebratory fantasy, however, the play exposes the workings of its own ideological function, "reveal[ing] not only the strategies of power but also the anxieties informing both them and their ideological representation" (226). So, for example, Henry's pre-Agincourt soliloquy is not a pious meditiation on kingship, but a declaration of "his awareness of the ideological role of 'ceremony'" and more to the point, an awareness of its failure in the face of opposition from the likes of Williams: "[w]hat really torments Henry is the inability to ensure obedience" (217-18).

15The twin methodologies of new historicism and cultural materialism held such a sway over Shakespeare studies, and indeed literary criticism generally, that thirty years later its influence continues to be felt. Indeed, the past three decades of criticism have been largely characterized by emulation of, and reaction against, the historicist/materialist mode. In the realm of Henry V criticism, Graham Bradshaw's 1993 Misrepresentations voices several complaints against the materialists: the approach relies narrowly on a few contexts while claiming knowledge of Elizabethan patterns of thought, it can be as reductive as the Tillyardian approach -- "old historicism with a Foucauldian facelift" (Bradshaw 85) -- and it downplays the author's own conscious choices, presuming that the critic, in outlining the containment-subversion binary, can unearth Shakespeare's subconscious anxieties about the workings of power. Bradshaw reads the traditional sites of contradiction and irresolution in the play as Shakespeare's intentional critique of historiography: the playwright is "demonstrably more 'interrogative,' more 'radical' and above all, far more intelligent than [the materialists] allow" (112). More recently, the rather vaguely named "presentist" school of criticism has taken a more fundamental issue with historicism, citing the impossibility of recovering the past in the ways that historicists have claimed to do, and explore what and how we -- readers, critics, and audiences in our own contemporary contexts -- use Shakespeare to mean (Grady and Hawkes 3).

16This critical survey has focused, as most criticism of the play has itself done, on the interpretation of Henry and his war. Perhaps understandably, given the play's relative paucity of female characters, feminism, psychoanalysis, and gender studies have tended not to figure as largely in Henry V criticism as other approaches, though the 1990s saw Dollimore and Sinfield extend their study of ideological anxieties in the play to include threats posed to the social order by representations of gender ("Masculinity and Miscegenation"), and Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin's excellent feminist study of Shakespeare's histories, Engendering a Nation (1997), read the play as a comparative study in forms of performed masculinity: chivalry, violent sexual conquest, and battlefield camaraderie. Expanding and nuancing Lance Wilcox's 1985 arguments about the motif of sexual violence in the play with early modern conceptions of gender, Howard and Rackin put Henry V into conversation with feminist arguments about "the nascent bourgeois ideal of heterosexual marriage and the savage fantasies of rape that attend it" (Howard and Rackin 215).

17Three other aspects of the play and its historical contexts have seen more sustained attention in recent years, and they offer promising directions for future study. The first is the role of Henry V in fostering a sense of nationhood. Studies that have focused particularly on the play's participation in contemporary debates about Irish identity and Elizabethan colonization of Ireland have included David J. Baker's postcolonial exploration of otherness and national identity (1992), Michael Neill's reading of Henry's conquest as a coded commentary on the Elizabethan settlement of Ireland (1994), and Andrew Murphy's comparison of the unruly Macmorris to the Irish rebel leader Tyrone (1996). The role of Welsh identity in the play has seen increased interest more recently, in light of Fluellen's prominence relative to the other captains and Henry's explicit identification of himself as Welsh. See, for example, Lisa Hopkins's study of the role of Welshness as a pseudo-historical symbol (2004), and Philip Schwyzer's discussion of the Tudor dynasty's use of Welsh identity as a propaganda tool (2004). It is also only rather recently that critics have begun to consider the play in the contexts of its original London audience's experience of war with Spain, both the memory of the 1588 Armada and the fear of a new invasion in 1599, the year of the play's first performances. James Shapiro has written about Henry V as Shakespeare's "Belated Armada Play" (1989, 2005). Joel Altman (1991) explains the ambiguity in Henry's character as Shakespeare's response to an anti-war atmosphere in 1599, and Nick de Somogyi (1998) considers the play's urging its audience to renew the military feats of their ancestors in the context of a London filled with defensive musters and on edge after a decade of constant war. A third recently fertile direction of Henry V criticism examines the tension inherent in presenting a glorious Catholic hero for a nominally Protestant audience, and considers the play's role in Elizabethan religious discourse. Critics who have put the famously "reformed" king into Shakespeare's Reformation context include Camille Slights (2001), who reads the play as a meditation on the Protestant concept of the workings of conscience; Michael Davies (2005), who argues that Falstaff fits John Calvin's description of the reprobate and that Henry demonstrates his election by casting off the fat knight; Phebe Jensen (2008), who finds in Falstaff Shakespearean arguments about both puritan anticlericalism and pre-reformation festivity; and most notably David Womersley, whose 2010 Divinity and State considers the chronicle history plays of Shakespeare and others in the light of competing post-Reformation historiographies.