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 (1598), and The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, an anonymous play of the 1580s. As one of Shakespeare's most popular history plays, Henry V has been the subject of voluminous and often divergent critical analysis. Although many modern critics have found fault with Henry V for his unrealistic conversion from irresponsible prince to hero-king, his coldhearted rejection of Falstaff, and his bloody war with France, Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar (1960) point out that for Elizabethans, Henry V was a perfect king. The critics maintain that Shakespeare's Henry V “reflects with striking immediacy the attitudes and concepts of his own period” and emphasize that the play was first produced at a time when the English populace was keenly patriotic and fascinated with heroes and history.
The majority of the character studies of Henry V naturally focus on the title figure. 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 intended to present a patriotic valorization of a legendary national hero, contemporary scholarly studies and theatrical interpretations have tended to stress the ambiguous nature of Henry's character. In her study of Henry, Judith Mossman (1994) examines parallels between Henry in Shakespeare's Henry V and Alexander in Plutarch's Life of Alexander. Mossman contends that “by encouraging us to consider Henry in parallel with Alexander, Shakespeare seeks to explain certain features of his play's construction as well as to characterize Henry not as a cold-blooded monster but as a prince.” Similarly, John Mark Mattox (see Further Reading) argues that Shakespeare depicted Henry as a just warrior engaged in a just war. Mattox maintains that Henry is more than “a great conqueror of the Alexandrian variety,” concluding that in his portrayal Shakespeare elevated him “from the status of being merely England's greatest warrior to that of England's consummate just warrior.” Critics are also interested in the play's minor characters. Larry S. Champion (1965) examines Nell Quickly, detailing the transformation of her character in the Henry plays from a mere sketch to “a full-sized portrait.” Alice Lyle Scoufos (1967) considers Shakespeare's use of the legend of Sir John Oldcastle in his portrayal of Falstaff in the Henry plays. The critic also speculates on what made the playwright decide to have this extremely popular character die so undramatically and abruptly in Act II, scene iii of Henry V.
For the vast majority of its stage history, Henry V has been treated as a straightforward celebration of a king who would become England's foremost military hero. However, as Alexander Harrington (2003) points out, the moral ambiguity of Henry V lends itself to both pro-war and anti-war productions of the play. Many modern productions, such as Nicholas Hytner's 2003 National Theatre staging of Henry V, have tended to stress the anti-war aspects of the drama. Susannah Clapp (2003) credits Hytner's production for breaking from Laurence Olivier's highly influential 1944 film adaptation. Unlike Olivier's pro-war “heroic romance,” Clapp notes, Hytner's production was “much darker” and “more divided.” Mark Steyn (2003), however, rejects Hytner's anti-war production, contending that it panders to “the smug Guardian-reading Bush-despising NGO-adoring middle-class metropolitan theatergoer.” Mark Wing-Davey's 2003 Delacorte Theater staging of Henry V in New York's Central Park received mostly negative reviews. An anonymous review published in the New York Post (2003) lauds Schreiber's “magical, subtle” portrayal of Henry V, but criticizes Wing-Davey's production as cynical and unbalanced. Similarly, Ben Brantley (2003) dismisses Wing-Davey's “flashy, flabby” production and contends that the director “devised a Henry V that shirks from seriousness on the unavoidable subjects of war and patriotism.” In his extremely negative review, Steyn calls Wing-Davey's production “quite the most stupid I've ever seen” and contends that the director “seems to have no idea that the play is about anything at all.” In his comparison of Hytner's and Wing-Davey's productions, Steyn maintains that “Nicholas Hytner may be anti-war, but Mark Wing-Davey is anti-Shakespeare.” Katharine Goodland (2003) reviews the 2003 Jean Cocteau Repertory staging of Henry V, directed by David Fuller. Goodland examines the production's focus on the moral issue of war crimes—particularly the scene in which Henry orders his soldiers to kill their prisoners—and notes that “Fuller admirably refuses to simplify this moment.”
Critics are interested in the significance of the play's final act, particularly the courtship between Katherine and Henry V. Henry David Steinsaltz (2002) focuses on the French scenes—those scenes spoken primarily in French—and contends that “[a]s the English nation is perpetually at war with the French, so must their languages be at war.” Steinsaltz concludes that in Henry V the English language is “intimately entwined with the life and honor of the English nation” and that the play is not merely “a representation of England's triumph over France, but … the humiliation and tumultuous trouncing of the French language, which had subjugated their native English for so long.” Donald Hedrick's 2003 study of the play's final act focuses on the wooing scene. Hedrick examines Katherine's resistance to Henry's wooing in light of the fact that Henry is the enemy of France and that Katherine's family has recently tried to have him assassinated. The critic notes that “the couple are no Romeo and Juliet, and romancing is more like negotiating with a mobster family.” In his 1969 essay, Charles Barber (see Further Reading) advances an ultimately negative evaluation of the play. Barber contends that in Henry V Shakespeare presented “an uncritical glorification of the Tudor monarchy and its ideals.” Barber further maintains that Shakespeare's dishonestly “suppresses aspects of the history of the period of which he was perfectly aware, and holds in abeyance his own powers of moral and political analysis.”