Two Conflicting Characters: Henry V as Leader and King
What makes a good leader? What are the qualities that one must possess to effectively lead? Are the characteristics of a leader all supposed to be good, or must he participate in evil to become one? All these questions are explored in William Shakespeare’s Henry V. In the play, Henry was the King of England and he proved to be a competent leader. Nonetheless, his capacity to be a good leader appeared in contrast to his capacity as a good monarch.
The contrast is due to the fact that what made Henry a remarkable figure of authority made him ineffective as king. Hence, King Henry V presented opposing notions of authority and kingship in William Shakespeare’s play.
In the play, King Henry V was depicted as a great leader. He succeeded as an authority figure. What were the qualities which made him as such? To begin with, Henry was determined.
A good leader must be determined and focused enough to guide his subordinates in the fulfillment of certain tasks and objectives. King Henry V was a man of unshakeable determination. When he had set goals for himself, he devoted all his energy to its fulfillment. He utilized all available means to acquire what he most desired. For instance, the determination of King Henry V became first evident when he became king. Before he assumed the highest position in England, Henry was an irresponsible young man who spent his time with men of questionable character. However, when was he called upon to replace his father, he changed his ways. In the play, the Archbishop of Canterbury said:
The breath no sooner left his father’s body,
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seem’d to die too; yea, at that very moment (Shakespeare, 1.1. 26-28).
The Bishop of Ely agreed with this observation:
So the prince obscured his contemplation
Under the veil of wildness; which, no doubt,
Grew like the summer grass, fastest by night,
Unseen, yet crescive in his faculty (Shakespeare, 1.1. 65-68).
People saw a distinct and dramatic change in his personality. King Henry’s transition from a reckless young man to the next English king was a sign of determination. His life had experienced a drastic change, so he quickly adapted to it. The change in Henry was a sign of determination because it showed to the people that he had what it takes to become king despite his past. He was eager to assume the kingship with dignity and responsibility.
Another example of King Henry’s determination was his resolve regarding the conquest of France. He was determined to attack France because he firmly believed that he had to the right to take back all that lands and territories which the French took from his ancestors (Shakespeare). Montjoy was sent by the French to discourage King Henry V from his plans of attacking. Shakespeare wrote:
Thus says my king: Say thou to Harry of England:
Though we seemed dead, we did but sleep: advantage
is a better soldier than rashness (3.6. 18-20).
King Henry V was unaffected, as he was firm on his decision to invade France and proceed with his plans of reclaiming what he considered as old English lands. He responded to Montjoy with this statement: “We would not seek a battle, as we are; / Nor, as we are, we say we will not shun it” (Shakespeare, 3.6. 65-66). This is proof that despite the warning, Henry was very determined to dominate France that no amount of dissuading can change his mind.
Another quality that made King Henry V a good leader was his ability to inspire people. He had the power to connect and motivate his subjects. His ability to inspire was mostly derived from his gift of speech. According to Shakespeare,
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 (1.1.42-44).
King Henry’s talent in speaking proved very useful when members of his army were becoming discouraged in the midst of their pursuit for France. The soldiers named John Bates, Alexander Court and Michael Williams were having a conversation when the king approached in disguise. In his speech, Henry told his soldiers that the monarch did not send them to battle to fight because he wanted them killed. King Henry V said, “for they purpose not their death, when they purpose their services” (Shakespeare, 4.1.156-157). He sought to persuade the men that the war England was waging was for a noble cause. King Henry V argued,
methinks I could not die any where so
contented as in the king’s company; his cause being
just and his quarrel honourable (Shakespeare, 4.1.123-125).
In addition, the king tried to uplift the soldiers’ spirits by indicating that they were not fighting the battle alone. He convinced them that the king was one with them in the war. Henry said to his soldiers: “Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s/ soul is his own” (Shakespeare, 4.1.175-177).
King Henry V can also be considered as a good leader because he was not hungry for power. Unlike some leaders who had an insatiable thirst for power, Henry was depicted as someone who merely led for the purpose of fulfilling an objective. He was a man driven by honor, and he placed the needs of his country above his personal desires. Shakespeare wrote:
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires (4.23.26-29).
Hence, Henry V was good leader because he did not lead based on his attraction to power. He led according to what he thought was best for his state and its people.
The position of Henry as the King of England surely set him apart from the others. His status gave him privileges as well as responsibilities that ordinary men do not have. In the play, the title character noted that a slave enjoys the peace of mind that comes with sleep (Shakespeare). In contrast, a king does not enjoy the same luxury because of his role in society. The difference between a common man and a king was not the only dissimilarity presented in the story. While Henry V was illustrated as a good and honorable figure of authority, he was also shown as an unjust and cruel king. He had given harsh punishment to petty offenses and he had threatened harmless children.
There were two instances in the play where Henry V was faced with circumstances wherein he had to punish people for their wrongdoings. The first one involved one of his former friends, a character named Scroop. Scroop, along with two other men, Cambridge and Grey were proven to have been involved in the plan to kill the king (Shakespeare). Henry, who called Scroop as an “ingrateful, savage and inhuman creature” (Shakespeare, 2.2. 95), was arrested with the two others and sentenced to death. Such punishment can be considered appropriate for the given crime, as the plot to kill the monarch is a form of treason.
However, the second instance wherein Henry V punished evil deeds was simply unfair. The punishment was not equal to the offense. Consequently, the offenders were also his friends. While it cannot be denied that a king is expected to uphold the law, a king is also expected to be fair and just in his decision making. He is also supposed to be thorough and careful in making decisions; to decide on such matters abruptly would surely have a negative result. In the play, the character named Pistol proved to be the worse offender compared to his friends Bardolph and Nym, which were also acquaintances of the king. Pistol agreed to spare the life of a French soldier for a price (Shakespeare). Meanwhile, Bardolph and Nym were simply thieves. This was the punishment given to them, based on the account of a boy:
had ten times more valour than this roaring devil i’
the old play, that every one may pare his nails with
a wooden dagger; and they are both hanged (Shakespeare, 4.4.65-67).
King Henry V was also presented as a brutal and harsh king. The brutality was derived from his dedication to victory against the French, while the cruelty became evident with his treatment of his opponents. King Henry V was so passionate about his cause in France that he used all he can to achieve his goals. The brutality was presented when he ordered for “every soldier (to) kill his prisoners” (Shakespeare, 4.6.37-39).
The cruelty of King Henry V was best shown when he threatened the governor of Harfleur with very violent remarks. King Henry told the governor that his soldiers would harm the townsfolk if they do not do as he pleased. His attempt to strike fear in the hearts of the French people began with threats against the women. He stated that the English soldiers would “defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters” (Shakespeare, 3.3.35). Then, he proceeded to reveal his violent plans against the fathers and mothers. Nonetheless, the most disturbing threat of all was that made by Henry against the children. He said to the governor that “Your naked infants spitted upon pikes” (Shakespeare, 3.3.38).
For a king who did not have the lust for power, Henry V exhibited a penchant for violence in an effort to illustrate his power to others. This presented opposing notions of the same character: a leader who did not desire power and a king who bragged about his authority. One would expect a man of honor like King Henry V to focus on his opponents rather than direct his hostility towards the innocent civilians. He should have shown more respect to the women and the elderly, and should have spared the young ones from the war. In this instance, King Henry V which was earlier recognized as a good leader now appeared as a bad person and king.
How is it that King Henry V was presented in the play as both a good and bad character? On one hand, he was depicted by Shakespeare as good because of his leadership. King Henry V proved to be the formidable leader. He was characterized by distinctly strong determination. Once he had decided on something, he cannot be persuaded against it. King Henry V was also a good leader because he knew how to inspire people in tough times. He was extremely talented in speaking, making it easier for him to convince people to hear him out and inspire them in the process. Lastly, King Henry V was portrayed as the ideal leader because he was not corrupted by the lust for power. He appeared to be an honorable man who lived for a noble cause.
On the other hand, King Henry V also revealed a dark side of his character which ran contrary to his positive attributes. His determination proved faulty when he was punishing offenders. He was so determined to punish the criminals that the punishment was no longer just and appropriate for the offense. The intense determination also made King Henry V brutal; he wanted France so badly that he resorted to intimidating its people, even the infants. Consequently, he revealed a side of personality which was contradicting. He was man who did not desire power, yet he did not think twice to flaunt his power as king to the governor of Harfleur to send his message across.
In William Shakespeare’s Henry V, the title character had indeed presented two different and opposing notions of authority and kingship. While King Henry V was a driven, determined and inspiring leader, he was also a brutal and cruel king. This is only proof that the qualities which make a good leader do not necessarily make him good in other aspects.
Shakespeare, William. “Henry V.” The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. 13 Nov. 2000. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 19 Jan. 2009 <http://shakespeare.mit.edu/henryv/index.html>.
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