Henry V

Henry V Study Guide

Henry V was probably the greatest military leader that England ever had. He laid claim to the French throne in 1414 by invoking an English royal claim, and managed to win the Battle of Agincourt the following year against seemingly impossible odds. Having won the battle, he then forced the King of France to make him his heir and marry him to his daughter. The story of Henry V soon became a favorite English story, and was chronicled by Raphael Bolinshed and Edward Hall. It it likely that it was also dramatized before Shakespeare wrote his version of the story in 1599.

Henry V is the last of the eight great history plays dealing with medieval English history. The first four plays dealt with the Wars of the Roses from 1422 to 1485. The next set of four plays were set prior to this period, and covered the years 1398 to 1420. The first of the four details the defeat of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke, who was subsequently crowned Henry IV. The next two plays concern themselves with Henry IV, who struggled to maintain peace in spite of traitorous allies and a son who mingled with thieves. At the end of 2 Henry IV, the King dies and his son Hal ascends the throne as Henry V. Contrary to the public perception of him as a wastrel, he soon commanded the utmost respect and proved himself a brilliant leader. Sadly, his death ended the period of political stability, and England soon found itself in civil war once again.

As a history play, Henry V draws considerably on events prior to it, as well as the fact that the outcome is known ahead of time. For Shakespeare's audience, who could draw on their own knowledge of history as well as the previous three plays by Shakespeare, this made the play more interesting. However, this interconnectedness of the four plays is often difficult for a modern audience to understand. Henry V cannot be viewed as a single work, but must be understood as part of the whole tetrology. It is our knowledge of the civil wars that both precede and follow the reign of Henry V that helps us to admire his achievements even more.

Shakespeare draws the connection between this play and contemporary events as strongly as always. Elizabeth had mobilized England for a major campaign against Ireland to be led by the Earl of Essex. This generated a great deal of patriotic excitement akin to that of Henry V's battles in France. (However, the Earl of Essex lost disastrously in his campaign.) England was becoming more powerful all the time, and it soon became obvious that England could defend her own borders without any trouble. This meant that expansion soon became possible, with both Ireland and the Netherlands nearby, as well as much of the New World to conquer. The exploits of Henry V served to fuel the desire for expansion as contemporaries of Shakespeare pushed for more aggressive military exploits.

Interpreting the purpose of the play has been difficult over the years. The wondrous military exploits of Henry V are simultaneously overshadowed by the coming civil war and the social strife it engenders. Thus, it is not obvious whether the play should be viewed as a prop for militarism or a commentary on war's pointlessness even in victory. Filmmakers have had different takes on the play, with Laurence Olivier setting the events during World War II and using it as a vindication and justification for the European war. Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version takes a much more pessimistic view, choosing to highlight the futile American war in Vietnam or the British attacks on the Falkland Islands.

Henry V was first printed in quarto form in 1600, and reprinted in 1602 and 1619. It also is part of the First Folio of 1623, where it seems that the editor used Shakespeare's manuscript and also consulted the 1619 quarto. The First Folio edition is commonly used as the definitive edition for the play, in spite of the fact that it is not wholly reliable as a source. Indeed, the Oxford editors argue that the quarto version, although printed earlier and more corrupt in many respects, represents a later staging of the play created after Shakespeare had revised many of the scenes. Perhaps the greatest difference is the role of Dauphin, who shows up in the First Folio but whose lines are assigned to Bourbon in the quarto texts. The difference is profound because the Dauphin is often viewed as a direct adversary to Henry V in the First Folio version. Without his presence, the play seems more of a conflict between the King of France and Bourbon rather than a battle over who will become heir to the French throne.