Hal, Still the Actor

We’ve noted that in the past two plays, Hal’s been a bit of an enigma, an actor playing roles.

It’s no different in Henry the Fifth.

Hal “seems indifferent” (I.i.72) to the bill about which the bishops are so concerned. He will first “hear, note (and then) believe” (I.ii.30) what the bishops have to say; he will react, but not “act” on his own.

In Act Two, Scene Two, he acts and lays a trap for the three traitors, then when he is ready to begin the invasion, he say that he can be “no king of England, if not king of France” (II.ii.193). He has been crowned the monarch of England, but he cannot take on that real and concrete duty if he doesn’t also take on the ROLE of the French king.

When Henry urges his army to head back into the battle at Harfleur, he initially mis-gauges his audience: he first attempts to convince them by appealing to their bravery: “when the blast of war blows in our ears, // Then imitate the action of the tiger” (III.i.5-6). But when this does cause his men to charge into the fray, he switches roles and speeches, now calling upon their national pride:

                        And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble luster in your eyes.

— III.i.25-30

In Act Three, Scene Three, as he calls for the surrender of the town, he begins his appeal to the mayor of the town with the syntax and diction of a king: “latest parle . . . our best mercy” (III.iii.2,3). Again, when this approach isn’t immediately successful, he switches tacks and proclaims, “I am a soldier, // A name that in my thoughts becomes me best” (III.iii.5-6). He can see that this approach, one of military threats, may be his best means at achieving his end. But to make it happen, he has to ratchet up his rhetoric. He moves from burying Harfleur “in her ashes” (III.iii.9) to “mowing like grass // Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants” (III.iii.13-14). But even this is not enough: he has to convince the mayor that he is willing to allow “hot and forcing violation” (III.iii.21). He is king of England, and yet he is threatening to let his soldiers (as “what is’t to [him]” [III.iii.19]) rape the girls of the town. It’s a horrible threat. But it’s an act, as he tells Exeter only a few lines later to “use mercy to them all” (III.iii.54).

When Montjoy first asks that Henry set his ransom, the king tells the Frenchman that he wants to march to Calais, then says,

Though 'tis no wisdom to confess so much
Unto an enemy of craft and vantage,
My people are with sickness much enfeebled,
My numbers lessened, and those few I have
Almost no better than so many French;
Who when they were in health, I tell thee, herald,
I thought upon one pair of English legs
Did march three Frenchmen. Yet, forgive me, God,
That I do brag thus! This your air of France
Hath blown that vice in me: I must repent.

— III.vi.141-150

It’s a mind-screw. I want to march to Calais. But why should I tell you that? I really shouldn’t tell you that since my army is so weak. And yet when they weren’t weak, they could have kicked your butt. What can Montjoy take away as fact? Nothing… because it’s all an act.

As is Henry’s visitation of his troops, telling Pistol his name is “Harry Le Roy” (IV.i.49), and discussing the king as if he was not him (“If I live to see [Henry ransomed], I will never trust his word again” [IV.i.191]). It is only now, after he has played his last role–as “not Henry”–that he can admit who he is… not to anyone else, not to any audience, but to himself in soliloquy: “I am a king” (IV.i.252).

He IS a king. He is a protector of his troops, praying to God to “possess them not with fear” (IV.i.283), admitting his faults (“if it be a sin to covet honor, // I am the most offending soul alive” [IV.iii.29-30]), willing to make the hard military decisions to “kill his prisoner(s)” (IV.vi.37).

It is only when he finds himself in a situation where he has no experience, wooing Katherine, that he reverts to his old acting tricks. He tries to be courtly, beginning his romantic assault in verse. Then he tries to be smooth: “An angel is like you, Kate, and you are like an angel” (V.ii.110). But when she calls him on being “full of deceits” (V.ii.120), and he realizes that she is “the better Englishwoman” (V.ii.123), the relapse is over and he can be himself again:

I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say 'I love you:' then if you urge me farther than to say 'do you in faith?' I wear out my suit. Give me your answer; i' faith, do: and so clap hands and a bargain: how say you, lady?

— V.ii.128-132

A handshake deal is all he needs, and if it doesn’t work, “to say to (her) that (he) shall die, is true; but for (her) love, by the Lord, no” (V.ii.151-153). Honesty. It’s more than words, as “a speaker is but a prater” (V.ii.159), or boaster (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]).

Henry is “a soldier…a king” (V.ii.167).

He’s played so many role up until now. He’s had to. A king has to be all things to all men.

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