On the one hand Prince Hal, who became King Henry V, is undoubtedly England’s greatest king, so it’s perfectly reasonable that he’s the only person Shakespeare used as a protagonist in four plays. On the other hand, would anybody remember him today if Shakespeare hadn’t immortalised him? Hal’s empire lasted a mere four hundred years. Shakespeare’s work is going with us to the stars.
It wasn’t the greatness that drew Shakespeare to Hal. If it had been, he wouldn’t have written two plays set before Hal even achieved the throne. It was his complexity, the combination of his greatness and his tricks—he’s drawn to Falstaff and his foolery, and when he becomes king and turns his back on that he continues to play tricks on his lords and ministers and on his enemies. The first play (Henry IV, Part 1) ends with Hal having done what his father wanted and conquered Hotspur, the first of his victories. The second play (Henry IV, Part 2) ends with his father’s death and Hal turning his back on Falstaff. (And that’s an amazing scene. “I do not know you, old man.”) The third play (Henry V, Part 1) ends after the triumph of Agincourt with Hal winning the daughter of the king of France and being made heir to France, at the cusp of his real achievement. If it had been his glory that drew Shakespeare he’d have gone on to make his “cockpit” show the rest of Europe and the Middle East and all Hal’s conquests there. Instead, he begins again with Hal an old man himself at eighty-five, king of all he surveys, but with nobody to love, both his sons dead, tricked to the last, and his grandson and heir afraid of him.
Hal’s character is a meditation on power—he has wanted it and run from it, and at last, old and dying he can’t put it down. “He never loved his father or his sons,” Aragon says to Mistress Poll, but that’s not how we have seen it. His oldest son, Henry, he tricked into a monastery—he was useless and he could never have been king, and yet Hal grieves at the news of his death, which opens the play. We don’t know if this grief is genuine—you can never tell with Hal, he’s always half-acting. “A man should not outlive his sons, it is unnatural,” he says, but goes straight on “But God, what sons you sent to me!” He reproaches God directly, and it’s quite clear that he fears God—the prayer before Agincourt (“Not today”) and then this rage.
If Hal is a player, he’s one who doesn’t know who his audience is—God, Falstaff, his father, Aragon, us? He teases the audience with his soliliquoys, he offers us his confidence and then shrugs it off. He admits to us, but not to Gloucester or Aragon, that when his son Edward, Aragon’s father, the King of Jerusalem, revolted, he had the archers aim for him at the battle of Acre. It doesn’t matter whether this is historically true—I believe there’s still controversy over the whole revolt, and in the reign of John III when Shakespeare wrote this, it was even more controversial. Whatever the historical Henry V and the historical Edward of Jerusalem did, Shakespeare’s Hal ordered his own son’s death on the battlefield to avoid executing him later. Aragon thought this meant he didn’t love him, but it could also be seen as proof of the opposite. Hal forced weak Henry into a monastery so that strong Edward could be his heir, but Edward was too strong and took the field against him. “He could have rent all Europe back to shreds,” Hal says. I don’t know if Hal could afford love by then, he was too busy conquering the world and laughing up his sleeve. But in the end I think the evidence is that he did love his father, and Falstaff, and his sons—he just had the devil of a way of showing it.
Shakespeare wasn’t generally drawn to powerful characters, but rather to ambiguous ones. Hamlet, Macbeth, Lear. Marlowe wrote about Tamburlaine, not Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote about Caesar’s murder, and Antony and Cleopatra’s romance, not about Augustus’s rise. He left Alexander alone—and yet he gave Hal, commonly called the second Alexander, four plays of his own. I think what delighted him in Hal is what delights us in the plays, his playfulness, his way of getting away with things, the chances he takes. His battle at Agincourt appeals to Shakespeare, where the few Englishmen overcame the French host with their new technology of Welsh longbows. He doesn’t show us the battle of Cordoba where the overwhelming forces of England and France broke the Moorish power in Spain, or the canals of Venice running red. He shows us the smiling face and the manipulation—the scene with the banker Demedici, the scene with the Imam, the scene with the Chinese ambassador, all of it edging on comedy—but none of it is outright comedy after Hal has taken the throne and turned his back on Falstaff. Hal’s a chancer, right to the end, even here as he turns his back on Aragon. He takes terrific chances and consistently gets away with it. This is what has won him the world—and yet it’s the risking that he has taken delight in, not the world.
Shakespeare mentions Hal conquering the world, but not, of course, kicking off the Renaissance. I suppose he was too close to that to see it. People argue that even without Hal’s conquests the ancient world would have been rediscovered and sparked a new interest in science—but why, without Hal’s conquest of Constantinople?
Both parts of Henry IV were first performed in London, at the Globe. There’s a dispute as to whether Henry V Part 1 was first performed there or at the Blue Pit in Constantinople. Whether or not there was an earlier London performance, Henry V Part 1 was early performed at court, and Part 2 was definitely first performed there. Shakespeare was commended for it by the aging John. There was a riot at the first performance in Jerusalem, the crowd came boiling out of the theatre at the mention of Edward’s revolt, still a touchy subject at that date. The four plays were performed more than fifty times in sixteen cities in the five years after they were written. They had an immediate appeal. They were popular not just with the English, who might have found a patriotic reason to cheer them, but with all the English-speaking people of Europe and Outremer. When Henry V Part 2 was first performed, the news had just come back to Constantinople of the discovery of the New World. Hal’s empire was already looking smaller than it had in Hal’s own day, and the breath of change was blowing from the west.
These days, it’s rare to see all four plays performed together. I can’t stress too much how it’s worth seeing them that way—the four plays are a character study of one man, and of kingship. Any one play is just a sliver of what all four are—you haven’t really seen these plays unless you’ve developed the portrait of Hal from seeing him develop from a young prince sneaking away to play to an old man reproving his grandson for the same thing.
The Shakespeare Players say they’re going to do all ninety plays before we get to Tau Ceti. Whether they do or not, take this opportunity to see all four of the Hal plays, playing in rotation in the Blue Cylinder Theatre every night for the next three weeks. You’ll laugh, you’ll be moved, and if you don’t have a better understanding of history and the world that sent us out, at least you’ll have a better understanding of complex tricky Hal.
Henry V portrait by Kinuko Craft.
This post originally appeared on Tor.com in April 2011.
Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published a collection of Tor.com pieces, three poetry collections and ten novels, including the Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others. Her most recent book is The Just City. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here irregularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.