Henry V: Ruthless Machiavellian or Imperfect Arisotelian?

When individuals consider the manner in which they should lead, they must consider two competing schools of thought. The first was promoted by classical philosophers and Christian thinkers such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Aquinas; it teaches that leaders ought to have an ideal goal of perfect morality and virtue to work toward. The second was advocated by Niccolò Machiavelli and taught that leaders should be focused on real and achievable goals. In Henry V, William Shakespeare does not appear to be advancing a particular school of thought. It is difficult to place King Henry into a particular category since he is a flawed character, but still seeks a higher good rather than his own security. Nonetheless, it is evident through Henry’s words and actions that Shakespeare created an imperfect character working toward Aristotelian, not Machiavellian, virtue.

The classical, Christian philosophy on leadership differs greatly from Machiavelli’s philosophy on leadership. The former emphasizes the importance of deliberation, carefully contemplating the right actions to take toward the right end.[1] Machiavelli argues that the time deliberation takes can hinder a person from taking full control of the situation; fortune must be controlled by a certain youthful recklessness.[2] Furthermore, Christian and classical thinking argues it is always better for a leader to be loved than feared.[3] Machiavelli argues the opposite, writing, “[I]f you have to make a choice, to be feared is much safer than to be loved.”[4] Finally, Aristotle establishes that an individual must strive to be truly virtuous.[5] On this point, Machiavelli is contradictory as well, suggesting that while a leader should always strive to appear good, he or she must be willing to act in ways that might be contrary to Aristotelian or Christian virtue.[6] These differences are key in seeing that Henry’s characteristics are aligned more with Christianity than Machiavellianism.

Before making the decision to go to war with France, Henry puts Aristotelian deliberation into practice by seeking a better understanding of the circumstances. Moreover, he does so in a manner respectful of Aquinas’s teaching, who states, “[I]t is the duty of clerics to dispose and counsel other men to engage in just wars.”[7] Henry does not try to deliberate on his own, but wisely seeks the counsel of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He asks the Archbishop to explain “Why the law Salic [. . .] should or should not bar us in our claim.”[8] Additionally, Henry commands the cleric to be particularly careful in his words, saying, “[T]ake heed how you impawn our person [and] awake our sleeping sword of war.”[9] By all means, the king was being very cautious and morally upright in his deliberation.

Some might argue that Henry sought counsel only to appear deliberative and have a valid excuse to wage war against France. However, this argument fails to fully consider the circumstances. The king’s initial inquiry to the Archbishop reveals that he was already aware of the Salic laws and the argument for his claim to the French throne. By Machiavelli’s standards, he did not need to inquire any further into the matter; it would be apparent to all of the king’s subjects that he had a valid justification. By seeking counsel and imploring his counselor to use his words carefully, Henry was only increasing the risk of losing a just reason to wage war.

Outside of his caution in going to war, there is certainly a conflict within Henry between Aristotelian deliberation and Machiavellian boldness. For example, the Dauphin’s “gift” of tennis balls results in a bitter reaction from the young English king.[10] Furthermore, Henry’s consistent refusal to surrender to the French, in spite of having a weak and outnumbered force, and his harsh demands for French surrender might suggest that the king was more Machiavellian than Aristotelian. However, it is not so much that he was following the teachings of Machiavelli, as it is that he had not achieved virtuous perfection. Henry’s character was continually changing throughout the course of Shakespeare’s histories, as we learn from the two bishops at the beginning of the play.[11] The king’s rash actions and responses throughout the play are not indicative of a cunning strategy to control fortune; rather, they are the consequences of a lack of self-restraint. Henry, according to Aristotle, would resemble “someone who is asleep or drunk. Although he acts voluntarily [. . .] he is not wicked.”[12] Therefore, he does not resemble a Machiavellian leader, but instead an imperfect Aristotelian leader.

Another similarity between Henry and classical thought is that he is loved more than he is feared. This becomes especially clear in the scene where a disguised Henry converses with Pistol about his thoughts on the king. It is very important to note the timing of this discussion compared to other events that take place during the play. At this point, two of Pistol’s close friends, Falstaff and Bardolph, have died. These men had also been friends of Henry in his youth, though he left them and their bad behavior behind after he ascended to the throne. Henry was not there for Falstaff’s death, and he condoned the execution of Bardolph for stealing. Consequently, Pistol would have been justified to be angry with the king. However, he has a much more positive attitude toward Henry, saying, “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 heartstring I love the lovely bully.”[13] These words reveal an immense love and respect for Henry, in spite of the fact that the king was partly responsible for his friends’ deaths.

An argument might be made that Henry’s actions, such as condoning the execution of Bardolph, instilled a fearful, not loving, respect in his soldiers. However, this theory does not agree with Pistol’s description of the king, which reveals a loving admiration, or with the attitudes of the English soldiers at the Battle of Agincourt. In his St. Crispin’s Day Speech, Henry encourages his men to fight not by threatening to kill them if they desert, but by promising them a share of honor if they stay. Furthermore, he encourages any men who do not wish to risk their lives to leave and go home, even vowing to pay for their return trip. In spite of being tired, sick, and outnumbered by French soldiers, Henry’s “band of brothers” remains by his side.[14] The king’s choice of words and the soldiers’ willingness to fight indicate that the leader in Shakespeare’s play prioritized being loved over being feared.

A final indication that Henry walks in Aristotelian virtue is that his intentions are genuinely moral. Some dispute this claim, arguing that Henry’s cruelty toward the French reveals a lack of moral integrity; they point to the scenes where he threatens the Governor of Harfleur and where he has all of the French prisoners executed.[15] While these two instances reveal a lack of self-restraint, they are overshadowed by a respect for the French people. After he conquers the nation, he speaks to Katharine, stating, “[I]n loving me you should love the friend of France, for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it.”[16] This is reflected by his command earlier in the play, where he tells his soldiers to refrain from thievery and treat the French with a high amount of respect.[17] While Henry may have been rash in certain circumstances where he needed to act quickly, his overall attitude toward the French is one of moral uprightness.

A crucial piece of evidence that demonstrates Henry’s pure intentions is his love for God, seen after winning the Battle of Agincourt. He praises God, saying, “O God, thy arm was here! And not to us, but to thy arm alone, ascribe we all!”[18] This is but one of several instances where Henry refuses to take credit for the winning of the battle himself and gives all of the glory to God. His actions are in accord with the Christian virtue of humility. But Henry’s reliance on God is not simply a Machiavellian way of maintaining good appearances. Before the battle begins, Shakespeare shows us Henry spending time alone in prayer. He pleads with God to pardon his father’s sins, explaining his actions of penitence.[19] His intentions are revealed to be good both through public actions and through private thoughts.

Christian thought aims for an ideal standard and Machiavellianism follows in the footsteps of clever men, but Shakespeare takes a different approach, almost combining the two competing schools of thought. He shows audiences the real, not the ideal, in King Henry. Nevertheless, the king is someone aiming for the ideal. Although he struggles with self-restraint, but in the far-reaching decision of waging war, he practices careful deliberation. His men give him respect out of love and are willing to follow him into a perilous battle. His actions are marked by Christian virtue, as he turns to God for help privately and gives him praise publicly. Contemporary leaders can learn much from Henry V. Shakespeare provides an example of a man working to achieve complete Aristotelian virtue, something that takes a lifetime of cultivating good habits and transform his character into that of a happy man.


[1] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. by Robert C. Bartlett and Susan D. Collins (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2011), 1112a15-18.

[2] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, 2nd ed., trans. by Robert M. Adams (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), Chapter XXV.

[3] Marcus Tullius Cicero, Philippics, trans. by C.D. Yonge (1903), Book I, Chapter XIV. Available at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/11080/pg11080.html (accessed November 30, 2016).

[4] Machiavelli, Chapter XVII.

[5] Aristotle, 1100b17-22.

[6] Machiavelli, Chapter XVIII.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Question 40, trans. by the Dominican Friars, Article 2.

[8] William Shakespeare, Henry V, edited by David Bevington (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1988), 1.2, lines 11-12.

[9] Ibid., 1.2, lines 21-22.

[10] Shakespeare, 1.2, lines 259-297.

[11] Ibid., 1.1, lines 25-38.

[12] Aristotle, 1152a15-17.

[13] Shakespeare, 4.1, lines 45-49.

[14] Ibid., 4.3, lines 18-67.

[15] Ibid., 3.3, lines 1-43; 4.6, line 37.

[16] Ibid., 5.2, lines 173-175.

[17] Shakespeare, 3.6, lines 107-113.

[18] Ibid., 4.8, lines 106-108.

[19] Ibid., 4.1, lines 287-303.