Henry V Henry V (Vol. 79)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Henry V

The concluding drama of Shakespeare's second historical tetralogy, Henry V was first performed in 1599 and likely written in the same year. The play recounts the reign of celebrated English monarch Henry V, centering on his successful military campaign against France in the early fifteenth century. Shakespeare based his play on numerous works, including 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 of the 1580s. Although generally perceived as an adulatory piece that commemorates the exploits of its historical protagonist, the drama has elicited considerable scholarly controversy, much of it in regard to the precise nature of Shakespeare's depiction of King Henry. Overall, critics remain divided as to whether Henry should be regarded as an ideal king whose war with France is justified, or as a brutal, Machiavellian leader. While most critics acknowledge that Shakespeare probably intended to present a patriotic valorization of a legendary national hero, contemporary scholarly studies and theatrical interpretation have tended to stress the ambiguous nature of Henry's character.

Recent assessments of Henry V have continued the scholarly tradition of evaluating Shakespeare's characterization of King Henry as the central and defining element of the play. In his survey of the drama, C. W. R. D. Moseley (1988) underscores Shakespeare's rendering of Henry as an ideal hero drawn from Christian and classical estimations of an effective and just leader. Thus, Moseley sides with those critics who eschew ironic readings of the English king, instead emphasizing Henry's fortitude, faith, martial élan, and efficacy as a peacemaker. Pamela K. Jensen (1996) similarly suggests that Shakespeare sought to present a flattering portrait of King Henry in his drama, one that would appeal to English audiences. She evaluates the king's status as a skilled decision maker whose actions reflect his concern with political expediency and general avoidance of domestic responsibilities in favor of the prospects for glorious military victory abroad. For Jensen, Henry's inspirational qualities and charismatic leadership on the battlefield at Agincourt solidify his appeal, even if the play's Elizabethan viewers would likely have realized that his spectacular historical accomplishments would not outlast his own lifetime. Richard Corum (1996) offers an alternative take on King Henry's personality by exploring the “homosocial” dynamics of the drama. Corum claims that far from rendering a simple and laudatory portrait of the English king, Shakespeare's Henry V conceals a multitude of obscured historical motivations, which are made manifest when studied in terms of Henry's displaced homoerotic and phallic desires. Camille Wells Slights presents a historicist view of his character in her 2001 study. Concentrating on Henry's internalization of the Reformation notion of conscience, she suggests that Shakespeare dramatized the monarch as a fervent instrument of God's will, an individual embodiment of divine providence guided by his private sense of moral responsibility.

For the vast majority of its stage history, Henry V has been treated as a straightforward celebration of the king who would become England's foremost military hero. Since the second half of the twentieth century, however, many directors have tended to stress the play's ambiguous nature. Summarizing this trend, Robert Shaughnessy (1998) examines the postmodern inspiration for British productions of Henry V since the 1960s, observing the ways in which directorial interest in ambiguity, intertextuality, interpretive dissonance, and the cultural myths of the postwar era have informed performances. In a complementary study, Kathy M. Howlett (see Further Reading) considers Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version of Henry V as an intriguing...

(The entire section is 103,443 words.)