How Shakespeare creates the audience’s understanding of Henry V’s character

In William Shakespeare’s Henry V the audience’s conception of the protagonist, King Henry develops and alters repeatedly throughout Act 1 and Act 2. Shakespeare uses his speeches and also the conversations between characters to develop the character. The audiences’ perception of Henry changes dramatically from the prologue to the end of Act 2. In the prologue the audience get the impression that King Henry is an extremely dependable leader, however as his character develops as the play goes on audiences find out that there are some flaws in his character but also find out that he also has a “whimsical” side.

As in most Shakespearean plays the main character King Henry, does not appear in the prologue or the first scene of the first act. The prologue is a chorus which speaks highly of Henry as king and describes him as ‘warlike’ and compares him to the god of war, Mars. This indicates that he is skilled in military matters. The initial impression the audience receives of King Henry is one who is a strong and charismatic leader that is knowledgeable about military tactics and is about to lead his country to victory in a war.

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The first scene of the play involves the Bishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely discussing a way to keep the church from paying tax. The Bishops praise Henry multiple times and describe him as a mannered and devout individual. In Canterbury’s fourteen-line speech from lines 24 and 37, the audience is told about Henry’s past. Through the speech the audience is told how carefree and irresponsible Henry was in his youth and how much he has matured from the moment he was crowned. The two bishops converse about the fact that no one knew that the king would turn out so well and say that his reformation is nothing short of a miracle. They discuss the fact that Henry realised that if he was to be king he needed people to recognise him as a king that is strong and dependable.

In the second scene of the first act, King Henry makes his first appearance. He is presented as an intelligent, caring and efficient statesman who has a regal presence with a commitment to act on what he believes is right. The audience learns that King Henry is a very cautious yet decisive man. This is evident when he thinks carefully about whether or not to invade France. Once Henry receives the Dauphin’s gag gift of tennis balls he turns Dauphin’s joke upside down, revealing his witty and humorous character. He shows his “appreciation” of the gift and then gives a speech in a mildly misleading manner, commenting that he is “glad” that the Dauphin is immature enough to make a joke at his expense.

Henry then goes on to transform the game of tennis into a war metaphor. He threatens France, stating that the war will be like a game, the spoils of which will be the kingship of France. Moreover, Henry blames the Dauphin for the impending destruction of France. Henry states clearly that the upcoming consequences and events will serve as revenge for the Dauphin’s joke. Through his decision to invade France as revenge the audience opens their eyes to a new side of king, one that is egotistical and malleable. They can clearly see that he did not decide to invade France for his people nor the benefit of his country but because of his pride and vanity. They can question his ethical status.

The chorus in the opening of the second act shows that Henry is now almost ready to invade France. However, Henry needs to deal with some traitorous noblemen, in the first scene of the second act there is a change in scene to a seedy part of London at the Boar’s Head Inn. This is where King Henry V spent a lot of his youth. The audience finds out that the King is a responsible figure who wants to forget about the past. A close friend in the past, Sir John Falstaff is extremely ill in bed. Through Nim and Pistol’s (who were also Henry acquaintances back in his youth) conversation the audience finds out that the reason that Falstaff was on his deathbed was because Henry had broken Falstaff’s heart and destroyed their friendship. It is revealed to the audience that Henry ignored and disowned friends to clean up his act so he could become a righteous and authoritative king, further tainting his once glowing image.

Henry prepares his army to sail for France, in scene two, act two. Henry executes three noblemen Cambridge, Grey and Scrope for betraying him. Henry is witty, clever but dangerous. He makes the men choose their own fate by asking them if a man who spoke against Henry in public should be punished. Cambridge, Grey and Scrope all say that he should so Henry punishes them by death. In handling this situation we can see that Henry shows no mercy and is quite a brutal king.

The French noblemen, the French king Charles VI and the Dauphin appear in scene four, act four. They discuss their concerns and fears over England’s threat against them and all have mixed opinions. The Dauphin believes that Henry is still foolish as he was in his youth and is extremely eager to go to France where as the Dauphin’s father Charles does not share the same enthusiasm. Charles strongly believes that the Henry is a great threat against France. He knows that Henry is a strong and influential leader who comes from a line of powerful ancestors. The audience learns that even the French King is afraid of Henry.

King Henry is vain character who is also intelligent and commanding. We see that he is a merciless king by the way he deals with traitors and threatens to invade France and take it by force if the French do not cooperate and meet his demands. The audience’s opinion of King Henry V alters and varies throughout Acts 1 and 2 of the play however it is obvious that he is no ordinary man. King Henry has many dimensions and the audience is swayed to have empathy with this character, yet at times be terrified and jilted at the horrific deeds he can do. He possesses qualities that make him both terrifying yet familiar.

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