Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: Henry V’s Prayer

Note: You may recall that in the first “Literary Wisdom” post for Henry V, I stressed the Christian side of the king. While Shakespeare certainly portrays him that way, the more I look into history and literary criticism of the play, I find that the line between “Christian” and “unsaved” as regarding King Henry is blurred, to say the least. Some of his actions I wholly disagree with, and I wonder if he really walked his talk. Nevertheless, though Henry and Shakespeare’s interpretation of him might be flawed, I still believe the Bard has fictionalized this king’s history with a theological flair, which is why I will continue talking about Henry V as if we knew for sure that he was who he said he was in Christ. That said, I’d encourage you not to take this post as plain truth but to consider it and interpret it in light of other interpretations. Sometimes we forget that there’s always sinfulness in each fleshly soul.

Also, please click here for background info on Henry V before reading. It will be extremely helpful in understanding this post. Thank you!

To overcome a trial is to offer up a prayer.

It’s a principle every Christian has heard and attempts to live by, yet fails when the time to apply it stands at the doorstep of our lives. Even one of the greatest kings in England, in history, and in the world—Henry V—remembered only after he and his bosom “debate[d] awhile.” Yet, in the midst of worry, he still gets down on his knees in prayer, and that is why his prayer is so fascinating. Here Shakespeare gives us a highly emotional portrait of a crucial point in theology while adding a sorrowful mood to the already tense first scene of act IV. Have you ever wondered what the value of works is in trying to pardon ourselves, or mulled over what attitude we should take in approaching Almighty God? Read below for Shakespeare’s insight.

Recognition of God’s Sovereignty and a Humble Plea

“O God of battles, steel my soldiers’ hearts. Possess them not with fear. Take from them now the sense of reck’ning or th’ opposed numbers pluck their hearts from them. Not today, O Lord, O, not today[!]”

I am always moved by a king who, upon kneeling before the Lord, offers a humble intercession for his people. Before this moment, the sleepless Henry had spent the weary night in disguise, wandering about his camp and spending time hearing what his soldiers had to say about the upcoming Battle of Agincourt. Like the king, they too were suffering from fear, from endlessly wondering whether the king saw their pain and gave them compassion. These common men of England had left everyone they loved, everything they saw as having any value, for a bloody fight they weren’t even sure they believed in. And now that Henry sees their sorrows, those sorrows break his heart, and he sees no other option but to ask for confirmation in his cause from God, now his only father in any sense of the word.

Yet not only does Henry’s heart break over the woes of his people. In seeing their suffering, he also realizes that he is powerless to remedy them. So he immediately embraces God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, saying that He is “God of battles” (in the sense that He presides over the course of the world) and that He alone is able to remove their fear and preserve their bravery when they stand before the enemy. Nevertheless, Henry still feels that something’s missing in his plea, knowing that he is utterly unworthy in his flesh to ask anything of God. He now thinks of his earthly father.

Remembrance and Works

“[T]hink not upon the fault my father made in compassing the crown. I Richard’s body have interred new and on it have bestowed more contrite tears than from it issued forced drops of blood. Five hundred poor I have in yearly pay who twice a day their withered hands hold up toward heaven to pardon blood. And I have built two chantries where the sad and solemn priests sing still for Richard’s soul.”

Before I continue, here’s a brief and somewhat blunt description of the reason Henry asks for God’s forgiveness (taken from this edition of the play, page 154)

“Henry Bolingbroke, father of Henry V, deposed Richard II and took his crown to become Henry IV. Richard was subsequently imprisoned and killed.”

What was at first a piercing cry of humility and a bow of the knee in honor of God’s sovereignty is now nearing something not very far from both pride and desperation. Henry is falling, just as Peter did when he lost faith in the Messiah while walking on water and began to drown. He clings on to everything he can possibly hold on to. In this case, those things are the interment of his father’s body, his weeping for it, his hiring five hundred of England’s poor to ask forgiveness from God on behalf of Richard, and the two buildings he’s fashioned for forever mournful priests to sing for mercy on Richard’s soul. “I’ve done everything!” he says. “I know my past was horrible, but I’ve tried so hard to wipe away all the dark and bitter parts of it! Shouldn’t these things be enough?”

The Impotence of Works and a Request for Pardon

“More will I do—though all that I can do is nothing worth, since that my penitence comes after all, imploring pardon.”

After pouring his soul to God and giving Him a lengthy list of everything he’s tried doing for the salvation of his father’s soul, Henry stops. What kind of crazy thing has he done? In one breath, he declared God’s sustaining power over every little circumstance; in the next, Henry acts as if everything God could do is not enough or even just. It is thus that this young king utters my absolute favorite line of the play, and I think it is here where his faithfulness shines the most brightly, where his prayer reaches the highest measure of sincerity.

“I can do anything typically called pious and beautiful in this world, but it is all worth nothing in the end. My cry of remorse comes too late, since my father died before he gave such a cry to you. All I can do now is ask for Your pardon, and for strength in the day ahead. Have mercy.”

In our times of trouble, we must cling to God. As Henry did on that long, lonely night before Agincourt, we must see the suffering of our fellow man and intercede. And as God has done throughout the ages, He will hear our plea and look on us with compassion if we have a faithful heart.

“Give heed to the voice of my cry, my King and my God, for to You I will pray…Lead me, O LORD, in Your righteousness because of my enemies; Make Your way straight before my face.” ~Psalm 5:2,8 (NKJV)


~Sarah Merly

March 14, 2018

Isaiah 53