Modern scholars writing about Henry V frequently remark on its distinctiveness. Unlike Shakespeare's other English histories, it focuses almost exclusively on the protagonist. Moreover, no other play in the Shakespeare canon uses a choric figure so extensively. Henry V is the last of Shakespeare's chronicle histories, and critics have characterized it as the most morally ambiguous as well. Up until about 1975, commentary on the play was sharply divided between those who embraced the heroic interpretation articulated by the Chorus and those who read Henry V as a caustic satire exposing the hypocrisy and cruelty of military adventurers. More recently, an increasing number of critics have moved away from an either/or position. Simplistic judgments cannot be substantiated, these commentators assert, because the play offers a number of competing viewpoints from which to evaluate such issues as patriotism, national unity, and the justice of foreign conquest.
Henry V is centrally concerned with the question of whether the invasion of France is justified, but it also deals with another important issue of law and justice: Henry's possession of the crown that his father usurped. Karl P. Wentersdorf (1976) maintains that the dynastic struggle between the houses of York and Lancaster is at the heart of the Southampton conspiracy, which Henry exposes in Act II, scene i. The critic points out that the principal conspirator, the earl of Cambridge, is married to the daughter of Edmund Mortimer—the brother of Richard II and Richard's appointed heir; thus Cambridge's infant son would be in the direct line of royal succession if Mortimer had become king instead of Henry IV. Wentersdorf asserts that placing Mortimer's grandson on the throne is the real reason for the conspiracy. David Scott Kastan (1982) declares that Henry V directly challenges the Tudor version of history and dynastic succession by exposing the fallacy of Henry's unquestioning assumption of the justice of the French war. Henry is so sure of the legitimacy of the invasion, Kastan remarks, that he brushes aside all suggestions of moral or legal ambiguities—raised, for example, by the aristocratic conspirators and by the commoners Williams and Bates; moreover, he ruthlessly condemns what he sees as the unlawful resistance of the citizens of Harfleur.
The most thoroughly uncritical view of the justice of the French campaign is provided by the Chorus in his prologues and epilogue. Indeed, the role of the Chorus in Henry V, and its implications for the play as a whole, have been the subject of a growing number of commentators, most all of whom reject the notion advanced by earlier scholars that these prologues were written by someone other than Shakespeare or that they were not originally part of the play. There is no similar unanimity, however, regarding the function of the Chorus's speeches. Anthony S. Brennan (1979) contends that the Chorus, who holds an unwavering belief in the nobility of war, represents an extreme position. Brennan points out that the Chorus's sentiments are regularly—and ironically—undercut by the scenes which immediately follow his prologues and which show what war looks like from the viewpoint of the common soldiers and the low-life characters from Eastcheap. Similarly, Lawrence Danson (1983) suggests that the Chorus exists to provide "a sense of perspective" and to demonstrate that an overly indulgent assessment of the king is mistaken. In contrast to Brennan, however, Danson argues that the dramatic action complicates the Chorus's preparation rather than contradicting it, and thus we become aware of Henry's human weakness well as his greatness. Also recommending a balanced view of the king, Anthony Hammond (1987) maintains that the contradiction between the Chorus's descriptions of what will be shown on the stage and what we actually see is designed to underscore the duality that runs throughout the play. A dichotomy is built into Shakespeare's characterization of Henry, Hammond asserts, and while the play incorporates the Chorus's attitude toward the king and specific dramatic events, it also directly challenges that conception. Günter Walch (1988) relates the role of the Chorus to the play's representation of political doctrine, maintaining that the Chorus is profoundly involved in creating a national ideology. The unreliability of his information is central to the drama, Walch argues, for this exposes the illusory nature of national myths and legends, and demonstrates how they can be used as instruments of power.
Many late twentieth-century commentators have focused on the relation between power and ideology in Henry V, often from the perspectives of new historicism or cultural materialism. Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (1985) contend that the play explores Henry's attempt to establish himself as the sole repository of political power. Henry's goal, they declare, is the complete suppression of all challenges to his authority, and he uses the ideological concept of national unity to achieve this. In their judgment, however, the play reveals, through numerous instances of dissension and threats of disobedience, the profound anxieties that accompany the imposition of ideological conformity on a nation comprised of diverse personal and political interests. Alexander Leggati (1988) also examines the question of how Henry V portrays national unity, asserting that it shows the concept to be a "patriotic fantasy." He points out that Canterbury's refashioning of the traditional fable of the bees' commonwealth, in which all factions of an ideal state work together harmoniously, is juxtaposed to the depiction of disgruntled soldiers, scheming prelates, and France in ruins. Audiences and readers must work out these contradictions for themselves, Leggatt recommends, for the play offers both points of view and provides no simple resolution of this discrepancy. Similarly, Graham Bradshaw (1993) recently interprets Henry V as promoting uncertainty rather than a single, reassuring response to its representation of history. He contends that although the Chorus tries to control our reaction, and while Henry adroitly offers justification after the fact for the course he has already embarked on, the play's subversive connotations would not have been missed by those who first saw the play in performance. Like Leggatt and others, Bradshaw cautions that single-minded judgments of Henry, the justice of his war, and the integrity of the play's portrayal of history are unwise and reductive.