Shakespeare's Henry V

The history plays: Henry V is Shakespeare’s crowning achievement in the "history play," the most popular dramatic genre in Shakespeare's time, one which Christopher Marlowe helped to make popular and that Shakespeare largely perfected.  Shakespeare took his plots from written prose histories (Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of the history of England, Scotland, and Ireland especially), so in some respects the major characters and plots were already determined in outline, at least, and indeed, they were well-known by Shakespeare's contemporary audiences. What Shakespeare did to immortalize the histories he converted into dramatic form, however, was to take bare-bones outlines of historical personages and breathe depth and genuine life into them.

Shakespeare wrote ten history plays in all, each named for and focusing on a particular English king: King John, of the Plantagenet family (he reigned 1199-1216), Henry VIII, from the Tudor line of rulers (reigned 1509-1547), and two sets of four plays—called tetralogies—focusing on the later Plantagenet kings who ruled throughout most of the 1400s. Curiously, Shakespeare composed these two tetralogies out of sequence chronologically, starting early in the 1590s with the period of 1422-1485 in the three-part Henry VI and concluding with Richard III; then later in the 1590s he wrote of the 1398-1422 period in Richard II, the two parts (i.e. separate plays) of Henry IV, and concluding with Henry V. Thus we are reading the fourth installment in the tetralogy covering the earlier time period, but Henry V was composed when Shakespeare was in his thirties, as he was just coming into his full might as a literary artist. (Some scholars believe the Henry VI plays were the first Shakespeare wrote, and although Richard II has some power, the latter-composed tetralogy is clearly superior in quality to the first one.)

"Man vs. ruler": the burden of power: In my reading of Henry V, the most predominant theme, and the real heart of the play, centers on Shakespeare's portrayal of the various conflicts any competent ruler faces as he or she is forced to negotiate the often opposing demands of personal concerns and desires, on the one hand, and public concerns and responsibilities on the other. This theme of the burden of kingship is developed with careful attention throughout the play.

We will get into this matter in greater depth in discussion, but as you read, note, for instance, how Shakespeare establishes twin motivations for Henry to go to war with France: the good of the state in reclaiming French lands legally belonging to England (through prior conquest), and also in a more personal response to the insults of the French prince, the Dauphin, in Act 1, Scene 2. Note in Act 2, Scene 2 the pairing of public responsibility of executing the traitors and also the sense of personal betrayal the king feels from his former closeness with Lord Scroop in particular. In Act 3, Scene 6 ponder the inner feelings surely roiling within Henry as he learns that his former comrade, Bardolph, has been hanged for stealing from a French church (this scene is dramatized wonderfully in the Branagh film). Shakespeare deals with this man vs. ruler theme most pointedly in Act 4, Scene 1, where the king moves in disguise among his common soldiers on the eve of the great battle that would seem to hold certain death in store for them all. Notice that even in his wooing of the French princess in Act 5, Scene 2 Shakespeare is careful to portray Henry both as a man unused to "talking love" with ladies and also as a leader of his nation pursuing a political marriage in order to unite England and its newly won French possessions under a single monarchy. Be on the lookout for the depiction of these dual tensions, personal feelings and public duty, throughout the play.

Uncommon leadership qualities: Though his reign lasted only nine years (1413-1422) and he died tragically at age thirty-five just weeks before he was to succeed formally to the French throne, the actual Henry V was one of England's most legendary kings. He was highly successful in uniting the various English factions who had fought for and against his father in the civil war portrayed in the first three plays of the tetralogy; he was the first English king to insist that all government documents be written in the vernacular English (French was the preferred language of many of the nobles, and Latin was common especially in written texts); he instilled in the English a genuine national patriotism to a greater extent than any had done before; and of course, he led the nation to what was in Shakespeare's time its greatest military glory in history. I have read explanations of a number of reasons the English were able to defeat the French at Agincourt, involving the terrain, weather, troop dispositions, etc. Regardless of the factual basis, the English defeat of the better-equipped and healthier French force which outnumbered the English by at least 5 or 6 to 1, and with English losses of just a few nobles and between 100-500 common troops (Shakespeare lowers the number to 25) and French losses of approximately 10,000 men—well, this had to seem just plain miraculous (as Shakespeare's Henry clearly suggests when he says that only God shall get the credit for the English victory). An examination of Shakespeare's sources for this play, Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1587) and Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1542), reveals that Shakespeare follows the particulars in his sources very closely. What Shakespeare adds to the more-or-less bare facts contained in those histories, however, is his concrete portrayal of this great king in action, and most particularly, of course, in speech. As Bevington points out in his introduction, one of Shakespeare's most evident concerns in this play is rhetoric, the use of language to persuade.

Shakespeare's Henry reveals uncommon leadership in a number of respects which we will touch on in discussion—his taking care to have the right of law behind him before going to war against France, for instance, and his concerns about troubles on the home front while his army is abroad, his ability to make tough decisions, his insistence upon treating conquered French citizens with respect and "lenity," his toughness as a negotiator with his enemies, and even his willingness to be ruthless when necessity dictated. But above all Shakespeare's Henry V is a master of rhetoric (and why not? he has the one and only Shakespeare writing his speeches!). As the Archbishop of Canterbury notes of the king in Act 1, Scene 1,

                               when he speaks,
The air, a chartered libertine, is still,
And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears
To steal his sweet and honeyed sentences. (1.1.48-51)

Henry's oratorical skill is most impressively evident in three set-piece speeches: his powerful rallying of the troops before Harfleur in the well-known "once more unto the breech" speech (3.1.1-34), his "yield or suffer the consequences" address to the governor of Harfleur (3.3.1-43), and most of all in the "St. Crispin's Day" speech in Act 4, Scene 3 (4.3.18-67). (Believe it or not, I have heard of high school and college football coaches using the St. Crispin's Day speech to inspire their players before big games!) Each of these three speeches presents brilliant samples of highly persuasive rhetoric using a great variety of tactics to get the king's auditors to do his bidding even in the face of great difficulties. I hope we plumb the depths of each of these key samples of Henry's (Shakespeare's!) rhetorical abilities in discussion and in critical responses, but as you read, go through each of these passages at least two or three times, noting the different appeals or tactics the king uses—most especially in the "St. Crispin's Day" speech to get his men to rally to great heroism in the face of almost certain defeat. He really pulls out all the stops here! You can hear a portion of the St. Crispin's Day speech performed by Kenneth Branagh at this website (click the "play" button below the picture):

The Chorus: The "chorus" is a convention from ancient Greek drama, in which an actual chorus made up of many voices speaks directly to the audience. Shakespeare uses a single person he calls a "chorus" in a number of plays, often to offer apologies or make appeals of different sorts at the beginning of a play, and at the end of a play to solicit applause in some typically witty fashion. In Henry V the chorus is of especial interest because he speaks to the audience all throughout the play in what is as close as we ever come in the plays to the voice of Shakespeare the playwright himself. In addition to elaborating key themes, a number of the chorus's speeches in Henry V make interesting comments on the nature of the dramatist's art, or on the nature of all literary art, as he invokes our active participation in the creation of the imaginary world the play aims to present. Attend particularly to the play's Prologue, where the chorus laments the impossibility of representing armies numbering in the thousands clashing in mighty battles in the confined space of the Elizabethan theater, "the wooden O" he mentions in line 13. He wishes for a "Muse of fire" to empower him to do justice to his great subject, England's greatest military leader, and calls upon the audience to recognize that on the stage one man is to represent a thousand, to fill in with their imaginations what the actors cannot supply: he says that since a written mark (i.e. a number) can "Attest in little place a million; / . . . let us, ciphers to this great account, / On your imaginary forces work," urging the audience to "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts" (16-18, 23).

The need of Shakespeare's audience to "fill in the blanks" with their imaginations is much greater than we may recognize from our own experiences seeing plays performed (not to mention film!), for Elizabethan drama involved virtually no constructed or decorated "sets" of the sort that we are accustomed to, very few props, and comparatively little in the way of dress or costumes also. Each acting company typically had a limited stock of standard props (swords, e.g.) and wardrobes (generally the same generic costumes were used from one play to the next with very little alteration). However, even in modern times, Shakespeare's comments on the necessity of the audience participating through the active use of their imaginations are still highly apropos. Particularly with written texts, we have to participate for the work to come to life in our imaginations, as we picture scenes and characters in our minds as we read. Even in viewing film and television we participate imaginatively at the very least through suspending our "disbelief," such that we can accept, for instance, that Clint Eastwood is a cowboy on one channel, a police detective on another, and the trainer of a female boxer later in the evening on yet another channel. . . . The chorus in Henry V transports us from one scene to another and forward through time, always with great "self-consciousness," meaning that these intrusions of the chorus serve to remind us that we are in fact watching or reading an imaginary story.

The Comedic: As with other history plays Henry V alternates scenes of serious historical matters and more light-hearted interludes of comic relief to keep the tension from being held to too high a pitch for too long. Be attentive to how the comedic scenes tend to underscore, repeat, predict, or otherwise reinforce thematic matters in the "serious" portions of the play. For one instance, notice how an outraged sense of betrayal is evident in Corporal Nym's animosity towards Pistol in Act 2, Scene 1 (Hostess Quickly was previously engaged to Nym but then married Pistol instead [see 2.1.17-19]); then note that in the next scene, Act 2, Scene 2, we find betrayal on a larger scale in the three English nobles who have taken French gold to plot the assassination of King Henry. Be on the lookout for similar connections between primarily comedic scenes and "serious" scenes as you read.

Finally, it is also worth observing how the comedic interest moves from the former Prince Hal's old drinking cohorts in the early scenes, increasingly over the course of the play, to focus instead on Fluellen. The humor with Fluellen may initially seem a bit obscure—he is intended as "comical" in his constant insistence that the battle is or is not following the established "authorities" on war, going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The idea is that his concern with the history and "theory" of war while in the midst of the more immediate practical reality of war is supposed to be humorous. But note how he gets the upper hand over Pistol in Act 5, Scene 1: the King's new comedic pal is his patriotic and valiant countryman, Captain Fluellen, who, although touched with some absurdity is absolutely no scoundrel, and Hal's old comedic companions from his youth in 1 Henry IV, the drunks, thieves, and "no-gooders" are effectively either eliminated or vanquished by the play's end.

Reading points: As you read, consider or be on the lookout for the following:

purple bullet The wild youth Prince Hal's maturation into a wise and thoughtful ruler, King Henry V. Attend especially to his handling of political matters in England before leaving for France.

purple bullet The "man vs. ruler" conflict: the burden of power. Note how in a variety of contexts and in different scenes, Henry feels the weight of kingship—especially as his public duties and responsibilities as ruler are at odds with his feelings and concerns as "merely a man."

Purple bullet Uncommon leadership qualities: note as many different places in the play as you can where Henry demonstrates effective leadership: how specifically does Shakespeare portray him as one of England's greatest and most legendary kings?

Purple bullet In particular, consider Henry's great power of rhetoric: examine the different rhetorical strategies, all brilliant, that he employs in addressing his troops.

purple bullet Henry and the Dauphin (the French prince) as foils: consider what the two have in common and also how they differ in significant respects.
purple bullet The significance of the chorus, particularly in Shakespeare's commentary on his own art, or the genre of drama more broadly, through the chorus's speeches throughout the play.

purple bullet The function of humor in a thoroughly "serious" play. Points of thematic connection between the comedic and more purely dramatic scenes.

purple bullet Consider a possible darker side in Henry's character: look for places where his behavior may be troubling or disturbing to modern audiences.

Purple bullet Consider the significance of Katharine in each scene in which she appears.  How do her scenes support or interact thematically with the larger themes of the play, matters of state, certainly, but also the development of Henry's character and especially with the "man vs. ruler" conflict?

purple bullet Thematic points of connection between adjacent scenes, where one echoes, contradicts, or comments upon the scene immediately preceding.

purple bullet The play's continuing relevance: significant applicability in a number of respects to modern readers.


Works Cited (and consulted)