(Shakespearean Criticism)

Henry V

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.

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hart, Jonathan. “Shakespeare's Henry V: Towards the Problem Play.” Cahiers Élisabéthains 42 (October 1992): 17-35.

[In the following essay, Hart contends that Henry V contains many aspects found in Shakespeare’s problem plays, most notably its unstable genre, which includes elements of tragedy, comedy, and satire.]

When in the 1890s Frederick Boas first called attention to problems in some of Shakespeare's plays and laid the critical groundwork for the debate on the problem plays or problem comedies was he uncovering a division in Shakespeare's mind or representation or in the audience of the modern period?1 C. S. Lewis and E. M. W. Tillyard in England and W. K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley in the United States debated the authority of the author's intention decades before the advent of reception theory, which argued for the importance of the role of the reader.2 Possibly, the rise of irony as a critical and theoretical concept in the past two centuries has contributed to the destabilization of the text and its meaning.3 Drama complicates the complex relation between author and audience because it is a literary and theatrical text, is written and oral. The audience is singular and plural. Psychoanalytical criticism has made us more aware that literary and dramatic texts are complex interactions of the conscious and unconscious.4 It is difficult to understand the reader's interpretation of the text, even if it is translated into a full written response, as well as the relation of reader and auditor. To state the division between author and reader in terms familiar to the Renaissance: rhetoric is the relation between speaker and audience, writer and reader. This rhetorical relation can involve communication and persuasion, a sharing of common assumptions or a manipulation of one party by another. Rhetoric was at the centre of the education of writers like Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton and existed well before Aristotle helped codify its rules, so that its importance to poetry and criticism is as great as it is to politics and the law.5 Although no text can be hermetically sealed from history and is as much a product of social and historical forces as those of personality, for the purposes of exploring Henry V as leading to the problem play, this essay will assume that a dramatic text involves a representation in language and a reception that is complex and not easily reducible.

Broadly speaking, all texts represent the problems that exist between the author and audience, but problem plays draw attention to that debate as well as to the difficulties of genre, of representation itself. Whether Shakespeare was divided in his representation of the reign of Henry the Fifth, as the culmination of that of the previous divided reigns in the Second Tetralogy, or whether readers, especially in our century, are divided in their reception of the way Shakespeare represents history, patriotism, love and war, becomes a dilemma that is, perhaps, unanswerable. If we cannot reconstruct Shakespeare's intention with any certainty, we cannot dismiss Boas and his followers by saying that others before them had not seen the critical problem and thus it does not exist because to do so would be to advocate the abandonment of all fields that have been thoroughly considered such as classical and Shakespearian scholarship. Contrary to the wish of theorists like E. D. Hirsch and Terry Eagleton, that we should give up criticism for the former's authorial authority or the latter's idea of rhetoric, each generation reinterprets the past in terms of itself and the converse.6 Whether Shakespeare used the Chorus in Henry V as a proto-Brechtian alienation effect, so that his audience would experience its distance from the civil wars of an earlier era as well as from the stage and the history play, the Chorus does sometimes distance the present from the past, the world from the theatre. The present can only use its own language, no matter how much derived from the past, to speak about past events, as the previous sentence implies. This essay will, then, assume that the text represents signs that can be interpreted and will discuss the problems Henry V represents rather than deciding what may be undecidable: what is the cause of the problem.

Problems also occur in the earlier plays of the Second Tetralogy. If Richard II tends towards tragedy but extends that tragic fall from the individual to the state and includes the comic episode of the Aumerle conspiracy; if 1 Henry IV develops the comic communal element but also contains the germs of satiric isolation and self-criticism in the tavern parodies of Hotspur and Glendower as well as in the division between Hal and Falstaff; if 2 Henry IV represents the negative discipline, blind fallenness and increasing incommunication of satire because Hal and Falstaff meet seldom but also includes a mixture of the tragic and the comic as well as a crisis in the relation of fiction and history in the rejection of Falstaff; Henry V continues this generic friction that is characteristic of the problem play, its crisis being especially apparent in the disjunction between the comic marriage of Henry and Katherine and the tragic fall that the Epilogue describes.

In part, Henry V attempts to sum up the earlier plays of the second group of histories. It represents the problems of unity and division, offering a problematic ending to the Second Tetralogy, attempting to give its manykinded histories a unified shape.7 The history play is an unstable genre, partly because history is a continuum of time and therefore hard to capture within the limits of a work of art, and partly because the history play is always tending towards something else or, at least, is always incorporating other genres—such as tragedy in Richard II, comedy in 1 Henry IV and satire in 2 Henry IV. Although each of these plays contains less prominent aspects of other genres in them, it is Henry V that balances or, rather, makes the different genres collide more equally. By doing this, it pushes out the boundary of its genre in a way that many critics would agree to be a primary feature of the ‘problem play.’8 Critics mix the terms ‘problem comedies’ and ‘problem plays,’ admitting the difficulty of defining them, and do not always concur on which plays come under these headings. Even though some critics include Hamlet (1600-01), Antony and Cleopatra (1606-07) and Timon of Athens (1607-09), the usual ‘problem’ triad is Troilus and Cressida (1601-02), All's Well That Ends Well (1602-03) and Measure for Measure (1603-04). Shakespearian scholars recognize several other aspects—which I take to be subsidiary to pressing at the bounds of the genre—that characterize problem plays.9 These elements are numerous. Incongruities of generic conventions and structure, especially endings that are theatrically achieved or do not answer the ‘problems’ the play poses; the relation of appearance and actuality or reality, often illustrated through acting and disguise; an involved and intellectual language and discussion in which the debate and probing of ideas (often about the relation between sex and war or politics) are conducted apparently for their own sake; and the raising of complex problems that do not have easy answers—all contribute to the vexed enigma of the problem plays. As William Witherle Lawrence says, these plays demonstrate that “human life is too complex to be so neatly simplified” and show an anti-heroic, dark and critical side to life and to human nature in ways that perplex the audience.10 Irony has already been used to cause the audience perplexity in the earlier plays of this tetralogy by showing the black humour of tragedy and the dark sides to comedy and satire in a complex view of history. Henry V goes beyond its predecessors in this respect and is the play in the Second Tetralogy that most resembles a problem play.

Although no critic seems to have developed an interpretation of the strong elements of the problem play in Henry V, a few scholars have pointed to 1 and 2 Henry IV as containing the origins of the problem play, or at least some of its effects.11 Closer inspection shows, however, that Henry V pushes much more radically at the bounds of the history play, for in this work tragedy, comedy and satire collide with one another, the language of debate appears to exist for itself or, perhaps, to emphasize the problems of the play as in the clerical debate on Henry's claim to France in I.ii or the debate between Henry and his soldiers at IV.i, the anti-heroic and heroic constantly qualify each other, the relation of sex to war is uneasy, the public and private personalities of the king seem to lack integration, the ‘tragic’ death of Falstaff, Henry's violent sexual imagery, and the satire on war (especially the objections of Bates and Williams and Burgundy's description of devastated France), all serve to modify the heroic king and his comic marriage to Katharine. Other subsidiary resemblances to the problem plays also occur in Henry V. Like Troilus and Cressida, this play shows the seamy side of war and questions the kind of heroism that had been exalted since classical times—Fluellen comically likens Pistol to Mark Antony (III.iv.15). Some problem elements in Henry V also anticipate those in All's Well That Ends Well, most notably the relation of sex to war and a theatrically achieved ending to what begins and proceeds well into the play as a tragic action. Troilus also explores sex and war whereas Measure for Measure looks at the relation of sex and government. Measure, too, has a theatrically achieved ending and although not comic, the ending of Troilus also appears unable to resolve the proceeding action with satisfaction. Like the Duke in Measure, Henry is a disguised ruler who manipulates other characters, but by doing so is brought to a more profound idea of his own responsibility.12 The audience and critics of Henry V are as divided and perplexed over its forms and ideas as they are over similar matters in the problem plays.

The complicating irony of Henry V is compatible with its ‘problem’ elements.13Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV all reveal aspects of the generic friction that characterizes the problem play but it is the last play of the tetralogy where that friction reaches its highest pitch. The fall of Richard creates problems and the fall of Falstaff creates more. Other falls over the course of these plays also represent the difficulty of a human redemption of history. Multiplicity in Henry V complicates the lines between appearance and actuality, heroism and anti-heroism, conscious and unconscious motive, intention and profession, so that this play ‘ends’ the Second Tetralogy ironically by pushing the history play in the direction of the problem play, extending or bursting (depending on one's view) the bounds of the genre itself.

By inverting, reversing, contrasting and blending tragic, comic and satiric conventions and tones, Shakespeare also raises questions about the multiple, ambiguous and, therefore, ironic nature of history itself. Henry the Fifth would be the hero Richard was not but he cannot achieve unmitigated heroism. Henry's own violent thoughts and Shakespeare's ironic use of imagery and theatricality and the juxtaposition of comic marriage and tragic Epilogue modify the king's heroic part. In the end is the beginning. As in Finnegans Wake, the cycle of history begins again, ‘falls to’ again, for the informed audience knows the fate of the Henry the Fifth before Richard II begins, and if the playgoers do not, the Epilogue tells them, thereby shaping the meaning of the action of the Second Tetralogy (including Richard's fall) and looking ahead to the reign of Henry the Sixth (who falls, and after whom Richard the Third also falls), which Shakespeare had already shown on the stage in the First Tetralogy. The irony in Henry V represents the history play as problem play because it depicts the problem of writing history not only in this play but also in the Second Tetralogy (with hints back to the First Tetralogy). This irony has implications for writing and for writing history generally, for the complex relation and interpenetration of history and fiction. As in the earlier plays of the tetralogy, multiplicity in Henry V extends beyond the established limits of the genre to which each history play is most closely related—in this case the problem play—and explores the study of history and historiography as well as the nature of the history play itself. Although the problem element cannot include all the implications of Henry V, it is important for an understanding of the play. More specifically, we should turn to the ways irony of theatre, structure and words, as well as a close examination of IV.i (Henry's debate with Bates and Williams) help create the generic friction that makes this history play a problem play.


The Chorus in Henry V elaborates self-conscious theatricality in the earlier plays of the tetralogy. He examines the relation of theatre and world, history play and history so much that he raises the audience's awareness of the problems of representing history on stage. That the main action and the Chorus qualify each other also raises questions about the relation of narrative and represented action in the history play. The Chorus to Act Three asks the audience to ‘Suppose,’ ‘Hear’ and ‘behold’ the men and scenes in his description as actually existing on stage. He challenges the playgoers to do the literally impossible so that they exercise their imaginations as fully as possible. They become part of the meaning of the play and of history. The Chorus realizes the complexity of historical shaping.14 Repetition becomes a reaching or amplification for the Chorus, who, armed with the modest accomplishment of the theatre, at the opening of Act Four, commands the audience to behold, as may unworthiness define, Henry among the troops at night, the disgrace of four or five most vile and ragged foils representing the armies at Agincourt. In addition to this distancing synecdoche, the Chorus also attempts to draw the audience into illusion through the mimetic and onomatopœic descriptions of the busy hammers of the armourers and the French playing for the English at dice. The Chorus to Act Five repeats the view that the play is unable to express actual historical events.15 The repetition draws attention to itself and stresses the problems of the history play, limiting the genre as being inferior to the world but, at the same time, raising it above the chaos of the world with strong and precise description, ordered couplets and the assumption (from the author's point of view at least) that poetry is more lasting than the memorials of princes. The Chorus also dispels the notion of a monolithic Elizabethan audience, promising to prompt ‘those that have not read the story’ and asking pardon of those who have because this play is a poor copy of life. Shakespeare displaces a conceit and humility on to his Chorus to this history: this play is more or less than its sources and than the world.

Other aspects of the irony of theatre complicate Henry V. Through a character's use of theatrical terms, Shakespeare convey's that character's awareness of ‘acting’ to an audience watching an actor playing the part. A subsidiary element in this problem play is this self-referential role-playing, so that once again the irony of theatre shows the close relation of Henry V to that kind of drama. The other histories, however, also show this characteristic, but this self-conscious sense of theatre supplements in Henry V a choric presence that is stronger than anything in the previous plays. For instance, according to Canterbury, the Black Prince play'd a tragedy for the French in battle and the Boy says that Nym and Bardolph were much more valorous than Pistol, this roaring devil i' the old play (I.ii.105-06; IV.iv.69-74). Most importantly, through the Boy, Shakespeare reminds the audience of morality plays in which the devil is beaten and makes Pistol (not just any old actor) a devil whose vice Fluellen beats out of him with a leek rather than a wooden dagger. Even if the characters refer to role-playing and to early English drama, they cannot understand the application of these references as much as the actors, audience and playwright. This dramatic irony reminds us that this history is dramatic.

Shakespeare's theatrical irony shows that deceit is another disguise, revealing with it the problems of private and public and of government. The history plays especially share this concern with Measure and to a lesser extent with All's Well. In Henry V deceit and disguise test Henry as a ruler (or potential ruler for that matter) more directly and more critically than in 1 and 2 Henry IV. Shakespeare ensures that the playgoers will appreciate the dramatic irony of the condemnation by Scroop, Cambridge and Grey of a man who insulted the king when, unknown to them, Henry knows that they want to murder him (II.ii). The king is self-consciously theatrical. In order to punish the rebels most and to achieve the greatest effect so that he may appear just when sentencing these men, Henry pretends to reward them with commissions when he hands them a list of their crimes. By way of this dramatic irony, Shakespeare links Henry with the audience and thus appears to seek its approval of the king. Deceit and disguise, such as Pistol's deceit and Henry's disguise, relate closely to each other. The ancient's great voice and seemingly ‘gallant service’ fool Fluellen until Pistol curses the Welsh captain for not intervening to prevent Bardolph's death and until Gower remembers Pistol as an arrant counterfeit rascal. Henry the Fourth had dressed counterfeits in battle to protect his life, so that kings and knaves are not always so different in their theft and deceit. According to the English captain, the ancient will pretend to be a war hero, learning his part, playing the ‘roles’ of other soldiers and describing the ‘scenes’ of the battles to be convincing ( To compare and contrast this deceit ironically with Henry the Fifth's disguise, the playwright has Henry assume a part among his soldiers before Agincourt and interweaves the incidents of the gloves and the leek. After encountering Bates and Williams, private soldiers, the king complains about the burden of the public man and the irresponsibility of the private man (IV.i). This problem of the relation of public and private lies at the heart of kingship from Richard II to Henry V. With the help of the Boy, Pistol, who did not recognize the disguised king, deceives the French soldier (as Falstaff did to Colevile in 2 Henry IV) into thinking him a great warrior. In a soliloquy the Boy exposes Pistol's empty acting to an already suspicious audience (IV.iv). If Pistol is a hollow man, is Henry? Later, Shakespeare shows Henry ‘playing’ with Williams as Fluellen does with Pistol, so that the playwright once more compares king and Welsh captain and complicates the ironic connections between characters. Henry shares the dramatic irony with the audience at the expense of Williams as well as Fluellen, who is equally ignorant (like Pistol) of the king's earlier disguise and the exchange of gloves and whom Henry asks to be a proxy in a fabricated quarrel with a friend of Alençon, which is an actual disagreement with Williams (IV.vii, viii). Shakespeare uses disguise and deceit so extensively that Henry V seems to foreshadow Measure.

Even though Henry complains about the trials of kingship, he uses his ‘directorial’ powers, like Duke Vincentio and Prospero, to arrange events and manipulate others. After Henry's good-natured fun is over and Williams and Fluellen have stopped fighting (each having the other's glove), the king rewards Williams, who claims that Henry is at fault for having disguised himself and for not having expected abuse in that guise but who then asks pardon of the king (IV.viii.1-74). It is Henry's power as king that keeps the conflict over the glove from getting out of hand. Whereas the king pretends to be less than he is, Pistol feigns that he is more. The glove gives way to the leek. The hyperbolic and out-of-fashion Fluellen punishes the boasting and antique-tongued ancient. Although Pistol likens himself to a horse-leech and is called vicious, on stage he does little to warrant the punishment he receives, except that, if the Boy is to be believed, he is a devil from the old morality plays and must be beaten.16 In any event, the Welsh captain is less merciful than the king, who, nonetheless, may not have learned as much from Williams as he might have. The taverners continue to raise questions about the nature of kingship and about Henry's dilemmas as king, but they also reveal their own limitations. Henry's tricks as an ‘actor’ and ‘director’ show that he is still enraptured by the robes of office even if he sometimes sees the shortcomings of pomp and protocol.

If, most importantly, the irony of theatre in Henry V reveals Shakespeare's problematic use of the Chorus, consciously making the audience aware of the limitations and potentialities of the theatre and history play, it also represents other subsidiary elements from the problem plays—theatrical ending, debate and disguise. Henry V often uses these aspects in ways that recall their occurrence in Richard II and 1 and 2 Henry IV as well as looking ahead to their use in the problem plays. Although the irony of theatre affirms the close relation of history and the problem play in Henry V, it also shows that comparisons that are too close are odious. For instance, the disguised Henry is much like the disguised Duke, but Vincentio is more allegorical and shadowy, more of a god out of the machine than Henry is. On the other hand, Henry must deal with a wider range of public and historical experience and his directorial side (although central to his character) is only one part of a complex character who seems to taste blood, feel desire and laugh more readily than the illusive Duke. Theatrical irony raises our awareness of the problems of the history play and so is a problem play with a difference.


The structure of Henry V is ironic and displays affinities with the problem play.17 A choric envelope modifies the heroic feats of Henry the Fifth in the main action, for the Epilogue shows that he cannot control the future as his son, born of the marriage to Katharine, lost France and then England. Shakespeare makes structural use of debates, such as the clergy's consideration of Salic law (among themselves and with Henry), the discussion between the king, Bates and Williams about the nature of warfare and of kingship; and the conversation between Henry and Katharine about love, marriage and politics. The main action ironically qualifies the patriotism, optimism and hero worship of the Chorus, and the ways in which the ‘lowlife’ scenes modify the words and deeds of Henry and his party. In other words, a friction occurs between Chorus and main action. The worlds of the captains and of the French also provide other ironic perspectives in a complex play. An investigation of the ironic relation of some scenes in Henry V to the first three plays of the tetralogy casts the eye of the audience backwards, making it an historian, enabling it to observe a modified Henry and to find that in one regard history appears as fallen as humanity, a circle more like the wheel of fortune than the circle of perfection. Henry the Fifth is more like Richard than he would like to think. People change but also stay the same and—relying too much on similarity between past, present and future—find themselves caught by and in time. Shakespeare uses references to the past structurally to create an irony that shows the many limited views of people, the collision of worlds, the forgetfulness and ignorance of characters regarding the past as they move in the unstable present into the uncertain future.

The general structure of Henry V represents an ironic reversal. The play begins with the prologue telling a tale of warlike Harry and the glory of Agincourt and ends with an Epilogue that speaks of the loss of France and the return of England to civil war. This choric envelope qualifies the rising fortunes Henry experiences in France during the main action. Although Shakespeare did not divide the play into acts and scenes, the choruses punctuate the play in such a way as to suggest that a brief examination act by act of the friction in the structure might be helpful. Each act begins with the Chorus, whose simple patriotism becomes modified by complex scenes.18 For instance, in Act One the mixed motives of the clergy about the war in France, in Act Two the dishonorable nature of the English taverners and traitors as well as Henry's possible and partial responsibility for Falstaff's death, in Act Three Henry's apparent relish in destruction, and the gentleness of Katharine (and she is French!), in Act Four Bates' and Williams' criticism of the king as well as Henry's admission of the dubious Lancastrian claim to the ‘English’ crown and of his family's mistreatment of Richard, and in Act Five the King of France's treatment of his daughter and (not in the main action but in the Epilogue) time's defeat of Henry's glory, all complicate but do not negate the patriotic view of the Chorus.

The structure of Henry V reveals aspects of the problem play but also the characters' special concern with the nature of time and history. The design of the play emphasizes an ironic treatment of problem elements—extensive debate about love, marriage and politics, an especially self-conscious tension between appearance and actuality and between the heroic and the anti-heroic, the theatrically achieved ending that does not seem to answer the play. After the Prologue's examination of the relation of history and drama, the first two scenes display a prolonged interest in debate itself. Canterbury complicates the question of how just the war is when he gives a detailed interpretation of the history of the Salic law, which shows that Henry is the rightful King of France. Through irony, Shakespeare qualifies Canterbury's position. Henry the Fourth recommended this foreign war to his son, Lancaster had predicted it, the Prologue in Henry V confirms it with patriotism, and Exeter and Westmoreland call for war, so that the clergymen are not the only war-hawks and should not be held solely responsible for the designs on France (I.ii, see 2HIV, IV.v.212f.; V.v.105-10). Debate is very important to Canterbury and Henry as a means of justifying the invasion, but the war becomes a tangle. If Henry's advisors are corrupt, the unjust war qualifies the heroic stance; if the invasion is just, Henry's inability to acknowledge that he makes, and is answerable for, the ultimate decisions of government modifies his heroism in France. Shakespeare calls Henry's judgement into question, raising the problem of measure for measure that occurs in Richard II, 1 and 2 Henry IV as well as in Troilus, All's Well and Measure. Although nearly identical to its representation in the problem plays, this problem has a history in the Second Tetralogy and, consequently, also becomes a problem of time and succession. On the whole, Henry V examines judgement from a more public point of view than do the problem plays. If reports of earlier actions or the earlier plays in the tetralogy, especially at the end of 2 Henry IV, provide one part of the context for Act One, the subsequent acts in Henry V and even the pretext but postscript of the First Tetralogy furnish the other part.

Acts Two through Five show a similar pattern. The problem elements in Act Two occur mostly in Nym's and Pistol's qualification of the Chorus—who praises Henry as the mirror of all Christian kings, extols England and denounces the traitors—when they are involved in verbal combat because the treacherous ancient has stolen Nym's betrothed, Mistress Quickly, who says the king has killed Falstaff's heart (II.i, iii). The king is a modified mirror. Henry's judgement of the conspirators in II.ii may be just but it is also reminiscent of his rejection of Falstaff. By bracketing Henry's judgement of the conspirators with the taverners' discussion of Falstaff's death and the king's responsibility for it, Shakespeare emphasizes the wider implications of Henry's ‘trials.’ The ironic structure of Act Three particularly emphasizes the relation of sex and war, but brings out the tension between private and public more fully than the problem plays. Troilus reduces the public to the private. All's Well and Measure look at the public domain in personal terms. Achilles sulks in his tent and would make war a personal act of revenge. Bertram escapes to the wars to leave Helena, his unwanted wife. Angelo turns government to lust and Duke Vincentio would make marriage the culmination of his experiment in justice and government. The Chorus begins Act Three by saying that Henry rejects as insufficient the French king's offer of his daughter and a few petty dukedoms. Shakespeare qualifies Henry's heroic call to his men into the breach at the opening of III.i with the savagery before Harfleur in the opening lines of III.iii where Henry once again threatens the French in violent images, likening the siege of the town to the rape of its women. What makes this verbal assault even more uneasy is the introduction of Katharine, who is innocently learning a new language (III.iv). In III.v Shakespeare further complicates the relation of men and women, private and public when he represents haughty Frenchmen, including their king, as insulting the English partly as a result of the French women thinking the French men...

(The entire section is 12521 words.)

William Babula (essay date 1977)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Babula, William. “Whatever Happened to Prince Hal? An Essay On Henry V.Shakespeare Survey 30 (1977): 47-59.

[In the following essay, Babula studies the maturation process Henry undergoes in Henry V. The critic notes that as Henry progresses his language moves from artifice to honesty.]

E. M. W. Tillyard is right in his assertion that Shakespeare in Henry V was ‘jettisoning the character he had created’ in the Henry IV plays.1 The Hal that developed out of those earlier histories is not present at the opening of Henry V. This does not mean that Shakespeare has now accepted a Henry ‘who knew exactly what...

(The entire section is 8003 words.)

Lance Wilcox (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Wilcox, Lance. “Katherine of France as Victim and Bride.” Shakespeare Studies 17 (1985): 61-76.

[In the following essay, Wilcox 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.]

Criticism of Henry V has long concentrated on two issues: the “epic” structure of the play and the moral character of Henry himself. The latter has provoked critical attacks and rebuttals of remarkable stridency since Hazlitt first raked the king in 1817.1 Henry has been viewed as everything from a ruthless, irresponsible military adventurer to...

(The entire section is 6482 words.)

Robert Lane (review date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Lane, Robert. “‘When Blood Is Their Argument’: Class, Character, and Historymaking in Shakespeare's and Branagh's Henry V.ELH 61, no. 1 (spring 1994): 27-52.

[In the following review, Lane attempts to show that Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version of Henry V softened the elements of class conflict and concerns regarding the justifiability of war that appear in Shakespeare's play.]

That [these events] had a real truth in history, sharpens the sense of pain, while it hangs a leaden weight on the heart and the imagination … [W]e think that the actual truth of the particular events, in proportion as we are conscious of...

(The entire section is 11274 words.)

Stephen M. Buhler (review date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Buhler, Stephen M. “‘By the Mass, our hearts are in the trim’: Catholicism and British Identity in Oliver's Henry V.Cahiers Élisabéthains 47 (April 1995): 55-70.

[In the following review, Buhler 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.]

As every viewer recalls, Laurence Olivier's film of Henry V initially and literally stages its version of the playtext in a reconstructed Globe Theatre. The first scenes present...

(The entire section is 8598 words.)

Zdeněk Stříbrný (essay date 1964)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Stříbrný, Zdeněk. “Henry V and History.” In Shakespeare in a Changing World, edited by Arnold Kettle, pp. 84-101. New York: International Publishers, 1964.

[In the following essay, Stříbrný maintains that while Shakespeare's depiction of Henry V reveals the king's hypocrisy and opportunism, Shakespeare nevertheless intended to portray Henry's war against the French as justifiable and the English victory at Agincourt as a triumphant overcoming of tremendous odds.]

The Life of Henry V is hardly the greatest play in Shakespeare's cycle of ten dramas of English history. Yet it may certainly be considered as central, or at least...

(The entire section is 6933 words.)

Karen Newman (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Newman, Karen. “Englishing the Other: ‘Le tiers exlu’ and Shakespeare's Henry V.” In Fashioning Femininity and English Renaissance Drama, pp. 95-108. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Newman analyzes the way language is used to represent social and gender differences in Henry V.]

At his departure in search of a northwest passage, the English explorer Martin Frobisher was exhorted by Queen Elizabeth to bring back some of the native peoples he encountered on his voyage. Elizabeth betrayed her characteristic ambivalence toward colonial enterprise: she desired to see the “spectacle of strangeness” but at the...

(The entire section is 5484 words.)

Katherine Eggert (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Eggert, Katherine. “Nostalgia and the Not Yet Late Queen: Refusing Female Rule in Henry V.ELH 61, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 523-50.

[In the following essay, Eggert asserts that Henry V is an example of the way the Elizabethan stage was used to support patriarchal power.]

Within the last decade, Henry V has assumed a surprisingly prominent place not only in Shakespeare criticism, but in wider critical debates over the relations between literature and hegemonic political power. Prompted by Stephen Greenblatt's widely influential consideration of the Henriad in his essay “Invisible Bullets,” various critics have staked out...

(The entire section is 12153 words.)

David Womersley (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Womersley, David. “France in Shakespeare's Henry V.Renaissance Studies 9, no. 4 (December 1995): 442-59.

[In the following essay, Womersley investigates the topical significance of Shakespeare's complex and ambiguous treatment of the French in Henry V.]

‘Messires, what newes from Fraunce, can you tell! Still warres, warres.’ John Eliot, Ortho-Epia Gallica. Eliots Fruits for the French (1593), sig. A3r

In 1559, when it seemed likely that England would find itself at war with France, John Aylmer urged his countrymen to take heart:

what people...

(The entire section is 9213 words.)

Lisa Hopkins (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hopkins, Lisa. “Neighbourhood in Henry V.” In Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture, edited by Mark Thornton Burnett and Ramona Wray, pp. 9-26. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Hopkins 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.]

Shakespeare's Henry V ostensibly tells a story of enmity. The main plot of Henry's triumphant subjugation of the over-confident French seems to...

(The entire section is 6669 words.)

Christopher Ivic (essay date 1999)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Ivic, Christopher. “‘Our inland’: Shakespeare's Henry V and the Celtic Fringe.” ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature 30, no. 1 (January 1999): 85-103.

[In the following essay, Ivic contends that the conflicts portrayed between the Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and English characters in Henry V emphasized the fragmented nature of the nation, and explains that England's anxiety concerning its national and cultural identity is symbolized in Shakespeare's King Henry.]

More than twenty years ago, in an essay entitled “British History: A Plea for a New Subject,” J. G. A. Pocock invited historians to construct a less anglocentric...

(The entire section is 7415 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Altieri, Joanne. “Romance in Henry V.Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 21, no. 2 (spring 1981): 223-40.

Studies elements of the romance genre in Henry V.

Ayers, P. K. “‘Fellows of infinite tongue’: Henry V and the King's English.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 34, no. 2 (spring 1994): 253-77.

Analyzes the inconstancy of Henry's language, arguing that the king uses language to manipulate and control people and situations.

Baldo, Jonathan. “Wars of Memory in Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 47, no. 2 (summer 1996): 132-59.


(The entire section is 626 words.)