Above all else, Henry V investigates the relationship between a monarch and his people. By exploring the life of the particular king Henry V, the play also explores the role of a king in general. Throughout the play, Henry wears many hats, each representing a facet of his role as monarch. Aside from being absolute ruler, Henry is also a merciful Christian, a fierce war general, a loyal patriot, a tireless optimist, an inspirational orator, and a vulnerable human being.
As absolute ruler, Henry is eminently reasonable, exerting his power with equal parts strength and compassion. The play opens with the news that the wild party-boy Prince Hal (from 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV) has turned into the dignified and thoughtful King Henry V, and Henry’s new moderation and even-headedness are repeatedly praised and taken pride in. Henry strongly identifies as a Christian, aligning all of his pursuits with God’s will and frequently showing mercy. He spares the lives of the drunk man who spoke against him and of Michael Williams, who doubted the justness of the war, reminding his advisors that scrutiny and serious punishment should be reserved for serious crimes. That said, Henry will not tolerate dishonesty and approves the execution of Bardolph for stealing to emphasize the importance of moral rectitude among his people: “…when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner,” he says. Yet even in dispensing capital punishment, Henry remains reasonable and immune to petty vengefulness. Sending the conspirators’ Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey to their deaths, Henry informs them that he does not seek revenge against them for himself but executes them to preserve his kingdom’s safety and to obey English law. Henry likewise shows mercy as a war general, though he reserves mercy until after his enemy’s defeat. Henry’s speech to the Governor of Harfleur threatens vicious, blood-curdling violence, yet, as soon as the Governor surrenders the town, Henry orders his soldiers to treat the French with respect.
As the head of England, Henry is also responsible for instilling patriotism among his people, an effort that, in hard times, requires Henry’s unflagging optimism and virtuosic eloquence. Even when the English troops are grimly convinced of defeat, Henry remains cheerful, refusing to back down to the French or to admit any doubts to his people. When his soldiers are exhausted and outnumbered before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry’s rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech stokes everyone’s sense of English pride and honor and invigorates them to win the war. Yet such prodigious feats of speech and spirit take a private toll. Apart from exploring the king’s public role, the play also looks into his private struggles. Henry’s soliloquy describes the immense stress he must undergo daily and daily hide from view. Though Henry is ultimately proud and glad to be England’s monarch, he imagines how luxurious it would feel to sleep the peaceful sleep of a common man, unburdened by kingly responsibility.
Kingship Quotes in Henry V
The strawberry grows underneath the nettle
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbored by fruit of baser quality.
And so the prince obscured his contemplation
Under the veil of wildness, which, no doubt,
Grew like the summer grass, fastest by night,
Unseen, yet crescive in his faculty.
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.
If little faults, proceeding on distemper,
Shall not be wink’d at, how shall we stretch our eye
When capital crimes, chew’d, swallow’d and digested,
Appear before us?
Such and so finely bolted didst thou seem:
And thus thy fall hath left a kind of blot,
To mark the full-fraught man and best indued
With some suspicion. I will weep for thee;
For this revolt of thine, methinks, is like
Another fall of man. Their faults are open:
Arrest them to the answer of the law;
And God acquit them of their practices!
O peace, Prince Dauphin!
You are too much mistaken in this king:
Question your grace the late ambassadors,
With what great state he heard their embassy,
How well supplied with noble counselors,
How modest in exception, and withal
How terrible in constant resolution,
And you shall find his vanities forespent
Were but the outside of the Roman Brutus,
Covering discretion with a coat of folly.
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!’
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.
…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.
I think the king is but a man, as I am.
He may show what outward courage he will; but I believe, as cold a night as ‘tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck.
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.’
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.
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.
Praised be God, and not our strength, for it!
All the water in Wye cannot wash your majesty’s Welsh plod out of your pody, I can tell you that: God pless it and preserve it as long as it pleases his Grace and his Majesty too.
But, before God, Kate, I cannot look greenly nor gasp out my eloquence, nor have I no cunning in protestation; only downright oaths; which I never use till urged, nor never break for urging.
Your majestee ave fausse French enough to deceive de most sage demoiselle dat is en France.
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.