Themes in Henry V

Henry V of England - Illustration from Cassell's History of England
Henry V of England - Illustration from Cassell's History of England. Public Domain

Shakespeare’s Henry V is a complex play, packed with themes. In this article, we tackle the key themes of war and patriotism and the difference between being a good man and a respected king.

Theme 1: War and Patriotism

Henry V is wholly concerned with war and winning against the odds, the work marvels at England’s strength in adversity.

The play is packed full of rousing speeches to motivate the troops but it does not shy away from the brutality of war and the difficult decisions that need to be made in order to be victorious.

Henry threatens to kill the children of Harfleur if they do not surrender.

This would be considered an abhorrent act if this did not take place as part of a war and also Henry’s position of King allows him to make uncomfortable decisions for the greater good of his own country. That he does not kill the children sustains his hero status but there is a fine line between mind games and barbarism in war and Shakespeare does not shy away from that.

Henry V recognises the importance of getting the lower classes on side in that they are the ones bearing the brunt of the battle and they have more to lose. He gets amongst his troops to gauge their feeling just before the Battle of Agincourt and thus is able to understand them more so that he is able to use his understanding to motivate.

Henry demonstrates the ability to read people and motivate and manipulate them to achieve his goals and this strategy wins him the war.

Fire and combustion imagery is used to invoke war in the play, as is eating and devouring and the recurring idea of a tennis match. These images invoke aggression, destruction and competition. Henry very much has an ‘eat or be eaten’ response to war and acts in a way that does not necessarily reflect his character as a man (If we are to gain knowledge of his character from the previous plays where he is a wild, irresponsible scoundrel.)

In war, Henry acts as a true leader and puts his own feelings aside.

Theme 2: The difference between being a good man and a respected King.

 In the previous Henry IV plays, Prince Hal (Henry V) is depicted as a bit of a reprobate, he is a drinker and socialises in the Boar’s Head Tavern with men of disrepute. He is young and irresponsible.

However, in Henry V, he has truly come of age. He must win the respect of the people in order to succeed as King and must demonstrate a strength of character and sense of responsibility never before witnessed by the citizens of England.

Henry’s decision to go to war with France may have been based on fairly dubious ancient laws of land ownership but he must be seen to be able to motivate his country to follow his lead. He does this through strong leadership, he has got to know his people as a normal man and can use this knowledge of them to motivate them.

Henry sentences his former friends Bardolph and Nim to hang for looting, this marks the difference between him as a King (where he has had to reject and betray his former friends) and as he was when he was a normal man.

The people must see that he has no favourites, no weaknesses, no chinks in his armour and his treatment of his former drinking friends demonstrates this.

He is altogether a different man as King compared to how he was before.

However, there is an interesting challenge for an audience to acknowledge in considering that being a good King does not necessarily constitute being a good man. A good man would not reject his friends, and would most certainly not have them hanged but had he not have done this he may have been considered as a weak King. Similarly, when he threatens the children of Harfleur, he is standing up for his country despite his brutal intentions.