Henry V (Vol. 89)


Henry V

The concluding drama of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, Henry V was first performed in 1599 and likely written in the same year. The play recounts the reign of celebrated English monarch Henry V, centering on his successful military campaign against France in the early fifteenth century. Shakespeare based his play on numerous works, including 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 (1598), and The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, an anonymous play of the 1580s. As one of Shakespeare's most popular history plays, Henry V has been the subject of voluminous and often divergent critical analysis. Although many modern critics have found fault with Henry V for his unrealistic conversion from irresponsible prince to hero-king, his coldhearted rejection of Falstaff, and his bloody war with France, Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar (1960) point out that for Elizabethans, Henry V was a perfect king. The critics maintain that Shakespeare's Henry V “reflects with striking immediacy the attitudes and concepts of his own period” and emphasize that the play was first produced at a time when the English populace was keenly patriotic and fascinated with heroes and history.

The majority of the character studies of Henry V naturally focus on the title figure. Critics remain divided as to whether Henry should be regarded as an ideal king whose war with France is justified, or as a brutal, Machiavellian leader. While most critics acknowledge that Shakespeare intended to present a patriotic valorization of a legendary national hero, contemporary scholarly studies and theatrical interpretations have tended to stress the ambiguous nature of Henry's character. In her study of Henry, Judith Mossman (1994) examines parallels between Henry in Shakespeare's Henry V and Alexander in Plutarch's Life of Alexander. Mossman contends that “by encouraging us to consider Henry in parallel with Alexander, Shakespeare seeks to explain certain features of his play's construction as well as to characterize Henry not as a cold-blooded monster but as a prince.” Similarly, John Mark Mattox (see Further Reading) argues that Shakespeare depicted Henry as a just warrior engaged in a just war. Mattox maintains that Henry is more than “a great conqueror of the Alexandrian variety,” concluding that in his portrayal Shakespeare elevated him “from the status of being merely England's greatest warrior to that of England's consummate just warrior.” Critics are also interested in the play's minor characters. Larry S. Champion (1965) examines Nell Quickly, detailing the transformation of her character in the Henry plays from a mere sketch to “a full-sized portrait.” Alice Lyle Scoufos (1967) considers Shakespeare's use of the legend of Sir John Oldcastle in his portrayal of Falstaff in the Henry plays. The critic also speculates on what made the playwright decide to have this extremely popular character die so undramatically and abruptly in Act II, scene iii of Henry V.

For the vast majority of its stage history, Henry V has been treated as a straightforward celebration of a king who would become England's foremost military hero. However, as Alexander Harrington (2003) points out, the moral ambiguity of Henry V lends itself to both pro-war and anti-war productions of the play. Many modern productions, such as Nicholas Hytner's 2003 National Theatre staging of Henry V, have tended to stress the anti-war aspects of the drama. Susannah Clapp (2003) credits Hytner's production for breaking from Laurence Olivier's highly influential 1944 film adaptation. Unlike Olivier's pro-war “heroic romance,” Clapp notes, Hytner's production was “much darker” and “more divided.” Mark Steyn (2003), however, rejects Hytner's anti-war production, contending that it panders to “the smug Guardian-reading Bush-despising NGO-adoring middle-class metropolitan theatergoer.” Mark Wing-Davey's 2003 Delacorte Theater staging of Henry V in New York's Central Park received mostly negative reviews. An anonymous review published in the New York Post (2003) lauds Schreiber's “magical, subtle” portrayal of Henry V, but criticizes Wing-Davey's production as cynical and unbalanced. Similarly, Ben Brantley (2003) dismisses Wing-Davey's “flashy, flabby” production and contends that the director “devised a Henry V that shirks from seriousness on the unavoidable subjects of war and patriotism.” In his extremely negative review, Steyn calls Wing-Davey's production “quite the most stupid I've ever seen” and contends that the director “seems to have no idea that the play is about anything at all.” In his comparison of Hytner's and Wing-Davey's productions, Steyn maintains that “Nicholas Hytner may be anti-war, but Mark Wing-Davey is anti-Shakespeare.” Katharine Goodland (2003) reviews the 2003 Jean Cocteau Repertory staging of Henry V, directed by David Fuller. Goodland examines the production's focus on the moral issue of war crimes—particularly the scene in which Henry orders his soldiers to kill their prisoners—and notes that “Fuller admirably refuses to simplify this moment.”

Critics are interested in the significance of the play's final act, particularly the courtship between Katherine and Henry V. Henry David Steinsaltz (2002) focuses on the French scenes—those scenes spoken primarily in French—and contends that “[a]s the English nation is perpetually at war with the French, so must their languages be at war.” Steinsaltz concludes that in Henry V the English language is “intimately entwined with the life and honor of the English nation” and that the play is not merely “a representation of England's triumph over France, but … the humiliation and tumultuous trouncing of the French language, which had subjugated their native English for so long.” Donald Hedrick's 2003 study of the play's final act focuses on the wooing scene. Hedrick examines Katherine's resistance to Henry's wooing in light of the fact that Henry is the enemy of France and that Katherine's family has recently tried to have him assassinated. The critic notes that “the couple are no Romeo and Juliet, and romancing is more like negotiating with a mobster family.” In his 1969 essay, Charles Barber (see Further Reading) advances an ultimately negative evaluation of the play. Barber contends that in Henry V Shakespeare presented “an uncritical glorification of the Tudor monarchy and its ideals.” Barber further maintains that Shakespeare's dishonestly “suppresses aspects of the history of the period of which he was perfectly aware, and holds in abeyance his own powers of moral and political analysis.”

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

SOURCE: Wright, Louis B., and Virginia A. LaMar, eds. “Mirror of Kingship.” In The Life of King Henry the Fifth, by William Shakespeare, pp. vii-xliii. New York: Washington Square Press, 1960.

[In the following excerpt, Wright and LaMar provide an overview of Henry V, including its historical background, sources, stage history, and text.]

When Shakespeare presented King Henry V to London audiences in the spring or summer of 1599 in a pageant-like play, he showed them a hero-king long established in the heroic tradition and one already popular on the stage. A shrewd appraiser of public taste, as always, Shakespeare took advantage of the swelling patriotism of the moment. When Henry V opened in London, England once more faced the prospect of war. The Irish had rebelled under Tyrone and had administered a stinging defeat to English troops. Now the Earl of Essex was ready to lead a punitive expedition against the troublesome Irish and conquer them once and for all. With a great concourse of people following and applauding him and his train, the noble Earl, a dashing character and the favorite of the Queen, marched out of London on March 27, 1599, bound for Ireland, and, as he and the populace believed, for victory and honor. That he would return defeated and disgraced in September was as yet a secret wrapped in the mists of Ireland.

No subject better than the deeds of King Henry V could have been chosen for the opening of the season in 1599, for Englishmen were enormously interested in the strength that he had brought to the Crown and the glory that he had won. By the end of the sixteenth century England was no longer the weak and puny country that it had been at the end of the Wars of the Roses, when Richard III had died at Bosworth Field and Henry Tudor had snatched his crown and made himself Henry VII. The country had grown strong under the Tudors and had taken its place as a world power under the greatest of them all, Elizabeth the Queen, Gloriana of the poets. Just eleven years before Henry V opened, England had defeated Spain, the mightiest power in the world, and had sent reeling home such galleons as survived from the vast invading Armada. Small wonder that Englishmen thrilled at the deeds of national heroes, present or past.

The reign of Elizabeth, especially the last two decades, saw an enormous interest in history and in historical plays. Felix Schelling, in his history of Elizabethan drama, has estimated that something like 220 plays during the Elizabethan period were drawn from the chronicles of British history, and that approximately half of these plays have survived. From 1588 to 1605, “more than a fifth of all contemporary plays” had for their themes some episode of British history. King John appeared in at least six plays, Henry V and Edward III in seven, Richard III in eight, and Henry VI was a character in at least ten. Of Shakespeare's plays, thirteen, or about one-third, used British history, or legend that passed for history, as their theme. The appetite for historical reading matter was enormous and the greatest poets and writers set out to satisfy this interest.

Shakespeare had already achieved success in historical drama before Henry V was written. Indeed, this play was a sequel promised the public who had taken the two parts of Henry IV to its heart. At the end of Henry IV (Part 2), Prince Hal succeeds to the throne and renounces Falstaff and his madcap cronies. The Epilogue, however, promises that the historical drama will continue with another play in which Falstaff will also appear: “If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue his story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katherine of France; where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already 'a be killed with your hard opinions.” Henry V followed according to promise, but Falstaff was not in it. Shakespeare changed his plan and killed Falstaff off stage near the beginning of the play. Perhaps he felt that the fat knight would steal too many of the scenes in a play which sought to focus interest upon the King himself.

For Henry V is primarily concerned with the hero-king, with the prowess that such a king displays, with the glory that comes to England through the king's exploits, and with the problem of kingship as such. Given the spirit of the times, any drum-and-trumpet play would have attracted attention, but Shakespeare wrote something more and something deeper. His is a drama that breathes the spirit of the new nationalism that suffused England; though it is set in a previous age, it reflects with striking immediacy the attitudes and concepts of his own period. While the spectators applauded Henry V on the “vasty fields of France,” they were also conscious of their own heroic Queen and they may have remembered how, eleven years before, she had ridden her charger before the troops drawn up at Tilbury to repulse the Spanish invaders.

Henry V was a hero who appealed to the Elizabethans. In the face of heavy odds he had won a great victory against a traditional enemy. He was a strong king, who united the country behind him and showed to everyone, at home and abroad, that he would brook neither disorder within his borders nor encroachments from without. Furthermore, Shakespeare made him both God-fearing and just, qualities that the English believed their Queen possessed. She was supreme head of the church and she was the ultimate arbiter of a justice that the English had come to prize as one of their most priceless legacies. Shakespeare makes of Henry the ideal sovereign, or as the Chorus to Act II expresses it, “the mirror of all Christian kings.”

The problem of kingship and the nature of the office interested the Renaissance generally and the Elizabethans particularly. England had suffered from weak rulers during the Wars of the Roses until, in the end, the rise of the Tudors had brought stability and prosperity. Works of history, plays, and poems, as well as popular legend and story, kept alive the memory of the chaotic conditions that existed before the accession of Henry Tudor, and no Englishman wanted a return of civil strife. Strength and justice were the qualities most admired in a sovereign, and the majority of Englishmen agreed that the Tudors supplied both. Queen Elizabeth had shrewdly capitalized upon her subjects' yearning for stability, and she managed to identify herself so completely with the public weal that Englishmen could hardly think of a form of government or a sovereign more benign.

But lurking in the back of every Englishman's head was the thought of what might happen when the Queen was no more, for the succession was in doubt, and the fear of civil commotion was a ghost that could not be laid. Far more depended upon the succession than depends upon the outcome of the most critical election today. All of these facts gave special point to the histories of previous English sovereigns and are a further explanation of the popular interest in history plays. In Shakespeare's Richard II the public could see the evils that come upon the commonwealth when a king is weak and vacillating; in the three plays concerning Henry IV and Henry V they could see and appreciate the benefits of a strong dynasty. There is no question that audiences would equate...

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Criticism: Character Studies

Larry S. Champion (essay date spring 1965)

SOURCE: Champion, Larry S. “The Evolution of Mistress Quickly.” Papers on English Language and Literature 1, no. 2 (spring 1965): 99-108.

[In the following essay, Champion details the transformation of Nell Quickly in the Henry plays from a mere sketch to “a full-sized portrait.”]

One frequently encounters remarks extolling the fullness of Shakespeare's description of London low life in the comic scenes of 1, 2 Henry IV. Mark Van Doren writes, for instance, that nothing Shakespeare wrote “is more crowded with life or happier in its imitation of human talk. … History is enlarged to make room for taverns and trollops and potations of sack, and the...

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Alice Lyle Scoufos (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Scoufos, Alice Lyle. “The ‘Martyrdom’ of Falstaff.” Shakespeare Studies 2 (1967): 174-91.

[In the following essay, Scoufos examines Falstaff's “undramatic and overly hasty demise” in Henry V.]

The undramatic and overly hasty demise of Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare's Henry V has left readers and viewers of Renaissance drama dissatisfied for many years. It has also provided a touchstone for critical wit and ingenuity as any serious student of Elizabethan drama knows when he surveys the perennial crop of published commentary on Falstaff's death scene. From the modern point of view it seems unprovidential that Shakespeare should so suddenly...

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Judith Mossman (essay date spring 1994)

SOURCE: Mossman, Judith. “Henry V and Plutarch's Alexander.Shakespeare Quarterly 45, no. 1 (spring 1994): 57-73.

[In the following essay, Mossman examines parallels between Henry in Shakespeare's Henry V and Alexander in Plutarch's Life of Alexander.]

When Alexander's sarcophagus was brought from its shrine, Augustus gazed at the body, then laid a crown of gold on its glass case and scattered some flowers to pay his respects. When they asked if he would like to see Ptolemy too, “I wished to see a king,” he replied, “I did not wish to see corpses.”

(Suetonius, Life of...

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