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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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Dauphin's tennis balls


The Dauphin’s gag gift of tennis balls hinges on the ancient custom of sending a gift of treasure to a foreign ruler as a gesture of respect and friendship. On behalf of the Dauphin, the ambassador claims to present King Henry with a chest of treasure in exchange for Henry’s abandonment of his claim to parts of France (apparently, Henry’s early claims in France were limited to a few smaller regions, instead of the whole country). But the Dauphin, who has heard stories about King Henry’s irresponsible teenage years, has sent tennis balls instead of anything valuable. The sarcastic spirit of this gift implies that the Dauphin considers the English king to be unworthy of an adult exchange. He claims that the Dauphin’s mockery has provoked him to invade France, when, in fact, he has already decided on war before even admitting the French ambassadors. For the second time in this scene, Henry transfers responsibility for the deaths in the imminent war to someone else: first, he ascribes it to Canterbury, and now he ascribes it to the Dauphin. This strange evasion of responsibility, combined with Henry’s willingness to accept Canterbury’s corrupt and self-interested maneuvering, are among the many subtle criticisms that Shakespeare injects into his portrayal of Henry as a heroic king. As the war proceeds, Henry assumes the dimensions of an epic hero, but Shakespeare occasionally implies that, beneath Henry’s heroic status, his ethical status is somewhat dubious.


You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy; For your own reasons turn into your bosoms, As dogs upon their masters, worrying you. See you, my princes, and my noble peers,


HENRY V ACT 2, SCENE 2 LINES 85-89 He's talking to Scroop, Grey, and Cambrdige and telling them they should not 'talk of mercy' when they themselves had been willing to condemn a drunkard just moments earlier for the same crime as them. Evidence of Henry's cunning, ruthlessness, and also his placing of wartime concerns over friendship.


Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead. In peace there's nothing so becomes a man As modest stillness and humility: But when the blast of war blows in our ears, Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard-favour'd rage; Then lend the eye a terrible aspect; Let pry through the portage of the head Like the brass cannon; let the brow o'erwhelm it As fearfully as doth a galled rock O'erhang and jutty his confounded base, Swill'd with the wild and wasteful ocean. Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide, Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit To his full height. On, on, you noblest English. Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof! Fathers that, like so many Alexanders, Have in these parts from morn till even fought And sheathed their swords for lack of argument: Dishonour not your mothers; now attest That those whom you call'd fathers did beget you. Be copy now to men of grosser blood, And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman, Whose limbs were made in England, show us here The mettle of your pasture; let us swear That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not; For there is none of you so mean and base, That hath not noble lustre in your eyes. I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips, Straining upon the start. The game's afoot: Follow your spirit, and upon this charge Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!' Alarum, and chambers go off. And down goes all before them. Still be kind, And eke out our performance with your mind.


HENRY V ACT 3, SCENE 1 LINES 1-37 Henry says this before the Battle at Harfleur. It describes a monarch lowering himself to their level, and also raising up the commoners. Lack of mercy he showed his conspirators is what he now wants his army to demonstrate. Compares his army to Harrod (guy in Old Testament who had all young boys killed) He convinces his soldiers to move forward, and imitate animals. 3 main tactics: (1) Henry tells his soldiers to be like animals, without mercy or human compassion. He wants his army to be purely instinctual and savage. (2) When that fails he tells them not to shame their ancestors or draw their legitimacy into question. Are they English or aren’t they? (3) Tells his common men they will be “noble” if they charge into the breach once more In Act 3, Scene 2, Fluellen and Bardolph take Henry's words into different contexts: the former is Henry's yes man, the latter orders others to move without he himself moving, commenting on Henry (who actually did fight with the soldiers). Henry's seech is successful, but only to a point. It does not get the unanimous reaction he was hoping for.


Tragic paradox


curve of action = negative completes itself with death of hero yet undeniable effect: admiration for the tragic hero Described by McDonald in Chapter 3

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