Henry V and the veiled challenge to Renaissance authority

Master's Thesis 2013 52 Pages

English - Literature, Works








Henry V and the veiled challenge to Renaissance authority


Critical responses to Henry V have, necessarily, engaged with Shakespeare’s focus on the sedition and disorder concealed within the apparently ingenuous, uncomplicated construct of the history plays. The ambiguity, that Shakespeare should simultaneously lionise and undermine Henry, is an intriguing topic which has long resonated, particularly since the publication of Hazlitt’s work of 1817, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, in which he departed from the patriotic panegyric that Henry V had hitherto held in the public’s eyes to contend that Henry was not only a glowing example of Christian monarchy but ‘a very amiable monster.’1 Hazlitt elucidates the point that the text is very much more than mere homage to Henry’s prowess as military leader and Christian King. Rather, the veiled rebellion within the texts points to an ineluctable challenge to Renaissance authority which inevitably includes strategies of subversion and explorations of colonisation.

It is undoubted that Shakespeare was paradoxically, as Greenblatt says, ‘the epitome of freedom’ but also a ‘figure of limits.’2 It was the recognition of necessary constraint which prevented him from writing, in Walter Ralegh’s words, too ‘modern’ a history, lest by following ‘truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth.’3 It is clear though that he understood his art to depend upon a shared understanding of society, but he did not simply submit to the norms of his age. Rather, he at once embraced those norms and subverted them. The focus for exploring the seditious embrace in Henry V’s assumption and manipulation of power is therefore Shakespeare’s response to his culture’s ideals of morality and perfection. The Renaissance world was one which perceived these to be iconic benchmarks of society and thus, within the flawless image of the King and the moralistic Christian ‘new world’ of the Renaissance, Shakespeare shifts focus to the manner and mode of power and authority itself. This results, as Adorno would have it, in a ‘false consciousness’4 and, as Greenblatt posits, in, a disturbing vista […] glimpsed only to be immediately closed off. Indeed we may feel at this point that subversion scarcely exists and may legitimately ask ourselves how our perception of the subversive is generated.5

Henry V’s righteous forays into Harfleur and Agincourt are presented as radiant, immaculate, unmarked by time and by censure. Henry V’s King seems to repeatedly endorse the ideal of heroic flawlessness, yet the play finds an ambivalent, paradoxical beauty in the violence, harm and slaughter that runs through Henry V, an ugliness that had previously figured in the Renaissance only as signs of cruelty, disgrace, and difference and yet is celebrated, in a way that invites a repeatedly troubling, ambiguous construction, by Shakespeare. For example, the unblemished, immaculate beauty of the Renaissance ideal is negated by the scars of battle. The wounds that the soldiers will receive at Agincourt are therefore seen not as signs of mutilation and abhorrence but as an aesthetic badge of honour, where the battle has to be joined in order to allow good to triumph and thus aid the progress of right, morality and perfection. Henry promises his men,

He that outlives this day […]

Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours

And say, ‘Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.’

Then he will strip his sleeve and show his scars

And say, ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’ (Henry V, IV. iii, 41, 45--48).

Within these lines, the righteous simplicity of ‘strip his sleeve and show his scars’ conforms to the pride that one expects of military heroism and there is an echo here of the martial theme in Coriolanus; where scars were perceived as badges and citizens were encouraged to display their wounds to each other as if, like Coriolanus, they were suing for election in the market-place. Shakespeare exploits a class-inflected point here too, for it seems that Henry’s soldiers, like Helots, must be wounded in order that ‘the great and good’ could pursue and enjoy aesthetic, moral beauty. However, beneath the image of display, there is something infinitely more subtle - the understated word ‘wounds’ playfully links the Renaissance ideal of flawlessness to the damage done by battle scars as it holds the revolutionary suggestion for the observant reader that perhaps beauty and ugliness are not diametrically opposed after all and that all things, whether it is a monarch’s power or the power of battle to maim and wound, are not absolute. The motif of physical change, scarring, harm and disfigurement is repeated throughout the play and therefore serves only to enhance the contrast between beauty and ugliness. Thus, in the conflicting messages of Henry V, one must explore the fact that Shakespeare also discloses a ‘disturbing vista’; a challenge to the very notion of morality. Consequently, the goal of the reader must be to deconstruct the disorientating binary oppositions that exist within Shakespeare’s writing. There is the idealised construct of monarchist rule on one hand, and, on the other, there is challenge and subversion. This is seen particularly within Henry V, who inhabits abundant moral spaces and confounds the authority of ethical barriers. Accordingly, the paradoxical beauty of Henry V was, for Shakespeare, bound up with what it meant to be a monarch in the dangerous world of Renaissance conquest and colonisation, where the construct of colonial oppression now casts a troubling, complicated shadow and invokes a complexity of response.

It is clear that the light shed on the interpretation of Henry V is complex and resonates with Shakespeare’s difficulties with the volatile politics, beliefs, and ideologies which characterised the discourse of the sixteenth century, not least - in the light of Ralegh’s comment on writing history - the possibility of monarchic disapproval and the punitive ugliness that so often followed. Therefore, while it is overly simplistic to read Henry V merely as a reflection of the conflicts of the Elizabethan age and, particularly, the bloody conflicts of the Irish rebellions of the 1590s, it is undoubted that, in Henry V, Shakespeare creates an intensely energetic and compellingly heroic (or anti-heroic) character where the intertextual echoes are clear. For example, Thomas Churchyard speaks of the strategies of Elizabeth I’s commander, Sir Humphrey Gilbert, in the Irish massacre thus,

He further tooke this order, infringeable, that whensoeuer he made any […] inrode, into the enemies Countrey, he killed manne, woman and child, and spoiled, wasted, and burned, by the grounde all that he might: leauing nothing of the enemies in safetie, whiche he could possiblie waste, or consume.6

The parallels between Henry V’s conquest of France and England’s invasions of Ireland resonate compellingly in these words and in the play’s description of barbarous killing at Harfleur. Any examination of Henry V’s challenge to Renaissance authority must therefore explore ways in which Henry V exists not only as a portrait of military, patriotic heroism but as a divided, political space where Shakespeare examines an internal exile, borne of his life within the bloodied, dangerous sphere of radical, political conquests and his achievement of freedom within the conformity of Renaissance society. Here, Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II in their portrayal of the wastrel prince, before his flawed possession of rule as King in Henry V, offer up the dark costs of power to the reader, as do the intertextual mirrors of Seamus Heaney’s bitterly violent perspective in the poetry of Ocean’s Love to Ireland.

Thus, Henry V cannot exist solely as a patriotic representation of the ‘star of England’ (Henry V, Epilogue, 6); there is a radical ambivalence in the text, in his character and in the war that he invokes against France. Shakespeare offers the astute reader the opportunity to distinguish between true adherence to idealism and the supposed external adherence to it, in Henry V he exposes the rulers who espouse it and other grand concepts yet still steep themselves in blood. The play’s mode of presentation is therefore used by Shakespeare as a cipher, a carefully planned strategy, rather than mere historical homage. The play is not simply a reflection of the nationalist fervour which suffused England in 1599, it is a text whereby subversive perceptions of that complex and dangerous new world are voiced but also constrained.


The veiled challenge to Renaissance authority is seen in the way that Shakespeare recognises the duality of Henry’s journey from youthful imperfection as the inglorious Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II - who is decried by his father as someone who has indulged himself in, ‘such inordinate and low desires | Such barren pleasures, rude society.’ (Henry IV, Part I, III.ii.12--14) - an image which is juxtaposed with the flawless, Christian embodiment of power that Shakespeare offers in Henry V when he assumes the mantle of ‘the mirror of all Christian kings’ (Henry V, II, Chorus, 6).

Henry V’s eventual possession of power defamiliarises the reader from the Renaissance notion of authority and Henry IV, Part 1 makes this seem infinitely problematic in its detachment from the reality of the immoral and dissolute Hal. As Prince, it seems that Hal’s authority is in crisis, he is a mercurial,

young wanton and effeminate boy,

[who] Takes on the point of honour to support

So dissolute a crew (Richard II, V.iii.10--12).

Hal’s representation makes clear his rebellious power and a pronounced lack of self-reflexivity towards his loutish agenda; he is a rake who stands contrary to noble ideals, and, as such, his crimes are, if in a minimal way, witnessed by the reader via the act of reading. In consequence, the reader is made complicit in Hal’s unrepentant, ‘wanton’ behaviour. It seems that Hal has courted danger by consorting with those, ‘as stand in narrow lanes| And beat our watch and rob our passengers’ (Richard II, V.iii.8--9), and his plans to cavort in the stews and steal from the commonest of creatures there leave the King ‘at an utter loss to understand how such passages of life can comport with either Hal's greatness of blood or his princely heart.’7 He says,

Had I so lavish of my presence been,

So common-hackney'd in the eyes of men,

So stale and cheap to vulgar company,

Opinion, that did help me to the crown,

Had still kept loyal to possession,

And left me in reputeless banishment,

A fellow of no mark nor likelihood (Henry IV, Part I, III.ii. 39--45).

It seems perhaps that Shakespeare aimed to infiltrate the readers’ consciousness as a means for them to regain the individual freedoms that had become lost within the autonomy of Renaissance rule. Therefore, subtle subversion is implied here as the words swing away from the explicit notion of the lines that royalty should be spotlessly immaculate. The image sings with a focus on sharp, sensory ugliness and the sickening smell of warm humanity in the words, ‘stale’, ‘cheap’, ‘vulgar’ and ‘common-hackneyed’, a phrase which implies that easy popularity has caused royalty to lose its mysterious thrall in the public’s eyes. The disquiet that King Henry IV expresses in these lines goes to the heart of the play’s problems with Hal’s transformation; Greenblatt, in Invisible Bullets, posits that, ‘Shakespeare’s plays are centrally and repeatedly concerned with the production and containment of subversion and disorder.’8 And, in the studied and artificial transformation from louche Prince, a ‘fellow of no mark’, there is a sense of both ‘production and containment’, a deliberate and shrewd change which sits awkwardly with Renaissance idealism.

The disparity between Hal’s dissolute reputation and the faultlessness of the Elizabethan ideal of beauty allows the reader to see critically Shakespeare’s implicit rebellion against Renaissance authority and its notions of corruption and pollution. In the Renaissance, a romanticised, idyllic vision of Elizabeth I was fashioned where her image existed, beyond reality, in an ideological realm which breathed in a space outside actuality and which worked to deflect the bitterly violent conflicts of the age. Greenblatt suggests that this cult of beauty and perfection, in the works of Shakespeare, Spenser and Marlowe, represents, the final colonisation, the colonisation of language, yoked to the service of a reality forever outside itself, dedicated to “the Most High, Mightie, and Magnificent Empresse... Elizabeth by the Grace of God Queene of England, Fraunce and Ireland and of Virginia, Defendour of the Faith.”9

In the same way that language has been ‘yoked to the service of a reality forever outside itself’, contemporary portraits of Elizabeth I also pay ‘service’ to a colonisation in that they depict the cult of absolute beauty and virtue. The portraits show the Queen’s ability to refashion her identity in their absolute freedom from any hint of imperfection, the iniquity of disfiguring smallpox scars (despite having suffered from the illness aged 29 and rendered scarred and completely bald by it) or marks or signs of ageing. The fiction of the Queen’s legendary beauty and power is also entangled with the mystical notion of the ‘King’s two bodies’, whereby Elizabeth’s mortal ‘Body Natural’ was transformed into the flawless and infallible ‘Body Politic’ upon ascending the throne. Her accession speech declared, ‘I am but one body, naturally considered, though by [God’s] permission a Body Politic to govern.’10 Thus, where the actual Elizabeth’s ‘Body Natural’ might wither and die, her mythical ‘Body Politic’ was an unchanging symbol of the intransience and stability of England’s global power, enabling Renaissance society to believe in the immortality of its monarch. Elizabeth was, according to Greenblatt, ‘a living representation of the immutable within time, a fiction of permanence. Through her, society achieved symbolic immortality and acted out the myth of a perfectly stable world.’11

For that reason, there is an almost preternatural blankness in the paintings which implies the spiritual and physical flawlessness of the ‘Body Politic’, as is seen in George Gower’s Portrait of Elizabeth I (c. 1588), described by Peter Nahum,

The eye is deliberately drawn to Elizabeth’s face, the focal point on the canvas, other-worldly, its smooth pale skin translucent enough to show the underlying veins on her temple. The Queen, whose artistic mind worked entirely in symbolism, dismissed shadow as a counteraction to her image of purity and in later years she created a ‘mask of youth’ to sustain a public face of immortality.12

Elizabeth I’s ‘image of purity’ presented a smoothly immortal ‘mask of youth’, whereas, in the reality of Shakespeare’s plague-torn England, ravaged by recurrent outbreaks of bubonic plague, by smallpox, syphilis, typhus and malaria13, scars and marks were feared because they signified insidious contagion and, implicitly, a departure from the moral code in their suggestion of communication through diseased touch, transmission through social disorder, urban poverty and depravity. Richard Saunders’ Physiognomie and Chiromancie Metoposcopie offers a guide to interpreting moles, lines and marks upon the face and communicates implicitly the social anxiety felt about disfigurement and wrinkles, claiming, that such marks were indications of a flawed personality and that, for example, a person with a lined forehead, ‘is mutable, unconstant, false, deceitfully treacherous, and of a vainglorious, proud mind.’14

It is clear that flaws render Hal’s rebellion ironically enhanced - intensified and darkened by its contrast to the purity of Renaissance idealism and by his unequivocal association with degenerate social disorder through prostitution. The image of the whore undoubtedly represents ‘the Other’ in Elizabethan society, representative of the tainted fissure between publicly espoused, accepted norms and the forbidden or taboo. Therefore, in his association with prostitutes, Hal locates himself firmly in the position of ‘Other’, one whose image ‘marks the site of an ambivalence. Its representation is always spatially split – it makes the present something that is absent – and temporally deferred.’15 His alliance with this powerful symbol increases the tension of his representation but also makes him, in turn, more powerful. The stereotype of the whore is, according to Dollimore, ‘intrinsically sinful and the epitome of a wider malaise in society’, the prostitute, the ‘insatiable temptress’, was entangled with complex and conflicting notions of desire and disease and constituted the gravest of threats to social order16. As Achinstein would have it, the physical and spiritual ills of disease were indicative of moral degeneracy and demanded a purge, [the] political dimension of plague discourse depended upon a model of disease that made a cosmic analogy between the state of the individual and the political state […] Though the plague was often imagined as arriving from foreign shores, the plague was treated as if the dangers were inside the body social.’17

Therefore, Hal’s dalliances in the stews of Eastcheap represent sin and call for moral penance in order to save his stricken soul but the value of this redemption is violated by its calculated nature. King Henry IV’s recognition of the links between sexuality, inevitable death, decay and civil unrest charges the bitterness of his perception when he compares the crisis in the play to a venereal disease of the ‘body of our kingdom’,

When you perceive the body of our kingdom

How foul it is, what rank diseases grow,

And with what danger, near the heart of it (Henry IV, Part II, III, i, 38--40).

Dollimore argues that the word ‘rank’ has, for Shakespeare, a provocative intensity and that this image enmeshes the idea of sexuality with disease by virtue of its wide range of meaning; ‘rank’ meant sexually aroused but also contaminated and diseased. He says, ‘Rank’ can metamorphose the virile into the virulent and vice versa; can represent disease as rampant with life (‘rank diseases grow’) and desire as breeding death.’18

Hence, in contrast to the cult of Elizabeth I’s carefully maintained ‘mask of purity’, there is an element associated with uncontrolled, rampant life and riot contained within Hal. Particularly, his description, ‘so wild a liberty’ (Henry IV, Part I, V.ii.71), exposes prevailing Renaissance tensions because the radical nature of ‘liberty’, ‘with what danger, near the heart of it,’ is juxtaposed with the publicly espoused ideal of rigid conformity of life in the Elizabethan world. Against the backdrop of this discord, Hal says archly of his planned reformation,

So when this loose behaviour I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

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 (Henry IV, Part I, I.ii, 208--15).

To talk of ‘reformation’ in these lines may perhaps seem paradoxical for what strikes one at once about it is a not a sense of commitment to redemption but one of dispassionate artifice. Hal talks of his ‘loose behaviour’ as if it were easily expendable and here the Renaissance ideal of flawlessness is subtly mocked because Hal’s transformation is disingenuous, it is only seen as important if it is witnessed by others. His redemption is therefore only a hollow display, set for contrast’s sake against his former immorality, it, ‘Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes| Than that which hath no foil to set it off.’

The challenge to Renaissance authority is also articulated in the shifting dimension that Shakespeare creates between light and darkness. The motif of light is particularly troubling, as he usually identifies beauty with radiance, as is seen in Romeo and Juliet where Romeo compares Juliet’s body in the tomb to a lantern shining in the darkness, ‘For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes| This vault a feasting presence full of light.’ (Romeo and Juliet, V.iii. 85--86); yet here the contrast between Hal’s ‘glitt’ring’ reformation, the ‘bright metal’ and the ‘sullen ground’ subverts the unsullied brightness of the image and taints it instead with the throwaway deceit of ‘falsify’ and the ‘debt I never promised’. When Hal speaks of being ‘bright metal’ on ‘sullen ground’ it is significant that the metal is symbolic of his lack of power – it is merely reflective rather than the source of the brightness. In Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is described as the lantern itself, ‘a feasting presence full of light’ yet Hal’s redemption is only a reflection which relies on a ‘foil to set it off’ - a line which points in its emptiness to his lack of clear, moral vision and a flawed possession of power. The sense of emptiness is intensified by the showmanship of ‘foil’: where the ambiguity suggests both a fencing analogy, implying the presumed dexterity with which Hal will effect his transformation; and ‘foil’ as in straight-man or the butt of a joke, which Falstaff becomes when Hal says in his eventual rejection, ‘I know thee not.’19

The interpretative challenge of Hal’s intent is complicated further by the way that a troubling, paradoxical construction is seen everywhere within the lines. There seems to be an overlapping space between the identity of the louche Prince Hal and the righteous King that he will become in King Henry which recalls the idea of mimicry or doubling, that Derrida calls the logic or play of the ‘supplement’,

If it represents and makes an image, it is by the anterior default of a presence. Compensatory and vicarious, the supplement [evil eye] is an adjunct, a subaltern instance which takes - the - place. As substitute… [missing person]…it produces no relief, its place is assigned in the structure by the mark of an emptiness. Somewhere something can be filled up of itself… only by allowing itself to be filled through sign and proxy.20

The indelible ‘mark of emptiness’ caused by the substitution of Prince by King is seen in Henry IV, Part II, in Hal’s movement into a new social order where, as Rabkin would have it, the ‘rejection of Falstaff at the end seems to be both inevitable and right.’21 Despite this rightness, the hollowness and, at the same time, the inevitability, of Hal’s refashioning is foreshadowed in Northumberland’s ‘nihilistic curse’,22

Let heaven kiss earth! Now let not Nature's hand

Keep the wild flood confin'd! Let order die!

And let this world no longer be a stage

To feed contention in a ling'ring act;

But let one spirit of the first-born Cain

Reign in all bosoms, that, each heart being set

On bloody courses, the rude scene may end,

And darkness be the burier of the dead! (I. i. 153--60).

As the sinister diction of the language suggests, Shakespeare seems to be focusing on the threats contained in ‘bloody curses’, ‘Let order die!’ and ‘darkness’ and, as such, makes clear, with a sharp and concrete realisation, that Hal has no choice but to break with his old life as the lines are flooded with the insidious threat of mayhem and insoluble difference if the ‘rude scene’ is not ended. Thus, the Renaissance precept of conformity, and Shakespeare’s veiled opposition to it, is emergent once again – it seems that Hal’s accession is only possible if he complies with the code of Kingship set by the social order and this, in turn, reduces the appeal of monarchy for it seems something unnatural, something that requires a deviation from the freedom of the ‘wild flood’ and the ‘wild liberty’ that he once possessed.


1 Hazlitt, William, Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (London, C.H. Reynell, 1817)

2 Greenblatt, Stephen, Shakespeare’s Freedom (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2011) p. 1.

3 ‘Whosoever in writing a modern history, shall follow truth too near the heels, it may haply strike out his teeth.’

- Ralegh, Walter, History of the World (London, 1614) p.4. Although Ralegh was not referring specifically to the writings of Shakespeare here, he does describe Shakespeare’s tactic of disguising the truth within the plays in this quotation.

4 Adorno’s Marxist theory, that people are unwilling or unable to perceive things as they really are. It is the inability of the mind to see violence and oppression and how it is developed by circumstances in society. ‘False consciousness’ remains a powerful tool of control in modern society; Greenblatt speaks of the ‘glimpsed vista’. He seems to be saying that, at certain times, people see how they are manipulated but then authority moves to close the gap, making them doubt their perceptions. Thus, the subversion that they may feel ‘scarcely exists’ in Henry V is the implicit rebellion against authority.

5 Greenblatt, Stephen, ‘Invisible Bullets’, Political Shakespeare. Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1994) p. 28.

6 Churchyard, Thomas, A General Rehearsal of Warres (London, 1579) This patriotic account explains the strategies of Sir Humphrey Gilbert in Ireland. The passage goes on to explain, ‘the men of warre could not bee maintained, without their Churles, and Calliackes, or women, who milked their Creates, and prouided their victualles, and other necessaries. So that the killying of theim by the sworde, was the waie to kill the menne of warre by famine, who by flight oftentimes saued them selues from the dinte of the sworde.’

7 Altman, Joel B, “Vile Participation.’ The Amplification of Violence in the Theatre of Henry V’, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 1 (Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University, 1991) p.4.

8 Greenblatt, Stephen, ‘Invisible Bullets,’ Political Shakespeare. Essays in Cultural Materialism ,ed. by Jonathan Dollimore & Alan Sinfield (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1994) p.29.

9 Greenblatt, Stephen, Renaissance Self-Fashioning. From More to Shakespeare (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2005) p.192.

10 Ibid. p.166.

11 Ibid. p. 167.

12 Nahum, Peter, The Archive and Image Gallery, http:||www.leicestergalleries.com|19th-20th-century-paintings|d|portrait-of-queen-elizabeth-i|10621.

13 Mabillard, Amanda, Worst Diseases in Shakespeare’s London. Shakespeare Online. 20th August, 2000 http:||www.shakespeare-online.com|biography|londondiseases.html.

14 Saunders, Richard, Physiognomie and Chiromancie Metoscopie (1653) (Houghton Library, Harvard University) as cited in, Greenblatt, Stephen, Shakespeare’s Freedom. (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2011) p.26.

15 Bhabha, Homi K, The Location of Culture. (Oxon, Routledge Books, 1994) p.73.

16 Dollimore, Jonathon, ‘Shakespeare Understudies,’ Political Shakespeare. Essays in Cultural Materialism , ed. by Jonathan Dollimore & Alan Sinfield (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1994) p.138.

17 Achinstein, Sharon, Plagues and Publication: Ballads and the Representation of Disease in the English Renaissance, Vol. 34, No. 1 (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, Winter, 1992) p.38.

18 Dollimore, Jonathon, ‘Shakespeare Understudies,’ Political Shakespeare. Essays in Cultural Materialism , ed. by Jonathan Dollimore & Alan Sinfield (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1994) p.139.

19 Greenblatt, Stephen, Shakespeare’s Freedom (Chicago, Chicago University Press, 2011) p.79.

20 Derrida, as cited in Bhabha, Homi K., The Location of Culture (Oxon, Routledge Books, 1994) p.78.

21 Rabkin, Norman, ‘Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V’, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Folger Shakespeare Library in association with George Washington University, 1977) p.282.

22 Ibid.


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Title: Henry V and the veiled challenge to Renaissance authority