Shakespeare must be considered seriously, not only as a dramatist, but as a major thinker on law, religion and government. His play King Henry V is a sustained and powerful meditation on the interrelationships of all three. In dramatizing Henry's invasion and conquest of France, Shakespeare raises the question of the ends of the polity and the nature of right rulership.
Understanding Shakespeare’s intentions depends on our view of the play's central, charismatic but elusive character, King Henry. Many audiences and critics have fallen under Henry’s spell, conceiving of him as a ‘mirror for Christian kings,’ exemplary for both piety and valor. And it seems that Shakespeare was aware of the depictions of an idealized Christian ruler found in an extensive body of literature, including the influential writings of Erasmus. Other viewers and critics, however, have seen Shakespeare's Henry as a Machiavellian Prince, who instrumentalizes religion, manipulates law, and practices cruelty and deception when the necessities of war and statecraft require them. Both visions of Henry are incomplete: Henry is too Christian to be a Machiavellian but too Machiavellian to be a model Christian king.
A third approach to understanding Shakespeare's Henry is to view him through the prism of Augustine's City of God. But although that approach yields some insights, it too is finally unpersuasive. Augustine simply does not treat of a monarch like Henry: a Christian, not a pagan, but not Christian as a ruler.
Shakespeare's Henry is enigmatic: neither an Erasmian model, nor a Machiavellian one, nor an Augustinian one, fits him well. Shakespeare seems to see more deeply into the nature of rulership than any of his three great predecessors. Like Erasmus but unlike Machiavelli, he fully realizes the horror and uselessness of war, and appreciates the damage that war inflicts even on a victorious State. Like Erasmus but unlike Augustine, he doubts that war is ordinarily just, and he believes that the ruler who sends soldiers into battle is responsible for the damnation of those who die in the sins they commit while fighting. But unlike Erasmus and like Machiavelli, Shakespeare seems to think that the decision for war does not depend solely on the personal qualities of the ruler, but is dictated by the existence of the State. The question Shakespeare does not resolve, however, is whether Machiavelli is right in thinking that after Christianity, a return to the pagan conception of princely virtue is necessary and possible.