Shakespeare portrays the king in Henry V as an exceptional politician and language expert. Henry conquers France in a very short time, with a small armoury. His victory declaration (IV.viii.123), shows that he is eager to give God the entire credit for defeating France. His Machiavellian style of kingship can be questioned, though, because Henry is not religious. His power as the King of England comes from the Divine Right of Kings. To maintain his legitimacy, he requires God to be with him. This is because Henry inherited the crown of his father, who was a deposeder. Henry pretends to be an exemplary king to support his legitimacy. Through his language, Henry suggests that God fights in England’s favor, but only when it suits his purpose.
Henry uses religion in his quest to conquer France from the beginning. The Archbishop answers Henry’s question (I.ii.96) by asking him, “May i with right or conscience make this claim?” He gives evidence that his claims have legal basis in the form of a reference from the biblical book of Numbers. Henry then subtly invokes God as he calls for “God’s assistance” (I.ii.222), and “God’s Grace” (I.ii.262) in order to help him pursue the French throne. Henry is now more determined to invade France than ever after receiving an insulting gift from the Dauphin. However, he continues to place God first in his language. Henry orders his noblest to mobilize the troops to say, “God has been before/ We’ll chide him father’s doorstep.” (I.ii.308) Henry is prepared to conquer France as if it were an holy crusade. If their cause is supported by God, and not just a rival princes’ dispute, men will be more willing than ever to sacrifice for their king. Henry capitalizes on the religious convictions and fervor of his subjects with his fiery, charismatic battle speech. This is when Henry tells Harfleur that his men must take on the role as soldiers. Henry invokes the warrior spirit within his troops and gives them a battle cry in which he invokes God. Henry selects the right words to give his message the effect and weight he wants. He wants his fellow soldiers to believe in God and their cause, and to also personalize themselves to their laymen by calling him Harry instead of his kingly title. The soldiers see it from the perspective of Harry, their friend, who is leading them in a war that God has approved. Their leader also knows how to help their spirits when they need it.
When Exeter declares the odds of being “…five percent” for the French, the small army of English soldiers begins to despair (IV.iii.4). Henry responds to Westmerland’s call for reinforcements by motivating his troops and sanctifying battle scenes. Henry makes the most of St. Crispin’s holiday, even though he is only the patron saint and protector of shoemakers. His troops will always be able to recall the Feast on Crispian because it was a day that their mettle had been tested and proven. Instead of focusing on the date of October twenty-fifth as a battle, soldiers will remember that the Feast of Crispian was a day in which they honored a Christian martyr. This makes their sacrifice even more meaningful because it has religious implications. Henry is making propaganda with this speech, as he is using an old saint to justify his bloody conquest. Westmerland’s reversal is an indication of the king’s success. As he changes his mind from asking for reinforcements to exclaiming “God’s Will, my liege./ Without any more help, this royal battle could be won!” (IV.iii.75). Henry inspires his frail “band of brother” to confront the French army, using his clever religious language. This is fueled by his king’s sanctity and dedication to their cause. Henry closes out the scene with his last religious request, “And what thou willst, God. Dispose of the day!” (IV.iii.134). This cry turns conflict into a combat trial, similar to that of Richard II’s beginning. The victor is the one who has God on his side. If soldiers can follow this logic, it will make their cause righteous. God chose the victor. These speeches demonstrate Henry’s public use for religion. However, Henry also offers a private plea to God during Act IV’s opening scene.
Henry recalls the ascension of his father to the throne and feels foreboding. He pleads with God “…think less upon the mistake/ My father made by encompassing the crown.” (IV.i.294) While this sounds like a genuine prayer to God, it still has a hollow quality to it. It is written in verse. This suggests that Henry is trying to exonerate Richard by using a series quantitative measures without moral quality or direct participation from the king. Henry says,
“Five Hundred poor I have in yearly income,
They hold their hands twice daily
To heaven, I ask for your pardon; and I have built
Two chauntries are where solemn, sad priests reside.
Sing for Richard’s Soul” (IV.i.298-302)
While they may appear sincere, the king is actually trying to establish a cost for forgiveness of his father’s transgression. Henry used the term “encompassing” to describe Henry’s speech. Even though he speaks in private, his subjects are all aware of his laments. Anyone who remembers Bullingbrook’s takeover of Richard will know that his heir is trying to get forgiveness. Henry has used the Christian doctrines of forgiveness to try and establish a legal foundation for his kingship after his father’s mistakes. Henry’s military prowess makes him a conqueror. He and the English outnumber the French, and the King is quick to thank God for the victory.
Montjoy announces to Henry that he has won. He says, “Praise God for it!” IV.vii.88. This is Henry’s insinuation about the battle as a religious trial and combat in which English were righteous. Henry easily reaffirms his claim to divine authority by claiming the righteousness of the cause throughout the play. Common Christian soldiers would be strengthened by the words of their king and victory2E Henry brings it home with more heavenward praise.
“O God. Thy arm was there;
We are not responsible for your actions, but you alone.
We all must scribe! …Take it, God,
It is not yours but it is mine!” (IV.viii.106-112)
Henry presents the French and English dead as having died in a holy Crusade. The prideful dispute between two young rulers is now a war that heaven has approved. Act V opens with a chorus that says Henry doesn’t want a medieval ticker-tape parade. (V.20). However, the chorus makes this clear and it seems to be an unreliable assessment. Henry came to France to expand and excel in leadership. Henry himself has not stated that God was involved in the battle.
Henry must protect his right to inherit the throne from a man who won it by force, not inheritance. If he is to stop an insurrection just like that which threatened his father’s life, he needs to make sure his claim to the throne does not get questioned. Henry is a charismatic, well-spoken man who portrays himself to have won the approval and respect of God. His power is supposed be derived from God. Henry’s subjects are shocked to see him publicly exonerate Richard. He then claims that God is in their favor, and they win a battle where the odds were against Henry. Their divinely appointed king has proved his legitimacy to their superior Lord, and they have won a decisive victory over a historical rival. Henry is a clever politician and uses religious language in order to subvert his authority. Henry is not merely a capable son or a usurper, but he is also claiming the victory credit to God by discrediting it. Henry’s use religion is a pragmatic political maneuver that secures his grip on France’s crowns. He does not believe in God, but religion is an expedient.
The Riverside Shakespeare 2nd Edition. Edited By Evans, Tobin, etc. The Houghton Mifflin Company. In 1997, New York was the setting.