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

By Muhammad Suffian
2016, Vol. 8 No. 11 | pg. 1/2 |

Never has a work of Shakespeare courted such controversy amongst critics than The Life of King Henry V. ‘By far the most controversial of the histories’, writes Berry, 'Henry V remains at the centre of a long-standing critical debate’. (Berry, 1986, pg. 255). What is perhaps astounding is the wide disparity of responses that this debate has procured, resulting in a play that has remained of absorbing curiosity since its dissemination in 1599. Other Shakespearean protagonists have provoked complex responses but none with such diverging interpretations as Henry V.

Henry V

Arguably the most popular of all the English histories, the play dramatizes the events leading to Agincourt where the incomparable Henry, believing he has a divine right to the kingship of France, leads his men to an unlikely but enthralling victory against the haughty French. The play has become a source of rancorous debate over the years; the controversy predicated on two conflicting views or interpretations of the play’s central character.

Commenting on the ideological ambivalence of the play, James. N. Loehlin surmises that ‘Henry V can be either the story of an ideal king leading a unified nation to a glorious victory, or the story of a crafty and unscrupulous politician embarking on a cynical war of aggression in spite of its human costs’. (Loehlin, 1996, pg. 9). Or, as the influential Norman Rabkin postulates, ‘Shakespeare created a work whose ultimate power is precisely the fact that it points in two opposite directions. (Rabkin, 1981, pg. 33).

Henry V is an unusual play in the sense that it is centred on one major personality. Therefore, the play often has to rely on the dramatic effect of its minor and ephemeral characters. These characters are extraordinarily compelling and their importance cannot be exaggerated; they provide critical perspective of the King, and his interactions with them are designed to undercut and comprise the heroic perception of his character. (Erickson, 1979, pg. 14). Thus, the aim of this paper is to demonstrate and critically analyse the salient role minor characters play in deflating the heroic myth of Shakespeare’s Henry V; a myth that has endured the test of time and has acquired relative orthodoxy for more than three centuries.

The first of the suggested locations can be found in the first act of the play, specifically, the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury. In order to portray Henry V as a hero-saint and exemplar of Christian piety, it is imperative that the justification of war be void of nefarious motivations. The opening scene is of supreme importance as we begin to witness the unravelling of a darker interpretation of ‘this star of England’. We are introduced to the scheming between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, their thoughts preoccupied with a parliamentary bill that aims to seize all Church lands. An unacceptable reality, their solution is to essentially bribe the King. In return for the protection of the Church against seized revenue, the Clergy will provide an apparently pious, pseudo-legal rationale for the invasion of France. (Mebane, 2007, pg. 256). The justification of war from the outset is marinated with baleful motivations of a political ploy by scheming churchmen. Underlining the significance of the first scene, Gerald Gould contends that ‘unless its intention is the obviously cynical one, there is no intention at all.’ (Gould, 1969, pg. 87).

Gould’s point is further reinforced in act one, scene two where the legal basis for Henry’s claim to the French throne is explicated. The Archbishop’s argument is based on the repudiation of the Salic law currently operating in France; a law which excludes females from dynastic succession, (‘No woman shall succeed in Salic land’ – HV, I.II, 39). Henry, imploring the Archbishop to ‘justly and religiously unfold’ his right to the throne, requires a clear explanation of his claim, however, clarity and brevity is a luxury when Canterbury begins his exposition. Comprising of over sixty lines, the speech is presented on the modern stage as something of an embarrassment, technical, ineloquent and described by Arthur Humphreys as ‘unrivalled for tediousness’. (Dutton, 2005, pg. 185). Canterbury’s explanation is reduced to comedy in which he constantly forgets things, becomes confused over genealogies and finally ends with the grossly ludicrous assertion that Henry’s claim is as clear as a summer’s sun’. It is as if the Archbishop of Canterbury has given himself permission to behave absurdly and illogically, proving it difficult to take his long, rather unlettered explanation with a modicum of seriousness rendering the entire scene sardonic if not ridiculous.

However, some critics have rejected the comedic and tedious delineations of the speech, arguing that the scene would have been taken very seriously by an Elizabethan audience. Gary Taylor maintains that the Elizabethan audience ‘would have been interested in the Salic law and accustomed to listening to long and intellectually complex sermons (as we are not)’ (Taylor, 2008, pg. 35). However, John Sutherland in his provocative essay, Henry V, war criminal?, is not convinced. Even if audience members were accustomed to long sermons, ‘it is certain that was not what they paid for when they went to the theatre’. (Sutherland, 2000, pg. 119). Sutherland thus concludes that the speech is intended to be regarded not just as tedious but comically tedious. (Ibid, 2000, pg. 119).

Despite the comedic effect, the speech raises pertinent reservations regarding Henry V’s legitimacy, not only to the French throne but also to the English throne. Rejecting the veracity of the Salic law allows Henry to claim the throne based on the fact that his great-great-grandmother was the daughter of Philip IV of France. (Leer, 1962, pg. 102) Shockingly, the Archbishop seems to abandon his own argument and accuses the French kings of antiquity as crooked because their own titles descend from the female. In short, the title of the King of France is illegitimate because it devolved through the female line, therefore the legitimate heir is Henry – by descent through a female line! (Beauchamp, 1978, pg. 230). The absurdity knows no bounds as ‘the very thing’, says Goddard, ‘that proves the title of a French king crooked – namely, inheritance through the female – serves by some twist of ecclesiastical logic, to prove the title of an English king good’. (Goddard, 1951, pg. 221).

Ironically, Canterbury’s disquisition in support of Henry’s claim to the throne not only invalidates his right to the crown of France but also invalidates his right to the English crown. (Hobday, 1969, pg. 110). If we examine English dynastic history in relation to Canterbury’s convoluted speech, we find that the true inheritor of the crown was not Henry’s father (descended through a male line from the fourth son of Edward III), but in fact Edmund Mortimer, (descended through a female line of the third son of Edward). Therefore, if Henry is not the legitimate King of England – which he can never be due to his usurper father – he can seldom claim to be the legitimate King of France. (Dutton, 2005, pg. 186). Gould reiterates that this is not sheer carelessness on Shakespeare’s part, but absurdity and contradictions are deliberate means of showcasing Henry’s mendacity, thereby undermining the authority of his claims. (Gould, 1919, pg. 52). This point is further elaborated by C.H. Hobday in his essay entitled, Image and Irony in Henry V:

“To assume that Shakespeare considered Henry's claim to the French throne as justified is therefore to assume that he was incapable of reasoning.” (Hobday, 1969, pg. 111)

Canterbury’s conflated speech is designed to confuse, highlighting Shakespeare’s awareness of the dubiousness of Henry’s political manoeuvres. Shakespeare decides to deal with the problems of Henry’s legitimacy ambiguously as noted by Katherine Eisaman Maus:

Henry employs against the French a principle that, if it were enforced against him, would strip him of both English and French kingdoms. Yet the point is made so obliquely that only a spectator cognizant of the tangled Plantagenet genealogy is likely to catch it.” (Landa, pg. 191).

Some critics, nonetheless, accentuate the legal and moral justification of Henry’s crusade against the French. J.H. Walter deems Canterbury’s reasoning as ‘impeccable’, arguing that if Shakespeare had believed Henry’s claim to be justified, he would have only been in agreement with ‘the greatest jurist of the sixteenth century’, Alberico Gentili. (Walter, 1954, pg. xxiii.) However, the veracity of Gentili’s supposition is indeed questionable, considering the fact that he was writing as a refugee in England and may not have been the most reliable of witnesses.

M.M. Reese, a great partisan of Henry, concedes that a modern audience may have difficulties comprehending the justice of the war, but, ‘however it may appear to us today, the French war was a righteous war which a virtuous king was bound in honour to undertake.’ (Spiekerman, 2001, pg. 132). On a similar note, John Dover Wilson fails to acknowledge the sly, cunning conversation between the two clergymen, completely dismissing the connection between the fear of confiscated lands and the Archbishop’s support of war. There is ‘not a hint of a bribe on the Archbishop’s part, still less of his provoking the King to war in order to protect Church property’. (Wilson, 1947, pg. xxi-xxii). Hobday vehemently opposes this interpretation, asserting that such a reading ignores Shakespeare’s text.

“If there is no connection between the Church property question and the Archbishop’s support of the war, why should the play open with a completely irrelevant discussion?” (Hobday, 1969, pg. 110)

Notwithstanding the obvious flaws in Canterbury’s legal reasoning, the speech is nevertheless received with little contention and is accepted by Henry because it will suffice to serve his purpose. It is doubtful whether Henry truly requires papal coaching regarding the historical justification of his claim; however, what he does indeed require is the public blessing of the Church. (Wentersdorf, 1976, pg. 267). In this fashion, Henry now has God in his favour and any subsequent death caused by war now lie firmly on the shoulders of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The astuteness of Henry is something to behold, and is indicative of a highly intelligent individual who has the ability to expertly shift responsibility to whomever he may seem fit. The war is merely a distraction from the real issue: Henry V’s claim to the English throne is doubtful and there is nothing akin to a war to unite a people and veer attention away from domestic issues. In order to quell the memory of usurpation, Henry is simply following the advice of his bedridden father.

‘Be it thy course to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels – (Henry IV, V, 203-16)

Unfortunately not all giddy minds can be suppressed through the frenzied excitement of foreign quarrels, as some have long memories and remarkable persistence for minds supposedly so giddy. It becomes apparent in act two that Lord Scroope, Thomas Gray and Richard, Earl of Cambridge have accepted French gold to conspire against the King. Regrettably for the conspirators, Henry has already foreknown the existence of the plot and subsequently exposes and denounces their treachery, leading to the inevitable conclusion of their execution. The conspiracy has brought forth centre stage the wide disparity of responses the play has elicited regarding Shakespeare’s concept of his protagonist. Partisans of Henry typically view this incident as further illustration of the King’s righteousness. Henry is merely safeguarding justice in his kingdom when he ‘denounces the evils of treachery’, and administrates the traditional capital punishment, ‘not so much because his own life has been threatened as because the conspiracy has jeopardised the welfare of the whole country’. (Wentersdorf, 1976, pg. 268).

However, a closer inspection of this episode seems to suggest that the allure of gold may not have been the sole motivation for the ‘traitorous’ conspirators, and Henry may not have been acting out purely in a princely manner. The English chronicler Raphael Holinshed records that the Earl of Cambridge conspired against the King, ‘onlie to the intent to exalt to the crowne his brother in law Edmund earle of March’, and because the imprisoned Edmund Mortimer was without children, ‘the earle of Cambridge was sure that the crowne should come to him by his wife, and to his children, of hir begotten’ (Holinshed, pg. 71). It seems as though the true motivation behind the plotting and scheming against Henry was not for greed of gold, but to reinstate the true inheritor of the coveted English crown; a crown that had been acquired illegally by Henry’s father.

Interestingly, Shakespeare’s text doesn’t seem to allude to the issue of rightful succession, as ‘the long shadow that the incarcerated Mortimer casts across this play is not visible from a seat in the theatre.’ (Goddard, 1951, pg. 229). Dover Wilson echoes the dynastic nature of the conspirators’ plot arguing that ‘it seems odd that Shakespeare did not make it more explicit, until we remember that he must avoid anything that casts doubts on the legitimacy of Henry V’. (Wilson, 1947, pg. 140.). Hence, Henry cannot possibly address the true motives of the conspirators; to do so would draw negative attention to the validity of his claim to the English crown. Because Henry is already reaping the rewards of his father’s usurpation, his having the supporters of the legitimate heir executed only accentuates the troubling question of legitimacy. (Smith, 1976, pg.14). The conspiracy could have been repealed altogether if Shakespeare had been trying to portray Henry as a virtuous hero; a mirror of all Christian Kings.

“He did not choose to do so, and it does violence to his design to deny significance to these parts a priori assumptions.” (Ibid, 1976, pg. 14)

From this critical standpoint, Henry is hardly displaying the ‘virtues’ that have earnt him the choric description of ‘the mirror of all Christian Kings’, an appellation that has been the source of haughty derision amongst critics who suppose Henry as a cold-blooded war monger. Perhaps Henry would have been better advised to follow the council of the Christian theologian Erasmus, who declared ‘that an unjust peace was better than the most just war’. (Ibid, 1976, pg. 17). It is to of no surprise that the Salic law speech was often cut out of performances of the play during the eighteenth century; John Altman offers an explanation of this exclusion arguing that the speech ‘comes across as fashioned, bowed, and its subtext of successive usurpations casts indirect shadows on the legitimacy of Henry’s crown even as its main argument supports his claim to the French one.’ (Altman, 1991, pg. 21). Henry’s involvement with the Archbishop of Canterbury and his subsequent execution of the partisans of the true heir of England collectively seem to undermine the legitimacy of Henry, thus undermining his heroic and virtuous depiction. For if the premise of war is illegitimate, then its consequences, whether they be commendable or reprehensible are, as a result, unjust.

The effect of minor characters on the portrayal of Henry is explicitly evident in the episode with the three soldiers, Alexander Court, John Bates, and Michael Williams, taking place on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. The dramatic effect of these ephemeral characters is drastically heightened and their position is made even more relevant and reliable by their being given names and surnames, ‘a feature which is unique in all of Shakespeare.’ (Gurr, 1992, pg. 32) Critics such as Paola Pugliatti have stressed the importance of this scene, noting that,

“Nothing in the play endangers our sympathy with Henry’s enterprise so much as this scene, which comes near to destroying everything the play has been presenting up until now as justification of the invasion of France.” (Pugliatti, 1993, pg. 247)

The scene brings to the fore a reoccurring problem in Henry V criticism, chiefly, the discrepancy of the Chorus in relation to the action it is describing. Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Henry V is the only one to employ and sustain a choric figure, interrupting the action by marking the genesis of each act. The role of the Chorus in Henry V is an important topic of discussion in most critical readings of the play; historically, the Chorus has come to signify and affirm the irresistible patriotic fever directed towards the King. A.P. Rossiter, for example, considers Henry V as ‘a propaganda-play on National Unity: heavily orchestrated for the brass’ – the brass being provided by the voice of the Chorus. (Rossiter, 1961, pg. 57 – Jones, 1978, pg. 93). On a similar trajectory, M. M. Reese considers the role of the Chorus as an advocate for a celebratory reading of the play.

“The verse of the choruses, corresponding to the passages of the heightened description which a narrative poet habitually employs, has the further function of establishing the epic stature of the hero. (Reese, 1961, pg. 320).

J.H. Walter also affirms this viewpoint asserting that the speeches of the Chorus are ‘epical in tone’ and R. A. Law encapsulates the apparent orthodoxy of this view, arguing that ‘the actual purpose of these six poems is to sound a patriotic note in exaltation of the heroic King’. (Walter, 1954, pg. xv – Law, 1956, pg. 155). The traditional view leaves us with a Chorus affirming the heroic and virtuous delineation of Henry, however, critics have noticed incongruities in choric proclamations leading to interpretations which take the Chorus and consequently the whole play anti – heroically. The function of the Chorus is to direct our eye by shaping the events we are about to see. But is it reliable? Harold C. Goddard, arguably the most fervent and thorough in his attack against Henry, contends that the Chorus actually represents the opinion of the average public rather than emphasise Shakespeare’s predilection towards the King. The frequent and continuous pleas made by the Chorus for the audience to use its imagination are in fact a covert separation of patriotic imagination from reality. (Leer, 1962, pg. 100).

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