Characters in plays can serve many dramatic purposes. Their basic function is to represent the various people involved in the story. Often, however, they can have other functions too. Sometimes a character may be there to advance the plot in some way, or be a source of conflict in the drama. Also, a character may have some particular symbolic or thematic importance.
In HENRY V, the character of Henry V, is the most important and most developed. Not only does the character of Henry V represent the historical figure, but he also carries or embodies the central theme of the play, which is the notion of Henry V as the ideal Christian king. The other characters in the play are not as developed as Henry V, as their essential function is to mirror aspects of this theme. The epic nature of the drama also means that the focus is less on character development and more on portraying the events surrounding King Henry’s success in his war with the French.
Henry V is the central character in this play and as such his character gives the play its unity. Each scene of the play illustrates, or provides a contrast to, different aspects of his character:
* He is pious. Throughout the play he maintains that it is by God’s power, not his, that they will win or not win the war.
* Henry V is learned in theology, politics, war and the affairs of state. He wisely seeks the counsel and support of Canterbury, Westmoreland and Exeter before he commits himself to war.
* He is politically astute, for example, when he accepts the Archbishop’s advice on the Salique Law he puts the Archbishop in the position of being responsible for the war. The King also prudently solves the problem of possible invasion by the Scots before he makes his final decision to declare war on the French.
* Henry V is a great military leader. His fighting strategies are successful, he has the confidence of his soldiers. He is always to the front of the battle; he refuses to be ransomed; he is not distanced from his men, and his eloquent speeches inspire them to fight bravely.
* His negotiations with the French show that he is astute and intelligent in matters of foreign diplomacy.
* The King is also both just and merciful. He releases a man for committing a minor offence against him.
* He puts the affairs of state before his personal needs. On the discovery of the treachery of his three friends, he rises above personal vengeance and his own inclination towards mercy and orders that they be executed for the security of the state.
* As a King, the character of Henry V can never allow himself to fully trust others, or reveal his true feelings for fear that his authority will be undermined. He must always be aware of the needs and security of his country and even though he is aware of the suffering that war brings, its political importance outweighs any personal or moral concern he may have. It is only when Henry V plays his joke on Williams and when he courts Princess Katherine in prose rather than verse that a more personal side to his character is revealed.
Criticism on the character of Henry V varies from those who see him as an inspirational character, portraying the Elizabethan ideal of the all powerful, unassailable Christian monarch ruling a unified nation; to those who are offended by the character saying that he is hypocritical, an absolute monarch and ruthless militarist who uses the cloak of piety to commit cold-blooded murder.
HENRY V is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays to have a Chorus at the beginning of each scene. The Chorus is spoken by a single actor who comments on the external events of the play rather than on any inner drama occurring within its characters. The Chorus narrates those aspects of HENRY V that Shakespeare was unable to show physically on stage. It also informs the audience of the time and place the action occurs and arouses their interest and expectations in the events and characters they are about to see.
THE MEN OF THE CHURCH – The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely:
The Archbishop of Canterbury is the highest ecclesiastical in England. He is a learned and politically shrewd man, whose offer of financial support from the Church for the King’s army and affirmation of Henry V’s claim to the French throne protect Church property from confiscation by the parliament. The Bishop of Ely supports Canterbury when he outlines his arguments to Henry V.
THE ENGLISH NOBLEMEN – Dukes of Bedford, Exeter, Gloucester, York and Westmoreland, Earls of Salisbury and Warwick,
Sir Thomas Erpingham [a gentleman]:
These English noblemen give Henry V sound counsel and support him fully in his bid for the French throne. All have characters that are loyal, honourable and courageous. Many are related to him. The Dukes of Bedford and Gloucester are his brothers,York a cousin, of whom he is very fond, and the Duke of Exeter his uncle, trusted advisor and statesman. The Duke of Westmoreland and the Earls of Salisbury andWarwick are patriots.
Sir Thomas Erpingham is a gentleman in command of a part of the King’s army. He is devoted to the King and, as is shown by Williams’ comment in Act IV, has the respect of the men he leads.
THE CONSPIRATORS – Earl of Cambridge, Sir Thomas Grey and Lord Scroop:
The three conspirators agree to assassinate Henry V as he prepares to leave for France from Southampton. All three are friends of the King, in particular Lord Scroop, who was a very close friend and confidant whom Henry V admired as a learned and religious man and whose treachery greatly hurt him. The traitors do not reveal why they agreed to kill the King for the French.
THE FOUR CAPTAINS – Gower, Fluellen, Macmorris and Jamy:
The four Captains are each from a different part of Britain; Fluellen is Welsh, Gower is English, Jamy a Scot and Macmorris, Irish. Shakespeare has used these four characters to suggest that England is unified and controls the whole of the British Isles. Fluellen, Jamy and Macmorris have quite distinct accents and each of the four has a character that is true to national type as seen by Shakespeare. Despite the fact they may quarrel amongst themselves, all are unanimous in their loyalty to the King
Captain Fluellen is an eccentric and amusing character. He is garrulous, quick tempered, principled, pedantic, loyal, brave, a gallant soldier and fiercely proud of being Welsh. When Pistol mocks him for wearing a leek on St. David’s Day, Fluellen beats him. Shakespeare has given him a very distinct Welsh accent and a unique way of speaking English which provides the opportunity for much comedy in his scenes.
The English Gower and Fluellen are good friends. Gower is honest, brave and perceptive about human nature, he warns Fluellen of Pistol’s true nature. Gower’s sensible and straightforward character nicely accentuates Fluellen’s eccentricities and adds to the comedy of their scenes.
Captains Macmorris and Jamy appear in one scene only. Their presence reinforces Shakespeare’s suggestion of a unified Britain. As with Fluellen, both have distinctive dialects and their characters also conform to national types. The Irishman, Macmorris, is testy and excitable while the Scottish Jamy is a serious and pensive man.
THE ORDINARY SOLDIERS – Alexander Court, John Bates and Michael Williams:
Court, Bates and Williams represent the attitudes of the common English soldier in the play. Their discussion with the disguised Henry V reveals their acceptance of their duty to fight for the King. Whether the cause is just or unjust is not for them to question or know. Williams, in particular, is an honest and outspoken character.
BARDOLPH, NYM and PISTOL:
These characters are used by Shakespeare to provide comic relief after the more serious scenes and also to change the mood and pace of the play. These characters are usually from the lower classes and their speeches are usually delivered in prose.
Unlike the other Englishmen who go off to the war in this play these three characters are cowards, cheats and thieves. They lack absolutely any sense of honour, courage or nationalism. There is much comedy when the audience sees that their brave words are often matched with cowardly actions, as in Act 2, when Nym and Pistol bluster and threaten each other with violence in their quarrel over Hostess Quickly. Neither man actually has the courage to fight the other. To add to the humour of their characters each man has oddly distinguishing features.
Bardolph has a very red, bumpy nose and face which are often the subject of humour from other characters. Bardolph is a character from Shakespeare’s earlier plays. InHENRY IV, along with Falstaff and Pistol, he is one of Prince Hal’s (young Henry V) drinking companions. In HENRY V however, the King, because of his position, can no longer have the companionship of men such as these and so their characters are now less amusing. Bardolph is now a cowardly character and a thief. Not for him the glory and honour of fighting for one’s country, his only interest in going to war is to make profit. He is hanged in France for stealing a pax.
Like his friend Bardolph, Pistol is also a rogue and a coward. His cowardice contrasts humorously with his pompous and bombastic speech, which unlike the other comic characters, is in verse. Pistol is married to Hostess Quickly. Pistol is a thief, he has no concept of honour, nationalism, nor respect for tradition. At the end of the play he plans to return to England and continue his life as a thief, using the wounds he received in a beating from Fluellen, to pretend that he is a wounded war veteran.
The third member of this group is Nym. Nym has long shaggy hair and is compared to a dog because of his appearance. A pessimist, he has a melancholy temperament and thus, is usually silent. Like the others he is also a coward and a thief. He is also hanged for stealing.
The Boy, who at the beginning of the play was in service to Falstaff, goes to war in the service of Nym, Pistol and Bardolph when Falstaff dies. He is an intelligent, witty and perceptive character. His assessment of the activities and natures of the three he is travelling with provides the audience with an honest and true picture of their thieving and cowardice. He is a moral youth as he decides that he does not want to join them in their life of crime. He determines to seek service elsewhere. The Boy is killed during the Battle of Agincourt.
In HENRY V, Shakespeare uses the armies to reflect his view of national differences that exist between the two warring countries.
The English army quickly and enthusiastically assembles and readies for war. There is an easy relationship between soldiers of all ranks and all parts of the British Isles. The army, with Henry V in direct command, is united, resolute and generally well disciplined in the face of depleting numbers, sickness, harsh conditions and the knowledge that they face a much larger and fresher French army.
By contrast, the French army is slow to organise (thus, the loss of Harfleur) as it is led by an isolated and frivolous élite of nobles. Unlike the English camp, there are no scenes depicting unity between the French nobles and ordinary soldiers. The French army is both poorly prepared and led, and so, is defeated in battle.
THE FRENCH KING, Charles VI:
The French King is older than Henry V. He is a dignified man and a prudent ruler. History and experience have taught him to take threats from the English seriously. He orders that the country be readied to meet the English invaders. Unlike Henry V, he is never seen with his soldiers nor does he fight in the battle himself. At the conclusion of the peace negotiations he makes a conciliatory speech in which he concedes to all of Henry V’s demands. He also offers hope for peace, unity and prosperity between the two countries.
THE DAUPHIN, Lewis:
The Dauphin is a young man and heir to the French throne. His arrogance, vanity and boastfulness are contrasted with the mature nobility of
Henry V. In Act 1 his insolence leads him to taunt Henry V by sending him a basket of tennis balls. Again in Act 2 he shows his lack of judgement and rashness when he refers to Henry V as a vain, shallow youth. Despite all the information he receives on Henry V, the Dauphin fails to realise that Henry V is now a responsible monarch, no longer the young, undisciplined Prince Hal.
THE FRENCH NOBLEMEN – the Constable, Dukes of Orleans, Bourbon, Bretagne and Burgendy, Lords Rambures and Grandpré:
The Constable is the commander-in-chief of the French army. At first the Constable underestimates Henry V’s ability to successfully invade France. However, as the play progresses he revises his opinion of Henry V. He is a capable leader, confident that the larger French army will win the war. The Constable is deeply concerned for the honour of France and is quite prepared to die for it in battle. Unlike Henry V however, the Constable is never seen conversing with his soldiers. It is the Constable who leads the French soldiers into battle at Agincourt; he also dies in this battle.
The Dukes of Orleans, Bretagne and Bourbon are contemptuous of the English army. Both Bretagne and Bourbon are ashamed of the French losses to the English and are eager to fight in order to restore French honour. Lords Rambures and Grandpré are both commanders in the French army. Unlike the English nobility, the French nobility who fight in the war are never seen with their soldiers.
The Duke of Burgendy is a powerful noble who takes part as a mediator in the peace negotiations at the end of the play. His concern with the destruction and decay that has occurred as a result of the war provides an alternative view to the honour and glory of war as presented by Henry V in his St. Crispian Day speech.
THE FRENCH HERALD, MONTJOY:
As a Herald, Montjoy eloquently represents the French King. He carries his King’s demands and messages to Henry V. Henry V, giving praise where he feels it is due, acknowledges Montjoy’s skills as a herald and rewards him with a purse.
THE WOMEN IN THE PLAY : Hostess Quickly, Princess Katherine, Alice and the French Queen:
There are few women characters in HENRY V. These female characters generally embody the Elizabethan ideal of duty and obedience as befits their femaleness and their place in the social hierarchy.
Hostess Nell Quickly is one of the comic characters in the play. She is married to Pistol, having previously been engaged to Nym. Her concern for Falstaff’s illness and her moving account of his death show her to be a warm and caring character. Nell dies in London while Pistol is away at the war.
Princess Katherine is a character who is very aware of her role and duty in life. She accepts that her marriage will be one of political necessity determined by her father, the King. Thus, in Act 3 she begins to learn English knowing that she will be Henry V’s bride. In the final Act she reveals a more spirited side to her character when she rejects Henry V’s flattery.
Alice is Princess Katherine’s maid and companion. Her attempts to teach the Princess English provide the play with some gentle humour.
The Queen (Isabel) appears only in the final scene of the play. She joins in the peace negotiations in the hope that her woman’s voice will ensure that a peaceful settlement be reached. At the completion of the negotiations she asks God to bless the marriage between Henry V and her daughter, Katherine.