Henry V is a play by William Shakespeare based on the life of King Henry V of England. It deals with the events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years' War. On the basis of an apparent positive allusion to Essex's failed mission to quell Tyrone's Rebellion, the play is thought to date from the first few months of 1599.
The play is the final part of a tetralogy: it is preceded by Richard II, Henry IV, part 1 and Henry IV, part 2. The original audiences would thus have already been familiar with the title character, who was depicted in the Henry IV plays as a wild, undisciplined lad known as "Prince Hal." In Henry V, the young prince has become a mature man and embarks on an attempted conquest of France.
Performance and Publication
A tradition, impossible to verify, holds that Henry V was the first play performed at the new Globe Theatre in the spring of 1599; the Globe would have been the "wooden O" mentioned in the Prologue. In 1600 the first printed text states that the play had been played "sundry times." The earliest performance known for certain, however, occurred on Jan. 7, 1605, at Court.
Henry V was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on August 14, 1600 by the bookseller Thomas Pavier; the first quarto was published before the end of the year—though by Thomas Millington and John Busby rather than Pavier. (The printing was done by Thomas Creede.) Q1 of Henry V is a "bad quarto," a shortened version of the play that might be a pirated copy or reported text. A second quarto, a reprint of Q1, appeared in 1602; another reprint was issued as Q3 in 1619, with a false date of 1608—part of William Jaggard's False Folio. The superior text first saw print in the First Folio in 1623.
Samuel Pepys saw a Henry V in 1664—but it was written by Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, not by Shakespeare. Shakespeare's play returned to the stage in 1723, in an adaptation by Aaron Hill.
Elizabethan stages did not use scenery. Acknowledging the difficulty of conveying great battles and shifts of location on a bare stage, Shakespeare uses as narrator a Chorus (a reference to the Greek chorus but played by a single actor), who explains the story to the audience and encourages them to use their imaginations. The chorus calls for a "Muse of fire" so that the actor playing King Henry can "Assume the port of Mars." He asks, "Can this cockpit [i.e. the theatre] hold / The vasty fields of France?" and encourages the audience to use their imaginations to overcome the stage's limitations: "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts."
The early scenes deal with the embarkation of Henry's fleet for France, and include a real-life incident in which the Earl of Cambridge and two others plotted to assassinate Henry at Southampton. Henry's clever uncovering of the plot and ruthless treatment of the plotters is one indication that he has changed from the earlier plays in which he appeared.
The Chorus reappears. He describes the country's dedication to the war effort - "They sell the pasture now to buy the horse" - and tells the audience "We'll not offend one stomach with our play."
As with all of Shakespeare's serious plays, there are also a number of minor comic characters whose activities contrast with and sometimes comment on the main plot. In this case, they are mostly common soldiers in Henry's army, and include Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph from the Henry IV plays. The army also includes representatives of each of the constituent parts of the British Isles: a Scot, an Irishman, an Englishman and Fluellen (a comically-stereotyped Welsh soldier, whose name is almost certainly an attempt at a phonetic rendition of "Llywelyn"). The play also deals briefly with the death of Falstaff, Henry's one time mentor and another character from the Henry IV plays.
The Chorus appears again, seeking support for the English navy: "Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy" he says, notes that "the ambassador from the French comes back;/ Tells Harry that the king doth offer him / Katharine his daughter."
At the siege of Harfleur, Henry utters one of Shakespeare's best-known speeches, beginning "Once more unto the breach, dear friends...".
Before the Battle of Agincourt, victory looks uncertain, and the young king's heroic character is shown by his decision to wander around the English camp at night, in disguise, so as to comfort his soldiers and find out what they really think of him. Before the battle begins, Henry rallies his troops with the famous speech:
Following the victory at Agincourt, Henry attempts to court the French princess, Catherine of Valois. The action ends with the French king adopting Henry as his heir to the French throne and the prayer of the French queen "that English may as French, French Englishmen, receive each other, God speak this Amen."
But before the curtain descends, the Chorus re-appears one more time and ruefully notes that Henry's own heir's "state, so many had the managing, that they both lost France, and made his England bleed" - a reminder of the tumultuous reign of Henry VI of England, which Shakespeare had previously brought to the stage.
Views on warfare
The play's attitude to warfare has been interpreted in very different ways by readers and audiences. On the one hand, it seems to celebrate Henry's invasion of France and valorizes military might. On the other, it can be read as anti-war.
The play can be seen as a glorification of nationalistic pride and conquest, with the Chorus, Archbishop of Canterbury, Fluellen, and Henry himself all being prime examples. Some critics connect this to the English military ventures in Spain and Ireland that were important at the time of the play's writing, notably the Earl of Essex's attempted suppression of revolts in Ireland, since the Chorus directly refers to Essex's military triumphs in the fifth act. Henry is sometimes seen as an amalgamation of Essex's military prowess and Elizabeth I's pragmatism and skillful, heavy-handed leadership.citation needed
Yet others see the play as looking critically at the justice of Henry's violent cause. The words of the Chorus and Henry are consistently undermined by the actions of the three thieves Pistol, Bardolph and Nym, who show the exact opposite of the patriotic fervour they were trying to portray. Pistol, especially, talks in a bombastic blank verse that seems to ridicule Henry's own style of speech, so that Pistol et al are there to point out and make a mockery of the actions of their rulers, a point underscored by Henry's own persistent use of the word mock Henry could be said to be stealing France just as Pistol and friends steal bread.citation needed
Trying to reconcile these viewpoints, the American critic Norman Rabkin described the play as a picture with two simultaneous meanings; from one point of view, the sketch is a rabbit's head, and from the other it is the head of a duck. Rabkin argues that the play never settles on one viewpoint towards warfare, and Henry is the perfect example of this: he switches his style of speech constantly, talking of "rape and pillage" during Harfleur but of patriotic glory in his St. Crispian's Day speech.
The play's ambiguity has led to diverse interpretations in performance. Laurence Oliver's 1944 film, made during the Second World War, emphasises the patriotic side, while Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film stresses more the horrors of war. A 2003 Royal National Theatre production featured Henry as a modern war general, ridiculing the Iraq invasion.
There is no evidence that Henry V was popular in Shakespeare's own time. However, it is now frequently staged and many of its speeches have passed into popular culture.
There have been two major film adaptations. The first, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier in 1944, is a colourful and highly stylized version which begins in the Globe Theatre and then gradually shifts to a realistic evocation of the Battle of Agincourt. Olivier's film was made during the Second World War and was intended as a patriotic rallying cry.
The second major film, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh in 1989, attempts to give a more realistic evocation of the period and lays more emphasis on the horrors of war. It features a mud-spattered and gruesome Battle of Agincourt.