Henry V Using Barthes Theory Myth- a Essay

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Using Barthes theory myth- a type speech defined presenting a transforming, order meaning- analyze comment important myth themes found Henry V. Cite Barthes essay points.

Barthes theory of myth: Henry V

Shakespeare's history play Henry V functions as a drama of nation-building as well as a drama of a king's self-mythologizing. In the play, the formerly profligate hero Henry V shows himself to be an upstanding leader as he emerges victorious over the effete French. The play establishes an image of the English as hardy, rough-hewn souls. The army unites Britons of all different nationalities and ethnicities under the banner of Henry, who is able to lead, because of his history, with a common touch. This underlines the greatness of the English monarchy. Henry's inclusive spirit and his victory come to symbolize the greatness of England and English values. Over the course of the play, there is also an internal struggle that is illustrated. Henry must find himself as a leader. Because he is king, Henry's internal struggle takes on additional weight and importance in the mythologizing of him as a figure, far more than would be the case if he were an ordinary person. The play uses the king's psychology as a symbol of all of Briton: he is a man capable of fighting, but also capable of recognizing the nobility that exists within all Englishmen. He uses a war over land to trumpet English, democratic values.

Henry's past as an irresponsible young man is illustrated early on in the play. "The breath no sooner left his father's body, / But that his wildness, mortified in him, / Seem'd to die too; yea, at that very moment" says the Archbishop of Canterbury (I.1). To highlight his lack of respect the French feel for Henry, the French Dauphin sends Henry tennis balls, to indicate that Henry is a man simply playing at kingship. Henry concocts what he says is a legitimate grievance against France -- namely that he believes England has a stake in lands illegitimately acquired by France. "There is no bar / To make against your highness' claim to France / But this, which they produce from Pharamond, / 'In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant:' / 'No woman shall succeed in Salique land:'" (I.2). Early on in his kingship, Henry establishes a sense of unity amongst the English against the French. Before his death, in the play Henry IV, Part 2, Henry's father told him: "Therefore, my Harry, / Be it thy course to busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out, / May waste the memory of the former days" (IV.5). Foreign wars can be a distraction from internal divisions (before Henry's ascent to the throne, England had been torn apart by internal warfare) and also cause the public to forget Henry's past as a drunken, insolent Prince Hal.

The French come to symbolize over the course of the play everything Henry is not in a negative fashion: elitist and indolent. Of course, the French might not really be like that as a nation, but much as Barthes says in his discussion of symbolism -- "take a bunch of roses: I use it to signify my passion" -- there is not necessarily a direct and obvious relationship between the signifier and what it is meant to symbolize to an outsider. To an insider to the culture of England, France was a hated enemy and certain stereotypical characterizations were innately attached to the French.

Henry, in establishing is reign, takes his father's advice, but he also capitalizes upon his past in subtle ways. He uses his familiarity with the ways of the common men of England to establish himself as a leader and to rally his troops. Over the course of the play, using his populist touch, Henry rallies all of England to the cause against France. Welshmen and Scotsmen alike fight side-by-side with common Englishmen. Henry urges the high-born English to be like ordinary men and to fight with fierceness and valor: "On, on, you noblest English. / Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof! ... Be copy now to men of grosser blood / And teach them how to war" (III.1). This suggests that the truest Englishmen are those who are of 'grosser blood,' the ordinary men with whom Henry used to associate with as a prince. And the yeomen, the common soldiers of England are the greatest. "Good yeoman, / Whose limbs were made in England, show us here / The mettle of your pasture; ...For there is none of you so mean and base, / That hath not noble lustre in your eyes" (III.1). In his person, Henry comes to symbolize all of England -- all classes and all peoples because of his celebration of them.

In contrast, the French the British are fighting against are shown to be effete and obsessed with fine horses and the superficial attributes of warfare and there is no depiction of ordinary Frenchmen. Even the most positive picture of Frenchness in the form of the Princess Katharine highlights the delicacy of the French. It is because of this contrast between the ordinary, 'John Bull' English soldiers and the French that Henry is able to triumph over extraordinary odds -- and also because Henry understands the psychology of his soldiers so well, versus the aristocratic French leadership.

In mythology, all objects take on a symbolic significance: Henry's willingness to act like a common man amongst the troops is symbolic of how the spirit of the common British soldier lies within his character just as much as that of a king's -- it is not merely a tactical ploy. The French land he gains symbolizes the triumph of masculinity (since no woman can inherit Salic lands) and the triumph of England over the values of the French -- as well as the triumph Henry's strength of military leadership and kingship. It symbolizes a victory of God, of a united England of class and race over a fractious, feminine France that must be rendered submissive. Yet as in so many myths, there is ambiguity in its symbolism, because the arbitrary, God-given nature of the victory of the small numbers of English over the many numbers of Frenchmen also shows how fate, just as much as strong leadership is a deciding factor in wars.

Before the critical battle of Agincourt, Henry actually goes in disguise amongst his troops to rally them, and when they express fears and doubts about the coming struggle, he tells them that the king will not be ransomed in battle despite rumors to the contrary and bolsters the morale of his troops. Although he dismisses when his soldiers speak against the war, as when Michael Williams says: "I am afeard there are few die / well that die in a battle; for how can they. charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their / argument," Henry is clearly afraid before the battle that he has lead his country astray (IV.1). His speech "Upon the King" suggests that common men without responsibilities have less to bear than kinds in life, and his knowledge that his victory is miraculous is underlined when he says this is due to God's providence, nothing else, not his personal valor: "O God, thy arm was here; / And not to us, but to thy arm alone, / Ascribe we all!" (IV. 8).

Over the course of the play, Henry learns humility and comes to rely upon his knowledge of the psychology of the common man in his leadership, as well as his ability to be a conventional leader who uses force. England is transformed over the course of the play into a united nation in which people of different classes and regions become one. It is…

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