Internet Shakespeare Editions

Author: James D. Mardock
Peer Reviewed

General Introduction

Theater and kingship

Given 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.

Nowhere, 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 [[ Document 1H4_FM does not exist ]]) 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 [[ Document 1H4_FM does not exist ]])

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 Vto 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.

The 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.

Both 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.

The 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.