Henry V will be the third production in our series of Shakespeare's history plays.
In Richard II, Henry Bolingbroke deposed the lawful king and took the throne for himself as King Henry IV.
In Henry IV, Henry fought to contain the rebellions that broke out against his rule, while his son, Prince Hal, caroused in the taverns with Falstaff and struggled to prove himself to his disapproving father.
Near the end of Henry IV, Henry and Hal reconciled their differences. The dying Henry, wracked with guilt over the way he won the crown and worried about the challenges Hal would face as king, gave a final piece of advice to his son:
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels; that action, hence borne out,
May waste the memory of the former days.
Henry V is the story of the newly crowned Prince Hal attempting to follow that advice. In both earlier plays, England is a fractured country, its people and nobility divided over who should be king. In addition, Richard II and Henry IV faced rebellions against English rule in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. But Henry V is able to unite his countrymen in a common cause by directing their aggression toward an outside enemy: France.
The English monarchs had a claim to the throne of France dating back to Edward III, the most popular and successful medieval English king. Edward III's mother, Isabella, was French, the last surviving child of the French king Philip IV:
The English argued that this gave Edward and his descendants — including Henry V — a stronger claim to the throne of France than Charles VI, the current king of France, who was descended from a different line of the French royal family. Richard II and Henry IV had not attempted to press this claim, but Henry V took advantage of it to "busy giddy minds" with a war on foreign territory.
The morality of Henry's actions is questionable to say the least, but his strategy was undeniably successful: Henry V shows us a (more or less) unified Britain marching to war behind a loved and admired king. Shakespeare symbolizes this unity by giving Henry's army four captains — one English, one Irish, one Scottish, and one Welsh. The Welsh captain, Fluellen, is one of Shakespeare's great characters, fiery and hilarious and completely unforgettable in the way he talks.
At the same time, Shakespeare saw too clearly to believe that all tensions within the English nation were erased by the war with France. Fluellen and the Irish captain, Macmorris, almost come to blows, and several soldiers question the rightness of Henry's cause. More importantly, there is a plot against Henry by several English nobles...
Shakespeare's history plays tell the story of nearly 100 years of turmoil and conflict as various nobles and families fight for control of the English throne. Henry V seems like an exception at first, with its celebration of Henry's heroic leadership and the symbolic unity of the country behind his quest for the crown of France.
In fact, the struggle for the English throne is still going on in Henry V. It is revealed in Act 2, scene 2, that there is a plot to assassinate Henry, led by Richard, Earl of Cambridge. It's usually referred to as the Southampton Plot, because the plan was to kill Henry at Southampton before he embarked for France. While this plot is not the focal point of Henry V, it is closely tied to people and events of great importance in both the earlier and later plays in the series.
As the family tree above shows, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, was the younger son of the Duke of York from Richard II. (His older brother, the Duke of Aumerle, had been involved in a plot against Henry IV at the end of that play.)
Richard had married Anne Mortimer, sister of Edmund Mortimer — in Shakespeare's plays, the same Edmund Mortimer who had been declared the official heir to Richard II before Henry Bolingbroke deposed him; the same Edmund Mortimer whose other sister, Kate Percy, was married to Hotspur in Henry IV. Hotspur's rebellion against Henry IV in that play was intended to remove Henry IV and put Mortimer — who had a more legitimate claim to be king — on the throne. The Cambridge conspiracy had the same objective: kill Henry V, son of the usurper Henry IV, and put the rightful king, Edmund Mortimer, on the throne.
Richard is aided in his plot by Thomas Grey, a "knight of Northumberland," who therefore had close ties to the Earl of Northumberland, head of the Percy family that had rebelled against Henry IV. The third member of the conspiracy is Henry, Lord Scroop of Masham. Members of the Scroop family have appeared in each of the previous plays in the series: one of Richard II's favorites, the Earl of Wiltshire, was a Scroop — and was executed by Henry Bolingbroke as part of his campaign for the throne. Wiltshire's brother, Sir Stephen Scroop, brought the news of these executions to Richard II in that play. And the Archbishop of York who led one of the rebellions in Henry IV was also a Scroop — and was also executed by Henry IV. The Archbishop was, in fact, the uncle of the Henry, Lord Scroop of Masham who conspires in Henry V.
Confused yet? The important thing is not to keep every detail of these relationships straight, but to understand that the participants' families had a long history of opposition to Henry IV, plenty of reasons to be angry with him, and viewed him (and his son, Henry V) as a usurper. Their overall objective was therefore to place Edmund Mortimer, whom they regarded as the rightful king, on the throne.
Even more important is the way this conspiracy will rear its head again in the next plays in the series. The son of Richard, Earl of Cambridge, is Richard, Duke of York, a major character in the Henry VI plays. This Richard, Duke of York, takes up the Mortimer claim to the throne and goes to war against Henry V's son, Henry VI. Their civil wars — the Wars of the Roses — will tear England (and their own families) apart. And that, in turn, will pave the way for one of the sons of Richard, Duke of York to make a power grab of his own...becoming one of the most fascinating villains in all of literature as King Richard III.
See? It's all connected...
Henry V's war in France is represented in the play in two sequences: a siege on the town of Harfleur in the first half, and the climactic battle with the French at Agincourt in the second.
Agincourt is one of the most famous military victories in history. The play says that the French have 60,000 men, five times more than the English, but the English manage to kill 10,000 French while losing only 27 of their own. These numbers are probably greatly exaggerated; historical sources differ on the actual numbers present and killed, but they do agree that the English were heavily outnumbered but still lost far fewer soldiers than the French.
How were the English able to overcome these odds and win so decisively? Historians have pointed to a number of key factors:
In the play, Henry has another explanation for the victory: it was God's doing. The battle takes place on St. Crispin's Day, October 25. Crispin and Crispinian were largely legendary brothers who became Christian saints for their ministry and martyrdom in France in the 3rd century AD. Henry's famous "St. Crispin's Day" speech — a.k.a. the "band of brothers" speech — emphasizes the significance of the day, and after the battle Henry concludes that the lopsided victory can only be the result of God's intervention on the English side.
The play, though, demands a more complicated response on the part of the audience. This battle feels very different from those in previous plays. The climax to the Agincourt sequence is not a heroic one-on-one fight between two great warriors, after which the victor honors the vanquished (as in Henry IV). Instead, it is a sneak attack on the undefended English camp and the slaughter of defenseless innocents and prisoners — by both sides. There is a brutal realism to this battle that highlights the horrors of war and for a modern audience can make Henry V seem as much an anti-war play as anything else.
Our approach to the Agincourt sequence tries to do justice to all these different elements. It will be very exciting to see it all come together in performance!
Henry V is unique among Shakespeare's works for the way it uses a Chorus figure to present the story to the audience. This Chorus is like a professional storyteller: she addresses the audience directly to set the scene, introduce us to certain characters, and fill us in on events that happen between scenes. Her presence makes Henry V feel almost like story theatre at times.
The Chorus also simultaneously expresses the point of view of the English nation toward Henry — full of love and adoration for this "star of England" — and of the theatre-makers toward their audience. The Chorus repeatedly apologizes for the inability of a theatrical performance to do justice to the events being portrayed, and begs the audience's forgiveness for these shortcomings. Such sentiments were common in prologues and epilogues in plays of Shakespeare's time, but Shakespeare goes further: the Chorus also urges the audience to become an active partner in the creation of the theatrical experience, to engage their "imaginary forces" and "piece out our imperfections with your thoughts." The Chorus role is a brilliant piece of metatheatrical writing that reflects Shakespeare's understanding that any theatrical event is always a communal creation of the actors and the audience.
The common view of Henry V is that it is a patriotic celebration of a heroic king who led his ragtag army to victory over a much stronger enemy. And in the Chorus speeches and the way Henry is viewed by his followers, it is exactly that. Henry is clearly an effective leader, and many readers and viewers find Henry's big speeches — such as the "band of brothers" speech that he uses to raise his army's spirits just before the battle of Agincourt — the most memorable parts of the play. We also get to see Henry as a mischievous prankster — a little bit of old Prince Hal rising to the surface? — and a charming, self-deprecating suitor of the French King's daughter.
The play as a whole, however, presents a more ambivalent picture of Henry. For all his positive attributes, he is also a military commander with suspect motives, leading a war of aggression against another country. And while at some times he urges mercy to the French, at other times he is willing to go to brutal extremes to accomplish his objectives.
A c. 16th-century portrait of Henry V
In the great nighttime scene before the battle, we also see Henry in private and get a glimpse inside his head. There we see a man who is beset by doubts, fears, and self-pity that he never allows to show through in his public role as king. Even Henry's earnest wooing of Katherine becomes more complicated when we realize that she is a bargaining chip in the peace negotiations between their countries — and that Henry rejected a marriage with her earlier in the play, because the dowry offered was not sufficient.
In addition, the play shows us the toll that the war and Henry's elevation to the throne has on his former tavern companions. Falstaff does not appear in the play, but his presence and the consequences of Henry's rejection of him hangs over it. And the other members of the tavern crew suffer greatly for their involvement in Henry's war. The storylines that began in the Henry IV plays are brought to a close in Henry V, and at the same time Shakespeare uses these characters to movingly demonstrate the human cost of Henry's war and his ambition to rule France.
All of this makes Henry a more complicated character than he sometimes seems. Like the other kings we have seen in the history series so far — Richard II and Henry IV — Henry V is a complex, contradictory human being, and it is typical of Shakespeare that we are encouraged to view him from a wide variety of perspectives in the play.
This is one of the reasons so many great actors have been attracted to the role. Shakespeare presumably wrote the part for the leading actor of his company, Richard Burbage — the same actor who would have created the roles of Hamlet and most of Shakespeare's other great tragic heroes. In modern times, Sir Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh have both made popular film versions in which they played Henry. The combination of heroic leader, romantic lead, trickster, and troubled human being makes for a fascinating and challenging role.