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...
(The entire section is 96,426 words.)