Honor, War, and the Monarchical Regime in Shakespeare’s “Henry V”
William Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry V addresses perirenal questions concerning the human condition and the justifications for war.[1] Shakespeare’s play illustrates how the causes of war cannot be explained by simply narrow self-interest or Realpolitik. It is debatable, for example, whether it was in England’s interest to invade France; to the extent that it… The post Honor, War, and the Monarchical Regime in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” appeared first on VoegelinView.




William Shakespeare’s The Life of Henry V addresses perirenal questions concerning the human condition and the justifications for war.[1] Shakespeare’s play illustrates how the causes of war cannot be explained by simply narrow self-interest or Realpolitik. It is debatable, for example, whether it was in England’s interest to invade France; to the extent that it was not in England’s interest, a Realpolitik interpretation fails to explain all the actions and motivations of Shakespeare’s characters, and especially those of its title character. This essay focuses on is the role of honor. References to honor appear frequently and prominently throughout the play, and these references can be explained in large part due to the fact that monarchical forms of government—more than other political regimes—rely upon the principle of honor.
This essay begins by establishing the pervasiveness of honor within monarchical regimes, a feature that has been established throughout regime-based analyses in the history of political thought. After demonstrating the relationship between honor and monarchies, this essay draws upon prominent examples from Henry V, specifically Henry’s appeal to honor as an impetus for invading France as well as to motivate and sustain his troops in battle. In developing this argument, my intent is not to prove that Henry always behaved honorably.[2] Rather, Henry’s appeals to honor help explain his success in light of the necessity of appearing honorable, and bestowing honor upon those as the head of state in a monarchical regime. The primary examples of this behavior include Henry’s public justification for invading France after receiving an insult from the French court, and his famous speeches at the battles of Harfleur and Agincourt. As the war develops, Henry often changes his reasons for why England must invade and conqueror France, but always returns to emphasizing honor. In particular, this essay focuses on three different ways where honor plays a role in justifying war: Henry’s public justification for war, which comes in response to his personal honor being disrespected; his appeal to England’s national honor at Harfleur; and finally, his appeal to each soldier’s individual honor at Agincourt.

Regime Politics: Honor and Monarchies

Interpreting Shakespeare as a political thinker, [3] or more specifically, as someone concerned with the concept of the regime,[4] is far from novel. For scholars like Paul Cantor, there is evidence that Shakespeare understood the importance of regime types. He points to the differences such as the Shakespeare’s Englishmen are distinct from his Romans and perhaps even more to the point, his Romans act differently under empire then than they do under a republican regime.[5] Discussions of the regime must begin with their origins in the ancient world.
Beginning in Plato’s Republic, Socrates explains to the interlocutors that seeing justice in an individual soul is difficult, and therefore viewing justice through an individual city may be more conducive to its understanding. By suggesting there would be “more justice in the bigger” (making it easier to observe), this would allow them to consider “the likeness of the bigger in the idea of the littler.”[6] The implication of Socrates’ discussion of the regime is that there is a relationship between individual souls and the soul (or constitution) of the city. The regime is often defined as: the form or shape of society, determined by who rules, a specific principle of justice, and the sentiments that dominate the society.[7] Some have even gone so far to assert that the regime is most important cause and political fact of all other causes.[8]
Ancient thinkers since Plato, particularly Aristotle, sought to identify categorize different regime types based upon these characteristics in either their pure of corrupted forms. For instance, aristocracies and oligarchies were both rule by the few, but the former was said to foster virtue (because of its pure form) while later was characterized by greed for money (as it constituted a “corrupted” form). Regardless of the regime type one inhabits, the society will celebrate those individuals to the degree that they fulfill the prevailing image of the best kind of man.[9] Put another way, the regime establishes more or less forms of legitimate membership within the community. Along with membership, the regime also specifies not only who rules but also how certain ways of life ought to be venerated and enjoy more public legitimacy.[10] This might mean, for example, the individual most celebrated in an Islamic republic might be a cleric or the wealthy entrepreneur in an oligarchy.
This essay is concerned with monarchical regimes types, insofar as Henry V concerns a war between two monarchies, England and France. One of the most serious students of monarchy is Montesquieu, who, according one observer, “rivals Aristotle as an analyst of political regimes.”[11] Montesquieu, like the ancients before him, distinguished between the political forms or nature (i.e., who rules) and the principle (i.e., definition of justice) of each regime. The political form of monarchy, one rules, but is somewhat constrained by laws and custom. With respect to its animating principle of justice, “The principle…of monarchy is honor.”[12] Honor, Montesquieu claims, “makes all parts of the body politic move; it binds them by its own actions; & it happens that each pursues the common good.”[13] In short, within monarchies, honor is the political currency that “can inspire the most admirable actions” and be relied upon to “subordinat[e the] selfish pursuit of individual interest to the common good.”[14] Let us now turn to the applicability of this view of monarchy in Shakespeare.

Henry’s Personal Honor

Montesquieu suggests honor sustains monarchies, and in Henry V, this is evident early on in Shakespeare’s play. The play opens with two English clergymen, the Archbishop of Canterbury and Ely, conspiring in hopes of distracting Henry into invading France as a way to avoid a potential political conflict between the Church and the Crown. Part of this conspiracy is to convince Henry that there is a legal justification for invading France via a narrow and dubious interpretation of Salic law that would allow Henry to be both the rightful heir to both the French and English thrones.[15] Upon receiving the Archbishop’s counsel, Henry is persuaded by Canterbury’s justification, particularly when he suggests the war would also fulfill God’s will: “Now are we well resolved, and by God’s help.”[16] Notably, Henry has already made up his mind before he meets the Dauphin’s ambassadors.
The French Ambassador (on instruction from the French King’s son, the Dauphin) insults Henry by giving him tennis balls as a gift, suggesting his youthfulness makes him more fit to play games than rule. Earlier in the play, Canterbury and Ely remark how in Henry’s youth, before becoming King, his behavior was characterized as someone who enjoyed, drink, play and leisure over the business of state. Canterbury says,
The courses of his youth promised it not.
The breath no sooner left his father’s body
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seemed to die too; yea; at the very moment
Consideration like an angel came
And whipped th’ offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a paradise
T’ envelop and contain celestial spirits.
Never was such a sudden scholar made.[17]
By suggesting they are “blessed in the change,”[18] his remarks illustrate that immediately after Henry’s father died, he changed overnight from disengaged prince into an impressive ruler and statesman. Throughout the play, the French court, but especially the Dauphin, underestimates Henry’s abilities, writing him off as an adolescent pushover.[19]
This dismissive attitude is further exhibited by the Ambassador’s interaction with Henry, in which he tells Henry that the Dauphin “Says that you savor too much of your youth.”[20] This is evidence that the Dauphin is unaware of the change in character Henry has experienced, “He therefore sends you, meter for your spirit, This tun of treasure; and in lieu of this” and gives Henry tennis balls as a gift.[21] This is clearly intended to be a slight against Henry, suggesting that he is someone who would rather play a game than participate in serious diplomacy.  Henry leaps at the rhetorical opportunity presented to him by the Ambassador via the arrogant Dauphin.  Henry proceeds to turn the taunt of the Dauphin into a justification for England’s coming military reprisal:
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler

But tell the Dauphin I will keep my state
Be like a king, and show my sail of greatness

But I will rise there with so full a glory

And tell the pleasant prince this mock of his
Hath turned his balls to gunstones.[22]
This passage reveals that Henry’s is ensuring that there will be consequences to the Dauphin’s insult. Henry first draws upon both personal outrage towards the taunt, and subsequently conflates his personal honor with that of this political office. Although Henry had already made up his mind with respect to legal and religious justifications for going to war, the first public justification in front of his own courtiers is make the conflict a matter of this personal honor as King.

Harfleur and National Honor

During siege of Harfleur, we see Harry’s rhetorical use of honor extend to battle. Because this battle would have featured a siege by the English on the French town, we can assume that it would have been especially taxing[23] upon Henry’s forces (he tells his troops “close the wall up with your English dead” [24]). Therefore, it is not surprising that Henry had to rally his men to carry on the battle. Henry’s famous “once more unto the breach”[25] speech draws heavily upon the importance of honor as a means by which to justifying to his men why they must rise once again attack. Importantly, Henry’s attempt to rally his men makes no reference to Salic law, God or piety. Rather, his appeal to honor focuses heavily on the troops’ national honor as Englishmen (“On, on, you noble English,” “noble luster in your eyes”).[26] In fighting, they are not merely fighting for their king but for their countrymen and their ancestors (“Whose blood is fet from fathers from fathers of war-proof!,” …“Dishonor not your mother,”[27]) and challenge his men to test the “mettle of [their] pasture.”[28] Despite the quasi-nationalistic appeal, it is telling that Henry finishes his battle cry with “God for Harry, England, and Saint George.”[29] This signifies that Henry, as King, is not just another Englishman fighting alongside his own; more significant, he is their ruler. In terms of honor, and by extension regime politics, this is significant, because of the way in which honor moves top-down in a monarchical regime: “honor belongs intrinsically to the king, who is the foundation for others.”[30]
Henry’s speech at Harfleur is significant insofar as Henry changes the emphasis from the infringement of his personal honor by the French into a matter of national pride, which is a matter that concerns the honor of his troops. Rather than geo-political or religious justifications, Henry uses this “honorary” justification as a way to motivate his troops to secure an early and important victory in the war. While such a speech may not have as much currency in a democracy, it is particularly relevant in the context of monarchical politics.

Agincourt and Individual Honor

During the lead up of the famous Battle of Agincourt, the English troops are rattled about being outnumbered by the heavily armored French forces. Henry brilliantly uses honor to turn these concerns into a rallying cry. He welcomes this development for those on the battlefield: “The fewer men, the greater share of honor.”[31] In his Saint Crispin’s Day speech, he expands upon this position by claiming that those who were not present for the battle that day would be missing out something truly glorious and historic:
But if it be a sin to covet honor,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honor
As one man more methinks would from share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more![32]
One can gather that Henry is suggesting that there is a finite amount of honor to garner on such an occasion.
Henry’s famous verses from the Saint Crispin’s Day speech demonstrate yet another evolution in making appeals to honor:
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds this blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition.[33]
This speech, like the one at Harfleur, is notable as much for what is said as for what is not said. This speech emphasizes the importance of individual glory, pride, and honor for having the chance to be in battle that day for the English.[34] Once more, this speech omits the legal and religious justifications for war. However, Henry goes even further, making little reference to the nationalistic fervor from Harfleur; the only references to England appear in the form of describing how non-combatant Englishmen will be missing out. What is left is an egalitarian appeal, suggesting individual honor is the chief motivation for victory.
The behavior of the French forces at Agincourt can also be explained in terms of honor. The role honor plays in war helps to explain why individuals go to battle with one another. Honor explains why people fight for reasons other than self-interest alone. The battle of Agincourt for instance, featured the French forces knowing full well that they would be defeated, but still the French nobleman Bourbon ordered his remaining troops to charge one more time into the English forces rather than retreat:
Let us die in honor. Once more back again!
And he that will not follow Bourbon now,
Let him go hence, and with his cap in hand
Like a base pander hold the chamber door
Whilst by a slave, no gentler than my dog

Let life be short, else shame will be too long.[35]
These words (and actions[36]) can be rationalized in terms of pride and honor. For Bourbon, anything other than charging into certain death at this point would be a shameful act.


This paper used textual evidence from Henry V to illustrate that monarchies are especially prone to championing the importance of honor. The nature of regime politics necessarily grapples with evaluating those individuals whose behavior reinforces the most admirable qualities the regime attempts to foster:
The character, or tone, of a society depends on what the society regards as most respectable or most worthy of admiration. But by regarding certain habits or attitudes as most respectable, a society admits the superiority, the superior dignity, of those human beings who most perfectly embody the habits or attitudes in question. That is to say, every society regards a specific human type (or a specific mixture of human types) as authoritative.[37]
Throughout Shakespeare’s play, his title character draws upon the concept of honor as a tool for successful leadership. This is consistent with the literature concerning the connection between monarchical regimes and honor being the characteristic way of life that undergirds them. This evident from both Henry’s words and actions. Henry first uses the Dauphin’s insult as to further bolster his case for invading France despite the fact he already had legal and theological justifications. In the battle of Harfleur, Henry changes this to appeal to a form of English nationalism; at Agincourt, he emphasizes that individual honor is the most important trait of all. With respect to justifying war, Henry changes his emphasis depending upon the circumstances, but it always contains some component of honor.
This essay has demonstrated the insights that can be garnered from looking at Shakespeare as a political thinker. There is a growing body of scholarship positing that Shakespeare took the concept of the regime seriously. Other prominent scholars have illustrated that Shakespeare’s history provides a venue to reflect on persistence questions of political life throughout time.


[1] William Shakespeare, The Life of Henry V: With New and Updated Critical Essays and a Revised Bibliography, ed. John Russell Brown, (New York: Signet Classic, [1623] 1998).
[2] To point to just one example, Henry’s speech at Harfleur threatens the rape, infanticide, and butchery of the town inhabitants if they do not yield. See Henry V, 3.3. 33-43.
[3] John Alvis and Thomas G. West, eds, Shakespeare as Political Thinker (Durham: North Carolina Press, 1981).
[4] Paul A. Cantor, “Literature and Politics: Understanding the Regime,” PS: Political Science and Politics 28, no. 2 (1995): 192-95.
[5] Paul A. Cantor, Shakespeare’s Rome: Republic and Empire (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 4-5.
[6] Plato, The Republic of Plato, 2nd ed. Trans. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991), bk. II, 369a, emphasis added.
[7] James W. Ceaser, Liberal Democracy and Political Science (Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 1990), 41.
[8] Bloom, “Interpretative Essay,” in The Republic of Plato, 414.
[9] Rainer Knopff, “Quebec’s ‘Holy War’ As ‘Regime’ Politics: Reflections on the Guibord Case,” Canadian Journal of Political Science 12, no. 2 (1979): 324.
[10] Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), 137.
[11] Paul A. Rahe, Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Project (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 13.
[12] Ibid., emphasis added.
[13] Ibid., 25.
[14] Nannerl O. Keohane, “Virtuous Republics and Glorious Monarchies: Two Models in Montesquieu’s Political Thought,” Political Studies 20, no. 4 (1972): 389; see also Rahe, Soft Despotism, 25.
[15] Henry V, 1.2.11-14, 33-42; Theodor Meron, “Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth and the Law of War,” The American Journal of International Law 86, no. 1 (1992): 6-8.
[16] Henry V, 1.2. 222.
[17] Ibid., 1.1. 24-32.
[18] Ibid., 1.1. 38.
[19] Ibid., 2.4. 130-31, Dauphin: “To that end, As matching to his youth and vanity”.
[20] Ibid., 1.2. 250.
[21] Ibid., l.2. 254-55.
[22] Ibid., l.2. 264, 273-74, 278, 281-82.
[23] Ibid., 3.3.1-45; see also, Meron, “Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth and the Law of War,” 21-22.
[24] Ibid., 3.1. 1-2.
[25] Ibid., 3.1. 1-35.
[26] Ibid., 3.l. 17, 30.
[27] Ibid., 3.l. 17, 22.
[28] Ibid., 3.l.  27.
[29] Ibid., 3.1. 35.
[30] Harry V. Jaffa, “The Unity of Tragedy, Comedy, and History: An Interpretation of the Shakespearean Universe,” Shakespeare as Political Thinker, eds., John Alvis and Thomas G. West (Durham: North Carolina Press, 1981), 293.
[31] Shakespeare, Henry V, 4.3. 23.
[32] Shakespeare, Henry V, 4.3.28-33, on this point later in the passage, Henry remarks that “And gentlemen in England, now abed, Shall think themselves accursed they were not here” (l.64-65). Again, the national pride has given away to individual pride of being on the battlefield that day.
[33] Ibid, 4.3.60-63.
[34] The sentiment about chance is reflective of Paul Rahe’s observation that in terms of honor, “Monarchies are ruled by something like Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ in Soft Despotism, 25.
[35] Ibid., 4.5. 12-16, 24.
[36] For details of the actual events of this charge, see John Keegan, “Agincourt, 25 October 1415,” The Face of Battle (London: Jonathan Cape, 1976), 84.
[37] Strauss, Natural Right and History, 137.

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