An Analysis of the Chorus in King Henry V
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An Analysis of the Chorus in Henry V
In Henry V, William Shakespeare utilizes the character of the Chorus to transcend the limitations of the Elizabethan stage and challenge the audience's imagination. The Chorus praises King Henry V and his motivations for waging war with France through the application of colorful commentary. Two of the most common literary techniques that the Chorus uses are metaphor and wordplay, which were very important to Elizabethan theatergoers for several reasons.
The Chorus applies metaphor in several passages throughout the play to reveal details about King Henry's character. In the prologue to Act 2, the Chorus reveals that many English men are preparing for war by "Following the mirror of all Christian kings" (2.6). The Chorus could be saying that King Henry represents a mirror that reflects England's values, and the country's citizens see themselves in King Henry's image. In the prologue to Act 4, King Henry visits some of the soldiers at the English campsite in an attempt to elevate their heavy hearts; the Chorus states, "With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty; / That every wretch, pining and pale before, / Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks. / A largess universal, like the sun, / His liberal eye doth give to everyone, / Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all" (4.40-45).
In this passage, the Chorus uses the sun as a metaphor for King Henry being a light that brightens the dark times that the English are living in. Like sunlight, King Henry brings warmth to the soldiers who are weary from war. King Henry is also depicted as a sun to England in the prologue to Act 3 when the Chorus says, "The well-appointed king at Hampton pier / Embark his royalty, and his brave fleet / With silken streamers the young Phoebus fanning" (3.4-6). In Greek mythology, Phoebus is an epithet of Apollo, the sun god. The Chorus also uses other mythological references to King Henry's godlike qualities, such as in the prologue to Act 2 when the Chorus says the English soldiers ready themselves for war, "With wingèd heels, as English Mercuries" (2.7). In Roman mythology, Mercury is the winged messenger of the gods; therefore, King Henry is perceived as a god and the English troops are his devout followers who carry a message of King Henry's sovereignty to the French.
The Chorus makes use of wordplay to engage the audience and enhance interest in certain situations throughout the play. In the prologue to Act 2, the Chorus informs the audience that The Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scroop, and Sir Thomas Grey plan to kill King Henry when he says, "Have, for the gilt of France (O guilt indeed!), / Confirmed conspiracy with fearful France" (2.26-27). In this passage, the Chorus makes a pun by pairing the word gilt (gold) with guilt to signify that France is guilty of the murder of King Henry because the country pays off the assassins with gilt. In the prologue to Act 3, the Chorus also uses wordplay by requesting that the audience imagine King Henry and his soldiers sailing to France: "Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy" (3.18). A grapple is used to fasten one ship to another, and the Chorus uses this pun to urge the audience to hitch, like deck hooks, its imagination to King Henry's "majestical" vessel (3.16).
In the prologue to Act 4, the Chorus narrates King Henry's arrival at the English campsite on the night before the Battle of Agincourt and says that his physical appearance does not leave "…one jot of color / Unto the weary and all-watchèd night; / But freshly looks and overbears attaint / With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty" (4.37-40). In this passage, "attaint" can mean exhaustion, but the Chorus also uses it to play on the word taint (a tint or color) to signify the color (and brightness and warmth) of Henry, which eases the fatigue on the soldiers' faces. In the prologue to Act 5, the Chorus describes the English citizens who wait at the coast of England to welcome home King Henry and his soldiers: "Behold, the English beach / Pales in the flood with men, with wives and boys, / Whose shouts and claps outvoice the deep-mouthed sea, / Which like a mighty whiffler 'fore the king / Seems to prepare his way" (5.9-13). The Chorus uses the word "flood" to describe the setting of the shore and describe the overflow of the English people waiting for King Henry's vessel to drop anchor in England to greet him with applause louder than the sounds of the sea.
Elizabethan audiences may have loved the use of metaphor and wordplay in Henry V for a few reasons. English literary critic G. Wilson Knight believes wordplay and metaphor were important during Elizabethan times because of the "age's literary strength" (146). The English language was developing significantly during the Elizabethan period, and that was due to the ability of many Elizabethans to read and write well. Second, the Elizabethans may have been drawn to these writing techniques because, it is believed, William Shakespeare had been inspired by philosophers such as Aristotle and Quintilian, who used wordplay and metaphor to strengthen their rhetoric (147). When the Chorus applies these writing techniques, the purpose is to make the language in the play more engaging and effective. Finally, Elizabethan audiences may have been enthralled by the incorporation of metaphor and wordplay in Henry V because just as these techniques are used in modern writings to make references that are culturally relevant, William Shakespeare also employs these methods to include allusions appropriate for the time period (Manhood 185-192).
Some critics contend the Chorus in Henry V is nonessential to the narrative development of the play. However, the Chorus adds meaning and enjoyment to the play by reflecting the attitudes of the people through the use of metaphor and wordplay. Henry V would not be as engaging if the Chorus were not included to usher the viewer or reader into William Shakespeare's interpretation of fifteenth-century Europe.
Knight, G. Wilson. "Lyly." Review of English Studies. 15.58 (1939): 146-163. Web.1 Oct. 2014.
Manhood, M. M. Shakespeare's Wordplay. London: Routledge, 1968. PDF.
Shakespeare, William. Henry V. New York: Signet, 1998. Print.