|Type of paper:||Essay|
|Categories:||Leadership analysis Biography Shakespeare|
In William Shakespeare's The Life of King Henry the Fifth play, the primary theme revolves around the warfare between England and France. The discourse centers on the dichotomy of anti-and pro-war with Shakespeare providing a comprehensive picture of the subjects and how the related and perceived the King. However, one character that attracts considerable attention is King Henry V. On one hand, the common English people percieves the ruler as a powerful and respected hero after his successful invansion of France, while on the other he is consisdered a manipulative and self-centered ruler. In the paper, the characterization and personal attributes of King Henry V will be reviewed to provide insights on his nobility. It is conjectured that King Henry is a humble and well-respected leader.
King Henry can be understood well through his speeches and lectures directed to the bishops, soldiers, and other people throughout Shakespeare's play. A more in-depth examination of such instances shows that the king is not manipulative to benefit only himself. Henry is acting to secure the livelihood of the people of England, including the standard citizens whose ranking is lower than that of their leader. It clearly shows that the king is a noble one, who genuinely cares for others.
The king's caring begins with Act I, scene II. Henry's conversation with the archbishop of Canterbury and bishop Ely is an essential scene because this is where the king is introduced in the play. This scene also shows the king's concern of starting a war with France to claim the French throne, as the war will lead to many deaths of soldiers battling for the king. The fears begins in response to Canterbury's comment of Frances' sacred throne belonging to England, Henry says:
And God forbid, my dear and faithful lord, That you should fashion wrest, or bow your reading, Or nicely charge your understanding soul With opening titles miscreate, whose right Suits not native color with the truth; For God doth know how many in health Shall drop their blood in approbationOf what your reverence shall incite us to. (13-20)
With this passage, Henry is politely telling his "dear and faithful" archbishop that he should not twist his interpretations of beginning a war. Henry brings in religion by referencing how "God" knows many healthy men "shall drop their blood," if the king decides to go through with the archbishop's idea for England to claim France (Shakespeare 1.2.13-20). Although the king could make his decision on attacking France without the advice of the archbishop, Henry decides to take a moment to hear Canterbury's perspective.
Further down in the same passage, Henry reminds the archbishop that many innocent men will die, and the king will be able to blame Canterbury, by saying:
We charge you in the name of God, take heed, For never two such kingdoms did contend Without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops Are every one a woe, a sore complaint 'Gainst him whose wrong gives edge unto the swords That make such waste in brief mortality. (23-28)
By saying "in the name of God," Henry is using religion to bring guilt upon Canterbury and continues to remind him to be careful of the words he says in persuading the king to take over France (Shakespeare 1.2.23-28). The "guiltless drops" will be not only the king's wrongdoing but will also reflect on Canterbury. So, the archbishop must have good reasons for Henry to wage war with France, or else each country will have lost many people for no good reason.
With Henry's passage in speaking with Canterbury, he is showing resistance in starting a war with France. By using "blood" and "guiltless drops," the king understands that war is not to be reckoned with if there is not a real purpose for costing so many lives to be shed. Even though Henry could rule France, which would make him a more powerful king, he values his soldiers' lives, just as much as he values his own. By listening to Canterbury's reasons for waging war with France, Henry is reassured that his claim for beginning war is valid. This also allows the king to give his soldiers a purpose for fighting, and that if they die, it will be a noble death.
However, throughout Shakespeare's play in The Life of King Henry the Fifth, Shakespeare creates Henry as an ambiguous character with how he approaches situations. For example, the king is concerned for "guiltless blood" shed upon those fighting for France and England. Then Henry becomes calloused by ordering the governor of Harfleur to submit his town and people to Henry's mercy or else there should be worse things to come if Harfleur doesn't surrender. The king goes on to claim he will not leave until the "half-achieved" town "till in her ashes she lie buried" (Shakespeare 3.3.9). Henry wants to make it clear that he will conquer this city, and he will see it crumble to the ground, as England shows no mercy in time of war. Henry goes on to declare more brutality if the governor of Harfleur doesn't obey his command, such as claiming to "mowing like grass your fresh fair virgins and flow'ring infants" (3.3.13-14). The tactics of threatening the governor are the king's way of showing his power, especially while in the presence of others during this scene.
On the other hand, once the governor leaves this scene, Henry calls upon his uncle Exeter and says: "go you and enter Harfleur. There remain and fortify it strongly 'gainst the French. Use mercy to the all for us" (3.3.52-54). By allowing his uncle to stay and deal with the French, Henry tells his uncle one-on-one to "use mercy," which shows that the king does care about people, even if they are his enemy. The king doesn't want to come off as being weak in front of his train of soldiers and to the governor of Harfleur. Weakness would not show an admirable leader that can deal with hard situations. Henry wants to make sure he is a king that others can look up to as a good role model. Also, at this moment between Exeter and Henry, there is a softness in Henry. The king would rather resolve the issue peacefully than be violent and destructive by letting his soldiers enter and rape women, kill children, and burn the place to the ground. By requesting Exeter to show mercy, this continues to make Henry an honorable and noble king, as Shakespeare has created this play to be a happy impression of King Henry the Fifth.
Furthermore, the role a king must maintain in being a strong leader for his people is a challenging one. In Russ McDonald's book The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, there is a chapter called "In What Way Princes Should Keep Their Word" written by Niccolo Machiavelli, which focuses on the way a leader tries to keep their "word" when dealing with politics and religion. Though the chapter uses the term "prince," this can still be used towards king Henry when he works to keep his word, in regard to caring for the people of his country. Machiavelli makes an interesting remark at the beginning of the chapter by stating: "princes who had little regard for their word and had the craftiness to turn men's minds have accomplished great things and, in the end, have overcome those who governed their actions buy their pledges" (McDonald 335).
This quote by Machiavelli suits well with Henry's character because this king did "accomplish great things" by conquering the French and marrying Katherine to help unite England and France near the end of Shakespeare's play. However, to do so, Henry had to use "crafty" manipulation when talking with the archbishop to obtain information that helped Henry find the urge to attack. And though the king did lose some of his men, he did come up with a strategy that helped his men be more successful than the many lives taken in battle on France's side.
In Shakespeare's The Life of King Henry the Fifth some perceive the king to be the selfish and manipulative person that made decisions only to benefit him. There is enough textual evidence to show that King Henry wasn't an awful king. He was the opposite of selfish and manipulative. By considering the number of men that would die due to waging war with France, it is important to show that he cared for his people. Even though he did go to war, he was able to strategically be successful by not losing as many men as France did.
Henry also remained to show a compassionate side when coming upon the gates of Harfleur, even though the king did begin his speech with violent imagery of harming babies, raping women, and burning down the whole town after harming everyone. The king did request that his uncle show mercy among the people while looking over the town, as Henry left to do other business.By looking closer at the way Henry handles the situations he is against in this play, we can understand the king on a deeper level. Henry isn't just a king. He is also a human who knows what it feels like to fear, to feel burdened, to feel unsure of making the right choices, and to understand the consequences of the choices we make. Even though Henry does feel these emotions that can act in a way that could be hurtful to others, he doesn't hurt them. Instead, Henry remains an active person, which says a lot about his character. He is willing to make mistakes, come off harsh at times that are necessary, and find ways to be on a level of the "common people."
Henry has many characteristics that prove him to be a noble king. However, being a king does not make you "God" who is perfect. A king still can make decisions that end up hurting others. If Henry were perfect like God, then he wouldn't have needed to talk with the bishops about waging war or pretend to come off cruel when trying to take over the town of Harfleur. The king would have had all the answers, and Shakespeare would have written the story differently.
McDonald, Russ. "Politics and Religion: Early Modern Ideologies." The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare an Introduction with Documents. 2nd ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001. 335-336.
Shakespeare, William. "The Life of King Henry the Fifth." The Complete Pelican Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller. 2nd ed. London: Penguin, 2002. 1130-142.
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