On Shakespeare’s King Henry V: What is a Christian king?

On King Henry V

   I have found a Qualifying Exam question written on Shakespeare’s King Henry V, on the question of the Christian king. It was written for Dr. Alvis, which is why it does not refer directly to his Essay “A Little Touch of the Night in Harry,” from the book Shakespeare as Political thinker. The exam format requires one to give an answer, where otherwise one might be silent, and also frees one from numbered references and the sort of precision that would require a longer essay. I remember sitting in worried silence, puzzled for a long time at the way Dr. Alvis had rephrased the question I had submitted, according to the exam procedure, and finally beginning only because I was running out of time.

Question: Is Henry a Christian King or is he a Machiavellian ruler? What is a Christian King, according to Shakespeare?

   At the funeral of Henry the Fifth, Bedford, Winchester and Gloucester present three views of Henry in praising him, or in their eulogies. Winchester calls him “A king blessed of the king of kings,” who was as fearsome to the French as the Judgement day. Bedford, who thinks the bad revolting stars consented to the death of Henry, is in the middle of invoking his spirit to protect England as the spirit of Caesar ruled over Rome after his death, when news arrives that 7 French towns have revolted, and the Anglo -French empire of Henry V begins to collapse.

   Bedford called Henry the best of the English kings and said that he would make a more glorious star than Julius Caesar or bright- (then he was interrupted. These two views agree with the chorus of the play, which calls Henry V “The mirror of all Christian kings” and a “conquering Caesar.” The third view presented is that of Gloucester, who says:

England n’er had a king until his time

Virtue he had, deserving to command…

What can I say? His deeds excel all speech

According to Gloucester, Henry is a true king, England’s first. His claim to rule is not, like Richard, based on hereditary legitimacy, nor like Bolingbroke, on strength alone, but on virtue. The thesis of this answer will be that Henry (aside from whether or not he is a truly Christian king) uses the appearance of both a Christian king and the ferocity of a Machiavellian “Prince” in doing what is expedient for England.

   According to the criterion of the play, that 1) Henry is the mirror of princes and is concerned with the honorable, and 2) that passions are subject to him, Henry is a Christian king. That Henry is not a Machiavellian ruler is shown by various examples, such as 1) his defense of his father in war, where a self-interested son might have simply stood by), 2) His tears at his father’s death, and 3) His sincere -piety shown in soliloquy before Agincourt, where he prays to the “God of Battles and relates his re-interring of the body of Richard with 500 poor to pray for him, 2 chantries built and genuinely repenting for the Lancastrian usurpation and murder of Richard. Machiavelli, or his prince, would presumably consider these things foolish.

   When a French ambassador comes from the Dauphin, and asks whether he may speak his message openly or not, Henry responds:

We are no tyrant, but a Christian king

Onto whose grace our passions are as subjected

As the wretches fettered in our prisons.

   The analogy of city and soul from Plato’s Republic shows the meaning of what is occurring in Henry’s England. A Christian king is the kind of a monarch opposed to the tyrant who subjects the passions This subjection of the passions comes about in England through the rise of Henry to the throne. After the usurpation of the throne by Bolingbroke, England suffered internal faction and civil war, and because ceremony fell with Richard, the appetites of England were unchained. Falstaff embodies the  tendencies of modernity, according to which the  public things are for the service of the private ends, the ends of the appetites The question facing Henry is how to bring Falstaff under again, or “How is kingship, as the sun, to break through the foul and ugly mists” of the appetites and the disrespect under which the crown has come.

The father of Henry compares his son to Richard II, due to his apparent “vile participation,” and advises rare public appearances to cultivate the wonder or awe necessary to the crown. But one problem in England is that the nobility no longer respect a king whom their own hands have helped to make so great. Henry treats the nobles as his father advised treating the people, with rare appearances.

By descending into the taverns, Henry takes the crown, which he will inherit, through a “low transformation,” attaching to it the opinion of England’s appetitiveness, while Henry becomes “of all the humors since Adam. Henry then appears to rise from the people as if born from them, slays Hotspur, and restores the rule of law by choosing the Chief Justice over Falstaff, at the end of II Henry IV. Henry’s calculated appearance, as shown in the conversation of Canterbury and Ely in Henry VI, has the appearance of a rebirth. In this he uses the appearance of Christianity to bring the rule of law to his regime. The free choice of the rule of law, rather than divine right, is to be the principle of the new regime.

After the first soliloquy of the prince in I Henry IV, the word redeem is used exclusively to refer to honor. In Richard II, Mowbray stated that without honor, men are but clay, and Falstaff is referred to as a clay man.” The honor catechism of Falstaff- which imitates Henry’s later speech on ceremony, shows that since the fall of chivalry and ceremony, honor has become meaningless. It was the dream of Hotspur, as he says, to restore honor to England, to pluck honor from the moon or dive into the deep and bring her up, so that he might wear all her dignities without a rival. It is Henry who is capable of separating honor from ceremony and restoring it to England.He slays Hotspur as the true prince slays the lion,” and in this replaces Hotspur as the mirror in which the noble youth of England dress themselves.” By the time Henry leads his men over to France, “silken dalliance” is put away, according to the patriotic chorus, and “Honor’s thought reigns solely in the breasts of every man.” As Mowbray’s use of the word honor shows, it is something of an allegory of immortality, in chivalry. Henry at Agincourt replaces religion with the glory of deeds, leading men into action.

If it is a sin to covet honor, Henry says, he is the most offending soul alive. In the deathbed advice of Henry’s father, he told Henry how he had planned to lead a crusade to the Holy Land in order to busy giddy minds with foreign wars.” and “waste the memory of former days. Instead of this plan to avoid civil faction, Henry chooses to lead the English, nobles and commoners, into France, renewing the Hundred Years War.

In the first act of Henry V, Canterbury and Ely speak of a bill by which the church stands to lose a great deal of its lands to the government of England. In exchange for relenting on the bill, the plan of Canterbury is for the Church to provide Henry with money and an apparent legitimate claim to the French throne. Canterbury agrees that Edward III has a claim through the wife of Philip, Isabel, if succession through the female were allowed. But Henry himself is not even the legitimate heir of Edward III, let alone of France. The Church provides him with the appearance of justice or legality for the war. The genuine “justice” of the war might be argued in terms of the need of England to restore honor and avoid civil war, ruling over the injustice of foreign conquest in the circumstance. But the king cannot do what appears to everyone to be good. In genuinely serving the common good, he does what is necessary. Where ceremony once hid the necessities of politics, Henry is capable of doing this himself. The Anglo-French empire would be a new founding, and would solve the Lancastrian problem of legitimacy.

In the second Act of Henry V, Henry miraculously discovers the conspiracy of Cambridge- heir to the legitimate title to the throne, according to Mortimer- Scroop and Grey to assassinate him Before executing them, Henry allows them to come into his presence, and gets them to advise strict punishment for a man who merely spoke abuse of the king while drunk. In doing this, it looks less harsh to the other nobles when Henry sentences these conspirators to death. Like his father, Henry the Fifth is capable of gardening and weeding. When he sentences the conspirators to death, he separates the public from the private, saying that as a man he will weep for them, and holds no revenge, but as king, he turns them over to the law to be sentenced to death for the safety of England. This separation distinguished Henry V from Richard II.

When Henry leads his men into battle, we see him giving them advice opposite to the advice which Machiavelli, in the Fourteenth Chapter of the Prince, gives to princes. Machiavelli tells princes to devote their intellect and the training of their bodies to war, and during peace, to never lift their thought from war. Henry tells his men that in peace, there is nothing so becomes a man as stillness and humility, but in war, to then stiffen the sinews, summon up the spirit, and disguise fair nature with the look of ferocity, imitating the tiger. Machiavelli tells men to look human, but devote themselves wholly to war, becoming like beasts, somewhat like Achilles in his choice of war over peace [See Strauss, Thoughts on Machiavelli, p. 78]. Henry tells men to disguise a genuinely fair nature by imitating a fierce animal, the tiger. Thus it is shown that Henry uses both the appearance of Christianity and the appearance of Machiavellian ferocity.

Similarly, before Harfleur, Henry threatens to let loose the inhuman violence of war onto the city, allowing his soldiers to rape their daughters and kill their fathers and babies unless they give up the town. The threat works, and bloodshed is avoided.

Before Agincourt, the Chorus tells us to entertain conjecture of a time when darkness fills the wide vessel of the universe. There it has us imagine Henry as a “largess universal” like the sun, thawing the cold fear of his soldiers with the touch of Harry in the night.” In the scene that follows, Henry walks among his soldiers disguised with the cloak of Thomas Erpingham. On either side of an argument on the justice of the war- which Henry turns into an argument about the privacy of the salvation of the soul-Henry presents his speech on ceremony. When asked if the king has been told how bad their situation looks, Henry responds, ” The king is but a man, as am I, and so when he sees reason to fear, he fears as do other men. Later, when speaking alone on ceremony, Henry states how ceremony is “poison flattery,” and cannot cure the knee of a beggar whom it commands to kneel. Ceremony is basically nothing. As a result of his ability to separate himself as a man from his kingship, he need not descend like Richard II with a crash to discover that he shares the human condition with other men. He never forgets himself as Richard did, in what ceremony tells a king he is. Yet in the battle of Agincourt, greatly outnumbered,, it does appear that God fights for him, as Richard thought God would merely because he is king, or because of the divine right of kings and ceremonial kingship. It may be that in some sense Henry is what ceremony told Richard he was, or what Richard thought himself to be but was not, aq true king.

It looks like the thoughts of Henry on kingship cannot be compared to modern thought on rule, even though as a Lancastrian he sees the crown as a burden and says to Katherine, “We are the makers of manners, Kate. Nice customs curtsy to great kings.” Henry refers twice explicitly to the rule of mind, when he says that it is good for men to bear their present pains upon example, because it lifts the spirit, and when mind is quickened the organs, once dead, break their grave and come back to life, mind clearly ruling the body. Second, going into battle, he says, “All is ready if our minds be so.” Nor can his statements about the privacy of salvation be interpreted to mean that he does not think a king ought be concerned with moral education. Salvation does not come from the laws, nor even from the example of a human king, and is distinct from the character formation of moral education. It looks as if it were very necessary to separate out political concerns and political rule from ceremonial Christianity, to avoid the problems Richard II got himself into. It seems that according to the Bible, salvation does not come from the religious law. Thus salvation ought be private, not a matter for the political kingdom at all, except to not inhibit, or to get out of the way.

The unfavorable view of Henry is usually based on 1. The injustice of the war in France, 2. The killing of the French prisoners, 3) his apparent disregard for law and his genuine disregard for ceremony, and 4) the breakdown of his Anglo-French empire and the bleeding of England afterward. While all these might be answered, only some can possibly be answered by this answerer.

With regard to the French prisoners, there is some ambiguity as to what exactly occurs. First, the order is given to kill them when the French regroup. Then Fluellen comments, “Kill the poys and the luggage.” It is clear that the French have not killed the English luggage boys. As in the previous scene with Pistol and his prisoner, the boy commented on how the luggage was vulnerable, guarded only by boys, and it is said that the French have plundered the King’s tent. But this ambiguity may only be to cover up the unjust killing of the French prisoners. The second time the command is given, Henry speaks in the future tense, “We’ll kill the prisoners, as though this had not been done yet. If it was done, it may have been done, as indicated by Mr. Lewis, to avoid the possibility of the English brothers ransoming the king. Or it may simply be an unjust thing necessary to do to make the English forget the numbers of the French. But as it later turns out, they have already forgotten this and and defeated them. The king may do it to unite the soldiers in injustice. If it were somehow a necessary thing, a higher justice would balance it. If not, the king would simply be a doer of injustice.

Henry does fail in that the empire breaks down after his death. He doesn’t do what Caesar did, perhaps because his ends are different from that of Caesar, but Henry does not found on the flattery of the people as Caesar did. Other reasons contributing to the breakdown of the empire is that Henry died fairly early after the birth of his son and Katherine does not prove to be a “good soldier breeder,” nor educator. While Henry shows the deficiency of ceremony and ceremonial virtue, genuine virtue capable of responding to the circumstances (as Henry does for example in spontaneously speaking so as to give or show the significance of deeds) cannot be inculcated and passed on from father to son But if Henry had lived long and had quite a few sons, perhaps the empire could have been held, and the garden of France, so broken down as described in Act V, rebuilt and even better off for coming under English rule Another point is that Shakespeare comes out of the England Henry left behind Shakespeare, by presenting the deeds of Henry, can inspire men to virtue. This seems to be part of his purpose for England, as for example the patriotism of the Chorus could inspire Englishmen for generations. In this way, the defect of Christian orders in the kingdom which allows Machiavelli to introduce tyranny and the arguments for injustice are addressed by the simple restoration of the life of honor.

[In keeping with the principle that the political world of the kingdom reflects the spiritual things not directly, but by analogy may show that Henry’s redeeming of the time refers also to his imitation of the sun regarding the time of England, in a temporal and temporary analogy with the redemption, dependent upon accident, yet an analogous reflection of spiritual virtue in ethical or political virtue. That is, the redemption may refer to the political aspect of practical wisdom, or royal rule. Henry’s redemption of the time in imitation of the sun, planned from his first soliloquy (I Henry IV, I, ii, 183-205) may be contrasted with Richard’s wasting of the time (Richard II, V, v, 49). Hal imitates the sun, and so is not really among the moon’s men. The sense in which his “reformation” is Christian, and hence the sense in which Henry is a Christian king, depends upon the meaning of Christianity and the meaning of kingship. But he is not a Christian king in the sense in which Richard is a Christian king, by custom. “But a good heart, Kate, is both the sun and the moon,/ Or rather the sun and not the moon…” (King Henry V, V, ii, 160). The conjunction of sun and moon in the wedding connects the last to the first appearances of Henry in the History plays. Shakespeare, by upholding honor in the face of modernity and the principle of the body or self-preservation, by showing England its kings and what it means to be royal, exercises the practical wisdom not of a king or statesman, who cares for the particular time, but the practical wisdom of a philosopher, the gardener of statesmen and kings.]

[Winston Churchill, in his Birth of Britain,” reports on the cruelty of the historical Henry, and we can see from this what Shakespeare has done with the invention of Falstaff, or the identification of him with Oldcastle, a heretic persecuted in the medieval fashion. By abstracting from these defects, Shakespeare writes a comedy in history- almost unique- for the English.]

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