Characters of Shakespeare's Plays/Henry V

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search


HENRY V

Henry V is a very favourite monarch with the English nation, and he appears to have been also a favourite with Shakespeare, who labours hard to apologize for the actions of the king, by showing 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 license; 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 Shakespeare, 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 shown, 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 orchestra!

So much for the politics of this play; now for the poetry. Perhaps one of the most striking images in all Shakespeare 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 Shakespeare. It is indeed admirable both for strength and grace. It has sometimes occurred to us that Shakespeare, 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 fill'd 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 Shakespeare.

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 everything 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 weazel 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 weazel 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,
     Like music.
     --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,
     Fly to one mark;
     As many several 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
     Without defeat.

HENRY V is but one of Shakespeare'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, show 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 high shore of this 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 fili'd, 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 Suffolk!
     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 kiss'd 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 shows the vanity of that class of persons in a very striking point of view. Shakespeare 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 Welshman 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 sentinels 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.