As promised, I forced myself to put Henry V back on the shelf. I’ve already started Macbeth – I’m only two acts away from its gruesome close.
But, as expected, I cannot move on from Henry V. This is no surprise, as I’ve always clung to Shakespeare’s histories…like a new-married wife about her husband’s neck. See? I’m even quoting, for heaven’s sake.
I spent most of last night looking for a very specific book that I’m afraid does not exist. I wish I were in a position to spearhead the publication of such a book! Since I am not, and likely never will be, I thought I’d just write the idea out so that it can stop plaguing me.
What I was looking for, specifically, was a nice, large volume containing the entirety of the Henriad. For you Shakespeare hatchlings, the Henriad is the name given to the tetralogy of Richard II, Henry IV Parts One and Two, and Henry V. Those four plays in particular, I think, are a real experience if read one after the other. I do not feel this way about the other histories – in fact, I see no reason to have to plod through all the parts of Henry VI just to get to Richard III. But to read Henry V without touching upon the rest of the Henriad is just criminal and can really ruin a reader’s enjoyment of the play.
I was so sure that a collected volume would exist, but it doesn’t. For shame! Of course, in the midst of my disappointment, my imagination began to get carried away with itself. Not only am I dreaming of a volume collecting all four plays, I’m dreaming of a leather-bound volume. The thought of illustrations crossed my mind…before it was swiftly replaced with fantasies of the entire thing being fashioned as an illuminated manuscript. Can you imagine? And, oh, think of all the thoughtful and inspiring essays that could be sprinkled in between the plays. Think of all the history that can be contained in such a publication of the Henriad – does such an amazing tetralogy deserve any less?
The leather of the cover would be embossed with intricate patterns influenced by the art of the time period in question, of course. And the style of the illustrations that accompany the plays do not have to be accurate – who’s to say that there isn’t an artist out there capable of capturing the magical, golden haze of an illuminated manuscript and the beauty of anatomically correct, aesthetically pleasing art?
Any large illustrations would be followed by that lovely, translucent, almost wax-like paper that you sometimes discovered while flipping through especially precious books as a child. Do you know the type? Even if the illustrations didn’t need it, I’d want them in this collection anyway because they always give the distinct feeling that you’re handling something special and fragile.
I guess it’s worth wondering who would be interested in such a volume of the Henriad. Obviously, any Shakespeare lovers or historians out there would fall in love with the idea immediately. But I also think there would be something attractive about it for new readers – I mean, owning a beautiful book won’t make you love Shakespeare any faster, but it does help, doesn’t it?
It is with great sadness that I put Henry V back on my shelf. I will be reading Macbeth next, but I figured I had a least one post left in me before I changed genres so completely.
The question that begs to be answered at the end of Henry V is…well, is he a good king?
My answer is yes. Although Hal is not always a good Christian king, he is a good king.
CHORUS O, now, who will behold
The royal captain of this ruined band
Walking from watch to watch, from tent to tent,
Let him cry, “Praise and glory on his head!”
For forth he goes and visits all his host,
Bids them good morrow with a modest smile
And calls them brothers, friends, and countrymen.
Upon his royal face there is no note
How dread an army hath enrounded him;
Nor doth he dedicate one jot of color
Unto the weary and all-watchèd night,
But freshly looks, and overbears attaint
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty;
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal, like the sun.
His liberal eye doth give to every one,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
Behold, as may unworthiness define,
A little touch of Harry in the night.
For me (and for you, if you’ve been keeping up with my interpretation of Hal), this behavior is expected. Hal has always been good-natured – this quality of his was evident to me even when I was just a teenager and he was a troublesome prince in Henry IV.
Ultimately, it is his inherent kindness, and not his faith, that makes him a good king. His faith isn’t the reason soldiers feel so connected to him at all – Hal is the reason. He has always been personable, and even though the court looked down on him when he was young, they can’t help but love him now that all of his kindness is being directed toward them.
He tries very hard to be a noticeably Christian king, because that’s the ideal, isn’t it? It’s no secret that being king stresses Hal out – and I don’t think it’s just because he’s responsible for all of England. It’s also because of all the expectations the other nobles have of him. It’s because he’s also trying desperately to leave his past behind, when what he really should be doing is coming to peace with it.
I think if I could dedicate my life to studying one play, I would choose Henry V. People who know me well would be shocked, I’m sure, because my adoration for Richard III is well advertised. But Richard was easy for me to analyze. Hal, meanwhile, has always presented me with challenges. There are days where I feel like my interpretation is falling apart, and others where I read a few lines and see everything shift back into place.
And, truth be told, the reason I go out of my way to weave such a complicated web on his behalf is because I love him in a very pure, protective way. It would be difficult for me to write off his past because in the midst of all the irresponsibility and immaturity, I manage to see good qualities as well. And because I think those good qualities are a fundamental part of Hal – as a person, not as royalty – I think it is worth trying to tie them into who he is as king. And I am not just talking about how kind he is – I’m also talking about the playful and mischievous parts of him that give him his charm and make him a stand-out character.
No matter the interpretation you follow, there is one thing we can agree upon: the reason Hal is so well-loved by the people around him, and the reason he is seen as such a wonderful king, is because he tries.
And, sometimes, that’s all you can ask of a person.
Henry V, a play very much filled with bloodshed and tension, ends on a surprisingly charming note. But it doesn’t have to.
Hal asks to be left alone with Katherine, the Dauphin’s sister and Princess of France. Alice, Katherine’s attendant, also stays behind with them.
KING HENRY Fair Katherine, and most fair,
Will you vouchsafe to teach a soldier terms
Such as will enter a lady’s ear
And plead his love suit to her gentle heart?
Let us make one thing clear: Katherine is going to marry Hal whether she likes it or not. She is a crucial component of the Treaty of Troyes. So, when it really comes down to it, Hal doesn’t have to do this. He doesn’t have to try to woo her.
But he does anyway.
KATHERINE Your majesty shall mock at me. I cannot speak your England.
KING HENRY O fair Katherine, if you will love me soundly with your French heart, I will be glad to hear you confess it brokenly with your English tongue. Do you like me, Kate?
KATHERINE Pardonnez-moi, I cannot tell what is “like me.”
KING HENRY An angel is like you, Kate, and you are like an angel.
KATHERINE Que dit-il? Que je suis semblable à les anges?
ALICE Oui, vraiment, sauf vostre grace, ainsi dit-il.
KING HENRY I said so, dear Katherine, and I must not blush to affirm it.
KATHERINE O bon Dieu! les langues des hommes sont pleine de tromperies.
KING HENRY What says she, fair one? that the tongues of men are full of deceits?
ALICE Oui, dat de tongues of de mans is be full of deceits. Dat is de princesse.
That is the princess indeed! Katherine is not swept away by Hal’s eager attempts at wooing. We only see Katherine twice in this play – once when she asks Alice to teach her to speak English, and once when she has to suffer through Hal’s laughable (yet sweet) proposal. I love her despite this – she shines in both scenes, and the personality traits we actually do get to see are amazing.
We have established by now that this scene does not have to happen. And yet, Hal continues to woo Katherine, and makes a right fool of himself in the process. Why is he doing this?
Well, because he is who he is. I know that isn’t a good answer, but it’s the best answer I can come up with. Hal, who is always seeking validation (probably because he got very little of it from his father), would much rather Katherine like him even if she is being forced to marry him. And despite all of his flaws, Hal is good. He is good, and kind, and this is his opportunity to show Katherine that she isn’t marrying a monster.
KING HENRY Marry, if you would put me to verses or to dance for your sake, Kate, why, you undid me. For the one I have neither words nor measure; and for the other I have no measure in strength. If I could win a lady at leapfrog, or by vaulting into my saddle with my armor on my back, under the correction of bragging be it spoken, I should quickly leap into a wife. Or if I might buffet for my love, or bound my horse for her favors, I could lay on like a butcher and sit like a jackanapes, never off. But, before God, Kate, I cannot look greenly, not gasp out my eloquence, nor I have no cunning in protestation, only downright oaths which I never use till urged, nor even break for urging. If thou canst love a fellow of this temper, Kate, whose face is not worth sunburning, that never looks in his glass for love of anything he sees there, let thine eye be thy cook. I speak to thee plain soldier. If thou canst love me for this, take me; if not, to say to thee that I shall die, is true; but for thy love, by the Lord, no; yet I love thee too. And while thou liv’st, dear Kate, take a fellow of plain and uncoined constancy, for he perforce must do thee right, because he hath not the gift to woo in other places. For these fellows of infinite tongue that can rhyme themselves into ladies’ favors, they do always reason themselves out again. What! A speaker is but a prater; a rhyme is but a ballad. A good leg will fall, a straight back will stoop, a black beard will turn white, a curled pate will grow bald, a fair face will wither, a full eye will wax hollow; but a good heart, Kate, is the sun and the moon; or rather, the sun, and not the moon, for it shines bright and never changes, but keeps his course truly. If thou would have such a one, take me; and take me, take a soldier; take a soldier, take a king. And what say’st thou then to my love? Speak, my fair, and fairly, I pray thee.
Hal is always prone to rambling, but you really feel it in this scene. But you don’t mind because he is being so humble. And honest – I think if this scene shows us anything, it’s Hal’s true personality. But where is the playful and mischievous streak that I keep claiming he hasn’t lost? Be patient, it’ll show.
KATHERINE Is it possible dat I should love de ennemie of France?
KING HENRY No, it is not possible you should love the enemy of France, Kate; but in loving me you should love the friend of France, for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it – I will have it all mine. And, Kate, when France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine.
Won’t part with a village of it, he says. A silly line that always has me rolling my eyes. Katherine, however, doesn’t understand what he’s getting at.
KATHERINE I cannot tell wat is dat.
KING HENRY No, Kate? I will tell thee in French, which I am sure will hang upon my tongue like a new-married wife about her husband’s neck, hardly to be shook off. Je quand sur le possession de France, et quand vous avez possession de moi (let me see, what then? Saint Denis be my speed!), donc vostre est France et vous estes mienne. It is easy for me, Kate, to conquer the kingdom as to speak so much more French. I shall never move thee in French, unless it be to laugh at me.
No matter how you feel about Hal as a character, this exchange softens your heart. Every production of Henry V I’ve seen has had Hal trip over the French he tries to speak – and it’s so charming and so earnest that you can’t help but feel a bit in love with him yourself. I love the last line, “I shall never move thee in French, unless it be to laugh at me,” because he always says it so good-naturedly. Every time Katherine laughs, he laughs or smiles along with her, even if she is laughing at his awful French.
When Hal asks again if Katherine can love him, this happens:
KATHERINE I cannot tell.
KING HENRY Can any of your neighbors tell, Kate? I’ll ask them. Come, I know thou lovest me; and at night when you come into your closet, you’ll question this gentlewoman about me, and I know, Kate, you will to her dispraise those parts in me that you love with your heart; but, good Kate, mock me mercifully, the rather, gentle princess, because I love thee cruelly.
He continues for a few lines after this – actually, he gets carried away for a minute, thinking about the kind of children he and Katherine will have. But that isn’t important. What’s important is the playful nature this exchange has taken on. See? I told you he never fully got rid of that streak. It moves from playful to sweet, of course, because he is still trying to woo her.
Before Katherine finally agrees to the marriage, Hal calls her “la plus belle Katherine du monde, mon trèscher et devin déesse.” It is not an important line to pick out, but I’ll do so anyway because it always makes me smile. I can hear him tripping over his words, trying so hard to charm her – and if the production has Katherine laugh every time he speaks French, all the better. At this point, she is always charmed. And, truth be told, so am I.
Now, back to the proposal that Katherine has just agreed to.
KING HENRY Upon that, I kiss your hand and I call you my queen.
KATHERINE Laissez, mon seigneur, laissez, laissez! Ma foi, je ne veux point que vous abaissiez vostre grandeur en baisant le main d’une de vostre seigneurie indigne serviteur. Excusez-moi, je vous supplie, mon très-puissant seigneur.
KING HENRY Then I will kiss your lips, Kate.
Ah, mischief! There it is. Katherine has just told him that she does not wish him to lower his dignity by kissing the hand of someone lower in rank than he is. So Hal, being the fundamentally mischievous person he is, says that he’ll kiss her lips instead.
How could anybody think that he’d changed completely? Hal says things like this because of who he was – not because of who he has become in this play. Despite everything, he still has a bit of rascal left in him.
KATHERINE Les dames et demoiselles pour estre baisée devant leur nopces, il n’est pas la coutume de France.
KING HENRY Madam my interpreter, what says she?
ALICE Dat it is not be fashon pour le ladies of France – I cannot tell what is “baiser” en Anglish.
KING HENRY To kiss.
ALICE Your majestee entendre bettre que moi.
KING HENRY It is not a fashion for the maids in France to kiss before they are married, would she say?
ALICE Oui, vraiment.
KING HENRY O, Kate, nice customs curtsy to great kings. Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined within the weak list of a country’s fashion. We are the makers of manners, Kate; and the liberty that follows our places stops the mouth of all findfaults, as I will do yours for upholding the nice fashion of your country in denying me a kiss. Therefore patiently, and yielding. [Kisses her.]
Such puckish behavior for a king. Anybody who sees Henry as an all-serious Christian king is doing him a disservice. In this awkward scene alone, we can see so many facets of his personality. It reminds us of his age, who he was, and who he is now.
KING HENRY You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate. There is more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the tongues of the French Council, and they should sooner persuade Harry of England than a general petition of monarchs. Here comes your father.
The delivery of “here comes your father,” is always so entertaining to me – Hal always moves away from Katherine posthaste. He sometimes rushes back to retrieve his crown, having taken it off while he was speaking to Katherine. He straightens his doublet, and keeps a respectable distance from the princess.
And, if you’ve been following my interpretation of Hal’s character, this is exactly the kind of behavior we should expect from him. In front of the other nobles, he transforms into King Henry. Katherine, luckily, was speaking to Hal.
Hal does indeed change between Henry IV and Henry V. He does become more mature. But that doesn’t mean that he has to lose everything about who he was. Circumstances change him, that much is true, but underneath all those kingly qualities, Hal is still mostly just Hal. He is older, wiser, but still playful and prone to making trouble.
It’s no wonder that Katherine can’t help but fall in love.
In act four of Henry V, Hal puts on a cloak and ventures into the night. His troops are sick, hungry and tired, and a battle awaits them come dawn. Hal approaches them in disguise, and wants to know their opinion of the king and his cause.
Hal is the sort of character who seems to constantly seek validation. The reason for this – and you’ll soon grow tired of me saying this again and again – is because he is incredibly insecure. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter what his soldiers think of him now. That is, it shouldn’t matter. But it matters to Hal, and so he goes out and investigates.
He isn’t too pleased with what he’s told.
WILLIAMS But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, “We died at such a place,” some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeared there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.
This is bullshit – or at least it is according to Hal. His impassioned response boils down to: why should the king be responsible for his soldiers’ souls? If, before they joined the army, they were awful people, what is it to Hal? Why would he be responsible for how they get judged after being slain on the field?
Is this the response of a good Christian king?
Probably not. A king should feel responsible for his soldiers – souls and all. But, Hal – poor Hal – has so much on his shoulders. He feels responsible for so much that he just cannot be responsible for this too. He shrugs off this responsibility in order to stay sane, and because he wouldn’t be able to deal with the guilt.
Because he is in disguise, Hal is very much himself in this scene. He speaks freely because nobody from the court is looming over him. And, in true Hal fashion, he causes a bit of trouble.
When the other soldiers leave, Hal speaks.
KING HENRY Upon the king! Let us our lives, our souls,
Our debts, our careful wives,
Our children, and our sins, lay on the king!
We must bear all. O hard condition,
Twin-born with greatness, subject to the breath
Of every fool, whose sense no more can feel
But his own wringing! What infinite heart’s ease
Must kings neglect that private men enjoy!
And what have kings that private men have not too,
Save ceremony, save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol Ceremony?
This speech begins bitterly, and then develops a sad, reflective quality. I always say that Hal is stressed – and this proves it. Isn’t it ironic that the king – the most pampered individual in all of England – should feel like this? All he has that common men don’t, he says, is ceremony. But it doesn’t mean anything to him. It doesn’t save him from the overwhelming responsibility he feels toward his people and his country.
Erpingham finds the king, and tells him that the nobles are looking for him. Hal tells him to take them to his tent – he’ll be there shortly.
KING HENRY O God of battles, steel my soldiers’ hearts,
Possess them not with fear! Take from them now
The sense of reckoning, if th’ opposèd numbers
Pluck their hearts from them. Not today, O Lord,
O, not today, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown!
I Richard’s body have interrèd new;
And on it have bestowed more contrite tears
Than from it issued forcèd drops of blood.
Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay,
Who twice a day their withered hands hold up
Toward heaven to pardon blood;
And I have built two chantries,
Where the sad and solemn priests sing still
For Richard’s soul. More will I do:
Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
Since that my penitence comes after all,
Ah, fear. Alone in the cold night, Hal asks God for help with tomorrow’s battle. When he speaks to his troops, his speaks confidently. After all, his cause is true, and his army honorable. But now that he’s alone, he lets his fears out into the darkness. When I saw this play at the Globe, Hal is startled when Gloucester interrupts him. He jumps up, and tugs his doublet down as if he’s trying to straighten himself up. What would the nobles and soldiers think if they saw him like this?
If anything about Henry V is an act, it’s his confidence. Inside of warlike Harry, England’s lion, is – well, Hal. Still young at 28, still not completely separated from his past, and still emotional and unsure.
There are two instances of problematic behavior from Hal in Henry V. I will not pretend that they are not there, but I will attempt to understand why Hal would behave problematically – as a character, he deserves that much.
Early in the play, a messenger appears at Henry V’s court. He has a present from the Dauphin.
KING HENRY What treasure, uncle?
EXETER Tennis balls, my liege.
KING HENRY We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us.
His present and your pains we thank you for.
When we have matched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturbed
With chases. And we understand him well,
How he comes o’er us with our wilder days,
Not measuring what use we made of them.
We never valued this poor seat of England,
And therefore, living hence, did give ourself
To barbarous license; as ’tis ever common
That men are merriest when they are from home.
But tell the Dauphin I will keep my state,
Be like a king, and show my sail of greatness
When I do rouse me in my throne of France.
For that I have laid by my majesty
And plodded like a man for working days,
But I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us.
And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones, and his soul
Shall stand sore-chargèd for the wasteful vengeance
That shall fly with them; for many a thousand widows
Shall this his mock mock out of their dear husbands,
Mock mothers from their sons, mock castles down;
And some are yet ungotten and unborn
That shall have cause to curse the Dauphin’s scorn.
But this lies all within the will of God,
To whom I do appeal, and in whose name,
Tell you the Dauphin, I am coming on
To venge me as I may, and to put forth
My rightful hand in a well-hallowed cause.
So get you hence in peace. And tell the Dauphin
His jest will savor but of shallow wit
When thousands weep more than did laugh at it.
Convey them with save conduct. Fare you well.
As I have mentioned before, I see Henry V as a relatively insecure character. He knows how people talk about him – about the way he was – and he is not secure in himself even now, as king of England. When these tennis balls arrive, the situation gets out of hand – Hal loses his temper in a way that is very unbecoming for the king. He twists the tennis balls into metaphors for destruction and violence, promising death to France.
Just outside of the French city of Harfleur, this happens:
KING HENRY How yet resolves the governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit:
Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves,
Or like to men proud of destruction
Defy us to our worst; for as I am a soldier,
A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,
If I begin the battery once again,
I will not leave the half-achièved Harfleur
Till in her ashes she lie burièd.
The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And 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 flow’ring infants.
What is it then to me if impious war,
Arrayed in flames like to the prince of fiends,
Do with his smirched complexion all fell feats
Enlinked to waste and desolation?
What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause,
If your pure maidens fall into the hand
Of hot and forcing violation?
What rein can hold licentious wickedness
When down the hill he holds his fierce career?
We may as bootless spend our vain command
Upon th’ enragèd soldiers in their spoil
As send precepts to the leviathan
To come ashore. Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people,
Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command,
Whiles yet the cool and temperate wind of grace
O’erblows the filthy and contagious clouds
Of heady murder, spoil, and villainy.
If not – why, in a moment look to see
The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand
Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;
Your fathers taken by the silver beards,
And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;
Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,
Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid?
Or, guilty in defense, be thus destroyed?
Shame, shame! At the gates of Harfleur, Hal threatens the city with rape and murder.
Before moving on, we must ask ourselves: what makes a good Christian king? A good Christian king keeps his emotions in check, lives his life mainly to please God, and shows good Christian qualities such as mercy and kindness.
They say Henry V is a good Christian king. But he loses control of himself when presented with the tennis balls, and he is heartless at Harfleur’s gates. I think there is a reason for this: inexperience.
As I have said before, I believe very much that the shock of losing Henry IV caused Hal to mature faster than he would have otherwise. He now knows what people expect of him – he knows the kind of king they want him to be. And he does try to be that for them. Sometimes, however, he slips up. And those slip-ups range from subtle to glaringly obvious. But he’s still learning! Hal is only 28, and his life before this was one of revelry and fun. Nobody can change so completely to be a scoundrel one day and a perfect Christian monarch the next. I know that, you know that, and Shakespeare knows that.
Now the question is: do these slip-ups change the way I see Hal?
The answer is no. While I, as a modern woman in her 20s, do not appreciate threats of rape and violence, I keep in mind that this campaign happened in 1415 and…Hal doesn’t know how to control himself just yet. He knows what role he has to play as King, yes, but he’s a long way from perfecting it.
I do not want to say those threats are completely empty, because a great many French soldiers died at Agincourt. But I do not think he would have allowed his soldiers to pillage Harfleur – I find that particular threat empty. No matter what play we pick up, be it either of the Henry IVs, or Henry V, I think it is very obvious that Hal has a good heart underneath everything.
He is inexperienced, however, and still learning the ropes. So are the two instances I talked about problematic? Yes. Are they random and out of character? Absolutely not.
I’ve taken the title of this post from Henry IV, Part One. In act two, Prince Hal and Falstaff play a little game. Hal pretends to be his father, the stern and stiff Henry IV. Falstaff pretends to be the Prince.
FALSTAFF But to say I know more harm in him than in myself, were to say more than I know. That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny. If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh’s lean kine are to be loved. No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.
PRINCE HENRY I do, I will.
They are interrupted by a knock at the door. Plenty of scenes in the Henriad tetralogy tug at my heart, but none so much as this one does. If the actor plays the role correctly, Hal speaks brokenly – but he does so because he knows what he is saying is true.
But let’s talk about Henry V. I adore Hal – and that’s putting it lightly. His insecurity, his emotional nature, his utter humanness make him an absolutely irresistible character to me. Other people may see him differently, and there’s a reason for this: there are multiple ways to interpret his character. Popular interpretations include ‘he was hiding his good qualities underneath a rebellious guise all along,’ and ‘he was only hanging out with the commoners in previous plays just to understand how the little people live.’
I partially disagree with the first interpretation, and very strongly disagree with the second. I think both of these interpretations do Hal – or Henry, if you’d like to be formal – a great disservice.
So let me talk about my own interpretation of England’s golden boy.
In Henry IV, I see Hal as a rascal – nobody can disagree with that. But why does he behave this way? Why does he hang out with Falstaff and the others, getting drunk and playing tricks while his father disapproves back at the castle?
As always, there is no correct answer. I see Hal as somebody who has always had a playful, fun-loving streak. His father’s disapproval caused him to express these traits with a vengeance. I do not think any of his prior boyish behavior was fake. I think it was very much real. Overplayed at times, sure, but real.
Very early in Henry IV, Part One, we are given an excuse for Hal’s behavior:
PRINCE HENRY I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mist
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work,
But when they seldom come, they wished for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promisèd,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Unfortunately, this excuse comes straight from Hal’s mouth. Because of this, I can simply say that he is going out of his way to justify his actions. By doing this, he absolves himself of any guilt he feels for being so irresponsible, and for being such a disappointment to his father. It’ll all be worth it, he thinks. I’ll look a hundred times better when I change because they’ll only have my past self to compare me to. But if this is truly reason for his behavior, it doesn’t end up playing out in his favor. In Henry V, despite his change, the French Dauphin sees him as a silly boy playing at war. In any case, I think he is trying to make himself feel better. What realistic character would have so much energy so as to put on a guise for so long?
Fast forward to Henry IV’s illness. Hal is high-strung throughout Henry IV, Part Two, and has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Suddenly, everybody expects things of him – they always have, but now he has to deliver. They expect him to rule all of England. Above all, they expect him to shed his past like a snake sheds its skin, and emerge a divine figure, shrouded in light. These expectations place a great deal of stress on Hal, and he responds by sobering up and maturing quite quickly. He now feels responsible for England – and he hears the way people talk. He feels insecure, and he is inexperienced and afraid.
Fortunately, he is very talented with his words. And so, people are convinced that he has changed. That they can depend on him to be a good Christian king.
But what about Hal?
Poor, unhappy Hal, who now suddenly has a crown on his head. Poor Hal, who has to leave behind all the people he’s spent years with and (dare I say it?) loved. His insecurities are so clear to me in Henry V – when the Dauphin mocks him by sending him tennis balls, Hal retaliates because his insecurities are being preyed on. Despite telling the Dauphin’s messenger to speak plainly, because “we are no tyrant, but a Christian king, unto whose grace our passion is as subject as is our wretches fettered in our prisons,” he becomes angry. He claims that he is able to keep his emotions in check, and he does – to a degree. No matter how hard Hal tries, he still slips up every now and again. He is sometimes too emotional, and he takes things too personally.
Let us talk about how he exposes the traitors, Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, knight of Northumberland. Instead of being direct with them, he does this:
KING HENRY Who are the late commissioners?
CAMBRIDGE I one, my lord.
Your highness bade me ask for it today.
SCROOP So did you me, my liege.
GREY And I, my royal sovereign.
KING HENRY Then, Richard Earl of Cambridge, there is yours;
There yours, Lord Scroop of Masham; and, sir knight,
Grey of Northumberland, this same is yours.
Read them, and know I know your worthiness.
My Lord of Westmoreland, and uncle Exeter,
We will abroad tonight. – Why, how now, gentlemen?
What see you in those papers that you lose
So much complexion? – Look ye, how they change!
Their cheeks are paper. – Why, what read you there
That hath so cowarded and chased your blood
Out of appearance?
What they are reading, of course, are papers that basically say, “I know you betrayed me.” Henry IV, I think, would have just had them brought before him. He would have lectured them, and then have sent them off to be hung.
But Hal? No, Hal needs to play a trick. I suggested in class that you could say that some of Prince Hal lingers still in King Henry. People may not agree with this. But why not? Why can’t Hal be maintaining a balance between his more immature characteristics, and his newly found kingly traits? Why does Hal have to be either one or the other? Isn’t he human?
I said previously that I partially disagreed with the interpretation of Henry V that says that Hal’s desirable, king-worthy traits were being hidden underneath this rascally guise. The reason I say ‘partially’ is because this interpretation can be taken one of two ways: the person saying this could believe that the trouble-making Hal wasn’t the real Hal (which I think by now you know I disagree with), or they could be saying that Hal has always had mature traits that he hadn’t been expressing. I could agree with the latter – like I said, I have no doubt that Hal went overboard with his antics to get on his father’s nerves. I’m sure deep down inside he was well aware of his responsibilities to the crown. He just wasn’t prepared for things to change so soon.
See, this is what is so wonderful about Hal as a character. No matter how you look at him, you can relate to him. And he makes himself accessible and relatable to his troops – and because of that, they’d follow him into the very depths of hell.
But he really is complicated, isn’t he? There are so many ways to see him. I like my way because I find that it makes him so realistic – like you could just reach into the page and touch him. Only Shakespeare himself knows what the correct interpretation is. Since he’s hanging out in the wooden O in the sky, I suppose we’ll never know. All we can do until then is appreciate the fact that we have a historical play with a crowned character who, despite it all, is still just an unsure young man trying to be the best he can be.