Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s most popular and widely studied history plays; indeed, along with Richard III, it is perhaps the best-known. But critics are divided over how we should view Henry V the play – and Henry V the character. Before we offer an analysis of the play, it might be worth briefly recapping the plot.
Henry V: plot summary
This isn’t true of most of Shakespeare’s history plays (or, indeed, of most of Shakespeare’s plays, full stop), but the plot of Henry V is relatively easy to summarise, since the play revolves around a small number of key scenes or set pieces.
First, after the Chorus has encouraged the audience to use their imagination in picturing the vast armies going into battle (which the ‘wooden O’, i.e. Shakespeare’s then newly-built Globe Theatre, could barely hope to hold within its narrow confines), we then learn that King Henry V, formerly the wayward and roistering Prince Hal from 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV, has matured into kinghood.
The French ambassador rouses Henry’s ire, when he delivers a bag of tennis balls – a present from the French Dauphin, intended as an insult and challenge. Henry vows to go to war with France and reclaim it as part of his territories. We learn that three lords are plotting against Henry; shortly after this, he arrests them and then sets sail for France.
Meanwhile, Mistress Quickly, landlady of the Boar’s Head tavern, is talking to Bardolph, Nym, Pistol, and a young boy named Robin. We learn that Sir John Falstaff, the comic heart of the two Henry IV plays and the King’s old drinking companion and father-figure (when the King was plain old ‘Prince Hal’), has died. Nym, Bardolph, etc. resolve to go to France and fight in Henry’s campaign.
The first big battle scene is Henry’s siege of Harfleur. At this stage, Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol are still terrified, while the English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh captains acquit themselves well. Henry wins the battle, and presses on with his campaign.
The next battle is the climactic scene of Henry’s French campaign: Agincourt. The night before the battle, Henry adopts a disguise and walks amongst his troops, hearing what they think of their King and how they feel about the coming battle. A soldier named Williams argues with Henry (not realising it’s his King, of course!), and challenges him to a fight once the battle is over.
The French, meanwhile, are convinced they are going to win a mighty victory at the battle, with their forces far outnumbering Henry’s English army. Henry, however, wins a resounding victory against the French army (and subsequently resolves his disagreement with Williams from the night before). However, the battle is not without its English losses: the young boy Robin, who accompanied Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol from England, has been killed.
The play ends with a long scene in which Henry woos Catherine, the French princess, and marries her to bring peace between England and France.
Henry V: analysis
Henry V is often interpreted as a patriotic play about one of the great English kings: Henry is viewed as a national hero, a brave warrior and decisive commander, who sails for France to reclaim the land of his ancestors. Certainly the two most celebrated film adaptations of Shakespeare’s play, Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film (produced during the Second World War, of course) and Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film, are designed to rouse patriotic pride in even the most sceptical Englishman and woman.
But is that really what Shakespeare intended? Of course, it’s difficult to tell what Shakespeare’s personal attitude to war was, or what he thought about English imperial expansion in the 1590s. And we should be careful about viewing him too much as a ‘modern’ man, with our twenty-first-century scepticism about colonial expansion and foreign wars. What we can do, though, is look for signs that Shakespeare is exploring the good and bad aspects of war, rather than offering a one-sided flag-waving celebration of Henry’s campaign in France. He knew all too well that the gains Henry made at Agincourt did not last (his son, Henry VI, lost all French territories little more than fifty years later, leaving only Calais as an English possession; Elizabeth’s sister, Mary I, lost that in the 1550s).
Indeed, many commentators on Henry V have concluded that Shakespeare’s depiction of the great English war-hero is ironic through and through: both Harold Bloom and W. B. Yeats have analysed Henry V from this perspective. In Ideas of Good and Evil, Yeats wrote: ‘Shakespeare watched Henry V. not indeed as he watched the greater souls in the visionary procession, but cheerfully, as one watches some handsome spirited horse, and he spoke his tale, as he spoke all tales, with tragic irony.’
Another, earlier commentator who offered such insightful analysis of Henry V was the essayist William Hazlitt, who summarised the enduring appeal of the play with characteristic humour:
He was a hero, that is, he was ready to sacrifice his own life for the pleasure of destroying thousands of other lives: he was a king of England, but not a constitutional one, and we only like kings according to the law; lastly, he was a conqueror of the French king, and for this we dislike him less than if he had conquered the French people. How then do we like him? We like him in the play. There he is a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant. As we like to gaze at a panther or a young lion in their cages in the Tower, and catch a pleasing horror from their glistening eyes, their velvet paws, and dreadless roar, so we take a very romantic, heroic, patriotic, and poetical delight in the boasts and feats of our younger Harry, as they appear on the stage and are confined to lines of ten syllables.
‘We like him in the play’ shows Hazlitt’s genius for criticism: at once disarmingly simple (indeed, almost childlike in its simplicity) and yet striking at the heart of what we know to be true. Few people who met Henry V in person would warm to him, one suspects. Indeed, he has few friends and close confidants in the play, and even the men serving under him take against him (when they little suspect him of being monarch, and think their heads are safe). Indeed, recent criticism of Henry V (and, for that matter, criticism of Henry V the man) has denounced him as a war criminal, especially for his ruthless order to cut the throats of the French soldiers at Harfleur. Henry’s very motivation for embarking on his campaign is dubious, and his claim is far from clear. The fact that the French Dauphin’s insulting slight – the gift of tennis balls – is the last straw for him tells us something about the King’s headstrong side: he is impetuous, even rash, as well as courageous and commanding.
In short, then, far from being a narrow celebration of war and English military triumph, Henry V shows Shakespeare’s talent for showing contrary sides to warfare and heroism, allowing numerous generations of readers, theatregoers, directors, critics, and students to find a multitude of differing and contradictory attitudes to these themes within its lines. Many critics who devote considerable space to the two earlier ‘Henry’ plays in Shakespeare’s history cycle, 1 Henry IV and 2 Henry IV, have much to say about Henry V: both Frank Kermode in his superlative Shakespeare’s Language and Harold Bloom in his vast Shakespeare: The Invention Of The Human devote very little space to it. The most important aspect to grasp is the play’s accommodation of a possible ironic interpretation of Henry V and war, even if some readers and critics cannot see the play as ‘ironic’ through-and-through. The play first staged on that little ‘wooden O’ is large, and contains multitudes.
Image: via Wikimedia Commons.