The Role of Minor and Ephemeral Characters in Shakespeare's Henry V

By Muhammad Suffian
2016, Vol. 8 No. 11 | pg. 2/2 |

Phyllis Rackin has highlighted that ‘the action Shakespeare dramatizes contradicts the story the Chorus tells.’ (Rackin, 1990, pg. 82). The Chorus’ negligence of the dramatic action is epitomised in the late night encounter with Henry’s soldiers in a scene that draws upon the moral and ethical legitimacy of the King’s war. The Chorus sets up the scene of act four depicting the King as a ‘royal captain’ who raises the morale of the ‘poor condemned English’, to which every soldier is pleased to see. However, the conversation with these three soldiers reveals Henry’s attempt to shower kingly comforts are less successful than the Chorus would have led us to believe. Instead of the ‘cheerful semblance and sweet majesty’ the Chorus has described, we encounter a Henry who gets himself into an unseemly debate on the moral and ethical conditions under which the war is fought. (Danson, 1983, pg. 39). Williams harbours deep reservations of the war, voicing his suspicions in a highly evocative manner that the King may not have just cause in his ‘divinely’ ordained invasion of France. The contentions raised by Williams are indicative of fifteenth-century theology whereby English knights were influenced by the works of St. Augustine who believed that a prince was responsible for the sin of waging an ‘unjust war’ and ‘the duty of obedience preserved the soldier’s innocence’ before God. (Meron, 1998, pg. 160). Williams consequently puts forth the argument to Henry that

‘…if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to go make; when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, ‘We died at such a place’ (HV. IV.I, 134-138)

Henry’s reprisal, on the other hand, are a set of defensive and highly prevaricated hypotheticals concluding with the avowal that ‘every subject’s duty is the king’s but every subject’s soul is his own’, skilfully evading Williams’ misgivings of responsibility.(Leer, 1962, pg.103). The circuitous nature of the response is eerily similar to that of the Archbishops’ exposition of the Salic law, the difference being Henry is willing to accept Canterbury’s ratio-legis whereas Williams in this instance remains undeterred, unmoved and ultimately unconvinced. What is curious in this encounter is that Henry very notably and perhaps strangely does not care to answer the question of whether the cause of war is just. There would not have been a need to delve into such philosophical and moral argumentations and as a consequence, the entire quarrel could have been simply avoided. Alas, Henry does not do this which leads us to question whether he truly believes that he is engaging in a virtuous and holy endeavour. Observing this seminal scene, Goddard remarks that,

“If any proof were needed that he knows in his heart of hearts that this is a bad war we have it in the squirming sophistry – almost worthy of a Pandulf – with which he vainly attempts to refute the simple and straightforward statement of Williams.” (Spiekerman, 2001, pg. 133).

The prevalent question in this fracas is that of responsibility. Who truly bears the burden of responsibility for the war? Henry throughout the play sophisticatedly diverts responsibility for the consequences of a bloody war. He lays the blame of ‘all those legs, and arms, and heads, chopp’d off in battle’ upon the individuals themselves just as before he had laid the massacre of the fair ‘virgins, flow’ring infants’ on the citizens of Harfluer if it did not surrender, and ‘the guiltless drop of blood’ on the Archbishop of Canterbury. Ronald Rebholz, on this issue, contends that ‘despite Henry’s attempts to shift the responsibility for the war to other agents, including God, he realises that the ethical responsibility rests on the shoulders of the King, and that he must bear alone the conflict between justice and necessity’. (Rebholz, 2003, pg. 36). The need to continuously shift and evade demonstrates that Henry recognises his responsibility, however he never acknowledges it which is clearly highlighted in the dialogue with his soldiers.

The episode of Williams, Bates and Court is another salient example of how marginal voices are used in undercutting a celebratory reading of the play. Their incredulity and indifference of the cause for which they are sent to die is given added strength and credence by its representing the consensus viewpoint of the army. (Pugliatti, 1993, pg. 246). Unfortunately for Henry, ‘a little touch of Harry in the night’ is not as effective and adequate as his sanguine approach initially suggested.

The final example I wish to present which deflates the heroic paradigm of Henry V involves the character of Fluellen in the famous ‘Alexander the Pig’ scene, act four, scene seven. This scene is of particular fondness for critic John Mebane who reads Fluellen’s repeated allusions to Alexander as a ‘humorous assault on our penchant for heaping adulation on conquers whose renown rests on their brutality’. (Mebane, 2007, pg. 260). Fluellen’s undermining of Henry’s gallantry is all the more striking because of the dramatic role the character serves as the archetypal reflection of Henry’s heroism. He parodies the historian who celebrates the war in the Chorus and is therefore an obedient supporter of the status quo, displaying authoritarian credulity and self-subordination towards the King. In this manner he is juxtaposed to Williams, a man wholly non-authoritarian, unrelenting in his critique of Henry and independent. Critics have discussed the humorous comparison between Henry and Alexander for a long time; the comparison heightened when we take into consideration Fluellen’s Welsh distortion which ironically transforms Alexander into a ‘pig’, thus raising serious questions about ‘the mirror of all Christian kings’. (Merrix, 1972, pg. 321)

The allusion comes immediately after Fluellen and Gower’s mistaken appreciation of a king who has just ordered his men to cut the throats of the French prisoners, an act that perpetuates the ill-fated comparison to the impetuous and bloody Alexander. (Ibid, 1972, pg. 231). Retribution for the attack on the baggage train is the common rationale for such an act, however Stephen Greenblatt comments on the inconsistencies of this version of events highlighting that ‘Gower claims that the King has ordered the killing of the prisoners in retaliation for the attack on the baggage train, but we have just been shown that the King’s order preceded the attack.’ (Greenblatt, 1988, pg. 62). Henry’s action, therefore, comes not in retaliation, but rather as a tactical ploy in the face of a recuperated French attack. (Quint, 1982, pg. 51).

Thus, the scene begins with Fluellen and Gower on stage, Fluellen avows ‘Tis expressly against the law of arms’. Although he is commenting on the conduct of the French, the juxtaposition is quite outstanding since the comment comes directly after the King’s own command, ‘every soldier kill his prisoners! / Give the word through’, ironically highlighting that Henry’s behaviour is as abhorrent and unjust as that of the French. (Quabeck, 2013, pg. 227). The audience is led to believe that Fluellen will compare the conquests of Alexander to that of Henry’s, but such a comparison is not made. Instead the comparison is, as Fluellen states:

‘If you mark Alexander’s life well, Harry of Monmouth’s life is come after it indifferent well… Alexander… did, in his ales and his angers, look you, kill his best friend, Clytus.’ (HV, IV. VII, 31-38)

When Gower points out that Henry never killed any of his friends, Fluellen responds with the effervescent Falstaff:

‘Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgements, turned away the fat knight with the great-belly doublet:’ (HV, IV.VII, 45-47)

The comparison, with Henry presented as callous can hardly be considered advantageous as highlighted by Greenblatt,

“The moment is potentially devastating. The comparison with drunken Alexander focuses all our perceptions of Hal’s sober and cold-bloodedness…” (Greenblatt, 1988, pg. 57)

Geoffrey Bullough stresses the importance of the Alexandrian allusion arguing that ‘the comparison of Alexander shows that the slaughter of the prisoners made Shakespeare reflect on the nature of the heroic King’. (Bullough, 1964, pg. 367). For Mebane, the glorification of conquest is in need of re-evaluation especially when we consider the conquerors’ inclination towards destructive rage. (Mebane, 2007, pg. 261). The comparison with Alexander may not have been the most appropriate form of flattery as Alexander’s wars were generally regarded unjust by St Augustine and was considered as an unjust warrior by Gurr. (Quabeck, 2013, pg. 228). The ill-timed allusion, as a result, exposes one of the several flaws of Henry’s character.

This paper has presented three instances from the play which demonstrate how minor and ephemeral characters are used by Shakespeare in providing a negative critical perspective of the King and his conquest of France. Henry’s mere involvement with these characters demeans the celebratory nature of Henry and his war, and thus affects our impression of his ostensible magnificence. The Archbishop undermines the justness of the King’s war in his absurd exposition of the Salic law, providing him with an excuse to ‘busy giddy minds with foreign wars’. That he incarcerates the legitimate heir and executes his advocates undermines his claim to the French crown and more significantly it undermines his claim to the English crown. This, combined with the episode of the disgruntled soldiers and Fluellen’s sinister allusions to the brutal and bloody conqueror Alexander, all work in tandem to degrade the heroic reading of Henry V. As a result, the minor characters gravitate our attention towards a burlesque reading of the play, and as a consequence, partisans of Henry have faced difficulties in reconciling these episodes with a sympathetic and traditionalist reading of the play. Critics have tended to exercise their editorial license in theatrical productions of Henry V, ceremoniously cutting the controversial and troubling aspects of the play. Indeed ‘we must always be conscious of possible theatrical motives behind such omissions’. (Schalkwyk, 2002, pg.81)


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