Sunday, April 14, 2013

Is Henry V an anti-war play

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Henry V


Is Henry V an anti-war play?


You could refer in your answer to the Olivier and Branagh films and the contexts in which they were produced, as well as the context of the play’s original composition.


At the time when Shakespeare wrote Henry V Queen Elizabeth was the country’s monarch and the nation had just witnessed England defeat the Spanish Armada and become the world’s strongest naval power. Therefore the 16th Century and original perception of the play is that it’s celebrating England’s supremacy in battle and shows this again by the production of Henry V and England’s victory over the much stronger French. It’s unifying the country through war and celebrating the country’s pride. Henry V was also related to Elizabeth, so it’s not only a celebration to the country but also to the Queen and her deceased relative.


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Throughout the play there is a strong sense of patriotism, not only from Henry V and the battle that lies ahead and the fight for the country but more importantly and significantly the patriotism of the troops and their love for him. Part of this can be accounted for the some of the troops relationship with the then Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. This makes their battle more personalised, they’re not just fighting for the King of England but for the King of England who used to have a drink with them in their local pub. This means that for the play Shakespeare shows a sense of admiration and awe that the troops have for Henry as he was once one of them, and now he’s standing side by side with them ready to fight the battle.


‘The Kings a bawcock, and a heart of gold,


A lad of life, an imp of fame;


Of parents good, of fist most valiant.


I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heartstring


I love the lovely bully


(Pistol IV.1 lines 44-48)


There is then of course great patriotism from Henry and in particular in many of his long speeches which take up one third of all the written text. Shakespeare’s aim was to glorify Henry as in the shows first production there was Queen Elizabeth in the audience. Again after the defeat of the Spanish Armada the nation would have been in a very patriotic mood and this is expressed in the text by Shakespeare. Henry’s speeches are most significant for the fact of him being able to rally his troops ready for battle; they’re very complex in their nature and use numerous animal metaphors and rhetorical questions to get his intensity and passion for war over to the audience. Quite importantly Henry identifies with his troops, showing he is a man and not just a king and this identification with the troops gives the play a huge feel of self belief and patriotism.


‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers


For he today that sheds his blood with me


Shall be my brother’


(Henry IV. lines 60-6)


In this particular speech Henry uses ‘we’ three times, each time with it meaning more and it shows the brotherhood of war, that they’re in this together, will fight together and die together. Henry is glorified through his speeches in particular by Shakespeare. This show of glory shows how the audience can interpret the play as a pro-war production with the King of England fighting along side his people for the good of his people. Shakespeare also evokes a great sense of honour from Henry and this is particularly important with how Henry’s made his claim to the French throne through the Salic law. His fight for this and the fact that he truly believes his claim is just, and is willing to sacrifice his life for the cause shows emphatically that from this view point the production must be seen as a pro-war one. References to God also appear quite often, this emphasises that the cause for war is just and by using the Lord’s name its how Henry believes he’s fighting alongside him.


‘Follow your spirit and upon this charge


Cry, ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’


There is also the only instance in the play where Henry is alone, and this is his Soliloquy when Henry’s at his lowest ebb. (IV. 1 lines 18-77.) His prayer to God I feel can be interoperated in two ways. He asks for his help because he needs it, the French are stronger than him and this can be seen as a pro-war or anti-war message. Pro-war as he’s asking God for help on the battle field and his men isn’t as strong as the French. Or anti-war as he needs the help of God which could show that war isn’t justified and he maybe doubting his claim and is looking to God for answers and if he wins the battle that will be the answer that God was on his side, but what’s the price he’ll have to pay?


Henry V has been adapted to the big screen on two occasions with each of these being different from the other, respectively. There was the Lawrence Olivier version produced as anti-Nazi propaganda which its effect was said to be ‘Stiffened our sinews, summoned up our blood and gave us the determination to bash Hitler’. It was used to raise the moral of troops is the Second World War by showing the strength of the English when faced in battle. The second production was directed by Kenneth Branagh and this had an anti-war message to it. Still fresh in peoples minds were both the Vietnam and Falklands war and Branagh went about showing how horrific war can be. Olivier left out completely the traitor’s scene with Cambridge, Scroop and Grey as this was a particular anti-war message of mistrust and treachery by those very close to the king. Branagh tackles the situation in a very emotional style, with tears in his eyes and a great deal of sadness of what his close friend Scroop had done to him.


‘What shall I say to thee, Lord Scroop, thou cruel,


Ingrateful savage, and inhuman creature?


Thou that dids bear the key of all my councels,


That knews’t the very bottom of my soul’


(Henry V II. lines 4-7)


This was further more shown in the Warwick Arts Centre production in which the audience could really feel the pain Henry was suffering when he confronted Scroop and it really gave the sense of the bitter side of war and how one can be betrayed through the greed of wealth.


The play by Shakespeare also portrays the gruesome side of war and this can be seen distinctly as an anti-war message. Over time the original interpretation of the play may have changed due to world events and the 1st Century’s point of view may be that of anti-war. The scene at the siege of Harfleur (III.) portrays a very anti-war message with the manner of Henry’s speech. ‘If your pure maidens fall into the hand/ Of hot and forcing violation? And, ‘Your naked infants spitted upon pikes/ Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused’. This shows the darker side of Henry and is at the other end of the spectrum compared to his morale boosting Band of Brothers speech. This part of the speech is left out in the Olivier version but shown to its full effect in Branagh’s screen play. It’s very much an anti-war message as it shows the gruesomeness of war and what it can do to the innocent peoples involved. What I feel is a strong anti-war message is when the battle’s over and the death toll is read to Henry. Where there are ten thousand French dead yet only twenty-five English dead. But with the French soldiers it’s the amount of nobles that have died, including people that have appeared in the play like the High Constable of France. This leaves a bitter taste as it shows the price of war with so many men of high quality lying slain in the field. But it could be interoperated as pro-war for the English as not as many have died and only a few nobles, nothing compared to the numbers of French.


Finally when the play comes to the end there is the Epilogue which was wrote in the form of a sonnet and tells of what happened after the victory at Agincourt, which has a strong anti-war message to it. Henry V dies and he leaves it to his son, Henry VI, who then lost France through bad management of his estate.


‘Whose state so many had a managing


That they lost France, and made his England bleed’


The Epilogue I feel has an anti-war message to it because it shows how everything was lost after the soldiers and Henry’s brave battles. It was what Henry believed in and he eventually lost his life to it only for it to be lost within months of his death.


So is Henry V an anti-war play, originally when Shakespeare wrote it but over time this perception has changed with different interpretations and ways to view it with different contexts in mind.





Word count 150 with quotes.








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