Henry V (a.k.a. King Harry of England) has come a long way since his wild days as a rowdy and rebellious teenager don't you think? When this play opens, his days of carousing with his old scumbag Eastcheap friends are long gone and Henry is all grown up. Instead of spending all his time in seedy bars and taking part in highway robbery (like he did in Henry IV Part 1), Henry is a disciplined monarch and a brilliant military leader.
In case you hadn't noticed, Shakespeare takes every opportunity to remind us about this. In the first scene, the country's most important religious leaders (Canterbury and Ely) declare that Henry's transformation is a "blessing" and nothing short of a "miracle." A "miracle"? Wow. Sounds pretty impressive. Especially since Henry used to spend all his time with "unlettered, rude, and shallow" friends who filled their hours with "riots, banquets, sports" (1.1.59).
Nowadays, however, Henry's busy with important matters of state and everybody knows it. Or, almost everybody knows it. The only character who didn't get Shakespeare's memo on this is the Dauphin of France, whose insulting gift (a chest of tennis balls instead of the dukedoms Henry asked for) makes it clear that he thinks Henry is still a silly boy. (Ever do something bad as a kid that took for-e-ver for people to forget about? That's what Henry faces in this play.) So, although the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely think Henry's the best thing since sliced bread, not everyone's Henry's biggest fan.
In fact, some modern day literary critics also see Henry as a deeply flawed figure (read: a big old jerk). William Hazlitt (a famous 19th-century Shakespeare scholar) thought that Henry was an "amiable monster" and, more recently, Yale Professor Harold Bloom has said the following:
There's nothing noble about Hal. Hazlitt said we like him in the play, but he's an amiable monster. The 'amiable' is the modifier. He's a monster through and through. He butchers prisoners, betrays everybody, and seizes the main chance. (source)
Gosh. When it's put that way, Henry doesn't seem like such a great guy, does he? Oh, and did we mention that Henry isn't exactly a loyal friend? Harold Bloom has never forgiven Henry for rejecting his old pal Falstaff (Henry IV Part 2) and critics frequently remind us that Henry is really cold-blooded when he condemns his old friend Bardolph for stealing (3.6).
Still, you might be thinking, "Dang! What's up with all the haters?!" After all, Henry is the title hero of our play. Plus, he's probably England's greatest warrior king ever because he leads a tiny, ragtag army to an impossible victory at the Battle of Agincourt. He's the ultimate underdog, right? Well, sure. There are times when Shakespeare obviously wants us to see him as an awesome leader. But, it's a lot more complicated because Henry is far from perfect. For a lot of critics, this character's biggest problem is that being the King of England isn't good enough for him. He also wants to be the King of France and he's willing to declare war and invade another country to get his way, even though it means a lot of people will suffer.
Let's think about Henry's decision to invade France. Henry thinks he's got a right to claim the French throne and he also believes that invading France is the best thing to do, even though he knows that war will have devastating consequences. How does Henry justify his actions, though? Basically, he says that God is on his side. When he officially announces that he's going to invade France, he portrays himself as God's avenger and suggests that his cause is "well-hallow'd," as if he's fighting a kind of holy war:
But this lies all within the will of God,
To whom I do appeal, and in whose name
Tell you the Dauphin I am coming on,
To venge me as I may and to put forth
My rightful hand in a well-hallowed cause. (1.2.302-306)
Not everyone is supportive of Henry's military campaign, though. When the King disguises himself as a commoner and walks around camp among his troops, he finds out that some of the soldiers are skeptical of his motives and think that it will be Henry's fault when they are killed in battle:
But if the cause be not good, the King
himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all
those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a
battle, shall join together at the latter day, and cry
all 'We died at such a place,' some swearing, some
crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left
poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe,
some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard
there are few die well that die in a battle, for how
can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood
is their argument? Now, if these men do not die
well, it will be a black matter for the king that led
them to it, whom to disobey were against all proportion
of subjection. (4.1.138-151)
While Henry spends most of his time worrying about how much power and glory he'll earn if he defeats France, his common soldiers worry about whether or not they'll lose their "legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle." According to the soldier, Williams, Henry is ultimately responsible for horrific consequences of waging war. Add to that the fact that Henry orders the slaughter of the French prisoners at the end of the Battle of Agincourt (4.6). (This, by the way, is why WWI-era-scholar Gerald Gould said that Shakespeare "must have felt revolted by Henry's brutal and degrading militarism.") For modern day audiences, it's hard to believe Henry when he insists that he is "no tyrant, but a Christian king" (1.2.249).
Regardless of whether or not we think Henry is wrong to invade France, it's clear that we're meant to see him as a brilliant military leader. Notice how Shakespeare never actually tells us (or even really shows us) exactly how Henry leads his outnumbered troops to victory at the Battle of Agincourt? Shakespeare leaves the details kind of fuzzy on purpose, so Henry will come off as a genius.
Henry's leadership skills are also apparent in his stunning motivational speeches to his troops. During the siege of Harfleur, he declares "Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more," and most of his guys go rushing into a hole that's been blown into the town walls, which is crazy dangerous. Later, at the Battle of Agincourt, he convinces his outnumbered army to fight. (The following speech is long, we know, but it's arguably the most important passage in the play.)
God's peace! I would not lose so great an honor
As one man more, methinks, would share from me,
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart. His passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse.
We would not die in that man's company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day and comes safe home
Will stand o' tiptoe when the day is named
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors
And say 'Tomorrow is Saint Crispian.'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remembered.
This story shall the good man teach his son,
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now abed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day. (4.3.34-69)
(After you read the speech, you can check out this quick clip of Kenneth Branagh's version in the 1989 film.)
The most important thing to know about this speech is that Henry takes something that is a serious disadvantage (the fact that his army is totally outnumbered) and somehow manages to turn it into an advantage. How does he do it? Henry starts out by admitting that, yep, the English troops are outnumbered in a big way. But that, he says, just means that there will be more honor for the "few" men who do fight in battle. (As if there's only so much honor at out there and Henry's soldiers will get a bigger piece of the honor pie since they don't have to share it with a bunch of other guys.)
Henry's next move is to declare that he doesn't even want to fight next to someone who would rather be at home watching TV. In fact, he'll even give them money for the return trip to London if they'd rather not be at Agincourt right now. Still, if anybody does go home, they'll never get to say that they fought with Henry on St. Crispin's Day (the feast of the martyred twin brothers, October 25). Every year for the rest of their lives, St. Crispin's Day will arrive and the soldiers who choose to fight will be able to show off his scars and old war wounds and say, "Hey, I fought by King Henry's side" on this day. Not only that, but Henry suggests that, because of this, they'll be forever associated with the saints, Crispin and Crispinian. (Who wouldn't want to be remembered as a war hero on an important holiday?)
For a lot of audiences, the most compelling part of Henry's speech is when he gestures toward the brotherhood of warfare – "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers" – suggesting that, from this day forward, every man will be forever tied to the king and his fellow soldiers. It's obvious that this speech shows off Henry's chops as a convincing orator and a leader capable of motivating his men (who are exhausted and outnumbered) into action.