The Metamorphosis of Henry V in the Shakespeare Play
Over the course of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V plays, the character of Henry V evolves from a reckless youth to a great King and revered hero. In 1 Henry IV the Prince confides to the audience that his irresponsible behavior is a sham that he means to throw off when he becomes king, so that his miraculous transformation will lend the public persona he unveils as King all the more glory and wonder. Henry’s development as he evolves from Prince Hal to King Henry V of England is significant, but not complete. Despite the seeming perfection of his deportment and courtly manners, traces of the disreputable Prince Hal still emerge in King Henry’s behavior, particularly when he is in stressful or emotional situations. Henry V seems to be prone to using deceit when it is the easiest way to obtain a goal, liable to play mean-spirited pranks when the fancy strikes him and susceptible to making rash decisions when angered. These faults indicate that while Henry has taken on a more kingly persona, this self is not as different from Prince Hal as he had intended.
The first of Henry’s flaws to which readers are introduced is the King’s tendency to make unwise choices when influenced by anger. In a conference with his advisors at the beginning of the play, Henry debates the validity of his claim to the throne of France. He asks Canterbury if England’s claim to France is strong enough to go to war over with the strict injunction to tell the truth, because “never two such kingdoms did contend without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops are every one a woe” (I.ii.24-6). King Henry tells Canterbury that war must only be waged for just and valid reasons, since it “makes such waste in brief mortality” (I.ii.28). The King gives the impression of a man who values human life greatly and appreciates the sacrifices that are inescapable in any war. He and his advisors are still in discussion when a messenger from the Dauphin arrives, bearing a gift from France. King Henry is gracious until the gift is opened to reveal a taunt: a cache of tennis balls. Incensed by the implied insult, Henry flies into a speech detailing the different ways that he is going to make the Dauphin regret his disrespect. He swears that, “many a thousand widows shall this mock mock out of their dear husbands; mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down” (I.ii.283-6). This tirade continues to promise violence of the very kind that Henry was cautioning Canterbury against moments before. The Dauphin’s insulting gift of tennis balls provokes Henry into such anger that he appears to forget the reservations he previously held about war in the face of his desire to punish the Dauphin. He instructs the messenger, “Tell the Dauphin I am coming on to venge me as I may” (I.ii.291-2). After Henry receives the tennis balls, the war on France ceases to be primarily about succession and instead takes on the cast of a personal revenge crusade.
Henry’s tendency towards irrationality when angry is evident again later on in the war, near the conclusion of the battle of Agincourt. At one point, French soldiers slip through the guard around the English camp and murder the boys sequestered away from the fighting. The King is furious, and immediately orders the death of every French soldier taken captive. “We’ll cut the throats of those we have,” he proclaims, “and not a man of them that we shall take shall taste our mercy” (IV.vii.63-5).
Henry also makes injudicious choices when he is not in the throes of anger. He has a propensity, for example, for using deceit to accomplish his political goals. The first appearance of this tendency towards underhandedness is in Act II, scene ii, when Henry confronts three noblemen discovered to be plotting against him: Richard, Earl of Cambridge; Henry, Lord Scrope of Masham; and Sir Thomas Grey of Northumberland. Instead of directly accusing the traitors, the King maneuvers them into condemning themselves by asking their opinion on how to punish a wrongdoer apprehended of drunkenness the day before. After the three men recommend harsh punishments for the prisoner, Henry hands each of them documents revealing his knowledge of their intended treachery. As the traitors read the papers that are, in effect, death warrants, Henry teases them, asking, “What see you in those papers that you lose so much complexion?. . .Why, what read you there that have so cowarded and chas’d your blood out of appearance?” (II.ii.73-76). The sarcastic tone of these comments reveals Henry’s true pleasure in the deceptiveness of the indirect confrontation that he has planned. The scheme continues as Henry rebuffs the men’s pleas for mercy by referencing their condemnation of the drunkard discussed earlier in the scene. He tells them that “the mercy that was quick in us but late, by your own counsel is suppress’d and kill’d” (II.ii.79-80). Because the King had concrete evidence of the three men’s intended treason, they were, without question, headed for execution. Henry feels personally betrayed, so he goes beyond simply condemning the traitors to death by presenting the sentence in a manner that makes the three men feel as though they have sentenced themselves.
In Act III, scene iii, Henry exercises his skills in creative oratory to win the French town of Harfleur. After a time of fierce fighting, the town calls a parley to negotiate and King Henry delivers a fiery speech riddled with violent threats. He compares his troops to wild beasts beyond his control and prophesies that if Harfleur does not surrender unconditionally the men of the town will have to witness “the blind and bloody soldier with foul hand defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters; your fathers taken by their silver beards, and their most reverend heads dash’d to the walls, your naked infants spitted upon pikes, whiles the mad mothers with their howls confus’d do break the clouds…” (III.iii.33-41). Henry’s words communicate complete seriousness with intent to follow through, but his later actions contradict the brutality he preaches in the parley. When Bardolph—a soldier, and one of Henry’s old tavern friends—steals from a church along the march, Henry orders him hung because “when [lenity] and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gangster is the soonest winner” (III.vii.112-3). These sentiments suggest that Henry wishes to avoid unnecessarily alienating the French people, a very politic move for a King who hopes to become ruler of France. The facts of the situation in France, as well as the later evidence of Henry’s punishment of Bardolph, indicate that the threats Henry issued outside Harfleur were never more than bluffs. The speech, although dishonest, proves to be an effective strategy to take the town without further bloodshed.
On one occasion, King Henry practices deceit for reasons that in no way benefit England or the pursuit of justice, but simply for his own amusement. The evening before the battle of Agincourt, Henry dons a disguise and wanders among his own troops as an anonymous soldier, mingling with the men and assessing morale. At one point, Henry becomes involved in a discussion with several men about the culpability of the King in the fate of his soldiers’ souls. One soldier, a man named Williams, disagrees so vehemently with Henry that the two men come close to blows. Henry proposes a temporary compromise, “Give me any gage of thine, and I will wear it in my bonnet; then if ever thou dar’st acknowledge it, I will make good my quarrell” (IV.i.207-10). The two exchange gloves, and plan to resolve their argument later, if they both survive. After the battle, King Henry encounters Williams and inquires why the soldier is wearing a glove on his bonnet, without revealing that Henry himself was the mysterious soldier. The King encourages Williams to find the man who quarreled with him and “keep thy vow, sirrah, when thee meet’st the fellow” (IV.vii.144-5). After Williams leaves, Henry summons Fluellen, one of the captains. Henry gives Fluellen his glove and asks the captain to wear it as a favor. He then tells Fluellen, “when Alanson and myself were down together, I pluck’d this glove from his helm. If any man challenge this, he is a friend to Alanson, and an enemy to our person” (IV.vii=2E153-7). With this story planted to ensure that Fluellen will fight anyone who challenges the glove, Henry sends Fluellen over to where Williams is, and invites Exeter, Lord Warwick and Glouster to watch events unfold for their entertainment.
The entire incident is purposeless and unproductive—there is no reason behind it except Henry’s amusement at the prospect of maneuvering two strangers into fighting each other for a nonexistent cause. Henry does not let the joke carry so far as to allow either man to sustain injury, but does result in a fair amount of humiliation. After resolving the confusion, the King provides compensation for the two men he inconvenienced as if paying actors in a theater. Henry’s actions display a lack of respect for men of lower rank; he manipulates Fluellen and Williams like puppets for his and the other nobles’ amusement.
Although Prince Hal has made a credible effort to reform himself into a king, his metamorphosis is incomplete. The struggles and emotional tribulations of ruling a country strain the new image that King Henry tries to present, and allow traits of the old Prince Hal to slip through. The war in France begins partly because Henry wants to have revenge on the Dauphin, and ends on an unnecessarily gory note sounded by the King’s order to slit the throat of every French prisoner. When Henry discovers three of his nobles are plotting against him, he confronts them through an elaborate and, for them, distressing scheme which ends with the traitors passing sentence on themselves. In France, when challenged at the siege of Harfleur, Henry terrifies the town into surrender through the delivery of many harsh and unfounded threats. On the eve of battle, when his time would be better served strategizing, Henry instead picks a fight with one of his soldiers that later evolves into an extended practical joke at the expense of two strangers. These actions are more reminiscent of Henry’s former life as a tavern rough than of his new life as King of England.
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Over the course of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V plays, the character of Henry V evolves from a reckless youth to a great King and revered hero. In 1 […]