"Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead": Henry V and the Politics of the English History Play

By Thorne, Alison | Shakespeare Studies, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

"Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead": Henry V and the Politics of the English History Play

Thorne, Alison, Shakespeare Studies

"A PROPAGANDA-PLAY on National Unity: heavily orchestrated for the brass" was how A. P. Rossiter summed up Henry V in 1954. (1) The assumption that this play is complicit with the promonarchical, nationalist rhetoric of the Chorus, and with the particular myth of Englishness it propounds, has persisted. In recent years the most cogent articulation of this view has come from Richard Helgerson, who sees the play as the culmination of Shakespeare's gradual tightening of his "obsessive and compelling focus on the ruler" during the writing of his English history cycle, at the cost of occluding the interests of the ruled. In contrast to the historical dramas staged by the rival Henslowe companies, which, he argues, were less concerned with the "consolidation and maintenance of royal power" than with the plight of the socially inferior "victims of such power," Shakespeare's chronicle plays exorcised the common people from their vision of the nation with increasing ruthlessness:

   It is as though Shakespeare set out to cancel the popular ideology with 
   which his cycle of English history plays began, as though he wanted to 
   efface, alienate, even demonize all signs of commoner participation in the 
   political nation. The less privileged classes may still have had a place in 
   his audience, but they had lost their place in his representation of 
   England. (2) 

Helgerson explains this exclusionary process as part of a policy of self-gentrification pursued by Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain's Men--a determination to remove themselves as far as possible from the humble, "folk" origins of the theater they served. According to his reading, the banishment of Falstaff at the end of 2 Henry IV, along with the popular carnivalesque values he stands enacts this desire to be cleansed of the taint of vulgarity associated with the public stage. And in Henry V the purgation is completed. Despite the monarch's populist credentials earned in the Eastcheap tavern, the last play in the cycle confirms the "radical divorce ... between the King and his people," riding rough over the "dream of commonality, of common interests and common humanity, between the ruler and the ruled" that had figured so prominently in the popular imagination. (3)

On the face of it, Henry V offers ample evidence to validate the proposition that, of all Shakespeare's chronicle plays, this one is "closest to state propaganda," and that such proximity denies the "less privileged classes" a significant place in the nation. One need only cite the near-unanimous commitment to Henry's cause expressed by nobility and commoners alike (in a striking departure from the aristocratic factionalism and popular insurgence that had dominated the preceding plays in the cycle); the curiously muted treatment of those few dissenting voices that do make themselves heard; the play's protective attitude to its royal protagonist, whom it shield from overt inquiry into the legitimacy of his claim to the English as well as the French throne; and, last but not least, the decision to excise Falstaff, whose iconoclastic wit could, on past form, be trusted to play havoc with the nationalistic pieties and chivalric ideals promulgated in Henry V. In each of these respects, the play appears to be fully implicated in the Chorus's campaign to "coerc[e] the audience into an emotionally undivided response" in favor of the English monarch. (4) As the play's critical history attests, however, the pressures exerted by its patriotic rhetoric have not precluded more sceptical responses. What might be called the "Machiavellian" reading, first formulated by Hazlitt in 1817, has tended to focus on the gaps between Henry's laboriously constructed public image as "the mirror of all Christian Kings" and his manifest brutality and political opportunism, between the aggrandizing rhetoric of king and Chorus and what is actually shown on stage.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

"Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead": Henry V and the Politics of the English History Play


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?