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 interpretation of the drama that draws attention to its own ironic and ambivalent handling of history. Critics have also surveyed recent individual stage productions of Henry V. Ruth Morse reviews the Parisian staging of the play directed by Jean-Louis Benoit in 2000, the first ever French-language theatrical production. Noting its stylized form, apolitical tone, and self-conscious theatricality, Morse finds this performance inventive, humorous, and altogether well-realized. Russell Jackson's review of the 2000 production of Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon, directed by Edward Hall, emphasizes its unspecified wartime setting and cynical, rather than heroic, tone. War was the central visual component of the 2001 staging at Canada's Stratford Festival, attended by critic Kevin Nance. In his review, Nance highlights designer Dany Lyne's eclectic gathering of wartime models—from medieval Agincourt to the military conflicts of the twentieth century—and the production's generalized antiwar sentiment. Alvin Klein comments on actress Nance Williamson's compelling performance as the Chorus in Terrence O'Brien's 2002 Henry V for the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. Aside from Williamson's deft interpretive interludes, however, Klein finds this production more concerned with pageantry and the pursuit of contemporary relevance than with meaningful characterization. Lastly, Markland Taylor negatively reviews the limited cast and extensive directorial intervention of the 2002 Shakespeare & Co. production directed by Jonathan Epstein.
Contemporary studies of Henry V oriented toward genre and theme have placed particular emphasis on the political and historical meaning of the work as either a tacit celebration or subtle critique of Henry's rule, as well as its ambivalent generic status as either historical romance or tragicomedy. Paul Dean (1981) argues that in Henry V Shakespeare manipulated the conventions of the chronicle history play by juxtaposing elements of romance, thus introducing a distinctive ambiguity into the thematic fabric of the play. W. M. Richardson (1981) maintains that the world of Henry V is a hopelessly cynical one. Calling the drama “a classic portrait of the modern state,” he asserts its thematic dissociation from moral sensibility and evocation of a worldview in which the ethical significance of the ordinary individual has been radically diminished. In a contrasting assessment, Richard Levin (1984) questions the relevance of such ironic readings of Henry V, including those that portray Henry as an inauspicious or corrupt ruler, suggesting that these are blunt misinterpretations of Shakespeare's text. Historiography and genre are key elements in Marsha S. Robinson's (1996) evaluation. Robinson considers Henry V as part of a romantic cycle of fraternal conflict, reconciliation, and redemption, examining its spiritualized conception of English history passing through tragic interludes of isolation, dislocation, and violent disruption. Joan Lord Hall (1997) surveys multiple themes in the text, such as a social and cosmological concern with order and chaos, a complex evocation of war from the violent horrors of battle to the heroic glory of victory, and its central theme of kingship, including the justness of Henry's rule, the conscience of the king, and his political legitimacy. Finally, Alison Thorne (2002) concentrates on the political world of Henry V, maintaining that the work demonstrates an ambivalent relationship to the traditional ideological tenets of the English chronicle history play. Thorne concludes that in this play Shakespeare examined class relations and questioned the view that “the common subject can participate on an equal footing in the creation of a national community that continues to be defined in the interests of a ruling elite.”