Shakespeare’s first tetralogy opens with the funeral of Henry V. English nobles bemoan the death of the king “too famous to live long” (IH6 I.i.6). The king’s uncle, Gloucester, even wails, “England ne’er had a king until his time” (IH6 I.i.8). While it is true that Henry V had “virtue,” the primary reason his nobles praise him rests on “his branish’d sword…[and] his sparkling eyes, replete with wrathful fire…[which] drove back his enemies” (IH6 I.i.9-13). Shakespeare does portray Henry V as a mighty conqueror, even analogizing him with Alexander the Great. But is virtue and conquest exhaustive of good kingship? Should we, the readers, exalt Henry V as his kinsmen did? To answer these questions, we must examine the events prior to Henry V’s death. How did he become the King of England? What was the motivating factor(s) during his rule? Only after putting “the king blest of the King of kings” in his dramatic context can we discover the components of good kingship (IH6 I.i.28). Before making judgments on the trees, we must see the entire forest; therefore, we must analyze the back story to Henry V in the second tetralogy.
In the Beginning
Our story begins during the rule of the Richard II, the only king in the second tetralogy whose right to be king is unquestionable. But Shakespeare enhances both Richard’s divine and inheritance rights by portraying him as good king. When Bullingbrook, (who will become King Henry IV), has a dispute with Mowbray, Richard is insistent on a wise settlement. When the two “high-stomached” gentlemen come before the king, they both attempt to flatter Richard (R2 I.i.18). However, the noble king does not desire flattery. Rather, he bluntly and sagaciously tackles the issue by asking Bullingbrook, “Cousin of Herford, what dost thou object against the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Mowbray” (R2 I.i.28-29)? After hearing the accusations, Richard asks Mowbray to lay his charges against Bullingbrook. Upon listening to both men, Shakespeare pens the most just and kingly words in the play:
“Mowbray, impartial are our eyes and ears. Were he my brother, nay, my kingdom’s heir…now by my scepter’s awe I make a vow, such neighbor nearness to our sacred blood should nothing privilege him nor partialize the unstooping firmness of my upright soul. He is our subject…Free speech and fearless I to thee allow” (R2 I.i.114-123).
Family is not first to Richard II; justice is.
Richard II is more than just, though. Since Bullingbrook and Mowbray were unwilling to relent, they agreed to a duel. Before the fight begins, Richard steps in and halts the battle. Why does King Richard II do this? His motivation is clear:
“For that our kingdom’s earth should not be soiled with that dear blood which it hath fostered; and for our eyes do hate…of civil wounds plough’d up with neighbors’ sword” (R2 I.iii.125-128).
The King’s intentions are every ruler’s intentions – the best for the country and its citizens. Why permit good Englishmen to kill each other, knowing the consequences will lead to further violence and bad rapport with competing nations? Instead, Richard allows the men to live. Mowbray is banished for life, and Bullingbrook for ten years. This may seem unjust to Mowbray, but considering the fact neither could originally forgive each other, why should the King expect repentance at all? In his wisdom, Richard II snuffed out a spark before it became a conflagration. Now, it would be foolish if Richard played the maverick and made this decision on a whim. But we discover that John of Gaunt, Bullingbrook’s father, and the King were in “Council” the previous day (R2 I.iii.124). Both agreed with the terms of the punishment. However, Gaunt wants to alter the terms once announced because “things sweet to taste prove in digestion sour” (R2 I.iii.236). Richard, again showing his good kingship, questions Gaunt’s whim. The king reminds the sorrowful father that “thy tongue [was] a party-verdict,” and asks “Why at our justice seem’st thou then to lower” (R2 I.iii.233-234)? But this episode doesn’t end with King insisting on justice. Richard II has mercy on Gaunt and reduces Bullingbrook’s sentence to six years. This mercy on Gaunt adds to the goodness of Richard. We know Richard and Gaunt did not like each other, as witnessed by the King’s reaction to Gaunt’s death: “his time is spent…so much for that. Now for our Irish wars” (R2 II.i.154-155). Not a tear was shed or sorrow displayed – Richard was glad to see Gaunt dead. But doesn’t this attest to Richard’s virtue? Think about it. The King and Gaunt are always at odds, yet Richard keeps Gaunt as a close counselor. Richard is able to disregard his personal feelings and rely on Gaunt’s advice for the betterment of England. He even shows his “enemy” mercy! Where is it written that a king must like every advisor?
Before continuing our trek to Henry V’s kingship, we should summarize how Richard II embodies good kingship. First, he has a right to be king. Second, he is virtuous and holy, as seen by his use of justice, mercy, and wisdom. Also, another of his closest advisors is a man of the cloth, Bishop Carlisle. Third, his motivations are kingly; that is, he has the good of England and his subjects on the forefront of his mind. This is apparent by his halting of the duel, and his immediate seizure of Gaunt’s riches to finance the English war with Ireland. Fourth, he is a military leader who protects England from outside enemies. These characteristics of Richard II seem to be (at least) four components of good Shakespearean kingship.
They Ate the Forbidden Fruit
Richard’s righteous rule soon comes to end, though. Bullingbrook usurps the king’s command by returning to England before his sentence is served. He gathers an army, (for he is popular among his countrymen), and murders Richard II’s closest friends. All of this is done while Richard is leading England in the Irish wars. And then the “true king’s fall” occurs (R2 IV.i.317). A coupe d’etat, the sin unparalleled in the second tetralogy, imprisons Richard II to the Tower. Actually, Bullingbrook compounds his “original sin” by having Richard II murdered. England would never be the same.
Prophetically speaking during his deposition, Richard asks for a mirror. After beholding his reflection, he dashes the mirror against the ground, saying, “there it is, crack’d in an hundred shivers” (R2 IV.i.289). The “it” is the “brittle glory” of Richard’s face (R2 IV.i.288). We must no overlook the double entendre inherent in Richard’s statement. Not only is Richard shattered, but the English realm, which he represents, is dashed to pieces. Or, as any sailor will tell you: The captain goes down with ship, and ship goes down with the captain. No longer will a king sit on the throne, scoring a perfect four out of four on the kingship criteria. An unprecedented transgression has occurred; and every subsequent king will be mere shadows, mere shards, of Richard II, the true king. Bullingbrook, now Henry IV, is the first to struggle in this new context of depravity.
And They Hid, Covering Themselves with Leaves
For Henry IV, and later Henry V, one word describes the reaction to this new context – guilt. Upon hearing that Richard II was murdered, Henry IV proclaims, “I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land, to wash this blood off from my guilty hand” (R2 V.vi.49-50). This desire to purge himself for his sin haunts him until his death. For on his death bed he tells his son Hal, “How I came by the crown, O God forgive” (2H4 IV.v.218). Henry IV, then, possesses a mindset which Richard never had– a tainted conscience. He is not the rightful king, and he knows it. His kingly motivation, therefore, is deficient because his thoughts are dominated by expiating unrighteousness, not exemplifying righteousness. His mind is so wracked with guilt and mistrust that he believes his own son wants him dead! Shakespeare does not make Henry IV’s rule altogether lacking, though. He is a brave military leader who courageously fights. During a battle with other “traitors,” he tells Douglas, who is a mightier warrior, that he is “the King himself” (1H4 V.iv.29). Ultimately, however, one out of four on the kingship scale is unsatisfactory.
To understand Hal, it is necessary to understand the Shakespearean view of man. When men eat food, it passes from the stomach to liver. “The liver converts the food it receives into four liquid substances, the humors” (EWP 68). There are four humors within every man: melancholy, phlegm, blood, and choler. This foursome creates “a more active life-principle, vital heat,” which is dispersed throughout the body (EWP 69). A man’s character is determined by the “intertwining of the humors” (EWP 70). All the humors were mixed within the body; thus, an outsider is able to distinguish which humor is dominating the other three, since each humor possesses certain qualities. The ideal is a perfect harmony of the humors; however, this is impossible in Elizabethan psychology because the imbalance of the humors are in “close relation to the fall of man” (EWP 73). In the end, then, man is striving to regain normalcy; striving to balance his humors which will control his character.
Hal, then, before becoming Henry V, must discover what it means to be a good king. That is, he must learn how to balance the humors as much as possible. This explains part of his complex relationship with Falstaff. Hal needs Sir John in order to learn through contrast. Intemperance best describes Falstaff. His weight is constantly mocked, along with his excessive drinking. “Why dost thou converse with that trunk of humors, that bolting-hutch of beastliness...that stuff’d cloak-bag of guts,” jests Hal, while acting the role of his father and Falstaff the role of Hal (1H4 II.iv.449-451). During Hal’s process of becoming a king, Sir John demonstrates to him how not to act. But this is incomplete. If Hal is only disgusted with Falstaff, why does he keep him company so long?
This is where we return to the abnormal state of the humors. Hal does not respect his father, he loves him. There is no evidence suggesting Hal respected Henry IV. However, in a private conversation with Poins, the future king discloses his emotions: “my heart bleeds inwardly that my father is so sick” (2H4 II.ii.48). And, supposing his father had died, Hal retreats to the “next room, washing with kindly tears his gentle cheeks” (2H4 IV.v.83). This love without respect compels Hal to seek another father figure. Is it an accident that Falstaff is old? Is it an accident that Sir John excels in wit, a quality which a king and father should teach his son? Tillyard tells us that understanding, or wit, is the “highest of human faculties” (EWP 71). He adds that men learn wit “by the painful use of discursive reason” (EWP 71). It seems that Hal is drawn to Sir John’s wit. He needs his hot, animal-vapor brain to come to a reasonable decision about kingship, contrary to the normal method of king-to-prince or father-to-son.
But Hal’s psychology runs deeper! His fleeing to Falstaff is seen as a fleeing from his father and his future office. There is a struggle within Hal. He knows he will be king, but does he want to be king? It becomes explicit during a tavern scene. While jesting with Francis, Hal asks him, “darest thou be so valiant as to play the coward with thy indenture, and show it a fair pair of heels and run from it” (1H4 II.iv.46-48). How is “cowardice” a “valiant” act? Is it good to abandon one’s rightful station? This is both Hal’s projection and condemnation of himself. He has abdicated his princely duties, and is fearful of becoming the next king. If we consider what Hal has witnessed by those who either bear or desire the crown, we realize he has good reason for fear. Richard II publicly voiced his private, internal struggles during his deposition, sounding like a madman. Henry IV, his father, became a traitor and murderer. Hotspur, Percy, and Northumberland also attempt an overthrow of England’s king. Hal is terrified of the crowns’ potential; for it has “divorc’d so many English kings” (2H4 IV.v.36-37).
Crucify the Old, Put on the New
Hal’s transformation into the Henry V, therefore, is a slow process. The reader is uncertain until the decisive moment. Falstaff, hearing that his rogue prince has been crowned king, hastens to his coronation. Sir John exclaims, “My King, my Jove! I speak to thee my heart,” only to be stunned by Henry V’s response:
“I know thee not, old man, fall to thy prayers. How ill white hairs become a fool and jester! I have long dreamt of such a kind of man…but being awak’d, I do despise my dream” (2H4 V.v.46-51).
Hal is dead, and Henry V is alive. We see a new man in England’s new king. He is virtuous and holy, displaying undaunted courage on the battle field and giving all the glory to God. He demonstrates wisdom by condemning three traitors, (Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey), with their own words. He leads his armies in battle and inspires them with his famous “Crispin Day “ speech. And, finally, we see a gentler side of Henry V in his relation to Katherine. He is tender, honest, and sensitive, insisting “how perfectly [he] love[s] her” (H5 V.ii284).
If we attempt to judge Henry V’s motivation, however, we are left with more questions than answers. Shakespeare is not definitive. What motivated Henry V? Did he just want to “falsify men’s hopes” (1H4 I.ii.211). And if his goal was to “mock the world,” did he do this selfishly, so he would appear “more goodly and attract more eyes” (1H4 I.ii.214)? Maybe he felt guilty for leaving his father for so many years and wanted to redeem the name of Henry IV? Maybe he had the restoration of England driving him? Since he loved his father so much, perhaps he was heeding his advice to “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels” (2H4 IV.v.213-214). Or was he propitiating for England by giving Richard II a proper grave, and paying men to pray for his soul; thus atoning for the original sin? So many possible motivations could have caused the change. Perhaps, though, we should judge him given the abnormal circumstances in which he was forced to rule. If we do this, we cannot help but repeat his funeral exaltation: “He was a king blest of the King of kings” (1H6 I.i.27).
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