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“Once more unto the breach, dear friends”: Henry V and Kingship

Cover page of Henry V Title page of the first quarto (1600)

On Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, Dr. Paul Cantor, the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of the English Department at the University of Virginia, delivered a lecture on William Shakespeare’s Henry V to the Straus Scholars of the Zahava and Moshael Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, who this year are studying the Torah’s influence on the works of the playwright. The lecture was part of the “Jewish Ideas and American Government” series sponsored by the Jack Miller Center.

Dr. Cantor began his lecture by contextualizing the play within the time it was written. Shakespeare compiled Henry V in light of the reign of Henry VIII, who is most famous for separating his kingdom from Catholic papal authority and forming the Church of England. Dr. Cantor also reminded the students that Henry V is the fourth and final entry in a tetralogy of plays that also includes Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, and Henry IV, Part 2.

It is against this backdrop that the play’s themes become apparent. Richard II was viewed as a weak king. He did not know how to lead his troops in battle, and his poor position led to Henry IV usurping the crown.

While Henry IV knew how to lead an army, his takeover removed the sacred aura of the English crown. Because people believed that God had chosen Richard II, not Henry IV, Henry V’s story is both one of a new king trying to “re-sanctify” the English monarchy while seeking to solidify his rule over the country. Dr. Cantor showed how, in this effort, Henry V relied increasingly on motifs and practices from the Bible—particularly the Hebrew Bible—in his efforts to unify the kingdom.

One of the ways he seeks unification is through leading a crusade. Henry’s war is different from a typical religious war, such as the one his father, Henry IV, hoped to lead against Jerusalem but never did. Instead, Henry V leads his army against the French, which helps him solidify his rule at home and quell domestic national rivalries and dynastic and religious tensions.

But Henry’s political skills went beyond the courtrooms of local noblemen and priests. He also got the common people behind him. Before he became king, Henry V spent time with the common people, learning their language, interests and concerns. This made them trust him more when he sent them to war, feeling that they were fighting for a cause and a man they were behind. This is in decided contrast to the French, whose aristocratic leaders were haughty and distant from the common soldiers. In the play, at least, this seems to contribute to their downfall at Agincourt in 1415.

In general, Dr. Cantor showed how a good king has to take into account both the “aristocratic” and the “common” views and balance them as best as possible. And he can’t shy away from difficult and sometimes morally ambiguous decisions. Dr. Cantor led the students through a fascinating account of the difficult issue of the execution of French prisoners after the Battle of Agincourt and how Henry V approached this dilemma. But while Shakespeare shows that a good king must deal with moral complexities, Shakespeare’s Henry also shows the distinction between being a king and a tyrant. Even if Henry must be cruel, he does it for the sake of avoiding cruelty. Even though he engages in war, he recognizes that the goal of war is finally peace.

This play, along with many others by Shakespeare, has been important to the American founders and in American history, and this theme was considered as well. In general, Dr. Cantor’s presentation was a tour de force through one of Shakespeare’s most beloved but also difficult plays.