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rationalist, if such there be, as cannot care for Hector or Achilles, will ever read Henry V without his pulse beating faster. And even an alliance with France will not keep most of us from sympathizing with Johnson at Versailles, 'No, no, we will try to act Harry the Fifth.'
Harry the Fifth! It has been reserved for self-blinded eyes in our own day to discover that the most heroic figure in Shakespeare's Histories was a dullard, a man of 'commonplace vices ’, in whose creation he could have taken little pleasure. If that were so, it would be difficult to explain why he made him the second figure in two plays and the first in a third. The truth is, of course, that he is for Shakespeare the hero king of all the line, as well as, perhaps, the most subtly studied human being of them all, quite as human as heroic. Richard III is a purely active figure, all energy of will and intellect, passionless, unfeeling, soulless, a human devil of the Italian Renascence type. Richard II is merely passive: he feels, imagines, enjoys, suffers, and, after his fashion, even loves; but he has neither the strength of will nor the clearness of intellect needed for action. Henry V can enjoy as well as act, can feel as well as think, can keep a conscience as well as an intellect, passions as well as a will ; can live the whole of life without becoming either devil or weakling.
This richness of being has its drawbacks. Most of Shakespeare's readers have been of two minds about Henry. They find it hard to reconcile the hero with the haunter of taverns, the model of soldiers, sons, brothers and kings with the apparently faithless friend. They are conscious of a lump in the throat when they read Once more unto the breach, dear friends ', and ' We few, we happy few, we band of brothers', and if they are Wordsworthians they inevitably say:
This is the happy warrior ; this is he
and then, when next they turn back to Henry IV, they are confused and disconcerted by the dismissal of Falstaff.
Shakespeare is never a careful writer, and probably, in this case as in others, he has left inconsistencies which can never be entirely explained away. But a careful reader who listens attentively to all that Shakespeare tells him will not, in this case, find many knots still tangled at the end. The central mistake about Henry is to suppose that he ever was a mere boon companion of Falstaff and his company, their equal and their like. Against this misconstruction Shakespeare has in fact taken some pains to warn us. It is quite true that the prince is constantly seen in company in which it is not fit that a prince should be seen, and that his language and conduct are sometimes, though not often, unedifying. This is proved both by what we ourselves see and by what the king says to him.
Thy place in council thou hast rudely lost,
Prophetically doth forethink thy fall. But the king has hardly uttered these words before he has his eyes opened to his son's true character, though he again goes blind to it later on, just as readers of the play tend to do. Free and open natures like Henry's, conscious of their own greatness and indifferent to opinion, are peculiarly liable to these misunderstandings. And Shakespeare has so lavished his powers on Falstaff that he carries away all hearts and colours all impressions whenever he is on the stage. He is perhaps the only one of all Shakespeare's creations to get the bit between his teeth and run away with his creator. The poet's delight in him allows him occasionally and partially to defeat the plain intention shown in all three plays that we should love and honour
the prince. But Shakespeare has really provided us with a good many warnings. He has given us the soliloquy at the end of the very first Act, as if to show us at once without a doubt how he conceived the character;
I know you all and will a while uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness : and later on he shows the Prince making the promise to himself which he would not make to the world :
So, when this loose behaviour I throw off
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes. This speech has often been attacked as proving the essential meanness of Henry's character. But why? It is true that, besides a consciousness, too evident for our modern taste, of his princely quality, a matter which I will discuss presently, there is in his words rather too much self-confidence in his own virtue and in the safety with which he can run risks which would be fatal to weaker men. Self-assertion can hardly ever be a gracious thing and least of all when it has in it a touch of self-righteousness, as it has here. But it is only a touch. And, after all, self-confidence is a fault which any brave man, from Roman days to our own, would admit to lean to virtue's side.
What we hear in the speech is the will of a strong man who means to shape his own course and character and not have them shaped for him either by his companions or by circumstances. What is the harm of his thinking this or saying it, especially as he says it only to himself ? Suppose a young man of our own day, one whose spirits were fuller grown than his wisdom, thrown by circumstances or by choice, by the love of adventure or by the scorn, wise or unwise, of a merely cloistered virtue, into the society of a pack of amusing but worthless boon companions. It is not his wisdom that put him there, and he may easily learn
that lesson in a repentance that may come too late. But being there, with whatever good or bad excuse, why may he not say, if he be clear-eyed and strong-willed enough to say it: 'I know my friends are shaking their heads ; they see I am playing the fool ; and they think I am not capable of playing anything else. But they will one day find out their mistake. I don't mean all my days to be holidays spent among fools, however pleasant the holidays and however amusing the fools ; and when I put on my working clothes and show the wiseacres what I really am and what I mean to be and do, they will give me all the more credit for their surprise'. What is the harm of that? But that is in substance what the prince says. And Johnson, who understood human nature so much better than most of Shakespeare's critics, makes the right comment on it. The speech ’, he says, 'is very artfully introduced to keep the Prince from appearing vile in the opinion of the audience ; it prepares them for his future reformation; and, what is yet more valuable, exhibits a natural picture of a great mind offering excuses to itself, and palliating those follies which it can neither justify nor forsake.' But this speech, whatever be thought of it, is very far from being the only warning Shakespeare has given us against the mistake of confusing the prince with his boon companions. Whenever we watch him in Falstaff's company, we find him, in one way or another, marking his separation from it. The first words he utters to Falstaff are words of reproach and disgust, and his tone throughout the scene is one of mingled affection, amusement, and contempt, in which the contempt is certainly not the least conspicuous of the three. It is true that Falstaff carries all off victoriously by his intellect and charm and by the music of his speech, and always gets the last word.
Falstaff. Before I knew thee, Hal, I knew nothing; and now am I, if a man should speak truly, little better than one of the wicked. I must give over this life, and I will
give it over : by the Lord, an I do not, I am a villain : I'll be damned for never a king's son in Christendom.
Prince. Where shall we take a purse to-morrow, Jack ?
Falstaff. Zounds, where thou wilt, lad ; I'll make one ; an I do not, call me villain and baffle me.
Prince. I see a good amendment of life in thee ; from praying to purse-taking.
Falstaff. Why, Hal, 'tis my vocation, Hal : 'tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation. And it is true that it is nearly always Falstaff whom one loves to listen to and quote. But that is not the present point. What is the point is that here as elsewhere, from first to last, the prince maintains the ascendancy over Falstaff, not only of his birth, though of that he is plainly very conscious, but of his will and character. In this very matter of the robbery he is an outsider, an amateur, a patron. He at first scornfully refuses to have anything to do with it, is only persuaded to it by Poins as a practical joke on Falstaff, only robs his friends the thieves, and ultimately, after even lying to the sheriff in protection of Falstaff, pays the original victims back their money. So in the scene of the exposure of Falstaff. There indeed he is victorious all through, and rides rough-shod over the old rascal with all the weapons of argument, wit, Billingsgate, and the truth. For once he even gets the last word : ‘I lack some of thy instinct'; and so turns the tables on Falstaff that he reduces him to crying 'Ah, no more of that, Hal, an thou lovest me!' This distinction between Henry and his companions of the Boar's Head is really present all through. Observe, for instance, that he has to ask who Doll Tearsheet is. There is, indeed, one side of this distinction which he makes too plain for our modern democratic tastes. For he is very apt to play the prince to them all ; letting them know that he is not as they are. Even to his friend Poins his language is what we should call insolent and snobbish. But we must borrow Shakespeare's Elizabethan ears to judge him fairly. For Shakespeare, as for all men of that