Henry V

Criticism and analysis

Views on warfare

Readers and audiences have interpreted the play’s attitude to warfare in several different ways. On the one hand, it seems to celebrate Henry's invasion of France and valorises military might. Alternatively, it can be read as an anti-war portrayal.[4]

Some critics connect the glorification of nationalistic pride and conquest with contemporary English military ventures in Spain and Ireland. The Chorus directly refers to the looked-for military triumphs of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, in the fifth act. Henry V himself is sometimes seen as an ambivalent representation of the stage machiavel, combining apparent sincerity with a willingness to use deceit and force to attain his ends.[5]

Other commentators see the play as looking critically at the motivation for Henry's violent cause.[6] The noble words of the Chorus and Henry are consistently undermined by the actions of Pistol, Bardolph and Nym. Pistol talks in a bombastic blank verse that seems to parody Henry's own style of speech. Pistol and his friends thus show up the actions of their rulers.[7] Indeed the presence of the Eastcheap characters from Henry IV has been said to underscore the element of adventurer in Henry's character as monarch.[8]

The American critic Norman Rabkin described the play as a picture with two simultaneous meanings.[9] Rabkin argues that the play never settles on one viewpoint towards warfare, Henry himself switching his style of speech constantly, talking of "rape and pillage" during Harfleur but of patriotic glory in his St Crispin's Day Speech.

The play's ambiguity has led to diverse interpretations in performance. Laurence Olivier's 1944 film, made during the Second World War, emphasises the patriotic side, ignoring the fact that the enemy of the play, the French, were in fact allies in that conflict,[b] while Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film stresses the horrors of war. A 2003 Royal National Theatre production featured Henry as a modern war general, ridiculing the Iraq invasion.

A mock trial of Henry V for the crimes associated with the legality of the invasion and the slaughter of prisoners was held in Washington, D.C. in March 2010, drawing from both historical record and Shakespeare's play. Titled "The Supreme Court of the Amalgamated Kingdom of England and France", participating judges were Justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The outcome was originally to be determined by an audience vote, but due to a draw it came down to a judges' decision. The court was divided on Henry’s justification for war, but unanimously found him guilty on the killing of the prisoners after applying “the evolving standards of the maturing society”. Previously the fictional "Global War Crimes Tribunal" ruled that Henry’s war was legal, no non-combatant was killed unlawfully and that Henry bore no criminal responsibility for the death of the POWs. The fictional "French Civil Liberties Union", who had instigated the tribunal, then attempted to sue in civil court. The judge concluded that he was bound by the GWCT’s conclusions of law and also ruled in favour of the English. The Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion, thus leaving the matter for the Supreme Court’s determination.[10][11][12]

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