Henry V: Understanding the Role of God in Politics

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: How to Read and Understand Shakespeare

By Marc C. Conner, Ph.D., Washington and Lee University

How does understanding the role of God or religion help us decipher the last history play of William Shakespeare, Henry V? Henry V is one of the difficult and ambiguous characters to construe in the Shakespearean play. A simple depiction of this character is elusive as he is a master of theater and adorns many guises. Hence, we try to interpret this complex character and scrutinize questions related to religion and politics with the drama of ideas tool.

Scene of Battle of Agincourt, the English army is against the French army.
Battle of Agincourt, where the English army led by Henry V achieved victory in spite of being outnumbered by the French (Image: Unknown – Ms 6 f.243 Battle of Agincourt, 1415, English with Flemish illuminations, from the ‘St. Alban’s Chronicle’ by Thomas Walsingham (vellum), English School, (15th century) / Public domain)

The tetralogy of Shakespeare’s history plays involve a number of people and activities, resulting in heroic actions and movement of a nation or people, all of which are characteristic of an epic. The three preceding history plays- Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, and Henry IV, Part 2 lead up to Henry V, the concluding play in Shakespeare’s second history cycle.

These history plays of Shakespeare are complex, ambiguous, and uncertain. There is no single or correct answer, which is an inseparable part of the Shakespearean genius. Hence, when we try to dissect these plays, they present us with a range of options. These choices can be better understood by the use of certain tools, which provide us with an in-depth understanding of the climactic play in the tetralogy. The drama of ideas tool analyses the intellectual context of the play’s engagement with history, with specific emphasis on the role of God in politics and history.

Archbishop of Canterbury

The first scene of the play introduces the Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest Church official of the land. One would expect the Archbishop to delve into matters of prayer, miracle, and religious faith. But on the contrary, the priest and a fellow cleric are involved in a serious discussion of a complicated bill. The law if implemented would be financially detrimental to the Church, confiscating almost half its wealth.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury.
Archbishop of Canterbury. In the play, the Archbishop, in addition to being a man of faith, was also involved in political matters of the State.
(Image: Rudolph Ackermann/Public domain)

Desperate to impede passing of the bill in the House of Commons, they decide to distract the King. They present him with a very complex, legalistic argument that justifies his claim to the French throne. And Canterbury succeeds in convincing Henry to invade France. The play describes the presence of cold-blooded church figures of medieval times who are ready to sacrifice thousands of lives to protect their power and property. It could also be interpreted from the verses that the role of God seems to be null and void. Thus, Henry starts off from a world where God is non-existent.

Learn more about politics as theater in Henry IV, Part I.

Paradoxes in Henry’s Faith

Henry however contradicts his own acts at crucial moments in the play. He is anxious on the night before the Battle of Agincourt when he learns that the English are outnumbered by the superior French forces. Hence, he implores God not to punish him for his father’s sins against Richard II. This prayer described in the play is remarkable as it provides a glimpse of the tetralogy of history plays from Richard II through Henry V

Battle of Agincourt fought between Kingdom of England led by Henry V and Kingdom of France, 15th century miniature
Battle of Agincourt took place on Crispin’s Day- 25th October 1415. It was a battle between the English and the French where the English army won despite being outnumbered by the French. (Image: Chroniques d’Enguerrand de Monstrelet (early 15th century)/Public domain)

Henry asks God to give courage to his soldiers and give them strength to battle the numbers against them. He admits that his father committed a crime by dethroning Richard II. Henry enumerates the ways in which he has tried to seek absolution and hired five hundred poor to pray twice a day throughout the year to pardon him for the bloodshed. He also promises to do more. On the pretext of praying for courage of his soldiers, Henry himself has a compulsive need for God’s mercy and pardon. Though Henry received the crown through proper succession, he is consumed with the guilt that his father took the crown unjustly from God’s anointed king.

While we may be inclined to consider this as evidence for Henry’s deep faith and dependence on God, but his ways remain questionable. For instance, Henry pays other people to pray for him and makes us wonder if his religious faith is just skin deep. Is this religious faith also just one more role the master of the stage plays?

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Henry’s Emphasis on the Role of God in the Battle of Agincourt

When Henry V learns from the French Herald that the English have won the Battle of Agincourt he immediately gives the entire credit to God and says, “Praised be God, and not our strength, for it!” Similarly when he is informed of the astounding victory where only 25 English are slain as compared to 10,000 French, he once again attributes the victory to God and exclaims, “O God, thy arm was here; / And not to us but to thy arm alone / Ascribe we all.”

 Henry’s religious nature is underscored in several verses and on his triumphant return to London he states, “And be it death proclaimed through our host / To boast of this, or take that praise from God / Which is his only,” concluding that “God fought for us.” It is difficult to interpret if Henry V is a cynical manipulator of faith or humble believer. The King seems to manipulate every scene and the challenge is to distinguish between the king who is acting and the one who is sincere.

Learn more about Henry IV, part 2-contrast and complexity.

Common Questions about Henry V-Understanding the Role of God in Politics

Q: What are the famous history plays of Shakespeare?

Shakespeare wrote eight major history plays, which he wrote as two series in groups of four. While the first tetralogy consists of the three Henry VI plays and Richard III, the second tetralogy consists of Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, and Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V. The second tetralogy has a deep connect with the last play, Henry V.

Q: Who was Henry V?

Henry V was the main character of the 16th century play written by William Shakespeare. He was one of England’s popular Christian kings, who won the famous Battle of Agincourt against the French.

Q:What is the summary of the play Henry V?

While the earlier plays depicted Henry V as a madcap prince, this play focuses on the glorious expedition to heroism of its central figure, Henry V. He invades France after an insult from the French Dauphin, delivers the magnificent St. Crispin’s Day speech and wins the battle against the French.

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Richard II: Shakespeare Questions Divine Right of Kings
The Main Characters in Henry IV, Part 1