From Hal to Harry: The Callousness of the Crown in Shakespeare’s Henry V

Between the events of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, King Harry evolves from a playful and wayward son into a celebrated political adept. He forfeits a life of tavern-hopping and petty larceny in favor of becoming one of the most revered kings and military tacticians in English (literary) history. Throughout Henry V, Shakespeare paints Harry as an affable king whose loyalty rests with the people of England; however, in his quest for redemption through the universal appeasement of his people—be they religious syndicates at the royal castle, squadrons of troops in the fields of Agincourt, or the common masses waiting at home—the emotions of individual characters are often abandoned in the wake of King Harry’s enterprise. Previous to and during the Battle of Agincourt, Harry is constantly at war with his own sensibilities, often choosing to neglect showing his emotions outwardly in fear that such a display might negatively impact the well being of his people.

Using both high rhetoric and hollow sensationalism, Harry consistently elevates the esteem of his soldiers while shielding his own emotions. The majority of Henry V takes places in France, where common soldiers are fighting a war that they don’t quite understand, so before the siege of Harfleur, King Harry delivers his “Cry, ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’” speech to elevate the morale and solidarity of his army. He urges them to continue pressing forward, even through death, and to “dishonour not [their] mothers” (3.1.22)—that is, to overcome any lack of courage they may face during the siege. He insists that “there is none of [them] so mean and base / that hath not noble lustre in [their] eyes” (III.I.29-30), once again encouraging a familial solidarity among his many battalions. In spite of Harry’s universal rhetorical placations, the reception of his speech is mixed, particularly among Bardolph, Nim, and Pistol, three of Harry’s former companions in I Henry IV and II Henry IV. Bardolph appears eager to join the troops, echoing Harry’s decrees to march forward “to the breach, to the breach!” (III.II.I), but Nim and Pistol are much more hesitant to risk their lives for an unknown cause. Nim declares that if he had more lives to give, it would be a noble fight, but Pistol simply breaks out in song. He acknowledges the chivalry and valor of battle by singing, “And sword and shield / In bloody field / Doth win immortal fame” (III.II.7-9), but he soon delves into the precariousness of his own position when he continues singing, “And I. / If wishes would prevail with me / My purpose should not Fail with me / But thither would I hie” (III.II.12-15). In his song of fame and despair, there is a sharp end stop—a period—after the word “I,” indicating an emphasis on the personal nature of Pistol’s concerns. The brevity of the sentence “And I.” and its subsequent line break further contrast the universality of King Harry’s speech to the individual plight of common soldiers. Pistol’s fears are, of course, unknown to Harry, for Harry is too preoccupied securing his army’s morale to worry about the fears of one simple soldier. Pistol’s romantic musings are quickly broken by the entrance of Fluellen, a scholarly Captain in whom Harry believes to be “much care and valour” (4.1.83). Fluellen’s staunch adherence to the success of the war, regardless of an individual soldier’s concerns, places him as a worthy surrogate for the mindset of Harry, who is also incapable of acknowledging individual complaints in fear that the oneness of the army and of his people might lose its footing.

To elevate his army to a level of moral consistency, Harry issues harsh restrictions on individual actions. After the siege of Harfleur, Bardolph is hanged for stealing a Pax, a small religious symbol. When Fluellen gives Harry the news of the former friend’s crime, Harry callously states that the army “should have all such offenders so cut off” (3.4.98). The lack of emotion in his words is echoed during the Battle of Agincourt, when the Boy, the former page of Falstaff, states that Nim has faced the same fate as Bardolph (4.4.62-64). Though Harry’s reprimands are unsympathetic, he justifies the punishments by telling Fluellen that “when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner” (3.3.102-103). In this speech, Harry incites his soldiers to become beacons of morality, for gentleness and civility, in the king’s mind, are paramount in all aspects of victory and in upholding the justness of his cause. Although Harry appears to be genuine in expressing concern for the moral well being of his soldiers, he is also erecting a stoic veil behind which he may hide from the callousness of his actions and the hollowness of his decrees. Harry does not have the patience or time necessary to worry about the fates of individual soldiers. By anthropomorphizing himself into the figure of “lenity and cruelty,” he is able to distance himself from the emotional and psychological repercussions of his actions while also deflecting responsibility for the hanging of Bardolph.

As the king of England, Harry must continually present the semblance of morality and certitude in front of his subjects regardless of emotional ties to the individual character. Because he is the leader of the army, his every move is visible and documented by those under his command, causing him to issue a level of calculability and prefigurement to all of his actions and emotions so as not to disrupt the image of his position or the morale of the community. The extent of his authority is a scathing burden that he must bear alone. With the eyes of his army always upon him, it is not possible for Harry to express his disconcertment outwardly, so he creates an elaborate pretense in which he exchanges his royal garb for the common cloak of Sir Thomas Erpingham. Rather than using this opportunity to discover on an individual basis the concerns and anxieties of those under his command, Harry’s true intention is to momentarily relieve his royal temperament by mingling with the common soldiers.

While garbed in Erpingham’s cloak, Harry takes a respite from the quotidian responsibilities of the king by pretending to be a common soldier. His rhetoric, however, still maintains a level of distance from connecting to the individual soldier. Harry sits in the darkness, waiting to meet a passerby, and Pistol approaches Harry as though he were an intruder. Pistol says to Harry, “Discuss unto me: art thou officer, / Or art thou base, common, and popular?” (4.1.38-39) to which Harry responds, “I am a gentleman of a company” (4.1.40). When asked if he is common, Harry deflects the question, instead situating himself on an elevated tier of morality. Even while dressed as an average soldier, it is impossible for Harry to admit he is ordinary. He understands that it is disadvantageous to give in to his emotions; however, he later says to Bates that “the King is but a man, as [he] is” (4.1.99) and that all the king’s “senses have but human conditions” (4.1.101), an indication that the emotions are and have always been present, but also that they have been intentionally shielded from the public eye. Harry is unable to placate the common soldier, for he is unable to be as explicitly emotionally sensitive as the common man. Later in Act IV Scene I, Harry is talking with Williams and Bates, two soldiers who are voicing their concerns on the legitimacy of the war and their own involvement in such grand political affairs. Williams says to Harry that “if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make” (4.1.138-139). Williams rightly lays the responsibility for the impending English deaths on the King, but Harry refuses to acknowledge individual deaths. To Harry, the death toll is worthy of consideration, but the individual “legs and arms and heads chopped off” (4.1.139-140) are not his concern. Harry’s response to Williams’s indictment is that “the King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers” (4.1.146-147), for such sensitivity is preclusive to the “watch the King keeps to maintain the peace” (4.1.246). The King’s watch is on all of England, limiting his ability to appropriately dally in the affairs of individual soldiers. The callousness of Harry’s justification is without blame, however, for the King cannot afford to take the liberty to develop individual emotional ties without risking the welfare of the entire nation.

Though Harry continually asserts that the fates of individual soldiers are not his concern, the deaths of Suffolk and York, two of his closest companions, bring about a brief stint of sensationalism in the King. Just before the end of the Battle of Agincourt, Harry commends his followers, saying, “Well have we done, thrice-valiant countrymen” (4.6.I). He seeks the counsel of the Duke of York, but, much to his chagrin, he learns from his uncle Exeter that both York and Suffolk have died in battle. Exeter romanticizes York and Suffolk’s final moments by conjuring images of two soldiers, one fallen and one “all haggled over” (4.6.11), each clung together as though they were lovers. The depiction of their deaths gives Harry “mistful eyes” (4.6.34), and as a response to the belligerence of the French and the affection demonstrated by the fallen English nobles, Harry orders each soldier to “kill his prisoners” (4.6.37). The brevity of Act IV Scene VI emphasizes the character development of Harry and also acts as a structural metaphor for the rashness of Harry’s actions. Whereas Harry is accustomed to doling out eloquent and enduring speeches that appeal to mass audiences, he is unaccustomed to facing grief on an individual basis. The scene ends curtly with Pistol crying aloud, “Coup’ la gorge!” (4.6.39), issuing a stark contrast to the “gentleness” that Harry once applauded his soldiers for having. Harry’s habit of calculation has been replaced by barbarism and irrational decisions. The scene ends with the superfluous and uncivilized deaths of countless French prisoners, demonstrating not only Harry’s newfound brutality, but also the inherent repercussions of acting upon personal emotions when in a position of authority.

Though Shakespeare paints Harry as an admirable King, one whose faithfulness to both England and the crown has gone unparalleled in English (literary) history to that point, there are moments in the play when the audience sees the callousness of Harry’s royal position. Shakespeare does not make an attempt to condemn Harry’s broken emotional ties, nor does he applaud them; rather, Shakespeare indicates that Harry’s callousness is a virtuous trait for anyone in authority. To Harry, the “infinite heartsease / [that] kings neglect” (4.1.218-219) is paramount to the preservation of a people.

Works Cited

Shakespeare, William. “Henry V.” Trans. Array The Norton Shakespeare. . 2nd. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2008. 1471-1548. Print.

Leave a Comment