Henry V

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Warfare Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Kingship Theme Icon
Warfare Theme Icon
England Theme Icon
Appearances Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Henry V, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Warfare Theme Icon

Warfare constitutes the entire dramatic arc of Henry V, which begins in preparations for battle, continues onto the battlefield itself, and ends with a post-war peace treaty. Yet while the whole play focuses on warfare, it doesn’t limit itself to one perspective. Instead, the play illuminates different elements of battle in different scenes, assembling a complex vision of war. This vision includes views from every strata of England’s class hierarchy. The play opens on the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely discussing a Church investment in the war. Later, scenes of Henry V and his noble advisors crafting strategy are interspersed with scenes of high-ranked army officers like Captains Fluellen, Jamy, Gower and MacMorris managing the battlefield and scenes of common soldiers like Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym charging into battle (or, in their case, trying to avoid charging). Voice is also given to Boy, one of the young pages who guards the army’s luggage, and to Montjoy, a French messenger whom Henry kindly asks the name of and tips. In addition to encompassing every class, the play includes the enemy perspective on the war, portraying King Charles, the Dauphin, and the French nobility engaged in their own preparation, strategy, and fight.

By offering such a wide range of perspectives on the battle, the play also showcases a wide range of attitudes towards warfare. Though Henry initially expresses wariness of war, he is soon convinced of the justness of an attack on France and quickly turns to warmongering. Henry also continually conflates war and religion, deciding to wage war only after Canterbury has convinced him that a war on France is God’s will. On the battlefield, Henry repeatedly reminds his troops that God is on England’s side (“God for Harry, England, and Saint George!” he shouts) and, once the battle is won, Henry refuses all personal credit, chalking the victory up to God. Where Henry prioritizes the religious aspect of war, Captain Fluellen prioritizes history. Though a good officer, Fluellen is tediously long-winded on the subject of Roman war discipline and talks the ear off anyone who will listen to him (and some who won’t). He is at pains to craft his battle strategies in accord with Roman tradition and rails against officers like Captain MacMorris, who act in the present without regard for history. Michael Williams, by contrast, embodies the perspective of the common man and ordinary soldier. Unconvinced by appeals to war’s godliness and tradition, Williams considers war nothing but senseless and gratuitous violence suffered by powerless people at the King’s command.

Apart from its range of individual perspectives, the play also presents an overarching vision of history written by war. Discussion of the past - including Canterbury’s speech convincing Henry to attack France, King Charles’ memory of the long-ago military campaigns of the English King Edward III, and Fluellen’s congratulations to Henry after Agincourt – describe history as a series of battles won and lost, shaping the present by their outcomes. Yet belief in war’s importance does not equal belief in war’s efficacy. Henry’s victory at Agincourt is joyously celebrated in the play, but the Chorus reminds the audience that the effects of that victory were swiftly undone in the next generation.

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Warfare Quotes in Henry V

Below you will find the important quotes in Henry V related to the theme of Warfare.
Act 1, Scene 2 Quotes

Therefore take heed how you impawn our person
How you awake our sleeping sword of war:
We charge you, in the name of God, take heed
For never two such kingdoms did contend
Without much fall of blood; whose guiltless drops
Are every one a woe, a sort complaint
‘Gainst him whose wrong gives edge unto the swords
That make such waste in brief mortality.
Under this conjuration, speak, my lord;
For we will hear, note and believe in heart
That what you speak is in your conscience wash’d
As pure as sin with baptism.

Related Characters: Henry V (speaker), Archbishop of Canterbury
Page Number: 1.2.24-36
Explanation and Analysis:

Henry is about to meet with ambassadors from France, but first wants to meet with Canterbury and Ely; the King wants to know for certain whether or not he he has a legitimate claim to the throne of France. Here Henry tells Canterbury to be careful in his answer, and to be truthful in the name of God, since the answer has the potential to "awake our sleeping sword of war." Note that Henry's regal speech and mastery of the 'royal we' supports the claims that he has matured made by Ely and Canterbury in the preceding scene.

Henry introduces the potential of violence and war with great compassion, showing an understanding of how much bloodshed a war would create, and how those who suffer would be "guiltless." He recognizes that war has the potential to waste and destroy lives, and shows hesitancy over going to war for the wrong reasons. War is dangerous, not just a game for glory.

With this heavy interpretation battle and an appeal to conscience and God, Henry tells Canterbury that he will trust the Bishop completely in this matter. After carefully considering the matter and listening to Canterbury's lengthy legal and biblical justifications and encouragement from his entourage (below), the King decides to wage a war in attempt to gain the French throne.

All of that said, one can also read Henry's entire speech to be a performance rather than honest. In this reading, Henry wants to wage war against France, both to conquer it and expand his power and because he knows that having a foreign enemy will help keep his own country united (something that his father, the previous king, advised him just before he died). And yet he also knows that the best way to get the war he wants is not to appear to want it too much, to act like a king who cares only for his subjects.

And finally, one can read Henry's motives as being even more complex. He might both want the war and be concerned about his citizens, and he might want the war because he knows it will help unite England and end the years of civil war that plagued his own father's reign as king (dramatized in Henry IV parts 1 and 2). And so Henry V might be performing here to help get the war he feels his country needs, and be willing to sacrifice some of his people to save his country.

Which motive is true or right is not clear, and it isn't definite that it's only one motive pushing Henry V to act. What is clear is that Henry V is a master of performance and appearances, and you as a reader should always keep that in mind when thinking about the play.  


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Act 2, Scene 3 Quotes

Boy, bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead, and we must earn therefore.

Related Characters: Ancient Pistol (speaker), Boy
Page Number: 2.3.4-6
Explanation and Analysis:

This scene describes the death of the famous character Falstaff, which occurs offstage. Falstaff was a friend of Henry V's (back when he was Prince Hal) in Henry IV 1 and 2. Falstaff was lively and fun, a master of language (and Henry learned much of his mastery of language and appearance from Falstaff), a kind of second father to Henry, and at the same time Falstaff was corrupt and completely and entirely self-interested. The final "act" of Prince Hal's transformation from wild youth to good King is his banishment of Falstaff at the end of Henry IV Part 2. And yet Henry's transformation also implies a kind of ruthless heartlessness (earlier in Henry V it's made clear that that Falstaff has become sick with a broken heart from Henry's turn away from him, and so his death is a result of Henry's transformation).

Here Pistol announces that "Falstaff is dead," and his former friends must therefore "earn." Earn here takes on the dual meanings of grieve and make money. This play on words is fitting for the announcement of Falstaff's death, as Falstaff's friends are sad at his passing but at the same time must now make their own way in the world now that Falstaff and his schemes can no longer support them.

Act 3, Scene 1 Quotes

For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

Related Characters: Henry V (speaker)
Page Number: 3.1.32-37
Explanation and Analysis:

With his forces about to engage the French in their first battle, Henry delivers this speech, which begins, "Once more into the breach, dear friends." This rousing pre-battle speech is evidence of the eloquence that Canterbury and Ely ascribed to Henry in Act 1 Scene 1. Here he uses language to reinforce his Kingship, and by appealing to his soldiers as both friends and Englishman, rhetorically prepares them with visions of their connection to their country and their king to rally them to face and overcome the horrors of warfare.

In these lines he calls all of his soldiers noble, saying that even the lowest of them have "noble luster" in their eyes. In the preceding speech they have been told to discard their peaceful ways and embrace the battle that will follow, and they have been reminded of England's proud history and many victories. Now, they "stand like greyhounds," ready to fight for their country and their king. Declaring "the game's afoot," Henry gives his final rallying cry, telling his men to follow their spirits and, charging, cry out "God for Harry, England, and Saint George!" In this way he appeals simultaneously to their faith, their sense of camaraderie with each other as soldiers and countrymen, and their sense of duty to their King. Note that by calling himself the informal Harry, he draws his men even closer to him.

Henry may believe all these things, but once again he is also putting on a performance for his men here. He is, through his words, conjuring a vision of a united England while also helping the men to conjure visions of their own best, bravest selves. 

Act 3, Scene 3 Quotes

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,
And the flesh’d 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 flowering infants.

Related Characters: Henry V (speaker), Governor of Harfleur
Page Number: 3.3.10-14
Explanation and Analysis:

Henry delivers this chilling monologue to the Governor and citizens of the French port city of Harfleur; he asks if the Governor will surrender, saying it is the last chance for mercy. Opposing the brotherly, supportive sentiment of his war-speech to his men in Act 3 Scene 1, here Henry is vicious and threatening, offering the most violent lines of the play. We can note that the most brutal act of violence is not carried out physically, but is instead done with language. The mere suggestion of such atrocities as these is enough to encourage the Governor of Harfleur to surrender; here language and words are weaponry.

The lines excerpted in the quote say that if the Governor refuses to surrender, "the gates of mercy shall be all shut up," and terror will be unleashed. The rough soldiers will with "bloody hands" and "conscience wide as hell" wreak havoc on the town. Henry says they'll move through it, "mowing like grass" to suggest ease, and rape the women (fresh-fair virgins) and murder their "flowering infants." This harrowing slaughter never takes place, as the Governor decides to surrender immediately following the speech.

Act 3, Scene 6 Quotes

…and we give express charge, that in our marches through the country, there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

Related Characters: Henry V (speaker)
Page Number: 3.6.110-116
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Henry V speaks to his soldiers once again, offering a contrast to his prewar speech in Act 3, Scene 1 and the terrorizing speech made before Harfleur in Act 3, Scene 3. Bardolph, who was once one of Henry's friends when he was hanging around with Falstaff, has been sentenced to death for stealing from a church; despite pleas from Pistol, Henry approves of the punishment.

In the quote, Henry expresses the requirement that his army act morally and honorably to the French citizens, and ordering his men to steal nothing from the French villages. "Nothing compelled," and "nothing taken but paid for." What's more, he even prohibits his soldiers from abusing the French people with foul language. He argues that when kindness and cruelty compete for a kingdom, it is the "gentler" that always wins. This decision shows both compassion and calculated leadership. Henry V wants to be honorable and kind since he is a Christian and a gentle ruler, but he also wants to take over France. If the English soldiers are kind to villagers during the war, it is more likely that Henry's rule in France will be accepted by the common people, he believes, after he has defeated the French forces.

Act 4, Scene 1 Quotes

Then I would [Henry V] were here alone; so should he be sure to be ransomed, and a many poor men’s lives be saved.

Related Characters: John Bates (speaker), Henry V
Page Number: 4.1.125-127
Explanation and Analysis:

In these lines, as Bates continues to argue with the disguised Henry (not realizing he is speaking with his King), Bates expresses his desire that the king be ransomed, thereby saving "many a poor men's lives."

Such a desire reveals a fundamental opinion about the value of a king's life and the legitimacy of Henry's cause. Bates feels no particular inclination to give his life for the king and his cause, regardless of what it may be, and he believes that the lives of the many (and the poor) outweigh the life of a king. What's more, he seems to believe that it is Henry's duty to his people to offer his life as ransom for theirs. Thus the argument develops where one side sees the responsibility of a king to his people, and the other demands the service of people to their king.

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 battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place.’

Related Characters: Michael Williams (speaker), Henry V
Page Number: 4.1.138-142
Explanation and Analysis:

Michael Williams here continues the discussion while Henry is in disguise. He says that if the King's cause is not just and good, then all of the deaths will be his fault. He lists with gruesome details the limbs that might be dismembered during the battle. These limbs are then given voice, crying "We died at such a place."

This dark imagery demonstrates regular soldiers' visceral experiences during warfare. Williams also suggests that even King Henry will have to answer to God on Judgement day, and that, especially "if the cause be not good," he will face a "heavy reckoning." That the soldiers question the righteousness of the King's cause might suggest that his eloquent, battle-rousing speeches are not as effective as he thinks, and also that England as a whole is not as unified behind him as he thinks.

The king is not bound to answer the particular endings of his soldiers, the father of his son, nor the master of his servant; for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services.

Related Characters: Henry V (speaker)
Page Number: 4.1.160-164
Explanation and Analysis:

Continuing the dialogue in which the responsibilities and powers of kings are called into question, Henry (still in disguise) insists that a king is not responsible for a soldier's death. He argues that a king asks his soldiers to fight, but not to die. Their deaths are ultimately left up to fate and to God, and regardless of the king's intentions, his soldiers have all sinned in the past. That they serve in a war is due to the king, but the end they meet depends on the type of people that they have been in their lives.

Comparing different levels of obligation, son to father, servant to master, and soldier to king, Henry says that those with the higher positions ask for services but not for "death." Just as a father sending his son on a voyage is hopeful he will live, a king leading his people to war hopes that there won't be casualties.

Through this entire debate between the disguised Henry and his soldiers we see a king able to share his viewpoints and argue with common soldiers, to pierce the appearances that he would never be able to see past were he to be undisguised. Meanwhile, Henry himself is able to preserve the infallibility, fearlessness, and regal presentation that becomes a ruler. At the same time, these soldiers are espousing ideas that are far more threatening to the very idea of kingship and therefore to Henry himself than the plots of some treacherous lords could ever be. How or whether Henry ends up responding to these ideas will therefore also give a much stronger indication of his own character and core beliefs -- will give the audience the ability to pierce the performance that Henry has been putting on as king for the entire play. And, indeed, near the end of the play Henry finds a way to both reveal that he was the man who was arguing with Williams and to reward him rather than punish him, signaling his recognition that it was his own disguise that led to the discussion, his general status as a good and fair king to his men, and, perhaps, an indication that he prefers Williams open disagreement to the "appearance" of agreement put on by his sometimes traitorous lords.

Act 4, Scene 3 Quotes

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

Related Characters: Henry V (speaker)
Page Number: 4.3.23-25
Explanation and Analysis:

No longer disguised and once more fully inhabiting his role as king, Henry speaks to calm and inspire his men who are worried and wishing for more soldiers. The English, in fact, are about to face a French army that is massively larger than their own. 

In this famous speech, called the St. Crispin's Day Speech, Henry appeals to fate and glory, suggesting that if the men are "mark'd to die," then it is simply time for them to die for their country. And "if to live," than the fewer that survive, the greater the honor is for each one of them. By consigning their lives to fate and appealing to their sense of English pride and honor, Henry returns to the ideals of warfare in honor of England that he evoked in his famous "Once more into the breach" speech, and prepares his men to fight for victory.

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Related Characters: Henry V (speaker)
Page Number: 4.3.62-69
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines, also excerpted from the St. Crispin's Day Speech, are probably the most famous from the play. In an impressive display of rhetoric and masterful use of language, Henry makes his soldiers feel like his equals and relish their opportunity to fight for and with him. He marks the exclusivity of the chance with "we few," and immediately modifies it to "we happy few," making clear that the group is not a grim company marching towards death but rather a lucky group of men granted a rare chance to achieve glory.

He then calls the whole group a "band of brothers," and says that whoever on that day fights with him will be his brother. To instill in them bravery and the desire to fight, he places them on his kingly level, inviting them to share in his glory. He then appeals to their sense of patriotism and honor by suggesting that any Englishmen missing the fight will curse themselves for missing the opportunity and question their own manhood. Again, we see Henry use masterful language to energize his men with multiple, overlapping ideals. These speeches are extremely performative, and indicative of Henry's success as a king.

Act 4, Scene 7 Quotes

Praised be God, and not our strength, for it!

Related Characters: Henry V (speaker)
Page Number: 4.7.92
Explanation and Analysis:

This line is uttered by Henry on the battlefield; Montjoy, a French herald, wants permission for the French to sort out their dead by social class, revealing a crucial difference between the French army and England's "band of brothers." When Montjoy admits that England has won the day despite the tremendous odds against their small army defeating the much larger French one, Henry says this quote, giving praise to God and not his own strength. This line reinforces Henry's status as a Christian, and the belief that his will is aligned with God's. Ultimately, he seems to believe that he won not because of any particular greatness of his men, but instead because it is what God desired.

Though, as with Henry's stated uncertainty about going to war in the first place in Act 1, Scene 1, it is possible to read Henry's statement here in more complex ways. He could mean that the outcome was up to God, with the added implication that the English deserved God's support precisely because they are humble enough to recognize that the outcome was God's will and not their own. By refusing to act arrogantly, Henry is in some sense also asserting England's, and his own, right to rule. 

Act 5, Scene 2 Quotes

Take her, fair son, and from her blood raise up
Issue to me; that the contending kingdoms
Of France and England, whose very shores look pale
With envy of each other’s happiness,
May cease their hatred.

Related Characters: King Charles (speaker), Henry V, Katherine
Page Number: 5.2.360-364
Explanation and Analysis:

Spoken by the King of France, this quote is one of the last in the play. Katherine has agreed (as if she had a choice) to the marriage, and for now there is peace. Here King Charles speaks to Henry, telling him to produce a male heir so that the French and English bloodlines merge (including Charles own blood), so that the "contending kingdoms / Of France and England" may have peace, instead of hating and envying each other.

These lines are optimistic, and Act 5 ends on a strong note, but the Chorus explains that the child Charles wished for, Henry VI quickly lost France and caused harm to England as well. In fact, Shakespeare's audience would have been extremely familiar with the actual history (Henry V died just months after his son was born; and Henry VI was eventually killed by a rival family, the Yorks, in the events leading up to the rise of Richard III) and have seen Shakespeare's plays about that history (the three Henry VI plays as well as Richard III), so King Charles' optimistic lines would have been seen by audience members as deeply ironic.

The failure of Henry V's son to hold on to the legacy that Henry passed down also suggests two things. First, just how capable and adept Henry V himself was. He truly did unite an England that before his reign and just after was riven by civil war, and he did so with a kind of performance and mastery of appearances that made him, at least while he was alive, a kind of cure for the underlying fractures within English society. Second, at the same time, his amazing success was temporary, itself almost no more than an appearance or illusion that disappeared or was proved false as soon he died. Just as the play could not really recreate the past (as the Chorus states in the Prologue), Henry's own performance as king could not make the brief period of his glorious reign last into the future.