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Simple Nationalism: King and Country in Henry V

Updated on September 4, 2014
King Henry V of England
King Henry V of England

In her article “Shakespeare’s Georgic Nationalism,” Katherine Maynard proposes that the seemingly contradictory elements of nationalism portrayed in many of Shakespeare’s plays (but particularly the histories) can all be understood as following a form of nationalism she calls “georgic.” The name “georgic” is based off of England’s patron saint, St. George. The article defines georgic nationalism as “nationalism based on communal responsibility, social equity, and reciprocity among the classes." She applies this to Richard the II and Henry V, but this essay will focus on Henry V.

The play Henry V, Maynard explains, can be seen as representing two very different views on war and nationalism. In some ways the portrayal is loyal and glorifies the monarchy and its supposedly god-given rights. On the other hand, it criticizes the previous viewpoint as being unsatisfactory, drawing focus onto the inequality between the classes and the disconnect between the common people and their rulers. From Maynard’s perspective if one focuses on only one of these viewpoints they miss the big picture. Under the georgic form of nationalism, both these elements can work in concert. The idea is not to maintain a king or one specific set of people, but England as a whole with its variety of citizens working together for its continued existence and benefit. Kings are not the be-all, end-all in this form of nationalism; they simply have a role to play as do the gardeners and the cobblers and the soldiers. In this way, even if many of the characters have disagreements in their individual forms of nationalism, they are all working together for the benefit of the whole. If something does not perform for the benefit of the whole, it is cut away.

Henry V could take advantage of this georgic nationalism by allying himself with the common people. When he affiliated himself with the soldiers he was behaving in a way very different from the way a king normally would. This is because he recognized them as partners on the same road of progress as fellow citizens. In referring to the soldiers of much lower status than him as “brothers,” he boosted their morale, but he also gave the army a sense of shared purpose. He tried to create unity among the troops.

King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, by Sir John Gilbert.
King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, by Sir John Gilbert.

But Maynard claims that Henry V is not the perfect georgic king. Contradiction of this fact still remains within his character. As an example she states how he claims not to be a tyrant, but “then compares himself to the ruthless Herod at the siege of Harfleur." Maynard explains that this is a reflection of the struggle of “competing social and cultural forces that can never be fully reconciled”.

Maynard also reflects that several different forms of nationalism clash and entwine within Henry V. The chorus celebrates the events of the play as they might an epic tale, but is often contrasted by the historical events that unfold. Pistol and his friend’s form of nationalism seems largely concerned with stealing whatever they can get their hands on. There are many other characters with different perspectives on their own nation and the justification of the war. It is MacMorris who asks the question: “What ish my nation?”

The play does not end well for this grand scheme of georgic nationalism. What Henry V gained in his life was lost by his son. Thus the strain of progress is broken. Without being able to “garden […] one’s own commonwealth” the process cannot continue in a positive direction (Maynard).

Contradiction seems to be at the core of both the play, Henry V and the character of Henry V himself. Perhaps they can all be reconciled under the heading of georgic nationalism, but perhaps they are not meant to be reconciled at all. Contradiction exists within people. This may not be perfectly rational, but it is perfectly true. Henry can, at one time, defend the right of the king to do with his subjects as he pleases without having to answer for it after death, and at another time weep that no one appreciates the heavy burden of responsibility he feels. These two things may contradict, but in the context of the mind it works: Henry may have intellectually believed that as King he bore no responsibility for the death of his men, but emotionally felt guilt over the effects of his decisions (even if he still believed them to be the right ones).

Title page of the first quarto of Henry V.
Title page of the first quarto of Henry V.

This contradiction is also felt in the spirit of nationalism within the play. To hear the chorus or Henry himself glorify the war they are waging and claim destiny for victory due to national superiority is a sharp contrast to the troops themselves. On those claims one would expect a noble and fierce fighting force, but that is not what is provided. Instead the cowardly and thieving Pistol and his companions represent much of the common people.

True, they may be able to work together in the shared service of England, but this does not seem to be an entirely conscious or efficient process. The disagreements do not always lead to positive effect, somewhat discrediting the progress-based community idea. In the end, georgic nationalism is on the right track, but may be too pretty a notion for what is actually happening. The different classes do not all work together as one streamlined machine, rolling onward into a brighter future; instead they make a shambling mass crawling as best they can onward, but occasionally being pulled backwards in the fight to decide which direction they take. In the end, the only one, true type of nationalism that can be found in kings, peasants and everyone in between is one of absolute simplicity. There can only be one shared answer to MacMorris’s question “What ish my nation?”: It’s mine.

References

Maynard, Katherine. "Shakespeare's Georgic Nationalism." History of European Ideas 16.4-6 (Jan. 1993): 981-987. Rpt. in Shakespearean Criticism. Vol. 114. Detroit: Gale, 2008. Literature Resource Center. Web. 22 Feb. 2010.

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