Henry V has been praised by many scholars as a vigorous portrayal of one of England's most popular national heroes. From the early nineteenth century to the present, the central issue for critics has been the character of the king and whether he represents Shakespeare's ideal ruler. While this debate has continued in recent decades, modern commentary has increasingly explored both Henry's positive and negative attributes. Although the personality of the king has attracted significant criticism, commentators have also shown renewed interest in Shakespeare's attitude toward patriotism and war, and the play's epic elements, particularly his use of the Chorus.
A majority of modern critics have concentrated on the character of Henry V and have been divided over whether Shakespeare intended to portray Henry as an ideal monarch and military hero or as a ruthless plotter. Michael Manheim has represented both views in stating, "Henry is intended to be a successful, admirable, and heroic figure" while simultaneously being "as consummate a Machiavel as any king" represented in the tetralogy. Although earlier critics have condemned Henry for his self-interestedness, brutality, and lack of emotion, some modern commentators have praised him for his piety, heroism, and statesmanship. For example, Zdenĕk Str̆íbrný has applauded "magnanimity, modesty, bravery, coolness and high spirits in the face of danger," and has called him "the most voluminous of all Shakespeare's characters." M. M. Reese has further noted that, "If in the play [Henry's] virtues seem to be superhuman, this does not invalidate the seriousness of Shakespeare's purpose nor, within the restrictions imposed by his medium, the success of his execution." One of the most significant issues debated by commentators remains whether Henry embodies Shakespeare's ideal king. Some other critics have cited the use of irony and death imagery in the play as indicative of Shakespeare's lack of compassion for the central character; C. H. Hobday has asserted that these recurrent images "suggest that, whatever Shakespeare may say about Henry, in his heart he regarded him as a murderer." However, other scholars have maintained that Shakespeare sought to present Henry as the ideal hero, one who reflects the Elizabethan notion of a perfect monarch. Discussing the play in historical context, G. P. V. Akrigg has commented, "If Shakespeare had presented the real Henry with all his aspects, including his limitations, his occasional craftiness and slightly nauseating sanctimony, he might have provoked the most notable riot in the history of the Elizabethan theatre." In emphasizing the complexity of Henry's character, W. L. Godshalk has observed that "Henry's inability to accept responsibility& is both his political strength and his personal weakness," and has concluded that this characteristic makes him both "the perfect Christian king and the Machiavellian manipulator."
Many twentieth-century critics have also explored the pervasive concern with war and patriotism in Henry V. Herbert R. Coursen, Jr. has maintained, "Henry V is not so much concerned with patriotism as with the price of patriotism," arguing that Henry finally becomes controlled by the role he has assumed. Focusing on the interaction between structure and theme in the play, Larry S. Champion has noted, "Shakespeare develops a stylized and highly patriotic theme throughout the three movements of the plot: the preparation for war, the combat itself, and the concluding of the peace." Anthony S. Brennan, analyzing Henry's return home in the last act, has written, "The description by the Chorus of Henry's reception in London not only crowns the patriotic fervor which has built up throughout the play but also neatly rounds off the preoccupation with war by a celebration of the return to peace." In addition, scholars have praised Shakespeare's accurate portrayal of Renaissance warfare through his use of specific details such as the slaughter of the prisoners and threats of plundering, sacking, and burning. Gordon Ross Smith has remarked, "Taken altogether, with its kings and nobles, captains, and commoners of varying merits, Shakespeare's Henry V is a public and semi-official portrait of a nation at war."
Shakespeare's use of epic elements in Henry V has also elicited much critical attention. By far the most panoramic of his plays, Henry V dramatizes an epic theme and celebrates a legendary hero. According to several scholars, the play therefore fulfills most of the formal requirements of classical epic: its hero is of national significance; it emphasizes destiny and the will of God; its action is impressive in scale and centers upon war; and it includes a narrator, an invocation to the Muse, a large number of warriors, battle taunts and challenges, and other traditional epic devices. Most commentators have agreed that Shakespeare's use of epic elements contributes significantly to the success of the play. Reese has pointed out that Shakespeare "decided that the noble deeds of Henry V, which were of a kind to inspire wonder and imitation, could not be fittingly celebrated except through the medium of epic," while Str̆íbrný has maintained that "he was both forced and inspired to create a new dramatic genre, what we might almost call an epic drama."
Scholars have repeatedly focused on the role of the Chorus in exposing the limitations of the Elizabethan stage. Reese has remarked that the function of the Chorus "is to apologise for the unsuitability of any stage for the breadth and sweep of epic; but at the same time Shakespeare uses it with great boldness and ingenuity to make good some of the deficiencies he so modestly admits," and Michael Goldman has stated that, "Nowhere else does he use [the Chorus] to call attention to the inadequacies of his stage." However, other critics have contended that Shakespeare's audience would never have expected the kind of cinematic "realism" that the Chorus makes apology for lacking; Brennan has argued that there is evidence of "Shakespeare's overwhelming confidence that the simple, bare, thrust stage of his theatre could be used to present any kind of story in any kind of world whether real or imaginary." Summarizing the role of the Chorus in Henry V, Edward I. Berry has observed, "Though the Chorus fulfills several functions as narrator—apologizing for the limitations of the theater, explaining lapses of time and shifts in locale, creating atmosphere—its most important function is to evoke an epic mood, to incite the audience to see a 'platonic' realm of epic ideals through the actions and characters represented on stage"; James L. Calderwood has added that "not only does the Chorus encourage unity of interpretation, it also helps create unity of structure in the play itself by building narrative bridges between the five acts." The play's choric prologues have similarly received critical praise for their eloquence and contribution to the epic tone of the play. Manheim has suggested, "The Chorus sets the tone at the start and helps maintain it through his overtures to each act," and Akrigg has pointed out that "Nobody& has criticized Shakespeare for his superb prologues to Henry V. The reason, of course, is that Henry V has to be at once a drama and an epic poem. And the prologues help wonderfully to establish the epic dimension, both through what they say and through the superb sustained poetry of the saying."