The final play of Shakespeare’s second historical tetralogy, Henry V is a portrayal of one of England’s most beloved heros and has long been considered a great patriotic play. However, modern critics have emphasized the ambiguous way in which Shakespeare portrayed King Henry and his military exploits. Scholars are divided over whether Shakespeare intended to characterize Henry as an ideal king whose war with France is justified, or as a brutal leader whose military endeavors are condemnable. Many recent critics agree that although ambiguous, Shakespeare’s depiction of Henry was likely intended to be a patriotic valorization of a national hero. Scholars often examine Shakespeare’s sources in order to gain more insight into Henry’s character and his reputation among Elizabethans. These sources include Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (1577), Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Families of Lancaster and York (1548), and The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, an anonymous play from the 1580s. Shakespeare's Henry V is centrally concerned with England’s invasion of France during the Hundred Years War. Critics have noted that the conquering of France is described in language that likens the conquest to the sexual assault of a woman, a fact which has inspired some commentators to explore the play's treatment of gender issues. Scholars are also concerned with Shakespeare’s treatment of “foreignness” in Henry V, and have examined his depiction of the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and French. Performances of the play, notably the film adaptations directed by Laurence Olivier in 1944 and Kenneth Branagh in 1989, also examine such issues as Henry's character and the nationalistic elements of the play.
Shakespeare's characterization of King Henry is both complex and morally ambiguous, as some critics have observed. William Babula (1977) centers his study of Henry on the king's gradual maturation throughout the course of the play. Babula contends that the “education of the prince” theme, explored earlier by Shakespeare in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, is revisited in Henry V, and argues that although the king repeatedly refuses to accept moral responsibility for his actions, in particular for attacking France, he ultimately becomes a man of peace. Lance Wilcox (1985) comments on Henry's character through an analysis of Katherine, demonstrating how Katherine's personality and role within the play are used to salvage Henry's image. Wilcox contends that in Katherine's attempt to learn English, and through her interaction with Henry as he attempts to woo her, Katherine is depicted as a collaborator in Henry's “conquest” of her. Wilcox states that this collaboration, combined with Henry's “oddly chivalrous treatment” of Katherine, is meant to soften our view of the warrior-king. Zdeněk Stříbrný (1964) contends that Shakespeare presented Henry as a “father of his country” and as a “symbol of British unity and glory.” Even so, Stříbrný observes that while the war against France is depicted as a just one, Shakespeare also showed that Henry often shifts the blame for his actions onto other persons or parties. Additionally, the critic comments that Henry's repeated invocation of God calls into question his piety, and that Henry's rejection of his old friend Falstaff, while politically necessary, is done in a way that is overly cold and self-righteous.
Another area of critical interest is the play’s treatment of gender issues. Katherine Eggert (1994) observes that the play was written late in Queen Elizabeth's reign, when debate over who should succeed the heirless monarch was fierce. Eggert demonstrates the way in which Henry V reflects a contemporary disparagement of female rule, and finds a praise of patriarchal rule in Shakespeare's glorification of a “dauntingly masculine monarch.” In addition, Eggert notes that Henry characterizes the taking France as the victory over a woman. Likewise, Karen Newman (1991) reviews Henry's speech at the walls of Harfleur, pointing out that the expansionist objectives of England are “worked out on and through the woman's body.” Not only is the conquering of France described in terms of a sexual assault of a woman, Henry informs the people of Harfleur that their women will actually be assaulted if his men are directed to attack. Furthermore, Newman notes, Katherine is appropriated as a sexual object to be exchanged.
In discussions of gender relations the female is often viewed in terms of her “otherness.” Likewise, foreigners are similarly characterized in Shakespeare's plays as “the Other.” Lisa Hopkins (1997) demonstrates that France's position as “the Other” is portrayed in ambivalent terms throughout Henry V, commenting that France and the French, while still a place and a people to be conquered, are discussed by Henry as known and familiar, not strange or foreign. David Womersley (1995) investigates the topical significance of Shakespeare's complex and ambiguous treatment of the French in Henry V. Womersley locates the source of this ambiguous portrayal in the “high-political rumours” regarding Henri IV, the French king who was believed to be the probable candidate for the English throne. Henri IV was disliked by many Elizabethans, and Womersley discusses several reasons for the English disapproval of him, such as the French king's rejection of Protestantism in favor of Catholicism. Christopher Ivic (1999) focuses his study of Shakespeare's treatment of foreignness on the way the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish are depicted in Henry V. Ivic contends that the conflict portrayed in the interaction among Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and English characters emphasized the fragmented nature of the nation. The critic further explains that England's anxiety concerning its national and cultural identity is symbolized in Shakespeare's King Henry.
Just as Shakespeare utilized his historical sources in order to explore Henry's kingship and issues of national identity, filmmakers have appropriated Shakespeare's text for similar purposes. Stephen M. Buhler (1995) studies the treatment of Catholicism and British national identity in Laurence Olivier's 1944 film adaptation of Henry V. Buhler argues that in the film, Olivier sought to use both Catholic ritual and Shakespeare's text as sources of national strength and unity. Robert Lane (1994) examines a 1989 film version of Henry V, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. Lane compares Branagh's treatment of history to Shakespeare's, and contends that Branagh softened the elements of class conflict and concerns regarding the justifiability of war that appear in Shakespeare's play. Lane also contends that Branagh excised text from the play that would alert the audience to Shakespeare’s manipulation of historical material, a manipulation that Branagh's film itself embodies.