HENRY V. in a very favourite monarch with
the English nation, and he appears to have
been also a favourite with Shakespear, who labours
hard to apologise for the actions of the
king, by shewing us the character of the man,
as "the king of good fellows." He scarcely
deserves this honour. He was fond of war and
low company:--we know little else of him. He
was careless, dissolute, and ambitious;--idle,
or doing mischief. In private, he seemed to
have no idea of the common decencies of life,
which he subjected to a kind of regal licence;
in public affairs, he seemed to have no idea of
any rule of right or wrong, but brute force,
glossed over with a little religious hypocrisy and
archiepiscopal advice. His principles did not
change with his situation and professions. His
adventure on Gadshill was a prelude to the
affair of Agincourt, only a bloodless one; Falstaff
was a puny prompter of violence and outrage,
compared with the pious and politic Archbishop
of Canterbury, who gave the king carte blanche,
in a genealogical tree of his family, to rob and
murder in circles of latitude and longitude abroad--to
save the possessions of the church at home.
This appears in the speeches in Shakespear,
where the hidden motives that actuate princes
and their advisers in war and policy are better
laid open than in speeches from the throne or
woolsack. Henry, because he did not know
how to govern his own kingdom, determined to
make war upon his neighbours. Because his
own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid
claim to that of France. Because he did not
know how to exercise the enormous power,
which had just dropped into his hands, to any
one good purpose, he immediately undertook
(a cheap and obvious resource of sovereignty)
to do all the mischief he could. Even if absolute
monarchs had the wit to find out objects of
laudable ambition, they could only "plume up
their wills" in adhering to the more sacred formula
of the royal prerogative, "the right divine
of kings to govern wrong," because will is only
then triumphant when it is opposed to the will
of others, because the pride of power is only
then strewn, not when it consults the rights
and interests of others, but when it insults and
tramples on all justice and all humanity. Henry
declares his resolution "when France is his, to
bend it to his awe, or break it all to pieces"--a
resolution worthy of a conqueror, to destroy
all that he cannot enslave; and what adds to the
joke, he lays all the blame of the consequences
of his ambition on those who will not submit
tamely to his tyranny. Such is the history of
kingly power, from the beginning to the end of
the world;--with this difference, that the object
of war formerly, when the people adhered
to their allegiance, was to depose kings; the
object latterly, since the people swerved from
their allegiance, has been to restore kings, and
to make common cause against mankind. The
object of our late invasion and conquest of
France was to restore the legitimate monarch,
the descendant of Hugh Capet, to the throne:
Henry V. in his time made war on and deposed
the descendant of this very Hugh Capet, on the
plea that he was a usurper and illegitimate.
What would the great modern catspaw of legitimacy
and restorer of divine right have said to
the claim of Henry and the title of the descendants
of Hugh Capet? Henry V. it is true,
was a hero, a king of England, and the conqueror
of the king of France. Yet we feel little
love or admiration for him. He was a hero,
that is, he was ready to sacrifice his own life
for the pleasure of destroying thousands of other
lives: he was a king of England, but not a
constitutional one, and we only like kings according
to the law; lastly, he was a conqueror
of the French king, and for this we dislike him
less than if he had conquered the French people.
How then do we like him? We like him in
the play. There he is a very amiable monster,
a very splendid pageant. As we like to gaze at
a panther or a young lion in their cages in the
Tower, and catch a pleasing horror from their
glistening eyes, their velvet paws, and dreadless
roar, so we take a very romantic, heroic, patriotic,
and poetical delight in the boasts and feats
of our younger Harry, as they appear on the
stage and are confined to lines of ten syllables;
where no blood follows the stroke that wounds
our ears, where no harvest bends beneath horses'
hoofs, no city flames, no little child is butchered,
no dead men's bodies are found piled on
heaps and festering the next morning--in the
So much for the politics of this play; now for
the poetry. Perhaps one of the most striking
images in all Shakespear is that given of war in
the first lines of the Prologue.
"O for a muse of fire, that would ascend|
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act,
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars, and at his heels
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword, and fire
Crouch for employment."
Rubens, if he had painted it, would not have
improved upon this simile.
The conversation between the Archbishop of
Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely relating to
the sudden change in the manners of Henry V.
is among the well-known Beauties of Shakespear.
It is indeed admirable both for strength
and grace. It has sometimes occurred to us
that Shakespear, in describing "the reformation"
of the Prince, might have had an eye to himself--
"Which is a wonder how his grace should glean it,|
Since his addiction was to courses vain,
His companies unletter'd, rude and shallow,
His hours filled up with riots, banquets, sports;
And never noted in him any study,
Any retirement, any sequestration
From open haunts and popularity.
Ely. The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,
And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best
Neighbour'd by fruit of baser quality:
And so the prince obscur'd his contemplation
Under the veil of wildness, which no doubt
Grew like the summer-grass, fastest by night,
Unseen, yet crescive in his faculty."
This at least is as probable an account of the
progress of the poet's mind as we have met with
in any of the Essays on the Learning of Shakespear.
Nothing can be better managed than the caution
which the king gives the meddling Archbishop,
not to advise him rashly to engage in
the war with France, his scrupulous dread of
the consequences of that advice, and his eager
desire to hear and follow it.
"And God forbid, my dear and faithful lord,|
That you should fashion, wrest, or bow your reading,
Or nicely charge your understanding soul
With opening titles miscreate, whose right
Suits not in native colours with the truth.
For God doth know how many now in health
Shall drop their blood, in approbation
Of what your reverence shall incite us to.
Therefore take heed how you impawn your 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 sore 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."
Another characteristic instance of the blindness
of human nature to every thing but its
own interests is the complaint made by the
king of "the ill neighbourhood" of the Scot
in attacking England when she was attacking France.
"For once the eagle England being in prey,|
To her unguarded nest the weasel Scot
Comes sneaking, and so sucks her princely eggs."
It is worth observing that in all these plays,
which give an admirable picture of the spirit of
the good old times, the moral inference does not
at all depend upon the nature of the actions, but
on the dignity or meanness of the persons committing
them. "The eagle England" has a right
"to be in prey," but "the weasel Scot" has
none "to come sneaking to her nest," which
she has left to pounce upon others. Might was
right, without equivocation or disguise, in that
heroic and chivalrous age. The substitution of
right for might, even in theory, is among the
refinements and abuses of modern philosophy.
A more beautiful rhetorical delineation of the
effects of subordination in a commonwealth can
hardly be conceived than the following:--
"For government, though high and low and lower,|
Put into parts, doth keep in one consent,
Congruing in a full and natural close,
----Therefore heaven doth divide
The state of man in divers functions,
Setting endeavour in continual motion;
To which is fixed, as an aim or butt,
Obedience: for so work the honey bees;
Creatures that by a rule in nature, teach
The art of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king, and officers of sorts
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home;
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad;
Others, like soldiers, armed 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 mason building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burthens at his narrow gate;
The sad-eyed justice, with his surly hum,
Delivering o'er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone. I this infer,
That many things, having full reference
To one consent, may work contrariously:
As many arrows, loosed several ways,
Come to one mark; as many ways meet in one town;
As many fresh streams meet in one salt sea;
As many lines close in the dial's centre;
So may a thousand actions, once a-foot,
End in one purpose, and be all well borne
HENRY V. is but one of Shakespear's second-rate
plays. Yet by quoting passages, like this,
from his second-rate plays alone, we might make
a volume "rich with his praise,"
"As is the oozy bottom of the sea|
With sunken wrack and sumless treasuries."
Of this sort are the king's remonstrance to
Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge, on the detection
of their treason, his address to the soldiers at
the siege of Harfleur, and the still finer one
before the battle of Agincourt, the description
of the night before the battle, and the reflections
on ceremony put into the mouth of the king.
"O hard condition; twin-born with greatness,|
Subjected to the breath of every fool,
Whose sense no more can feel but his own wringing!
What infinite heart's ease must kings neglect,
That private men enjoy? and what have kings,
That privates have not too, save ceremony?
Save general ceremony?
And what art thou, thou idol ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer'st more
Of mortal griefs, than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? what are thy comings-in?
O ceremony, shew me but thy worth!
What is thy soul, O adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree, and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men?
Wherein thou art less happy, being feared,
Than they in fearing.
What drink'st thou oft, instead of homage sweet,
But poison'd flattery? O, be sick, great greatness,
And bid thy ceremony give thee cure!
Think'st thou, the fiery fever will go out
With titles blown from adulation?
Will it give place to flexure and low bending?
Can'st thou, when thou command'st the beggar's knee,
Command the health of it? No, thou proud dream,
That play'st so subtly with a king's repose,
I am a king, that find thee: and I know,
'Tis not the balm, the sceptre, and the ball,
The sword, the mace, the crown imperial,
The enter-tissu'd robe of gold and pearl,
The farsed title running 'fore the king,
The throne he sits on, nor the tide of pomp
That beats upon the shore of the world,
No, not all these, thrice-gorgeous ceremony,
Not all these, laid in bed majestical,
Can sleep so soundly as the wretched slave;
Who, with a body filled, and vacant mind,
Gets him to rest, cramm'd with distressful bread,
Never sees horrid night, the child of hell:
But, like a lacquey, from the rise to set,
Sweats in the eye of Phoebus, and all night
Sleeps in Elysium; next day, after dawn,
Doth rise, and help Hyperion to his horse;
And follows so the ever-running year
With profitable labour, to his grave:
And, but for ceremony, such a wretch,
Winding up days with toil, and nights with sleep,
Has the forehand and vantage of a king.
The slave, a member of the country's peace,
Enjoys it; but in gross brain little wots,
What watch the king keeps to maintain the peace,
Whose hours the peasant best advantages."
Most of these passages are well known: there
is one, which we do not remember to have seen
noticed, and yet it is no whit inferior to the rest
in heroic beauty. It is the account of the deaths
of York and Suffolk.
"Exeter. The duke of York commends him to your majesty.|
K. Henry. Lives he, good uncle? thrice within this hour,
I saw him down; thrice up again, and fighting;
From helmet to the spur all blood he was.
Exeter. In which array (brave soldier) doth he lie,
Larding the plain: and by his bloody side
(Yoke-fellow to his honour-owing wounds)
The noble earl of Suffolk also lies.
Suffolk first died: and York, all haggled o'er,
Comes to him, where in gore he lay insteep'd,
And takes him by the beard; kisses the gashes,
That bloodily did yawn upon his face;
And cries aloud--Tarry, dear cousin Sufolk!
My soul shall thine keep company to heaven:
Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly a-breast;
As, in this glorious and well-foughten field,
We kept together in our chivalry!
Upon these words I came, and cheer'd him up:
He smil'd me in the face, raught me his hand,
And, with a feeble gripe, says--Dear my lord,
Commend my service to my sovereign.
So did he turn, and over Suffolk's neck
He threw his wounded arm, and kissed his lips;
And so, espous'd to death, with blood he seal'd
A testament of noble-ending love."
But we must have done with splendid quotations.
The behaviour of the king, in the difficult
and doubtful circumstances in which he is
placed, is as patient and modest as it is spirited
and lofty in his prosperous fortune. The character
of the French nobles is also very admirably
depicted; and the Dauphin's praise of his
horse shews the vanity of that class of persons
in a very striking point of view. Shakespear
always accompanies a foolish prince with a satirical
courtier, as we see in this instance. The
comic parts of HENRY V. are very inferior to
those of Henry IV. Falstaff is dead, and without
him, Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph, are satellites
without a sun. Fluellen the Welchman is
the most entertaining character in the piece.
He is good-natured, brave, choleric, and pedantic.
His parallel between Alexander and Harry
of Monmouth, and his desire to have "some
disputations" with Captain Macmorris on the
discipline of the Roman wars, in the heat of
the battle, are never to be forgotten. His treatment
of Pistol is as good as Pistol's treatment
of his French prisoner. There are two other
remarkable prose passages in this play: the conversation
of Henry in disguise with the three
centinels on the duties of a soldier, and his
courtship of Katherine in broken French. We
like them both exceedingly, though the first
savours perhaps too much of the king, and the
last too little of the lover.