The character of Henry V (in Shakespeare's play of the same name) has been a matter of debate among critics, some of whom accept the historical view of Henry as an extraordinarily able and heroic king, while others view him as an extremely unattractive personality, a spiritual hypocrite, and a conqueror of unmitigated cruelty. Cited as supporting evidence for this unflattering portrait is a passage in Act IV which consists of a conversation between two characters, Gower and Fluellen. In this conversation, Henry is compared to Alexander the Great or "the Pig" as Fluellen terms him.
Two critics, Ronald Berman and Robert Merrix, have published studies of this passage; a close examination of the allusion, however, reveals serious flaws in the theories of both scholars. Berman asserts that Henry is a reconstruction of Alexander, but an extended comparison of the two men confirms that, although they have a number of attitudes and circumstances in common, there are too many basic differences for Henry to be viewed as Alexander's reconstruction. Furthermore, scrutiny of the passage demonstrates that, although Shakespeare could have employed the mentioned similarities between Henry and Alexander, he chose, instead, trivial examples that deprive the comparison of meaning. Therefore, it seems unlikely that Shakespeare meant his audience to take the comparison seriously.
Merrix has identified an interesting structure in the allusion, but the sources he uses to establish Alexander's character (and by implication, Henry's) are uniformly negative, although the preponderance of information on Alexander's life, that Shakespeare's audience would have been familiar with, consisted of either histories that presented Alexander as worthy of respect, if not admiration, or romances that depicted him as a larger-than-life hero. The Renaissance was fascinated by the character of Alexander; therefore, it must be assumed that even if the comparison had been a serious one, it would not have rebounded to Henry's detriment.
Although the main burden of proof rests on the passage itself, additional avenues of investigation include the political situation at the time the play was written and how it might have affected both the playwright and his audience, other references to Alexander in the play, and the attitude of the speakers towards Henry. In conclusion, the character of Henry V does not suffer from the Alexandrian allusion. Shakespeare presented Henry as a complex, but not flawless, character but he never entirely departed from the historical view of Henry, as a king whose honor and glory would be remembered forever.
Robert P. Dunn
Judy Myers Laue
Master of Arts (MA)
Year Degree Awarded
Date (Title Page)
Library of Congress/MESH Subject Headings
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Allusions; Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Characters -- Kings and rulers; Henry V, King of England, 1387-1422; Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616 -- Criticism and interpretation
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This title appears here courtesy of the author, who has granted Loma Linda University a limited, non-exclusive right to make this publication available to the public. The author retains all other copyrights.
Howe, Winona, "Shakespeare's Henry V and the Alexandrian Allusion" (1986). Loma Linda University Electronic Theses, Dissertations & Projects. 1042.
Loma Linda University Electronic Theses and Dissertations
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