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Henry is the outstanding character in the play and reveals the complex and varied nature of a young vibrant king. He represents the best qualities in an English ruler: adventurous, a brave and dashing political strategist, a cunning warrior, a just ruler, and sympathizer of the common man. At times, he does appear to be ruthless and ambitious in his determination to conquer France yet for the most part he has been idealized as the perfect man of action. He understands that war is brutal and inhumane and tries to diminish the losses by expounding a civil code among his men. Shakespeare is concerned with painting a picture of not only an ideal King but also a "plain soldier."
Henry V, as presented by Shakespeare, is intensely religious and patriotic. He is forever calling upon God to guide him in his decisions. "God acquit you in his mercy!" he says to the traitors. After the battle he attributes the glory of the triumph to God alone. He also causes rites to be performed and psalms to be sung.
Henry shows extreme personal courage, as can be seen in the siege of Harfleur. He is courteous to the French ambassadors when discussing the upcoming war yet he is not afraid to walk alone, though disguised, among his troops at night. His ability to talk with the common folks stems from his fun-loving past as Prince Hal who has been discarded but not completely extinguished from his soul. He can still participate in a practical joke.
Henry also has his faults, which make him more human and less a caricature of what a ruler should be. He attempts to eschew responsibility throughout the play although he is politically savvy and manages to make it appear as if his adversary is the one who has brought punishment upon himself such as in the case of the traitors who cast their own punishment on themselves unwittingly. Also, he can be inflexible in his orders and have all offenders executed, irrespective of extenuating circumstances. He can also be ruthless, as seen in his orders for the killing of all the French prisoners.
The play also reveals others' opinions of him. Nym says of him: "The King is a good King." Pistol says that the King has "a heart of gold." The Constable says that he is "terrible in constant resolution." Gower cries "O, 'tis a gallant king!" To the Chorus he is "the mirror of all Christian kings", "a conquering Caesar" and "This star of England."
Modern critics condemn Henry V as one who pinned his faith on "brute force" and who, "because he did not know how to govern his own kingdom, determined to make war upon his neighbors." They seem to have lost sight of the fact that Shakespeare was writing a patriotic play about a national hero; it was admirably suited to an Elizabethan audience who had firmly established ideas of nationhood and patriotism.
As King of France, Charles has little authority or personality. Compared to Henry, he is an ineffective ruler. Left to himself, he would have acceded to the demands of Henry. He has a conciliatory attitude from the beginning and would rather not have provoked the wrath of Henry. However, the French Lords have great confidence in their ability to repel a foreign invasion. The Dauphin is a firebrand in speech, if not in action. They all urge resistance. The King has but to yield to them. Although a weak ruler, he more truly estimates the capability of Henry than his courtiers do yet the militant attitude of his courtiers and the Dauphin's stubbornness prove too strong for him. Shakespeare does not wholly conform to the historical portrait of Charles who supposedly was insane. Here he is just a weak and pathetic king who allows his counsel to make decisions for him. Shakespeare endows him with a pacific disposition.
The Dauphin is a foil to Henry as he is arrogant, boastful, cavalier and rash. He underestimates Henry terribly and only sees him as the callow youth he used to be. The insult of his gift of tennis balls is characteristic of his thoughtlessness and his ability to affront people. He is not very diplomatic and is a stereotype of the hedonistic self-absorbed and pretentious French man. He is a braggart before the battle yet does nothing to prepare his men for battle. To him it is a game and has nothing to do with noble causes or will power. On the battlefield he is worse than useless. He is intelligent enough, but later even his friends have little time for him. In the end he is shamed off the battlefield and never returns to the play.
The character of Katharine seems to have been perfunctorily sketched. The Alice-Katharine scene is nothing more than a comic interlude to break up the heavier scenes of increasing animosity between France and England. Shakespeare certainly amuses the reader with the portrait of Katharine. Even though she is only fourteen, a little more of sense and dignity would have made her at least deserving of the honor that was destined for her. Nor is the courtship scene at all satisfactory as it appears that beneath the air of levity the King conceals a serious purpose, that of grubbing the whole of France. Katharine is but a pawn in this political game, as she will ultimately be given in marriage to Henry. She is chiefly remembered for her picturesque, broken English and the insipid way in which she responds to Henry's wooing in Act V.
Fluellen plays a very significant role in Henry V. "Though it appears a little out of fashion, there is much care and valor in this Welshman," says Henry. He is honest in his dealings with all. He is simple-minded enough to allow himself to be imposed upon by Pistol yet he is also prone to being bombastic. He misuses book- words like "pristine" and "concavities." He is something of a bore by the way in which he is forever talking of "the discipline in the Roman wars." His good sense, however, allows him to keep his temper under control, even under provocation. A born soldier, he insists on military discipline in the case of Bardolph. He has great love of, and loyalty to, the King. He considers that since Henry was "born at Monmouth," he has a special claim on him. Shakespeare's representation of his peculiar dialect must have caused much fun for the audience then.
Sir John Falstaff
Sir John Falstaff's name does not appear among the Dramatis Personae of this play. Yet there are allusions to him contained in this play. In Henry V, the audience obtains a slight glimpse of his character. The audience has sympathies for the fat knight when they learn the cause of his death. The King "hath run bad humors on the knight," and "his heart is fractured and corroborate." In the same scene, the Boy recalls a specimen of his wit and fancy rich in varied imagery. Shakespeare promised in the Epilogue to Henry IV that he would continue the story "with Sir John in it." However, when he came to write the play Henry V, the poet evidently changed his mind. With the coronation of Henry V, it opens a new period, when a higher interest animates history. The national life is unified, and the glorious struggle with France begins. Agincourt is not the battlefield for splendid mendacity. There is no place for Falstaff any longer on earth. With his death, the remnants of Prince Hal's roguish period is now gone.
Pistol is a character of importance in this play as he is a rogue and a survivor, one of the few who manages to survive the five-year war with France. His character undercuts the seriousness of the war effort and reveals the dissenting attitude of many men who were reluctant to fight for France. In many ways, the petty thievery and arrogance that Pistol shows can be seen as the underbelly of the noble war effort that Henry exhorts to his men. Money is at the heart of the French invasion; therefore, Pistol's thievery, although condemned by Henry, is representative of what the English are doing to the French. He is a great boaster and an even greater coward than Bardolph and Nym, yet he lives while they die. His conceit is temporarily taken out of him by Fluellen. Fluellen gives him his deserved chastisement and makes him eat his Welsh leek. He cudgels his honor from his weary limbs. However, even from such treatment he will no doubt recover when he returns to England. There he will steal and boast of his cudgeled scars and swear "he got them in the Gallia wars." Like Bardolph, he figures somewhat prominently in Henry IV.
Bardolph has been in the service of Sir John Falstaff and was one of Prince Henry's companions in Henry IV. He possesses most of his master's vices without any of his wit. His chief passport to fame lies in his nose: "his face is all bubbles and whelks, and knobs, and flames o' fire." His lips blow at his nose, and "it is like coal of fire, sometimes blue and sometimes red." This is the description of him by Fluellen. The Boy sums him up in the words, "he is white- livered and red-faced; by the means whereof a' faces it out but fights not." He appears in Act II. In Act III, he meets with a violent end: "For he hath stolen a pax, and hanged must a' be."
Corporal Nym is a boaster and a coward. Although not as extreme as Bardolph, he is no less a scoundrel. The boy thus characterizes him; "he hath heard that men of few words are the best men; and therefore he scorns to say his prayers, lest a' should be thought a coward: but his few bad words are matched with as few good deeds: for a' never broke any man's head but his own, and that was against a post when he was drunk." He appears in Act II and III. He is always in the company of Bardolph, and like him, he ends his career on the gallows.