Notes and Queries: Theology in Henry V





Reprinted from the September 2001 issue of Notes and Queries (246:3)

SINCE 1997, the present writer’s close examination of a 1568-70 edition of the Geneva Bible (DMH 130)(1), the Folger library copy 1427 formerly in the possession of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), has resulted in a series of short notes on Shakespeare and the Bible.(2)

Numerous passages in Shakespeare, including those discussed in the present note, correspond to underlined verses in that copy of the Genevan translation. (3)

No biblical source for Harry of Cornwall’s theological lecture to the enlisted men Will and Bates, in the fourth act of Henry V (IV.i. 130- 305), has been noted by students of Shakespeare’s Biblical imagination such as Thomas Carter (1905), Richmond Noble (1935), or Naseeb Shaheen (1999),6 to name the authors of the three most comprehensive surveys of this topic.

This note, however, will demonstrate a dense reticulation of language, imagery, and diction linking Ezekiel 18:20-32 to one of the most prominent and extensive theological passages in the Shakespearian canon.

The influence of Ezekiel 18, a text on the heritability of sin, has frequently been noted in several other places in the Shakespearian text. Ezekiel 18:2 – the fathers have eaten a sower grape, & the children’s teeth are set on edge’ – inspired Hotspur’s complaint about poetry in 1 Henry IV:

That would set my teeth nothing on edge


Ezekiel 18:20-32 — in which we read that “the same soule that sinneth, shal dye: the sonne shal not beare the iniquity of the father” –is alluded to in MacDuff’s soliloquy:

Sinful Macduff,
They were strooke for thee: Naught that I am:
Not for their owne demerits, but for mine,
Fell slaughter on their soules.

(Macbeth, IV.iii.225)

Rape of Lucrece (7):

Let sin, alone committed, light alone
Upon his head that hath transgressed so
Let guiltless souls be freed from guilty woe.
For one’s offence why should so many fall,
To plague a private sin in general.


Two parallel passages, though literally expressing the opposite moral, that the sins of the parents should be visited upon the children, are found in Merchant of Venice:

The sins of the father are to be laid upon the children

(III.v. 1) (8)

So the sins of my mother should be visited upon me

  • (III.v. 15)

Only in Henry V, IV.i. 130-305, however, does the sequence of verses from Ezekiel 18 become the basis for what is literally a sermon on moral theology, commenting on the action of the play while didactically instructing other characters in the principles of late Tudor theology. Henry in disguise comes upon Will and Bates in their encampment in the early dawn hours before the Battle of Agincourt.

The subject for debate is whether the justice or injustice of the King’s cause effects the disposition of the souls of fallen soldiers in battle. Bates contends that loyalty to the monarch confers its own reward, whether or not the King’s cause is ipso facto a just one: if his Cause be wrong, our obedience to the King wipes the Cryme out of us’ (1980-1). William, while not directly disagreeing with this reasoning, affirms an antithesis:

But if our cause be not good, the King himselfe hathe a heavie Reckoning to make … I am afear’d, there are few that dye well, that dye in a Battaile: for how can they charitably dispose of nothing, when Blood is their argument? Now, if these men doe not dye well, it will be a black matter for the King, that led them into it; who to disobey, were against all proportion of subjection.


The enlisted men are of course not aware that they are speaking with the King himself. Unbeknownst to them, the critical theological views which they hold in private are actually being exposed to a public arena of debate and conflict.

Henry responds with an amplificatio of Ezekiel’s statement that the sonne shall not beare the iniquity of the father, nether shal the father beare the iniquitie of the sonne’ (18:20), tailored to counter the objections of Will and Bates while exonerating the King from moral responsibility for their impending destruction:

So, if a sonne that is by his Father sent about Merchandize, doe sinfully miscarry upon the Sea; the imputation of his wickedness, by your rule, should be imposed upon his Father that sent him: or if a Servant, under his Masters command, transporting a summe of Money, be assayled by robbers, and dye in many irreconcil’d Iniquities; you may call the businesse of the Master the author of the Servants damnation: but this is not so: the King is not bound to answer the particular endings of his Servant . Every Subiects Duties is the Kings, but every Subiects Soule is his owne. Therefore should every Souldier in the Warres doe as every sicke man in his Bed, wash every Moth’0 out of his Conscience: and dying so, Death to him advantage; or not dying, the time was blessedly lost, wherein such preparation was gayned: and to him that escapes, it were not sinne to thinke, that making God so free an offer, he let him outlive that day, to see his Greatnesse, and to teach others how they should prepare.


Will, for his part, alluding to doctrine derived om I Kings 2:32-4, or related is persuaded by tenry’s sermon: “Tis certaine, every man that yes ill, the ill upon his owne head, the King is otto answer it’ (2034-5).

It is evident that Ezekiel 18:20-32 constitutes a much more important Biblical pretext for Shakespeare’s theological imagination than has previously been recognized.




University of Massachusetts at Amherst




1 Historical Catalogue or Printed Editions of the English Bible 1525-1961 (London, 1968), ed. A. S. Herbert revised and expanded from the edition of T. H. Darlowe and H. F. Moule (1903).

2 N&Q, ccxlii (1997), 514-17; ccxliv (1999), 226-7 and 207-9; ccxli (2000), 97-100 and 70-2.

3 See the present writer’s 2001 University of Massachusetts Ph.D. dissertation, The Marginalia of Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible: Providential Discovery, Literary Reasoning, and Historical Consequence (February 2001).

4 Thomas Carter, Shakespeare and Holy Scripture With the Version He Used (1905; reprinted by AMS Press, 1970).

5 Shakespeare’s Biblical Knowledge and the Use of the Book of Common Prayer as Exemplified in the Plays of the First Folio (1935; republished by Octagon Books, 1970).

6 Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999). This book includes and supersedes Shaheens three prior books on Shakespeare Bible references.

7 Carter, op. cit., 219; Carter also cited parallels to Jer. 31:30, Ex. 20:5, Rom. 5:12, and Rom. 5:17.

8 Carter, op. cit., 192, cited Exod. 20:5 and Num. 14:18.

9 Line numbers are to the folio text reprinted by Hinman in the Norton Facsimile of The First Folio of Shakespeare (New York, 1968).

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