Shakespeare’s Henry V features a conflicted central character that is both tied to his past as a carousing, wild teen and his future as a king with a great deal of potential for power. Henry is torn between his old alliances and associations with the common folk of his youth—a time that contributed to the other side of his personality, which is known as “Harry" and this duality of his personality forms one of the primary sources conflict in the play.
As with most Shakespeare tragedies, there is a central character flaw that renders the main characters helpless over their actions at times. Henry is certainly no exception.
The “little bit of Harry" that remains in the King serves as a benefit and a hindrance, depending on the situation and context. As he grows older and more confident in his abilities, however, and learns to temper “Harry" with his understanding of himself as a powerful ruler, he is able to use his past experience associating with common people to his advantage and emerge victorious. Despite this balance that is eventually reached between the Harry and the Henry, the young king is constantly at battle with that “little bit of Harry" both because of his own inner chidings and the verbal accusations and reminders of his life that he abandoned. By the end of Henry V, this blend of the new and old man comes together to culminate in a great king that is an adept leader because of this ability to communicate with the common people. The conflict between these two aspects of his personality are best viewed by examining the beginning versus the heroic conclusion of Shakespeare’s play as these two portions offer the most striking and revealing contrast.
The “little bit of Harry" that is the subject of so much consternation for young King Henry is comprised of constant, biting reminders about his wild days as a young man where he spent his time in the company of commoners and petty criminals. If one is not familiar with Henry IV when these days are explored a bit more, the idea that Henry had a ubiquitous past is made clear by Canterbury, who says of thy young king at the beginning, “The courses of his youth promised it not. / The breath no sooner left his father’s body, / But that his wildness, mortified in him, Seem’d to die too…" (I.i.25-27). In other words, Canterbury is suggesting that no one expected Henry to rise to the challenges that lay ahead of him but following the death of his father, the old Harry sank down, allowing a strong and capable leader to emerge.
In fact, the leadership qualities and intelligence he exhibits seem even to go over the heads of the conniving church officials such as Canterbury, who believes he is leading the King on to a course of action but may not be doing so as much as he thinks. Henry is far more astute than his past might suggest and one gets the sense that Canterbury has not quite “updated" his view of the full range of talents and capacities in Henry, despite his statement about the changes he notices. It seems that the insulting “gift" from the Dauphin is the true impetus for Henry’s invasion and it is in this decision he makes to invade France that his most close associations with his old, wild self emerge and provide the reader with a more developed understanding of “Harry" versus King Henry V.
While Canterbury may like to think that he is dealing with “Harry" the critical moment when Henry decides to engage in war with France is a decision that involves both of the Henry characters (Harry and Henry). On the one hand, the more “adult" Henry seeks and listens to the advice from Canterbury about his legal claims to the French throne and seems to weigh the evidence carefully. He does not come to a decision, however, until the Dauphin strikes him at his most sore spot in his reminder through the gift of tennis balls that he is still viewed as an irresponsible child. At this insult, “Harry" is invoked—he is insulted and seeks immediate revenge. There is no thinking through left at this point, Harry and Henry work together and immediately decide to send the Dauphin’s messengers home with some unexpected and unanticipated news—that war is imminent. The little bit of Harry uses terms that are casual and sports-related in his declaration of war, saying, “We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set / Strike his father’s crown into the hazard" (I.ii.261-263). At this early point it is already clear that the “little bit of Harry" is working with the up and coming king, and that this alliance between his two selves will only serve to strengthen him if reason prevails over quick, thoughtless, impulsive action.
While the beginning and conclusion of Henry V are being used as the primary points of this analysis of how the “little bit of Harry" emerges throughout the play, it should be noted that this battle between the selves has by no means been resolved through the alliance of his two halves just mentioned. The problem is, despite his seeming willingness to shed his past completely and use the benefits of it to advance his ability to lead, he is never allowed to forget his past. Not only did he have a past that involved association with thieves and commoners of all sorts, he developed some friendships that he not only shed—but eliminated beyond the point of all hope. The problem of Falstaff is the most notable example of this and through his feelings about his former friend and his fate are some of the most complex problems between his old and new self. Henry “killed his heart" (II.i.78) and does not forget this, but is forced due to his new leadership position (no matter how much he feels burdened by it sometimes—another case of the “little bit of Harry") to kill off his old friends-turned-enemies and suffer silently with some of his feelings about his old versus new life. Again, while these specific incidents are not necessarily stated as being aligned with the conclusion that will be discussed in a moment, these are critical events in the play because they force Henry to finally shed any of the negative associations from “Harry" and move on, stunned and confident—although still prone to moments of self-doubt. What is important is that without these moments of self-recognition and realization, he might not be so able to prevail at the play’s conclusion.
The passage that refers to the “little bit of Harry" occurs as Henry, donning the mask of his former self to infiltrate his own ranks to eventually achieve a solid victory, is the final act of progression from the remaining self-doubt that lingered from his youth and experiences of trying to reconcile the two selves. Finally, at this point, his past serves as a touchstone of success and ultimate value as his military victory hinges on this action and ability to become “common." This would have been difficult for a king to pull off but finally, the “little bit of Harry" is just enough that Henry can become fully developed and perfectly in synch with his duties as a king and his past as a wild young man. While the losses of Falstaff and his other friends might have been shameful, by the end of Henry V, it almost seems as though the shedding of hindering alliances was the most painful but ultimately most critical stage in his development as a leader—one that is sometimes ruthless and cunning, but one that is balanced in his understanding of himself.