Henry V

Legal Drama in Shakespeare’s Henry V College

On the topic of war, revered American statesmen Benjamin Franklin exclaimed, “There never was a good war or a bad peace.” Nonetheless, war (and its legal backdrop) has been the subject of countless plays, historical narratives, and fictional dramas. Justification of war through antiquated laws and principles is at the core of reasoning in Shakespeare’s Henry V. Chronicling the reign of King Henry V through the Battle of Agincourt, Shakespeare begins his play with a commentary by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, followed by a session of counsel in Act I, Scene I between Canterbury and Henry himself. Notably, Canterbury discusses the Salic laws of the Ancient Franks, Germanic tribes whose ruling domain once included France and most of Western Europe. Canterbury reassures King Henry that his claim to the French throne cannot be halted by the confines of the ancient Salic laws prohibiting lines of succession in Germany through female ancestry. Relying on ecclesiastical support, King Henry accepts Canterbury’s legal interpretation of monarchial succession in France as a means for invasion and to legitimize the lineage of his great-uncle Edward III. The beginning of King Henry’s campaign against France is a...

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