One thing about Shakespeare’s Henry V – everyone in the play seems to misjudge him for one specific reason: prior to coronation, he was the frivolous prankster we know as Prince Hal, drunkenly cavorting with the likes of Sir John Falstaff. No one expects a dissolute boy to become an effective king overnight. Indeed, the initial disruption that sets the play and the course of Henry’s reign rolling is this very misjudgment by the French Dauphin, who rouses Henry to action with a mock-gift of tennis balls “as matching to his youth and vanity” (II.iv.130). Thus underestimated, Henry nabs his traitors within, handles French diplomats justly and firmly, and defeats the French army abroad. Indeed he is the epitome of kingliness, more an epic hero exhibiting the highest ideals of his people than a troubled king such as Shakespeare normally gives. Or is he?
As James Mardock (editor of Internet Shakespeare editions) points out, there is a doubleness to Henry’s character and to the play itself that has haunted critics. Henry is indeed the idealized king, but bloodthirsty enough to murder his prisoners and callous enough to break the heart of audience-favorite Falstaff. Some critics find the play too one-dimensional in its patriotic zeal, with a man-of-action king who lacks the introspection that makes Shakespeare’s other kings interesting. Others find Henry too Machiavellian to warrant his idealized status. Still others object to the doubleness itself, as if Shakespeare could not decide whether to make Henry this or that, nor whether to present war as national glory or bloody chaos.
Here’s my solution. The signature trait that separates Henry V from Shakespeare’s other kings, and that allows him to bring forth a specific form of kingliness, is his masterful ability to compartmentalize. He is quite capable of introspection, as for example in the “ceremony” soliloquy on the battlefield (IV.i.230-284), where, despite his mock-dispute with Williams, he takes Williams’s point to heart about the moral hazards of kingship. Henry is introspective enough (in soliloquy) to feel responsibility for the human consequences of his actions, that “hard condition, / twin-born with greatness” (IV.i.233-34). Though he can compartmentalize private emotions from kingly duty, he recognizes both, and indeed plumbs his own instinct to compartmentalize to remarkable depth, noting that the only thing that separates a king from a commoner is “ceremony.” Everything in the social order rests upon the distinction of king from commoner, and yet Henry sees that only an act of convention keeps those boundaries in place. It is neither natural nor divine law but rather the human effort to compartmentalize ranks through the instrument of “ceremony” that allow kingship, and indeed social order, to exist.
But with Henry, more than with other Shakespearean kings, we can rest assured that this introspection will not follow him to battle. He recognizes that there is a time and place for introspection and never blurs the boundary:
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
Similarly, when condemning the traitors (II.ii), he delivers a nuanced theory of justice, pardoning the man condemned for drunkenly cursing the king but showing no mercy to those who would threaten the kingdom (“Touching our person seek we no revenge; / But we our kingdom’s safety must so tender…,” II.ii.173-74), even though he “will weep” for these treasonous “bedfellow[s]” of his youth. Then he enjoins the “poor miserable wretches” to “true repentance” before their execution, and as they are marched off stage, he turns to his other lords: “Now, lords, for France” (II.ii.181). Thus, the great compartmentalizer. He speaks eloquently not only on the national implications but on the human values at stake in the traitor scene, but when he turns, he turns completely, the man of action now focused on France. This capacity to compartmentalize separates him from history-play heroes like Richard II or even Henry IV, from tragic heroes like Macbeth and most of all from Hamlet. Indeed, he can reference those antecedent kings with introspection, as he privately prays God’s mercy for his father’s actions in securing the crown from Richard (IV.i.290-305). But no self-doubt will trouble him on the battlefield.
This view of Henry V as compartmentalizer-in-chief finally casts a light on the “counterfeit” theme, one of Shakespeare’s favorites. The classic counterfeit in Henry V is Pistol from the low plot. Pistol, with a “killing tongue and a quiet sword” (III.ii.34), is a savvy enough braggart to fool Captain Fluellen (III.vi.12-20). But of course, he’s a total coward of the lowest and most comical sort – in a word, the very archetype of the counterfeit. At the outset of the play, it seems all the movers and shakers see Henry the way the audience sees Pistol – as a counterfeit, a punk kid who is all talk and no guts. No one expected that Henry V could so quickly shift gears from dissolute Prince Hal to proper king. But Henry, master of compartmentalization, closes the door on Hal and opens the door on Henry V in one stroke. As at the end of the traitor scene, when he turns, he turns completely, decisively. This is the signature trait of his character and the source of his peculiar brand of kingliness.
To be sure, that instantaneous shift from Prince Hal to King Henry has some ugly human consequences, as when the dying Falstaff conjures up the image of Hal’s cruel dismissal at the end of 2 Henry IV. In this case, what’s “right” for the king Henry seems “wrong” for the private human being Henry, and Shakespeare’s inclusion of Falstaff’s death scene (II.iii) indicates that he does not intend to wash the moral ambiguity away. It is a double-bind such as Agamemnon faced in the choice to sacrifice his daughter to save his men and perform his kingly duty. Faced with moral double-binds of such great human consequence, as Henry himself notes in soliloquy, no king “can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave” (IV.i.268).
The counterfeit theme on this level holds a double irony. The concept of the counterfeit is itself based in irony, an appearance that turns out to be quite the opposite of reality. It would indeed be ironic if the king who vows to “show my sail of greatness” (I.ii.274) in vengeful war with France were a boyish coward at heart. The double irony is that King Henry, whom so many perceive as a counterfeit, is the real deal, the true coin that will shine most brightly against the French on the battlefield and against the foil of Pistol in the dramatic structure of the play.
But, this being Shakespeare, the counterfeit theme gets still more complicated. What about the charge of hypocrisy? Henry’s great “band of brothers” speech is counterpointed by his sorting of the dead by rank a few scenes later (IV.iii, IV.viii). Is it hypocrisy? Or is it another instance of compartmentalization? Henry makes clear in the “ceremony” soliloquy that rank and royalty are fictions necessary to the social order, but fictions nonetheless. If one puts the emphasis on “fictions,” then one can read Henry as a cynical manipulator, a hypocrite who will take the most opportune stand at any given time. But if one puts the emphasis on “necessary to the social order” (an emphasis I believe most consistent with Shakespeare and his Elizabethan audience), then we can credit Henry with recognizing that in any life’s course of action there is a time to engage our shared humanness and a time to engage the fictions of distinction. Although that doesn’t relieve him of the moral consequences – Williams is right in the battlefield speech and the poignant scene of Falstaff’s death is there for a reason – it is a signature marker of his greatness as a king.
(All line citations of Henry V are to The Riverside Shakespeare.)