JULY / AUG 2016: BY MARISSA BAKER
I have no trouble answering the question, “What’s your favorite Shakespeare play?” (though it sadly isn’t asked very often). My answer has been Henry V since I first read it in high school. I grew up immersed in classical tales of adventure and heroism–stories by Robert Louis Stevenson and Jules Verne, legends about Robin Hood and King Arthur. In that context, my affection for Henry V comes as no surprise.
“Noble Harry,” as Shakespeare dubs the character, is the quintessential heroic figure. He’s a man of action, a brilliant soldier, a king committed to justice only where he cannot show mercy, a believer in God’s sovereignty, and a romantic figure in his wooing of Kathrine. Shakespeare is far too talented a storyteller to leave even his heroic figures one-dimensional, though. There’s much more to Henry’s character than being a perfect king. We learn this early on in the opening scenes of Henry V. In response to Henry’s claim on the French throne, the Dauphin (the French heir apparent) sends a messenger to say, “you savor too much of your youth” and that “there’s naught in France / That can be with a nimble galliard won; / You cannot revel into dukedoms there. / He therefor sends you, meeter for your spirit, / This tun of treasure” – a box of tennis balls (1.2.258-264).
The Dauphin’s mock doesn’t describe Henry as he is presented in the rest of the play, but Henry knows what the Dauphin is talking about. He acknowledges his “wilder days” and admits he once gave himself to “barbarous license” (1.2.279, 283). Henry’s back story has been handled several different ways in production. In 1944, Lawrence Olivier’s film version glossed over most of the Dauphin’s comments and Henry’s response. Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 version explained the reference to Henry’s past with flash-backs to the king’s youth as recorded in Shakespeare’s plays Henry IV, Part One and Henry IV, Part Two.
With BBC’s 2012 Miniseries The Hollow Crown, we get a more complete on-screen picture of Henry’s character. This series includes both parts of Henry IV, which gave Tom Hiddleston an opportunity to portray Henry’s character not just as the hero from Henry V but also as the notoriously ill-behaved Prince Hal. In these plays, we see the prince hanging out in a low tavern and keeping company with thieves, drunks, and characters of such exceedingly loose morals that his father wishes aloud that he could prove his son was exchanged at birth with Henry “Hotspur” Percy.
I suspect that, initially, Henry’s rebellion was prompted by a fear of ruling. Indeed, before his father’s death Henry describes the crown as a “troublesome bedfellow” that pinches, scalds keeps its wearer from peacefulness (Part Two, 4.5.210-30). After his father gave up on expecting him to behave in princely fashion, Prince Henry kept living up to exactly the expectations set for him. Under the crushing weight of his father’s disappointment and the anticipated responsibility to lead, Henry did what Millennials today are often accused of—he shut-down the part of him that was expected to shoulder responsibility and gave himself over to self-indulgence.
It is only when Henry’s father calls on him to help fight Hotspur’s rebellion that we get our first real look at the man who will be called “noble Harry.” Henry begins by challenging Percy to single combat in the hope of preventing all-out battle (Part One, 5.1.93-100). Hotspur doesn’t accept, but they still meet on the battlefield. Here, we see Prince Hal finally owning his birthright: “I am the Prince of Wales, and think not, Percy / To share with me in glory any more.” (5.4.63-64). The Henry IV plays continue, gradually setting up Henry’s plan to throw off his “loose behaviour … / And pay the debt I never promisèd” (Part One, 1.2.200-201) by effecting a “noble change” from his “present wildness” (Part Two, 4.5.154, 152). By the time his father dies, Henry does indeed change into the man his country needed. Tellingly, he does this by committing to his duty as a king and to his faith in God.
Throughout Henry V, the king is seen seeking advice from church officials and in prayer. Henry will not invade France without assurance from the Bishop of Canterbury that his claim to the throne is just. Before the climactic battle of Agincourt—where the exhausted English are outnumbered five to one by the French forces—Henry falls to his knees and implores the “God of battles” for aid (4.1.300). When the English win, Henry’s immediate response is “praised be God, and not our strength, for it!” (4.7.92). After he learns the French lost 10,000 men and the English only 27, Henry goes so far as to proclaim a death sentence on anyone who would “boast of this or take that praise from God / Which is His only” (4.8.119-122).
I suppose this acknowledgment of God’s role in his transformation and successes is the real reason I like Henry so much. People who attain their goals without obstacles aren’t interesting or heroic. It takes true courage and commitment to turn your life around, take responsibility, and do the right thing. He’s not a perfect man, and knowing that he seeks the only One who can help him reach toward perfection—God. It is that commitment which makes Henry truly noble.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Marissa Baker is a freelance writer, blogger and full-time nerd. Her work has appeared on several websites, but her favorite place to write is on her blog where she shares thoughts on everything from psychology to Star Wars to Jesus. She lives in Ohio, and holds a Bachelor’s degree in English. When not writing, she loves baking cheesecakes, reading books, belting out Broadway show tunes, and obsessing over her nerdy interests. These include Doctor Who, Star Trek, and 18th- and 19th-Century literature.