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Henry V: Q & A

For scene-by-scene questions with detailed answers, please see Shakespeare Explained: Quick Questions on Henry V.

What makes Henry a great ruler?

Henry V, with a clear conscience and the Lord on his side, has the Divine Right of Kings. He has God's permission to govern England as seen in the following passages: "By me kings reign, and princes decree justice" (Proverbs 8,16) and "to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomever he will, and set it up over the basest of men" (Daniel 4,17). Although Henry V has this divine right, and is accountable only to God, he believes that his license to rule is not based simply on his status as anointed king, but based equally on his ability to shoulder the responsibility that comes with this appointment, leading the people justly by making shrewd and calculated political decisions. Richard II is sanctioned, but he uses his power, not to promote England and make her and her people stronger, but to satisfy his personal desires. Richard's motivation behind his political decisions is at times jealously, greed, and vanity, but never is it concern for the realm.

Conversely, Henry IV, at least outwardly, appears to make all his political decisions based on what is best for the nation, sure that he alone can shape England's destiny. Even the usurpation Henry believes to be in the best interests of the people. At first, his intentions are to see justice done and 'weed out' those flatterers who led Richard astray: "You have misled a prince, a royal king/A happy gentlemen in blood and lineaments/By you unhappy and disfigured clean." (Richard II,I.i.8-10) When Richard presents him with the crown, he accepts it, no doubt partially out of greed, but primarily out of the belief that he can serve England better. However, as a usurper, Henry IV does not have the legal or moral right to rule because he has not obtained the crown through the law of primogeniture, and therefore, lacks the divine privilege of rule granted to only those who gain the throne legitimately. As a result, Henry IV has a reign tainted with both external and internal disorder. He has incurred the wrath of God, as foretold by Richard, York, and Carlisle, and it seems that no matter how many rebellions he could stop with his leadership capabilities, more would arise, as his divine punishment dictates he will have no peace.

Thus, when Henry V ascends the throne with the combination of Richard's divine authority and his father's political sophistication, we see the perfect monarch ruling over England, and we see also the amalgamation of two divergent political philosophies. In the tetralogy, the rigid Tudor doctrine which places emphasis completely on a ruler's accountability only to God merges with the diametrically opposed Machiavellian theory that only an exemplary statesman has the right to govern. This fusion of these two opposing political philosophies makes the tetralogy a work of political theory, and the subtle manner in which the plays promote this theory, makes the tetralogy a work of genius.

Please see Representations of Kingship and Power in Shakespeare's Second Tetralogy for more on the characters of Henry V and Richard II.

Why are tennis balls significant in Henry V?

In Act 1, Scene 2 of Henry V, the King of France sends a "gift" of tennis balls to belittle England's beloved King Henry:

First Ambassador Thus, then, in few. (250)
Your highness, lately sending into France,
Did claim some certain dukedoms, in the right
Of your great predecessor, King Edward the Third.
In answer of which claim, the prince our master
Says that you savour too much of your youth,
And bids you be advised there's nought in France
That can be with a nimble galliard won;
You cannot revel into dukedoms there.
He therefore sends you, meeter for your spirit,
This tun of treasure; and, in lieu of this, (260)
Desires you let the dukedoms that you claim
Hear no more of you. This the Dauphin speaks.
KING HENRY V What treasure, uncle?
EXETER Tennis-balls, my liege.
KING HENRY V We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us; (265)
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have march'd our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God's grace, play a set
Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturb'd
With chaces.

The author from whom Shakespeare received most of his historical information, Raphael Holinshed, explains it best: "they presented to him a token [tennis balls] that was taken in verie ill part, as sent in scorne, to signifie, that it was more meet for the king to passe the time with such childish exercise, than to attempt any worthie exploit." (Chronicles). That the game of tennis, so popular in England, was a French invention would have been a further insult.

How to cite this article:
Mabillard, Amanda. Henry V Q & A. Shakespeare Online. 20 Aug. 2000. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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