(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 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.”

Paul Dean (essay date spring 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Dean, Paul. “Chronicle and Romance Modes in Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 32, no. 1 (spring 1981): 18-27.

[In the following essay, Dean suggests that the structure of Henry V is a combination of two dramatic forms (“chronicle” history and “romance” history), highlights Shakespeare's sophisticated characterization of King Henry V, and explores the dynamic relationship of the drama's main plot and subplots.]

It is customary to divide plays written during the Elizabethan period upon subjects related to English history into two groups: “chronicle” histories, which draw their source-material, in the main, from the work of non-dramatic...

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C. W. R. D. Moseley (essay date 1988)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Moseley, C. W. R. D. “This Sceptred Isle: Henry V.” In Shakespeare's History Plays Richard II to Henry V: The Making of a King, pp. 147-70. London: Penguin Books, 1988.

[In the following excerpt, Moseley describes the principal characters and plot structure of Henry V, emphasizing thematic elements in the drama associated with the heroic role of Henry.]

In Henry V there are so many references back in time to the events dramatized in the previous plays that, while the play is, naturally, able to stand quite independently, it gains enormously from being seen against the well-known events of the reigns of Richard II and Henry...

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Pamela K. Jensen (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Jensen, Pamela K. “The Famous Victories of William Shakespeare: The Life of Henry the Fifth.” In Poets, Princes, and Private Citizens: Literary Alternatives to Postmodern Politics, edited by Joseph M. Knippenberg and Peter Augustine Lawler, pp. 235-69. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1996.

[In the following excerpt, Jensen presents an overview of Henry V from the point of view of politics, concentrating on Henry's rhetorical appeal to English audiences. The critic contends that with this play Shakespeare sought to render “a king worthy of our admiration both for his unflinching realism and for his righteousness.”]


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Richard Corum (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Corum, Richard. “Henry's Desires.” In Premodern Sexualities, edited by Louise Fradenburg and Carla Freccero, pp. 71-97. New York: Routledge, 1996.

[In the following essay, Corum offers a “homosocial” reading of Henry's character in Henry V, analyzing phallic desire as a motivating force in the play.]

… not the physical past whose existence is abolished, nor the epic past as it has become perfected in the work of memory, nor the historic past in which man finds the guarantor of his future, but the past which reveals itself reversed in repetition.

—Jacques Lacan

Let me...

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Camille Wells Slights (essay date winter 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Slights, Camille Wells. “The Conscience of the King: Henry V and the Reformed Conscience.” Philological Quarterly 80, no. 1 (winter 2001): 37-55.

[In the following essay, Slights probes the historical context of Henry's conscience in Henry V, including his mediation between personal judgment and social obligation as King of England.]

Since the celebrations of Shakespearean characters as portrayals of universal human nature have been largely silenced by scholarly attacks on the universalizing of the bourgeois subject, analyses of early modern representations of human life have risked an equally ahistorical projection of a postmodern fragmented...

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Robert Shaughnessy (essay date May 1998)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Shaughnessy, Robert. “The Last Post: Henry V, War Culture and the Postmodern Shakespeare.” Theatre Survey 39, no. 1 (May 1998): 41-61.

[In the following essay, Shaughnessy surveys stage and film versions of Henry V from the postwar period, evaluating the ways in which the interpretative principles of postmodernism increasingly informed these productions.]

“Marketing, that mysterious part of the theatre industry, can produce surprising effects,”’ observes Peter Holland in his recent book on Shakespearean production in Britain during the 1990s.1 Discussing the material constraints on the repertory of the Royal Shakespeare...

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Ruth Morse (review date 18 February 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Morse, Ruth. “Review of Henry V.Times Literary Supplement, no. 5055 (18 February 2000): 19.

[In the following review, Morse comments favorably on director Jean-Louis Benoit's stylized, comedic, and nonpolitical 2000 French-language staging of Henry V.]

Although the imported films of Welles, Olivier and Branagh have been extremely popular in France, this Henry V is the first French theatrical production. Understandably, perhaps. It was briefly seen last summer at the Avignon festival, in the star position of the great outdoor courtyard, and televised live, to scathing reviews. Transferred now to one of the more intimate theatres at the former...

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Russell Jackson (review date spring 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Jackson, Russell. “Review of Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 52, no. 1 (spring 2001): 107-32.

[In the following review, Jackson details the somber wartime setting and cynical mood of Edward Hall's 2000 production of Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon.]

Edward Hall's production of Henry V, with designs by Michael Pavelka, was a story told in a time of war by modern soldiers. When the audience entered the theater, men and women in gray fatigues and tee shirts, all wearing metal identity tags, were sitting or wandering around the stage in a state of half-busy, half-idle expectancy. Some were checking equipment, others writing letters home. At...

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Kevin Nance (review date December 2001)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Nance, Kevin. “Review of Henry V.Stage Directions 14, no. 10 (December 2001): 42-5.

[In the following review of the 2001 Henry V at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, Nance concentrates on stage and costume design, particularly its contribution to this production's multifaceted wartime setting.]

As the United States and its allies are discovering in their fight against terrorism, all wars are not created equal. Each has its own iconic leaders, its own weapons, its own look. And each has its particular emotional resonance for the participants.

Similar thoughts about the vagaries of war, and the way we view wars of...

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Alvin Klein (review date 23 June 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Klein, Alvin. “Review of Henry V.New York Times (23 June 2002): 8.

[In the following review of Terrence O'Brien's Henry V for the 2002 Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, Klein praises Nance Williamson's excellent work as the Chorus, but otherwise finds the project “misguided” in its depiction of King Henry.]

Everyone knows that Shakespeare is summertime's No. 1 theatrical sport, but it's the comedies and tragedies, 28 in all, that leap to mind. Only the most intransigent devotee will miss the histories, which add up to seven.

For most of us, there is plenty of Shakespeare to go around without having to bone up on royal...

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Markland Taylor (review date 5-11 August 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Taylor, Markland. “Review of Henry V.Variety 387, no. 11 (5-11 August 2002): 30.

[In the following review of the 2002 Shakespeare & Co. production of Henry V directed by Jonathan Epstein, Taylor observes that gratuitous stage business, comic nonsense, and an overall lack of directorial cohesion defined this deeply flawed staging of the play.]

For the first time in its 25 years, Shakespeare & Co. has staged Henry V, which joins Macbeth in the Founders' Theater through Sept. 1. It isn't as bad as the Macbeth, how could it be? But its still below-par Shakespeare and continues to suggest S&Co. has an enormous way...

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Brownell Salomon (essay date autumn 1980)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Salomon, Brownell. “Thematic Contraries and the Dramaturgy of Henry V.Shakespeare Quarterly 31, no. 3 (autumn 1980): 343-56.

[In the following essay, Brownell affirms the unified design of Henry V by presenting a scene-by-scene analysis of the drama in relation to its theme of “private cause” versus “public good.”]

That Henry V provokes radically different responses from its modern interpreters is well known. For every critic willing to accept the play at face value as heroic drama, there is another determined to find it an ironic satire of Machiavellian militarism. But controversy fails to daunt Shakespeareans who are newly...

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W. M. Richardson (essay date winter 1981)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Richardson, W. M. “The Brave New World of Shakespeare's Henry V Revisited.” Allegorica 6, no. 2 (winter 1981): 149-54.

[In the following essay, Richardson claims that Henry V features Shakespeare's depiction of a cynically modern and amoral state.]

By modern political criteria, the medieval world was confused and chaotic. Men's loyalties and duties were divided among the often conflicting claims of the Church, the crown, and their feudal overlords; and it was largely due to these divided loyalties that Malory's Arthur's dream of an England united in the fellowship of the Round Table failed. By the time Malory's Morte D'arthur ends,...

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Richard Levin (essay date summer 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Levin, Richard. “Hazlitt on Henry V, and the Appropriation of Shakespeare.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 2 (summer 1984): 134-41.

[In the following essay, Levin argues that contemporary ironic readings of Henry V—those that generally suggest that Shakespeare's dramatic presentation of King Henry is unfavorable—have tended to “appropriate” the work rather than properly interpret it.]

What used to be called the new ironic reading of Shakespeare's Henry V is of course no longer new, since it has been espoused by a growing number of studies of the play over the past three decades, and therefore does not require any extended...

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Marsha S. Robinson (essay date 1996)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Robinson, Marsha S. “Mythoi of Brotherhood: Generic Emplotment in Henry V.” In Shakespeare's English Histories: A Quest for Form and Genre, edited by John W. Velz, pp. 143-70. Binghamton N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1996.

[In the following essay, Robinson examines Shakespeare's manipulation of English historiography in Henry V through a thematic evocation of fraternal conflict and reconciliation, and generic blending of tragedy and comedy.]

In the English history plays, Shakespeare's generic choices are often expressed in a symbolic language indigenous to English historiography. The form of Henry V reflects the...

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Joan Lord Hall (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Hall, Joan Lord. “Themes.” In Henry V: A Guide to the Play, pp. 77-93. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Hall highlights the complexities of Henry V's principal themes: order versus disorder, the nature of warfare, and the requirements of kingship.]

Image patterns are often a clue to a play's underlying concerns. In Henry V the garden metaphor sets ordered fertility against disorderly chaos; images of blood (symbolizing both familial ties and violent destruction) project a multifaceted concept of war; and the extended personification of “ceremony” in the King's troubled soliloquy before Agincourt expands on...

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Alison Thorne (essay date 2002)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: Thorne, Alison. “‘Awake Remembrance of These Valiant Dead’: Henry V and the Politics of the English History Play.” Shakespeare Studies 30 (2002): 162-87.

[In the following essay, Thorne 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.]

‘A propaganda-play on National Unity: heavily orchestrated for the brass” was how A. P. Rossiter summed up Henry V in 1954.1 The assumption that this play is complicit with the promonarchical, nationalist rhetoric of the Chorus, and with the...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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

Evaluates Henry V as a play primarily concerned with collective memory, forgetting, and the legitimization of the sovereign nation-state.

Cubeta, Paul M. “Falstaff and the Art of Dying.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 27, no. 2 (spring 1987): 197-211.

Assesses the effectiveness of Shakespeare's indirect dramatization of Falstaff's death in the Henriad.

Erickson, Peter. “Fathers, Sons, and Brothers in Henry V.” In Modern Critical...

(The entire section is 377 words.)