Shakespeare Saturday: Henry V

Can this cockpit hold, the vasty fields of France?

Henry V is the last play of the second tetralogy and the last pure history play Shakespeare wrote. Richard III had brought, chronologically, the story of the Plantagenet dynasty to an end, and Henry V was written during the final years of Elizabeth I’s reign. While Shakespeare contributed to a later play about Henry VIII, the Tudor monarchs were perhaps too much in the living memory for him to brave tackling them It is known, after all, that Shakespeare had ties to the court and his plays were played to the Queen – some outlandish people have even suggested that Elizabeth I was Shakespeare. I feel that if he had taken up the task to write about a Tudor ruler, he would have chosen Queen Mary I – the reign of Henry VII was too much of a period of calm restoration and that of Henry III probably too much like a play as it was to inspire him, but the “Bloody Mary” with her religious piety, her violent attempts to restore the Catholic Church in England, and her hysterical pregnancy would have all offered him plenty of material.

But Henry V is a play about a king who is victorious in both his military and his romantic pursuits; perhaps it is less poignant or elegiac than one would expect of a last in series, so to speak, but with this play Shakespeare retires the genre on a patriotic high.

King_Henry_V_from_NPGPrince Hal has become king, and his abilities are doubted by both his clergy and by the Dauphin sends him a barrel of tennis balls (as you do) as a demonstration of what exactly the French think of him. Henry is unwaveringly confident.

When we have march’d 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.

Before the King can go to France for his game of tennis, he sees off an assassination attempt; he hands out the traitorous, treasonous lords their commissions which turn out to be their execution orders. The French are offered a way out of the war, which they of course decline. There’s a war and Henry has plenty of opportunity for lofty speeches (no really, there are whole scenes that consist of nothing but him talking). The English are outnumbered, their men weak and poorly equipped; the French King is less confident than the Dauphin, or his men. It is a long way to Agincourt, where the two warring armies are to meet. The English arrive outnumbered and demoralised, and are rallied by the King who brings himself up as an almost Christ-like figure in rhetoric.

Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember’d.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember’d;
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Schlacht_von_AzincourtBy some miracle, the English win (I have read that the vast majority of the English soldiers were longbowmen, shooting from behind wooden stakes driven into the ground at an angle – although outnumbered, they had the advantage over the French soldiers who were heavily armoured and equipped for close combat). The weary Englishmen (there’s a strong sense of Pyrrhic victory here, even if the number of English dead is low) start making their way home, while Henry, as a part of the peace negotiations, is set to marry the King Charles VI’s daughter, Katherine.

Henry V feels different from the rest of the history plays – Henry V’s reign was politically stable and this early, improbable victory at Agincourt made him popular. Apart from the brief early scene dealing with the assassination attempt, this is a play about a king who is successful as a rule, righteous in this politics and loyally loved by his courtiers. Henry has become almost to good – this is a king invented by the ministry of propaganda, full of Christian virtue, courage and boyish patriotism. In contrast to the King, whose sense of divine justification of the mission is unwavering, the ordinary soldiers are tired, hungry, miserable and scared. They have left behind families they don’t expect to go back to. By giving more than the usual amount of attention to these men, Shakespeare offers a director a possibility focus on the horrors of the war. Atrocities are committed by both sides – the French kill the young boys left to guard the English luggage, and the English retaliate by killing their prisoners. Henry’s excursion to France feels almost like a personal vanity project, stemming from his desire to prove himself to his late father, and to anyone else doubting him. He doesn’t quite go to war over a chest full of tennis balls, but they are symbolic of his reasoning.

As always, there are secondary plots and secondary characters – Shakespeare first shows the tavern, its hostess and the men there – Falstaff has died, and this small ragtag band of men remaining must make, out of their own sense of duty and in his honour, their way to a war from which they will almost certainly not return. Their goodbyes to the Mistress Quickly are beautifully elegiac. There are also scenes the ordinary men, those ragtag soldiers bearing the brunt of the war. Bardolph, whom the King knew in London, is executed in the middle of the campaign for theft. There’s also a scene of Katherine trying to learn English that is neither necessary nor funny.

3f4cf05c2797cef207a755de79e7ef52Is it any good?

Among Shakespeare’s plays, Henry V is usually considered sort of mid-ranking. The patriotic emphasis aside, it is a play that gives the reader and the director a great scope to decide what it is about and where the focus should be, and can therefore be made to perform better than it actually is, if that makes any sense. I didn’t quite connect with it the same way I have connected with the other history plays – the endless speeches Henry feels compelled to burst into drag it on, and I’m slightly bothered by the lack of personal conflict here.

Fun fact

The tennis Shakespeare refers to is a game nowadays known as “real tennis”; it’s a complicated indoors game played with white balls not dissimilar to modern tennis balls and wooden rackets. The dauphin’s metaphorical gift to the King is mentioned in multiple sources, but it’s not certain if the story really is true.

What say thou?

This play is full of speech, and while it’s eloquent, it isn’t particularly famous for any particular passage. The most famous is the St Crispin’s Day speech, particularly this snippet of brotherly/soldierly solidarity:

“We few. We happy few.
We band of brothers, for he today
That sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother.”

Best character

I cannot choose one, truth to be told. Prince Hal, has gone from ambivalent, troubled young man to the other extreme – power hasn’t corrupted him, but it has made him self-righteous, vain and pious in a way that doesn’t entirely ring true.


Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 adaptation. This has a luxury casting, from Branagh himself to Derek Jacobi, Brian Blessed to Ian Holm, Richard Briers to Christian Bale, with Geraldine McEwan, Emma Thompson and Judi Dench taking on the female roles. In nearly 30 years, the picture quality and production values have taken a slight hit, and Branagh chews the scenery to the ground, but there’s a bit of  cheesy magic when Derek Jacobi strikes a match and speaks the first lines of the prologue in its light. Branagh cuts some text (and at least, I think, one whole scene), and leaves out Queen Isabella, but brings back Falstaff in a sequence of soft focus reminiscences whose text is borrowed from Henry IV. The music composed by Patrick Doyle is played by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Sir Simon Rattle.


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