The Player Kings: On Shakespeare’s Henriad




THE HENRIAD — a series of history plays that runs from Richard II, through Henry IV, Parts I & II, and Henry V — is William Shakespeare’s finest achievement as a political writer, and exemplifies his talent for depicting matters of state. Taken together, these works offer a strikingly intimate portrait of power itself, especially in the portrayal of Prince Hal (later King Henry V), the cycle’s central figure. The plays are especially good at revealing the theatrical dimensions of politics and diplomacy, and the tension that sometimes emerges between leaders’ private motivations and their public personas. Shakespeare depicts this tension seemingly without comment — allowing the audience to decide for itself what to think about the machinations that lead to Hal’s success. This political ambivalence — not about Hal, but about Hal’s values — is the key to Shakespeare’s achievement. By portraying Hal honestly, glorifying his bravery and intelligence, but also bluntly depicting his duplicity and selfishness, the playwright manages to create one of the most complex depictions of political leadership I’ve ever known: a sequence of works that still offer political insights today, 400 years after their author’s death.

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The Henriad chronicles the rise of the Lancaster branch of England’s House of Plantagenet. The first play, Richard II, shows the Lancasters gaining the throne of England, as Henry Bolingbroke deposes his cousin Richard to become King Henry IV. While the next two plays bear his name, they shift the focus to Bolingbroke’s son, the “wayward” Prince Hal. The two parts of Henry IV famously detail the young prince’s friendship, and eventual discarding of, Sir John Falstaff: a self-indulgent, cowardly, but wickedly funny knight, who remains one of Shakespeare’s most enduring creations. Falstaff is absent, however, from the Henriad’s finale, Henry V, which shows the conqueror Hal has grown to be as he wins the Battle of Agincourt, and seemingly sets up the Lancasters to rule in France as well as England.

While Falstaff is undeniably the most popular character of the Henriad, if not all of Shakespeare, it’s Prince Hal who unlocks the play’s political complexity. After all, it’s his rise that the plays chronicle, and his great victory that brings the cycle to the close. More importantly, Hal is a remarkably self-aware character, who not only spars credibly with Falstaff, but uses the quick-witted knight to sharpen his abilities as a leader (and, more importantly, as a dramatic performer). Their relationship is the way it underscores Hal’s — and the Henriad’s — morally ambiguous nature. Perhaps the most telling scene between the two is their first, in Act I, Scene Two of Henry IV, Part I. It sets the stage for almost all of their future interactions as they carouse together in a London tavern, trading insults the way only friends can. But the key moment comes at the very end, after every character but Hal has left the stage. While jesting with Falstaff, Hal has spoken only prose, just like the other tavern-goers. But now, by himself, he switches to poetry, and puts his merriment into a new context:

[…] herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him. […]
My reformation, glitt’ring o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

This speech sets in motion Hal’s journey to becoming King Henry V. But it also reveals that Hal sees his friendship with Falstaff in bluntly selfish and manipulative terms — his friend is just a tool to promote his own greatness — which makes him a remarkably Machiavellian character.

Falstaff is a thief, a petty con man, and a coward, but there is no doubt his affection for Hal is real, and evidence of this recurs throughout both parts of Henry IV. For example, in the second act of Part I, when Hal is summoned before his father, Falstaff offers to “play” the part of Henry IV, to help Hal rehearse what he will say (for the king is expected to scold his wayward son). The performance starts as a joke; Falstaff quickly turns to praising himself, in the guise of King Henry, declaring “there is virtue in that Falstaff.” Hal immediately cuts in and insists on trading parts. After assuming the role of “King Henry” and demoting Falstaff to that of “the prince,” Hal insists that the young prince (himself) quit the company of the rowdy knight, labeling him, “That villainous abominable misleader of youth, Falstaff, that old white-bearded Satan.” That’s when the game takes a poignant turn, because Falstaff responds by begging “King Henry” to lift the proposed banishment: “No, my good lord […] for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company. Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world!” Hal, in the guise of “King Henry,” repays his companion’s transparent sincerity with a cold-blooded retort: “I do, I will.” And of course, this is true. By the end of Henry IV, Part II, Hal will indeed banish “plump Jack.”

Shakespeare sets up that final rejection carefully, reminding us of Falstaff’s fellowship with the prince right up until the end. Though they enjoy one significant tavern scene together in the play, Falstaff spends most of Part II apart from Hal. He is especially busy working a con on an old acquaintance named Shallow, who Falstaff is slowly bleeding for money. And yet, when he finally turns to the audience to boast about the escapade, the rogue forgets about his profits. Instead he brags about something else: “I will devise matter enough out of this Shallow to keep Prince Harry in continual laughter the wearing out of six fashions […] O, you shall see him laugh till his face be like a wet cloak ill laid up!” It’s one last reminder that the prince is dear to Falstaff, and that their joking matters to him a great deal.

Hal’s final rejection of his friend is rightly famous, a tight piece of rhetoric that serves as the climax of Part II, and therefore the King Henry IV duology. Falstaff enters the scene after riding all night to make the coronation in time. When he spots his friend in his regal apparel, he calls out to him, “God save thee, my sweet boy!” But Hal the king acts exactly as he once threatened to, dismissing his friend in a piece of poetry (practically the first poetry he’s spoken in Falstaff’s presence) that is searing and unmerciful:

I know thee not old man. Fall to thy prayers.
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dreamed of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.

And finally, after humiliating Falstaff, King Henry V delivers his verdict, telling him, “I banish thee, on pain of death/ […] Not to come near our person by ten mile.” Narratively, the scene reads as a triumph for the young king — he overcomes his wild youth and establishes himself as a serious man, ready to rule. But when paired with the original “banishment,” in Part I, it also becomes something else — a performance, for which Hal has rehearsed, and which he has thought about in advance.

But while the performance succeeds for Hal’s audience at court — at the end of Henry IV, Part II, no one doubts his transformation, and by Henry V he receives the same deference his father commanded — it sits differently with his audience in the theater. To many, it seems excessive, even cruel, to belittle a mentor this way. The coronation scene closes with Henry V’s younger brother, Prince John of Lancaster, assuring us (through a minor character he confers with), “He hath intent his wanted followers / Shall all be very well provided for,” and then, a member of the ensemble emerges to promise us “our humble author will continue the story [in another play], with Sir John [Falstaff] in it.” These reassurances — we could almost call it spin — tip us off that Shakespeare is well aware Hal’s actions will not go over well with many theatergoers. But he depicts them anyway, because they teach us something important. Hal manipulates Falstaff, by letting the knight believe their friendship is as important to Hal as it is to Sir John. He manipulates his subjects by hiding himself in the “mists” of Falstaff, and then “breaking free” at his coronation as a new man, awakened from a “dream.” An observant playgoer realizes he would manipulate us too, if we’re not careful.

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Hal’s willingness to discard his closest friend looks even more ominous when seen through the prism of warfare. Soldiers need a baseline trust in their king, or else they won’t follow him into battle. Hal’s ability to deceive Falstaff tells us he could manipulate knights on a far greater scale, for even higher stakes. This is especially pertinent in a saga as violent as the Henriad. Warfare dominates nearly all of its parts. Henry IV attempts to put down a series of rebellions in his namesake plays, and Henry V invades France in his. But the prospect of international war comes up as early as Richard II. The freshly crowned Henry IV has just learned that one of his followers has murdered the former king (who posed a threat to Henry’s legitimacy). In Machiavellian fashion, Henry both admits responsibility for the crime, and immediately shifts the blame, condemning the assassin to death and announcing, “Though I did wish him [Richard] dead / I hate the murderer, love him murdered.” This scene alone contributes mightily to the Henriad’s ambivalence — Bolingbroke’s crown is drenched in blood, but he is also clearly in control, able to nakedly pivot from murderer to victim without any other character objecting, or even raising a question. But its his next declaration that most interests me: “I’ll make a voyage to the Holy Land, / To wash this blood off from my guilty hand.” Here, Henry puts forth the idea of war as penance, a way of easing his guilt for the crime of usurpation.

Henry IV returns to the notion of redemptive war throughout his namesake plays. In the very first scene of Henry IV, Part I, he announces a crusade:

[…] Therefore friends,
As far as to the sepulchre of Christ [in Jerusalem] —
Whose soldier now, under whose blessed cross
We are impressèd and engaged to fight —
Forthwith a power of English we shall levy […]

A revolt led by Bolingbroke’s former allies Hotspur and Northumberland quickly pushes off this grand adventure. But he returns to the idea again and again. In Act III, Scene One of Henry IV, Part II, the king looks to the end of civil strife in England, and tells his attendant lords, “were these inward wars once out of hand, / We would, dear lords, unto the Holy Land.” Even on his deathbed, Henry IV still talks about his crusade, which will now obviously never happen. But here, at the end, he makes a startling revelation. Alone with Hal, Bolingbroke offers his son this final piece of advice before the (formerly) wayward prince becomes a warrior king:

[…] And now my death
Changes the mode, for what in me was purchased,
Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort;
So thou the garland wear’st successively.
Yet, though thou stand’st more sure then I could do,
Thou art not firm enough, since griefs are green;
And all my friends, which thou must make thy friends,
Have but their stings and teeth newly ta’en out,
By whose fell working I was first advanced
And by whose power I well might lodge a fear
To again be displaced: which to avoid,
I cut them off; and had a purpose now
To lead our many to the Holy Land,
Lest rest and lying still might make them look
Too near unto my state. Therefore, my Harry,
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.

It’s worth pausing to reflect just how much Henry IV reveals here. For three plays — Richard II, Henry IV, Part I, and Henry IV, Part II — he has repeatedly invoked the redemptive, cleansing power of holy war, claiming it will “wash” the crime of ordering his cousin’s murder. And now, at the moment of his death — traditionally when people’s fears of the afterlife are strongest — he admits that his posture was a ruse, a way to keep his violent associates busy. The “blessed cross” doesn’t come up once. Shakespeare stages the scene neutrally. Henry and Hal finally reconcile, and Henry IV dies with dignity and seemingly at peace. But that neutrality also makes Bolingbroke’s Machiavellianism all the more striking — because it is so obviously routine. In this way, Shakespeare universalizes Henry IV’s deception. The scene implies that the hypocrisy behind Henry’s crusade lurks behind all foreign quarrels. And it certainly casts his son’s career in a very particular light.

As Henry V, Hal takes his father’s advice to heart; his namesake play chronicles a war approved by the clergy and won in God’s name. As Henry V, Hal gives powerful speeches, triumphs over great odds, and stars in a rousing patriotic epic. If rule is a matter of performance, he has become a master. The young king gives two major addresses to rally his troops — one at the beginning of Act III, during the play’s first battle sequence, and another on St. Crispin’s Day, immediately preceding his stunning victory at the Battle of Agincourt. The St. Crispin’s Day speech, with its famous invocation of “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” is so widely quoted that it’s familiar even to a Shakespeare novice. And while not an artistic triumph on par with Henry IV Parts I & II, and not a masterpiece of poetic language like Richard II, Henry V is impressive as spectacle, and has been successfully adapted into film a number of times — both Laurence Oliver and Kenneth Branagh did some of their best work directing it for the screen. Yet the play is also in some ways hollow — just like its protagonist. This hollowness is part of the story. Hal’s great conquest is repeatedly undercut within the play itself, and our knowledge of Henry IV’s deceptive crusade-that-never-was colors the proceedings even further.

In fact, Henry V’s war even starts on an ambiguous note. It first comes up in a discussion between two bishops about a proposal in Parliament that would strip the church of certain properties. In the interest of preserving the church’s temporal economic power, one reveals a plan for convincing the new king to block the law:

[…] I have made an offer to his majesty,
Upon our spiritual Convocation;
And in regard of courses now in hand,
Which I have open’d to his grace at large,
As touching France, to give a greater sum
Than ever at one time the clergy yet
Did to his predecessors part withal.

They soon make a presentation to King Henry V explaining his “rightful” claim to the crown of France — but it is so convoluted that it is difficult to take seriously, especially after hearing the bishops’ cynical talk in the previous scene. And so, a war that the rest of the play apparently celebrates begins under dubious circumstances. But even the triumphant scenes later on strike a subtly ambivalent note, if we step back from their pageantry and focus on the actual dialogue. This is most obvious in the St. Crispin’s Day speech itself.

Henry V culminates with the Battle of Agincourt, where Henry V leads a tired, undermanned English army against the superior French forces. The speech is effective in part because so much of it turns on honor and glory — which we know genuinely matter to Henry. In one of his few unquestionably honest statements, he announces:

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honor,
I am the most offending soul alive.

It’s worth pausing to note that in Christian doctrine, coveting glory is a sin, and a rather grievous one (the sin of pride) — but it’s more interesting to watch how Henry blurs the distinction between his glory and that of his followers:

This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbors,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.

Henry’s logic is reasonable — after all, we are watching a play about a famous battle, so it makes sense for the protagonist to insist his warriors’ deeds will live in history. They have. But Shakespeare lets Henry push his rhetoric a little further:

Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers […]

This passage is the climax of Henry’s speech — indeed of his entire career. And it definitely stirs the listener. In particular, the notion of soldiers as a “band of brothers” is one that endures because many people do indeed bond with those they fight alongside. But, on closer inspection, the entire speech is an act of misdirection.

The king tells his men that “our names” will be remembered — but it is his name that gives the play its title. And it is his name that is remembered. With the exception of a handful of secondary characters that are mentioned in passing (Bedford, Exeter, and the others), Henry’s “band of brothers” are anonymous. They are not named in the play, and they are for the most part not even represented onstage. As a result, like much of what happens in the Henriad, the St. Crispin’s Day speech becomes an ambivalent moment. It stirs the audience, but it also prompts us to once again question Henry’s sincerity. It takes very little thinking for the reader or theatergoer to connect Henry’s admission about his “sinful” thirst for glory with the fact that he motivates his men in order to commemorate himself. One could easily observe that they are here to further his chance of provoking wonder, just like Falstaff was. As we did during his coronation, we sit in awe of Henry’s talents as a performer — but we also realize that his professions of “brotherhood” with his men are no more creditable than the “brotherhood” he shared with Falstaff. Hal is still chasing honor for himself, and still manipulating others into helping him get it.

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Just before the Battle of Shrewsbury, in Henry IV, Part I, Hal attempts to rally Falstaff into battle, speaking with a warlike bravado that anticipates his great speeches as king. He chides his friend, “thou owest God a death” — which doubles as the usual cutting jest the friends always hurl at each other, and a call to arms. But as Hal rejoins the fray, Falstaff holds back. Instead, he ruminates on Hal’s hallowed honor, and dismisses it:

Can honor set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word honor? What is that honor? Air — a trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ’Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon[1] — and so ends my catechism.

Falstaff’s speech can be seen as either a coward’s self-defensiveness, or a life-affirming rejection of the warlike ambitions that ultimately consume Hal as Henry V. Or both. Falstaff never appears onstage in Henry V — we learn of his death only secondhand, through his friend/sparring partner Mistress Quickly — and he couldn’t. His ability to see through cant would offer too striking a contrast with the cynicism of the bishops or the empty promises of Henry himself. When we read the St. Crispin’s Day speech with Falstaffian eyes, it seems absurd. And from that vantage point, Hal not only appears to be manipulating his “brothers” into giving up their lives, but he does so in pursuit of something trivial.

It is tempting, especially for those of us who reject wars of conquest, to elevate this Falstaffian reading into a central one. To see Sir Jack as the hero of the Henriad — the only one who sees through the glory Hal desperately pursues. But Shakespeare doesn’t make things that easy. In both Henry IV, Part I and Henry IV, Part II, we are shown how Falstaff profits off the House of Lancaster’s wars — taking bribes to protect richer individuals from service in the army, while enlisting poor men who are physically unfit. His humor endears him to us, but his attempt to prank Hal during the Battle of Shrewsbury — handing him a bottle of sack wine, after Hal asks him for a weapon, even as men die all around them — shows that Falstaff’s dismissal of empty words doesn’t stem from sensitivity to others’ suffering. And Sir Jack’s greed even taints his relationship with Hal. After he learns his young friend has become Henry V, the rowdy knight proclaims, “I know the young king is sick for me […] the laws of England are at my commandment.” Make no mistake, while Henry’s dismissal of Falstaff is callous, it is also clearly necessary. Because Falstaff — charming, full of life, and impervious to the empty talk of leaders — is himself a manipulator, who also acts in his own self-interest. He is more personally likable than Hal, and a truer friend, but he is just as much of a performer. His deconstruction of honor is itself an act of misdirection, every bit as disingenuous as the Hal’s speech on St. Crispin’s Day, and it serves to distract us from the fact that Falstaff’s lack of honor is getting other people killed, too.

This is where it’s worth giving Hal his due, because, judged by his own values, he succeeds wildly. In Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare famously doubles Hal with Henry Percy, known as Hotspur, the son of the Earl of Northumberland and the key leader of the rebellion against Henry IV. As former allies of the king — in Richard II, their support is essential to Bolingbroke’s triumph — Hotspur and his father exemplify the “friends” Henry IV recommends his son keep occupied abroad; their revolt at least makes the Lancasters’ paranoia (and resulting duplicity) understandable. Hal’s showdown with Hotspur at the Battle of Shrewsbury is an unqualified success. The young prince saves his father’s life, defeats the experienced Hotspur in single combat, and rallies the loyalist troops to victory over the rebels — all at considerable physical risk. But the true contrast with Hotspur comes in Act V, Scene Two, just before the battle commences.

In the previous scene, Henry IV has offered reasonable terms to allow the undermanned rebels to depart the field without bloodshed, and Hal has offered to fight Hotspur alone to settle their differences, instead of having the two armies battle each other in the field. Hotspur’s uncle, the Earl of Worcester, knows that Hotspur would accept the Lancasters’ terms, thwarting his own personal ambitions. And he makes a point of hiding the king’s offers from his unsuspecting nephew, announcing to his associates, “O no, my nephew must not know […] / The liberal and kind offer of the king.” Instead, he manipulates the younger man into an unwinnable battle, telling young Percy, “The king will bid you battle presently” — a lie Hotspur falls for. This scene, even more than the battle that follows, shows us the true measure of Hal’s talents. Hotspur can’t even see through the machinations of his own uncle, who has consistently bent young Percy’s will to his own purposes since their very first scene together. But no one ever manipulates Hal, not even a master like Falstaff. He is such a good performer, so attuned to the way rhetoric works, and to others’ perceptions, that he can see through others’ deceptions with ease. Indeed, no one manages to fool Hal once in the entire saga. The contrast with Hotspur is striking. Henry Percy may be more honest than Hal — indeed, he is shown to be incapable even of flattering his own prospective allies — his lack of guile is deeply destructive. Because Hotspur cannot see through his uncle’s performance, his men are slaughtered in an unnecessary battle. Hal never makes such a mistake.

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Shakespeare is no radical. The few ordinary people who wander into these plays — the staff at the prince’s favorite tavern, or the soldiers Falstaff “recruits” — are almost always a source of comedy, and have little or no agency as characters. The playwright’s political aims are heavily circumscribed — the Henriad explores power thoroughly, but it never explicitly critiques it. The cycle succeeds not because it presents new political ideas, but because it presents a way of thinking about political ideas. The plays’ inscrutable nature, which allows for different interpretations of its characters’ motives and ethical worth, opens up an even larger space for us to think about politics and power, and decide for ourselves how we will weigh the characters’ actions. And that space is an explicitly theatrical one. Henry Bolingbroke overcomes Richard II in part because he plays the part of king better; Hal surpasses his father because he learns to play many parts, allowing him a powerful command of political rhetoric, and a keen sense of how to manipulate others. Even Falstaff is ultimately a failed actor, undone in part because his protégé, Hal, outgrows him — as evidenced in Henry V’s commanding performance at his coronation, where he uses the old knight as a prop in his “transformation” into a regal figure.

Politics remains dependent on performance — elected leaders often rely on public speeches to advance their agendas, talk of national honor still accompanies the declaration of wars, and democracies are just as dependent on rituals[2] as the Lancaster monarchy. Hal shows us just how easily political performance shades into manipulation. And like the theater, politics often turns on misdirection and misrepresentation. By connecting the artifice of politics to the artifice of the theater, the Henriad helps us become more aware of how politics actually functions, and more attuned to how much the performative side of leadership can obscure. Shakespeare even underscores this point in the Henriad’s final scene, where he goes out of his way to call attention to the artificiality of the plays themselves. Just after we see Henry V woo his new bride Katharine, seeming to guarantee his offspring will reign in France, the play’s narrator comes onstage to remind us that King Henry will soon be dead, his son will be crowned as an infant and then deposed in adulthood, and that England will “bleed.” It’s a fitting end to the chronicle, because it reminds us that the glorious show we’ve just seen is itself a myth, and the celebration still taking place behind the narrator’s back is just a prelude to a brutal civil war. The plays may stir us, but that tiny crack of awareness, that little space where we see the performance, is profound enough to help us unravel the whole thing — if we want to. The Henriad helps us teach ourselves to think about power. And that is what great political literature should do.

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[1] A scutcheon is a type of coat of arms that was used during funerary rituals.

[2] The State of the Union address in the United States offers one such ritual, as do political debates, party conventions, and official state dinners. And the United Kingdom, of course, still retains a symbolic monarchy (as do many democratic nations).

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Guy Patrick Cunningham is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in The MillionsBookslut, and The Brooklyn Rail, among other publications.


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