Henry V Essay


Henry V Essay

Shakespeare's depiction of Henry V as an ideal king is complex enough to allow a variety of questions to be raised about Henry's real character. Henry V is a play in which Henry is revealed by Shakespeare as being very strong and courageous, but history gives reason to believe that he is not as Shakespeare portrays him. In the battles of Harfleur and Agincourt, each resource shows a different side of Henry V, because of this it is evident that Shakespeare turned Henry into his own character to fit his play.

It is fair to say Henry was an accomplished soldier. His military career began when he was as young as fourteen, and continued throughout his whole life. Henry fought the Welsh forces, commanded troops at Shrewsbury, prevented a Lollard uprising and assassination plot, and started the French War. Shortly after his victory he died due to living the hard life of a soldier. Had Henry lived two months longer, he would have been King of both England and France. Henry's life was built on the military and wars, and he was very successful (Moss). However his reasons to engage in conflict were not necessarily justified. Shakespeare portrays Henry V as being a “valiant” leader without showing any of his flaws (Hylton and Fernandez). History makes it clear, despite Shakespeare's depiction, that Henry V is not entirely flawless.

In the battle against the French at Harfleur, Shakespeare defines Henry as a brilliant military leader by simply leaving out the misfortunes. In Shakespeare's play Henry V, the soldiers' conditions are barely mentioned. Henry only briefly explains their situation when talking to the Governor of Harfleur after the battle. “For us, dear uncle, the winter coming on and sickness growing upon our soldiers” (Hylton). Although Shakespeare admits the weariness of the English troops, he doesn't mention the horrible weather that they endured for three weeks without shoes, shelter, or food. In reality, the marshes where the English camped were hot, humid, insect-infested, and full of sewage. The English weren't in as good as shape as Shakespeare makes them out to be. Disaster struck when a severe case of dysentery infected the English camp. Even though Henry predicted an eight day battle, it wasn't until thirty days after the siege began, that Harfleur finally fell. By the end of the battle two thousand English had been lost, most of them to dysentery, and some to the battle (Melody). Henry couldn't have been as blind to his soldier's health as Shakespeare makes it appear by mentioning only a small part of reality. On the other hand, Henry saw many deaths and diseases around him, and he knew very well that his troops were in bad shape. The loss and the condition of the English army was a very important part of the battle at Harfleur which Shakespeare seemed to leave out to better the appearance of Henry. He might be considered “honorable” as Shakespeare describes in his play, but not without the sacrifice of his soldiers. The war was caused by Henry for his personal praise, and it glorified him, but not without the cost of many lives.

Historically, Henry's treatment of Harfleur's citizens was not, as Shakespeare suggests, merciful (Melody). In Shakespeare's play, Henry seems to be very kind to the citizens of Harfleur when he says, “Use mercy to them all” (Hylton). According to Webster's New American Dictionary, mercy is the compassionate and forgiving treatment of offenders and pity and help for those undergoing suffering. Shakespeare makes Henry seem very merciful by not sending “precepts to the leviathan to come ashore”, and sparing their lives (Hylton). However, historically speaking, Henry ordered all of the crippled, elderly, and sick to leave the city. Overall, two thousand citizens were forced to leave their homes so the city could become a “utopia” (Melody). This unthoughtful act doesn't make Henry seem as forgiving as in Shakespeare's depiction. It reveals a more selfish side of Henry that isn't strong, courageous or honorable. Once again, Shakespeare managed to show the heroic perspective of Henry, but historical evidence reveals the true man behind Shakespeare's mask.

Although the historical battle of Agincourt was similar to Shakespeare's account, there is still contrast to be found. In Shakespeare's version of the battle, the English baggage boys were murdered by the French, and as a result Henry ordered the death of the French prisoners. Historically, the French were killed because of the threat they posed if France sent reinforcements (Melody). Henry was willing to murder prisoners to ensure his safety, which protects his title as an ideal king. If the prisoners had revolted and killed him, he wouldn't have been seen as a strong and mighty ruler because of his incapability to win a battle. It would have been seen as a desperate attempt for glory if the war had been lost. So, by killing the French prisoners, he was making sure his victory title wouldn't be taken. This is another selfish move Henry makes that Shakespeare fails to recognize in his play. The death of the baggage boys is an attempt by Shakespeare to give a reason for the death of the French prisoners. Shakespeare's account gives Henry a just cause for murder to make him appear better than he really is. Henry's selfish attitude is not easily covered by Shakespeare's words.

The battles of Harfleur and Agincourt reveal Henry's true character opposed to how Shakespeare portrays him. Henry was not the strong, merciful, and ideal king that Shakespeare describes in his play. Rather, he has flaws, including his selfish motives, and desire for personal glory. Shakespeare wrote a dramatic play about an ideal king, and even though Henry lacked perfection Shakespeare was willing to alter his character to fit the play.