The depiction of England and France within William Shakespeare’s "Henry V."

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2012

20 Pages, Grade: 1,3

Rolf Reimbold (Author)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Portrayal of the English and the French as two separate entities
2.1 Portrayal through the parties themselves
2.1.1 The courageous and united English
2.1.2 The cowardly and boastful French
2.1.3 Language issues
2.2 Portrayal through others
2.2.1 The Chorus
2.2.2 The English about the French
2.2.3 The French about the English

3. Not so different though – interconnection of the English and the French

4. Conclusion


1. Introduction

“Normans, but bastard Normans, Norman bastards!” (Shakespeare, Arden 3.5.10)[1]

This exclamation of the Duke of Britain when he thinks of the English invader King Henry and his approaching army is a testimony of the cordial dislike of the French towards their English enemy. Within Henry V there are many more instances of the French being prejudiced against the English but also vice versa.

However, the quotation above does not only contain a token of the French aversion against their opponent in the Hundred Years War – the setting of this history play by William Shakespeare – but also alludes to the fact that the two nations are somehow interwoven – a circumstance that will be dealt with later on.

Within this paper on Shakespeare’s Henry V, I will take a closer look at the ways in which the two nations describe themselves and are described by others, as well as at the textual evidence that sheds light on some of the national prejudices that the English and the French have against each other. Finally, I will search for those points in the play that indicate a sort of closeness between the two parties.

Concerning the choice of words, it has to be mentioned that, for the sake of simplicity, the terms England and the corresponding adjective English shall be synonymous with the totality of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the four peoples that are fighting together under King Henry against the French.

2. Portrayal of the English and the French as two separate entities

2.1 Portrayal through the parties themselves

2.1.1 The courageous and united English

After the first confrontation with Shakespeare’s Henry V, one might perhaps be left with the impression that King Henry, the central character of the play, is really a magnificent specimen of a powerful and heroic king who has no equal. His victory over the numerically advantaged French not only lets him appear to be infallible but also shows his whole nation in a good light. Improbable though this outcome of the battle of Agincourt may be at first sight, it nevertheless has a comprehensible reason: the unity of England. This unity constitutes the completion of a profound development within the play; in this way, the two quarrelsome individuals Pistol and Nym settle their argument in 2.1:

NYM I shall have my eight shillings?

PISTOL A noble shalt thou have, and present pay,

And liquor likewise will I give to thee,

And friendship shall combine and brotherhood.

I’ll live by Nym and Nym shall live by me. (2.1.106-110)

Furthermore, the three military leaders of Scotland, Ireland, England and Wales – Captain Gower, Macmorris, Jamy and Fluellen – are able to join together to form one concentrated army which is united under their brave commander King Henry. Furthermore, the noblemen York and Suffolk can serve as a third example of the English unity inasmuch as, though they used to come into conflict with each other constantly, the dying Duke of York makes passing away more bearable for the Earl of Suffolk by lying with him on the battlefield when they both take their last breath. They die united and embraced and the Duke of York emphasizes their unity when he says:

[…] Tarry, my cousin Suffolk!

My soul shall thine keep company to heaven.

Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly abreast

As in this glorious and well-foughten field

We kept together in our chivalry. (4.6.15-19)

Another instance that contributes to a considerable extent to England’s unity, the decisive feature that will finally lead to the nation’s victory over France, is the death of one of Henry’s former close companions – Falstaff. Paradoxical though this thought might be at first sight, the loss of this one member of the English is actually going to be a gain for the remaining ones. The narration of Falstaff’s death in 2.3 by the so-called Eastcheap characters shows many superstitions that were quite common at the time and therefore appears to be rather normal:

HOSTESS ’A parted even just between twelve and one, even

at the turning o’th’ tide. For after I saw him fumble

with the sheets and play wi’th’ flowers, and smile upon

his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for

his nose was as sharp as a pen, and ’a babbled of green

fields. […] (2.3.12-16)

On the other hand, Falstaff’s demise can be regarded within in bigger context – it this way, one could claim that it so to speak participates in engendering unity in the play. To put it differently, his loss ends the chaos and confusion, and the once difficult child Hal, now King Henry, is finally able to go on. At this point in time, the king reaches maturity, the progress of which that had been going on and on throughout his troublesome youth. In this respect, Falstaff can be seen as some kind of obstacle in King Henry’s way that had first to be surmounted in order to be able to become his own person and take charge of his destiny.

From this point of view, Falstaff’s death and its function within the play is comparable to the ancient Greek myth of Aeneas and Dido. Like Falstaff in Henry V, the latter had to die in Virgil’s The Aeneid so that her lover Aeneas could go on and fulfil his calling. In both literary works, someone has to be sacrificed in order to complete the development of the major characters. (cf. Woodcock 91)

The newly created unity of the English can be seen as their most powerful weapon against the French, and it is to King Henry that a substantial part of this outcome is due. (cf. Bloom 86)

King Henry can not only be seen as an individual character in this play, but one could even go so far as to claim that he somehow embodies his whole nation and its spirit. When Henry can thus be so to speak equated with England as a nation, this same nation would consequently be just as much the play’s hero as is King Henry. (cf. Woodcock 54)

It is in Henry’s Saint Crispin’s Day speech where all these ideas – King Henry standing for his whole nation, the unity of the English and the resulting superiority and heroic atmosphere – converge and reach their climax:

KING 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 remembered,

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. (4.3.56-60)

This inspiring and convincing speech underpins Henry’s suitability for being a sovereign. He proves to be a charismatic leader who is able to unite his whole army, although the soldiers are of many different ranks. This is possible because he does not promise them gold or splendid garments as a reward – a hollow promise that most of them would probably have seen through – but he refers to honour: “Such outward things dwell not in my desires. / But if it be a sin to covet honour / I am the most offending soul alive” (4.3.27-29). As honour can be a quality of everyone, even the poor soldiers, Henry can get everybody together and make them equal. He wants his men to fight side by side and share their glory afterwards.

This idea of the English soldiers sharing with each other becomes even more obvious and intriguing when Henry says “For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, / This day shall gentle his condition” (4.3.61-63). Being confronted with these lines, one inevitably has to think of the Christian Communion and the close relationship of Christians with God and other believers. Here Henry is making an allusion to the Christian ritual of receiving the Eucharist. As Christians are sharing the consecrated bread and wine, representing the body and blood of Christ, during the Holy Communion, King Henry similarly calls upon all of his soldiers to “shed [their] blood with [him]” (4.3.61) and thus creates a close bond between them.


[1] All following parenthetical references without mention of an author are to: Shakespeare, William. King Henry V. Ed. T.W. Craik. 3rd ed. London: Arden Shakespeare, 2000.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


The depiction of England and France within William Shakespeare’s "Henry V."
University of Würzburg  (Neuphilologisches Institut)
Shakespeare’s History Plays
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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england, france, william, shakespeare’s, henry
Quote paper
Rolf Reimbold (Author), 2012, The depiction of England and France within William Shakespeare’s "Henry V.", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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