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Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth: Was He Also Henry the Ninth?

henry-de-vere-and-southampton-1621-two-most-noble-henries

Two Henries: in this early 17th century woodcut, Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton is on the right. Southampton was General of the Horse in Ireland. His companion is Henry de Vere, the 18th Earl of Oxford.

I recently enjoyed the Folger Theatre’s fine production of Shakespeare’s Henry V starring Zach Appelman as the King. Appelman’s amazing performance makes me think he’s our next great Shakespearian actor, joining the ranks of Olivier, Gieguld, and Branagh.

I read Henry V before watching Appelman conduct his tour de force on the imaginary battlefields of 15th century France.

For me, each new reading of a Shakespeare play is like listening to a Mozart or Beethoven symphony: something new always emerges, some quality or insight about a character not captured before, a phrase that strikes me (“Every subject’s duty is the king’s; but every subject’s soul is his own”), or fresh appreciation for the breadth of the author’s word craft which, in Henry V, he extends à la langue français.

This time I discovered something that perhaps heretofore has gone unnoticed: it’s possible that Henry V was promoting a candidate to succeed Queen Elizabeth I to the English throne at the end of the 16th century.

The Chorus, at the beginning of Act V of the play, describes throngs of English citizens welcoming back Henry (“Harry”) who’s returned victorious from France. The Chorus compares this homecoming to one Caesar received:

“The mayor and all his brethren in best sort,
Like to the senators of the antique Rome,
With the plebeians swarming at their heels,
Go forth and fetch their conquering Caesar in:
As, by a lower but loving likelihood,
Were now the general of our gracious empress,
As in good time he may, from Ireland coming,
Bringing rebellion broached on his sword,
How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry.”

Scholars have long agreed that the Chorus’s speech is a contemporary reference to the campaign of Robert Devereaux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, to quash rebels in Ireland, which dates the play to around 1599. In the above-quoted text, Essex would be the “general,” and Queen Elizabeth I “our gracious empress.”

I’ll come back to the Chorus’s speech. For now it can be observed that Elizabeth in 1599 had about four years to live, with her succession undecided.

To say it was difficult to discuss who should be England’s next ruler while Elizabeth was still living is an understatement. Under the treason statute at the time, it was a crime punishable by death to suggest that anyone else should be the reigning monarch.

If someone wanted to promote a candidate for King without being hanged or beheaded, then subtlety and plausible deniability, expressed through words and phrases with double meanings, would be the order of the day.

Of course, the double entendre was something Shakespeare was very good at.

We know that Shakespeare had a special relationship with one particular courtier in Queen Elizabeth’s court: Henry Wriothesely, the 3rd Earl of Southampton.

Shakespeare dedicated two long poems, Venus and Adonis, and The Rape of Lucrece, to Southampton. Several biographers of Southampton (including Constance C. Stopes and A.L. Rowse) agree that Southampton is the Fair Youth (or “lovely boy”) in Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

These circumstances show that Shakespeare held Southampton very dear and would have been highly interested in his future.

As mentioned above, the Chorus’s speech in Act V contains a contemporary reference to the Earl of Essex’s military campaign in Ireland. Southampton accompanied Essex on that campaign, a fact that leads to the “new” thing I noticed.

The line, “the general of our gracious empress,” has long been thought of referring to Essex and the Queen. On the other hand, Southampton’s title in Ireland also was “general” – General of the Horse. That the Chorus is referring to Southampton in the speech rather than to Essex is further supported by the last three lines:

How many would the peaceful city quit,
To welcome him! much more, and much more cause,
Did they this Harry (my empahsis).

Admittedly, one can interpret the word “this” different ways, but my point is that the “him” in the second line could refer to another “Harry,” i.e., the “general” Henry, the Earl of Southampton, whom Shakespeare is comparing to “this” Harry, i.e., Henry V.

Under this interpretation, the Chorus is expressing the hope that Southampton returns victorious from Ireland to the same type of welcome that Henry V received when he returned from France.

And then there’s the Chorus’s speech that begins Act II, which describes the traitors’ plot to kill Henry V:

And by their hands this grace of kings must die,
If hell and treason hold their promises,
Ere he take ship for France, and in Southampton.

The first meaning of “Southampton” is the city from which Henry V embarked for France. However, I believe it would have been difficult for the audience – at least for any courtier – listening to the play in 1599 not to think of Henry, Earl of Southampton as well.

Moreover, there is a logical interpretation attaching this second (or double) meaning to “Southampton” in the speech quoted above.

For “this grace of kings” to die “in Southampton” would mean that it must first be living there, and if the audience considered “Southampton” in the sense of the earl, it could interpret the Chorus’s statement as meaning that “this grace of kings” lives in Henry Wriothesely who, if he were to ascend to the throne, would be crowned Henry the Ninth.

If you think my argument is a stretch, you’re right, it is. But given the treason statutes, in a sense it has to be. Shakespeare would have had to be cryptic if he were advertising Henry Wriothesely as a candidate for the throne.

If Shakespeare was suggesting that the “grace of kings” resided in Southampton, the ”general” he hoped would return from Ireland to be greeted like a King, what possible claim could Southampton have had for the throne?

Recent scholarship addresses that very question. If you’re interested, I suggest you check out the work of Hank Whittemore and Charles Beauclerk.

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