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Overviews of Henry V

(Shakespeare for Students)

E. F. C. Ludowyk
[In the excerpt below, Ludowyk praises Henry V as a celebration of an honoured and national hero of England. He contends that the play is a combination of fact and myth, and that it must be considered in relation to the Elizabethan audience. Ludowyk also reviews the structure of the play, the theme of war, and the character of Henry.]

The national hero

Henry V is Shakespeare's celebration of one of England's national heroes—the warrior prince, Henry of Monmouth, who defeated the French at Agincourt, a battle remembered and honoured nearly 180 years later. In 3. 7. 31-2 the Dauphin speaks of 'varying' (inventing variations on the theme of) the deserved praises of his palfrey. In this play Shakespeare, in dramatic terms, is 'varying' the deserved praise of Henry V. His story was known to Elizabethans, as 5 Prologue states. Henry is Shakespeare's theme, the legendary subject of his panegyric [formal praise].

We have to consider the play against the background of the meaning of the legend of Henry V to Elizabethans, and not in connection with any promises made in the epilogue to 2 Henry IV. It is related to that play, and even to Richard II, but it exists in its own right independently of them, and we should look at it in the light of its own intentions and achievement.

His legend

The legend of Henry of Monmouth was the familiar story of the young man who appears to be a wastrel and a ne'er-do-well, but who makes a glorious reformation, and becomes a heroic figure. It is like those stories of the ugly duckling who grows into a beautiful swan. For his play Shakespeare used the sober historical material of his time—the chronicles of Hall and Holinshed. In them, and also in contemporary plays, there were popular stories of the hero. The subject would therefore be a combination of fact, and, what is more important, belief in the myth which years of tradition had sanctioned.

Something more comes into Shakespeare's play, and this is his own memory of England at his time. Behind all the histories is a strong nationalist and patriotic feeling, given a new consciousness of itself after the defeat of the Spanish Armada. The England Shakespeare writes of in this play is the England of his time, though the events described are nearly two centuries old. So into this play comes an explicit reference to contemporary events, when Shakespeare, asking his audience to picture the welcome given to Henry after Agincourt, thinks of Essex, as 'happily he might', returning successful from Ireland. But more important than this reference is the complex of feelings which must have been the attitude of many men, when they thought of England in 1599, when the play was written.

This complex of feelings must have been made up of satisfaction and pride in the past, and confidence in the future if, as Falconbridge said in King John, 'England to itself remained but true'. But there would also be apprehension and uncertainty about both present and future. The Queen was as glorious a figure as any past hero. But she was old. She had reigned for just over forty years, and the end of her reign was in sight. Yet no successor to the kingdom had been formally named, and, as Tudor political wisdom had pointed out, and Shakespeare's own chronicle histories had maintained, the dangers of a disputed succession were plain for all to see.

So if Henry V is the celebration of England's national hero at a momentous period in the country's history, it should not be forgotten that there are other tones, suggesting the limitations of any heroic figure, and doubts of the future.

The play is a paean [song] of praise for Henry V . But other things come into it too—the crime of Henry's father who had usurped the throne; disloyal nobles; the boon companions of the king's youth; and the savagery of war. It could be supposed that Shakespeare, intending the play as tribute to the national hero, found that the presentation of a man so variously celebrated had its natural disadvantages. Inherent...

(The entire section is 43,897 words.)