Monday, May 12, 2008
It is easy to evaluate William Shakespeare’s history play King Henry V as possessing an epic quality, given the episodic presentation of Henry V as king with exemplary performance and owing to the series of triumphs he gains after his undertakings. He is the quintessential hero, the victorious colonizer of France, the brilliant political operator devoid of Richard II’s ineptitude, Richard III’s evil inclination, or Henry IV’s Machiavellian character. As such, he seems to provide the solution to the problem of modern politics as characterized by his predecessors. The play itself is a living testament to the celebration of the clever manner in which he successfully ruled England.
This heroic highlight is expressed in the prominent appearance of Henry V throughout the play. In the prequels, no single character ever dominates by being made to utter a bulk of lines even when the spotlight is on him/her. Also, the previous plays juxtapose characters in such a way that they are contrasted in equal footing—Richard II’s incompetence as opposed to Bolingbroke’s excellence and Prince Hal’s relaxedness as opposed to Hotspur’s seriousness, to mention just two such side-by-side placements. Meanwhile, in the play under study, Henry V readily eclipses any other character because he is shown to be the most important figure in the action, notwithstanding if he pales compared to the dramatically interesting characters of, say, Pistol or Fluellen. Like the average epic hero, Henry V deals with insurgents at England or French enemies overseas fast and triumphantly. Furthermore, there is no instance in the play wherein Henry V’s ostentation of power is seriously threatened. Even his French opponents recognize how admirable Henry V is, and the conspirators to the plot against the king repent at once and hold no grudge against him. His success gets raves from everybody, from the nobles to the clergy to the commoners to the military.
Owing to Henry V’s unhampered victories and, therefore, the absence of complication in either character or plot, Henry V can be read as an epic that lacks the complex dramatic narrative required to provide the major character a powerful conflict with which this character can develop insights from experiences. It seeks only to celebrate the various capacities of King Henry in executing justice, dealing with the enemy, leading a military crusade, setting up a royal union, among others. He performs all his functions in an episodic series, and is successful and efficient in doing so. Compared to the earlier rulers of England, Henry V is peerless as a political power wielder. Without the dynamism, his character creates a mythic quality that somehow departs from his humanity—he is flawless as a hero, a figure to embody the national pride of England. He may be looked up to as a hero, but the sanitized versions of his human life and royal history seem too good to be entirely true. Nonetheless, if only for the unblemished record of this king and his colonial exploits, he may provide inspiration for his people long after he is dead, as may be gleaned in his immortalization in the Shakespearean tetralogy.