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Shakespeare’s canon includes many military figures, but arguably none is more successful than Henry V. In the play, the key to success is shown to lie in the king’s ability to instrumentalize the vehement emotions necessary to wage war. Shakespeare presents anger in Aristotelian terms as a hierarchical emotion reserved for elite men tasked with military leadership. The king’s deft use of anger demonstrates his self-discipline from his decision to invade France until his overwhelming victory there. This self-discipline distinguishes him from the quarrelsome soldiers (like the choleric Fluellen) who serve under him. The efficacy of Henry’s anger becomes evident when juxtaposed with the contrast in 1 Henry IV between his father’s ineffectual coldness and the reckless tempestuousness of Hotspur. In Henry V, the cool performance of hot emotions makes Henry a modern man of wrath.
From his two historical tetralogies to his great tragedies, civil and dynastic conflict is a near-constant presence in Shakespeare’s plays. This chapter sweeps across his career to explore the political ferment against which he developed his nuanced depictions of civil discord. It begins with the political contexts that shaped the rise of the English history play in the 1590s and extends through the bitter dynastic rivalries that mark Shakespeare’s depictions of Greek and Roman history, his tragedies, and the full body of his plays. It finds that, while Shakespeare studiously avoided taking sides in the warring factions he depicts, he embraced the opportunity to study the genesis of civil strife – its causes, personal motivations, and means by which it is intermittently brought under control. Civil and dynastic conflict serves Shakespeare brilliantly as essential to his craft as playwright, with implications about civil discord at all times and in all places.
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