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The "breaches" of Shakespeare's The Life of King Henry The Fifth.

The argument of this essay involves documenting the presence of dilation in Henry the Fifth. Rhetorical dilation suits Shakespeare's presentation of Henry as a heroic king, chiefly in the staging of his reconquering France in the spirit of his great-grandfather, Edward III. Nevertheless, the playwright qualifies the heroic swellings in this play whose virile monarch made it appealing to Londoners dissatisfied with aging, childless Queen Elizabeth by introducing into it literal and figurative breaches of various wholes, whether a national boundary or an army. Rifts in these entities often possess social overtones with political implications for England's national expansion and ethnic inclusion, as well as for the possibility of imperial rule elsewhere. Finally, the presence of breaches in a dilated entity provides a way of understanding how the notoriously discordant elements in Henry's character-his capacities for Machiavellian intrigue, heroic valor, and Christian piety-can coexist without the denial of or preference for any one of them.


The word "breach," in the sense of a gap or hole in something, appears more often in Henry the Fifth than it does in any other Shakespeare play. This frequency, along with other details, suggests that breaches may be a motif or a phenomenon in the play, and that closing--or not closing--breaches figures to some degree in any conclusion about the relative cohesion or lack of cohesion in Henry's character and the play's sociopolitical world. Patricia Parker is the only interpreter of Shakespeare's plays who has explicitly addressed the phenomenon of breaches both literal and figurative in Henry the Fifth, in certain pages of "Uncertain Unions: Welsh Leeks in Henry V" and of '"Conveyers Are You AH': Translating, Conveying, Representing, and Seconding in the Histories and HamletT1 This Shakespearean critic, remarkably sensitive to the nuanced connotations and echoes of single words in the plays, takes her cue in the former essay from the repetition of Welsh "leeks" and explicates the figurative "leaks," fissures, and faults of this history play. In the latter essay, she is mainly focused on the "before-breach" of Lord Scrape's treasonous breaching of sometime bedfellow Henry's confidence, as well as his "sodomitic" "behind-breach" of England for French entry/ The following paragraphs address neither of these topics; when they focus on breaches that Parker mentions in The Life of King Henry Fifth they do so more expansively, usually presenting new readings of them.

My treatment of breaches in this late Elizabethan history play depends for its context upon a concept, a word, upon which Parker partly built her reputation as an intensely close reader of Shakespeare's language: "dilation." Surprisingly perhaps, Parker never reads the breaches--various gaps, fault lines--of Henry the Fifth as the result of different kinds of dilation. She defined "dilation" in two essays published in the 1980s: "Dilation and Delay: Renaissance Matrices" and "Deferral, Dilation, Difference: Shakespeare, Cervantes, Jonson" (1984, 319-35; 1986, 182-209). In its "Renaissance usage ... dilatio or dilation ... meant not only to expand, disperse, or spread abroad but also to put off, postpone, prolong, or protract--meanings that still linger in the modern English 'dilatory'" (1986, 182). She also notes that dilatatio--or amplificatio (amplification)--was a pervasive Renaissance rhetorical trope, perhaps its central one. To dilate an idea or figure, a writer usually applied various Aristotelian topoi to it to produce copia--a copious text. These applications could involve, for example, dividing a subject into its parts, or treating its causes and effects, or describing its opposite. Henry V's long speech about ceremony illustrates rhetorical dilation (4.1.218-66).3

In several later Shakespearean essays, Parker applied her definition of dilation to elements of Christian doctrine, medieval and Renaissance philosophy, and a range of dramatic components such as characterization and scenic design. She did so with almost exclusive reference to five plays, The Comedy of Errors, Troilus and Cressida, All's Well that Ends Well, Hamlet, and Othello.* She mentions Henry the Fifth only twice in these essays, in passing, as illustrating the past tense of verbal inflation as stuffing or forcing (farcing)-. "'We'll digest / Th ' abuse of distance, force a play,'" where "force" means "the copious Shakespearean combination of different materials or stuffs ... into the 'O' of the stage" (Parker 1996c, 216, 223).

My argument involves documenting the presence of dilation in Henry the Fifth, especially in the Chorus's Prologues and the play's early scenes. Rhetorical dilation suits Shakespeare's presentation of Henry as a heroic king, chiefly in the staging of his reconquering France in the spirit of his great grandfather, Edward III. Nevertheless, the playwright qualifies the heroic swellings in this play--whose virile monarch made it appealing to Londoners dissatisfied with aging, childless Queen Elizabeth--by introducing into it literal and figurative breaches of various wholes, whether it be a national boundary or an army. Rifts in these entities often possess social overtones, with political implications for England's national expansion and ethnic inclusion as well as for the possibility of imperial rule elsewhere. Finally, the presence of breaches in a dilated entity provides a way of understanding how the notoriously discordant elements in Henry's character--his capacities for Machiavellian intrigue, heroic valor, and Christian piety--can coexist without a denial of or preference for any one of them.

Dilation occurs in the first verses of Henry the Fifth when the Chorus claims his subject deserves an audience of "monarchs to behold the swelling scene." This swelling would include the "warlike Harry ... assuming} the port"--the bearing--"of Mars" (Prologue 1.3-5). The Globe's playgoers, since they are not royal and since the actors are "flat unraised spirits," must, according to the Chorus, use their imaginations to achieve this dilation, or its approximation (Prologue 1.9, 15-25). Swelling--dilation--remains the Chorus's focus in the play's small details, such as his urging playgoers in their mind's eye to "behold the threaden sails" of King Henry's armada,
   Borne with th'invisible and creeping wind,
   Draw[ing] the huge bottoms through the furrowed sea,
   Breasting the lofty surge.
   (Prologue 3.10-13)

The Chorus regularly encourages the audience to swell Henry's character to match his idealization of the monarch, first as "the mirror of all Christian kings ... a grace of kings" (Prologue 2.6, 28), then as "a universal largess, like the sun," whose "liberal eye" thaws the cold fear of his wretched, pale troops on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt" (Prologue 4.43-45). The stirring rhetoric of King Henry's St. Crispin's Day speech not only swells the courage of his troops, such that one day they "will stand a-tiptoe when {the} day is named" (4.3.40); hearing it also dilates the imagination of playgoers, such that Henry's exclamation "Cry 'God for Harry! England and Saint George!" matches the size of his heroic identity (3.1.34). The Chorus's admission that the "huge and proper life" of the play cannot be adequately magnified prompts some auditors imaginatively to swell it even more (Prologue 5.5-6).

Shakespeare's Henry the Fifth illustrates inflation (amplificatio) on a much larger scale than a single word. (5) The Chorus and the Archbishop of Canterbury participate in the dilation of Henry's character. The Archbishop claims that the Salic Law entitles Henry to the throne of France by amplifying (branching) his genealogical right to rule France as well as England (I.2.8-95, 97-114). Granted, the mind-numbing, opaque length of the Archbishop's speech gives it a comic quality. But it is upon this argument that Henry will enlarge his self to be worthy and able to rule a greater kingdom. Henry's previous dilation--his rapid growth, his "crescive ... faculty" (1.1.67)--underlies Canterbury's claim that his body is paradisiacal and spirit celestial (1.1.27-32), a being worthy of a dilated kingdom. In this context, the first reference to a breach in the play, and one that Parker mentions, occurs as a consequence of England's having to dilate itself to extend into hostile France. Then the stretched skin of the country, to use a metaphor for defensive dike-like barriers, will be susceptible to a diaphanous tear, or breach. History demonstrates that possibility.

Henry tells the Archbishop of Canterbury that he could
   read that my great-grandfather
   Never unmasked his power unto France
   But that the Scot on his unfurnished kingdom
   Came pouring like the tide into a breach
   With ample and brim fullness of his force
   Galling the gleaned land with hot assays,
   Girding with grievous siege castles and towns,
   That England, being empty of defence,
   Hath shook and trembled at the bruit thereof.

In this notion of a flood of soldiers pouring through a breach, Shakespeare anticipates what arguably is the most quoted line of this late Elizabethan history play. When he attacks the walled city of Harfleur, Henry shouts to his troops: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, / Or close the wall up with our English dead!" (3.1.1-2).

Closely considered, the two verses are a bit ambiguous. Wishing a breach in a besieged city's walls to be recemented by the bodies of Henry's invading troops seems a bit questionable, even macabre. Not only would he and they have failed, but both he and they would have provided the besieged with a grotesque, albeit somewhat effective, defense against renewed attacks. The macabre overtone of cementing in Henry's command appears more clearly in the later articulation of this conceit, when Octavia in Antony and Cleopatra exclaims that war between Octavius Caesar and Antony "would be / As if the world should cleave, and that slain men / Would solder up the rift" (3.4.30-32). Henry's meaning seems to be that, if the English fail to take advantage of the breach, they at least can say that they have made their most heroic effort, which would be proclaimed by the number of the English dead filling the gap. But auditors during the quick dialogue of performance, and probably most readers, usually never pause long enough to register these ambiguities and think about them.

Shakespeare nevertheless wants us to think about this breach, and he also wants us to think about why it remains unclosed. The answer ultimately involves the fact that Henry, to conquer France and yet retain defensive forces at home, has had to dilate his army to include elements never included in former, more homogenous English armies. Ultimately, playgoers understand that rifts, figurative breeches, exist between components of his force that will make martial success difficult. Shakespeare implies that the fault lies not in Henry's character or leadership, but in the less-than-harmonious working of his captains and in the cowardly, knavish behavior of a segment of his army.

Bardolph begins the next scene after Henry's immortal utterance by emphasizing Harfleur's breach. "On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach!" (3.2.1.), he shouts to Nim, Pistol, the Boy, and other soldiers. Shakespeare sometimes makes a transition from one episode to another by beginning the consequent scene with similar or the same language that began or ended the previous one. Especially when this language is the same, it begs a comparison between the content of the two scenes. Such, notably, is the case here. King Henry's thirty-four-verse speech making up the first scene of act 3 concerns martial heroism. He tells his troops to "imitate the action of the tiger," to "stiffen the sinews [and} conjure up the blood," to "disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage" (3.1.6-8):
   Then lend the eye a terrible aspect,
   Let it pry through the portage of the head
   Like the brass cannon, let the brow o'erwhelm it
   As fearfully as doth a galled rock
   O'erhang and jutty his confounded base,
   Swilled with the wild and wasteful ocean.
   Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
   Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
   To his full height. On, on, you noblest English,
   Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof,
   Fathers that like so many Alexanders
   Have in these parts from morn till even fought,
   And sheathed their swords for lack of argument.

Against this heroic posture, Bardolph's scene poises unheroic behavior. At least it does so against the image of Henry's past armies made up of so many English Alexanders the Great. King Henry's present army is a distended amalgam of Welsh, Irish, Scottish, and English soldiers. Among the rifts in this army are martial gaps among countrymen within the whole and between better classes of English warriors and low-class, even criminal, English troops. It is upon this second kind of breach that Shakespeare first concentrates.

To Bardolph's exhortation to close the breach, Nim replies, "Pray thee corporal, stay. The knocks are too hot, and for mine own part I have not a case of lives. The humour of it is too hot, that is the very plainsong of it" (3.2.2-4). The Boy laments, "I would give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety" (3.2.10xi). And Pistol agrees, singing (in plainsong style): "And I ... . 'If wishes would prevail with me / My purpose should not fail with me / But thither would I hie'" (3.2.13-15). Given these soldiers' penchant for flight, auditors not surprisingly learn that the breach still exists. "Up to the breach, you dogs! Avaunt, you cullions!" (3.2.19-20) Fluellen commands. (6) Lance Wilcox and Helen Ostovich have shown that this emphasized "breach" participates in Henry's use of war rhetoric with overtones of male prowess, female penetration, and ravishment (Wilcox 1985, 65; Ostovich 1994,154). But neither critic notes that these roguish soldiers are reluctant to enter the breach.

Bardolph, Nim, and Pistol have gone to the wars to steal, not bravely nor patriotically to exert Edward Ill's and his great-grandson Henry's supposed right to the throne of France. Henry later orders Bardolph's hanging for stealing from a church a pax (a small tablet with a crucifix stamped on it). Playgoers learn near the end of the drama that Nim has died on the gallows (4.4.62-64). Pistol survives only to resort to a life of bawd and cutpurse in London (5.1.71-80). Shakespeare in Henry the Fifth focuses on an important, longstanding English social problem. Sir Thomas More, as early as 1517 in his Utopia, has Raphael Hythloday pronounce, "Just as some thieves are not bad soldiers, some soldiers turn out to be pretty good robbers, so nearly are these two ways of life related" (1975, 13). The Boy drives home his companions' cowardice when, in act 3, scene 2, he summarizes:
   For Bardolph, he is white-livered and red-faced--by the means whereof
   a' faces it out, but fights not. For Pistol, he hath a killing tongue
   and a quiet sword--by the means whereof a' breaks words, and keeps
   whole weapons. For Nim, he hath heard that men of few words are the
   best men, and therefore he scorns to say his prayers, lest a' should
   be thought a coward. But his few bad words are matched with as few
   good deeds--for a' never broke any man's head but his own, and that
   was against a post, when he was drunk. (3.2.30-39)

Such reiteration of cowardice is almost heavy-handed for Shakespeare, but the playwright apparently wants to make sure that playgoers sense the gap--the breach--between the heroic values King Henry calls upon and evokes and the antiheroic substance of some of his troops (Dowd 2010,346).

Granted this less tangible breach and the antiheroic character of some English soldiers, playgoers are not surprised that the English appear unable to take advantage of the literal breach in Harfleur's walls. MacMorris's comment late in act 3, scene 2 reveals that the breach still exists, for he says, "The town is besieched. An the trumpet callts] us to the breach, and we talk and, be Chrish, do nothing" (3.2.48-50). Act 3, scene 3 shows Henry, given his army's failure to either penetrate or scale the city's walls, driven to threatening the governor of Harfleur with being guilty of the slaughter of innocents within the city if he does not open the city gates and capitulate to King Henry (3.3.78-120). If the governor does not comply, Henry claims that the English will find a way to scale the walls and fall to raping maidens, spitting infants, and slaughtering old men (3.3.110-19). In this horrific threat, the king explicitly compares himself to Herod, an equation that is not simply anti-Christian but also antiheroic. Herod was, after all, a prototype of fearful villainy in English Miracle drama. To the theater audience's relief, the governor opens the gate. He does so not because he believes that Henry's troops can breach his walls or scale them, but because he has received word from the Dauphin that "his powers are not yet ready / To raise so great a siege" (3.3.123-24).

My point is that a figurative breach exists between the heroic tone of act 3, scene 1, and the anti-heroic content of act 3, scene 2, and that Shakespeare calls attention to this breach by having his characters repeatedly talk about a literal breach in Harfleur's defenses, one upon which the English army cannot capitalize. The presence of roguish, cowardly English soldiers threatens the heroic dilation of nation and royal character that informs King Henry's motivation. This figurative breach between two classes of English troops exists despite suggestions of Pistol's capacity for heroism. Fluellen believes that he has seen an ensign lieutenant at an embattled bridge "as valiant a man as Mark Antony, and he is a man of no estimation {fame} in the world, but I did see him do as gallant service" (3.6.11-13). Captain Gower identifies this officer as Pistol and says that he remembers him as "a bawd, a cutpurse" (3.6.61). Fluellen, who has just been obscenely insulted by Pistol when the Welshman refuses to intervene in Bardolph's execution for theft, then admits that Pistol utters only "as prave words at the pridge as you shall see in a summer's day" (3.6.60-61). The synesthesia of Fluellen's metaphor--seeing something heard--serves to stress the fact that Fluellen saw no brave doings of Pistol. And if Henry's eloquent St. Crispin's Day battle oration swells English valor to beat the French despite the odds of five to one, it does nothing for Pistol and those among Henry's troops like him. Shakespeare, in act 4, scene 4, shows Pistol bent on ransoming the Frenchman who yields to him during Agincourt, presumably because the French soldier thinks the bawd a gentleman. Lest playgoers think Pistol does nothing base (the French, after all, demand that King Henry surrender himself for the purpose of ransom), the Boy concludes the present scene with another chorus about Pistol's thievery: "Bardolph and Nim ... are both hanged, and so would this be, if he durst steal anything adventurously" (4.4.62-65).

By invading France, Henry is trying to make himself king of England and France. By doing so, he would imply that they form a single nation. It is not surprising that he has mustered an army of different countrymen to form what some might suppose is a national army. Shakespeare brings onstage Captains Gower, Fluellen, MacMorris, and Jamy, who represent England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland (3.3.1-77). One might think that each comes from a distinct nation. But an argument between two of them precludes this reading of the scene, and it does so to suggest that another kind of rift appears in Henry's army that does not involve the heroic and antiheroic. Dialogue soon centers on the acrimony between MacMorris and Fluellen, who considers the Irishman an ass because he fails to follow Roman disciplines of warfare. MacMorris swears that this is no time to argue: "The town is besieched. An the trumpet call{s} us to the breach, and we talk and, be Chrish, do nothing, 'tis shame for us all" (3.3.48-50). The breach mentioned is not just in a wall; it appears in the lack of concord between at least two parts of a social entity--an army--that must operate as a relatively harmonious whole for its success.

That this whole does not include four nations becomes evident when Shakespeare uses the word in the scene so as to signify that at least one nation-and possibly more--does not exist in Henry's army. Fluellen protests, "Captain MacMorris, I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation"--and the choleric Irishman interrupts, "Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain and a bastard and a knave and a rascal. What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?" (3.3.59--63). (7) Shakespeare speaks of Ireland in Henry the Fifth when the Chorus asks the audience to imagine "the General {the Earl of Essex} of our gracious Empress [Queen Elizabeth}/ ... from Ireland coming, / Bringing rebellion broached on his sword" (5.0.30-32). Shakespeare's allusion explains MacMorris's anger: Ireland is not a nation but a savagely administered colony of England. After identifying the possible historical mix of English and Irish traits that might make up the character of Shakespeare's MacMorris, Brian Carroll concludes that "Shakespeare seems to insist that MacMorris is fundamentally Irish at a time when Ireland was recognized by England only as a colonial adjunct or, in {David J.} Baker's description, 'a debased subsidiary' of England." (8) MacMorris explodes, almost certainly anachronistically, when a Welshman insensitively speaks of Ireland as a nation when the English have so pulverized it that no country recognized it as a nation. (9) And what, given Henry's anxiety that Scotland, as it has done in the past, will likely invade England when the English invade France, is one to think of Scot Captain Jamy's presence in this scene? (10) Shakespeare thus suggests that components of Henry's army do not reflect a unified nation. Willy Maley has persuasively shown that in 1599 Britain did not exist, and indeed that England itself scarcely represented a unified nation (2005, 83-108). The sense that it was one remained as intermittent as it had been in Henry V's time. Raphael Holinshed explains that in 1416 the English sent a delegation to a European attempt to resolve the schism between the three popes, John XXIII, Gregory XII, and Benedict XIII: "Here by the consent of all nations it was ordeined in this councell, that this realm should have the name of the English nation, and be called and reputed for one of five principall nations of the councell, which to grant before that time, through envie, other nations had utterlie refused" (1923, 50). Such an action suggests that England itself had not been thought of as a nation, perhaps even by some Englishmen themselves. It also suggests that breaches between countries exist unrepaired. (11)

This episode ends on a nasty note when MacMorris tells Fluellen that, "I do not know you so good a man as myself. So Chrish save me, I will cut off your head" (3.3.70-71). MacMorris, like the Scot Jamy, disappears from the play after this scene. Maura Harrington has argued that the Irishman vanishes because Shakespeare endorses an Elizabethan stereotype, captured by Barnabe Rich among others, of the Irish as too belligerent and violent to be assimilated into a British national character. (12) The Chorus, in act 5, compares triumphant King Henry, imagined as entering London, to the Earl of Essex, who had left England in 1599 to subdue Irish rebels, fantasied as "from Ireland coming, / Bringing rebellion broached on his sword" (5.0.31-32). In 2Henry VI, Shakespeare had portrayed Ireland as "a breach that craves a quick expedient stop" (3.1.288). Like Elizabethan generals preceding him, Essex was unable to close this breach and stop the flood of rebels that swept away Edmund Spenser and other colonial plantation occupiers. Ultimately, playgoers and readers aware of these implications might realize that Shakespeare subtly suggests that a conquered France will never compose part of an expansive homogenous entity ruled by the king of England and France.

The scene immediately following this episode (act 3, scene 4) draws attention to this suggestion in a different way. The French Princess Catherine, perhaps already anticipating her marriage to English Henry, attempts to get Alice, a French gentlewoman born in England, to teach her the English words for certain body parts. "La main," "de hand"; "les doights," "de fingers"; "les ongles," "de nails"; "le bras," "de arma"; "le coude," "d'elbow" (3.4.5-36). The crude prefix for the English plural-"de"--by itself indicates a gap between the languages that translation cannot bridge, a gap that becomes a figurative breach when Catherine, summarizing what she has learned thus far, turns the elbow into "de bilbow" (3.4.21). (13) This breach persists when "de chin" in her next summary comically becomes "de sin" (3.4.27). Old Alice, her understanding less than perfect, never corrects this error. A third summary turns "de nails" into "de mailes," "de bilbow" now into "de ilbow." "De sin" ironically captures the obscene--sinful--breach that opens and remains unclosed when Catherine hears Alice's rapidly pronounced phrase "de foot" et "de cown" (for "foot" and "gown") as the "the French foutre, 'fuck,' and con, 'cunt'" (Shakespeare 2008, 150C)n; Ostovich 1994, 154). "0 Seigneur Dieu!" Catherine exclaims in disgust. "Ils sont les mots de son mauvais, corruptible, gros, et impudique, et non pour les dames d'honneur d'user" (3.4.47-49). This is sin, indeed, she imagines.

The body politic was an ancient metaphor for government; in the Renaissance, it increasingly came to be applied to the nation-state. Here, body parts do not form an integrated whole (McEachern 1994, 33-56). This comic dialogue suggests in Henry the Fifth that a breach will exist in the attempt to merge English and French--whether as two languages or two body politics--into a dilated composite. (14) It also implies that something obscene attaches itself to the effort to close this breach forcibly. (15) Janette Dillon has asserted that "the fact ... that the scene gets its laugh by outraging the modesty of a foreign princess, by seeming to compromise her in forcing her to utter English words that sound unspeakable to her ears, positions her as unwillingly overcome, even violated, by English" (1998,179). The fifteenth-century Englishmen in this history play, in the French imagination at least, are always bastards composed originally of Norman fathers and native English mothers. Shakespeare never does dispel this fantasy as a fiction. But the joke made possible by the breach between pronunciation and meaning is finally at the expense of the French. "The English 'obscenity' of this scene is not just a dirty joke extraneous to the main business of the play," Dillon writes, "but part of a project to stress Englishness as masculine, robust, direct, plain-dealing, while Frenchness becomes correspondingly (and humiliatingly) feminized" (180).

All of the breaches in Henry the Fifth call attention to and give place to the primary breach of this play: that between idealized portraits of the king and his flawed, human behavior. A critical history of attempts to understand discontinuities in King Henry's character is a necessary preface to grasping how the phenomenon of dilation can, in accounting for them, suggest a Shakespearean method of characterization different from that of Shakespeare's Brutus, who also problematically combines paradoxical qualities. The heroic expansion of Henry's character, to prove him worthy of being a singular royal star of England, obviously struggles with antiheroic flaws and fits of rage. But understanding his character as an "open" dilation has its virtues in comparison with trying to grasp the definitely paradoxical, "closed" character of Henry V defined by critics during the later part of the twentieth century.

A radical contradiction in King Henry's character especially preoccupied commentators on the play in the 1970s and 1980s. Is Henry V a Christian king, or is he a cold Machiavellian out to promote himself and his fame amorally? (16) (One could just as easily ask whether Henry is a hero or an antihero.) Considering this paradox soluble via the phenomenon of perspective in the Renaissance painterly sense, a sense articulated in Shakespeare's Richard II, would be easy--but mistaken. Art historians often choose Hans Holbein's The Ambassadors (1533) to represent Renaissance perspective art. Two worldly, richly dressed ambassadors stand proudly while at their feet a whitish-green blot appears. At least, it does so when viewed straight on. But when the viewer moves to one side of the painting and gazes on it, the mass appears a skull, a commentary upon the instruments of vanity and earthly exploration appearing above it." Viewing King Henry's character is not a matter of Renaissance perspective, for in this art one of the two possible contrary views is authoritative regardless of whether the viewer stands to one side or the other to view a perspective painting. Both the Christian king and the Machiavel always appear equally plausible but are nevertheless not reconcilable.

A discrepancy--a breach--sometimes appears in the exemplary Henry and the mortal man seen and heard onstage when playgoers, responsive to the Chorus's plea to "piece out [the players'] imperfections with [their] thoughts" (Prologue 23), imaginatively work to magnify the king but still perceive someone different instead. At the beginning of act 4, the Chorus says that Henry, on the night before Agincourt, walks among his soldiers
   With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty,
   That every wretch, pining and pale before,
   Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
   A largess universal, like the sun,
   His liberal eye doth give to everyone,
   Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all
   Behold, as may unworthiness define,
   A little touch of Harry in the night.

What the theater audience sees, however, is anything but the sun king.'8 Darkness reigns, such that little light falls anywhere. Sir Thomas Erpingham's cloak disguises Henry, similar to how a cloud might obscure the sun. And rather than gathering comfort from King Henry's looks, the soldiers Williams, Court, and Bates wish they were in England and argue with the king about his responsibility for deaths in battle. Williams challenges Henry to a duel, should he and the unknown soldier survive Agincourt. Henry's soliloquy near the end of this scene on the superficiality of ceremony reinforces his less-than-ideal image as he circulates among his troops, for it assumes that ceremony, the accoutrement of royalty, is all that separates a king from being a common man (4.1.212-66). It does so even though Henry's variations on the trope of amplificatio bewitch playgoers' ears.

The discrepancy between the ideal and the real man amounts to a breach in the midst of the dilation of Henry's character. Several breeches of this kind appear, like rents in cloth, during the progressive heroic dilation of character during the play. What tends to complicate this impression, this reading of the king's character, is a paradigm of simultaneous paradox most influentially defined in 1977 by Norman Rabkin, a paradigm that still governs critical analysis of Henry's character. In an essay titled "Rabbits, Ducks, and Henry V" appearing in Shakespeare Quarterly, Rabkin writes:
   One way to deal with a play that provokes conflicting responses is
   to try and find the truth somewhere between them. Another is to
   suggest that the author couldn't make up his mind which side he
   wanted to come down on and left us a mess. A third is to interpret
   all the signals indicating one polar reading as intentional, and to
   interpret all the other signals as irrepressible evidence that
   Shakespeare didn't believe what he was trying to say. All these
   strategies have been mounted against Henry V, and all of them are
   just as wrong as most critics now recognize similar attempts to
   domesticate the greater plays to be {e.g, Hamlet, Othello}. (Rabkin
   1977, 279)

Rabkin proceeds in this essay to demonstrate that, prior to the late 1970s, many critics attempted to read King Henry's character as consistent either with the Chorus's idealization of him or with the depiction of a cynical politician (1977, 285-88, 289-94). Rabkin identified a third critical response, most ably presented by Robert Ornstein in A Kingdom for a Stage: The Achievement of Shakespeare's History Plays (1971), that finds the play "a subtle study of a king who curiously combines strengths and weaknesses, virtues and vices" (1977, 295)--a study, in other words, that closes the breach between the image of a strongly Christian king and that of a Machiavellian, means-justify-ends monarch.

However, Rabkin argues that a response like Ornstein's is either not possible or not viable. For one thing, Rabkin believes that Shakespeare writes polemically in his last play of an eight-play cycle, and so wants the playgoer to view Henry simply as either a success or a failure in the context of the evolution of the Cain-Abel archetype, seen in RichardII. In this evolution, the Cain-Abel archetype becomes the image of England's Tudor salvation, personified in the Earl of Richmond and his killing the hellhound Richard III. But one could argue that Shakespeare did not have this polemical agenda or that, if he did, it does not preclude Henry's paradoxical traits of character. In his influential Shakespeare and the Common Understanding (1967), Rabkin had argued that twentieth-century physicists Niels Bohr and J. Robert Oppenheimer's concept of complementarity, wherein they claimed that their consciousness had learned to live with a simultaneous double vision of irreconcilable theories of atomics, could provide a model by which playgoers and readers could tolerate the knowledge of irreconcilable clusters of character traits in Hamlet and other Shakespeare characters (1967, 1-29, esp. 20, 24-25). But by 1977 Rabkin had rejected this view, arguing that humankind cannot achieve simultaneity of knowledge of two irreconcilable thoughts, and that it invariably has to choose one or the other (1977, 285, 295). Humankind cannot simultaneously see a Rorschach schematic as both a rabbit and a duck, but always sees either a rabbit or a duck (1977, 285-94). (19) Likewise, he asserted that playgoers and readers invariably choose to see either Henry the Christian or Henry the Machiavel.

Rabkin reprinted his essay in Shakespeare and the Problem of Meaning, titling it "Either/Or: Responding to Henry V" (1981, 33-62). Gone was the gestalt of rabbit and duck; stressed was the starkness of having to choose alternative readings of Shakespeare's complexity. Such has continued to be the case for many commentators on the play. But surely constructing Henry's character out of an amalgam of Henry's Christian traits--especially his humble attempts to atone for his father's guilt as well as his modest determination to de-emphasize himself and give God all the credit for the Agincourt victory--and his outbursts of anger and political manipulations is possible. (20) While he is not an exemplary mirror of a Christian king, he is nevertheless a Christian king whose faults do not finally eclipse his Christian humility. (21)

Rabkin rightly realized that one should not superimpose, so to say, one trait of Henry's upon its paradoxical other to create a condensed single enigma, such as was the case with the paradigm of complementarity. The evolution of the difficult-to-know, noncomic Shakespearean protagonist begins with Bolingbroke in Richard II and proceeds through Brutus in another 1599 play, Julius Caesar, to Hamlet. Brutus, notably, is a character about whom one can say that his paradoxical reasonable and irrational thoughts almost simultaneously appear according to a "closed" paradigm. Whether one must adopt such a paradigm to think about or analyze Hamlet is open to question--a topic for another essay. Yet it is difficult to think of Hamlet's character as progressively expanding outward when his thoughts become so dark in the play's middle (and even its later) scenes.

However, one ought not to place Henry V in this line of development. (22) If this king has a character heir, he is the many-peopled Richard II. In Henry the Fifth, the king's character expands outward--and it does so in a manner in which one does not have to choose to regard him as either the mirror of Christian kings or a ruthless means-justifying-ends imperialist. This is true even though he is hardly the Chorus's "mirror of all Christian kings" (2.0.6). (23) Henry defines a Christian king as one who has the grace to master his passions (1.2.241-42). But passions get the better of him at times throughout the play, even near the end when, for instance, he twice orders his troops to slit their prisoners' throats. At these moments, one would have to say that he is graceless--that a wide breach appears in the fabric of his dilated character. But the moments, terrible as they are, do not mean that he is a reprobate or that he cannot be a repentant. Despite Henry's capacity for coldness and rage, he acquires during the course of the play a more genuine humanity, (24) a humility that one day might prompt repentance for his savage command.

Actually, the play suggests that this extra-dramatic event could occur. Henry V's Christianity manifests itself in his pious attempts to atone for the guilt of his father for Richard II's murder:
   I Richard's body have interred new,
   And on it have bestowed more contrite tears
   Than from it issued forced drops of blood.
   Five hundred poor have I in yearly pay
   Who twice a day their withered hands hold up
   Toward heaven to pardon blood. And I have built
   Two chantries, where the sad and solemn priests
   Still sing for Richard's soul. More will I do,
   Though all that I can do is nothing worth,
   Since my penitence comes after ill,
   Imploring pardon. (4.1.277-87)

The "ill" that Henry speaks of here is not necessarily only his father's sin; it could also refer to his own belief that his ungracious outbursts of anger amount to sins that preclude his manifold project of atonement. Learning that at Agincourt the English loss is less than thirty men while the French have lost at least ten thousand soldiers, Henry considers the victory a heavenly miracle. "O God, thy arm was here," he humbly exclaims, "and not to us, but to thy arm alone / Ascribe we all" (4.8.100-102). But lest his auditors, both onstage and in the theater, consider this incomprehensible difference in loss of life, along with his humility, to qualify him to be the Chorus's royal Christian mirror, his immediate issuing of a totalitarian order--"and be it death proclaimed through our host / To boast of this, or take that praise from God / Which is his only" (4.8.108-10)--undercuts this conclusion.

Henry's capacity for humility and piety might one day cause him to repent and atone for his slaughter of French prisoners and so help to close at least one breach in a dilated character composed of Christian, Machiavellian, and heroic parts. But for the present his totalitarian orders keep fissures between them open to an external perceiver. Critics have often judged that the long last scene of Henry's wooing of Catherine and his compounding with the French for a monarchy of England and France is either superfluous for a history play or too long. The genre of Renaissance romance was often a smorgasbord of other genres; as such, its ending was often--as Parker has explained--open-ended, or expansive, in keeping with the progressive dilation of its fable (1979, 54,58). The last scene of The Life of King Henry the Fifth concerns a betrothal like those often concluding sixteenth-century romances.

A playgoer or reader receptive to my argument can survey--to use a visual metaphor--Henry's character and know it without having to choose between contradictory types. One can survey it as a dilated whole the various parts of which lie adjacent to each other, with breaches of varying width occurring both within one or more of them and between them. Such a view of expanded character can result in a knowable, complex whole. Knowing Henry V does not have to involve either blindness to one part at the expense of another or an illumination, virtually an epiphany, in which a knotted, closed paradox is known instantaneously in its entirety.

Figurative breaches in Henry's character persist through the play's Epilogue and its failed closure. Tom McAlindon, in an essay titled "Natural Closure in Henry V? claims that the final scene illustrates the harmony of the neo-Platonic principle of discordia concors, especially as it is realized by the rhetorical trope antimetabole, with its mirror-like symmetry (2003,156-71). But in his assertion that Venus and Mars in effect achieve concord in marriage, MacAlindon mistakenly domesticates the insensitivity of Henry's obscene joking at Catherine's expense (as she listens) as well as his objectification of her. In his wooing, Henry commodifies Catherine when he says she is his "capital" demand among the material terms for peace (5.2.96-97); and he crudely jests with Burgundy in her hearing when he says, in reply to the Frenchman's salty joke that Catherine will endure "handling," that if she does, it must be in "the latter end" [of summer/of her backside] (5.2.286-87, 289). Obscenity, even as it does in Alice and Catherine's language lesson, signifies a breach--in this case of social decorum and empathy for the listening princess.

The play's Epilogue, a sonnet, partially collapses The Life of King Henry the Fifth in several ways. In reality, Agincourt was a battle fought in the midst of a long, difficult war that stretched to Henry's death and beyond. Holinshed recounts the many sieges and fights waged in France in 1421-22 (Holinshed 1923,107-28).'5 Henry never did subdue Charles the Dauphin, who broke with his father, and the English king died of fever in August 1422 while attempting to raise the Dauphin's siege of Cosnie (Holinshed 1923, 128-29). These historical events undercut the last scene's projection of a smooth royal marriage and national peace. Dilation collapses in the Chorus's assertion that the playwright has "confined mighty men ... in ta] little room" (3) and in his reminder that Henry V would rule only a "small time"--just nine years (5). In fact, dilation reverses itself when the Chorus looks backward and recalls that the counselors of King Henry's son lost "the world's best garden" (7):
   Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned king
   Of France and England, did this king succeed,
   Whose state so many had the managing
   That they lost France and made his England bleed.*6
   (Epilogue 9-12)

In his sonnet's couplet, the Chorus reminds playgoers that they have seen this debacle in the four plays of Shakespeare's First Henriad, and that their combatants could have echoed many more times Henry V's command "Once more unto the breach ... once more." And yet auditors often do not remember the Chorus's couplet as much as they recall his calling Henry V "this star of England" who "most greatly lived," where "greatly" means expansively. That is the play's paradox: a small, diamond-like star comprehensive in its light.


(1) See Parker 2002, 81-100, especially 83-84; and 1996b, 149-84, especially 167,169-70.

(2) Parker infers that Scrope, who Henry says was once inseparable from himself (2.2.9196), was in the past his "bedfellow" (1996b, 169).

(3) Parker 1984, 519-28; Parker 1986, 182-209, especially 183-84. All references to and quotations of The Life of King Henry the Fifth and other Shakespeare plays are taken from the texts in Shakespeare 2008.

(4) Parker 1996a, 56-82, esp. 62-75; Parker 1996c, 185-228; Parker I996d, 229-72. Also see the section titled "The Dilation of Being" in Parker 1979,54-64,71-72.

(5) Altman argues that this play, because it is heroic but in a problematically violent way that Elizabethan audiences conflicted by the Irish wars finally accepted, illustrates verbal amplificatio as the savagery it depicts escalates (1991,16-29).

(6) depart from the Norton text in printing "breach" rather than "breaches" in 3.2.19. In this respect, I follow the First Folio. The 1600 Quarto text has Fluellen saying "Godes plud vp to the breaches / You rascals, will you not vp to the breaches {?}" (Shakespeare 1981, 524-50, especially 534). The corrupt, truncated Quarto Henry V does not include the poetry of Folio act 3, scene 1, or Bardolph's "On, on, on, on, on! To the breach, to the breach," but passes directly from the end of the French conversation about the threat Henry poses (2.4) to Nim's "Before God here is hote seruice" (Shakespeare 1981,524).

(7) That an Irishman in Shakespeare's time could pose the question "What is my nation?" is the subject of Baker 1992, 37-41, 44-45, 48.

(8) Carroll 2009, 27. Carroll is quoting Baker 1997, 36.

(9) Leerssen has noted that, "in Tudor parlance ... each Gaelic clan was called a 'nation': a clan chief ... when being recognized in his authority by the English would be called 'chief of this nation.'" Clearly, MacMorris is not using the word "nation" to connote a clan (1986, 25).

(10) In Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577, rev. and enlarged 1587), Shakespeare's chief source for the history of Henry V's life, one does find young Kingjames of Scotland among Henry's officers in France, but he appears in the narrative only after Henry has gotten French King Charles VI to capitulate and recognize him as ruler of France. Scotland and France were traditional allies. After Henry and Charles signed a pact and besieged Melun, many Scots joined the French in defending the city in defiance of their king (Holinshed 1923, 112). Actually, no Scot other than King James served in Henry's army, and James had been Henry's prisoner since the age of eleven (Baldo 1996,145). Andrew Gurr argues that "Jamy must have been technically a mercenary in the English army" (Shakespeare 2005, 29).

(11) Queen Elizabeth never did strive legally to forge England, Wales, and Scotland into a single nation. That would be King James's unsuccessful project. On May 1, 1707, the corporate body titled the Kingdom of England and the Kingdom of Scotland was created. Wales was included in England, and Ireland remained a colony. (England had annexed Wales in 1536 and the Anglican Church and legal system had been imposed upon the country). However, for Shakespeare's depiction in Henry the Fifth of a Wales unintegrated with England, see Ivic 2010, 75-90.

(12) Harrington 2005/2006, 99, 102, no. Berger attributes the vanishing of the Irishman to Shakespeare's need to double this role with Exeter's (1985, 13-25). Also see Neill 1994,19-20, and Murphy 1996, 52-53. Neill has shown that in the playwright's age and afterward the English used Irish "barbarity" to define their own "civility" (1994, 3-4, 7-10). In this vein, Carroll notes that in references and allusions in plays "that pre-date Henry V, Shakespeare's Irish are wild, howling, profane, untrustworthy bog-dwellers" (2009, 24-25)

(13) Parker has explained that "the word translation itself refers first to the crossing of space [a breach] and only later to the reshaping of text into another language" (1991, 237-40).

(14) This point is also made by Mayer 2008, 127-41. Mayer notices "the numerous spaces of enunciation" and "linguistic fractures" that the playwright opens up in the play, including some in the scene of the English language lesson (130).

(15) Shakespeare anticipates Catherine's language lesson in Henry the Fifth in the Latin lesson scene of The Merry Wives of Windsor (1597-98), when Mistress Quickly's ignorance of Latin causes her to translate Parson Evans's and his pupil William's Latin declension into bawdy English words. For analysis of this scene (4.1), see Landreth 2004, 439-4i. Landreth's word "Preech" in his title refers in the Latin lesson scene to Evans's threat to pull down William's breeches for the purpose of corporal punishment, which possesses a potential for an "erratic and exotic initiation into sexuality" (2004, 440). Landreth prefers to stress "the multiplicity of meaning" that results from "friction" between Latin and English in this scene rather than the confusion that comes from a breach in translation (2004, 440). He never explicitly names such a linguistic gap a "breach," or any other kind of gap, in The Merry Wives.

(16) An excellent exploration of these questions is Young 2000,89-114.

(17) In Shakespeare's RichardII, Bushy refers to perspective paintings in the latter part of this speech: "Each substance of a grief hath twenty shadows / Which shows like grief but is not so. For sorrow's eye, glazed with blinding tears, / Divides one thing entire to many objects--/ Like perspectives, which, rightly gazed upon, / Show nothing but confusion; eyed awry, / Distinguish form" (2.2.14-19; Shakespeare 2008,1004).

(18) Brennan argues that Shakespeare repeatedly shows how "the [ideal] poetic vision [of the Chorus] is played off against the reality of the everyday world" of the play (1979,47).

(19) As support for this specific opinion, Rabkin cites E. H. Gombrich i960, 5-6.

(20) Paola Pugliatti also reaches this conclusion via a critique of Rabkin's argument (1993, 235-53).

(21) So argue Hunt 2011, 76-97 and Condren 2009,195-213.

(22) For Henry V's mixed temperament as a model for Hamlet's character, see States 1987, 537-52. Gurr claims that Henry V was Shakespeare's second foray into opaque characterization, one more complex than Bolingbroke's in Richard II (Shakespeare 2005, 11).

(23) In Holinshed's Chronicles, Henry is never called the mirror of a Christian king. He is instead praised as "a paterne in princehood, a lode-starre in honour, and a mirrour of magnificence" (1923,132).

(24) Slights argues that King Henry's development of conscience bridges the Christian and Machiavellian aspects of his character (2001, 46-47).

(25) After peace was achieved with King Charles VI, Henry had to besiege Monstreau and Melun, as well as several castles and cities in Burgundy, Dreux, and Meaux.

(26) Learning in December 1421 that Catherine had given birth to a son, Henry reportedly said '"I Henrie borne at Monmouth, shall small time reigne, and much get; and Henry borne at Windsore, shall long reigne, and all loose: but as God will, so be it'" (Holinshed 1923,124).


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MAURICE HUNT is Research Professor of English at Baylor University. He is the author or editor of nine books on Shakespeare's plays and numerous articles on Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, and other Renaissance English dramatists. His most recent books are Shakespeare's As You Like It: Late Elizabethan Culture and Literary Representation (2008) and Shakespeare's Speculative Art (2011).
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Article Type:Critical essay
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Date:Sep 22, 2014
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