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Machiavellianism in Henry V

How King Henry is Necessarily Immoral:

by Robert Russell 


Niccolò Machiavelli, in his famous work The Prince, states that “A man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore, if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must learn how not to be virtuous, and to make use of this or not according to need” (Machiavelli 91). King Henry in Shakespeare’s Henry V exemplifies Machiavelli’s assertion. King Henry is necessarily immoral, and he displays this immorality in his decision to execute his old friend Bardolph, in his deception of his own soldiers, and in his command to kill all the prisoners of war.

            In Act 3 Scene 6, King Henry, having discovered that his old friend Bardolph was charged with the crime of looting a church, an unforgivable offense, orders his old friend to be executed. King Henry says,

“We would have all such offenders so cut off, and we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for, none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.” (H5 3.6 106-112)

King Henry orders such a command despite his own grievances in killing an old friend because he knows that he must maintain power among his men. He maintains power over his men by paradoxically instilling fear and compassion into them. Because he is to execute his old friend who looted from the villages’ churches, King Henry threatens his men not to commit similar crimes because “we would have all such offenders so cut off”. However, he follows that threat with “for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner,” conversely making the case that it is the “gentler” player who will win against cruelty. In The Prince, Machiavelli writes, “A prince must not worry if he incurs reproach for his cruelty so long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal” (Machiavelli 95). King Henry’s decision to execute Bardolph is example of cruelty, an act that may possibly warrant reproach from his men. So in order to avoid reproach, King Henry ameliorates such a cruel command by reversing the sentiment and emphasizing “lenity” within the same statement.

            Furthermore, the shift in emphasis in the statement, carried out through logic and turn-of-phrase, not only conveys King Henry’s understanding of the importance of maintaining power over his men, a notion that falls in line with Machiavelli’s assertion of princely leadership, but also alludes to a subtler form of Machiavellianism, one where the ends are achieved through rhetoric rather than action. In his assessment of Shakespeare and Machiavelli, Hugh Grady purports, “In the plays of The Henriad…we can discern, as a part of a kind of implied intellectual framework, a much less lurid Machiavellianism, one which the plays often explore as an attractive and explanatory philosophy of history and politics” (Grady 124). The emphasis of King Henry’s strategic acuity resides more in his rhetoric than in his actions. It is in his inherent talent for speech that his Machiavellian tendencies are revealed, and nowhere is this more apparent than in his disguised visit with his soldiers before the Battle of Agincourt.

            In Act 4, Scene 1 King Henry deceives his soldiers so as to learn their opinions of him and to deceitfully inspire confidence so that they can win the war against the French at Agincourt for which they are outnumbered. He states, “Lend me thy cloak, Sir Thomas, Brothers both, Commend me to the princes in our camp” (H5 4.1 24-26). In disguise, King Henry then makes conversation with his men, first inquiring what they think of their king, then expounding his own opinion. He says:

“When he sees reason for fears, as we do, his fears, out of doubt, be of the same relish as ours are. Yet, in reason no man should possess him with any appearance of fear, lest he, by showing it, should dishearten his army.” (H5 4.1 108-113.)         

King Henry states that a King, though fearful himself as his soldiers might be, should never show that fear as it might “dishearten his army” and thus force them to lose their faith in their leader. Machiavelli states in The Prince “Whenever men are discussed…they are noted for various qualities which earn them either praise or condemnation…one man effeminate and cowardly, another fierce and courageous” (Machiavelli 91). These qualities, “fierce and courageous,” are the kingly aspects that King Henry is referring to, and, in disguise, defending himself in his claim that he is courageous because if he had fear he still would not reveal it to his men. However, to this, soldier Bates states his opinion. He says:

“He may show what outward courage he will; but I believe, as cold a night as ‘tis, he could wish himself in Thames up to the neck; and so I would he were, and I by him, at all adventures, so we were quit here.

(H5 4.1 114-117)

To this King Henry immediately rebuts, saying “I think he would not wish himself anywhere but where he is,” (H5 4.1 118-119). By this immediate defense of himself, King Henry exemplifies Machiavelli’s assertion that “a prince has of necessity to be so prudent that he knows how to escape the evil reputation attached to those vices which could lose him his state, and avoid those vices which are not so dangerous if he possibly can” (Machiavelli 92). Similar to the reversal of emphasis in King Henry’s command for his troops not to fall into the same fate as Bardolph, here King Henry also reverses the sentiment. King Henry recognizes the faltering of his soldiers’ confidence, in particular Bates, and so he immediately redirects the conversation, in an attempt to escape a potentially ruined reputation.

            However, such a redirection is not enough against his questionable soldiers. King Henry, still in disguise, deceitfully inspires confidence in his men through logic and reason which in turn remove his own responsibility for his soldiers’ lives, another maneuver that demonstrates Machiavelli’s assertion. King Henry tries to absolve himself by relaying that the King is just a man like any one of his soldier. He states,

“Besides, there is no king, be his cause never so spotless, if it come to the arbitrament of words, can try it out with all unspotted soldiers…If they die unprovided, no more is the King guilty of their damnation than he was before guilty of those impieties for the which they are now visited. Every subject’s duty is the King’s; but every subject’s soul is his own” (H5 4.1 158-177).

Absolving himself from the responsibility of his men’s lives further illustrates Machiavelli’s assertion of “know[ing] how to escape the evil reputation attached to those vices which could lose him his state” (Machiavelli 92). Forcing the blame away from himself accomplishes two things: his own absolution in the event of his soldiers’ deaths; and the avoidance of tarnishing his own reputation because “no more is the King guilty,” thus maintaining his status among his men. King Henry continues to maintain his status among his men with his committing of a war crime after the battle. 

            King Henry’s decision to kill the prisoners of war, itself constituting a war crime, reinforces Machiavelli’s assertion of immorality as a necessity. It is in the last lines of Act 4 Scene 6 that King Henry commands, “The French have reinforced their scattered men. Then every soldier kill his prisoners! Give the word through” (H5 4.6 36-38). To such a command Fluellen, in the first lines of the next scene, proclaims his surprise, saying:

“Kill the poys and the luggage? ‘Tis expressly against the law of arms. ‘Tis an arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offert; in your conscience, now, is it not?”

(H5 4.7 1-4)

To Fluellen’s concern, Gower replies, “wherefore the King most worthily hath caused every soldier to cut his prisoner’s throat. Oh, ‘tis a gallant King!” (H5 4.7 8-10). Gower recognizes the Machiavellian necessity in King Henry’s decision. King Henry goes on to say:

“And make them skirr away as swift as stones enforcèd from the old Assyrian slings. Besides, we’ll cut the throats of those we have, and not a man of them that we shall take shall taste our mercy. Go and tell them so.” (H5 4.7 60-64).

King Henry’s decision to kill the prisoners reveals his understanding that in order to maintain the union of his men as well as his status among them, he must commit this war crime. In The Prince, Machiavelli writes, “When a prince is campaigning with his soldiers and is in command of a large army then he need not worry about having a reputation for cruelty; because, without such a reputation, no army was ever kept united and disciplined” (Machiavelli 97). King Henry recognizes the importance in maintaining unity in his forces, and just like in his decision to execute Bardolph, King Henry is using cruelty as a means of utility. Cruelty and immorality are inherently linked. Therefore, immorality is a necessity for King Henry because it lies the foundation for the preservation of his power.

            Such a preservation of power inevitably results from the instillation of fear rather than compassion among his subjects, which begs the question: is it better to be loved than feared, or the reverse? Machiavelli writes, “It is far better to be feared than loved if you cannot be both” (Machiavelli 96). King Henry would agree with that assertion as his actions and more so his rhetoric have displayed. In his decision and explanation to execute Bardolph, his deceiving his own men so as to boost their faith in himself, and his command to kill the prisoners of war, King Henry reinforces the Machiavellian concept of “the ends justify the means.” At the end, King Henry has maintained power, control, and won the war, and in doing so has exemplified the notion that in order to be King, one must be immoral.







Works Cited

Grady, Hugh. “Shakespeare’s Links to Machiavelli and Montaigne: Constructing Intellectual Modernity in Early Modern Europe.” Comparative Literature, vol. 52, no. 2, 2000, pp.119-142. JSTOR, Accessed 25 Mar. 2020.

Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince. Trans. by George Bull. Penguin Books. Viking Penguin Inc. New York, New York. 1961. Pp. 91-96.

Shakespeare, William. The Life of King Henry the Fifth. The Necessary Shakespeare. Third Ed.David Bevington. The University of Chicago. Pearson Education, Inc. Pp. 416-457.

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