Henry V


William Shakespeare

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Henry V: Satire 3 key examples

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Definition of Satire
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians, are often the subject of satire, but satirists can take... read full definition
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians, are often the subject of... read full definition
Satire is the use of humor, irony, sarcasm, or ridicule to criticize something or someone. Public figures, such as politicians... read full definition
Act 3, Scene 2
Explanation and Analysis—Selfish and Cowardly:

The young Boy conscripted into the war satirizes the various conmen and criminals who make up the late Falstaff’s gang: 

As young as I am, I have observed these three
swashers. I am boy to them all three, but all they
three, though they would serve me, could not be
man to me. For indeed three such antics do not
amount to a man: for Bardolph, he is white-livered and red-faced, by the means whereof he faces it out but fights not; for Pistol, he hath a killing tongue and a quiet sword, by the means whereof he breaks words and keeps whole weapons; for Nym, he hath heard that men of few words are the best men, and therefore he scorns to say his prayers, lest he should be thought a coward. 

In his satirical descriptions of Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym, the Boy undercuts their confident, boastful posturing, implying that some of the soldiers in Henry’s army aren’t motivated by patriotism, piety, or glory but rather by self-interest. Rather than risking their lives in conflict, he suggests, these soldiers will hide from the fighting and tell false tales of bravery once the battle is over. The young Boy’s mocking characterization of his fellow soldiers stands in stark contrast to the boastful patriotism of the King’s speeches, introducing an ambivalent note to the play’s treatment of the English victory over the French. 

Act 3, Scene 6
Explanation and Analysis—The Phrase of War:

Following the successful siege of Harfleur, the English Captain Gower satirizes those soldiers who avoid fighting but return home to England with tall tales of their imagined accomplishments: 

Why, ’tis a gull, a fool, a rogue, that now and
then goes to the wars to grace himself at his return into London under the form of a soldier; and such fellows are perfect in the great commanders’ names, and they will learn you by rote where services were done—at such and such a sconce, at such a breach, at such a convoy; who came off bravely, who was shot, who disgraced, what terms the enemy stood on; and this they con perfectly in the phrase of war.

Gower here describes such characters as Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph, who memorize facts about the war​​—where certain famous battles took place, what generals served, what “phrase of war” or military vocabulary was used—in order to pass themselves off as brave soldiers for their own social benefit. They return to London, Gower claims, in the “form of a soldier,” but lack the actual skills, experience, and heroism to which they lay false claim. Gower’s satirical report affirms the cynical observations of the Boy regarding the quality of the soldiers in Henry’s army. Gower’s account of unseemly conduct among the English troops serves as a counter-narrative to the King’s patriotic speeches that proudly proclaim his army’s unshakeable bravery and unity of purpose. 

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Act 4, Scene 5
Explanation and Analysis—Pistol the Gentleman:

As the tide of battle turns in favor of the English, Pistol apprehends a French Soldier whom he intends to ransom for money. In a satirical scene full of dramatic irony, the French soldier mistakes Pistol, a low class criminal, for an English nobleman. The Boy translates for the Soldier, stating: 

He gives you upon his knees a thousand thanks,
and he esteems himself happy that he hath fall’n
into the hands of one, as he thinks, the most
brave, valorous, and thrice-worthy seigneur of

This ironic scene of mis-recognition comedically satirizes the pretensions of the French nobility. That a lowly and unimpressive character like Pistol is able to overpower this French soldier, a “gentleman of a good house” by his own admission, underscores the inferiority of the French to their English counterparts. Indeed, Pistol’s conduct during the war has proven that he is anything but “brave, valorous, and thrice-worthy,” and the French nobleman’s misapprehension reflects poorly on his own personal qualities. 

However, the irony in this scene cuts both ways: if the cowardly and slovenly Pistol can successfully pass for a member of the English nobility, what does that suggest about the other English nobles? The difficulty of determining identity on the battlefield challenges the class distinctions so central to the politics of the play's setting. 

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