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Henry V | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry V | Symbols



Henry V is sometimes likened in the play to the Greek god of war, Mars. This comparison suggests he is a warrior. It also suggests there is something godlike about both Henry V and about war. The glorification of war and warriors continues throughout the play. This is particularly emphasized by the chorus, who describes the English "Mercuries" in Act 2, the heroic trip to France in Act 3, and the courage of the English soldiers who face terrible odds in Act 4. The chorus also says that Henry V returns to London like a "conquering Caesar" in Act 5.

In contrast the war is also seen from the perspective of captains, common soldiers, and those left behind. All of these people have very different views about the nature of war. This contrast provides a central tension of the play.

Sir Thomas's Cloak

The night before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V borrows Sir Thomas Erpingham's cloak. He uses it to disguise himself as he walks among his men. The cloak is functional, allowing Henry V to talk to his men without the usual barriers of social class between a king and his soldiers.

It is also symbolic, as it represents Henry's incomparable ability (and willingness) to change his outward appearance and behavior to achieve his goals. From the beginning of Henry's story, he has been a master manipulator. He chose to indulge in youthful antics with his tavern friends so that people would think it miraculous when he radically changed into a responsible son. In previous plays of the Henriad, Henry reveals the nature of his plan. His kingly self, he says, will seem so much nobler because of the contrast with his wild self. In this play he continues to manipulate people through both his appearance and words.

Tennis Balls

The tennis balls sent to Henry V by the Dauphin of France are a potent symbol of the Dauphin's disdain for Henry. Henry easily reads the symbolic meaning of the tennis balls as an insult about his capacity to act as a king and quickly converts the Dauphin's symbol for his own purposes. The tennis balls are changed, in his imagery, to cannon balls. This symbol gives rise to Henry's extended metaphor in Act 1, Scene 2 comparing the war he will make on France to a game of tennis:

When we have marched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God's grace, play a set
Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturbed
With chases.

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