Though a substantial number of scenes focus on other characters, Henry directly initiates nearly all of the significant action in the play, and he is without question the play’s protagonist and hero. Henry is an extraordinary figure who possesses a degree of intelligence and charisma only briefly glimpsed in Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays. There Henry V appears as a pleasure-seeking teenage prince who wrestles with his role as an heir to the throne.
Perhaps Henry V’s most remarkable quality is his resolve: once he has set his mind to accomplishing a goal, he uses every resource at his disposal to see that it is accomplished. He carefully presents himself as an unstoppable force to whom others must actively choose how to react. This tactic may seem morally questionable, but it is a valuable psychological weapon that Henry uses to pressure his enemies into doing what he wants. Again and again, Henry acts in a manner that would be deplorable for a common citizen but that makes him an exemplary king. For example, Henry often draws criticism from modern readers for refusing to take responsibility for the war in France. He even tells the French governor at Harfleur that if the French do not surrender, they will be responsible for the carnage that Henry will create.
Another extraordinary quality Henry possesses is his facility with language. Henry’s rhetorical skill is a forceful weapon, the strength of which nearly equals that of his army’s swords. With words, Henry can inspire and rouse his followers, intimidate his enemies, and persuade nearly anyone who hears him. With Henry’s speeches, Shakespeare creates a rhetoric that is, like Henry himself, at once candidly frank and extremely sophisticated. Henry can be cold and menacing, as when he speaks to the Dauphin’s messenger; he can be passionate and uplifting, as in his St. Crispin’s Day speech; and he can be gruesomely terrifying, as in his diatribe against the Governor of Harfleur. In each case, Henry’s words suggest that he is merely speaking his mind at the moment, but these speeches are brilliantly crafted and work powerfully on the minds of his listeners. Henry has a very special quality for a king: the ability to present himself honestly while still manipulating his audience.
Shakespeare does not comment explicitly on Henry’s motives for invading France, but it seems clear from his speeches about the weight of his responsibility that Henry is not motivated exclusively by a lust for power or land. Henry clearly takes the mantle of kingship very seriously, and he is dedicated to fulfilling the obligations of his exalted rank. He mourns his inability to sleep the untroubled sleep of the common man, hardly the behavior of a man dedicated to the pleasures of power. It also seems clear from Henry’s undeniably uplifting speeches that Shakespeare intends for us to see Henry as a hero, or, at the very least, as an estimable king. Insofar as Henry is a hero, he is made so by his commitment to his responsibilities above his own personal feelings. Along with his faculty of resolve, this commitment makes him the king he is; though it sometimes causes him to make questionable personal decisions, it also helps to mitigate the effect of those decisions in our eyes.
I just finished Henry V, the 19th Shakespeare play, in my quest to read all the Bard by his 450th birthday next year. If you're interested, visit my blog to find out what I thought of it and more on what I thought of Henry:
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