Next in my series on Shakespeare’s sources is Henry V early in the tale of king Henry Shakespeare gives his audience a chance to see the king deal out his justice as he deals with three potential assassins; the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scrope and sir Thomas Grey.
As with many of Shakespeare’s history plays the main source of information and inspiration seems to be Holinshed’s chronicles in which the incident is clearly described. Shakespeare makes the scene more personal and omits mentions of other lords in attendance etc, but this works of focus the attention on the battle of wits between the traitors and the King. In this Shakespeare is enjoying retelling some of the famous moments of history which have hinged on good rhetoric. But there may in one small detail be a more contemporary reference too.
It appears that the speech of admission and regret from Grey has come, possibly via Holinshed, from a confession letter from one Dr. William Parry who was executed on the morning of 2nd March 1584 for attempting to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I. From his cell in the tower he wrote his final letter of admission and forgiveness to her majesty and Holinshed (or even Shakespeare himself) could have lifted the speech from an anonymous play published and acted following the incident.
In Shakespeare’s play Grey concludes by saying “My fault, but not my body, pardon, sovereign”. In a letter addressed to the Queen, William Parry wrote (I have modernized the English) “I have no more to say at this time, but that with my heart & soul I do now honour & love you, am inwardly sorry for mine offence, and ready to make you amends by my death and patience. Discharge me A culpa [the guilt] but not A poena [the penalty], good lady.” This final idea that the traitor wished to be excused the guilt or fault but not the death penalty is very close to Grey’s line about pardoning the fault not the body.
This is an interesting example of Shakespeare making his history plays bang up to date by including references from recent history and about the current monarch. Shakespeare is not usually very transparent in his references to the current political or social situation, but this is a good example of a clear reference to something within living memory for many of the audience.