Henry V


William Shakespeare

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Henry V: Personification 5 key examples

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Definition of Personification
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down on the wedding guests, indifferent... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the sentence, "The rain poured down... read full definition
Personification is a type of figurative language in which non-human things are described as having human attributes, as in the... read full definition
Act 1, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—The Beehive as Kingdom:

Speaking before the King and a number of his most trusted advisors, the Archbishop personifies honeybees in a speech that turns to the natural world for a model of the ideal state: 

Therefore doth heaven divide
The state of man in divers functions,
Setting endeavor in continual motion,
To which is fixèd as an aim or butt
Obedience; for so work the honeybees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
They have a king and officers of sorts,
Where some like magistrates correct at home,
Others like merchants venture trade abroad,
Others like soldiers armèd in their stings
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent royal of their emperor,
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold

The Archbishop suggests that humans might follow the model of the honeybee. Interpreting animal life through a distinctly human lens, he imagines the beehive as a small kingdom, complete with monarchs, magistrates, merchants, and soldiers, all of whom perform their different roles in harmony. In following this natural “rule” or principle, the Archbishop argues, the honeybee has something valuable to “teach” humans. 

In personifying bees in this manner, the Earl imagines a well-organized civil state that follows from natural principles. This comparison implicitly justifies the unequal division of class and labor in English society, as queen bees, soldier bees, and pollen-collecting bees all have different roles within this bee society. The Archbishop of Canterbury, then, makes the social structure of medieval feudal society seem both natural and authentic. 

Explanation and Analysis—England as Widow:

The Archbishop of Canterbury personifies England as a widow in his speech to King Henry V: 

She hath been then more feared than harmed, my
For hear her but exampled by herself:
When all her chivalry hath been in France
And she a mourning widow of her nobles,
She hath herself not only well defended
But taken and impounded as a stray
The King of Scots, whom she did send to France
To fill King Edward’s fame with prisoner kings
And make her chronicle as rich with praise. 

The Archbishop has come to London with a mission: to meet with the King and convince him to go to war in France, thereby distracting him from his plan to confiscate properties belonging to the Church. When the King expresses his reservations, suggesting that Scotland might attack while the English military is preoccupied, the Archbishop at first concedes that England is like a “mourning widow” when “her nobles” travel abroad to lead the war effort. However, the Archbishop’s personification of the nation also reassures Henry that England has “well defended” herself in the past from the military forces of Scotland, even capturing the Scottish King while the bulk of the military was engaged in France. England, the Archbishop suggests, is “more feared than harmed” by its enemies, and can take care of itself while Henry is away in France. 

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Act 2, Scene 4
Explanation and Analysis—This Hungry War:

 The Duke of Exeter, uncle to King Henry V, employs vivid imagery in a speech to the King of France: 

Deliver up the crown and to take mercy
On the poor souls for whom this hungry war
Opens his vasty jaws, and on your head
Turning the widows’ tears, the orphans’ cries,
The dead men’s blood, the privèd maidens’
For husbands, fathers, and betrothèd lovers
That shall be swallowed in this controversy.

Speaking boldly before the French court, the Duke’s chilling speech draws both from the sense of sight—in particular, the personifying image of war’s “vasty” or gaping jaws biting down on the heads of widows, children, young maidens, and men of all ages—and also from the sense of sound—of “orphan’s cries” and “maidens’ groans.” Wielding imagery as a weapon, the Duke imparts an impression of the English army as a vast and unstoppable machine of death, grinding up everything and everyone in its path regardless of age or gender. The Duke employs this dark and morbid imagery in order to paint a disturbing picture of the horrors of war, thus encouraging the French King to surrender his throne to Henry peacefully, as a “mercy” to his own subjects who would be spared the bloodshed to come. 

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Act 5, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Contending Kingdoms:

After the French army has been soundly defeated by Henry’s troops, the King of France personifies the nations of France and England as two squabbling individuals:

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, and this dear conjunction
Plant neighborhood and Christian-like accord
In their sweet bosoms. 

The French King personifies England and France as “pale / With envy” of each other, both bitterly lamenting any good fortune that comes to the other like jealous neighbors. Behind this careful language looms the long shadow of the Hundred Years’ War, which was, as its name suggests, an enduring and bitter conflict between the two enemy nations. Instead, he suggests that England and France, separated only by a thin channel of water, must accept neighborly and Christian virtues into their “bosoms” or hearts.

The “conjunction” of both nations, represented in the marriage of King Henry and Princess Katherine, will crystallize in their child, a symbol, then, of their new, more amicable relations. In this act of personification, the French King tactfully minimizes the century-old conflict between their nations, and implies that Henry would merely prolong this mutually destructive squabble by inflicting further punitive measures upon his defeated rival. 

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Explanation and Analysis—Peace:

Following the surprising defeat of the French army by the outnumbered English troops, the French Duke of Burgundy personifies the abstract concept of peace as a woman: 

...[L]et it not disgrace me
If I demand before this royal view
What rub or what impediment there is
Why that the naked, poor, and mangled peace,
Dear nurse of arts, plenties, and joyful births,
Should not in this best garden of the world,
Our fertile France, put up her lovely visage?
Alas, she hath from France too long been chased,
And all her husbandry doth lie on heaps,
Corrupting in its own fertility.

In his speech to victorious King Henry V, the Duke of Burgundy represents peace as a woman who has suffered greatly throughout the course of the war—she is “naked, poor, and mangled,” and in her long flight from the war-torn nation, her once-fruitful gardens have fallen into ruin. In this extended act of personification, the Duke praises peace as the grounds for all that is, to him, good and worthwhile in life: artistic production, financial prosperity, and family. In personifying peace in this way, he makes a case for King Henry dealing leniently with the recently defeated French kingdom, and emphasizes the mutual benefits that peace would bring to both nations. 

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