Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: Henry V, Acts 1, 2, & 3

He was a king who pursued righteousness. He was a man who united England and France during the Hundred Years’ War. He was a leader who honored and loved his men as himself. He was Henry V.

It is a story of a search for self, of a test of faith. Henry’s father had just died, and his passing shattered all the young prince beliefs about life—how he used it for his own merriness and laughter, how he could care less about it because he was not yet king. With the passing of his father into heaven, however, all he had to cling to was God, and thus his life embarked upon a forever new course guided by the Christian faith.

Shakespeare does not dedicate the majority of Henry V to his initial acceptance of Christ, though. In fact, we only find out the depth of his salvation through a few offhand comments from the supporting cast (though Henry IV may offer more commentary on that). What we discover here is a testing of that faith, and how God can use the humblest mustard seed of that virtue for His glory, in this case upon the yet unseeded battleground of Agincourt, home to an awe-inspiring military victory and, according to Shakespeare, a lovely credit to God for all the honor.

(Note: All Shakespearean quotations are taken from the small Folger paperback edition of Henry V.)

“The courses of his youth promised it not. The breath no sooner left his father’s body but that his wildness, mortified in him, seemed to die too. Yea, at that very moment consideration like an angel came and whipped th’ offending Adam out of him, leaving his body as a paradise t’ envelop and contain celestial spirits.” ~Bishop of Canterbury, Act I, Scene i, Lines 26-33

Modern Translation: “The manner in which he lived his youth did not give any hint of religious fervor. Yet when his father died, his wildness died, too. At that very moment, maturity came like an angel and drove away his frivolousness, leaving his body as a place in which God’s spirit dwelt.”

I believe the bishop’s insight here illustrates perfectly the beauty of suffering—or, rather, its fruits. Sometimes we need a whip in order for our offense to come out and for God’s spirit to flow within us. In Henry’s case, that scourging came from the death of his father. Preceding this tragedy, the former prince had lived a callow life, ever careless of the strain and the future responsibility he would hold with the crown. Yet when Henry IV could live no longer on the earth, his son saw life’s value, abstained from all the worldliness he had lived in for so long, and studied the Scriptures—just in time for the beginning of a righteous rule.

“And God forbid, my dear and faithful lord, that you should fashion, wrest, or bow your reading, or nicely charge your understanding soul with opening titles mistreat, whose right suits not in native colors with the truth…Under this conjuration, speak, my lord, for we will hear, note, and believe in heart that what you speak is in your conscience washed as pure as sin with baptism.” ~King Henry V, Act I, Scene ii, Lines 33-36

Modern Translation: “God forbid, dear bishop, that you should mistreat me by distorting the facts. Your words must have the same color as truth. Therefore, under this request, speak. We will all believe that your message is as pure as a baptized conscience.”

As King Henry is consulting here with his religious officials, looking for counsel and sufficient reason for war with France, it would seem that the latter would tell the truth, especially under this “conjuration.” Yet the very opposite occurs. The garrulous bishops, though they read old laws and trace carefully the French lineage of Henry, never reveal their motive for going to war: security. As an essay in the Folger edition of the play (Shakespeare’s Henry V) states, “We hear bishops conniving for war so that they can postpone a bill in Parliament that would heavily tax the Church’s wealth.” Consequently, because they did not give the whole truth to their king, the bishops added corruption to the ensuing fight.

Yet even though Henry could not see through the bishops, I believe we can learn something from Henry’s going to the pastors first for their advice. He will do nothing without involving spiritual reality in his every decision. And as both Shakespeare and history teaches us, God does not forget Henry’s faith and desire for righteousness.

“The mercy that was quick in us but late by your own counsel is suppressed and killed. You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy, for your own reasons turn into your bosoms as dogs upon their masters, worrying you.” ~King Henry V, Act II, Scene ii, Lines 85-89

Modern Translation: “We extended mercy, but by your own former counsel, our gesture is now not only suppressed, but killed. You must not dare, for shame, to talk of mercy, now that your own advice is turned against you.”

The central question here is this: if you do not desire to show any mercy to those around you, no matter how trivial their sins may be, how should you receive mercy when you stumble? When Henry V, upon receiving merciless advice from traitors, exposes them as such, they beg for mercy, but he turns his back. It is not an unjust choice. God Himself, in His graciousness, gives us on average seventy-five years of mercy so we can turn back to Him, but His patience does not last forever. If you end up begging for mercy after death, His wrath is the only thing that will last as such.

“[D]evils…do botch and bungle up damnation with patches, colors, and with forms being fetched from glist’ring semblances of piety[.]” ~King Henry V, Act II, Scene ii, Lines 121-124

Modern Translation: “Devils dress damnation with clothes of glimmering piety.”

Though Satan is a trickster and cunning in all his schemes, I believe that the human conscience properly trained in the Lord’s army is more than capable of seeing through the devil’s masks. The blame for our sin, then, lies not in our capability but our inclination. Thus, one of Satan’s favorite tactics is to act holy, thus increasing our willingness to sin and even seeming to give us a sort of justification. Nevertheless, the devil is still the devil, no matter how heavenly he dresses himself in the morning.

“[W]hen lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.” ~King Henry V, Act III, Scene vi, Lines 114-116

Modern Translation: “When kindness and cruelty fight for a kingdom, the gentler side is the soonest winner.”

This, I believe, is a beautiful way to conclude, as it illustrates an oft-neglected point in theology. If you think about “lenity” as Christ’s side of the spiritual battle and “cruelty” as epitomized by that of Satan’s, you’ll also see that the “kingdom” they are fighting for is the same: your soul. It can only have one king, yet although both are waging war for it, each side uses a different tactic. Satan is constantly pulling for attention and will not let those he pursues “alone.” He will force you into his domain by any means necessary. We fall for him mainly because he disguises himself (as discussed above).

Yet God works in that subtle, nurturing manner, never clamoring for attention but always offering up some melody of love to the human heart. When we explore that melody, we realize it is true and good, and the guise of Satan falls to pieces. That is how God, although not exactly a “gamester,” is a gentle Creator—and also the “soonest winner.”

Acts 1, 2, and 3 of Henry V seem hardly to have any “Literary Wisdom” quotes since I mixed them all into one post; a reading of those acts proves that assumption correct. Shakespeare’s emphasis in this portion is not upon the witticisms of comedies nor the philosophy or theology of the tragedies. The first three acts are instead devoted to war strategy, to an inspiring motivational speech, to the renewal of hostility between England and France. Nevertheless, the few quotes discussed here embody key ideas executed upon during the fourth and fifth acts, and the events Shakespeare includes here will build both suspense, setting, and the desperate need for Henry’s faith in leading his men by God’s will and grace—especially as epitomized by the king’s prayer on the evening before Agincourt, which prayer I’ll discuss next week.


~Sarah Merly

March 7, 2018

Isaiah 53