Kenneth Brannaugh’s stellar performance might mislead new readers to this play. Those who saw his “Band of Brothers” speech might rightly view Henry as the greatest of all Christian kings (and thus the greatest of all possible rulers). It would be hard to contest it. (Below I am leaning heavily on Peter Leithart’s analysis)
Shakespeare gives us a subtle caution, though. In 2.0.14 he calls Henry “the mirror of all Christian kings.” What do you see when you look in a mirror? You see your own reflection. If so, then maybe Henry is a type of Christ. He was denied his rightful claim in France and so invades enemy territory. Even better, the story ends in a wedding and reminds readers of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in Revelation.
But mirrors can work in more than one way. When you look into a mirror, you see the “opposite” of what is there (your right hand is on the left, etc). Further, mirrors can play tricks on the eyes. Perhaps Shakespeare is inviting us to see deeper in the picture.
The drama begins with the Archbishop of Canterbury and Ely discussing church politics. They are worried that they will lose church lands in a coming political sweep. Long story short, the convince Henry to go to war in France (and presumably gain lands there). Henry never stops to ask if this is actually just.
The drama then moves (unexpectedly) to a tavern and we are introduced to three idiots from the previous plays: Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym. Viewers of the film version will be at a loss here: what relevance to these men have to Henry (and even worse, the audio on the film version is particularly bad and it is hard to know what is going on)? These were Henry’s old drinking buddies. Of particular interest is Shakespeare’s constant juxtaposition of Pistol and Henry. While Henry is noble and Pistol an oaf, Shakespeare is inviting readers to see a similarity.
But Henry isn’t entirely bad. He gives orders that French churches are not to be harmed (and hence would seem to follow Just War Theory). He puts off his airs and appears among the men in camp, calling up remembrance of “Our good king ‘arry.” His unmasking the three traitors is pure genius. And of course, his Band of Brothers speech is one of the finest moments in the English language.
Unfortunately, though, dark clouds remain. The presumed bad guys, the French, are fighting a defensive war against an invader whose claim to the throne is strained at best. Worse, when Henry lays siege to Harfleur, he threatens to cry havoc and bring fire, sword, and rape to the city if it does not surrender. Not surprisingly, the city surrenders. But is he really the mirror of all Christian kings? His conversation with his future (French) wife is charming, of course, but reading between the lines shows that it is little more than a continuation of Henry’s conquest by other means: she marries him because (she knows and her father knows) France has lost the war. Henry is negotiating from a position of power.
The drama may end with a wedding, but it is not the Wedding of the Lamb. Shakespeare’s readers know, as the contemporaries would likely guess, France will soon be plunged into more war at England’s hands, staving off defeat by a series of desperate miracles (think Joan of Arc).
Postmodernists love to think they are original and fresh. Early modern artists like Shakespeare had them beaten in both originality and content. This play is an example of deconstructionism in its best sense: looking below the surface of events, we see multiple layers of meaning, many of which conceal power plays.
LAGNIAPPE: Shakespeare gives us an interesting example of how Protestants view the difference between the sign and the thing signified. Henry is reflecting on ceremony (Act IV). What is ceremony? On one hand it points to something noble. It makes the difference between kings and commoners. On the other hand, it doesn’t change the man ontologically. If a sick commoner appears before the king, the king can’t heal him. Ceremony doesn’t give him that kind of power. But as we have just seen, it isn’t an empty ceremony either. The sign (ceremony) and the thing signified (royalty; glory) are held in appropriate tension. Other traditions, by collapsing sign into thing signified, lose this tension.