Ambiguity in Shakespeare’s History Play “King Henry V”

Seminar Paper 2012 15 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works



1. Introduction

2. The Moral Legitimation of War in “King Henry V”
2.1 The Legal Reason
2.2 The Emotional Reason

3. Appearance and Reality: Portrayal of the King
3.1 Chorus
3.2 The Mirror of All Christian Kings: Portrayal of the Ideal Ruler
3.3 The Ruthless Politician: Critique of the King

4. Characterization of the Two Nationalities in the Play
4.1 Characterization of the English
4.2 Characterization of the French

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“King Henry V” has always been considered as Shakespeare’s most patriotic play, one could even argue his most nationalistic play. “King Henry V” appears to be the story of the ideal English king who is brave, charismatic, honourable and pious or as Shakespeare puts it, he is “the mirror of all Christian kings”[1] who fights for what is righteously his and leads his “band of brothers”[2] to victory against impossible odds.

However, to truly understand Shakespeare’s motivations, we have to take a look at the tumultuous time in which the play was written. Under the reign of Elizabeth I., England had either been at war or at the constant threat of one for decades. It was a time of frequent conspiracies to overthrow the queen and bloody rebellions. In this context the play can be seen as an attempt to raise the morale and to rally the English around a common cause. This interpretation becomes plausible given the fact that the play’s popularity increased whenever England was threatened, for example in both world wars and the Napoleonic wars.

Nevertheless “King Henry V” is not just simple wartime propaganda, it’s an ambiguous play which can be interpreted both as a glorification of war or alternatively as a subtle critique of the cruelty and futility of war. It lies entirely in the eye of the beholder. Someone with a patriotic point of view might identify himself with the virtuous Henry or admire that - although weakened by plague and famine - the English soldiers and their king defeats a superior French army, whereas a more critical reader might question the legitimacy of waging a war of aggression in the first place. Furthermore particularly modern readers feel disgusted by the killing of the unarmed prisoners at the battle of Agincourt.[3] Nowadays it would be considered a war crime and even back then it was considered inhumane.

On the one hand Shakespeare seems to show the ideal monarch and an English nation united in victory, on the other hand he shows the ugly face of war with all his atrocities and inhumanity. In the following essay I will show both, the patriotic and a more critical perspective and the reason why Shakespeare implemented both of them in his play.

2. The Moral Legitimation of War

2.1 The Legal Reason

Since ancient times, there has been a continuous controversy, whether or not there is a moral justification for waging war, this was also an issue of great topicality in the Elizabethan era,[4] and still is today. Shakespeare makes two major points, which morally legitimate the war, one that provides the legal basis and one that wins the approval of the audience on an emotional level.

The first one was King Henry’s better genealogical claim to the throne of France, explained through the “Salic speech” by the archbishop of Canterbury, in which he shows that the “Salic Law“, which excludes all women of the royal family and their descendants from succession to the throne, cannot be applied to France.[5] The Archbishops speech extends over more than 60 lines and is so complicated and tedious, that not even King Henry, who could unloose “the Gordian Knot” [6] of every political problem, is able to make sense out of it. Ironically Canterbury concludes that it is “as clear as is the summer’s sun”,[7] that Henry’s claim to the throne of France is valid. Henry however wants to be absolutely certain so he asks Canterbury if he could “with right and conscience make this claim”,[8] the archbishop then assures the king that he can righteously make his claim and that if his advice was wrong, he would take all the blame on himself. So basically Canterbury’s argumentation gives the king, quite literally, a moral carte blanche to wage war.

Given the complexity of the issue, it seems quite difficult for a modern reader to follow the archbishop’s logic. John Sutherland goes even further and calls the speech “a mind-numbing catalogue of locations, names, dates, and fussy details”.[9] This is why recent interpretations often stress the comical aspect of the scene, for example the famous film version by Laurence Olivier shows a rather ridiculous picture of Canterbury: He stutters, forgets his text and looks more like a confused old man instead of the scheming manipulator Shakespeare probably had in mind. Gary Taylor argues that unlike today the audience of the Elizabethan Age would have taken the “Salic speech” very seriously. The reason for this is that Elizabeth’s claim to the throne depended on the legitimacy of female succession, hence it would have been indiscreet at best,[10] for Shakespeare to parody the arguments of the archbishop. This might have been true for the 16th and 17th century, but nowadays it looks rather bizarre to say the least, that the cautious King Henry, who is so anxious to verify the legality of his claim to the throne of France, makes said claim before he is even told that his claim is indeed valid. If you then consider that Henry’s father gave him the advice to distract the English with “foreign quarrel”,[11] then the legitimacy of the war appears in a somehow different light. In fact Gordon Ross Smith observes that, if we followed Canterbury’s reasoning, we would come to the conclusion that due to his father’s usurpation King Henry has not even a valid claim to the throne of England much less to the throne of France.


[1] Cf . Shakespeare, William: King Henry V/König Heinrich V. Englisch Deutsche Studienausgabe, Deutsche Prosfassung mit Anmerkungen von Max Drechsler Einleitung und Kommentar von Barbara Sträuli Arslan . 2. Auflage. Tübingen.: Staufenburg Verlag 2010. II.Chorus p. 107.

[2] Ibid. IV.1 p. 251.

[3] Cf .Sutherland, John and Watts, Cedric: Henry V, War Criminal? & other Shakespeare Puzzles. Oxford World’s Classic . Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000. p. 109.

[4] Cf. Shakespeare 1599: Kommentar zu I.2 p. 338-339.

[5]Annotation : The archbishop’s main points are that the “Salic Law” was often ignored by the French and that the “Salic land” lies in Germany not in France

[6] Ibid. I.1 p. 80-81.

[7] Ibid. I.2 p. 91.

[8] Ibid. I.2 p. 91.

[9] Cf .Sutherland, John and Watts, Cedric 2000: p. 120.

[10] Cf .Taylor, Gary: Henry IV Part 2. The Oxford Shakespeare . Oxford World’s Classic . Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008. Introduction p. 35.

[11] Cf. Shakespeare, William: The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. The Cambridge Text established by John Dover Wilson . 33. edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1980. V.1 p. 485.


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Ambiguity Shakespeare History Play Henry V



Title: Ambiguity in Shakespeare’s History Play “King Henry V”