Henry V: The Commoner's King Essay
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Henry V: The Commoner's King
Henry the Fifth has been noted as England’s best King throughout history. He was loved among the common people and nobles alike for his fairness, his effectiveness on the throne, his justness, and his ability to relate to people of all classes. The kings that reigned before him, especially his father King Henry IV and King John, provide a striking contrast to Hal’s attitude on the throne. Kings of the past had not experienced the life of the common people, and chose to lead their lives in the realm of the castle. As we witnessed in I Henry IV, Hal’s father even went as far to discuss this approach to ruling at length with Hal. Henry IV believed that a king was best admired and supplicated if he was kept…show more content…
I know thy quality.
King: Thou dost thy office fairly.
King Henry V also touched on a subject very pertinent to many people of that time: God. In many instances, he places God before all else. In Act 1, scene 2, England receives a message from France in the form of tennis balls. This is when he decides to make war with France final. He tells his lords:
…omit no happy hour
That may give furth’rance to our expedition.
For we have now no thought in us but France,
Save those to God, that run before our business.
He also gives God the credit for various accomplishments. The fact that Henry gives God the honor of winning the war shows that he is not selfish or conceited, and that he recognizes a spiritual force behind his actions.
O God, thy arm was here!
And not to us, but to thy arm alone
Ascribe we all. When, without stratagem,
But in plain shock and even play of battle,
Was ever known so great and little loss
On one part and on th’ other? Take it, God,
For it is none but thine!
Not only does Henry share his glory with God, but also with his royal subjects and all of England. In Act 1, scene 2 he tells the ambassadors of France that "We are no tyrant, but a Christian king"(241). The fact that he shares his
Benjamin W. Cheng
Princeton University '00
HENRY V - KING HENRY'S DARKER SIDE
The original text of William Shakespeare's Henry V seems to portray King Henry
as a character too ideal to be realistic. Indeed, the chorus describes him as the "mirror of
all Christian kings" whose actions epitomize justice and conscience (Henry V, ed. John
Russell Brown [New York: Signet Classic, 1963], 2.Cho.6). Throughout the play, Henry's
words and actions illustrate his many virtues, virtually elevating him in our eyes to the
status of a saint. Despite the text's suggestion that he is a symbol of virtue, however,
obviously not everyone agrees with such an ideal image of the king. For example,
Kenneth Branagh, in his screen adaptation of Henry V, illuminates the protagonist in a
completely different light. As Branagh himself recalls, he wanted to explore Henry's
darker side, and to convey his "qualities of introspection, fear, doubt and anger." Instead
of reinforcing the king's image as a saintly figure, Branagh's screenplay exposes him as a
mere human vulnerable to feelings of insecurity, vengefulness, and guilt. Using theatrical
techniques such as flashbacks and ominous background music, Branagh depicts these
darker and harsher qualities in our so-called "ideal" monarch.
Almost from the very beginning of the film, we notice qualities in Henry very
different from those we would expect after reading the play. In the original text, we
imagine him as a clement and merciful king who is conscientious about preventing
excessive "fall of blood" (1.2.25). Indeed, we see him in Act I Scene ii agonizing over
whether or not he may "with right and conscience" take over France (1.2.96). Moreover,
Henry reveals a distaste for unnecessary bloodshed through his reluctance to wage an
unjust war in which soldiers would "drop their blood in approbation" (1.2.19). In Act II
Scene ii, Henry even impresses us with his magnanimity and mercy by releasing a man
imprisoned for a minor offense. He thus gives us every reason to view him as an ideal
Despite the king's virtuous image in the text, however, Branagh's screenplay
portrays him as angry and vengeful, at times even bloodthirsty. In the first act of the film,
we see Henry planning his conquest of France to the accompaniment of deep and
ominous cello tones. In a sinister half-whisper, Henry reveals his intent to "bend [France]
to [his] awe," or "break it all to pieces" (1.2.224-225). Needless to say, such menacing
words are most unusual for a "conscientious" king who dislikes bloodshed. Although
these lines are in the original text, the emphasis placed on them by Henry's tone of voice
unveils a bloodthirsty side to the king the text alone does not suggest. Later in that same
scene, the king further reveals his harsh nature by vowing to punish France for insulting
him. The way Henry virtually spits out his description of the French women who will be
forever "[mocked] out of their dear husbands [and sons]" suggests a vengefulness we do
not see in the text (1.2.285). Similarly, in Act III Scene iii, we learn of Henry's anger and
aggression only because he screams (rather than merely states) his threats of "heady
murder, spoil, and villainy" at an already submissive Governor of Harfleur (3.3.32). Thus,
although the text may portray Henry as clement, merciful, and conscientious, Branagh's
acting definitely undermines this ideal image of the king.
The screenplay exposes not only Henry's angry and vengeful disposition, but also
his insecurity and paranoia. Readers of the text may find this surprising, for in the written
play, Henry appears to have every reason to feel confident. Indeed, the text suggests that
he is in fact confident that his invasion of France is just, for he believes that God is
supporting him in his cause. As Henry declares in Act II Scene ii, God has "[smoothed]
every rub...on our way" (2.2.188). Similarly, we assume the king has great confidence in
the loyalty of his followers, for the play frequently reminds us of the love his subjects
bear for him. Indeed, as the Earl of Westmoreland asserts, and many others echo, never
did any English king have "nobles richer and more loyal subjects" than Henry has
(1.2.127). Thus, the text gives no indication whatsoever that Henry is insecure.
Despite this confident image, however, Branagh's screenplay portrays Henry as a
man consumed by paranoia. Contrary to our expectation, Branagh's Henry doubts not only
the loyalty of his followers, but even the justice of his own actions. We first see this
insecurity in Act II Scene ii of the film, after Henry exposes the three traitors. Pinning
Scroop to the table, Henry laments that after being betrayed like this, he will regard even
"the full-fraught man and best indued" with suspicion (2.2.139). As he says this, his eyes
dart around the room, settling on Exeter, Bedford, and Westmoreland in turn. Branagh
thus suggests that the king is so paranoid he trusts no one, not even his own relatives.
Moreover, in Act IV Scene i of the film, Henry reveals his doubts about whether or not
his invasion of France is just. Although he maintains that "his cause [is] just and his
quarrel honorable," we notice his eyes nervously shifting as he makes this claim
(4.1.130). These eye movements, along with his slow enunciation and exaggerated vocal
inflections, suggest some doubt on Henry's part about what he himself proclaims. We see
more of his doubt and paranoia later in the scene, when he desperately prays for success
in battle, begging God not to punish him for his father's crimes. Thus, although the text
portrays Henry as a confident ruler, Branagh's film refutes this image by exposing him as
an insecure man, suspicious of his subjects and fearful of how God will judge his actions.
Branagh not only conveys these feelings of insecurity, but also attempts to
pinpoint their causes. As Henry's prayer the night before the battle suggests, the source of
his paranoia may very well be his guilt about his father's usurpation of the crown. Another
cause of Henry's self-doubts could be his feelings of shame and inferiority over the many
times his father had expressed disappointment in him. Yet another possibility, one
Branagh himself suggests, is that Henry's fears reflect the guilt and isolation he suffers
from having rejected his tavern friends. In his screenplay, Branagh illuminates this last
possibility through flashbacks. In one of them, shown during Falstaff's death, we see the
old knight begging Prince Hal never to abandon him. His pained response to Hal's "I
know thee not, old man" suggests to us the guilt Henry suffers from having "killed his
[friend's] heart" (2.1.91). We see the king's pain even more clearly in Act III Scene vi of
the film, when Branagh inserts a flashback of Bardolph. In this flashback, Bardolph
jokingly asks Hal not to hang thieves when he is king. The shock on his face when Henry
orders his execution, along with the king's own tears upon seeing his friend dead, clearly
exhibits the isolation Henry endures. Through these flashbacks, Branagh emphasizes how
important Falstaff and Bardolph once were to Henry. He thus effectively conveys a sense
of guilt the text never seems to suggest. This pain and isolation, along with the guilt his
father's crimes cause, may have led Henry to his present feelings of insecurity.
Kenneth Branagh's portrayal of Henry as a mere human susceptible to feelings of
vengefulness, insecurity, and guilt can be interpreted in a number of ways. His decision to
depict Henry's darker qualities instead of reinforcing his ideal-king image may simply
reflect a desire to lend realism and depth to an otherwise one-dimensional character. It is
even possible, since the movie was made at the end of the Cold War, that this harsh
portrayal of Henry is a condemnation of the imperialism widely condoned during
Shakespeare's time. Regardless of why Branagh decided to refute the prevalent perception
of Henry, however, his film definitely illustrates how the same lines of text can be
interpreted in completely different ways.