The True Shakespeare: Henry V

It’s my goal to provide commentary on most of what I consider Shakespeare’s basic plays.  We’ll see how far I get.  Here’s a start.


Hal: Shakespeare’s Alexander

Note:  I prepared a first draft of this essay, in which I compare the characters of Shakespeare’s Henry V and Plutarch’s Alexander, in 1990.  It has remained in embryo form for many years.  Recently I reviewed critical commentary and discovered that Judith Mossman had written an essay on the topic that was published in Shakespeare Quarterly in 1994.  I was pleased to see that her conclusions and mine are similar; I believe that anyone who carefully compares the characters of Henry V in Shakespeare’s play and Alexander in Plutarch should be able to identify a strong pattern of similarity in the two figures.  There is no doubt that Shakespeare used the Plutarch version of Alexander (available to him in Thomas North’s wonderful translation) as the basis for not only the character of Henry V but for the structure of the play itself.  


The nature of the character of Shakespeare’s Henry V, or “Hal,” as he is familiarly known in the Henry IV plays, is much debated. He demonstrates many heroic qualities, especially in his military achievements, most notably the Battle of Agincourt, although many readers consider him a flawed hero. He says he will show no mercy to the citizens of Harfleur and he orders that the French prisoners be killed during the fighting at Agincourt. John Sutherland asked the question, was Henry V, as depicted by Shakespeare, a “war criminal”? Henry V is undoubtedly the most courageous and the most shrewd of English kings, as represented in Shakespeare’s plays. He combines magnanimity of spirit with the ability to make unpleasant and unkind decisions to protect his person and position as king. He excludes Falstaff from his company at the end of Henry IV, Part II, and yes, he orders that the French prisoners be killed.

Henry V is a perceptive and at times ruthless king. He can simultaneously be a good fellow in a group and yet withhold his commitment to that group. He does what is necessary to maintain his position as potential and actual head of the state.  His detached, impersonal view of the actions of those around him is best indicated in his well-known lines, “I know you all,” at the end of Act 1 of Henry IV, Part I:

“I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humor of your idleness.
Yet 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 wonder’s at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him. . . .
So when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes,
And, like bright metal on a sullen ground,
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.
I’ll so offend to make offense a skill,
Redeeming time when men think least I will.”

In Henry IV, Part I, we have hardly begun to become familiar with Falstaff, Bardolph, and the other members of the Eastcheap Tavern crew, when Hal provides this cold and self-centered statement of his intent to use his association with these men to advance his own career.  He waits until everyone else has left the stage to pronounce his carefully calculated plan to enhance the public perception of his character.  His “I know you all” speech, appropriately delivered by a well-trained actor, will include us, the spectators, as much as it includes the other individuals who have just left the stage, suggesting that his calculations include his effect on future viewers as well.

The jokester Hal of Henry IV, Parts I and II, is the same man as the stern yet enthusiastic Henry of Henry V.  What classic figure, well-known to Shakespeare and his contemporaries, is like Hal/Henry in his comradely  yet ruthless character?  Shakespeare in fact gives us a clear indication of his model for Henry V: Alexander the Great. In a 1962 essay Ronald Berman argues convincingly that “in certain ways Henry [V] is a reconstruction of Plutarch’s Alexander.” Berman supports his argument by showing that Shakespeare had been reading North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, most obviously in the preparation of Julius Caesar, which followed Henry V, both plays written about 1599; Caesar and Alexander are paired figures in Plutarch’s Lives. Berman reminds us of the most obvious linkage to Alexander in the play, Fluellen’s explicit comparison of Henry to Alexander in IV. vii: “If you mark Alexander’s life well, Harry of Monmouth’s life is come after it indifferent well.”  Even though it comes late in the play, after much of the significant action has occurred, and is spoken by a quirky character, when Shakespeare himself gives us such a clear indication of his model, we would do well to consider its complete relevance to Hal’s character throughout the play.

Berman identifies other conceptual linkages between Shakespeare and Plutarch as well: Shakespeare’s mode of presenting the histories as tragedies, references to the “Gordian knot” of policy dealt with successfully by Hal and Alexander, and the similarity of the siege of Harfleur to a siege described in Plutarch’s Lives. Berman establishes the underlying credibility of his argument by demonstrating the similarity of spirit of the characters as represented in the play and in Plutarch’s history.

Like Berman, I believe there is a strong parallel between the figures of Alexander and Henry V; however, I believe it is much more detailed and complete than Berman suggested. Further, I believe that an understanding of this linkage can give us a clearer picture of the kind of king Shakespeare had in mind, an absolute monarch who willed his human qualities to perfection, an individual who, like Alexander, initiated ruthless actions but who did so out of his informed vision of personal and political necessity. But before suggesting the kind of character Shakespeare may have had in mind, we need first to establish as completely as we can the several similarities in the two characters.

We can begin by considering the observations of another careful reader of Shakespeare’s plays, one not normally acknowledged by scholarly critics, Isaac Asimov. Asimov pointed to several comparisons between the figures of Alexander and Henry:

“Henry V, as it happened, was the closest approach to Alexander the Great the English nation could boast. He was twenty-six when he became king (Alexander had been twenty-one); he attacked a much larger nation and defeated greater armies than his own in as spectacular a style, on at least one occasion, as Alexander had done. And finally Henry V was fated to die young at thirty-five as Alexander had done at thirty-three.”

There are other historical affinities: like Alexander, Hal was the son of a powerful king who had succeeded in returning to his country a measure of political stability and military might. Alexander’s father, Philip of Macedon, had been the single most dominant figure in Greek history, successfully bringing the largest geographical area of Greek territory under the political and military control of a single head. Hal’s father, Henry IV, had similarly been successful in uniting a divided and warring kingdom. While he was certainly not comparable to Philip of Macedon in terms of power and military success, his role was similar, at least as presented in the Shakespeare plays.

There are other similarities between Hal’s achievements in France and Alexander’s in Persia. Alexander’s foe was Darius, King of Persia, who commanded more men than Alexander could muster at any of the two major battles fought between them, Issus and Gaugamela. Hal faces a formidable foe in the French power, if not in any one man able to control it, certainly not the “mad king” Charles VI. But as Shakespeare indicates in the play, a strong group of nobles was united against Hal, including, at various times, John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy; Bernard, Count of Armangac; the king’s nephew, Charles, Duke of Orleans; Charles d’Albret, Constable of France; John, Duke of Bourbon; and John, Duke of Berry. As all historical sources agree, Hal, like Alexander, was invading France with a smaller number of men than the French powers could raise against him.

Even in certain military engagements (especially those Shakespeare chooses to describe in the play), Hal’s challenges and achievements are strikingly similar to certain key military actions of Alexander. While Plutarch’s history of Alexander describes several major military victories, two of them clearly correspond to the two engagements described in Henry V: the siege of Tyre and the siege at Harfleur, and the defeat of Darius at Gaugamela and the defeat of the French at Agincourt.

Berman also recognizes a similarity to one of Alexander’s achievements in Hal’s siege of Harfleur. But Berman likens Henry V’s siege of Harfleur to Alexander’s siege of Thebes, which, according to Plutarch, Alexander sacked and razed, hoping “that so severe an example might terrify the rest of Greece into obedience.” Berman says that the siege of Harfleur, like Alexander’s of Thebes, is “his first step toward international power, and the testing ground of his will.” Berman notes that it was a “commonplace” of 16th and 17th century commentary that Thebes “revealed Alexander’s sensibility.”

But in attacking Thebes, Alexander was attacking his own countrymen. The siege of Alexander that better compares to Hal’s siege of Harfleur is Alexander’s siege of Tyre, on the west coast of the Persian empire. Alexander needed to reduce the threat posed by Tyre so that he could move his own supplies into his logistics pipeline unthreatened by sea-going Persian attackers.

The siege of Tyre has as much if not more significance for the meaning of Alexander’s character than does the attack on Thebes. Alexander attacked Thebes when he was young; when he attacked Tyre he was Hal’s age. Plutarch tells us that the siege of Tyre was carried on “for seven months together,” with “battering engines and two hundred galleys by sea.” When Alexander finally defeated Tyre he did so with the rapidity and forcefulness of Hal at Harfleur:

“Ordering the trumpets to sound, [Alexander] attacked the walls more seriously than he at first intended. The sharpness of the assault so inflamed the rest of his forces who were left in the camp, that they could not hold from advancing to second it, which they performed with so much vigour that the Tyrians retired, and the town was carried that very day.”

Once Alexander had secured Tyre, he could afford to turn inland and attack Darius on his home ground, first at Issus, and then at Gaugamela. Hal, having secured Harfleur, does not, of course, attack the French powers at an inland location like Paris; he is content, with his ill and reduced numbers, to make a symbolic march to Calais, but is prevented by the appearance of the French force at a small village named Agincourt.  The Alexandrian comparison of Agincourt is the battle at Gaugamela.

At Gaugamela Alexander decisively defeated Darius, destroying his army and his political power. Alexander was, according to all sources, heavily outnumbered. As Plutarch says, “After [Alexander] had reduced all Asia on this side the Euphrates, he advanced towards Darius, who was coming down against him with a million of men.” In a battle of feints and movements of forces, Alexander, at the head of his cavalry, eventually drove at the heart of the Persian line, where Darius’ charioteers were gathered. Brought under attack, and his charioteer apparently wounded, Darius fled the field. According to most sources, Alexander would have pursued and captured Darius had he not turned to assist a portion of his army still under severe assault.

Henry V had not the luxury of horses, but he did have his archers, and a natural funnel-shaped field bordered by forests, which helped to restrict the movements of the attacking French. Muddy ground further reduced the mobility of the heavily-weighted foot soldiers of the French. The result was an appalling loss of life for the French and an amazingly short list of casualties for the English. Although Shakespeare gives us few scenes of combat at Agincourt, historical accounts tell us that the French soldiers were restricted in their movements by the mass of their own bodies compressed into an unusually small area of fighting.

Such an effect is similar to that given by Plutarch when he describes the flight of Darius:

“Alexander’s approach was so terrible, forcing those who gave back upon those who yet maintained their ground, that he beat down and dispersed them almost all. Only a few of the bravest and valiantest opposed the pursuit, who were slain in their king’s presence, falling in heaps upon one another, and in the very pangs of death striving to catch hold of the horses. Darius, now seeing all was lost, that those who were placed in front to defend him were broken and beat back upon him, that he could not turn or disengage his chariot without great difficulty, the wheels being clogged and entangled among the dead bodies, which lay in such heaps as not only stopped, but almost covered the horses, and made them rear and grow so unruly that the frightened charioteer could govern them no longer, in this extremity was glad to quit his chariot and his arms . . . .”

Other similarities between the battles of Gaugamela and Agincourt, in addition to proportionate casualty figures, include the close proximity of the armies prior to battle, the descriptions of the long night prior to the onset of battle, and Alexander’s nocturnal activities on the eve of battle: Plutarch tells us that “Alexander, while his soldiers slept, spent the night before his tent with his diviner.” Shakespeare’s Henry V visits his troops during the night prior to the battle, and, though he has no “diviner,” seeks spiritual assistance through prayer.

The most surprising similarity is the attack of the enemy soldiers upon the tents behind the primary battle lines. Both events happened at Agincourt and at Gaugamela. According to Plutarch, Mazeus, one of Darius’ commanders, “sent a detachment round about to fall upon those who guarded the baggage” of Alexander’s camp, language remarkably similar to that used by Fluellen when he describes the event in Henry V. In contrast to Hal, who sees the attack on the boys and the baggage at Agincourt as the only event of the battle to truly anger him, Alexander cannot be bothered by the news, for he is about to launch his battle-winning drive against Darius. But the event is there in both campaigns, an interesting fact to consider when we think of how much we do not know about Alexander’s achievements, suggesting that Shakespeare wanted to make that comparison. Of the many similarities between the two battles, it is the clearest, most positive event.

There is even an Alexandrian comparison to the Dauphin’s gift of tennis balls to Henry in Act I. Peter Saccio, doubting that the episode of the tennis balls ever occurred historically, suggests another comparison between Shakespeare’s Henry V and Plutarch’s Alexander: “it too closely resembles a tale told of negotiations between King Darius of Persia and the young Alexander to be wholly credible.” By now it should be evident that Shakespeare is interested in creating a portrait of Henry V that is as much mythological or even iconographic as it is historically accurate.  While there is no mention of such an episode in Plutarch, there is a similar story in the Greek Alexander Romance, in which Darius mockingly sends Alexander a whip, a ball, and a chest of gold. In the Romance, a highly mythological interpretation of the achievements of Alexander, which was available to Shakespeare, Alexander responds with this letter to Darius:

“You sent me a whip, a ball and a chest of gold to mock me; but I regard these as favourable omens. I accepted the whip, so as to flay the barbarians with my own hands, through the power of my spears and weapons, and bring them to submission. I accepted the ball, as a sign that I shall be ruler of the world–for the world is spherical like a ball. The chest of gold you sent me is a great sign: you will be conquered by me and pay me tribute.”

Shakespeare transformed the details of this story into the much more theatrically effective “tun” of tennis balls incident.  The energetic response of Henry V to the French ambassador in Act I can easily be seen as Shakespeare’s modification of these comments.

In his Campaigns of Alexander, the Roman historian Arrian records an exchange of letters between Darius and Alexander prior to the battle of Gaugamela that, while not including references to balls or whips, does indicate the disdainful attitude of Darius and the hot-tempered reply of Alexander.

But Darius’ defeat at Gaugamela does not conclude the comparison between Hal and Alexander. When Alexander defeated Darius at their first meeting, at the battle at the Issus River, Alexander captured Darius’ wife and children. According to Plutarch and other historians, Alexander treated Darius’ wife and children with courtesy and respect, favoring them as if they were part of his own royal camp. When Darius was killed by some of his own followers after the rout at Gaugamela, Alexander continued to treat Darius’ family well, eventually marrying Darius’ daughter, Stateira. Although his earlier marriage to Roxanne was better known, an integral part of the Alexander myth, his motivation in both marriages was not unlike the kind of motivation Shakespeare gives Hal in his marriage to the French princess Katherine: to heal the wounds of war and to establish blood ties between the ruling families of countries that previously had been at war.

One other major tie-in to the life of Alexander has caused a great deal of discussion among critics: Fluellen’s comparison of Falstaff to Cleitus, the long time friend and valued counselor whom Alexander slays in a brief fit of rage during a drinking bout. A typical reaction to the comparison is provided by Isaac Asimov (one of the few readers to examine the link between the two figures). When explaining Fluellen’s comparison between Alexander’s killing of Cleitus and Henry’s banishment of Falstaff at the end of Henry IV, Part II (thereby symbolically killing the old man), Asimov aks: “Why [does Fluellen] pick out one of the most disgraceful episodes in Alexander’s life for a comparison? Why stress Alexander’s rage under the influence of intoxication with wine, if not, perhaps, to have us think of Henry’s rage under the influence of intoxication with victory?”

While many readers and viewers of the plays are unhappy that Hal banishes Falstaff from his court at the end of Henry IV, Part 2, the need for Hal to do so is symbolically evident: Hal, who has now become Henry V, has literally turned away from the follies of his youth and the individuals of disorder and misrule with whom he has been associated.  It is no accident that the remaining members of Falstaff’s crew (Pistol, Bardolph, and even the boy from the tavern) are either discredited or killed in Henry V.

Asimov’s assessment, though perhaps not on the mark, is closer than those of many other critics, who have seen Fluellen’s remarks as establishing an ironic perspective through which to interpret the actions of Henry on and off the battlefield. Sidney Homan, for instance, believes that if Fluellen’s comments suggest that “Alexander is like Hal, or Hal like him, it is as much for negative as for positive qualities.” Asimov, though reading much of Shakespeare with a literal eye, nevertheless takes every one of Shakespeare’s allusions and references seriously, offering a healthy balance to those who read the text too indirectly.  Although some modern respondents have wanted to see Shakespeare as treating Henry V ironically, as something less than an ideal king, there is too much internal evidence in the play (and in the comparison with Alexander) to justify such a view.

If there are in fact so many comparisons between Hal and Alexander, what is to be made of them? What do we do with the fact that Shakespeare wanted the figure of Hal to be viewed through numerous associations with one of the best-known and most ambiguous figures in history? No one has ever claimed that Alexander was a paragon of virtue. Nor has he been seen as a totally selfish, disreputable character. Alexander has been seen largely as his earliest commentators, Plutarch and Arrian, saw him, as a puzzling mixture of ego and social concern, a generous friend and an easily-angered hot-blooded enemy, a thorough military and political planner and spontaneous reactor to events around him: an exceptional mix of virtues and failings of the human spirit. Plutarch describes his character pretty completely early in his history, when he describes Alexander:

“His temperance as to the pleasures of the body, was apparent in him in his very childhood, as he was with much difficulty incited to them, and always used them with great moderation; though in other things he was extremely eager and vehement, and in his love of glory, and the pursuit of it, he showed a solidity of high spirit and magnanimity far above his age.”

This description, with some very slight adjustments, could apply equally well to the character of Hal as Shakespeare presents him in Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Henry V.



The Alexander Romance.

Arrian, The Campaigns of Alexander.

Asimov, Issac. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare. Doubleday, 2 vols.

Berman, Ronald.  “Shakespeare’s Alexander: Henry V.”  College English 23 (1962), pp. 532-539.

Homan, Sidney. Shakespeare’s Theater of Presence: Language, Spectacle, and the Audience. 

Mossman, Judith.  Henry V and Plutarch’s AlexanderShakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994), pp. 57-73.

North, Thomas. Plutarch’s Lives. Heritage,

Saccio, Peter.  Shakespeare’s English Kings.  Oxford University Press, 1977.