In what ways and with what effects does Henry V construct national identity?

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"What is honor? A word. What is in that word "honor"? What is that "honor"? Air." -Falstaff

Superficially, Shakespeare's Henry Vis one of his most patriotic and nationalistic plays. Part of his history cycle, it forms a tetralogy with the two parts of Henry IV and Henry VI ....

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"What is honor? A word. What is in that word "honor"? What is that "honor"? Air." -Falstaff

Superficially, Shakespeare's Henry V is one of his most patriotic and nationalistic plays. Part of his history cycle, it forms a tetralogy with the two parts of Henry IV and Henry VI. You could see both how Shakespeare's common English audience and the Tudor rulers would be drawn to the story of a heroic king, his loyal troops, and the decisive defeat, at the Battle of Agincourt, of the hated French. Before the battle, Henry gives one of the most famous and inspiration speeches in Shakespeare, the "Band of Brothers" monologue, in which he temporarily levels all class distinctions in the name of military unity.

This being Shakespeare, nothing is wholly straightforward and there are flecks of irony and ambiguity. In a fireside discussion of who is responsible for war, the soldiers lay all the responsibility at the feet of the king, including that for death. Since they are subjects and have to do as they are commanded, they are absolved for anything they do in combat.

Though the battles are largely offstage, given the confines of the theater, one can see how differently the play can be interpreted by comparing Laurence Olivier's 1944 version, which came out during World War II, and Kenneth Branagh's 1989 version. Olivier's version is far more patriotic and unambiguous in its Britishness, while Branagh's film has brutal and gritty battle sequences that eschew heroism.

Again, the strength of the play, as with so much in Shakespeare, is that you can read it in multiple ways. England is victorious, and the French, who are not so much evil as comic, are defeated. To cement his triumph, Henry marries the French princess, Katherine. It seems like a happy ending, but the Chorus steps in to undercut everything that has happened. Henry dies unexpectedly, leaving his young son (Henry VI) as king. The French lands that he won are lost.

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