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Henry V: Self-Punishment on the Death of Bardolph

Prince Hal, and later, the king, Henry V is a complex character with volumes to think, say, and analyse about. Following his character development from Henry IV part 1 through Henry V, it's hard not to relate to him when one comes to what people call 'conflict of interests.'

For me, the worst part of it in Henry V is when he heard that his (former) friend, Bardolph, had been executed for thievery. In many productions, the directors let Henry either see the execution, or at least the hanged man. Kenneth Branagh and Hollow Crown versions even take time for a little flashback, therefore show us that the king remembered Bardolph and all things they had done together in their former days. Both also, through acting, show that the king was sad about it, yet could do nothing.

Reading the play, however, it was quite shocking that the king made no comment upon the hanging, except that it was just and necessary.

Why didn't he say anything about it? Knowing Shakespeare, he could have made him say something aside, or whatever necessary to let us know that he acknowledges the man, although it's not possible for him to make it visible for others.

 I believe the answer lies in his conversation with Pistol when he was cloaked in the night.

Although the text says that the one who entered the scene was Pistol, it's very possible that this direction is more about practicality than the plot. Pistol's first line implies that it was the king who moved towards him, so then he had to, in defence of himself, ask, "Who goes there?"

In the conversation that follows, I constantly ask the question 'why', and try to find the answer for it.

(It will be a long post, and could be tedious, so please bear with me.)

Why did the king approach Pistol?

There could be a number of reasons:

  1. He was walking around, and Pistol, being on guard, saw him. So it was all accidental.
  2. He didn't really care about whom he was going to meet that night. He just wanted to know what people think about him. After all, the reason why he was there cloaked in the first place was to "debate with him bosom", finding the rights and wrongs of his decisions. Anybody wouldn't matter.
  3. It was really about Bardolph, or at least half of it, that brought him to Pistol. After all, Pistol was a friend of his as well (although not as close as Falstaff or Bardolph), and he needed to know what he thought about the king who let his old friend died in such a manner. Pistol had every reason in the world to hate the king, more so if he knew that the king knew about the death of Bardolph and if he heard the king's announcement through Fluellen. So if there's any regret, guilt, or sadness in the king's heart over the death of Bardolph, he could only meet Pistol. 
I favour the last reason. After all, if Shakespeare only wanted the king to meet anybody, he could had another pair of soldiers like Williams and Bates instead of Pistol (or maybe he was short of cast). And also, if he would only know what he had to say about the king, he didn't have to hint his kingship again and again during this short conversation. 

Why did King Henry hint again and again his kingship, then?

I'd say because he wanted Pistol to feel his presence, without him unfolding his identity. Let's watch their conversation. I mark the king's hints with bold font.

PISTOL
Discuss unto me; art thou officer?
Or art thou base, common and popular?
KING HENRY V
I am a gentleman of a company.
PISTOL
Trail'st thou the puissant pike?
KING HENRY V
Even so. What are you?
PISTOL
As good a gentleman as the emperor.
KING HENRY V
Then you are a better than the king.
PISTOL
The king's a bawcock, and a heart of gold,
A lad of life, an imp of fame;
Of parents good, of fist most valiant.
I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heart-string
I love the lovely bully. What is thy name?
KING HENRY V
Harry le Roy.
PISTOL
Le Roy! a Cornish name: art thou of Cornish crew?
KING HENRY V
No, I am a Welshman.
Four. Four times Harry brought the king's presence between them. In the first bold line, he asserted that he's a gentleman, therefore of higher social status than Pistol. Pistol, carelessly, said that he's as good a gentleman as the emperor. Again, the king brought his presence by saying that Pistol, being as good as an emperor, is better than the king (because a king is lower in status than an emperor). We will discuss later the importance of Pistol's answer for the king, but for now it's enough to tell that Pistol still didn't get it. So he had to go further when he asked his name and his origin. Harry le Roy, Welshman, or to make in plainer, Henry the King whom you know as Prince of Wales back then..

The reason?

Self-punishment

I might take my feelings about the king too far by proposing this. But have you ever done something you suppose wrong deliberately and felt so bad about it that you wished for punishment? Have you ever lied about something and wished that somebody found out? Have you ever felt the need to say sorry even though it didn't matter for the other party?

The lack of emotion shown when he knew about Bardolph's execution is all pardoned for here. The reason why he came to Pistol that night is not only to find his opinion on the king, but also to accept Pistol's wrath, maybe through his comment about the king. When he said that Pistol must be 'better than the king' he gave him all opportunity to make horrible comments about the king, as Williams later did. But instead of scolds and harsh comments, the king gained unexpected praises and expression of love and loyalty.

But the king's intention wasn't satisfied, and therefore he had to push further and hinted his name into it all. Still, Pistol didn't realise who he was (perhaps the king wouldn't want him to recognise him anyway). The king only got Pistol's anger after he said he was a kinsman of Fluellen, who refused to plea for Bardolph's life (the king probably didn't know this) and who told the king of Bardolph's death. The king chose to side with Fluellen and got the finger for it. Is it punishment enough for him? Maybe we will never know.

Merit as a Friend vs. Merit as a King

When borrowing Erpingham's cloak, the king said that he would not have anybody accompany him, because he and his bosom must debate awhile. The real debate about his conduct as a king appears later in his conversation with Williams and Bates. Both stated that the army couldn't care less about the king's 'just cause'. Their business is only their obedience to the king. If the king's battle is unrighteous, then it's the king's sin to lead so many people to their deaths. Williams said that the king's responsible for the souls (or the sins) of the soldiers but the king said he's only responsible for their services. It's his business to make sure that his reason was right, but it's the soldier's business to watch that their conducts were right.

But the king's conversation with Pistol is far from that subject. It's notable that Pistol's praises about the king said nothing about battle or politics. He mainly said that the king's a good lad. Also, his comment didn't say anything about the king's policy to hang thieves, as someone who partly had a part in the death of Bardolph. If Pistol was praising Harry's kingship it's strange that he should hate Fluellen for performing his duty and didn't hate the king for the same thing. So Pistol's comment referred to the man, not the authority. He was talking about the Harry as a friend - a good-hearted fellow.

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