Henry V, Changing Wars, and Powerful Words

Roman Roads Media offers several history/literature courses, and right now I’m enrolled in one focusing on Shakespeare, the metaphysical poets, and Milton. A recent assignment was to read Shakespeare’s Henry V and write a response to it. Here—somewhat edited—is what I came out with.

Henry V opens with English characters discussing whether or not to launch a campaign against France. The bishops at court have financial reasons for wanting the campaign pursued, while King Henry is more interested in whether he may “with right and conscience” (Act I, Scene II, line 96) claim the crown of France. I am not, however, going to only cover what they did discuss, but what, to my surprise, they did not discuss—whether it was morally acceptable for them to invade France!

Henry does not go into the question of conquest naívely. He knows that “never two such kingdoms did contend without much fall of blood,” (I.II, 24-5) and he wants to make very sure that his claim is, by the laws of France, legitimate. But this is all he asks: grasping the suffering that will follow war, and not desiring it, he asks only if his lineage justifies his claim; not whether his claim justifies his war. It seems that it is an ‘of course’ for Henry and his temporal peers, if not to their modern reader, that if he has just claim to France, he can—and even should—rule France. I discussed this with my mom, and she said that if Henry is supposed to be the French king in just rule under God, then, even if there is another king in France, it is his duty to rule France. For Henry, his becoming the king of France even becomes bound up with his station as king of England: “No king of England, if not king of France!” he says. (II.II, 193)

Another thing which struck me in Henry V was, in Henry’s famous St. Crispin’s Day speech, how skillfully used words can change ideas and shape events. This is something I’ve been reading about recently in Walter Wangerin, Jr.’s Beate Not the Poore Desk. In this book, Wangerin describes a scald changing the reactions of warriors who have lost a close friend in battle from grief to remembering the glory of the death of Ecglaf and being consoled by knowing that Ecglaf will go to heaven with “victory and honor.”

Before the battle of Agincourt, the English force is outnumbered, hungry, and cold. The earl of Westmoreland says that he wishes they had more men from England. But in his speech, King Henry changes being outnumbered to an honor and rallies his lords. By the end of the speech, Westmoreland’s outlook has changed completely.

Perish the man whose mind is backward now! … my liege, would you and I alone, without more help, could fight this royal battle! (IV.III, 72, 74-5)

IV.III, 72, 74-5