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Henry V | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry V | Discussion Questions 1 - 10


In Henry V what is the role of the chorus, and how does it differ from other characters in the play?

In some ways the chorus is a stand-in for Shakespeare himself. The chorus acts as an intermediary between those who put on the play (the playwright and the actors) and those who watch and listen (the audience). Unlike the other characters in the play, the chorus addresses the audience directly. For example, in the epilogue, the chorus apologizes for the poor quality of the play: "Thus far with rough and all-unable pen/Our bending author hath pursued the story." The chorus also speaks glowingly of Henry V, and so can be seen as a means of pleasing the royal family, on whom Shakespeare's livelihood depends. Yet the chorus is still just a character of Shakespeare's creation, and only tells part of the story. Through other characters in the play, such as Henry V, the boy, and Pistol, Shakespeare can probe darker themes, such as the nature of power. The views of these characters sometimes align with the chorus's view, but other times contrast sharply with the heroic picture of Henry V painted by the chorus. In this sense the chorus serves as a counterpoint to some of the themes the play explores.

In what ways is Shakespeare's Henry V an antiwar or pro-war play?

On one hand, the drastic difference between the way that the chorus speaks of war and the actual violence of war depicted in the play can lead to the conclusion that the play, as a whole, is antiwar. An interpretation that emphasizes Pistol's story line, that focuses on the violent imagery of Henry's speech to the governor of Harfleur and that lingers on the killings of the French prisoners and the boys guarding the luggage, also promotes an antiwar theme. In this interpretation the chorus acts as a form of propaganda that shows how the victors might depict a war to make themselves look noble and righteous. However, there is no doubt Shakespeare's version of Henry V possesses eloquence and brilliance, and both his humility after their great success against the French and his awkwardness with Katherine are humanizing. The French, in contrast, are portrayed as arrogant and crude. If Henry is a fundamentally good person, an epic hero as suggested by the chorus, then it is hard to see the play as being completely antiwar. In this way war may be glorified as a hero-defining event. Virgil's version of Aeneas is entirely parallel—one with which Shakespeare was most likely quite familiar through his long studies in Latin and Roman playwrights, orators, and philosophers.

In Henry V how do Henry V's words and actions reflect his concerns about the sins of his father?

Henry V's father, Henry IV, deposed King Richard II and took the crown for himself. He also was implicated, at least in part, for the murder of Richard II. All of Henry V's actions as king can be traced back to his concern that his father did wrong in the eyes of God by taking action against the rightful king. Henry V's campaign against the French is motivated, in part, by his need to prove himself to be the rightful, God-appointed king. Henry's prayer to God before the Battle of Agincourt in Act 4, Scene 1 shows clearly that his father's sins loom large in his mind: "Not today, O Lord,/O, not today, think not upon the fault/My father made in compassing the crown./I Richard's body have interrèd new/And on it have bestowed more contrite tears/Than from it issued forcèd drops of blood." He goes on to say that he has taken action to make amends for his father's sins against Richard II by paying 500 people to pray for pardon for Richard's death, and paying priests to sing continually for Richard's soul. Later, his great relief when English casualties are low in the Battle of Agincourt speaks to his sense that God gave him the victory and, therefore, God approves of his invasion of France.

In Henry V, in what ways does Henry V's powerful position as king make him more or less moral than he was as youthful Prince Hal?

As a young prince, Hal took part in small acts of thievery and other illegal acts, and spent his free time in Mistress Quickly's tavern, drinking with Falstaff, Pistol, and other dubious characters. He seemed to have little conscience about his behavior, and it was not what anyone would call "moral." When he ascends to the kingship, he casts off his former companions and behaviors, and seems to become more of a "good" man, responsible and law-abiding. He has even traded in his more playful nickname of "Hal" for the more mature "Henry." Certainly the bishop of Ely and the archbishop of Canterbury think his moral fiber is much strengthened since he became king. Yet as his greater power gives him more influence over the everyday lives of people, and his decisions become matters of life and death, Henry 's actions and behavior remain questionable. He coldly abandons all of his former friends, as if they mean nothing to him, possibly contributing to the death of Falstaff. He ruthlessly threatens the French townspeople at Harfleur. All of this is done to solidify and expand his own power, which he has been at great pains to fuse not only with God's will (God wants England to rule France) but also with his God-given right to be king. If God is on his side, he can't lose, and it becomes easier to persuade soldiers to support him. So in that sense, he becomes less moral as he gains power, even though his actions are considered lawful.

In Henry V how do Captains Fluellen, Jamy, Gower, and MacMorris serve to develop the idea of English unification?

Shakespeare's use of Captains Fluellen, Jamy, Gower, and MacMorris to represent Wales, Ireland, England, and Scotland is meant to show that the various parts of Henry V's kingdom, which were engaged in civil war for most of his father's reign, are now united under Henry V. This develops the idea of Henry V as a unifier—this trait sets him apart from his father, who was a cause of the civil war, and encompasses Henry V's desire to bring France, too, under his rule through conquest as well as marriage. However, although all four captains speak English, the differences in dialect among them are so important that Shakespeare reflects them in the spellings of the words. The captains are not just known to be from different places, they must sound different to each other. Indeed the thick accents of the four captains result in several misunderstandings, suggesting that even a shared language cannot bridge all divisions.

What do the perceived changes in Henry V's character from his youth to his adulthood reveal about the attributes of an ideal king in Henry V?

As a youth Henry is irresponsible and disrespectful. He has disreputable friends. He doesn't seem to take his position seriously and seems to care only about having a good time. When he becomes king, he makes a complete reversal. He is responsible and dignified. He cuts ties with his tavern friends and does not befriend anyone new. He takes his position seriously; and he seems to care about the kingdom, his people, and God. These changes suggest that an ideal king is concerned more for the kingdom than for his own pleasure. The ideal king has subjects, not friends. He does his duty to his country and to God at the expense of all other things. Above all he avoids the appearance of immorality and wrongdoing like the plague.

In Act 3, Scene 1 and Act 4, Scene 3 of Henry V, how do Henry V's speeches in Harfleur and before the Battle of Agincourt compare and contrast?

Both speeches show Henry V's amazing eloquence and his persuasive ability. He hits exactly the notes that should both persuade his men to fight bravely and make them love him. In both speeches he invites them into his own sphere, asking them to view him as a friend and brother. At Harfleur he calls them "friends," and at Agincourt, he calls them "a band of brothers." He also uses images in both speeches that fire up the imagination and inspire his soldiers to think of the ideals they fight for: nobility, honor, God, and country. However, the challenge at each battle is slightly different, and Henry tailors his message to the situation. At Harfleur he must persuade his men to act like soldiers, implying that they have been men of peace for some time and are not fully accustomed to war. But at Agincourt Henry speaks to the soldiers in a different way because they are now used to fighting. The issue in the St. Crispin's Day speech is different, too. Henry focuses on the small numbers of men they have compared to the French forces. By framing them as the "happy few" who have the great privilege of fighting together as brothers, Henry makes their small numbers, normally a disadvantage in battle, seem like a positive thing.

In Henry V what criteria does Henry V seem to use to decide whether or not he will show mercy?

Henry V uses the word mercy quite a bit, but his application of it as a principle appears inconsistent. He shows mercy to the drunken man who insults him, while refraining from showing mercy to his own noblemen. He orders his soldiers to be merciful to the citizens of Harfleur, but only after his threats to the townspeople have indicated he will be merciless to them if they do not agree to his terms of surrender. Similarly, he instructs his men to be respectful to the French, but only after agreeing that a soldier caught thieving should definitely be executed. Henry, then, seems to "show" mercy—to give the appearance of mercy—while having little real mercy or pity for either his own people or the French. In the spirits of Machiavelli and Queen Elizabeth, he doles out acts of mercy as a means to an end: when it is dramatically important to do so, or makes some other point, or makes him look like the Christian king he wants to be.

In what ways is Shakespeare's portrayal of the English people as a whole in Henry V flattering or unflattering?

Shakespeare shows the English to be a varied lot, from the petty thieves and tavern-goers, to the common soldiers, to the virtuous nobles, to the churchmen of dubious moral fiber, to the traitors. He does not present individual English people in a completely flattering way. In fact he shows each person's flaws, including Henry V's. However, as a whole, the portrayal is endearing: the play's English characters seem human and often three-dimensional. In contrast the majority of the French seem obnoxious, arrogant, or weak. This contrast suggests an overall positive attitude toward his fellow English on Shakespeare's part, not unexpected given his own biases. This generally flattering portrayal of the English people is true of all plays by Shakespeare, for his audiences were drawn together into the same space (such as the Globe) and time for the performance of the plays. This audience, unified by space and time, is reflected in the issues of Henry V because pickpockets and prostitutes roamed the groundling area of the theater (where the poor stood to see the show), while the wealthy (and the queen's agents, ministers, and so on, in disguise) sat up in the galleries. Shakespeare is appealing not only to the upper classes, but to all classes of London society of the time.

How does the Dauphin compare and contrast with Henry V in Henry V?

Both the Dauphin and Henry V are powerful men who are willing to lead men into battle. Both are confident in their ability to be victorious. But while Henry V is a subtle manipulator, getting people to do what he wants through argument and persuasion, the Dauphin provokes conflict with a rude gift of tennis balls. While Henry V makes careful, strategic preparations as he divides his forces in order to invade France while also protecting England, the Dauphin crows about France's strength while failing to prepare an adequate defense of the country, leaving Harfleur at the mercy of English forces. Overall the Dauphin seems to be all bark and no bite, relying on empty boasts and crude jokes that have terrible consequences, while Henry V's eloquent words are backed up with practical measures that bring him success.

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