Henry V by William Shakespeare Analysis

Historical Background

When Shakespeare began writing plays, the English stage was still in its infancy. Because of strong religious attitudes, for centuries the only types of drama allowed were allegories, such as Everyman, which preached moral lessons in a highly formalized fashion. In England, however, things began to change during the early 1500s, under the very secular King Henry VIII. For the first time, plays, such as Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton’s Needle began showing real people in real-life situations. Still, their plots and characterizations were relatively primitive. It is astonishing to realize that only a few decades later, Shakespeare and his contemporaries would raise staged drama to the heights of artistic excellence and sophistication.

Only a handful of theaters existed in Shakespeare’s time, and the one with which he was most associated was the Globe. Circular in shape (a reference by Chorus in Henry V calls it “this wooden O”), it had a small stage that protruded onto an open courtyard. In box seats overlooking this space sat the nobles, merchants, and other people of wealth. On the bare earth were the common folk (“groundlings”), who paid a few pennies for admission and stood for the entire performance.

Except for a balcony, a few trapdoors, and tapestry curtains, the Elizabethan stage presented little in the way of theatrical illusion. Nor did the audience demand it. Unlike theatergoers of...

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Henry V Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*London

*London. Capital of England and the site of Henry’s royal court, London serves as the setting for the opening scenes of the play. By the fifteenth century, the time in which Shakespeare sets his play, London is the economic, political, and religious seat of power in England. Such concentration of power is underscored by the opening scene in which the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely plot to counter a bill before Parliament that would take away half of the Church’s lands. The clerics propose to fund an English military campaign against the French, if Henry will overlook their taxes. Consequently, the churchmen devise an argument that Henry has clear title to the French throne, territory that the English held in earlier times. Thus, Shakespeare locates in London the imperial power, the political machinations, and the religious finances to support the conquest Henry wishes to undertake.

London also serves as the location of the opening scenes of the second act, when Shakespeare transports playgoers to a common street outside a boardinghouse. There, Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol, former companions of the King in wilder days, decide to follow Henry to France as common soldiers. Again, Shakespeare uses the setting of London to juxtapose the bawdy and common folk with the high royalty of the King. Henry’s actions have consequences from the top to the bottom of society.

*Southampton

*Southampton. Seaport on England’s southern coast from which Henry’s army embarks for France. Southampton is a place of transition: by crossing the water, Henry will leave the land of his own sovereignty to put himself and his men in harm’s way in order to conquer France. Tellingly, it is in Southampton where Bedford and Exeter uncover a treasonous plot against the King. The traitors, according to Henry, have conspired and “sworn unto the practices of France/ to kill us here in Hampton.” Finding traitors on British soil, just at the moment of departure indicated by the setting at Southampton, forewarns the King of the dangers ahead.

*Harfleur

*Harfleur (hah-FLUR). Walled city in France under siege by Henry and his army. The third act opens with Henry’s famous “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;/ Or close the wall up with our English dead.” In this scene, Shakespeare does as the opening chorus says he will; through words and imagination, he is able to transform a small stage into the site of a great siege. The siege at Harfleur allows audiences to experience all levels of the attack, from Henry’s exhortations to his men, to Bardolph, Nym, and Pistol’s cowardice, to the Welshman Fluellen’s close attention to the rules of war. It also provides Henry’s first victory on French soil.

*Rouen

*Rouen (rew-AN). City in Normandy that is the site of the royal court of France during the time in which the play is set. Shakespeare shifts his scene immediately from the fray and bloodshed of Harfleur to the Rouen bedroom of Princess Katharine of France, where she is teasing her old serving woman for English lessons. Their light-hearted exchange—entirely in French—contrasts markedly with the discussion that follows among the French king, the Dauphin, and the lord constable about the English king Henry’s sweep through France.

*Agincourt

*Agincourt (AH-zheen-kohr). Village in northern France that is the site of perhaps the greatest military victory ever enjoyed by the English. Without question, playgoers of Shakespeare’s day would have known the history and significance of Agincourt. The setting, then, is at the core of this historical drama whose purpose is one of nationalism, patriotism, and imperialism. Using the words supplied by Shakespeare and their own imaginations, playgoers could once again relive the glory of being English. Indeed, the celebration of “Englishness” is one of the hallmarks of the Elizabethan Age. Shakespeare’s choice of Agincourt as the crucial setting for his play reflects his desire to connect the late sixteenth century reign of Queen Elizabeth I with the heroic deeds of early sixteenth century King Henry V.

Henry V Modern Connections

Henry V is the last play in a historical tetralogy which includes Richard II, Henry IV, Part One, and Henry IV, Part...

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Henry V Media Adaptations

Henry V. J. Arthur Rank, 1944.
Classic adaptation of the play, distinguished by Laurence Olivier's formal experiment of...

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Henry V Bibliography and Further Reading

For Further Reading
Barnet, Sylvan. "The English History Plays." In A Short Guide to Shakespeare, pp. 113-37. San Diego:...

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Henry V Bibliography (Great Characters in Literature)

Berger, Thomas L. “Casting ‘Henry V.’” Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews 20 (1987): 89-104. Emphasizes that understanding the Elizabethan custom of multiple acting roles helps readers make thematic, ironic, comic, and aesthetic connections in the play.

Cook, Dorothy. “‘Henry V’: Maturing of Man and Majesty.” Studies in the Literary Imagination 5, no. 1 (April, 1972): 111-128. Argues that the play demonstrates Henry’s responsibility and personal maturity, his political and military virtues in Acts I and II and his private virtues in the final acts. The play’s structural pattern alternates triumphs and reversals and uses a quickening pace, multiple plotting contrasts, and a psychologically effective dramatic balance.

Kernan, Alvin. “The Henriad: Shakespeare’s Major History Plays.” The Yale Review 59, no. 1 (October, 1969): 3-32. Concludes that the tetralogy records “the passage from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance and the modern world” and depicts Henry V as a consummate politician with a clear-cut public role that is necessitated by his desire to rule well.

Rabkin, Norman. “Rabbits, Ducks, and ‘Henry V.’ ” Shakespeare Quarterly 28, no. 3 (Summer, 1977): 279-296. Rabkin argues the “fundamental ambiguity” of the play: Henry as both model Christian monarch and brutal Machiavel, a ruthless, expedient, manipulative ruler with spiritual and political virtues. This mature duality makes Henry V a good but inscrutable king.

Thayer, C. G. “The Mirror of All Christian Kings.” In Shakespearean Politics: Government and Misgovernment in the Great Histories. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1983. Argues that the pragmatic, responsible Henry V is Shakespeare’s model for a Renaissance monarch. Ruling more by personal achievement than by divine right, he reflects the kind of kingship considered ideal in 1599.