Ace G. Pilkington
(originally published in Midsummer Magazine, Summer 1997)
Shakespeare's history is, of course, refashioned into drama--shortened, sharpened, and sometimes even shattered to suit the demands of his medium. In his Second Tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V), he has two plays that are close to historical truth and two that have been distorted by the large shape and larger wit of Jack Falstaff. Richard II being entirely and Henry V comparatively Falstaff-free are correspondingly closer to accuracy. Indeed, the main plot and the major motivations in Shakespeare's Henry V are as true in the world of facts as they are to their own universe of fictions.
Even Henry's wild youth and clear conversion on his accession to kingship, distorted as they have been by legend and enlarged by Shakespeare's own Falstaffian magnifying glass, have some basis in reality. Thus, Christopher Hibbert says, "The gay, even foppish, youth had become a grave and thoughtful man" (Agincourt [Norwalk, Connecticut: The Easton Press, 1992], 19). His father's death had prompted Henry to withdraw by himself for prayer "and now as he was anointed ... his devout and humble behavior impressed all who saw him" (Hibbert 19). As Christopher Allmand puts it, "Henry had gone through a moral and spiritual conversion" (Henry V [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1992], 63).
The united England that Henry leaves behind him when he sails for France, so different from the angry factions that had haunted his father's reign, is also correct. In the words of Peter Saccio, "Although no group of real human beings could ever achieve such unanimity and uniformity as the magnates do in Shakespeare's version of Henry's court and Henry's camp, the dramatic effect constitutes, in its way, a reasonably accurate depiction of Henry's achievement in England" (Shakespeare's English Kings: History, Chronicle, and Drama [New York: Oxford University Press, 1977], 70). The plot of Scrope, Gray and Cambridge, the only dynastic threat during Henry's reign, was undertaken on behalf of the earl of March, whom some considered the rightful heir to the throne. Henry's grip on his countrymen's hearts was so firm that the conspiracy was reported to Henry by the earl of March himself, who had earlier been released from house arrest and restored to a noble (if not regal) position on Henry's orders.
Regarding Harfleur, Shakespeare's history betters his instruction. His source told him that "The souldiors were ransomed, and the towne sacked" (Geoffrey Bullough, editor, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. 4 [London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962], 388), but, in fact, Harfleur surrendered as a result of negotiation. Though citizens of Harfleur who were not prepared to swear allegiance to Henry were expelled from their city, "Harfleur was not sacked--as the French expected it to be--and the deported women were not only allowed to take what possessions they could carry but were even provided with small sums of money to help them on their sad way" (Harold F. Hutchison, Henry V: A Biography [New York: Dorset Press, 1967], 114).
The policy of leniency which Shakespeare's Henry expounds is also true to history. The English king regarded himself as King of France as well, and he saw the French as his subjects. Henry's soldiers were ordered to behave with decency and punished brutally when they did not. "The hanging of Shakespeare's fictional Bardolph for robbing a church is based upon a historical incident: a nameless soldier was in fact executed for such a theft" (Saccio 82).
The central event of Henry V, the battle of Agincourt with a startling English victory against seemingly insuperable French odds is also fact. "It has been calculated that the English casualties were only between 400 and 500, whereas the French were nearer 7,000" (Hutchison 125). Though Shakespeare's numbers are higher for the French and lower for the English, his nearly unbelievable report of the duke of York and the earl of Suffolk as the only noble casualties the English suffered is correct (Hutchison 125). However, as Saccio points out, "York perished, not by the sword, but by suffocation or a heart attack after falling off his horse. He was quite fat" (84). It was, of course, the deadly impact of the British longbows and not the direct intervention of the Almighty that was responsible for Henry's victory, but Shakespeare is again following history (and Henry) when he has his hero ascribe the result of the battle to God. Henry was (in life as in Shakespeare) looking for divine sanction for his royal position. Many still believed that Henry IV had usurped the throne. Indeed, when the negotiations between Charles VI and Henry V had broken down and it was clear that war was coming, the French replied, "With respect to those things to which you say you have a right, you have no lordship, not even to the Kingdom of England, which belongs to the true heirs of the late King Richard" (cited in Hibbert 40). There was no better answer to such an argument than a victory which seemed beyond the unaided capacity of Henry's mortal troops.
Even the fairy tale, romantic comedy elements in the play have their counterparts in reality. In spite of the politics swirling around them, Henry's wooing of Katherine and their love for each other are also based on fact. Desmond Seward makes it sound as though Henry wanted marriage with Katherine as part of the peace treaty, not for political but personal reasons, "The king ... was enchanted by the girl. He regarded her as the only possible bride for him, if contemporaries are to be believed." (Henry V As Warlord [London: Sidgwick & Jackson, 1987], 130-131). After their marriage, Henry wanted her with him even when he was involved in difficult siege operations and "had a house built for her and her damsels near his tents, which had been placed at some distance from the town so that the cannon might not disturb them" (Margaret Wade Labarge, Henry V: The Cautious Conqueror [New York: Stein and Day, 1975], 161).
If Shakespeare's Henry has more charm and less fanaticism than his real counterpart, if Shakespeare compresses a long and vicious campaign into a few glorious or humorous high points, he has still painted a remarkably true-to-life picture, complete with moral ambiguities and wartime cruelties. And the Chorus's speech with which Shakespeare ends the play, telling of Henry's death and his empire's destruction, yet balancing that with his continuing glory in the memories of his countrymen, is as objective a judgment as could be expected from the most disinterested of historians.
Copyright © 1997 by Ace G. Pilkington