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.
Warfare Quotes in Henry V
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.