“Defy Us to Do Our Worst”:

Ethics and Warfare in Shakespeare’s Henry V


Dr. David L. Perry

Professor of Ethics, and GEN Maxwell Taylor Chair of the Profession of Arms

U.S. Army War College

Carlisle, PA 17013


Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America Convention, 13 April 2006.

Note that none of my views should be construed necessarily to reflect those of the federal government.


I’m extremely grateful to Scott Newstok for inviting me to participate in this panel.  It’s a tremendous privilege to be able to discuss Shakespeare’s plays with genuine scholars of his work.  I only regret that Theodor Meron of the NYU Law School could not join us, since my meager research is heavily indebted to his impressive book, Henry’s Wars and Shakespeare’s Laws.


In what follows I’ll briefly explain some ways in which I’ve used Shakespeare’s Henry V to inspire my students to reflect on ethical issues in war.  Lovers and scholars of Shakespeare’s plays are likely to cringe at any attempt to draw “lessons” about ethics or leadership from them, as it risks doing violence to them as great works of art, drama and literature.  But I hope you’ll bear with me nonetheless.


I’ve most frequently taught the play in undergraduate courses, but I hope to employ it more often in the future with the colonels who attend our War College.  I typically require my students to read it about two-thirds of the way into my Ethics & Warfare course.  By that point they’ve studied the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War and reflected on the broader problem of atrocity in war, as well as the social-psychological tendency of people in groups to obey authority figures even when asked to do things that violate their conscience, a tendency documented by Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments at Yale.


My students have by this time also examined articles on ethical principles in various religious traditions, including Buddhism, Judaism and Islam, but with more detailed focus on Christianity, especially the evolution of moral thinking from pacifism in its first centuries, to just-war rationales under Ambrose and Augustine in the 4th and 5th centuries, to an abandonment of just-war restraints and a resort to total war during the Crusades.


I then devote three class sessions to Henry V.   The play raises obvious jus-in-bello concerns (i.e., regarding the conduct of war), from Henry’s threats against innocent civilians during the siege of Harfleur to his order to kill prisoners during the battle of Agincourt.  But we first consider jus-ad-bellum questions of just cause, right intention, and proportionality (i.e., in connection with decisions to go to war).


At the beginning of the play, Henry is deliberating with his close advisors about whether his claim on the French throne is strong enough to justify his going to war if the French refuse his demand to recognize him as their true king.  Henry asks the Archbishop of Canterbury for an assessment of his claim, and warns him to be scrupulously honest:


For never two such kingdoms did contend

Without much fall of blood, whose guiltless drops

Are every one a woe, a sore complaint

‘Gainst him whose wrongs gives edge unto the swords

That makes such waste in brief mortality.  (1.2)


In this moving passage, Henry indicates that he is keenly aware of the high cost of war in innocent human lives, and therefore the moral importance of sincere and careful appraisal of the reasons offered in support of war.  Spanish theologian Francisco Vitoria argued in 1539 that when a head of state is trying to determine whether there is just cause to go to war, “One must consult reliable and wise men who can speak with freedom and without anger or hate or greed.”  Unfor­tunately, Shake­speare’s king has surrounded himself with advisors who are all biased in favor of war.  They suggest that European monarchs will expect him to enforce his claims, as his ancestors did.  And they appeal to his warlike courage and youthful desire to expand his power.  None of them urges caution in light of the carnage likely to ensue, nor careful consideration of alternatives to waging war.


Henry then receives a message from the French dauphin (or crown prince), who repudiates his demands and offers in their place a “treasure” of tennis balls, an insulting reference to Henry's former reputation as a rowdy, irresponsible playboy.  Even though it’s not clear that this message was sent with the knowledge or permission of the French king, Henry is deeply insulted by it, and allows it to cloud his objective moral assessment of jus ad bellum.  His anger and his obsession with winning the French crown overwhelm the more humane disposition he exhibited at the beginning of the play.


After Henry lands in France with his army, his relative Exeter delivers an ultimatum directly to the French king:


[King Henry bids you to] deliver up the crown, and to take mercy

On the poor souls for whom this hungry war

Opens his vasty jaws; and on your head

[Are laid] the widows’ tears, the orphans’ cries,

The dead men’s blood, the pining maidens’ groans,

For husbands, fathers, and betrothed lovers

That shall be swallowed in this controversy. (2.4, emphasis added)


Like Henry’s retort to the dauphin’s insult, and in contrast to his initial warning to his Arch­bishop, with Exeter’s ultimatum Henry has completely shed any sense of personal responsibility for the destruction that the war will cause:  all of its carnage will be the fault of the French.


Note also Henry’s similarly chilling warning to the defenders of Harfleur:


[T]o our best mercy give yourselves,

Or like to men proud of destruction

Defy us to do our worst….

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,

And the fleshed soldier, rough and hard of heart,

In liberty of bloody hand shall range

With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass

Your fresh fair virgins and your flow’ring infants….

What is’t to me, when you yourselves are cause…. (3.4, emphasis added)


Finally, consider the profound conversation between soldiers Bates and Williams on the eve of the battle of Agincourt:


      Bates:  “…[W]e know enough if we know we are the King’s subjects.  If his cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the crime of it out of us.”

      Williams:  “But if the cause be not good, the King himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads chopped off in a battle shall join together at the latter day, and cry all, ‘We died at such a place’—some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left.  I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle, for how can they charitably dispose of anything, when blood is their argument?  Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it—who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.”


Unfortunately, the King’s subsequent reply completely evades the issue of his responsibility in forcing his soldiers to kill and endanger their own lives and souls for a possibly unjust cause.


In sum, Shakespeare’s Henry V reminds us that those who have the power to declare and wage war must 1) avoid allowing their objective judgment to be undermined by relatively petty grievances and interests, 2) not underestimate the destruction that war can produce, 3) not under-value the lives and well-being of their own soldiers, and 4) not avoid accountability for atrocities committed by their troops against enemy soldiers and civilians.


These are at least some of the concerns that I convey to my students in reflecting on the implications of Shakespeare’s rich play for ethical decision-making and conduct in warfare.



(For a more comprehensive explanation of how I employ Henry V in courses on Ethics and Warfare, see my essay, “Using Shakespeare’s Henry V to Teach Just-War Principles,” http://www.ethicsineducation.com/HenryV.pdf.  Comments and questions are welcome:  contact me at David.L.Perry@us.army.mil.)