Literary Wisdom

Literary Wisdom: Henry V, Acts 4 & 5

Thus far in our study of Shakespeare’s Henry V, we have covered the first three acts as well as a prayer Henry V gave before the Battle of Agincourt. We have sympathized with the king as his father died; we have seen him execute justice; and we have seen him grow in both his faith and in his view of the English people. Yet all our discussion has only been in preparation for the last two acts, where Henry is faced with his greatest challenge in battle. How will he meet it?

“Now, if these men have defeated the law and outrun native punishment, though they can outstrip men, they have no wings to fly from God.” ~King Henry V, Scene 1, Lines 172-174

As humans, we can do anything we wish and possibly suffer no earthly consequence for it. Sometimes we feel comfortable telling a “white lie” here or stealing “something little” over there. Sometimes we keep secret sins we know we should let go of or think thoughts we know we should turn aside from. To put it simply, when we do not keep heaven’s eternal law before our hearts, earthly law and punishment does not stop us in the least from satisfying our desires.

But even the most notorious criminal has his limits. All of us, no matter how long we live, are ever subjected to the boundaries of death, and none of us can invent strong enough wings to fly from it. Nevertheless, if we believe on the One who holds life in His hand, we have no need to fly away from Him. That’s the beauty and the power of the Gospel—that we can know where hope lies and call the Judge of the world our Father.

“Every subject’s duty is the King’s, but every subject’s soul is his own.” ~King Henry V, Scene 1, Lines 182-183

Whenever I think of King Harry’s quote, I can’t help but see a parallel between this insight and Luke 20:21-25, the passage in which Jesus tells his interrogators to give Caesar what is Caesar’s and give God what is His. As evidenced by that passage, whom God has placed in authority over us is the one we should be willing to obey, unless that authority says something that travels completely counter to the Bible. That’s the principle of Romans 13. Yet though our earthly duty is directed to our earthly authorities whether we like them or not, we have a choice with our souls. All humans have to decide whether they will give their earthly lives to God so they can save their heavenly ones or to give their earthly lives to Satan in exchange for a grotesque eternity.  In the end, then, what matters is who we give our souls to, and we manifest that choice by how we pay our taxes or whether we obey those who are placed over us on Earth.

“What infinite heart’s ease must kings neglect that private men enjoy? And what have kings that privates have not too, save ceremony, save general ceremony? And what art thou, thou idol ceremony?” ~King Henry V, Scene 1, Lines 244-248

As a portion of Henry’s flowing soliloquy, this quote is unusually introspective. He’d witnessed the gloom that had fallen over his soldiers (though he hadn’t yet prayed), and now he wondered what it was that separated him from them. He was just as frightened, just as fleshly, just as morbid. What was it that gave kings the privilege to preside over a country? The answer, he concluded, is ceremony. Pomp, hereditary glory, and chance was the idol that both king and subject worshipped, and Henry was rightly disturbed by it.

“Is it fitting to say to a king, ‘You are worthless,’ And to nobles, ‘You are wicked’? Yet He is not partial to princes, Nor does He regard the rich more than the poor; For they are all the work of His hands. In a moment they die, in the middle of the night; The people are shaken and pass away; The mighty are taken away without a hand.” ~Job 34:18-20, NKJV

“O God, thy arm was here, and not to us, but to thy arm alone ascribe we all! When, without stratagem, but in plain shock and even play of battle, was ever known so great and little loss on one part and on th’ other? Take it, God, for it is none but thine.” ~King Henry V, Scene 8, Lines 110-116

After the Battle of Agincourt, Henry reads aloud the number of those fallen on the battlefield, and his heart is heavy. How is it that “ten thousand French…in the field lie slain” (lines 83-84) while only 520 English died? How is it that, when there was one Englishman for every five Frenchmen before the battle (IV, iii, 4-5), the French now suddenly surrender? “This,” Henry concludes, “could only be a work of God.”

“Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones, Give unto the LORD glory and strength.” ~Psalm 29:1, NKJV

“[H]is lords desire him to have borne his bruised helmet and his bended sword before him through the city. He forbids it, being free from vainness and self-glorious pride, giving full trophy, signal, and ostent quite from himself, to God.” ~Act 5 Chorus, Lines 18-23

There is nothing more beautiful, nothing more fitting, nothing more glorious than a Christian who is empty of any credit he takes for himself. In this passage, Henry’s soldiers, after winning a major conflict with France, ask their king if he could “rub in” their military victory by marching with the symbols of his triumph: his bruised helmet and his bended sword. But he refuses, even insists that no praise belongs to him. There is nothing he’d rather do than give God the glory.

Before we leave our discussion of Henry V, I’d like to share one last quote with you. In talking of a sick soldier who escapes death, our king says the following:

“And in him that escapes [death], it were not sin to think that, making God so free an offer, He let him outlive that day to see His greatness and to teach others how they should prepare.” ~Henry V, Act IV, Scene i, Lines 188-192

To see His greatness and to teach others how they should prepare. I hardly know of any other Shakespeare quotations that so sweetly and correctly sum up the goal of the Christian life. Although Henry V made irrational decisions at times (you’ll be shocked at some of the things Shakespeare had him say), when I first watched and first read the play, I was filled with example upon example of the proper Christian mindset, of giving all glory to God.

I want desperately to see God’s greatness. I desire earnestly to teach others how they should prepare for Him. That is my mission, both for my blog and for my life—and I encourage you to adopt that mission as your own.

If you’d like to see many of the “Literary Wisdom” quotes for Henry V in context, please, please, PLEASE watch Sir Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 production, starring Branagh, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, and Emma Thompson. It’s hard to find, but it was also worth every dollar I spent buying it on Blu-Ray. I still remember how moved I was after watching, how long I thought of Henry’s faith and character as portrayed by Shakespeare, how I was inspired to study the book for myself and write for you all. Needless to say, Henry V is one of my all-time favorite films, and I strongly encourage you not to disregard it. Thanks!


~Sarah Merly

March 20, 2018

Isaiah 53