Interpretations of War in Shakespeare’s Henry V
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Jessica M Sullivan LT 319 - Shakespeare November 28, 2001 Interpretations of War in Shakespeare's Henry V Shakespeare's historical drama, Henry V, is consumed with the overwhelming theme of war and how each character comes to justify or interpret it. Henry V himself, fearless leader of the English forces, embraces the war while glorifying and romanticising their efforts through his actions and speeches. Characters such as Michael Williams, however, are unsure about the King's reasons for entering battle against France, yet continue to support the crown and fight anyway in their loyalty. In contrast to these noble outlooks on the war, Shakespeare also introduces characters that instead use the situation for their own benefit. In the very beginning of the play, we already see the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely creating a clever, political strategy which is to distract King Henry with the war so that he forgets about the bill to confiscate church property. As well, the vulgar commoners Corporal Nym, Ancient Pistol, and Lieutenant Bardolph use their role in the war as soldiers in order to loiter, as they are cowards more concerned with thieving. But as the boy, former page of a Sir John Falstaff, comes to realize, war is totally random in the lives it takes and takes no account of whether a victim was fighting with just cause.
The result will be a life-long honour that will elevate the soldiers above all others. And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by From this day to the ending of the world But we in it shall be remembered... And gentlemen in England now abed Shall think themselves accursed they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon St. Crispin's day (4.3.57-67). Henry uses resonant and powerful language, which demonstrates his attitude and passion towards the war. The speeches that Henry V delivers, however, are not received so well by all, such as Michael Williams. Sitting at the campfire disguised as a commoner, Henry listens to Williams deliver his point of view that the soldiers do not know whether the king's reasons for being in France are worthy or not. He claims that the king's moral responsibility is very important. "If the [King's] cause be not good," he says, "the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make..." (4.1.134). Despite his doubts of the King and the war, Williams devotes himself to the cause because it is his duty as an Englishman. He recognizes that if the men die "badly," they die in sin and are doomed to hell, yet he continues to fight.
Bardolph and Nym had ten times more valour than this roaring devil i'th' old play, that everyone may pare his nails with a wooden dagger, and they are both hanged, and so would be, if he durst steal anything adventurously, I must stay with the lackeys with the luggage of our camp (4.4.67-71). Here the Boy shows the randomness of war in which it kills and lets live. The noble warriors, and not so noble warriors alike, do not always get what they deserve in war. In conclusion, throughout Henry V, the audience is bombarded with actions and thoughts all relating to the war cause. Each character has their own opinions and justifications relating to the war, some of them more self-serving than others. King Henry V and Michael Williams are alike in that they are loyal to the English cause and everything they do is motivated by patriotism. Juxtaposing these characters, are men like Pistol and the clergymen who use the war in order to further themselves. They look at it as an opportunity not to benefit their country, rather their own self-interests. And despite these differences in motivation to further the war, all men seem to be at the mercy of its randomness. In Henry's war, just because a soldier may have the noblest of intentions, he will not necessarily be rewarded for those efforts.
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