Comparing Richard III and Henry V

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Analysis of the final speech

In his plays, William Shakespeare portrays King Richard III and King Henry V as opposite characters. Richard III is depicted as the epitome of evil while Henry V comes out as the guardian of good deeds. This is seen throughout the play right from their tender ages to when they become kings. Their final speeches also speak huge volumes regarding their characters. Richard III gave his last speech right before the battle of Bosworth Field, where he was subsequently defeated, captured, and later on executed. King Henry V on the other hand gave his last speech before the Battle of Agincourt in France where his men finally claimed victory against the French men. This section compares the two speeches to determine the characters of the two English kings as brought out in the Shakespearean plays.

King Richard III has his own strategies of motivating his troops. He first convinces his men to believe that they are not engaging in a battle with other men but are instead “coping” with them.

Remember whom you are to cope withal:

A sort of vagabonds, rascals, and run-aways,

A scum of Britaines and base lackey peasants,

Whom their o’ercloyed country vomits forth

To desperate adventures and assur’d destruction

(5.3.316-320).

Richard is deliberately deceiving his soldiers that they are much better than their opponents are. He tells his men that all that they will be doing is doing away with disgusting and unworthy people and that through this they will be doing their country a great service by throwing out all the “scum”. This particular imagery generates a very horrid image of “dirty” men protruding from the earth like a disease that England should do away with in the earliest possible opportunity. His men gets motivated their minds having been polluted that the people they are fighting against do not deserve to live in their beautiful country, England. His word choice and the dark images he uses in this speech tell a lot about him. King Richard III is a symbol of the dark and the devilish. Basing judgments on this speech alone it is most likely that this king wanted to make his men to believe that the battle ahead of them was between them the men and their opponents who are nothing but monsters. He is indeed an evil king.

King Henry V on the other hand motivates his soldiers or a rather conventional way before his last battle with the French, which came to be known as the battle of Agincourt. He gave this speech on the Saint Crispin’s Day, a day allocated for the celebration of Saint Crispian and Saint Crispin, two of the fourth-century saints. King Henry’s Saint Crispin’s Day openly contrast its manliness and dignity with the boastful merriment of their opponents, the French nobility. Unlike Richard III whose aim was to plant hatred into the hearts of his troops towards the enemy, Henry V motivates his men by instilling a sense of patriotism through a fantastic rhetoric vehicle for dramatic declamation. He would love to share the honor among the few of them present for the war. He even encourages anybody not interested in fighting to feel free to leave.

Let him depart . . .

We would not die in that man’s company . . .

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother. . . (4.3.36; 38; 60-62)

The greatest punch line however in this speech comes from the line, “We happy few, we band of brothers” (4.3.25-26). In as much as they are outnumbered, almost four-fold, Henry still motivates his troops as they prepare to go into the Battle of Agincourt. By using the word “we”, he is asserting that they have a shared identity and as such he is one of them. He tells them that their victory is assured and that they should not fear since they are the happy people who will enjoy the victory. There is not even a single hint of defeat in this speech. He states that they are not only happy ones, but are also exclusive lot since not everybody is always willing to show up in a party upon invitation.

From this speech, Henry V comes out as the epitome of good and light. He is greatly in contrast with Richard III in terms of the choice of words. His words are not as harsh and demeaning as those of Richard are. He is only interested in victory and not painting the opponents in bad light. He is cognizant of the fact that despite them being enemies at way, the opponents are still humans and there is no need of demeaning them. The two kings are therefore portrayed as opposite contrast of one another in terms of character and personality.

Wooing Scene

Humans have embraced language, not just as way to communicate, but also as an instrument of power. In essence, words could become as powerful as possible in any way that they are used. Some people could wish to exercise power by applying ambiguities and double meanings while others would like to reduce the ambiguity to the minimum. When used appropriately towards situations and people, words could be handy in winning the support of others and in gaining power. Though not always, power tend to rouse negative emotions. This however does not imply that language only serves as an instrument to perpetuate devilish acts. Quite so often, the nature of language appears treacherous as well as unreliable sometimes even in the hands of the most positive of people. This section analyses how the two kings, Richard III and Henry V, use language to woo the various characters in the two plays for political purposes.

The wooing scene in Richard III is seen in act I scene II, a scene that is with no doubt the most complicated one in the play. One would never really come to terms with the fact that Ann, who is mourning her father and husband in the beginning and curses Richard after accepting that he had a hand in the death of the two, agrees to wear his ring and courts him in the end. At this point, the ability of Richard III as a brilliant manipulator clearly comes out. The wooing of Ann demonstrates that Richards’ persuasive abilities and the use of language for personal gain are up to a completely new level. He says:

Your beauty was the cause of that effect;

Your beauty: which did haunt me in my sleep

To undertake the death of all the world,

So I might live one hour in your sweet bosom.

(1.2.301-304)

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With these words, he successfully persuades her and she gives and accepts his proposal. This is a whole proof that Richard III had ominous skills that allowed him to toss people’s the way he pleased and use the power of language to convince them that he is sincere when the truth is that he is lying to get his way to power.

Henry V comes out as a wise and loyal statesman who did change from a wild youth to become a mature king. He is an intelligent and thoughtful king and uses this advantage in the wooing escaped. In everything he does, he does it for the good of the country and not for personal gain like in the case of Richard III. Before attacking France, he first determines whether the clergymen, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, are in support of the decision. An aspect of manipulation is observed when Henry tries to absolve himself of the likely blame by giving a stern warning to Archbishop of Canterbury that he would be the one to blame for the lives lost if he deluded the king. It is interesting that he had already decided to attack the French but then he is threatening to hold the clergymen accountable for the lives lost yet he knows that there was a possibility of lives being lost because of his acts.

Involvement of God

Both King Richard III and Henry V appear to involve God in their undertakings especially when they face the enemy. Shakespeare however lets the audience know that Richard is not too much of a believer and gives up on God very easily. On the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field, it is indicated that Richard had a dream where he was visited by ghost of such his murder victims like King Henry VI, Prince Edward, Vaughan, Rivers, Hastings, Gray, the young princes, Buckingham and Lady Ann. Each of these ghosts is recalling what Richard did to them and ends up condemning him to death while at the battlefield with the chants of “Despair and die” (5.5.2). It is a terrifying moment for the king who gets shaken upon waking up. He reacts by saying:

Me thought the souls of all that I had murder’d

Came to my tent; and everyone did threat

Tomorrow’s vengeance on the head of Richard

(5.5.5-7)

Richard confesses his evildoings and seeks help from God, but soon after, he gives up on God. This is an indication that he actually never believed in God and just did it for the sake. He never really meant to contact God to help him through his tribulations.

Contrastingly, Henry is a strong believer in the power of God and believes that it he requires His help always if he is to be victorious. His deeds are seen to be right in the eyes of the Lord. He never forgets to pay at any given point. It is almost dawn and just a few hours left before the final battle. Henry is all alone, and in here he prays for God to grant strength to the hearts of his men. He also pleads with God to spare him the punishment for his father’s bloody acts in which he assumed the English crown.

The Motivation

It is very rare to find one thing that two contrasting people, King Richard III and Henry V had in common. The two never enjoyed a good relationship with their parents. Richard was never loved by his mom, and Henry, as young boy by the name Hal, was never loved by the father. It could be that the fact that they never received favor from the eyes of the parents is what motivated them to prove themselves as kings.

Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York does not enjoy a good relationship with the son. This is so extreme to the point where she curses him saying, “die by God’s just ordinance”(4.4.17). Richard’s mother’s life had been a living hell from the time he was born prematurely. Richard was also responsible for the death of two of her sons. These are the reasons why she hated Richard so much despite the fact that she was her son and she deserved her motherly love. In a way, Richard felt that he had to prove himself as a king with authority. His mission however failed and he ended up garnering more hatred and becoming a failed king in the end of it all.

The father again never loved Hal, who was later on to become King Henry V. He always tried to gain authority as a young boy and this cause a huge rift between him and King Henry IV, his father. Hal however came to save his father from the wrath of the Scottish Douglas and killed the rebel Hotspur and this gave him an opportunity to redeem himself. The fact that his father never liked him motivated him to work change, as a way to win the trust of his father, and he later on become a great king. The Archbishop of Canterbury who had this to say brings out this transformation:

The courses of his youth promised it not.

The breath no sooner left his father’s body

But that his wildness, mortified in him,

Seemed to die too. Yea, at that very moment

Consideration like an angel came

(1.1.25-29)

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The mission goes well for Henry who uses the challenge for a good course and becomes a great king.

A clear parallel can thus be drawn between these two kings. Richard III’s rise to the throne is bloody and he does it for selfishness. Once he is there, his actions continue to disgust his subjects and he does nothing to their liking. He rules with an iron fist and is ready to do anything to retain power. When he finally dies, the whole kingdom breathe a sigh of relief and they see that as an opportunity to usher in a new error where the citizens will be happy once more. Henry V is a king that is loved by his people and there is no innocent blood shed by him. He rises to the throne after the death of his father in accordance with the law. In fact, he is a peacemaker and not a trouble maker like Richard III. This is clearly brought out in the case where he marries Catherine, the princess of France as a way of making a long-lasting peace.

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  1. Shakespeare, William, and Janis Lull. King Richard III. Vol. 32. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
  2. Shakespeare, William. The complete works of William Shakespeare. Race Point Publishing, 2014.
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