Thursday, 19 May 2016

Henry V by William Shakespeare.

Henry V is William Shakespeare's final play of what has come to be known as the 'Henriad' (which comprises of Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, and Henry V). It has also become my favourite Shakespearean History. It was written around 1599 not long after the two Henry IV plays and it picks up where Henry IV Part II left off. In the Henry IV plays we saw a rather guilty Henry IV (who had deposed Richard II) and a very wild Hal, that is Henry IV's son who is to become Henry V. He has, until his coronation, frequented the Boar's Head tavern and become associated with some very unsavoury characters - John Falstaff, perhaps most notably, Ned Poins, Pistol, and Bardolph, and Mistress Quickly, the hostess of the tavern (these characters also feature in Shakespeare's later play The Merry Wives of Windsor, 1602). At the end of Henry IV when Hal becomes king he rejects his old friends and former life. His father's reign had been beset with civil wars and strife, and Henry IV had advised Hal to distract the people from domestic wars with a foreign one:
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.
In Henry V that is just what Hal does.

Henry V was the second king of the House of Lancaster and reigned from 1413 - 1422 at the height of the Hundred Years' War with France (beginning in Edward III's reign; the subject of Shakespeare's Edward III). There had been a period of peace, known as the Second peace of 1389 - 1415 however Henry, believing he had claim to the throne in France, reignited the war after the Dauphin sent Henry tennis balls in response to the claim (note that the Dauphin has a fairly prominent role in these times: his father Charles VI suffered from bouts of insanity believing he was made of glass. 'Glass Delusion' was the subject of one of Miguel de Cervantes short stories The Glass Graduate). The troops are assembled and head for France and there begins the Battle of Agincourt, which took place on Saint Crispin's Day, 25th October 1415. This battle is the bulk of the action in Henry V, and it resulted in a decisive English victory with the deaths of some 10,000 French and only 112 English. The play ends with the marriage of Henry V to Charles VI's daughter Catherine of Valois; their son will be Henry VI of England and too the successor of Charles VI, though this is disputed.

My favourite aspect of Henry V is not so much that concerning the King and his men, York, Gloucester, Bedford, Clarence, Exeter and others but how it concerns the lower classes. On the eve of the death of Falstaff his friends, and Henry V's former friends, Pistol, Nym, Bardolph, and Falstaff's boy prepare for war. They too go to France, and their lives are turned upside down. The shady world of the tavern is no more, and some won't ever return to it despite their efforts to remain as far away from the battlefield as they can! It is an interesting thing to see the fate of the men; York and Suffolk die, one of the gentry, as do Bardolph and Nym of the lower orders, bringing to mind that democracy of the human body. There are further echoes and parallels between the two camps and we are left asking if the bloodshed was worth it? Henry V is a ruthless king who took a risk and was successful - are we to be proud of our noble English king or feel anger at this risk and question his motives? In this respect it is fairly ambiguous and for the reader to decide: Shakespeare does not guide his audience to a specific decision.

In short Henry V is a very poignant play. It is at times very funny, particularly in some of the scenes with Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph, and Katherine's attempts at learning English. There is a sweet, romantic scene between Katherine and Henry as he attempts to woo her (though the two hardly speak the other's language), and extremely bloody too with much of it set, as I say, in Azincourt. Whatever the case, the devastation it leaves is never in doubt. It is a great play, I loved reading it and thoroughly enjoyed the BBC's adaptation (2012). In the next few weeks I'll be reading and watching the Henry VI trilogy and Richard III, but I am very sad to leave behind the Boar's Head tavern set.

King Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt, 1415 by Sir John Gilbert.


  1. This is PROBABLY my favorite Shakespeare play. You know Henry V isn't actually friends with Falstaff, right? He's using him to create a political image. People who attended the play(s) believed Henry V had been a wild prince and that God touched him when he became king, and made him suddenly fearless. They expected a history play about Henry V (& Prince Hal) to be about that transformation. Shakespeare is playing with causality in these plays by suggesting that Prince

    Shakespeare posits that Hal was pretending to be wild so that he could make the people believe he had been touched by God and "transformed" when he became Henry V, and thereby keep his power (his claim to the throne, along with his father's, was very tenuous). Henry HATES Falstaff and is disgusted with having to lower himself by hanging out with the "low people" at the tavern. He's a Machiavellian politician. My favorite thing about Henry V is that you can actually SEE HIM using rhetoric to retain the people's loyalty, and to claim a French wife and therefore strengthen his power. He steals France in Henry V, but makes the people believe it's all glory. This is contrasted with scenes of petty theft among the ranks. The whole thing is brilliant! Shakespeare was totally putting power (rhetoric) on trial here. He's making the audience rethink what they expect from the play. What they expect from history.

    Falstaff is also brilliant. I love him. He's way smarter than Hal / Henry V. x

    1. Yes, I knew Henry V wasn't actual friends with Falstaff, I should have written "associated with"! Clumsy :) (I'll have to change that bit of the post when I've finished replying!) Another aspect of his ruthlessness, that. I hadn't really appreciated, though, about being 'touched by God' I'm ashamed to admit, I rather underestimated that and saw it as a purely political move, not thinking so much of the religious undertones. Thanks for that :)

      I loved Falstaff too - more so in Merry Wives of Windsor, but his death in Henry V made me tear up a bit, especially when I watched it (have you seen the BBC's Hollow Crown? I know it can be seen in Canada, not sure if it follows that it was aired in America though!).

      Thanks for your comment - I appreciate it all the more now :) This was my second read of Henry V - first one went way over my head, the second, well, I've not done too badly, but hopefully when the time comes for me to pick it up again I'll get as much out of it as you :)

      By the way - "Probably" your favourite Shakespeare? What are the other contenders?

  2. LOL, forgot to finish my first paragraph: by suggesting that Prince Hal wasn't actually magically transformed: he was just a politician. He was a politician from start to finish.

  3. Also, after Henry's big speech saying everyone will be TOTALLY remembered as brothers at the Battle of Agincourt, Henry V dies at like thirty-five years old, then Henry VI the infant becomes king, which won't do, so lots of important nobles (like Richard III's father) start quarreling for power, which leads to the War of the Roses, which changes everything. So brilliant, honorable Henry V's big moment becomes like this tiny spark in the thrust of history, which is, I think, Shakespeare's point. Not that that's bad or good really, but just that that's history. It looks very big in the moment, but then...

    Anyway, LOVE IT. Also, I LOVE Richard III. I haven't read the whole Henry trilogy yet. Just Henry V and Henry IV Part One. And Richard III. Which is also TOTALLY interrogating historical causality and the audience's expectations.

    1. I loved that speech - the Saint Crispin Day speech, yes? Tom Hiddleston did that superbly, I thought. My favourite speech though, so far, has to be John of Gaunt's 'This England' in Richard II. Probably because I'm English! Made me want to slay dragons ;)

      Richard III was another one that went over my head (to be honest most of them did when I first read them), but I am looking forward to reading it after the Henry VIs. Looking forward to the War of Roses set!

  4. i've read the play several times and seen it more than once, but i never have picked up the points described in Jillian's comment. just goes to show, one never knows everything... tx to her for pointing those points out!

    1. Indeed, always something new to learn :)


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