King Henry V Tricked Us All


What does it take to make a King? In Henry V we see an errant, misspent youth turn into what to all outward appearances looks like a truly noble and valiant King. A closer look however reveals a power strategy so subtle that it is easy to overlook. Prince Hal’s reformation incorporates Machiavellian leadership principles needed to preserve his throne. A clever, resourceful fellow, Prince Hal begins the transformation before the play begins as noted by the conversation between the Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of Ely when they say “Never was such a sudden scholar made; Never came reformation in a flood” (I.i.52-53). It is surely a sudden occurrence and garners some attention. A young king transforms instantly, was it the honor of the title or something more? A close examination is required.

Machiavelli_Principe_Cover_PageNiccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, was an Italian Renaissance historian, politician, diplomat, philosopher, humanist and writer who lived in the fifteenth century. He was an avid writer, just like Shakespeare, who wrote lyrics and poetry as well as political and military treatises that influenced many in the Western world. His book, The Prince, spawned the idea that unscrupulous and secretive manipulations by leaders and politicians was normal and effective. The term Machiavellianism, became a negative buzzword describing the shenanigans that are often played by tyrants, power-mongers and politicians to maintain their power. Shakespeare wrote this play around 1599, nearly fifty-eight years after The Prince was published. An avid reader, Shakespeare most likely was very familiar with it.

In a true Machiavellian style, Henry knows that he must seize every opportunity to protect his throne. Machiavelli, in The Prince, states:

“you have to understand this, that a prince, especially a new one, cannot observe all those things for which men are esteemed, being often forced, in order to maintain the state to act contrary to fidelity, friendship, humanity, and religion” (4).

To all outward appearances a prince must appear “to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious” (4).

Therefore, Prince Hal wants to get his family’s legacy back from France, and he knows that to do that, he must got to war. To appear innocent, he seeks the advice and counsel of his religious advisors to guide him in his decision to go to war with France. As a true Machiavellian, he understands that there are two ways of fighting and that is by law and by force. Laws come naturally to men and force comes naturally to beasts. It is best to become half man and half beast by using both law and force to rule. For his war on France he needs the law on his side before he uses force. It is for this reason that Henry ignores the offer for money to support his war from his religious advisors and instead seeks reassurance that the law is with him. These advisors comply when they say:

“My learned lord, we pray you to proceed And justly and religiously unfold Why the law Salique that they have in France Or should, or should not, bar us in our claim” (1.1.9-12).

The complex and vague response by the Archbishop about how the Salique law has been used and abused by the French, and that in reality it is France who is usurping their authority thereby justifying a war. The Salique law passed down through the ages, held the principle that excluded women from inheriting, thrones, and other property. France, was seen to have violated this rule. Still, Henry pushes for more justification and gets it when the Archbishop says:

“The sin upon my head, dread sovereign For in the Book of Numbers is it writ, “When the son dies, let the inheritance Descend unto the daughter (1.2. 97-100).

This religious justification is enough for Henry to move forward with his plans but without the responsibility. In the public eye it appears that he is hesitant and must be persuaded but in reality it was his plan all along. He warns the Religious leaders in public that war is costly and therefore if they are going to wager his kingdom they need to be aware of the cost and take responsibility.

Therefore take heed how you impawn our person How you awake our sleeping sword of war; We charge you in the name of God take heed. For never two such kingdoms did contend Without much fall of blood… (1. 2. 21-25).

A true Machiavellian he understood the principle to avoid being hated or despised was to “delegate the administration of unpopular laws to others (5).

He further blames his friends for forcing him to have them killed as a result of their treachery even after they beg forgiveness. Prince Hal may have forgiven them but King Henry must establish his power by this act of aggression. Knowing that it is better to be feared then loved, but be careful to avoid hatred with his humane treatment of his friends. It was a ploy to keep the public trust by appearing to be cautious. Machiavelli states:

“Nevertheless he ought to be slow to believe and to act, nor should he himself show fear, but proceed in a temperate manner with prudence and humanity, so that too much confidence may not make him incautious and too much distrust render him intolerable” (1).

And then again when he and his troops are at Harfluer, he assigns responsibility for the atrocities his army will inflict upon the mayor. His words are extremely violent and harsh:

“And the flesht soldier,-rough and hard of heart,In liberty of bloody hand shall range With conscience wide as hell; mowing like grass Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants” (3.3. 11-14).

He shouts “what is’t me” (19)? The resounding implication is that it is not up to him. He succeeds in persuading the French citizens to avoid the terrifying acts that he had just authorized before his troops and let them in. He had lost almost a third of his troops already to dysentery an illness that would eventually take his own life, so he was anxious to turn the course of events to his own advantage by using his skill at deceit and powerful language.

In a last effort to avoid responsibility for his actions before the great battle of Agincourt, he disguises himself with the cloak of someone else and mingles with his troops. With his public role hidden, he interrogates a few of his men and finds out that he may appear to be responsible for the souls of his men. One of his men named Williams spoke plainly about how much responsibility the King has for an unjust war when he said:

“Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it- who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection” (4.1.138-140).

Realizing that this now is a question for his men of obeying God’s laws or his laws, he reason’s that each man may have broken Gods laws before this battle so therefore it was their own responsibility for their souls, not the Kings. He uses a metaphor to make his point but it is vague but then he is able to again escape responsibility when he points out that no matter how just his cause may be his soldiers may not be. He said:

“Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrement of swords, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers” (4.1.163-165).

He warns them to do before war what they would on their deathbed and “wash every mote out of his conscience: and dying so, death is to him advantage” (4.1.183-185). In this way he again escapes culpability. And further he declares it in this way:

“…then if they die unprovided, no more is the king guilty of their damnation, than he was before guilty of those impieties for the which they are now visited. Every Subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own” (4. 1. 160-164).

He ignores the question of justification exactly as any good Machiavellian would. King Henry V practiced Machiavellianism better than previous Kings because it is disguised within his private versus public life. Even the audience is kept out of the secret. Instead it requires a close reading of the play to uncover how he did it.


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