Once upon a time, I audited a class on Shakespeare. The professor was a brilliant former actor who gave passionate lectures to an almost comatose classroom. I enjoyed the class because I could come and go as I pleased, read the plays that interested me, and still get to watch this animated little man spring around the room discussing the material. One day, while discussing Henry V, he cut off class by telling us to examine the courtship scene between Henry and Princess Katherine de Valois, and to consider the techniques and tactics that King Henry uses to woo his future queen. Unfortunately, that night I caught a cold and was simultaneously bogged down with three papers that had to be written by the end of the week. As such, I never got to share my thoughts about the courtship scene, or to hear what he had to say. Well professor, although I doubt you’ll ever see this, please consider this my response to your challenge.
In case you have never had the pleasure of reading or seeing Henry V, and I strongly recommend that you do so, it tells the tale of one of England’s greatest national heroes. King Henry V accomplished that most noble of English goals, to quote Lindybeige of YouTube fame, “he stuffed the French.” By defeating the French forces at the Battle of Agincourt, King Henry V secured his place as the next in line to inherit the French crown. In addition to his literal crowning achievement in the history of Anglo-French animosity, Henry V was elevated to legend when he was cut down by disease early into his life. His story was widely known and revered in England during the time of William Shakespeare, who wrote a series of plays about the famous king.
The first play, Henry IV Part One, (The second in the Henriad of Richard II, Henry IV Part One, Henry IV Part Two, and Henry V) is the story of the king in his wayward youth. The aimless prince wastes his time with a fat old knight of dubious integrity named Falstaff and goes by the moniker Hal. Falstaff is a wretched old creature, a thief, a drunkard, and a coward. He is also one of the most delightful characters in all of Shakespeare’s plays, and he and Hal are dear friends. The two engage in the kind of verbal sparring and play that can be found in the best of Shakespearean dialogue. They are quick witted and ribald, constantly outdoing the other in the cleverness of their exchanges. Despite this, Hal informs the audience in his first scene that his time with the old knight will come to an end.
Hal notes in his opening monologue that one day he will soon, “imitate the sun,” and emerge from his troubled youth as a glorious king who will live up to his father’s, and the kingdom’s, expectations. The play sees him take the first steps along this path, reclaiming his father’s favor through military triumphs. Falstaff is convinced that when his friend Hal becomes king he will be richly rewarded with a position of influence and power. In fact, he is convinced that Hal will be a king who favors the ruffians and scoundrels that he currently spends his time with. He tells Hal his plans during one of their quick-witted games, where he breaks down and begins to question Hal about his intentions, asking who he will remove from his company.
“Banish plump Jack,” he implores him, “and banish all the world.”
“I do, I will.” Hal responds, before the scene is abruptly brought to an end. This scene, perhaps truly the most important in the play, is the prime example of Hal’s character. Although he is happy to indulge in his drinking and associate with whores and thieves, Hal understands that the fate of the nation rests upon his shoulders. Moreover, in an almost Machiavellian turn, he seems to delight in confounding people’s expectations of him and seizing the power and prestige that is rightfully his. In his aforementioned monologue he says, “I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill/Redeeming time when men least think I will.” His promise to Falstaff is brought to bear in the second play (really the third, counting Richard II, but for the purposes of this post I will condense it to just the Henrys) Henry IV, Part Two.
The sequel is fairly unremarkable, and in fact is essentially a copy of the first play, with Hal once again struggling to establish himself as a worthy heir. Essentially, it assumes that the events of the first play did not take place and Hal is still seen as a lay about and a cad. In fact, in many ways it could be argued that the play truly belongs to Falstaff. The corpulent knight had become so popular that he ultimately transcended the Henriad to be included in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Hal’s scenes however shine through, including a tense confrontation and reconciliation with his father and a truly brilliant scene after his coronation that concludes his relationship to Falstaff. The latter scene is essential for understanding Hal’s transformation.
(Tom Hiddleston, my personal favorite Henry V, in the BBC’s exceptional Hollow Crown)
Falstaff meets Henry in all his royal regalia and begs his friend and king to recognize him and lift him out of squalor. Henry, however, reacts as he swore that he would. He coldly rebukes his old friend saying, “I know the not, old man” and banishing him from his sight. Falstaff, crushed, rushes off while assuring his companions that his friend Hal would send for him in time. The scene is heartbreaking to watch, but contains a sliver of hope for the fat old fiend. Henry softens and says that if Falstaff can repent and clean up his life than he will be accepted again. That is to say, when he is no longer a political liability, he can be seen in the king’s company. Although the scene is terribly harsh, there is a shred of tenderness underlying it. Despite all of Henry’s supposed rancor, he cannot help but give his friend the chance for redemption. “Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.” Despite Henry’s transformation, underneath his royal title he is still the wayward, clever prince who adored Falstaff.
Throughout the epic tale of Henry V, Henry proves to be as good as his promise in previous plays and is a model of bellicose kingship. He asserts his dominance as king and pursues the most noble of English pursuits, stuffing the French. There is almost no trace of his former self in the play, even when his Falstaff dies ignominiously offstage. (This was likely because the actor who portrayed Falstaff had actually left Shakespeare’s company.) In fact, Henry even has his former friend Bardolph executed for pillaging a French church. The only remnant of his younger self is the tender visit that he pays to his other friend Pistol in disguise. When speaking to the disguised king, Pistol boasts that he is, “As good a gentleman as the emperor.” This causes Henry to remark that he is better than the king, and Pistol’s response shows that he still cares for his friend for the young man that he once was:
“The king’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold,
A lad of life, an imp of fame;
Of parents good, of fist most valiant.
I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heart-string
I love the lovely bully.”
These small hints of the old Henry leak through the façade that he presents to his subjects, his enemies, and even the audience. But, for me, the most remarkable scene in the play is that final scene with Katherine de Valois, which I have been so long-windedly leading us to.
In this beautifully-wrought courtship scene Henry is tasked with wooing the beautiful princess of France so that he can marry her and become the king’s heir. He proves to be dreadful at it.
At first he attempts to use the grandeur and gravitas that he has employed to win over his subjects. He proceeds stiffly and clumsily tells her that she is like an angel. She bemoans his lack of authenticity and deceit, “les langues des hommes sont pleine des tromperies” (It should be observed that the princess speaks very little English, and this courtship scene is occurring in the presence of her lady-in-waiting/translator). When this fails, he attempts a more straightforward approach, asking if they can cut to the chase and if she will, “Give me your answer; i’faith do, and so clap hands in a bargain.” The princess, understandably, is not swept off her feet by this tactic. His final approach is soldierly, claiming that he could easily win a wife if he could do so, “by vaulting into my saddle with my armor on my back.” Most ridiculously Henry claims that he, “has no cunning in protestation.”
I say this is ridiculous because if nothing else, the first two plays of Henry’s story have shown us that he has considerable cunning in protestation. He and Falstaff delight in creating verbal traps and games for the other to walk into, engaging in the kind of linguistic tennis that would make the Gilmore Girls stop dead in their tracks. As he uses his most recent ham-fisted attempt at flirting, something strange happens.
After appealing to Katherine as a king, as a politician, and as a soldier, Henry finally begins to revert to some of his old tricks. Although the theme of his monologue is his military bearing and simple looks and speech, he weaves witty and self-effacing jokes into it. He claims that his face is, “not worth sun-burning,” and cleverly appeals to her to overlook his plain looks for his handsome character. When she asks if she could possibly love the enemy of France he dances her away from the subject, making it clear that when she marries him he will be the King of France and therefore the friend of France. “I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it.”
His efforts to win Katherine’s heart are light and amusing, charming in a way that we have not seen our protagonist throughout his own play. He brings her to laugh by speaking to her in broken French, (“La plus belle Katherine du monde?”) and ruefully remarks that he cannot look any worse than he already does (“Old age, that ill-layer up of beauty can do no more spoil, upon my face.”). Henry is using wit and talent that audience has not seen from him. He is exercising the silver tongue that Falstaff gave him that he has ignored for so long. His speeches culminate in one of my favorite lines in the show:
“Put off your maiden blushes; avouch the
thoughts of your heart with the looks of an empress;
take me by the hand, and say ‘Harry of England I am
thine:’ which word thou shalt no sooner bless mine
ear withal, but I will tell thee aloud ‘England is
thine, Ireland is thine, France is thine, and Harry
Plantagenet is thine;”
“And Harry Plantagenet is thine.” Harry. Hal. Perhaps if it fit better into Iambic pentameter we would have heard him employ his old nickname. Henry seems to have come full circle, finding a way to use his younger self’s skills. After five acts of Henry musing on the nature of kingship and inspiring his men in battle we see that he is still the charming, witty rogue who delights in language and humor. We begin to see the man underneath all of the majesty of his title and position.
He is using the skills that he learned from his time slumming with the dregs of society. When all else failed him, these talents allowed him to achieve his most important victory in the show. The play does not end with his miraculous triumph at Agincourt, but with the union of the king and his princess. This is Henry’s most important success, and it is Falstaff who gave him the tools to do it.
Moreover, and perhaps this is the romantic in me, I like to think that this scene is also the first time that Hal has let himself open up to someone since his coronation. Throughout the show he plays the perfect king, but his performance seems a little too perfect for me. The glimmers of his character that sneak out with Pistol are evidence of this, and with Katherine Henry finally allows himself to loosen from the rigid models that he forced himself to follow. He is truly a king, truly a politician, and truly a soldier. But underneath all of these things, he remains the young man who charmed his audience with light-hearted humor. I think this, and the carefully concealed elements of his rakish charm are best captured at the end of his courtship. When Katherine insists that it is not customary for French ladies to kiss before their wedding day he responds:
“O Kate, nice customs curtsy to great kings. Dear
Kate, you and I cannot be confined within the weak
list of a country’s fashion: we are the makers of
manners, Kate; and the liberty that follows our
places stops the mouth of all find-faults; as I will
do yours, for upholding the nice fashion of your
country in denying me a kiss: therefore, patiently
You have witchcraft in your lips, Kate: there is
more eloquence in a sugar touch of them than in the
tongues of the French council; and they should
sooner persuade Harry of England
than a general
petition of monarchs.”
Smooth Hal. Very smooth.