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Henry V | Themes

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Language

The power of language to persuade, invent, inspire, intimidate, unite, differentiate, woo, and bring to life a story is an ever-present theme in Henry V. The chorus introduces this theme. He tells the audience to help the actors tell the story by using their imagination to "see" the characters and events of the play. With words, Henry V begins a war with France that will result in the deaths and suffering of many people. Henry V intimidates the people of Harfleur with his detailed descriptions of the suffering they will endure if they resist him. He inspires his men to courage and patriotism in the face of terrible odds with a rousing speech at the Battle of Agincourt. He brings men from England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland together to fight as brothers.

Yet language marks differences among people, too. Sometimes those differences create chasms that are difficult to cross. William Shakespeare insists upon giving each of the four captains, Gower, Fluellen, MacMorris, and Jamy, distinct characteristics and accents. One scene of the play takes place entirely in French. Katherine speaks almost exclusively in French and understands little English, finding English words to be ridiculous. Language can both divide and unite people.

Conquest

Henry's actions and the actions of other characters in the play are often driven by a desire for conquest and the establishment of power. For example, spurred on by his own need to prove himself in the eyes of his nobles and citizens, Henry V pursues the conquest of France. After a time of civil war under his father, Henry IV, the conquest of France gives England's people a common enemy. A common enemy brings a common purpose. Henry V also seeks to claim France's princess, Katherine. Winning Katherine as wife is meant to ensure that Henry's heirs will rule both countries.

The real-world consequences of Henry V's conquest are an important part of the play. Henry's tavern friends are caught up in his war, but their experience has little to do with glory and honor. The French suffer many casualties. The violence of war is described in grisly terms before the wall of Harfleur. Yet the epilogue reveals that all of the gains Henry made were lost by his own son. This causes the audience to wonder if all the suffering was worth it for the sake of conquest, even as the chorus insists that Henry V was a "shining star" of England.

Other characters in the play also show a desire for conquest, including the Dauphin, and some of the play's minor characters, such as soldiers in Henry V's army who fight with each other over various issues. Power struggles erupt for nobles and commoners alike in the play, although the stakes may be different.

Kingship

Henry V's father ruled uneasily during a time of civil war and general unrest. So Henry V bends all of his energy to proving his own fitness to be king, in the eyes of God, his citizens, and himself. Where his younger self was perceived as unreliable and wayward, he must now be seen as the ideal king. What kingly characteristics does he have? He is brilliant. He can use language powerfully to inspire both love and fear. He is courageous and confident. He is ruthless to his enemies yet humble before God. He dispenses mercy when he thinks it just to do so, asking his men to show mercy to the French citizens, but only if they do not resist.

Henry's efforts to be the ideal king are fairly successful. He achieves great success in battle against the French. He wins the French kingdom as his own to rule, gains the French princess in marriage, and unites the kingdom. Henry's nobles, certainly, seem to have a high opinion of him. In addition Henry V remains one of England's most legendary kings, even today. However, the play's storyline involving Mistress Quickly, Falstaff, Pistol, Bardolph, and the boy serves to point out the uncomfortable and imperfect realities of Henry V's reign. In addition Henry's capacity to manipulate others using appearances and language, important factors in the success of his kinship, are crafty and thus seem underhanded.

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