Why Christians should read Shakespeare’s Henry V

Published in the 7 November 2007 edition of Christian Renewal magazine.

In Henry V, Shakespeare uses the title character to put forward his vision of the ideal king. The play begins when Harry, as Henry V is affectionately nicknamed, learns that he is the true heir to the throne of France; he informs the French monarchy that he intends to exercise his right and asks them to step aside. Their response is to mock him: they send him a gilded barrel of “treasure” in tribute to their claimant king – a treasure of tennis balls, implying that Harry is more fit for games than governing.

Harry sets out with his army to force the French to recognize his claim. Undaunted by the fact that the French army is superior in size and skill to his own, he presses forward with courage and resolution.

As the play progresses, Shakespeare’s king is revealed to be larger than life – indeed, he seems nearly perfect in character and ability. No less than the Archbishop of Canterbury says of him:

Hear him but reason in divinity;
And, all-admiring, with an inward wish
You would desire the king were made a prelate:
Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs;
You would say it hath been all in all his study:
List his discourse of war; and you shall hear
A fearful battle rendered to you in music.
Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter: that, when he speaks,
The air, a chartered libertine, is still,
And the mute wonder lurketh in men’s ears,
To steal his sweet and honeyed sentences:
So that the art and practice part of life
Must be the mistress to this theoric . . . (1.1)

As the story progresses, Shakespeare demonstrates his vision of an ideal king through Harry’s three principal actions.

First: by his speeches, Harry conquers those who oppose him.

Harry begins his conquest of France at Harfleur, and at pivotal points in the battle to take the city, Harry’s speeches, even more than his sword, decide the battle. In a monologue interspersed with descriptions of the horrors of war that will come upon the citizens of Harfleur if they prolong the battle, Harry appeals to the city’s governor and citizens:

How yet resolves the governor of the town?
This is the latest parle we will admit:
Therefore to our best mercy give yourselves . . .
Therefore, you men of Harfleur,
Take pity of your town and of your people . . .
What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid? . . . (3.3)

The city does yield and consequently becomes the first part of France to recognize Harry as its king. The English army marches immediately onward toward the full French army.

Second: by his speeches, Harry rallies his friends.

Harry’s army meets the mighty French army near a castle caled Agincourt. It is to be an almost apocalyptic battle – the battle of battles, the one that will settle the question of who will rule France. The outcome appears decided before the battle even begins, though, as the English are outnumbered five to one.

Throughout his preparations for the battle, Harry demonstrates extraordinary care for those with him. In an age in which common soldiers were considered to be expendable pawns in the king’s game, Harry’s deepest concern is for even the basest of his men. On the eve of the battle, he disguises himself and goes from campfire to campfire to learn how his men are and to encourage them.

On the fateful morning, before the epic fight begins, Harry overhears one of his nobles wish for ten thousand more men on their side. To rally his friends, encourage them, and prepare them for the battle to come, Harry gives his most memorable speech:

What’s he that wishes so?
My cousin Westmoreland? No, my fair cousin:
If we are marked to die, we are now
To do our country loss: and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will, I pray thee wish not one man more. . . .
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England:
God’s peace, I would not lose so great an honour,
As one man more, methinks, would share from me,
For the best hope I do have. O, do not wish one more:
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart, his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship, to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall see this day, and live old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say, “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve, and show his scars,
And say, “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words . . .
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
This story shall the good man teach his son:
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberéd;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers:
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother: be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.
And gentlemen in England, now a-bed,
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here;
And hold their manhoods cheap, whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day. (4.3)

Immediately after the speech, the English prepare for battle. The French attack, the battle is fought, and the English win a stunning victory. In the end, ten thousand French nobles and soldiers die; of the English, only 29 men are killed. Harry tells his men where the credit for their victory lies:

Was ever known so great and little loss,
On one part and on th’other? Take it, God,
For it is none but thine! . . .
And be it death proclaiméd through our host
To boast of this or take that praise from God
Which is his only. . . .
[His men are only allowed to speak of the battle’s outcome] with this acknowledgement,
That God fought for us! (4.8)

Third: by his speeches, Harry gains a bride.

After the battle, the two monarchs meet to settle the conflict. Among other things, it is decided that Harry will marry Katharine, the French princess; their wedding will be a symbol of the union of the English and French throne. As the conqueror, Harry could simply claim Katharine and take her for himself. Instead he woos her, desiring that she genuinely love him.

In a playful scene (5.2), Shakespeare uses the couple’s language barrier to comic effect as Harry attempts, at first in overly ornate language and often using downright silly analogies, to profess his love for Katharine. The French princess asks him in her broken English, “Is it possible dat I sould love de enemy of France?”

Harry reassures her that he loves France so much that he “will not part with a village of it.” He attempts to prove this to her by professing his love for her in French – rather humorously as his French turns out to be far worse than her English. Finally he gives up his fumbling for words and says:

“Now fie upon my false French! By mine honour, in true English, I love thee, Kate; by which honour, I dare not swear thou loves me, yet my blood begins to flatter me that thou dost; notwithstanding the poor and untempering effect of my visage. . . . I was created with a stubborn outside, with an aspect of iron, that when I come to woo ladies, I fright them: but in faith, Kate, the elder I wax, the better I shall appear. My comfort is, that old age, that ill layer up of beauty, can do no more spoil upon my face. Thou hast me, if thou hast me, at the worst; and that shalt wear me, if thou wear me, better and better: and therefore tell me, most fair Katharine, will you have me? . . . Come, your answer in broken music; for thy voice is music, and thy English broken: therefore, queen of all, Katharine, break thy mind to me in broken English; wilt thou have me?”

She agrees, and by his words Harry has turned the daughter of his fiercest foe into his queen.

Why Christians should read Henry V

Harry’s appeal is universal – rare indeed is the reader who does not admire him greatly and perhaps even wish that Harry were the head of state in his country. But as excellent as Harry is in courage and character, there is a greater king than Harry: his words and deeds pale in comparison to those of Jesus.

Like Harry, Jesus conquers his enemies by the power of his words. But while Harry’s battle speeches are filled with threats of destruction, Jesus’ words in this time of grace are those of love, offering forgiveness to anyone who repents. Only Jesus is able to work in the hardened hearts of his mortal enemies and make us his friends, giving us a genuine, abiding love for himself.

Like Harry, Jesus rallies his friends by the power of his words: there can be no greater encouragement in times of trouble than God’s Word. But while Harry could only inspire his men to fight for victory, Jesus guarantees victory. Even more, Jesus himself does all the fighting, conquering death itself and leaving us to borrow Harry’s words: “God fought for us!” And while Harry’s men could never be his brothers in more than a figurative sense, Jesus makes us the very sons and daughters of God, co-heirs with him of the kingdom of God.

Like Harry, Jesus woos a bride by the power of his words. Unlike Harry’s beautiful princess, however, Jesus’ chosen bride – the church, his people – was already hopelessly corrupted, unfaithful, and defiled. Yet he demonstrates his love for her in this: while she was still a sinner, he sacrificed himself to make her a more pure and perfect wife than any other. And no language barrier or any other obstacle can prevent him from communicating his eternal love to her.

Christians should read Shakespeare’s Henry V because it makes them think even more highly of Jesus. Harry is the best kind of king we could hope for in this life, but the character, words, and deeds, of Jesus, our eternal king, are far more amazing and beautiful than Harry’s.

Also, Christians should read Shakespeare’s Henry V because it can help them point others to Jesus. Harry appeals to all kinds of people, Christians and non-Christians alike, and many would wish that we had such a king in our often lonely, impoverished, nasty, and brutish world. But Christians can respond: we do! We have a king greater than Harry, and his kingdom has come and is yet coming and will be forevermore.

For any who are interested in reading Henry V, it can be read for free on several websites; simply search for it in any search engine. Also, I highly recommend the film version starring Kenneth Branagh.

After God fought for them, Harry and his men sang from Psalm 115:

Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us,
But unto your Name give glory.

What more can we say but “Amen”?


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