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“The law Salick:” A Comparison between Holinshed and Shakespeare

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The similarities between the Chronicles and Henry V are best seen in Holinshed and Shakespeare’s comparable portrayals of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s discussion of “Salick Law.” Salick Law, otherwise called Salian Law based on its derivation from the Salians – fifth and sixth century Franks that conquered Gauls, is a legal code most relevant here because of the civil statute that prohibited daughters from inheriting land, which “mistakenly came to be employed as an argument against the succession of women, or of the descendants of kings’ daughters, to European thrones.”   Salian Law leads to the conflict on which Henry bases his conquest of France: Princess Katherine’s inability to succeed to the throne of France. 

In both the Chronicle (1587, vol. 6, 545-6)  and Henry V (1.2.37-100) the Archbishop of Canterbury explains the origins of Salic Law to Henry V upon the request of Henry. In both instances Henry is considering a war with France and asks for the Archbishop of Canterbury to speak on the potential right he has to claim France as his own.  

When placed side-by-side, the similarities become easier to note. Holinshed’s description of the scene following the conventional prose of the chronicle format, whereas Shakespeare uses the iambic pentameter that would be typical of those of the court in the history plays. Starting at the beginning of the two speeches by Canterbury, it becomes clear that beyond similarities in content, Shakespeare borrows the structure of the speech as well. Holinshed states: 

The verie words of that supposed law are these, In terram Sali|cam mulieres ne succedant, that is to saie, Into the Sa|like land let not women succeed. Which the French glossers expound to be the realme of France… (Holinshed 545)  

While Shakespeare extends the thought into iambic pentameter, but largely keeps the same ideas and presentation: 

But this, which they produce from Pharamond: 
“In terram Salicam mulieres ne succedant” 
(No woman shall succeed in Salic land), 
Which Salic land the French unjustly gloze 
To be the realm of France, and Pharamond 
The founder of this law and female bar. (1.2.41-6).  

It can be somewhat expected that these texts are similar in their information as they present law that had existed since the sixth century and had already created tense history throughout continental Europe and the English island, but the similarities in presentation – especially in that of structure and wording, including a direct quotation from the Latin – demonstrates a strong influence from Holinshed in the writing of Shakespeare’s work.  

Shakespeare similarly borrows from Holinshed’s chronicling of historical record and dispute over Salic law. Rather than cut much of Canterbury’s discourse on the history of the law, he chooses to keep the long line of names from King Pepin to Charles the Great, even clarifying a few genealogical lines along the way, in the play. What does this historicizing do for the play and why should readers matter? Despite being often cut in production,   the speech is lifted enough from Holinshed to be noticeable, and also is forefronted in the play, setting up the action that is to come from the rest of the narrative. In using Holinshed’s words, at least in prominent speech, Shakespeare seems to borrow the popularity and perceived legitimacy of Holinshed’s work for his own usage. 

Of course, this is not the only instance of Shakespeare’s borrowing from Holinshed and Hall. These can be seen clearly laid out in the Internet Shakespeare Edition of Henry V, on their page detailing the usage of the Chronicles.

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