Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Race and identity in Henry V

  A clash of identities in King Henry’s army reveal a divided kingdom

7 minute read

In this extract from The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, Professor Andrew Hadfield explores the racecraft inherent in the bloodlines of the characters featured in Shakespeare’s history plays.

An actor points angrily at another, who stares at their hands.

Tensions around in King Henry’s army, specifically between Welsh Captain Fluellen and Irish Captain Macmorris. Photographer: Johan Persson

FLUELLEN:  Captain Macmorris, I think, look you, under your correction, there is not many of your nation—

MACMORRIS: Of my nation? What ish my nation? Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal? What ish my nation? Who talks of my nation?

FLUELLEN: Look you, if you take the matter otherwise than is meant, Captain Macmorris, peradventure I shall think you do not use me with that affability as in discretion you ought to use me, look you, being as good a man as yourself, both in the disciplines of war, and in the derivation of my birth, and in other particularities.

MACMORRIS: I do not know you so good a man as myself. So Chrish save me, I will cut off your head.

GOWER: Gentlemen both, you will mistake each other.

This exchange, the most often cited and analysed clash of identities in the history plays, centers around the problem of race. During the Siege of Harfleur the four representatives of the nations in Henry’s army in France, Gower, the Englishman, Jamy, the Scotsman, Macmorris, the Irishman, and Fluellen, the Welshman, discuss military tactics while they wait on events in a scene replete with misunderstandings because of their different accents and outlooks. Why does Macmorris take such umbrage at what might seem an innocent question from Fluellen?

The trigger word is ‘nation’, as is clear when Macmorris repeats it four times in his outraged reply, with what is surely ever heavier emphasis and rising anger. Nation could mean a particular territory with a unified government inhabited by a distinct group (or groups) or people, a usage dating from 1330, according to the OED. It could also mean, as now, a distinct group of people who may or may not live in a particular territory. As Falstaff complains to the Lord Chief Justice in Henry IV Part 2, ‘it was always yet the trick of our English nation, if they have a good thing, to make it too common’. Here, the meaning is ‘people’ or ‘race’.

Two actors stand arm-in-arm, wearing medieval armour.

Fluellen demontrates some stereoyptically Welsh characteristics, ‘repeating the stock Anglo-Welsh phatic phrase ‘Look you”. Photographer: John Haynes

The same is true of Macmorris’s interpretation of Fluellen’s usage: he is evidently outraged at the assumption that people of his identity or race are in Henry’s army and can be recognized and defined. Is this because he does not want to be identified as Irish, believing the recognition of that racial identity to be too problematic (the audience was surely being reminded of the army that had been sent to Ireland to combat Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, earlier in 1599 just before the play was first performed). Or, perhaps the key word in Macmorris’s response is ‘bastard’, and he is referring to his identity as an Anglo-Irishman, someone of mixed race who is affronted by what he thinks is Fluellen drawing attention to his lack of racial purity, his in-between status?

However we read the conversation it draws attention to the issue of racial identity and the differences between the soldiers in Henry’s army, as clearly as the stereotypical characteristics of the two interlocutors (Macmorris losing his temper and threatening spectacular violence as English audiences thought wild Irishman habitually did; Fluellen repeating the stock Anglo-Welsh phatic phrase ‘Look you’). Gower’s conclusion that Macmorris and Fluellen ‘mistake each other’ is true in an obvious sense, as they obviously do, but also gestures towards more significant racial misunderstandings as the two cannot easily talk to each other. Fluellen asserts that Macmorris has taken his words amiss, misunderstood them, but we never find out what he really meant, as he shifts the argument to one of his own merit rather than that of racial and/or national identity. Macmorris is happy enough to continue in this vein and the anger of the characters becomes focused on their honor, akin to quarrels that led to duels.

‘It draws attention to the issue of racial identity and the differences between the soldiers in Henry’s army’

A similar problem of misinterpretation, the play suggests, affects the audience, who may not understand the characters, in a literal sense (because of their accents) and in terms of the nature of the quarrel. Such misunderstandings have also had an impact on later critical readings, not least, I would like to suggest, because the concept of race has been absent from critical discourse.

An actor attacks another actor on stage, whilst holding a leek.

Tensions between Fluellen and Pistol result in the latter being attacked at the end of the play. Photographer: Tristram Kenton

What the debate highlights is the problematic and complicated understanding of race in the early modern period. Most historians of race argue that, despite a long period of stubborn resistance in the scholarly community, race cannot be seen as a post-Enlightenment phenomenon, and we should not equate notions of race with modern scientific racism. Ideas of race and racism were major intellectual tools in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but they were not consistent and depended on a number of factors and ways of marking the real and perceived differences between peoples.

As Geraldine Heng has argued, before the Enlightenment race was ‘a structural relationship for the articulation and management of human differences, rather than a substantive content’. Racial differences could be imagined in terms of genealogy and inheritance, or in terms of geographical distinctions, which had determined identities. Distinctions could be based on skin color, and there was undoubtedly a wealth of prejudice directed by white people against non-white people. Nevertheless, just as often they were based on ideas of blood, an inner identity that could remain hidden until forced out into the open, as, for example, anti-Semites assumed. To cite Heng once again, race was understood as ‘a body-centered phenomenon: defined by skin color, physiognomy, blood, genealogy, inheritance, etc.’


Further reading:

Philip Edwards, Threshold of a Nation: A Study in English and Irish Drama (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979)

Michael Neill, Broken English and Broken Irish: Nation, Language, and the Optic of Power in Shakespeare’s Histories, Shakespeare Quarterly 45 (1994)

Rebecca Steinberger, Shakespeare and Twentieth-century Irish Drama: Conceptualizing Identity and Staging Boundaries (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008)

James Shapiro, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (London: Faber, 2005)

Willy Maley, Review of David Cairns and Shaun Richards, Writing Ireland: Colonialism, Nationalism and Culture, Textual Practice 3 (1989)

David J. Baker, Wildehirissheman: Colonialist Representation in Shakespeare’s Henry V, ELR 22 (1992)

Markku Peltonen, The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness and Honour (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages I: Race Studies, Modernity, and the Middle Ages, Literature Compass 8/5 (2011)

Robert Bartlett, Medieval and Modern Concepts of Race and Ethnicity, Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies 31 (2001)

This is an extract from Race in Shakespeare’s Histories by Professor Andrew Hadfield, as part of The Cambridge Companion to Shakespeare and Race, edited by Professor Ayanna Thompson, and available to purchase now from Globe Shop  with a 10% discount using the code WINTER20CUP.

Professor Andrew Hadfield will be a guest speaker in our upcoming Anti-Racist Shakespeare webinar, focused on Henry V, which will take place on 26 January. This event is sponsored by Cambridge University Press.

Henry V is a production by Shakespeare’s Globe and Headlong, with Leeds Playhouse and Royal & Derngate, Northampton, and plays in our Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 4 February 2023 as part of our Winter 2022/23 season.