Study Guide

Henry V Society and Class

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Society and Class

By my troth, he'll yield the crow a pudding
one of these days. The King has killed his heart.
Good husband, come home presently. (2.1.85-87)

Shakespeare brings Mistress Quickly back for a few more good times in <em>Henry V</em>, but he doesn't let her live long. (Toward the end of the play, we learn that she, like Falstaff, has died from a venereal disease. This follows on the heels of the news that both Bardolph and Nim have been hanged for stealing.) Why does Shakespeare kill off so many of his low-brow characters from Eastcheap in this play? Is it because they're too rowdy and disruptive? Is Shakespeare worried that they'll detract from Henry's serious war campaign? Something else?

Which is a wonder how his grace should glean it,
Since his addiction was to courses vain,
His companies unlettered, rude, and shallow,
His hours filled up with riots, banquets, sports,
And never noted in him any study,
Any retirement, any sequestration
From open haunts and popularity. (1.1.56-62)

In the previous passage, we asked why Shakespeare killed off so many of his seedy Eastcheap characters. When we think about how Henry has put the rowdy days of his youth (and his old Eastcheap friends) behind him, it seems like Shakespeare had to get rid of Falstaff, Quickly, Bardolph, and Nim to signal that Henry really has buried his past.

Therefore doth heaven divide
The state of man in divers functions,
Setting endeavor in continual motion,
To which is fixèd as an aim or butt
Obedience; for so work the honeybees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts,
Where some like magistrates correct at home,
Others like merchants venture trade abroad,
Others like soldiers armèd in their stings
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent royal of their emperor,
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-eyed justice with his surly hum
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone. (1.2.191-212)

Canterbury's speech is interesting because the Archbishop uses such vivid imagery to justify the subservient relationship between subjects and their monarch. Here, he makes an analogy between society and a colony of honeybees. Like people, honeybees have a leader (in the Renaissance people thought that queen bees were male) and the rest of the hive works toward a common goal. In other words, Canterbury is arguing that the division of people into various classes is as <em>natural </em>as a hive of bees working together in harmony.

though I speak it to you, I think the King is but a
man as I am.  The violet smells to him as it doth to
me.  The element shows to him as it doth to me. All
his senses have but human conditions. His ceremonies
laid by, in his nakedness he appears but a man,
and though his affections are higher mounted than
ours, yet when they stoop, they stoop with the like
wing. Therefore, when he sees reason of fears as we
do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as
ours are. Yet, in reason, no man should possess him
with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it,
should dishearten his army. (4.1.104-116)

Here, Henry tries to convince everyone that the "king is but a man," just like everyone else. This is a nice idea, but is it really true?

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, who to disobey were against all proportion
of subjection. (4.1.138-151)

King Henry may view warfare as a way to gain honor and glory but here, Williams reminds us that the commoner soldier is worried about more practical issues, like losing their legs, arms, and heads during battle.

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. (4.3.62-69)

We've discussed this passage elsewhere, but it's important enough to talk about here as well. When Henry delivers his famous St. Crispin's Day speech, he assures his men that, when they fight together in battle, they will become "a band of brothers." Presumably, this newly forged bond will transcend barriers that have been erected by divisions in social status, since most of Henry's soldiers are simple "yeoman" (lower in status than gentlemen). Is Henry sincere when he makes this speech? (Henry's treatment of Williams later in the play suggests that he isn't.)

No, great King.
I come to thee for charitable license,
That we may wander o’er this bloody field
To book our dead and then to bury them,
To sort our nobles from our common men,
For many of our princes—woe the while!—
Lie drowned and soaked in mercenary blood.
So do our vulgar drench their peasant limbs
In blood of princes, and the wounded steeds
Fret fetlock deep in gore, and with wild rage
Yerk out their armèd heels at their dead masters,
Killing them twice. O, give us leave, great king,
To view the field in safety and dispose
Of their dead bodies.(4.7.73-86)

Here, we learn that it's really important to the French that they be able to sift the battlefield in order to separate their dead. (Since they don't want any dead commoners soaking up the blood of dead noblemen.) The language of this passage is both graphic and disturbing, and it reminds us that rank and nobility are important markers of identity.

Where is the number of our English dead?
                                       Herald gives him another paper.
Edward the Duke of York, the Earl of Suffolk,
Sir Richard Ketly, Davy Gam, esquire;
None else of name, and of all other men
But five and twenty. O God, thy arm was here,
And not to us, but to thy arm alone
Ascribe we all! When, without stratagem,
But in plain shock and even play of battle,
Was ever known so great and little loss
On one part and on th' other? Take it, God,
For it is none but thine. (4.8.106-116)

When the English count up the numbers of their casualties, we notice how careful they are to distinguish the deaths of commoners (whose names aren't even read aloud) from the deaths of noblemen ("men of name"). What's up with that? We thought they were all supposed to be a noble "band of brothers"?

Here, uncle Exeter, fill this glove with crowns
And give it to this fellow.—Keep it, fellow,
And wear it for an honor in thy cap
Till I do challenge it.—Give him the crowns.—
And, captain, you must needs be friends with him.
By this day and this light, the fellow has
mettle enough in his belly.—Hold, there is twelvepence
for you, and I pray you to serve God and keep
you out of prawls and prabbles and quarrels and
dissensions, and I warrant you it is the better for
I will none of your money. (4.8.59-70)

After playing a humiliating joke on a commoner named Williams, King Henry fills his glove with some money and gives it to him as peace offering, which Williams seems to accept. Still, when Fluellen tries to throw some more coins at the problem, Williams is insulted and refuses to accept Captain Fluellen's money. If Henry wasn't a king, would Williams' have taken his money?

It is not a fashion for the maids in France
to kiss before they are married, would she say?
Oui, vraiment.
O Kate, nice customs curtsy to great
kings. Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined
within the weak list of a country’s fashion. We are
the makers of manners, Kate, and the liberty that
follows our places stops the mouth of all find-faults,
as I will do yours for upholding the nice fashion of
your country in denying me a kiss. Therefore,
patiently and yielding. (5.2.276-286)

According to Henry, Catherine doesn't have to live by the same rules that other young women live by because she's royalty.

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