The Character of Henry
The opening praise of the Kings new-found qualities by Canterbury and Ely establish the theme of reformation in the central character. Both of Shakespeares earlier cycles of plays, Henry IV parts I+II and Henry VI parts I,II+III refer to the weakness of the Kings claim to the English throne due to his fathers (i.e. Henry IVs) devious progression to winning it, by ousting the former King Richard II. There is a definite sense of inherited guilt in Henry for The fault / My father made in compassing the crown but the soliloquy in Act IV articulates the efforts the King has made to expiate the crime and shows his genuine contrition.
A significant element in the Kings reformation of character is his casting off of his "wilder days", which he declares to his brothers at the close of Henry IV Part II and is referred to again in answer to the Dauphins taunt in the first act. Central to this change is the rebuff of his erstwhile partner in crime Falstaff at his coronation in Henry IV Part II, which the hostess seems to be referring to when she declares at the death of Falstaff that "The King has killed his heart". This act formed a kind of dramatic climax to the previous play, and although the Eastcheap tavern crew are in evidence in Henry V they have fallen on hard times and by the close only Pistol is left to mark their passing. History, or rather Shakespeares dramatic presentation of it, has left the kind of riotous merry-making, of which Falstaff was the focal point, behind. Henry has not left his connection to the people entirely behind, however, and the eve of battle sees him wandering, admittedly in disguise, amongst the common troops and bantering on an even footing. It is interesting to note, furthermore, that in his melancholy soliloquy that begins, "Upon the King!" certain lines set up a distinct tension between his present status and his former character:
"O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul, O adoration?
Art thou aught else but place, degree and form,
Creating awe and fear in other men,
Wherein thou art less happy, being feared,
Than they in fearing?"
The tension exists between what may broadly be termed a Machiavellian conception of the role of the monarch ("Creating awe and fear in other men") and the natural tendencies of the man ("I think the King is but a man") which for Henry, in this moment of meditative solitude, surrounded by his troops not his generals, still seem with the common people.
The Presentation of War
The continuing evidence of the humanity of Henry is important in assessing the precise nature of Shakespeares presentation of the conduct and motivation of war in the play. It is perhaps fair to say that the character of the King is never fully engaged in the unfolding action as is the case in, for instance, Richard II or Richard III. As a result, it is more difficult to firmly establish those ambiguities which seem to imply a satirical view of the proceedings in the dramatist, since Shakespeare is not wholly committed to the depiction of his protagonist. Henrys bland acceptance of the motivations of the bishops in promoting the war suggests disingenuous, or not entirely sincere, political manoeuvring on the Kings part, since he seems to be aware of their primary motivation without feeling the need to draw attention to it. Is this an ironized view of statecraft, or merely a lack of wholly committed dramatic input from Shakespeare?
Elsewhere, Henrys brutal imagery at the walls of Harfleur is tempered by his subsequent command to Exeter to "Use mercy to them all", and overall the play seems to make the case for war-mongering as capable of embracing largely morally defensible qualities. The traditional comic closure of marriage on the one hand serves to unify the action into a celebratory whole, of patriotism and Kingship; on the