Henry V by William Shakespeare

“From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered –
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that shed his blood with me
Shall be my brother.”

Written in the Second Period of Shakespeare’s development, Henry V is the eighth of his dramas, and part of the Henriad, his historical tetralogy which also includes Richard II, Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2.  The play is thought to be composed late in 1598, as it was produced between March 17 and September 28th of 1599.

The earliest known volume is the first Quarto printed in 1600, which was followed by Q2 and Q3, reprints of the first edition, published in 1602 and 1608 respectively.  The first Folio edition differs extensively from the Quartos, as it is twice the length of the latter, which omits the first scenes of Acts I and III, the second scene of Act IV, the choruses and the epilogue, as well as some of the characters.  Prose is also transformed into metrical form, it can only be supposed to effect an increased length of the play.

King Henry V
source Wikipedia

Set in 1415, immediately before and after the events at the Battle of Agincourt during the 100 years war, Shakespeare appears to have deviated from his promise at the end of the play, Henry IV, Part 2, where he assured a reappearance of the bumbling, comedic Falstaff.  Instead, the play echoes of tones of impressive military management versus French incompetence, and a king who is lauded as a hero.  The play shows technical weakness with an awkward chorus who speaks a prologue explaining the upcoming scenes in the drama, however with the sources drawn upon (Holinshed’s Chronicle and an old play, The Famous Victories of Henry V) and his own additions, Shakespeare has shown a legitimate constancy.

With very little constructive plot, the play ties in various episodes in Henry V’s leadership role before and after the Battle of Agincourt. As it begins, Henry appeals to the Archbishop of Cantebury as to whether he is justified in his claim of the French crown.  Supported by his conscience, he feels a duty towards his French subjects, but the French king has another view of the matter.  When the French ambassador turns up in the English court with an insulting gift of tennis balls from the king’s son, the Dauphin, Henry is incensed, but manages to keep control of his temper.

“We are glad the dauphin is so pleasant with us.
His present and your pains we thank you for:
When we have matched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.  
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturbed
With chaces ……”

Henry will:

“…….. dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea strike the Dauphin blind to look on us,
But all this lies within the will of God,
To whom I do appeal.”

Yet soon after this honourable rhetoric is delivered, he learns that his friend, Lord Scroop and two lords, Cambridge and Grey, are plotting his demise and the king is forced to dispatch them in an execution.  The injection of this betrayal is quickly presented and appears awkward and unconnected with the whole, but it does afford us some insight into Henry’s character and the historical situation.

Henry V Discovering the Conspirators
Henry Fuseli
source ArtUK

The scenes move from England, to an English camp in Harfleur, to the French camp, contrasting English courage, fortitude and skill to the French forces and strength which threaten their much smaller contingent, but exemplify a bombastic and almost bumbling French confidence of an easy victory, that is obviously misplaced.  The eve before the battle, Henry is represented as not only a capable king, but as a man of the people, as he walks among them in disguise, learning of their thoughts and opinions of the coming war.  His responsibilities rest heavy on his shoulders and he asks God for strength in arms and His favour, in spite of the fault of his father’s taking of Richard II’s crown.  With the French more than confident in their strength of arms, and the English somewhat dismayed by their lack of soldiers in comparison, the battle begins.  With some of Shakespeare’s trademark humour, the fighting continues until the English, against the odds, claim victory and peace is negotiated.  Henry then woos Princess Katherine, daughter of the French king, bringing together the two countries with the bonds of love.

Lewis Waller as Henry V
Arthur Hacker
source ArtUK

As for characters in this drama, the principle one is certainly Henry V.  Henry’s motivations for ruling France do not lie in personal, monetary or territorial gain, but in a sacred trust for which he feels responsible.  He shows a marked similarity to his father, Henry IV, both sewing their wild oats when young, but extirpating their follies and irresponsibilities in time of need of their country.  Both become strong, forceful kings with a material sense of duty, to both God and their kingdom, and who successfully protect English identity and sovereignty.  Even in presenting the English forces, there is a unity in their soldiers as we are introduced to Captain Jamy, a Scot, Captain Macmorris, an Irishman, and Fluellen, a Welshman.

My enjoyment of the play somewhat fluctuated throughout my reading.  While it has a simple charm about it and Shakespeare’s heroic rhetoric draws the reader in, it is obviously not as clever, or elaborately structured as many of his other plays.  The reader can admire and rejoice in the honourable and admirable traits of the English king, the incarnation of England itself, but there is a definite lack of density and richness that imbues his other plays.  Nevertheless, it is enjoyable in its own right and a fine ending to the Henriad.

Further reading:

0 thoughts on “Henry V by William Shakespeare

  1. soo… which one is the version usually read? the first folio, or one of the quartos? a clear analysis of the play and the admirable and noble portrait of lewis waller as henry… the st. crispin's day speech still chills the spine a bit even at this late date… as well as" once more unto the breech dear friends"…

  2. Shakespeare could not continue with Falstaff in H5. Henry needs the room to be the leader rather than the follower, so the fat fellow had to go. Moreover, since Shakespeare often wrote with specific actors in mind, there might have been some changes in the acting pool. In any case, I enjoyed reading your posting even though you make me feel guilty about procrastinating on my planned-announced-postponed return to reading all of Shakespeare from beginning to end. Perhaps I should just start with H5.

  3. I just saw a very good performance of Henry V at our summer Shakespeare festival. I was expecting to be bored but I wasn't. It had a nice balance of seriousness and humor. Also, the man who played Henry V really made this king out to be a fascinating individual. All of the actors were excellent, making it a rewarding experience.

  4. I think I made a mistake with this play in that I didn't watch it as I read it. Bad me. I felt it was a little flat after I finished, but that feeling might not have developed if I'd actually seen a version of it. Should I add the St. Crispin's speech to my review? I was thinking of it …….. oh dear …… I do like how Henry would refer to the English as "friends", "brothers", etc. A king who was very much in touch with his country and its people.

  5. That's wonderful to know, Sharon. I do need to see a performance of it myself, either live or on DVD. My library has a few versions that bear checking out. And I do have an Archangel audio version that I might listen to over the summer. As I said to Mudpuddle above, my mistake was not watching a performance. I'll have to rectify that.

  6. Now I have a theory here…I always felt that Shakespeare for all his brilliance was a tad sycophant and this was Elizabeth's (his patron) great grandfather, and firmly established the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty. I think this was more to please the monarch than written with any actual creative/intellectual purposes! Of course this is my theory and I am possibly completely off base!

  7. I would suspect your theory to be accurate but I'm not 100% certain either. He certainly goes out of his way to connect Henry to the people, and the discarding of Falstaff, one person who would have a hold over Henry, is certainly telling! After I finish reading the plays, it would be nice to read some of the history behind them.

  8. Henry V will always hold a special place in my heart because my dad, who loved Shakespeare, took me to see the Laurence Olivier version one night (just him and me), when I was about 12. It was my intro to Shakespeare, and while I had no idea of the history behind the play, I was hooked. I've seen it onstage multiple times and all the movies at least a few times each. It has some wonderful speeches, and I always enjoy the French lessons (between Kate and her maid, and HV and Kate). One of those plays that prompted me to learn the history behind it, and fostered an intense love of English history.

    For me, I think the play lacks the ambiguity of some many of the other plays and hence less room for thought.

  9. Wow, what an experience! Your dad should be commended. Often we believe children wouldn't be interested in something we see as over their heads, but you never can know the lifetime benefit a visit to a Shakespeare play can have! 🙂

    I think this play will grow on me with a second and third reading. I did enjoy the royal grandeur of it all.

    Oh yes! — The French lesson scene was hilarious!! I audibly laughed while reading that part.

  10. I really enjoyed Henry V I must say. So sad when Falstaff's death was discussed, a rather moving though at times funny scene 🙂

    One of our politicians, Boris Johnson, was likened to Henry V by some journalist. Bit of a stretch I though!

  11. I think that I'll like it more with a re-read, but it wasn't quite what I was expecting.

    Yes, that is a stretch. Probably because his actions appeared to be only for the benefit of the people. Each gained power through their actions, so one wonders if their actions were really as self-sacrificing and altruistic as they made them appear. 😛

  12. tantalizing thought: if we knew the REAL reasons people do things (write plays, conduct wars, even help others), we might have a totally different opinion of their conduct….?

  13. Not only that, what if people were actually honest with themselves about their motivations before they chose to act? That would be even more revolutionary! 🙂

  14. The Kenneth Branaugh version is a good movie. The scene between him & Katherine (Emma Thompson) was fun & very well done. Didn't mind the Olivier version and it was interesting to see how the different movies compared. We went to see a performance where it was placed into the setting of WW2. Clever, but I preferred the original.

  15. Ah yes, I need to get the Kenneth Branaugh version out of the library. I didn't know that Emma Thompson was in it! That would be fun!

    I, too, prefer a conventional setting. I've seen a few plays where they try to go with a modern or simply a different setting and they aren't quite as good, IMO.

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