Social Positions Explored in Shakespeare's Henry V

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5. Social Positions Explored in Shakespeare’s Henry V

Shakespeare’s Henry V explores the relationship and variations of thought between nobility and commoners. Throughout the play, Shakespeare describes multiple instances that depict the vast divide between the King and the lower class. Harry perceives himself as a man whose “cause [is] just, and his quarrel honourable” (IV.i.121); however, his subjects are hesitant to admit they believe this as well. Shakespeare identifies what it is that makes the King so different from commoners by putting them in a similar situation and describing the various reactions. The disparity between the two positions is also demonstrated in the responsibilities each one assumes according to their social rank. A common theme in many of Shakespeare’s plays is duality; in Henry V, Shakespeare represents this by contrasting the nobility against the commoners. A frequent method Shakespeare employs is comparing the opinions of both groups –which often differ greatly. In Henry V, the main conflict revolves around who is the rightful ruler of France and the resulting war that ensues in its pursuit. As a result, Shakespeare is able to demonstrate both ruler’s opinions as well as those of the commoners, subtly stating the differences between the two. One of the best examples of this is depicted in Falstaff’s former boy’s soliloquy:

As young as I am, I have observed these three swashers. I
am boy to them all three, but all three, though they should
serve me, could not be man to me, for indeed three such
antics do not amount to a man. (III.ii.27-30)

Shakespeare uses this passage to give a voice to the common folk to express their thoughts on King Harry as a King and as a man. In this passage, a servant boy negatively comments on the people he is serving: Nim, Bardolph, and Pistol, which also reflects his view as a commoner on the King. This particular section of the speech focuses on what it is to be a man and in the eyes of the boy –and by extension the people–, these three, as well as King Harry are not men, for they are not honourable. The boy is servant to these three men however, he obviously does not respect “such/ antics” (III.ii.29-30) nor does he think them to be men because, as described later in the soliloquy, it is Nim and Bardolph’s “filching” (II.ii.42) that makes them less manly; this reflects the commoners’ thoughts on Harry, whose actions and goals could also be perceived as stealing. The boy continues: it offends his “manhood if [he]/ should take from another’s pocket and put into [his own], for it is plain pocketing up of wrongs.” (III.ii.45-47).This correlation returns the notion that the common people do not necessarily agree with Harry’s justification for the war. This sentiment is later echoed by another member of the lower class, Williams: upon Harry, in disguise, telling Williams he would be happy to die in battle because the King’s “cause [is] just and his quarrel honourable” (IV.i.121), Williams replies “That’s more than we know” (IV.i.123) insinuating the commoner’s doubt in Harry’s claim to the French throne. Just as the three “would have/ [the boy] as familiar with men’s pockets as their gloves” (IV.ii.43-44) as they are, Harry would have the soldiers “conjure up the blood, /Disguise fair nature with hard-favoured rage” (III.i.6-7) and “teach [the French] how to war” (III.i.27) –both would have the boy take action for a dishonourable cause. Shakespeare’s placing of the Act III, scene ii passage (above) just after Harry’s speech to inspire the men, is further indicative of the parallels he draws between the monarch and his subjects.

Throughout the play, Shakespeare illustrates the similarities between the King and common folk to emphasize the differences between the two. Harry decides to disguise himself and visit the soldiers in the camp; here, Shakespeare attempts to disguise Harry’s nobility by making him look like one of the commoners. It is only while...
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