Tuesday, August 01, 2006

"The Prince" and Me: Machiavelli in Shakespeare's "Henry V"

This idea first came to me last fall while taking a course on Shakespeare at school. I had never read any of Shakespeare's histories before when my class was assigned to read Henry V, or "Henry five" as we ended up calling it. As we read the play, it struck me that King Henry, at least as portrayed by Shakespeare, was a Machiavellian ruler. Actually, I had no idea if this was a legitimate theory or not, since, of course, I'd never actually read Machiavelli, but I thought it sounded good, and if I could prove it that would be really cool. So I decided to read The Prince and here's what I came up with:

Henry V
is about a young man coming into his role as a king and what he does to prove his right and capability as king. In the process, Henry illustrates several tactics for ruling proposed and explained by Niccolo Machiavelli in his treatise The Prince. Machiavelli's Prince is personified by King Henry. This personification is shown in Henry's decisions and actions thoroughout England's war with France.

From the beginning, Henry displays Machiavellian principles. His initial decision to go to war is partly due to the persuasion of his advisors: "Awake the rememberance of these valiant dead, / And with your puissant arm renew their feats!" This encouragement to revive the glorious war victories of his ancestors appeals to Henry because it will allow him to prove himself in war, something Machiavelli says a prince cannot rule without: "A prince... must have no other object or thought, or take up anything as his profession, except war and its rules and discipline, for that is the only art that befits one who commands." Triumph in war is the only way that Henry, or any prince, according to Machiavelli, can prove that he is a capable ruler, so he sets out to conquer France, claiming divine right to its crown and lands.

King Henry also illustrates Machiavelli's theories in his dealings with his army. In Act 4, scene 3, his rousing St. Crispian's Day speech shows that he has mastered the art of persuasion to gain his troops' support: "And Crispin Crispian shal ne'er go by, / From this day to the ending of the world, / But we in it shall be remembered." Promising immortality in the memory of humankind is a foolproof way to convince men to fight, even at the risk of their own lives. Machiavelli would approve: "Those princes have done great things... who have been able to confuse men's brains by cunning, and in the end, they have overcome those who made loyalty their foundation." By not mentioning the great risk his men are taking and instead glorifying war in his inspirational speech, confusing his men's brains, Henry has played upon his troops' loyalty in persuading them to fight, proving himself a Machiavellian ruler.

It's very possible that Shakespeare was familiar with Machiavelli's writing and intentionally formed Henry's character based on the work. He was very well-read. And if he did read it, he probably didn't think of the possibilty, as my brother has pointed out, of its being a satire, a joke, a fifteenth century episode of Punk'd, like Jonathan Swift's essay about how poor people should eat their babies (except I don't think Swift was in the fifteenth century). But, intentional or not, it's clear that Shakespeare's Henry reflects Machiavelli's Prince, in both word and deed, a resemblance which established Henry as a great leader and a great king.


Rhonda said...

Why hasn't anyone commented on this? Does it count if I comment on myself? Okay, I know this is kind of a no-brainer, but I thought it was good. I got an A on that paper.

Keith said...

It pretty good, but frankly this type of academic paper is difficult for most people (me included) to get through if we're not directly connected to its initial stages of development. (read: in the class with you)

Frances said...

I read the paper once, twice, three times, and finally got it...you are a intellectual with a dark sense of humor. How refreshing!