commentary by Maria Rioux
In the opening act of Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury states that Henry is a changed man: “The breath no sooner left his father’s body, but that his wildness, mortified in him, seem’d to die too.” (Act I, sc.1, 26-27) In this paper we ask whether the self-absorbed and self-indulgent Henry is indeed changed for the better: I think not.
If we were to judge Henry by the opinions of the Bishop of Ely and the Archbishop of Canterbury, we might be persuaded that something akin to the transformation of Saul took place at the deathbed of Henry’s father. He is reputed to have grown in wisdom and grace, and likened to Alexander the Great: “Turn him to any cause of policy, the Gordian Knot of it he will unloose.” (Act I, sc. 1, 47-48) Indeed, as we listen to Henry, we do feel that “the air is still, and the mute wonder lurketh in men’s ears, to steal his sweet and honeyed sentences”. However, when we measure his words by his deeds, we begin to question his motives.
At the outset, the bishops attempt to prevent “half of our better possessions”, namely Church lands, from being legally seized by parliament for the Crown. As landowners died, they tended to leave their lands and wealth to the Church in the hope that heaven would smile upon their generosity. With more land going to the Church, less was controlled and taxed by the king. In considering this bill, Henry showed that he was ready to steal from the Church in order to profit the Crown. The issue was how much can he ’steal’ from the Church, and how will he accomplish it. In fact, his main reason for warring with France is to gain “a greater sum than ever at one time the clergy yet did to his predecessors part withal.” (Act I, sc. 1, 81-83) By contrast, when Bardolf, an English soldier and former riotous companion of Henry’s, steals a chalice from a French church, he is hanged for this comparatively minor theft. Henry comments that, “We would have all such offenders so cut off” (Act 3, sc. 6,112), and then gives orders that no soldier may molest the French villagers in any way. Henry’s reason for this is shrewd, but not necessarily noble: “when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner” (Act 3, sc.5, 117-119). Henry seems gentlest with himself.
One might even go so far as to say that Henry invited this sort of behavior outside of the gates of Haffleur, which would make his reaction to it that much more appalling and hypocritical. Henry, who earlier referred to himself as “no tyrant, but a Christian king” (Act I, sc.2, 241) threatens before his men, as a soldier and commander of an army, to shut the gates of mercy against Haffleur, and allow “the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart, in liberty of bloody hand shall range with conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.” (Act 3, sc.3, 10-14) While Henry claims to be unable to hold back his men once they have set themselves against Haffleur, he has no trouble making an example of Bardolf and reigning in the conduct of his men when it suits his purpose.
Shakespeare seems to emphasize Henry’s deceitful and hypocritical nature in a play on words. The night before the battle at Agincourt, Henry attempts to cheer Gloucester, Erpingham, and Bedford. His forces are outnumbered 5-1, but he finds good in what appears to be dismal: “For our bad neighbor makes us early stirrers, which is both healthful and good husbandry.” (Act IV, sc.1, 6-7) Henry tells Erpingham that “a good soft pillow for that good white head were better than a churlish turf of France,” to which Erpingham replies, “Not so, my liege: this lodging likes me better, since I may say, ‘Now lie I like a king.’” (Act IV, sc. 1, 17) Both men literally lie on the ground, but, if one recalls that Erpingham, now so eager for the glory of battle, was doing his utmost to avoid battle at the breech at Haffleur’s walls, one can divine a deeper meaning.
Henry, as king, is changed; he is no longer childish and petty in his preoccupations. He has tasted ambition, and rather than trade virtue for vice, he looks to gain greater goods than personal pleasure. That his good might also be England’s good is not the point. No longer self-indulgent, he remains self-absorbed.