Henry V as War Poet

There are many different attitudes to war: pacifists find it morally outrageous and unnecessary, others a necessity to protect and defend their own country and that of others. During the life of Shakespeare the security of the King on his throne was unstable. Defending the throne and social stability through war was imperative. This is reflected thematically in ‘Henry V’, with Shakespeare promoting the King as a divinely appointed ruler and encouraging acceptance of this. Throughout ‘Henry V’ there are very strong references to God, sin and salvation.
War is viewed as a moral and spiritual means of upholding the status quo. With this in mind, ‘Henry V’ opens with the mature king, ‘The mirror of all Christian kings’, seeking justification for declaring war on France, with Henry asking the Archbishop if God is happy with his claim to the French throne. ‘May I with right and conscience make this claim? ‘ Henry, asking the Archbishop for support as King of England, demonstrates his desire to fight in the name of God, confirming that God’s appointed monarch is bound by spiritual laws.
Later on in the play we learn of Henry’s other justification for war: honour. He says he is not interested in gold – he only wants honour and glory for his country. ‘But if it be a sin to covet honour, then I am the most offending soul alive. ‘ Henry will not proceed with war unless his decision to fight is justified by the Church. No longer will he be reckless in conflict, as he was in his younger days. Before battle Henry prays; following success he offers thanks. War is viewed as both necessary, justifiable and sanctioned by God.

Despite this spiritual view, war is also promoted as a ‘game’ and a noble adventure, a means to bond with ‘dear friends’. Having been given tennis balls as a provocative insult, war is seen as the inevitable consequence and Henry declares war, by saying ‘the game’s afoot’. This metaphor of war being a game continues through the whole play, despite the fact that it is a wicked and bloody ‘game’ which results in horrific suffering and bloodshed. Interestingly, Jessie Pope,a jingoistic war poet, also represented war as a great adventure game that all boys should embark on, as seen in her poem ‘Who’s For The Game? . She specifically addresses the younger generation in her chatty tone with lines such as ‘Come on, lads. ‘ and personifies the country as a female, with the attitude that the men should be protecting and serving her. She appeals to the protective instinct and the patriotic desires of the individual by doing this, by saying ‘Your country is up to her neck in a fight, and she’s looking and calling for you’. The poem is structured with rhetorical questions which aim to persuade and encourage men to join force and fight.
As a propaganda poem, the horrors of war are evaded and the idea of a fun game promoted with vivid description and verbs. ‘The red crashing game of a fight? ‘ Before Harfleur, Henry is also at his rhetorical best to unite and inspire his ‘team’. War is regarded as an inherited duty. ‘On, on, you noblest English. Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof! ‘. Repetition is used as a means of encouragement, with Henry stressing the words ‘On, on’ to urge his soldiers forward, and alliterating the ‘f’ sound stresses that fighting and carrying on from their fathers preserves family honour and security.
It is better to die fighting for England, to ‘close the wall up with our English dead’, then be cowardly, as Rupert Brooke reinforces when he says ‘There shall be in that rich earth a richer dust concealed; A dust which England bore, shaped, made aware’. In these quotations it is clear that the products of England have the duty to fight and defend their motherland, or at least die honourably trying. Similarly, Brooke justifies war by stressing people were duty bound to fight for their country. He too believed that England made him who he was and it was his duty to protect it. ‘A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware. In this sense, Brooke also believed that he was a possession belonging to England and that he owed a debt to his country. ‘Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given’. Henry’s persuasive speech stresses this same idea. ‘Whose limbs were made in England, show us here The mettle of your pasture’.
‘The Soldier’ promotes patriotism by focussing on the beauty of the country rather than the actual fighting – rather ironic for a war poem. As in ‘Henry V’, there is the idea present that England is superior and worth more than other countries, as shown by the use of the word ‘rich’. and in that rich dust a richer dust concealed’, the dust being Brooke’s remains. The poem is Brooke’s personal narrative; about him giving his body back to England. ‘gives back the thoughts by England given’ Patriotism would encourage a man to fight, courage is an essential quality to survive! War is promoted as an act of courage. Most of Henry’s key speeches in the play, such as the charge of Harfleur and the one delivered on St Crispians day, were designed to raise spirits and work up courage. One prominent idea, especially in the St Crispians day speech, is that the fewer men there are, the ‘greater share of honour’.
Henry also tells his soldiers not to fear death, saying that it would be honourable to die for their country. ‘If we are mark’d to die, we are enow to do our country loss’. At times Henry dissolves his powers of status and leadership to become one of the ‘brother’s’. He labels him and his soldiers a ‘happy few’, a ‘band of brothers’, rather than calling them an army and presenting them as a unit that’s not only hostile and foreign to the attackers but also to each other. He uses pronouns such as ‘we’ and ‘us’ rather than ‘I’ and ‘you’.
This demonstrates equality and unites the army to encourage the bonds of ‘brotherhood’ between them – a clever rhetorical tactic to persuade and encourage soldiers to rise above their individual circumstances and differences and become a more robotic mass. In contrast, poets such as Owen and Graves deliberately focus on the individual, whereas Henry encourages his soldiers to lose their individuality for the sake of England. This is seen as a clever leadership tactic: leading under the guise of not purely following a leader, but of everyone being of equal status.
War is instinctively a natural act of defence, and is Henry’s first thought when he is insulted. When provoked, animals attack, as shown in the imagery of Act 3, Scene 2. Henry tells his soldiers that when they hear ‘the blast of war’, their first actions should be those of the tiger, acknowledging an aggressive and instinctive side to these men. ‘Then imitate the action of the tiger; Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood’. According to Henry, these animalistic tendencies should dominate them in this fight. ‘Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage’.
War is a glorious and natural defending action to these men, and they have to be prepared to follow and encourage this instinct. Like Pope and Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves were patriotic, but when they saw firsthand the horrors of war their attitude changed. Graves’ poem ‘A Dead Boche’ details his change in attitude. ‘Today I found in Mametz Wood, a certain cure for a lust for blood’. War may be an expression of courage, patriotism, honour, but to Graves “War’s Hell! “, as declared in “A Dead Boche’.
Grave’s focuses on the torment of an individual soldier, meaning that the ravages of war cannot be sidestepped. No one can view the “Big-bellied, spectacled, crop-haired, Dribbling” wounded man as honourably and happily dying and returning to the soil of his home country. We are forced to see the horror of war, a horror which Henry cleverly acknowledges but as the fate of the enemy and the consequence of arousing his anger: When the siege of Harfleur fails, Henry attempts to bluff his way into the city by painting a vivid picture of what will happen if the French do not surrender. Defile the locks of your shrill shrieking daughters; Your father’s… reverend heads dash’d to the walls’. The use of onomatopoeia and alliteration in ‘shrill shrieking’ emphasises the outrageously violent consequences of war. Nature imagery is also used in the line ‘mowing like grass your fresh-fair virgins’. The image of mowing grass usually creates nice images of the springtime and getting the earth ready for blooming, however here the simile creates a dark image, as we are not mowing grass – we are ‘mowing’ through and cutting down ‘flowering infants’, indeed the innocent in war.
Henry is presenting war as a punishment, not just to the French soldiers, but even to the non-participants in the fighting as well as the Shakespearean audience. In his speech he emphasises the attacks on the most helpless and innocent people in the community, such as the ‘fresh-fair virgins’, describing graphic deaths involving rape and mindless violence. Henry has an attitude towards this war that lets him believe that God will not see them as sinning – ‘with conscience wide as Hell’ – because this invasion has been sanctioned by Him, and as a result he is prepared to do anything to fulfil his claim.
However, the reader and the audience of this play must wonder if God is used as an excuse by Henry because what kind of God would sanction such Hell on earth? ‘Who’s For The Game’ and ‘The Soldier’ give justifications for war – defending your country and owing a debt to it respectively. However, Wilfred Owen, another war poet, failed to give any justification in his poems, purely because he didn’t see the reasons behind war! He aimed to show the reality and horrors of war in his poems for all participants, the most notable being ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’.
Owen questions how such pain and degradation be justified. In his poem ‘Anthem For Doomed Youth’, Owen presents a world devoid of divine order and intervention; a hell on earth. This was the reality of the ‘war hero’ stories about those heroically dying to protect their country. ‘no prayers nor bells’ There are no bells ringing worshippers to Church to glorify God, and the only choir is that of ‘wailing shells’. Religious imagery is used to highlight the horrific, hellish reality.
All the weapons in this poem are personified – ‘wailing shells’ ‘monstrous anger of the guns’ – implying the attitude that war is not a natural phenomenon – it is completely man-made destruction here. This attitude starkly contrasts with Henry’s viewpoint in his prayers and speeches, as he believes that war is a natural part of all men and therefore life. ‘The mirror of all Christian Kings’ also sees God as his motivation, inspiration and his protector, and God is listed first in his battle cry as they charge toward glory. ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George! ‘
Henry cleverly presents war as only being hell for the French with the English glorious in battle or death. Henry deliberately focusses on collective disgusting images, such as ‘I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur till in her ashes she lie buried. ‘, which is a threat not just to individuals such as the Governor but to the whole city itself. Using such images takes the emphasise off the true foulness of war that poets such as Owen and Graves aimed to put into the light. Henry uses collective images to take the focus off his individual weakened soldiers, plagued with casualties and illness.
During his bluff the focus is not on the actual torment that the ‘knock kneed… hags’ that had been ‘cursing through sludge’ (as soldiers were described by Wilfred Owen) were going through. The focus in on the potential horror in the images of rape and mindless violence evoked by Henry that stop people such as the Governor from looking at the army that may not even be able to carry out such an attack too closely. On the whole, ‘Henry V’ glorifies war. It is represented as an opportunity to display courage, heroism and brotherhood.
The consequences of war are addressed in some poignant speeches, yet still the audience marvels at Henry and his army. Patriotic poets such as Jessie Pope are similarly sparing with their images, intent to encourage conscription and bravery, whereas the horrific truth about war is starkly presented by Wilfred Owen in his poems such as ‘Dulce Et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. Overall, war is war, but there are many different attitudes to the event, and some – when presented in the right way – ultimately prevail, much like Henry and the English did over the French with simply a few words.

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