Henry V

– King Henry’s Darker Side Essay, Research Paper Benjamin W. Cheng Princeton University ‘00 HENRY V – KING HENRY’S DARKER SIDE The original text of William Shakespeare’s Henry V seems to portray King Henry

– King Henry’s Darker Side Essay, Research Paper

Benjamin W. Cheng

Princeton University ‘00


The original text of William Shakespeare’s Henry V seems to portray King Henry

as a character too ideal to be realistic. Indeed, the chorus describes him as the “mirror of

all Christian kings” whose actions epitomize justice and conscience (Henry V, ed. John

Russell Brown [New York: Signet Classic, 1963], 2.Cho.6). Throughout the play, Henry’s

words and actions illustrate his many virtues, virtually elevating him in our eyes to the

status of a saint. Despite the text’s suggestion that he is a symbol of virtue, however,

obviously not everyone agrees with such an ideal image of the king. For example,

Kenneth Branagh, in his screen adaptation of Henry V, illuminates the protagonist in a

completely different light. As Branagh himself recalls, he wanted to explore Henry’s

darker side, and to convey his “qualities of introspection, fear, doubt and anger.” Instead

of reinforcing the king’s image as a saintly figure, Branagh’s screenplay exposes him as a

mere human vulnerable to feelings of insecurity, vengefulness, and guilt. Using theatrical

techniques such as flashbacks and ominous background music, Branagh depicts these

darker and harsher qualities in our so-called “ideal” monarch.

Almost from the very beginning of the film, we notice qualities in Henry very

different from those we would expect after reading the play. In the original text, we

imagine him as a clement and merciful king who is conscientious about preventing

excessive “fall of blood” (1.2.25). Indeed, we see him in Act I Scene ii agonizing over

whether or not he may “with right and conscience” take over France (1.2.96). Moreover,

Henry reveals a distaste for unnecessary bloodshed through his reluctance to wage an

unjust war in which soldiers would “drop their blood in approbation” (1.2.19). In Act II

Scene ii, Henry even impresses us with his magnanimity and mercy by releasing a man

imprisoned for a minor offense. He thus gives us every reason to view him as an ideal


Despite the king’s virtuous image in the text, however, Branagh’s screenplay

portrays him as angry and vengeful, at times even bloodthirsty. In the first act of the film,

we see Henry planning his conquest of France to the accompaniment of deep and

ominous cello tones. In a sinister half-whisper, Henry reveals his intent to “bend [France]

to [his] awe,” or “break it all to pieces” (1.2.224-225). Needless to say, such menacing

words are most unusual for a “conscientious” king who dislikes bloodshed. Although

these lines are in the original text, the emphasis placed on them by Henry’s tone of voice

unveils a bloodthirsty side to the king the text alone does not suggest. Later in that same

scene, the king further reveals his harsh nature by vowing to punish France for insulting

him. The way Henry virtually spits out his description of the French women who will be

forever “[mocked] out of their dear husbands [and sons]” suggests a vengefulness we do

not see in the text (1.2.285). Similarly, in Act III Scene iii, we learn of Henry’s anger and

aggression only because he screams (rather than merely states) his threats of “heady

murder, spoil, and villainy” at an already submissive Governor of Harfleur (3.3.32). Thus,

although the text may portray Henry as clement, merciful, and conscientious, Branagh’s

acting definitely undermines this ideal image of the king.

The screenplay exposes not only Henry’s angry and vengeful disposition, but also

his insecurity and paranoia. Readers of the text may find this surprising, for in the written

play, Henry appears to have every reason to feel confident. Indeed, the text suggests that

he is in fact confident that his invasion of France is just, for he believes that God is

supporting him in his cause. As Henry declares in Act II Scene ii, God has “[smoothed]

every rub…on our way” (2.2.188). Similarly, we assume the king has great confidence in

the loyalty of his followers, for the play frequently reminds us of the love his subjects

bear for him. Indeed, as the Earl of Westmoreland asserts, and many others echo, never

did any English king have “nobles richer and more loyal subjects” than Henry has

(1.2.127). Thus, the text gives no indication whatsoever that Henry is insecure.

Despite this confident image, however, Branagh’s screenplay portrays Henry as a

man consumed by paranoia. Contrary to our expectation, Branagh’s Henry doubts not only

the loyalty of his followers, but even the justice of his own actions. We first see this

insecurity in Act II Scene ii of the film, after Henry exposes the three traitors. Pinning

Scroop to the table, Henry laments that after being betrayed like this, he will regard even

“the full-fraught man and best indued” with suspicion (2.2.139). As he says this, his eyes

dart around the room, settling on Exeter, Bedford, and Westmoreland in turn. Branagh

thus suggests that the king is so paranoid he trusts no one, not even his own relatives.

Moreover, in Act IV Scene i of the film, Henry reveals his doubts about whether or not

his invasion of France is just. Although he maintains that “his cause [is] just and his

quarrel honorable,” we notice his eyes nervously shifting as he makes this claim

(4.1.130). These eye movements, along with his slow enunciation and exaggerated vocal

inflections, suggest some doubt on Henry’s part about what he himself proclaims. We see

more of his doubt and paranoia later in the scene, when he desperately prays for success

in battle, begging God not to punish him for his father’s crimes. Thus, although the text

portrays Henry as a confident ruler, Branagh’s film refutes this image by exposing him as

an insecure man, suspicious of his subjects and fearful of how God will judge his actions.

Branagh not only conveys these feelings of insecurity, but also attempts to

pinpoint their causes. As Henry’s prayer the night before the battle suggests, the source of

his paranoia may very well be his guilt about his father’s usurpation of the crown. Another

cause of Henry’s self-doubts could be his feelings of shame and inferiority over the many

times his father had expressed disappointment in him. Yet another possibility, one

Branagh himself suggests, is that Henry’s fears reflect the guilt and isolation he suffers

from having rejected his tavern friends. In his screenplay, Branagh illuminates this last

possibility through flashbacks. In one of them, shown during Falstaff’s death, we see the

old knight begging Prince Hal never to abandon him. His pained response to Hal’s “I

know thee not, old man” suggests to us the guilt Henry suffers from having “killed his

[friend's] heart” (2.1.91). We see the king’s pain even more clearly in Act III Scene vi of

the film, when Branagh inserts a flashback of Bardolph. In this flashback, Bardolph

jokingly asks Hal not to hang thieves when he is king. The shock on his face when Henry

orders his execution, along with the king’s own tears upon seeing his friend dead, clearly

exhibits the isolation Henry endures. Through these flashbacks, Branagh emphasizes how

important Falstaff and Bardolph once were to Henry. He thus effectively conveys a sense

of guilt the text never seems to suggest. This pain and isolation, along with the guilt his

father’s crimes cause, may have led Henry to his present feelings of insecurity.

Kenneth Branagh’s portrayal of Henry as a mere human susceptible to feelings of

vengefulness, insecurity, and guilt can be interpreted in a number of ways. His decision to

depict Henry’s darker qualities instead of reinforcing his ideal-king image may simply

reflect a desire to lend realism and depth to an otherwise one-dimensional character. It is

even possible, since the movie was made at the end of the Cold War, that this harsh

portrayal of Henry is a condemnation of the imperialism widely condoned during

Shakespeare’s time. Regardless of why Branagh decided to refute the prevalent perception

of Henry, however, his film definitely illustrates how the same lines of text can be

interpreted in completely different ways.