When Shakespeare began writing plays, the English stage was still in its infancy. Because of strong religious attitudes, for centuries the only types of drama allowed were allegories, such as Everyman, which preached moral lessons in a highly formalized fashion. In England, however, things began to change during the early 1500s, under the very secular King Henry VIII. For the first time, plays, such as Ralph Roister Doister and Gammer Gurton’s Needle began showing real people in real-life situations. Still, their plots and characterizations were relatively primitive. It is astonishing to realize that only a few decades later, Shakespeare and his contemporaries would raise staged drama to the heights of artistic excellence and sophistication.
Only a handful of theaters existed in Shakespeare’s time, and the one with which he was most associated was the Globe. Circular in shape (a reference by Chorus in Henry V calls it “this wooden O”), it had a small stage that protruded onto an open courtyard. In box seats overlooking this space sat the nobles, merchants, and other people of wealth. On the bare earth were the common folk (“groundlings”), who paid a few pennies for admission and stood for the entire performance.
Except for a balcony, a few trapdoors, and tapestry curtains, the Elizabethan stage presented little in the way of theatrical illusion. Nor did the audience demand it. Unlike theatergoers of today, who look for constant action, they were more interested in opulent costumes and long, poetic speeches. They were also accustomed to imagining much of the action, which was typically suggested by the dialogue or conveyed by offstage sound effects. In Henry V, for example, whose setting switches from England to France and whose climax is a battle, Shakespeare uses a player called Chorus to “set the scene” in the minds of the audience. This man narrates the story and gives key bits of information, such as the fact that three of Henry’s trusted advisors are traitors, and describes vividly large-scale locales, such as the battlefield.
Like Shakespeare’s other history dramas, Henry V takes a number of liberties with the truth. At the actual Battle of Agincourt, for example, the English army was outmanned 3 to 1—not 5 to 1, as in the play. Nor was the battle the decisive one of the war; in fact, it took Henry three more years to conquer France, and the final conflict occurred at Normandy.
Even more interestingly, Shakespeare willfully ignores the real hero of the battle—the English archer. What won the day in 1415 was the use of a new weapon, the longbow, which could send —armor-piercing arrows from a great distance and with deadly accuracy. Each time the heavily encumbered French knights tried to charge, their horses were stopped by long, sharpened stakes that the English had embedded in the earth. As the attack bogged down, the longbowmen instantly rained thousands upon thousands of arrows upon them. The result was a frightful slaughter of the mounted troops, but virtually no British losses. So effective was the longbow, in fact, that it ended the use of an armored cavalry forever.
Shakespeare slights this aspect of the story because his real subject is not the common soldier, but Henry himself. Throughout the play, the focus is on Henry—his heroic exploits, his stirring oratory, even his faults and failings. In the end, we have not only a tapestry of war, but also a portrait of a complex, magnetic, larger-than-life character, the complete Shakespearean hero.
*London. Capital of England and the site of Henry’s royal court, London serves as the setting for the opening scenes of the play. By the fifteenth century, the time in which Shakespeare sets his play, London is the economic, political, and religious seat of power in England. Such concentration of power is underscored by the opening scene in which the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely plot to counter a bill before Parliament that would take away...
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