Henry V (Vol. 67)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Henry V, see SC, Volumes 5, 14, 30, and 49.
The final play of Shakespeare’s second historical tetralogy, Henry V is a portrayal of one of England’s most beloved heros and has long been considered a great patriotic play. However, modern critics have emphasized the ambiguous way in which Shakespeare portrayed King Henry and his military exploits. Scholars are divided over whether Shakespeare intended to characterize Henry as an ideal king whose war with France is justified, or as a brutal leader whose military endeavors are condemnable. Many recent critics agree that although ambiguous, Shakespeare’s depiction of Henry was likely intended to be a patriotic valorization of a national hero. Scholars often examine Shakespeare’s sources in order to gain more insight into Henry’s character and his reputation among Elizabethans. These sources include Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548), and The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, an anonymous play from the 1580s. Shakespeare's Henry V is centrally concerned with England’s invasion of France during the Hundred Years War. Critics have noted that the conquering of France is described in language that likens the conquest to the sexual assault of a woman, a fact which has inspired some commentators to explore the play's treatment of gender issues. Scholars are also concerned with Shakespeare’s treatment of “foreignness” in Henry V, and have examined his depiction of the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and French. Performances of the play, notably the film adaptations directed by Laurence Olivier in 1944 and Kenneth Branagh in 1989, also examine such issues as Henry's character and the nationalistic elements of the play.
Shakespeare's characterization of King Henry is both complex and morally ambiguous, as some critics have observed. William Babula (1977) centers his study of Henry on the king's gradual maturation throughout the course of the play. Babula contends that the “education of the prince” theme, explored earlier by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, is revisited in Henry V, and argues that although the king repeatedly refuses to accept moral responsibility for his actions, in particular for attacking France, he ultimately becomes a man of peace. Lance Wilcox (1985) comments on Henry's character through an analysis of Katherine, demonstrating how Katherine's personality and role within the play are used to salvage Henry's image. Wilcox contends that in Katherine's attempt to learn English, and through her interaction with Henry as he attempts to woo her, Katherine is depicted as a collaborator in Henry's “conquest” of her. Wilcox states that this collaboration, combined with Henry's “oddly chivalrous treatment” of Katherine, is meant to soften our view of the warrior-king. Zdeněk Stříbrný (1964) contends that Shakespeare presented Henry as a “father of his country” and as a “symbol of British unity and glory.” Even so, Stříbrný observes that while the war against France is depicted as a just one, Shakespeare also showed that Henry often shifts the blame for his actions onto other persons or parties. Additionally, the critic comments that Henry's repeated invocation of God calls into question his piety, and that Henry's rejection of his old friend Falstaff, while politically necessary, is done in a way that is overly cold and self-righteous.
Another area of critical interest is the play’s treatment of gender issues. Katherine Eggert (1994) observes that the play was written late in Queen Elizabeth's reign, when debate over who should succeed the heirless monarch was fierce. Eggert demonstrates the way in which Henry V reflects a contemporary disparagement of female rule, and finds a praise of patriarchal rule in Shakespeare's glorification of a “dauntingly masculine monarch.” In addition, Eggert notes that Henry characterizes the taking France as the victory over a woman. Likewise, Karen Newman (1991) reviews Henry's speech at the walls of Harfleur, pointing out that the expansionist objectives of England are “worked out on and through the woman's body.” Not only is the conquering of France described in terms of a sexual assault of a woman, Henry informs the people of Harfleur that their women will actually be assaulted if his men are directed to attack. Furthermore, Newman notes, Katherine is appropriated as a sexual object to be exchanged.
In discussions of gender relations the female is often viewed in terms of her “otherness.” Likewise, foreigners are similarly characterized in Shakespeare's plays as “the Other.” Lisa Hopkins (1997) demonstrates that France's position as “the Other” is portrayed in ambivalent terms throughout Henry V, commenting that France and the French, while still a place and a people to be conquered, are discussed by Henry as known and familiar, not strange or foreign. David Womersley (1995) investigates the topical significance of Shakespeare's complex and ambiguous treatment of the French in Henry V. Womersley locates the source of this ambiguous portrayal in the “high-political rumours” regarding Henri IV, the French king who was believed to be the probable candidate for the English throne. Henri IV was disliked by many Elizabethans, and Womersley discusses several reasons for the English disapproval of him, such as the French king's rejection of Protestantism in favor of Catholicism. Christopher Ivic (1999) focuses his study of Shakespeare's treatment of foreignness on the way the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish are depicted in Henry V. Ivic contends that the conflict portrayed in the interaction among Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and English characters emphasized the fragmented nature of the nation. The critic further explains that England's anxiety concerning its national and cultural identity is symbolized in Shakespeare's King Henry.
Just as Shakespeare utilized his historical sources in order to explore Henry's kingship and issues of national identity, filmmakers have appropriated Shakespeare's text for similar purposes. Stephen M. Buhler (1995) studies the treatment of Catholicism and British national identity in Laurence Olivier's 1944 film adaptation of Henry V. Buhler argues that in the film, Olivier sought to use both Catholic ritual and Shakespeare's text as sources of national strength and unity. Robert Lane (1994) examines a 1989 film version of Henry V, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. Lane compares Branagh's treatment of history to Shakespeare's, and contends that Branagh softened the elements of class conflict and concerns regarding the justifiability of war that appear in Shakespeare's play. Lane also contends that Branagh excised text from the play that would alert the audience to Shakespeare’s manipulation of historical material, a manipulation that Branagh's film itself embodies.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Hart, Jonathan. “Shakespeare's Henry V: Towards the Problem Play.” Cahiers Élisabéthains 42 (October 1992): 17-35.
[In the following essay, Hart contends that Henry V contains many aspects found in Shakespeare’s problem plays, most notably its unstable genre, which includes elements of tragedy, comedy, and satire.]
When in the 1890s Frederick Boas first called attention to problems in some of Shakespeare's plays and laid the critical groundwork for the debate on the problem plays or problem comedies was he uncovering a division in Shakespeare's mind or representation or in the audience of the modern period?1 C. S. Lewis and E. M. W. Tillyard in England and W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley in the United States debated the authority of the author's intention decades before the advent of reception theory, which argued for the importance of the role of the reader.2 Possibly, the rise of irony as a critical and theoretical concept in the past two centuries has contributed to the destabilization of the text and its meaning.3 Drama complicates the complex relation between author and audience because it is a literary and theatrical text, is written and oral. The audience is singular and plural. Psychoanalytical criticism has made us more aware that literary and dramatic texts are complex interactions of the conscious and unconscious.4...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Babula, William. “Whatever Happened to Prince Hal? An Essay On Henry V.” Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 47-59.
[In the following essay, Babula studies the maturation process Henry undergoes in Henry V. The critic notes that as Henry progresses his language moves from artifice to honesty.]
E. M. W. Tillyard is right in his assertion that Shakespeare in Henry V was ‘jettisoning the character he had created’ in the Henry IV plays.1 The Hal that developed out of those earlier histories is not present at the opening of Henry V. This does not mean that Shakespeare has now accepted a Henry ‘who knew exactly what he wanted and went for it with utter singleness of heart …’2 Nor has he, as Mark Van Doren would have us believe, stretched a hero ‘until he struts on tiptoe and is still strutting at the last insignificant exit.’3 Nor, on the other extreme, is Henry the ideal humanistic hero, ‘conceived of as beyond the limitations of nature, able to impose the order of philosophy on the protean world of history.’4 Rather, as H. M. Richmond notes, Henry in this play begins as a ‘clever young hero masquerading as the ideal king’, and ends as ‘a mature man’.5 Thus the process of growth that Henry undergoes in the play is crucial.6 While this process may render the second tetralogy...
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SOURCE: Wilcox, Lance. “Katherine of France as Victim and Bride.” Shakespeare Studies 17 (1985): 61-76.
[In the following essay, Wilcox comments on Henry's character through an analysis of Katherine, demonstrating how Katherine's personality and role within the play are used to salvage Henry's image.]
Criticism of Henry V has long concentrated on two issues: the “epic” structure of the play and the moral character of Henry himself. The latter has provoked critical attacks and rebuttals of remarkable stridency since Hazlitt first raked the king in 1817.1 Henry has been viewed as everything from a ruthless, irresponsible military adventurer to the model Christian prince.2 Henry so dominates the play, and his actions are so morally ambiguous throughout, that it becomes almost impossible to discuss any thematic implication of the work without passing some sort of judgment on him. By the same token, no discussion of any other character in the play can pretend to completeness without considering that character's function as a foil to the king. In this essay I consider the personality and situation of Princess Katherine of France and how these help to illuminate aspects of Henry.
Shakespeare's inclusion of Katherine in his Henry V pageant was inevitable. His audience's anticipation of a scene depicting the king's courtship would have been too strong for...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Lane, Robert. “‘When Blood Is Their Argument’: Class, Character, and Historymaking in Shakespeare's and Branagh's Henry V.” ELH 61, no. 1 (spring 1994): 27-52.
[In the following review, Lane attempts to show that Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version of Henry V softened the elements of class conflict and concerns regarding the justifiability of war that appear in Shakespeare's play.]
That [these events] had a real truth in history, sharpens the sense of pain, while it hangs a leaden weight on the heart and the imagination … [W]e think that the actual truth of the particular events, in proportion as we are conscious of it, is a drawback on the pleasures as well as the dignity of tragedy.
Premised on the antagonism between history's “real ground” and the imaginative pleasures of tragedy, Hazlitt's meditation reveals a tension that underlies much discussion of Shakespeare's history plays. Hazlitt's polarizing of history and pleasure is echoed in Shakespeare's Henry V when the Archbishop extols Henry's rhetorical gifts:
List his discourse of war, and you shall hear A fearful battle rend'red you in music.
The pleasures Canterbury indicates rhetoric can induce by transforming gruesome historical...
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SOURCE: Buhler, Stephen M. “‘By the Mass, our hearts are in the trim’: Catholicism and British Identity in Oliver's Henry V.” Cahiers Élisabéthains 47 (April 1995): 55-70.
[In the following review, Buhler studies the treatment of Catholicism and British national identity in Laurence Olivier's 1944 film adaptation of Henry V. Buhler argues that in the film, Olivier sought to use both Catholic ritual and Shakespeare's text as sources of national strength and unity.]
As every viewer recalls, Laurence Olivier's film of Henry V initially and literally stages its version of the playtext in a reconstructed Globe Theatre. The first scenes present unruly spectators entertaining themselves at the expense of the actors—most notably those portraying the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. We are also meant to see in these early sequences the severe limitations of the stage, especially the Elizabethan variety. Olivier wanted the audience not only to feel superior toward the actors (an attitude which helps make the comic treatment possible) but also to empathize with the poor players, to share their and Shakespeare's own supposed frustration at being constrained within the girdle of these walls. Olivier aimed at a sense of release in moving, after the scene with Pistol and company, from the Globe to the stylized set representing Southampton:
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SOURCE: Stříbrný, Zdeněk. “Henry V and History.” In Shakespeare in a Changing World, edited by Arnold Kettle, pp. 84-101. New York: International Publishers, 1964.
[In the following essay, Stříbrný maintains that while Shakespeare's depiction of Henry V reveals the king's hypocrisy and opportunism, Shakespeare nevertheless intended to portray Henry's war against the French as justifiable and the English victory at Agincourt as a triumphant overcoming of tremendous odds.]
The Life of Henry V is hardly the greatest play in Shakespeare's cycle of ten dramas of English history. Yet it may certainly be considered as central, or at least helpful in revealing his artistic approach to politics, politicians, world-order, kingship, the people, the Elizabethan nation-state, and more generally to war and peace—in a word, to history. It has the unquestioned distinction of crowning the second, and more mature, group of his ‘histories’ which stretch from the very beginnings to the actual close of his writing career.
For a clearer understanding of its place among these national historical plays a list of all of them, in the order in which they were probably written, may be useful:1
THE FIRST HISTORICAL TETRALOGY:
3 Parts of Henry VI (written about 1590-2) Richard III (written about 1592-3)
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SOURCE: Newman, Karen. “Englishing the Other: ‘Le tiers exlu’ and Shakespeare's Henry V.” In Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama, pp. 95-108. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.
[In the following essay, Newman analyzes the way language is used to represent social and gender differences in Henry V.]
At his departure in search of a northwest passage, the English explorer Martin Frobisher was exhorted by Queen Elizabeth to bring back some of the native peoples he encountered on his voyage. Elizabeth betrayed her characteristic ambivalence toward colonial enterprise: she desired to see the “spectacle of strangeness” but at the same time ordered Frobisher not to compel the Indians against their wills. In his account of the voyage (1577), Frobisher reveals that despite Elizabeth's warning he laid hold of his captive forcibly. Worried about the well-being of his “strange and new prey,” he also took a woman captive for his prisoner's comfort. Here is the account of that meeting:
At their first encountring they beheld each the other very wistly a good space, without speech or word uttered, with great change of colour and countenance, as though it seemed the griefe and disdeine of their captivity had taken away the use of their tongues and utterance: the woman at the first very suddenly, as though she disdeined or regarded not...
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SOURCE: Eggert, Katherine. “Nostalgia and the Not Yet Late Queen: Refusing Female Rule in Henry V.” ELH 61, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 523-50.
[In the following essay, Eggert asserts that Henry V is an example of the way the Elizabethan stage was used to support patriarchal power.]
Within the last decade, Henry V has assumed a surprisingly prominent place not only in Shakespeare criticism, but in wider critical debates over the relations between literature and hegemonic political power. Prompted by Stephen Greenblatt's widely influential consideration of the Henriad in his essay “Invisible Bullets,” various critics have staked out Shakespeare's only real “war play” as their own battlefield for contesting, as Jean Howard puts it, “how and why a culture produces and deals with challenges to its dominant ideologies.”1 Whatever their ideological stance, however, these critics have largely left untested Greenblatt's crucial assumption that, in the Henriad's counterpoint between hegemony and subversion (or at least imagined subversion), hegemony resides with and emerges from the Elizabethan monarchy, and subversion (even if illusory) resides with and emerges from the Elizabethan stage. In this essay I want to contend that Henry V is a Shakespearean experiment in exercising precisely the reverse relation between throne and theater. If we fully...
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SOURCE: Womersley, David. “France in Shakespeare's Henry V.” Renaissance Studies 9, no. 4 (December 1995): 442-59.
[In the following essay, Womersley investigates the topical significance of Shakespeare's complex and ambiguous treatment of the French in Henry V.]
‘Messires, what newes from Fraunce, can you tell! Still warres, warres.’ John Eliot, Ortho-Epia Gallica. Eliots Fruits for the French (1593), sig. A3r
In 1559, when it seemed likely that England would find itself at war with France, John Aylmer urged his countrymen to take heart:
what people be they with whome we shall matche: are they Giaunts, are they conquerours, or monarks of the world? No good Englishe man they be effeminate Frenchmen: Stoute in bragge, but nothing in dede. They be such as you haue alwayes made to take their heles. They be your slaues and tributaries: whose Castels, Cyties, and townes, you haue possessed, whose armies you haue not ones but. 500. tymes discomfited, whose noble men you haue manfully killed, spoyled their countrey, brent their cities, taken their kynges, and crowned your owne, in the chiefest cytie of their dominion, as their owne histories do testifie. Remember our auncettors victories at Grauantum, at Vernolium, about Amias, in the borders of Normandy, at Cressiacum, at Dagincourt, when...
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SOURCE: Hopkins, Lisa. “Neighbourhood in Henry V.” In Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture, edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray, pp. 9-26. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.
[In the following essay, Hopkins demonstrates that France's position as “the Other” is portrayed in ambivalent terms throughout Henry V, commenting that France and the French, while still a place and a people to be conquered, are discussed by Henry as known and familiar, not strange or foreign.]
Shakespeare's Henry V ostensibly tells a story of enmity. The main plot of Henry's triumphant subjugation of the over-confident French seems to have its emotional dynamic of hostility subtly but tellingly underwritten by the subplot: the story of Bardolph, Pistol and Nym enacts the ever-widening breach of sympathy and circumstance between the King and his erstwhile companions of the tavern. From the outset, however, the development of the opposition is structured by a tense emphasis on the close confines of the combat. The Globe itself may be an inadequate arena for a representation of the conflict, but in one sense at least it merely mirrors an actual facet of the war itself:
Suppose within the girdle of these walls Are now confined two mighty monarchies, Whose high upreared and abutting fronts The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder.(1)
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SOURCE: Ivic, Christopher. “‘Our inland’: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Celtic Fringe.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 30, no. 1 (January 1999): 85-103.
[In the following essay, Ivic contends that the conflicts portrayed between the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and English characters in Henry V emphasized the fragmented nature of the nation, and explains that England's anxiety concerning its national and cultural identity is symbolized in Shakespeare's King Henry.]
More than twenty years ago, in an essay entitled “British History: A Plea for a New Subject,” J. G. A. Pocock invited historians to construct a less anglocentric history of the British Isles, that is, a “plural history of a group of cultures situated along an Anglo-Celtic frontier and marked by an increasing English political and cultural domination” (605). Although the response has been slow, historians of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Britain and Ireland have answered Pocock's plea, as the plethora of recent work on the “British Problem” attests.1 If the new British history has led historians to re-evaluate the political history of the period, it has also paved the way for literary historians to glean valuable new perspectives on literary and extra-literary texts in light of the wider British context that informed, indeed enabled, their production. Just as an emphasis on the...
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Altieri, Joanne. “Romance in Henry V.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 21, no. 2 (spring 1981): 223-40.
Studies elements of the romance genre in Henry V.
Ayers, P. K. “‘Fellows of infinite tongue’: Henry V and the King's English.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34, no. 2 (spring 1994): 253-77.
Analyzes the inconstancy of Henry's language, arguing that the king uses language to manipulate and control people and situations.
Baldo, Jonathan. “Wars of Memory in Henry V.” Shakespeare Quarterly 47, no. 2 (summer 1996): 132-59.
Maintains that while the play's depiction of the battle of Agincourt is unremarkable, Henry V nevertheless offers an impressive examination of how a nation recalls its own history.
Dean, Paul. “Chronicle and Romance Modes in Henry V.” Shakespeare Quarterly 32 (1981): 18-29.
Examines the influence of the chronicle and romance forms on the structure of Henry V.
Derrick, Patty S. “Richard Mansfield's Henry V: The Shaping of an American Hero.” Theatre History Studies 19 (1999): 3-16.
Contends that in his 1900 staging of Henry V, Mansfield emphasized the patriotic elements in the play in order to...
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