HENRY THE FIFTH completes a tetralogy of Shakespeare’s history plays beginning with RICHARD THE SECOND and continuing through HENRY THE FOURTH, PART ONE and HENRY THE FOURTH, PART TWO. The Henry IV plays depict Prince Hal (the future Henry V) at first as a wild young man who runs with a jolly gang of thieves and drunks led by the fat Falstaff. But Hal resolves to change, acquits himself well in battle, and grows away from his dissolute companions, renouncing them entirely when he becomes king.
HENRY THE FIFTH shows the finished product, the most popular king in English history (reigned 1413-1422). Henry V learnedly discusses religion and state with bishops and advisers. Then, after rooting out traitors, he leads a military expedition to France to claim territory he considers rightfully his. Inspired by Henry’s leadership, the tired, outnumbered English forces defeat the French in a spectacular battle at Agincourt. Then Henry cements the peace by wooing Katharine, the French princess, as his bride.
A tribute to the possibility of human growth, Henry stands out, in part, in contrast to his earlier self, the unpromising Prince Hal. His old companions die, are hanged, or are beaten, marking an end to the former time--a change also marked by Henry’s frequent expressions of piety.
The steady, unassuming Henry also contrasts with the vain and frivolous French, England’s traditional enemy. HENRY THE FIFTH thus celebrates not only the kingly ideal but also the patriotic ideal, Henry’s downright Englishness: He is straightforward, just, and democratic--though modern audiences might consider him a bit bloodthirsty and the play chauvinistic.
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.