Henry V

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Editor: Anne Marie Hacht
Date: 2007
Document Type: Plot summary
Pages: 34
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Henry V


As a tribute to the king who won back the throne of France for England, William Shakespeare's Henry V may be narrow in scope, but it is great in majesty. This epic play was probably written sometime between March and early September in 1599. However, there is no record of a performance of Henry V before January 7, 1605, when it was presented at court by the King's Majesty's Players.

The play is often referred to as a vehicle for inspiring patriotism, which well might have been the case in Shakespeare's time. Even in 1944, during the Second World War, the British actor Laurence Olivier directed a fresh version of Henry V, adapting the play to film to encourage British troops. In the drama, audiences watch the fictionalized character of King Henry V lead his troops across the English Channel to face a French army that is better equipped and at least five times larger in number. The battle at Agincourt is the central action of the play, and the results are astonishing.

Most modern critics maintain that there is strong evidence that Shakespeare consulted both Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Scot-lande, and Irelande (1577; 1587) and Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York (2d ed., 1548) as sources for Henry V. Commentators note that such passages as Canterbury's speech explaining Salic law in act 1, scene 2 is a paraphrase in verse of Holinshed's narrative of this episode, with only slight variations from the original. On the other Page 265  |  Top of Articlehand, Shakespeare makes no reference to many events that appear in Holinshed's and Hall's accounts of the reign of Henry V. In addition, the dramatist implies only a short passage of time between the battle at Agincourt and the achievement of a treaty with France, when in fact the two were separated by a period of nearly four years. A lost and anonymous play from the 1580s, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, survives only in a corrupt edition of 1598, so that it has proved difficult to determine the degree of Shakespeare's familiarity with this work. However, several critics have noticed parallels between Shakespeare's Henry V and The Famous Victories, including similarities in structure, the prominence in each of the Dauphin's gift of tennis balls to Henry, and the inclusion in both works of a wooing scene between Henry and Katherine.

Henry V has been praised by many scholars as an energetic portrayal of one of England's most popular national heroes. While the central issue for critics has been the character of the king and whether he represents Shakespeare's ideal ruler, modern commentary has increasingly explored both Henry's positive and negative attributes. Although the personality of the king has attracted a significant amount of discussion, commentators have also shown renewed interest in Shakespeare's attitude toward patriotism and war, his use of language and imagery, the absence of Falstaff, a lovable rascal who played an important part in Shakespeare's Henry IV, and the play's epic elements, particularly Shakespeare's use of the Chorus.


Act 1, Prologue

Shakespeare opens his play Henry V with a Chorus (in most productions a single person), who announces that this grand play, with its wars and open fields, powerful characters and armies of men, is unfortunately confined to a small wooden stage. In order to capture the magnitude of the actions and circumstances surrounding the great figure of Henry V, the Chorus asks that the audience generously use its imagination to fill in the missing elements.

Act 1, Scene 1

The first scene opens in England, in the king's court. The first characters to appear are the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely, announcing, through their dialogue, that King Henry is planning on passing a bill that will take much of the church's wealth away. The king wants to use the excess money that the church enjoyed to finance a war and feed the poor. The powerful clergymen have hatched a plan that they hope will go over well with the king. They will offer to finance Henry's war with France. This will obviously cost them a lot less money; and the war will distract the king, they hope, from going forward with his plan to limit the wealth of the church.

Act 1, Scene 2

The king is in his throne room with his advisers. He calls for the Archbishop of Canterbury, who enters the room. Before the archbishop begins to talk, Henry reminds him of the huge responsibility that hangs over his head. Henry wants to hear the argument that the archbishop has come up with that gives Henry the right to claim the throne of France. If the archbishop can make an educated and rational argument to support that right, Henry is willing to go to war with France to claim the crown and the territory.

In a very complicated explanation, the archbishop describes the lineage of the French throne, which, according to what the French call the Salic law (Salic refers to an ancient Frankish tribe), cannot be passed down through the mother. This is why the French deny that Henry is the rightful heir to the French throne, since he is claiming it through his great-great grandmother. This is the French view.

The English do not honor such a law. The archbishop gives the council a brief account of the long history of the kings and queens of the French court and concludes that even the French do not fully apply the Salic law to the royal lineage, and therefore Henry's claim is as good as the current French king's, Charles VI. But the only way Henry can claim the throne is through battle. Although the church is offering to pay for the war, Henry is concerned that if he and his army leave England, rebels in Scotland, who want to take the English throne away from Henry, will invade the country. Therefore the archbishop suggests that Henry take only a small portion of his army to France and leave the larger portion to guard the homeland. The council agrees.

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Henry V, King of England Henry V, King of England

Then Henry calls for the delegation that has come from France. Representatives of the king of France and his son, called the Dauphin, come into the room. They have brought a symbolic gift from the Dauphin. It turns out to be a small chest of tennis balls, a symbol of Henry's so-called reckless youth. The Dauphin's message is that Henry is too immature to be successful in his attempt to claim the throne.

This outrages Henry, who tells the messengers that the Dauphin has made a grave mistake in underestimating and mocking him. He says to tell the Dauphin that the Dauphin's wit will not be enough to make his own people laugh when Henry's army ravages France's villages.

After the messengers leave, Henry makes the final decision to invade France.

Act 2, Prologue

The Chorus announces that all the men of England are afire with their zest to go to war. Soldiers are selling their land to buy horses. But there is also a warning. The French have found three men, whom they have paid, to kill King Henry. The three men are Richard, Earl of Cambridge, Henry, Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, knight of Northumberland.

Act 2, Scene 1

In a poor section of London, Bardolph and Nym, men who used to hang out with Sir John Falstaff and young Henry, before Henry became king, are sitting in the Boar's Head Tavern. Mistress Quickly, who is referred to as Hostess because she runs the tavern, and Pistol enter. Nym pulls out his sword. He is angry that Mistress Quickly has married Pistol, for Nym had once asked Quickly to marry him. Bardolph breaks up the fight. The men talk about going to war. Then Falstaff's servant boy comes to call them to Falstaff's room. The boy says Falstaff is dying. Quickly says the king has broken Falstaff's heart. Once Henry became king, he cut off his friendship with these men.

Act 2, Scene 2

In Southampton, Henry and his troops are about to set sail for France. Bedford, Exeter, and Westmorland discuss the fact that the king knows about the three traitors. The king enters with Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey (the traitors) and asks the three of them for their advice about another man who was heard talking against the king. Henry, setting them up, says he thinks this man should be excused because he was drunk at the time. But the three traitors tell the king that the man must be punished. Then, leading the traitors to believe that he is praising them, Henry gives each one a letter, saying that he is well aware of their worth. The men open the letters, discovering that the king knows of their plot to kill him. Henry asks what kind of punishment they think they deserve. Then he tells them that they will pay with their lives. After the men are taken away, Henry says that having found them out before they could kill him is a sign that fortune is on England's side.

Act 2, Scene 3

This is a brief scene that takes place back in London. Hostess announces that Falstaff is dead. Nym, Bardolph, and Pistol all mourn him. Then Pistol kisses his wife good-bye, and the men, including Falstaff's boy, go off to join the rest of the army.

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Act 2, Scene 4

In France, King Charles VI, his son, the Dauphin, and the king's advisers discuss the impending confrontation with England. The Dauphin thinks King Henry is a fool, coming to France. He wants to fight the English forces, believing that France will take them down easily. King Charles and the Constable of France, however, disagree. They have heard that Henry's armies are strong and that Henry himself is greatly changed, no longer the irresponsible youth that the Dauphin still believes Henry to be. King Charles reminds his son that Henry is the descendant of King Edward, the Black Prince of Wales, who once ravaged France.

King Henry is now in France and sends one of his noblemen, Exeter, to deliver a message to King Charles. Exeter tells King Charles to abdicate the throne and crown in favor of Henry. King Charles asks what will happen if he does not. Exeter tells him that his country will fall in ruins.

Act 3, Prologue

The Chorus describes how swiftly England's forces sailed to France and landed at Harfleur on the French coast. King Charles sends a message that he will not give Henry the throne, but he will turn over some dukedoms to Henry and will give him his daughter, Katherine, as a wife. Henry refuses the offer.

Act 3, Scene 1

King Henry delivers a long speech to his men, arousing them to take the city of Harfleur. He explains that in peacetime men act with humility but when the horns of warfare blow, they must rise to the occasion and become wild and fierce creatures. They must rid themselves of their fair natures and fill themselves with rage. Then he sends them forth to battle.

Act 3, Scene 2

Nym, Pistol, and Bardolph, after hearing King Henry's speech, wish they were back in England. Fluellen, a Welsh captain, enters and reprimands the men, pushing them forward with his sword into the battle. Only Falstaff's boy is left behind. He talks to the audience, saying that he does not want to grow up to be like Nym, Pistol, or Bardolph, who have tried to teach him to steal.

Fluellen returns with Captain Gower. The soldiers discuss the mines, or the tunnels, that the English have dug to gain access to Harfleur. There is a discussion of the different cultures of the Irish, the Scots, and the English. Fluellen criticizes Captain Macmorris, a Scot, who is, according to Fluellen, building the tunnels incorrectly. Fluellen prefers Jamy, an Irishman. Macmorris appears with Jamy. All the men discuss their different military tactics and their philosophies. The discussion becomes heated, but the men quickly come back to their senses. They have an actual war to fight.

Act 3, Scene 3

Before the gates of Harfleur, horns are sounded, signaling a wish for a cease-fire from the local French leaders of Harfleur. Henry calls out to the mayor of the town, telling him to surrender. If the mayor allows the English soldiers entry to the town, the people will live, Henry tells him. If the mayor insists that the English continue fighting, the old people's heads will be bashed, the wives will be raped, the babies will be impaled. The mayor, telling Henry that the Dauphin has sent word that he cannot get a French army to Harfleur, reluctantly surrenders.

King Henry tells Exeter to secure the town. Henry will allow his men to rest, then they will march to Calais, and English-held territory.

Act 3, Scene 4

At the French palace, Katherine, the daughter of King Charles, is having a conversation with her lady-in-waiting, Alice. The curious thing about this scene is that it is mostly spoken in French. Katherine is asking Alice to tell her how to say certain words in English, such as hand, fingers, nails, neck, and chin. This is a playful scene and the audience's first glimpse of Katherine, the daughter the king had earlier used as a ploy to talk King Henry out of attacking villages in France. This scene contrasts with the previous battle scene and the bloody fight that waits ahead.

Act 3, Scene 5

The scene moves to a council room in the French palace. King Charles, the Dauphin, the Constable, and the Duke of Bourbon are discussing King Henry's advance into France. They define themselves as being more refined than the English, referring to the English as barbarous and savage. But they also wonder where the English army gets its strength. The Dauphin comments that the French women are laughing at the Page 268  |  Top of ArticleFrench lords, saying that they have lost their valor and gallantry and that the women will breed with the English soldiers to bring strength back into the French population.

King Charles, who has been reluctant to fully engage in war, changes his mind. He calls on all the lords of France to gather their men and prepare to meet the English on the battlefield. However, the French underestimate the power of Henry. The Constable states he feels sorry for King Henry and his men, who are tired and unprepared for the punishment that France is about to bestow on them. As the men leave, the French king, for some reason, tells the Dauphin to remain behind, to stay with him, telling him to be patient.

Act 3, Scene 6

The English forces have camped at Picardy. They have captured a significant bridge and are thankful. Fluellen and Gower are talking. Gower is telling Fluellen that one of the men, Pistol, wants to talk to him. Pistol comes in and asks Fluellen to forgive a crime that has been committed. Bardolph has been caught stealing from one of the local churches. Fluellen will have nothing to do with the pardon. It is the rule of the king. Fluellen believes Bardolph needs to be used as an example.

King Henry appears and talks with Fluellen, asking how many casualties the army has suffered. Fluellen says only one, the man who is about to be hanged for thievery.

Montjoy appears, a messenger from the French king. Montjoy tells King Henry that King Charles is ready to go to war. The French king, through Montjoy, explains that he has lost all patience and is ready to punish the English army for all the harm it has done. Henry, the French king states, should consider his ransom to the French court. This means that the French are asking Henry to turn himself in as a prisoner. At the end of Montjoy's message is a statement that, in essence, King Henry has condemned his men to death.

King Henry, although he knows his men are tired and weak and that the French army will outnumber them greatly, does not give in. Instead, he sends Montjoy back to the French court with a defiant message. First Henry says that in every English soldier there is the strength of three of the French. Then Henry apologizes for bragging. He decides to use another tactic. He tells Montjoy how broken and beaten his men are; and yet the army will move forward. Henry says he is not seeking a battle but if it comes, he and his men will face it. After Montjoy leaves, Gloucester tells Henry that he hopes the French army will not come. Henry tells him that they are in God's hands, not in the hands of the French.

Act 3, Scene 7

In this scene, the audience sees the French army camped at Agincourt. The Constable, the Dauphin, Lord Rambures, and the Duke of Orleans are there. They are discussing how solid their armor is, how strong their horses are. Then they brag about how many English soldiers they will kill the next day. After the Dauphin leaves, the Constable says that he thinks the Dauphin is weak. The Dauphin had talked about how many English he would kill, but the Constable thinks the Dauphin will kill no one. Then the French soldiers insult the English, insisting that if King Henry really understood his fate, he would run away with his men that night.

The French are so confident that they make jokes about the battle which will begin in the morning. The French army is so much bigger than the English, the sheer numbers alone make the battle look like it will be a disaster for the English.

Act 4, Prologue

The Chorus provides an overview of the two different camps—the overly confident French nobility as opposed to the English army, which is mostly common men who expect this may well be their last night of life. The Chorus also mentions how King Henry walks through the camp, talking to each soldier as if he were a brother, cheering his men, inspiring them to face the next day bravely.

Act 4, Scene 1

In the English camp, Henry greets Bedford and Gloucester, reminding them that since the odds are against them in this battle, they need to rouse all their courage. Henry then goes about the camp, not allowing anyone to see his face, talking to his men to find out what they are thinking on the night before the great battle. He first runs into Pistol. Despite the fact that just a little earlier, Henry condemned Bardolph to death, Pistol remains true to the king. Later, Henry speaks to Page 269  |  Top of Articleother men about who is responsible for the casualties of a war. The men say the responsibility lies with the king, as do the casualties. Henry disagrees. He says the war is the king's responsibility, but each soldier is responsible for his life. In the end, the men agree. But they hold onto the belief that the king will allow himself to be ransomed, thus saving his own life. The soldiers will not be as fortunate, they say. Henry disagrees, saying that he believes the king will never ransom himself. Henry then prays that his men be instilled with courage.

Act 4, Scene 2

This is a brief scene at the French camp as the sun rises and the noblemen prepare for battle. They are still very arrogant, believing themselves so strong they merely have to blow on the English troops to be rid of them. The Dauphin even offers to send the English army food and new suits before the French fight them.

Act 4, Scene 3

The English have viewed the field and know they are outnumbered by five to one. Henry enters and turns this to their favor by stating that if they win, being so outnumbered, the greater the glory will be. Henry delivers a long, uplifting speech about how, if they outlive this day, the battle will mark them as heroes for the rest of their lives. Montjoy appears once more, offering Henry another chance to turn himself over for ransom. Henry sends Montjoy away.

Act 4, Scene 4

The battle has begun. Pistol fights with a French soldier, who begs for his life and promises Pistol some money. Pistol agrees. Falstaff's boy is there and sees what Pistol has just done. He claims that Bardolph and Nym were much braver and more valiant than Pistol.

Act 4, Scene 5

This is a scene of the battle from the French point of view, with the French nobles announcing that they have been shamed by the English army.

Act 4, Scene 6

King Henry and Exeter discuss the death of two of their men. When Henry sees the French soldiers regrouping, he orders that all the French prisoners be killed.

Act 4, Scene 7

Some of the English soldiers discover the slaughtered bodies of all the young English boy servants. Henry enters, enraged by the death of the boys. As Henry is ordering that more French throats be cut, Montjoy appears announcing that the battle has been won by the English.

Act 4, Scene 8

The English count the dead and those imprisoned. Exeter says that there are at least 1500 prisoners. A messenger tells Henry that there are ten thousand dead French soldiers. The messenger names the English nobles who are dead. There are four. Among the common men, there are only twenty-five that have been lost. God, Henry claims, as do his men, was on their side.

Act 5, Scene Prologue

The Chorus fills in the missing scenes between the end of the battle and the next scene at the French palace. Henry returns to England after the battle at Agincourt. He is welcomed as a hero but disallows a parade to celebrate the victory, playing down his role as warrior king. Time passes, and Henry returns to France.

Act 5, Scene 1

Fluellen and Pistol argue and throw insults at one another. When Pistol is left alone, he mentions that he has heard that the Hostess, his wife, is dead. He bemoans his bad fate.

Act 5, Scene 2

At the French palace, King Henry and King Charles meet. They sign an agreement that will ensure peace between the two countries. King Henry allows King Charles to retain the throne, but demands Katherine as his wife. In this way, their child will inherit the thrones of both countries. Henry and Katherine struggle through the language barriers as Henry tries to get Katherine to agree to marry him. She finally does so.

Act 5, Epilogue

The Chorus tells of the birth of a son to Katherine and Henry. He will become Henry VI, and he will lose France and put England at war again.

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Alice is the lady-in-waiting, attending Katherine. Because she has been to England and has some familiarity with the language, Alice serves as Katherine's instructor and interpreter. Her only spoken lines occur in act 3, scene 4, a light-hearted scene, which is mostly spoken in French.

Archbishop of Canterbury

In order to keep the church's land and fortunes, the archbishop conceives a plan. He interprets the Salic law in such a way that it proves that King Henry has a rightful claim to the French throne. The archbishop tells Henry that the church will pay for the war against France, thus taking Henry's mind off a bill he was considering that would have diminished the church's fortunes. The king, in turn, warns the archbishop to be very sure of his interpretation, as many lives may be lost based on his words. Although Henry tells the archbishop that he will be responsible, at Agincourt, the king tells one of his soldiers that the king is not responsible for lives, exposing a contradiction in Shakespeare's work or in the character of Henry.


Bardolph, a commoner, is a character taken from Henry IV, a friend of Falstaff's and therefore part of the group that Prince Hal (King Henry in his youth) used to hang out with. In Henry V, Bardolph continues to befriend Nym and Pistol and is present when Falstaff dies. Bardolph goes to France with King Henry, but is hung for stealing from a French church. His death represents a definitive sign that King Henry has turned away from the rabble-rousers of his past and has matured into his role as king. Bardolph explicitly broke one of the king's rules, and Henry would not save him from hanging.

John Bates

Bates is a common soldier in the English army. He is one of the men who talks with Henry the night before the battle at Agincourt, as the king wanders throughout the camp disguised.

Bishop of Ely

The role of the bishop is not developed in this play. He is present, mostly just to give the archbishop someone to talk to. The bishop asks questions of the archbishop so as to provide more detailed information for the audience.

King Charles VI

Though it is not indicated in this play, Shakespeare's audience knew that King Charles VI of France was called the mad king. His feebleness might have been one of the reasons that King Henry decides to invade France, that and the incompetence of King Charles's son, the Dauphin. King Charles is also the father of Katherine, whom King Henry marries. King Charles is reluctant to do battle with the English forces until they near Agincourt. When he does give the order, the constable salutes the king with the phrase, "This becomes the great." This makes clear that the French nobles are anxious to do battle and are glad that the king finally commits to it.

Sidebar: HideShow


  • Henry V was adapted to film and starred famed British actor Laurence Olivier, who also directed this classic piece in a very innovative manner, giving its audience a sense of what the play might have looked like, in part, in the sixteenth century. It is available from Paramount and produced in 1944 but is well ahead of its time.
  • Henry V was produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1979 as part of the "Shakespeare Plays" series. It is available from Ambrose Video Publishing.
  • Kenneth Branagh, who has starred in many of Shakespeare's dramas, plays the lead role in a 1989 production of Henry V distributed by CBS/Fox Video. Branagh also directed this adaptation.


The Chorus presents either a preview, summation, or conclusion of the dramatic action in the play. The Chorus's lines are written in blank Page 271  |  Top of Article
The Duke of Alencon crouching in defeat to Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt The Duke of Alencon crouching in defeat to Henry V at the Battle of Agincourt (Mansell/Mansell/Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images) verse and begin each of the acts, filling in information or setting the scene when the staged presentations are limited. Whereas the action of the play takes a realistic approach to the characters and their actions, the Chorus is more idealistic, possibly representing what the English audience wants to believe, while the dramatic action is Shakespeare's interpretation of what actually happened. Some critics have called the Chorus some of Shakespeare's worst writing, filled with common phrases, or platitudes, rather than Shakespeare's normally high standard of poetry.

Alexander Court

Court is a common soldier in the English army. Court has only one line in the play, pointing out the rising sun. This one line, however, signals the tension the English are experiencing on the morning of the battle.

Charles Delabreth, Constable of France

The constable is probably the most effective of the French noblemen surrounding the king of France. He is level-headed and attempts to calm down the Dauphin who is overly emotional and often blinded as to King Henry's power. The constable is killed at the battle of Agincourt.

Duke of Bedford

The Duke of Bedford is a minor character who makes brief appearances in the beginning of the play. He is one of Henry's brothers.

Duke of Berry

The Duke of Berry is one of the dukes that the French king sends to meet King Henry's men at Harfleur.

Duke of Bourbon

Bourbon is one of the leaders of the French army at the Battle of Agincourt.

Duke of Britain

The Duke of Britain is ordered by the French king to stop King Henry's soldiers.

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Duke of Burgundy

The Duke of Burgundy is French, but he helps Henry V establish power in France by acknowledging Henry's right to the French throne at the end of the play.

Duke of Clarence

Clarence is another of Henry's brothers. He plays a minor role.

Duke of Exeter

Exeter is Henry's uncle and the half-brother of Henry IV. Throughout the play, Exeter is at Henry's side, advising him, supporting him, following him throughout the play. It is Exeter that Henry sends to meet with the French king when the English land in France.

Duke of Gloucester

Gloucester is another of Henry's brothers. He appears at the Battle of Agincourt and worries about the French. It is to Gloucester that Henry says the results of the battle are in God's hands, not in the hands of the French.

Duke of Orleans

Orleans is a leader of the French army at the Battle of Agincourt. Orleans is one of the characters that demonstrate the arrogance of the French on the night before the battle.

Duke of York

The Duke of York is one of Henry's men. He appears in act 4 and asks to lead one section of Henry's army.

Earl of Grandpré

The Earl of Grandpré is with the French army as it prepares to fight at Agincourt. He is impatient with the constable and wants to begin the battle immediately.

Earl of Huntingdon

The Earl of Huntingdon is a British nobleman who helps to command the battle at Agincourt.

Earl of Salisbury

The Earl of Salisbury appears in act 5 with Henry V's men as they fight the French army.

Earl of Warwick

The Earl of Warwick is a British nobleman who is one of Henry's advisers.

Earl of Westmorland

The Earl of Westmorland is an adviser of Henry's who encourages the king to fight for the crown of France.

Sir Thomas Erpingham

Erpingham is an English officer in Henry's army. When he and the king are preparing to go to bed in the camp before the Agincourt Battle, Erpingham says it is one of the few times that he can say that he goes to bed like a king.

Captain Fluellen

Fluellen is a Welsh captain in the English army. Fluellen helps overtake the French city of Harfleur and helps the king keep discipline among the men. It is to Fluellen that Pistol appeals for Bardolph's life when Bardolph is caught stealing from a church in France.

Governor of Harfleur

After failing to receive help from the Dauphin, the governor yields his city to the English, who occupy it and defend it against the French.

Captain Gower

Gower is an English officer in Henry's army. He is often seen with Fluellen in the battle camp scenes in France.

Sir Thomas Grey

Grey is one of the three English traitors, along with Cambridge and Scroop. He has conspired with the French against the life of Henry V. Grey is sentenced to death.

King Henry V

King Henry is known as Prince Hal in Henry IV. But in this play, Henry has matured and has recently acquired the title of king. He is concerned about gaining his subjects' loyalty and decides to wage war on France in order to claim the throne in France and to quiet rebellion at home.

Shakespeare demonstrates that Henry is a complex creature who has many facets to his personality. He can forgive a threat to his life and yet threaten to kill babies. He humbles himself to God and yet massacres French prisoners. He leads a small army to battle against a large, well-equipped French army and then softly woos Katherine. As usual, Shakespeare leaves it up to the audience to decide just who Henry might have been.

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However, Henry is a complicated character whom many audiences cannot figure out. But most agree, after seeing this play, that Shakespeare shows him to be a great military leader who delivers many speeches that have been praised as some of the best in all of Shakespeare's plays.

Henry, Lord Scroop of Masham

Henry is one of the three English traitors, along with Cambridge and Grey. Scroop was at one time close to the king, which makes Henry especially disgusted with him. In the scene in which the traitors are caught and sentenced to death, Henry calls Scroop an inhuman savage.

Queen Isabel

The Queen of France is King Charles's wife and the Dauphin's and Katherine's mother.

Captain Jamy

Jamy is a Scottish captain in the English army. Jamy, Fluellen, and Macmorris are instrumental in the capture of the city of Harfleur.

Princess Katherine

Katherine is the daughter of King Charles and Queen Isabel. She appears only twice. She is seen with her lady-in-waiting as she tries to learn English and then again at the end of the play when she meets with King Henry. Eventually Katherine marries Henry to restore peace to France and unite the two countries. Although it does not occur in the play, the Chorus does announce that Katherine gives birth to a son (who eventually becomes King Henry VI). Shakespeare creates her character as a witty and intelligent woman who is shy in front of the king, mostly because of their language barriers and their different customs, such as when Henry wants to kiss her and she must refuse. Her role is very small in this play, possibly reflecting the fact that she and Henry were not married very long before Henry's death and he was gone at war most of that time. There were also rumors that Katherine had an affair with another man in Henry's absence, so Shakespeare may have decided that their love was not strong enough to warrant dramatic scenes inspired by it.

Monsieur le Fer

Monsieur le Fer, a French soldier, appears in act 4 with Pistol. The French soldier gives money to Pistol in order to save his own life.

Louis, The Dauphin

The Dauphin (also referred to as the Dolphin) is the eldest son of King Charles and Queen Isabel. The Dauphin constantly overestimates himself and underestimates Henry V and the English army, with disastrous consequences for the French. He is arrogant and frivolous. He claims, right before the Battle at Agincourt, that he will kill many English soldiers. However, the French nobles around him know that the Dauphin is a coward and probably will not kill anyone.

Captain Macmorris

Macmorris is an Irish captain in the English army. Macmorris bravely contributes to the victory at Harfleur.


Montjoy is a French herald. He brings messages to Henry from Charles first demanding Henry's surrender, then later acknowledging Henry's victory. In his first speeches, Montjoy delivers his messages in a defiant tone; but as he grows to know Henry, there is a sense of respect in his voice.

Nell Hostess

Formerly Mistress Nell Quickly, in Henry IV and The Merry Wives of Windsor, Hostess is now the wife of Pistol and the manager of the inn. Hostess tells Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph of Falstaff's death. After the battle at Agincourt, Pistol informs the audience that Hostess, his wife, has died.


Nym, like Bardolph and Pistol, is one of the friends who are associated with Falstaff. When he first appears on stage, he is angry with Pistol for having married Quickly (Hostess). Nym had wanted to marry her. After Falstaff dies, Nym joins the English army and goes to France.


Pistol is one of Bardolph's and Nym's friends. He is married to Quickly (Hostess). Pistol pleads for Bardolph's life after Bardolph is sentenced to be hung for stealing from a church in France. During the Agincourt battle, Pistol makes a deal with a French soldier, who gives Pistol money so he will not kill him. After the battle at Agincourt, Pistol lets the audience know that Quickly has died.

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Mistress Quickly

Richard, Earl of Cambridge

Cambridge is one of the three English traitors, along with Scroop and Grey, who conspire with the French against the life of Henry V. Along with the other two traitors, Cambridge is sentenced to death.

Michael Williams

Williams is a common soldier in the English army. He talks with Henry the night before Agincourt as the king wanders through the camp disguised. Williams is the soldier who argues with Henry over the king's responsibility for his men. Williams gives his glove to Henry, challenging him in a bet that the king will ransom himself to the French if the English lose the battle.



The theme of kingship, or how Shakespeare perceived the role of a king, is demonstrated in his play Henry V. Shakespeare's characterization of King Henry V establishes Henry's right to kingship by illustrating the qualities required of a true king in several different ways. Henry focuses on both securing his right to the English crown and capturing the French throne. He follows the advice given to him by his father at the end of Shakespeare's earlier play Henry IV, Part Two, to keep the minds of his subjects busy by diverting attention to foreign quarrels. Henry V accomplishes this task by waging war on France and asserting his claim to the French throne. The throne was denied his great-great-grandmother because of the Salic law, which made succession through the female line illegal. The war against France establishes both Henry's legal and moral right to the throne. By discrediting the Salic law and defeating the French army, Henry captures the crown; and by accepting responsibility and showing concern for his subjects, he earns the ethical right to kingship as well.

Henry's moral growth and acceptance of his role as king is seen throughout the play. Some of the characteristics of kingship include the king's relationship to his counselors, his divinity, his valid succession, and the burden of kingship. As king, Henry serves as the link between personal order and political unity and is required to show complete dedication to his office. He cannot allow selfishness or weakness to interfere with his duties as king.

Most critics agree that although Henry struggles to achieve a balance between the demands of the crown and his own personal desires, by the end of the play he has accepted his role and learned to integrate his humanity with the office of king.

Patriotism and War

Many modern critics have explored the pervasive presence of war and patriotism in Henry V. Some commentators contend that the play is primarily concerned with the price of patriotism, arguing that Henry finally becomes controlled by the role he has assumed, despite the costs. The interaction between structure and theme can be seen throughout the three central movements of the plot: the preparation for war, the combat itself, and the concluding of peace. In addition, scholars have praised Shakespeare's accurate portrayal of Renaissance warfare through his use of specific details such as the slaughter of the prisoners and threats of plundering, sacking, and burning.

Sense of History and Nationalism

The idea of nations in the time of Henry V, or even in Shakespeare's time, was not as defined as it is in the twenty-first century, especially in England and France. Kings and queens were often related to one another, whether they lived in England or France. The English owned land in France because most of the early English monarchs had been born in France and had therefore inherited the lands. Thus, the boundaries between the two countries were relatively blurred.

However, the concept of nations was emerging and growing stronger in Shakespeare's time. Also the Renaissance had arrived in England during Shakespeare's life, which influenced the portrayal of historical events and the details of how England and France had become what they were up to that point. The sense of history is reflected in this play, which is actually the last in a series of three of Shakespeare's plays, which includes Richard II and Henry IV. The series is called a tetralogy. The three plays follow the development of France and England through the actions of the English monarchs and their relationships, both political and biological, with Page 275  |  Top of Articlethe monarchy of France. With the battle at Agincourt, King Henry finally wins the right to the throne, though he never actually sits on throne, because he will die two months prior to that opportunity.

Divine Intervention

There are several references in this play to God's intervention on behalf of, or God's blessing of, the English army in its bid to win the French throne. Although this was not a religious war, Shakespeare has Henry acknowledge the idea that God is on his side. The first time this happens is when the three traitors are discovered before Henry leaves England. He takes the fact that the attempt to assassinate him was thwarted as a sign from God that he is doing the right thing, that in fact the English might even win the war. In act 2, scene 2, Henry says: "Since God so graciously hath brought to light / This dangerous treason, lurking in our way / To hinder our beginnings. We doubt not now / But every rub is smoothed on our way." The hand of God, in other words, has smoothed the path to France for the English army.

Henry invokes the power of God again in act 3, scene 7, on the night before the battle at Agincourt. Gloucester hopes that the French might not attack; but Henry says: "We are in God's hand, brother, not in theirs." Then again in act 4, scene 3, in his speech to the troops before the big battle, Henry tries to cheer his men up. They all know by now that the French outnumber them overwhelmingly, and yet Henry tells them "The fewer men, the greater share of honor. / God's will! I pray thee wish not one man more." With this statement, Henry is telling his men that the fact that the numbers are stacked against them is God's will. With the French army so big and the English army so small, the English victory will be that much more significant. Henry is also warning his men not to pray for something that God has already ordained. If God means for them to go against a bigger army, then so be it.

Arrogance Leading to Misconception

Shakespeare's French characters are arrogant in many different ways. The first demonstration of this arrogance is the Dauphin's so-called gift of tennis balls, signifying that the Dauphin takes Henry's threat to his French crown as insignificant as a game of tennis. Later, the Dauphin plays down the danger involved in Henry's crossing the English Channel and landing on
Title page of Henry V from the First Folio (1623) Title page of Henry V from the First Folio (1623) (© Bettmann/Corbis) French soil. His arrogance appears to infect some of the other nobles, even up to the point of the night before the battle at Agincourt, after Henry has ravaged Harfleur. The arrogance of the French makes them blind to their own disadvantages, or weaknesses. They boast about their horses and weaponry and make jokes about the English, instead of investigating the battlefield or spying on them. They do question where the English get their strength, but their attitude is so saturated with arrogance that they cannot perceive that the English might hurt them, let alone completely defeat them.

In contrast, Shakespeare has the English appear as humble commoners, men who believe they might see another day. Instead of arrogance, they are filled with the passion to capture what is rightfully theirs. The king bows to a higher source, putting his life and the lives of his men in God's hands.

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Responsibility is another theme that runs through this play. It begins with the first act, when King Henry warns the archbishop to carefully weigh his decision as to whether or not England has a right to the French throne. In essence, Henry is telling the archbishop that what he says and how he has interpreted the law could cost lives and bring hardships, as well as change the course of history.

Later, in act 2, scene 2, when Henry confronts the three traitors, he somewhat contradicts himself in terms of responsibility. Henry excuses the man who "railed against our person," as Henry states it, forgiving the man's irresponsible behavior because the man was drunk. However, when it comes to Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge, the traitors, Henry tells them that they will lose their lives. As Henry makes clear, they have not acted responsibly, for by assassinating the king, they would have put so many others at risk. Further, Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge received money from the enemy French to execute the plot. The consequences of their actions, Henry says, would have been enormous. It was their responsibility as nobles to have thought the assassination through. Whereas the drunken man might have only muttered a vagrant, impulsive thought, the king holds the nobles to a higher standard because they had a better sense of the consequences.

In act 4, scene 1, the idea of responsibility appears for a third time. Henry disguises himself on the night before the battle at Agincourt. He then has conversations with some of his men. Two of those soldiers, Bates and Williams, question the king concerning the battle they are about to fight and whose responsibility it is. The men say that it is the king's. Henry, however, only takes part of that responsibility. He says the king is responsible for the war, but each man must take responsibility for his own life. Every subject's duty is to the king, but every subject's soul is his own. If, in other words, a soldier believes that what the king tells him to do is wrong, then it is on the soldier's conscience if he does the thing he believes is wrong. If the king knows it is wrong but the soldier carries out whatever act the king requests, then the wrong is on the king's conscience.

Cultural Stereotypes

As in many of Shakespeare's other plays, there is a discussion about cultural differences. Whether it is the difference between the Italians and the Moors in Shakespeare's Othello or the Italians and the Jews in The Merchant of Venice, some characters clash because they come from dissimilar countries. In Henry V this occurs between the French and English, as well as between the Scots, the Irish, and the English.

The French make references to the English, such as in act 3, scene 5, when the Constable refers to the English as being cold and pale because their climate is "foggy, raw, and dull." In comparison, the Constable claims, the French are enlivened with "quick blood, spirited with wine." And then before the big battle at Agincourt, the French noble Orleans refers to the English soldiers as King Henry's "fatbrained followers." Even when the French Rambures tries to find something good to say about the English, he is put down by his peers. Rambures thinks that the English are valiant. He points to the brave mastiffs (a large breed of dog) that the English raise. But Orleans points out that though the mastiffs are brave, they are also stupid, rushing a large bear only to have their heads chomped off.

It is not just the French who point out cultural stereotypes, though. Some of Henry's men do the same among themselves. Although their conversation is not as blatantly warped in stereotypes, there is a strain in relationships between Fluellen, who is Welsh, and Macmorris, who is Irish. They are both fighting at the command of an English king for a united cause, but Fluellen seems determined to prove that Macmorris knows nothing of Roman war tactics, which Fluellen, obviously holds in high esteem. At one point in their discussion in act 3, scene 2, Fluellen calls to Macmorris by saying "there is not many of your nation—" and is then interrupted by Macmorris, who has taken offense. "Of my nation? What ish [sic] my nation?" It can be assumed that Fluellen was about to make a broad, generalized statement about the Irish. Macmorris would not let Fluellen finish what he was saying because he sensed the stereotypical statement coming.

Shakespeare often writes his parts for Irish, French, Welsh, and Scottish characters in broken English. In some plays, he also has some of his English characters make fun of the accents. There were political tensions between these countries, and such tensions can lead to stereotyping. Whether Shakespeare was just reflecting these stereotypes so that his audience could analyze them or think about them, or whether Shakespeare used the Page 277  |  Top of Articlestereotypical statements to make his audiences laugh, or whether he used them because he himself was caught up in the stereotypes is not certain.

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  • Research the battle at Agincourt. Bring to class a display of the details you have uncovered. The display can be in the form of a chart, a series of photographs, a PowerPoint demonstration, or any other presentation of your choice. The idea is to try to mimic the battle at Agincourt with as much detail as possible. What were the strategies of the French? Of the English? What types of weapons did each side use? How many soldiers were involved? How many horses on each side? What were the jobs of the young boys? Provide as much information as you can gather.
  • Find as many portraits of King Henry V as you can, then create a likeness of the monarch. You can use any medium you choose: oil paint, charcoal, water color, pen and ink. You can also make a three-dimensional bust out of clay or other material. By some historical accounts, Henry was called an ugly king. What do you think? Ask your classmates to vote on Henry's looks.
  • Imagine that you lived in the Middle Ages in England. Your cousin lived in France. How would your lives differ? How would they be the same? After doing your research for this topic, write two letters: one from you as a teenager in England and a response from your French cousin. In the letters talk about the activities, the challenges, the entertainment, and details of your family life that you might have experienced in the course of one week. Read your letters to your class.
  • Find out about the medical practices at the time of the Battle at Agincourt. How were the wounds of soldiers treated? Were there any antiseptics? Were there pain killers? How did medics fix broken bones? How did they sew wounds closed? How did they treat dysentery? Were there any other typical diseases that the soldiers were vulnerable to, especially on a long march, such as the English soldiers had to endure? Share your research with your class.
  • Map out the journey that King Henry took from London to Agincourt. How did the army travel? How many miles did some soldiers have to walk? How long did it take them to cross the English Channel? Show all your details on a map and present your findings to your class.


Shakespearian Language Specific to Henry V

While analysis of the language in Henry V has yielded different critical interpretations, most scholars agree that the rhetoric used in this play makes a significant contribution to the drama's theme, tone, and meaning. For example, some critics point out that the language requires strenuous effort from its actors to perform, as well as requiring effort from audiences to grasp. These critics point out that this effort relates to the atmosphere of activity in the play as the king decides to go to war and then must prepare his men for the arduous journey and grueling battles that must be fought. Other critics focus on how the language changes as it parallels the preparations for war, the battles, and then the peaceful conclusion. The mode of speech changes from beginning to end, starting with a tone of agreement (the choric appeal to English nationalism, the request for cooperation between the performer and the audience, and the first scenes showing the church and state working together), then moving to a tone of dispute during the war, and concluding with a return to a softer tone as Henry woos Katherine.

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Critics also have often debated whether the language of Henry V equals that found in the first two plays of Shakespeare's second tetralogy, which includes Richard II and Henry IV. A number of scholars contend that the language is flatter and less powerful in Henry V than in the previous plays. Richard II and Henry IV contain speeches and passages that are more poetic, they say. However, other critics maintain that the prose in Henry V is more natural and deceptively close to common speech, making the depth and artistry of the language more subtle and equally as artful as in the more prominent speeches in Shakespeare's other plays.

Epic Elements

Shakespeare's use of epic elements in Henry V has elicited much critical attention. By far the most panoramic of his plays, Henry V dramatizes an epic theme and celebrates a legendary hero. According to several scholars, the play therefore fulfills most of the formal requirements of classical epic, in that its hero is of national significance; it emphasizes destiny and the will of God; its action is impressive in scale and centers upon war; and it includes a narrator (the Chorus), an invocation to the Muse, a large number of warriors, battle taunts and challenges, and other traditional epic devices. Most commentators agree that Shakespeare's use of epic elements contributes significantly to the success of the play, stating that an epic drama is the only fitting way to celebrate the noble deeds of Henry V.

Scholars repeatedly focus on the role of the Chorus in exposing the limitations of the Elizabethan stage. Many critics remark that the function of the Chorus is to apologize for the unsuitability of the stage to the grandeur of an epic. However, other commentators point out that Shakespeare's audience would never have expected the kind of cinematic realism that modern theatergoers have come to expect. Though the Chorus fulfills several functions as narrator—creating atmosphere, explaining lapses of time and shifts in locale, apologizing for the limitations of the theater—its most important function is to evoke an epic mood. The Chorus also creates structural unity in the play by building narrative bridges between the five acts.

Dramatic Soliloquy

A soliloquy is a speech given as if the actor were talking to him- or herself, exposing thoughts and emotions but supposedly doing so without anyone (but the audience) hearing what is being said. It is like an interior monologue that one might have with oneself. Through the soliloquy, the actor not only offers the audience a glimpse into his or her inner thoughts but also into his or her personality or character. In Henry V, on the night before the battle at Agincourt, Henry considers his role as king through a soliloquy. One of his men has engaged Henry in a discussion of responsibility. Henry reflects on the topic when he is alone. His thoughts are private. It can be assumed that he does not want his men to know how he feels. It is an important reflection, one that Shakespeare wanted the audience to hear and to remember. The soliloquy is written in iambic pentameter, ten stressed and unstressed syllables to each line, providing a regulated rhythm. The form is blank verse, so it flows like poetry but there is no rhyme.

Dramatic Monologue

Henry V has many monologues, which are speeches of several lines in length delivered in a drama by one individual to one or more person without expectations of anyone responding. The monologues stand out from the normal dialogue because they are long, for one thing, but also because they too, like soliloquies, are written in blank verse. All of the Prologues that open every act are written as monologues, as are many of the English king's speeches to his troops. Some of the more powerful monologues of the king include Henry's rebuttal to the Dauphin after having sent the tennis balls (in act 1, scene 2), that begins, "We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us," which sets in motion England going to war with France. Another powerful monologue is the one the king delivers to Scroop in act 2, scene 2, which begins, "God quit you in his mercy! Hear your sentence." This monologue depicts the heavy consequences that the traitors would have inflicted on their country had they killed Henry. Finally, to arouse his men before the battle at Agincourt, King Henry delivers his monologue about the Feast of Crispian. The monologue is found in act 4, scene 3, and begins "What's he that wishes so?" As these monologues demonstrate, this form of writing makes certain parts of the play stand out. Through the monologues, particular passages are etched in the minds of audiences, so they take home the more important messages of the play.

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Henry V

Henry was born in Wales, in 1387, the oldest son of Henry of Bolingbroke (later to become King Henry IV) and Mary Bohun. In 1398, Henry's father was exiled by the reigning monarch, Richard II, who kept Henry's son and raised him in court. Henry's father snuck back into England the following year, while Richard II was at war in Ireland. He gathered forces and won claim to land throughout the country and was eventually named king. Richard II was imprisoned and later died. The line of inheritance then switched to Henry, which caused much jealousy in the line of Richard II's heirs, Henry's cousins.

Henry was quite an accomplished soldier, having seen battle at the early age of fourteen. Two years later, at the age of sixteen, Henry commanded his father's troops at the battle of Shrewsbury. It was at this battle that Henry received a severe wound, an arrow striking him in the face. Until 1408, Henry was often involved in squelching uprisings in Wales.

Shortly after his coronation, Henry V fought down an uprising by Lollards (members of a religious and political movement led by the theologian John Wyclif) outside of London and put an end to an assassination plot by some of his nobles who were still seeking to restore the monarchy to the descendants of Richard II.

As his reign became somewhat settled at home, King Henry V turned his attention to France. Although Shakespeare puts forward the theory that church officials instigated the move, others have speculated that the feebleness of Charles VI of France, who was said to have a mental illness, and the ineptness of his son might also have concerned Henry, who would have benefited from a more stable France. And so he decided to claim the throne. He asked for the French king's daughter's hand prior to leaving England, but the French king refused. Henry had no other choice than to invade France and take the throne by force.

After wining the battle at Agincourt, Henry later went on to capture Normandy and Rouen. He was beating a path toward Paris. In 1419, the French gave in to Henry. A year later, Henry signed the Treaty of Troyes and married King Charles VI's daughter, Katherine. As stated in the treaty, King Charles VI of France would bypass his own son as heir to the French throne, thus giving it to Henry.

In 1421, Katherine was crowned Henry's queen and gave birth to a son, who became Henry VI upon his father's death. Henry died of dysentery in 1422 while engaged in battle in France. Had Henry lived two months longer, he would have been crowned king of both England and France. Henry V reigned over England from 1413 until his death in 1422.

Charles VI

Charles VI of France was known by two subtitles: Charles the Beloved and Charles the Mad. Charles was born in 1368 and ruled France from 1380 until 1422, making him only forty-seven years old at the time of the battle at Agincourt. Although he was not that old, he was infirm by then with what might today be diagnosed as schizophrenia or possibly bipolar disorder. He was known for attacking some of his own men on their way to battle, running naked through the palace, and at times believing he was made of glass. Some believe that the king's daughter, Katherine, passed the king's mental illness onto her son, the future king of England, Henry VI. The king's mental illness also led many people in France to believe that the Treaty of Troyes, which would have made Henry V king of France, was invalid.

English Pastimes during Henry V's Reign

Although war, the plague, and famine were all too familiar in fifteenth-century England, there were ways in which people also celebrated or otherwise enjoyed themselves. There were competitions, such as in archery, a popular sport. Given the military uses of the bow and arrow, archery could be very competitive. But competition could also be seen in an early version of English football (soccer). A game called camp ball, in which teams of men and women engaged, was played with a ball made of a pig's bladder filled with dried beans. Hunting and fishing were two other sports that not only provided food for the table but were also considered good training for young boys who would more than likely end up serving in the military. The young nobles often rode horses and followed a pack of dogs that either killed the animals or held them at bay, waiting for the young men to arrive with their bows and arrows.

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Tournaments, testing the skill and courage of knights, lords, and other combatants, were often held throughout the country. Lances were most often used by two men who rode at full charge toward one another. Sometimes a wooden barrier would be placed between the two sides of the track to keep the men's horses from running into one another. Although these tournaments were also looked at as training for military maneuvers, sometimes the two opponents were settling a personal grudge.

But not every entertainment related to warfare. There were also parlor games such as cards, dice, and board games, like early versions of backgammon and chess. Card games offered the players a chance to gamble. The cards that were used were often made of wood and painted by hand. There were also sports such as wrestling, horse racing, and cockfighting to while away the time.

In the arts, mystery plays, derived from stories in the Bible, were very popular. Morality plays, which were meant to teach a specific lesson, were also common fare. These plays were often acted on stages on the backs of wagons that rolled from one town to the next.

Fifteenth-Century English Longbow

One of the reasons the English enjoyed many victories over Ireland, Wales, and France was because of the soldiers' proficiency with longbows. Rather than the normal bow of about three feet in length, longbows were at least five to six feet long, as tall or taller than the men that used them. The weapons were light to carry, cheap to own, blasted an arrow a long distance, and were easy to master. Arrows shot from longbows were also devastatingly powerful, creating deep and wide wounds. The arrows could fly, by some estimates, two hundred or more yards. Longbows were easily reloaded and a master archer could shoot from ten to twenty arrows a minute, some records state. Even after the introduction of the first firearms, bowmen using longbows could shoot several arrows before the newfangled guns could fire one bullet.

It is believed that a typical longbow was made from a single sapling from an English yew. It took several years of curing and shaping for a bow to be fit to use. The string of the bow was made of flax or hemp. Arrows were about twenty-seven inches long, with four-inch arrowheads equipped with barbs that made them difficult to extract.

The War Campaign to France and the Battle at Agincourt

King Henry V needed money to finance programs. He also needed to strengthen his image, which was contaminated by his flamboyant youth. Claiming the throne of France and committing himself and his troops to take it by force would serve those two causes, if he were victorious.

King Henry and his ships landed at Harfleur on the northern coast of France on August 13, 1415. The English met with no resistance upon landing and soon marched to the town, which was well fortified with a thick wall more than two miles in diameter with numerous towers. The English had several cannons and catapults. Their troops numbered over ten thousand, with roughly eight thousand archers and two thousand mounted soldiers. The French were said to have about four hundred fighting men. The town had a large cache of food and supplies, however, so there was no hope of starving them into an early surrender.

The English battered the walls around Harfleur and dug tunnels under them, crumbling the city's best defense. The conflict lasted until September 22. Although successful in the battle at Harfleur, the English suffered many casualties, possibly as many as one-third of the men. Most were lost to illness. The battle was fought in the heat of summer; and the makeshift camp had no proper sanitation. Dysentery soon swept through the camp, the same illness that would kill the young king seven years later. After the battle at Harfleur, the town became an English seaport.

From Harfleur, Henry drove his troops toward Calais, an English stronghold, hoping to spend the winter there, giving him time to re-equip his army. Unfortunately for King Henry and his troops, the French, under Constable d'Albret, had gathered between Calais and Harfleur and forced the English into battle. The English army had marched over two hundred miles, were running out of food, and many were still sick. They were in no condition to fight a rested, well-armored enemy. The English followed the coastline to the Somme River, then they turned east, looking for a safe place to ford the river. The fall had been a very rainy one; and the river was very full and dangerous. The French troops stationed themselves at a place of safe crossing, forcing Henry and his army to travel farther east, away from Calais, before they could cross the river. This added miles as well as days to their march, depleting the food supplies Page 281  |  Top of Articlefurther and exhausting the men. On the other side of the river, the French army was waiting at Agincourt, in between Henry and Calais. Henry did not want to fight; but he would not back down. He wanted the throne and would not stop at anything less.

It had been raining for many days. The field at Agincourt had been recently plowed and was now swampy. This would work to the English army's advantage. The French were heavy with armor, both the men and their horses. Once they fell down, many became stuck in the mud, which in some places was waist deep. At least one French duke was said to have drowned. The English troops, many in bare feet and bare legs, had less trouble moving on the muddy field. Another advantage was the passion of King Henry as the leader of the English troops. The frail French king did not lead his men, and the French army suffered greatly from disorganization. Most of the nobles led the first line of the French troops. When they fell, the ranks to the rear of the French army fled.

France lost ten thousand men, many from the French nobility, including Constable d'Albret. The French military would go on, in future decades, to learn from this experience, taking back the land the English once claimed. But on this day, Saint Crispin's Day, October 25, the English were victorious.

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  • 1400s: The English forces under King Henry V's leadership defeat the French heavily armored army, which outnumbered them five to one, by employing longbows and fast-loading arrows.
    Today: Terrorists wreak havoc on well-equipped United States and British troops in Iraq, employing guerrilla war tactics such as suicide bombings.
  • 1400s: King Henry V leads his troops in battle in an attempt to claim the English right to the French throne.
    Today: Queen Elizabeth II visits French president Jacques Chirac to celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the signing of the Franco-British Accords, a pact to join forces in military defense of their countries.
  • 1400s: King Henry V marries the daughter of King Charles VI of France, strengthening the royal bond between France and England. The marriage is well received in London.
    Today: Heir to the British throne, Prince Charles marries Camilla Parker Bowles, duchess of Cornwall. Camilla, who has a right to be called queen once her husband is crowned, will defer the title, because of public resentment toward her. The public disapproved of Camilla and Prince Charles's adulterous affair while Charles was still married to Princess Diana.
  • 1400s: The town of Harfleur is a bustling fishing port and a center of the cloth trade with an emphasis on weaving and dyeing. It sits at the mouth of Seine River on the English Channel.
    Today: Harfleur is a town of industries and is most often considered a suburb of Le Havre. Population is estimated at less than 10,000. Due to heavy silting of the estuary of the Seine, Harfleur is no longer a major port on the English Channel.

The Hundred Years' War

The battle at Agincourt was just one of the many bloody conflicts between England and France. A fight for land and kingship had been going on for many decades before King Henry V and would continue for a few decades after his death. England and France fought one another almost continually between 1337 and 1453. This long battle is referred to as the Hundred Years' War.

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The claim of English royalty to the French crown has a long and complicated history. It all began before the structured nations that are known today had created sturdy foundations. At one time, for instance, the Normans came into the northern part of France in the tenth century and claimed the territory. The Normans then, under the leadership of William the Conqueror, moved across the channel and claimed England in the century that followed. As descendants of William the Conqueror, English kings claimed the right to Normandy and other lands in what is today French territory. As time went by, England, through a series of battles, lost more and more of that French land; and the Hundred Years' War marks England's concerted effort to finally reclaim it and the authority to rule the people who lived there.

King Edward III, angered by the continual erosion of his control over the lands in France, claimed he was the rightful king of both England and France and went to war to force the French to surrender to him. Edward eventually captured Calais, the English stronghold that Henry V was trying to reach after his battle in Harfleur. Another war ended in 1373, this time with the French winning. That set the scene for Henry V, who regained the right to the French throne. By 1429, England again controlled a lot of French territory. This would be the high point of English control in France. By 1451, almost all land had been restored to France, except that of Calais. England became distracted by its own wars at home after that and stopped pursuing its claim of authority over France.


In her Introduction to the 1999 Penguin Books published texts of Henry V, Claire McEachern writes that Henry V is both "the capstone and the keystone of Shakespeare's engagement with the English history play." This play, McEachern continues, "portrays a high, and perhaps unique, moment in English national history, when it represents a country both internally unified and internationally victorious." Structurally, McEachern points out, "Shakespeare signals" a "contrast between ideal and real perspectives on political community." He does so through the use of a Chorus before every act. It is through the Chorus, McEachern writes, that Shakespeare sets up the ideal, "relentlessly optimistic and positive in presenting future events." This contrasts with the scenes that follow, which often conflict with that positive attitude, such as depicting treason and battles that must be fought. "But if Shakespeare refuses to let the ideal vision of warfare and national unity stand unmolested, at the same time he insists, in an inspiring and rousing rhetoric, on the ennobling capacities of participation in a myth of unity and union." McEachern emphasizes the power of the dramatic monologue that King Henry delivers at Agincourt right before the battle. "Henry produces what is undoubtedly among the most spine-tingling of calls to battle in Shakespeare or anywhere else."

In concluding her critique of the play, McEachern writes, "The idealizing pressures of Henry V may at times cloy and coerce; but we ultimately forgive the play its glorifications, not only because we too crave a world where the underdog is the victor, few of the good guys die, and the hero gets the girl, but because we also know … that such things are all too rare and fleeting."

Harold C. Goddard, in his book The Meaning of Shakespeare, begins his analysis of Henry V by summing up other critics' comments. "There is near-unanimity among critics that Henry V is not a marked success as a play," Goddard begins. Some critics, Goddard goes on, have written that Shakespeare's play "contains much that is splendid and picturesque, these merits cannot atone for [the play's] intellectual and dramatic poverty." This is not, however, Goddard's opinion. Goddard writes: "Before accepting these judgments as final, it is worth noting the presumptive unlikelihood that Shakespeare would have produced a poor play, or even a second-rate one." Goddard is of the opinion that critics who have written against this play might have overlooked Shakespeare's intentions, because Henry V was the "culminating play of his great historical series." The critics who relegate this play to such a low position, at this time of Shakespeare's writing career, Goddard continues, seem to believe that "Shakespeare more or less goes to pieces as a playwright and substitutes pageantry and patriotism for his proper business, drama." Goddard dispels this thought. He states that telling a story about a hero-king is a difficult task. "To tell it and to keep the piece in which you tell it popular calls for more than courage. Shakespeare did as life does. Life places both its facts and its intoxicants before us and bids us make out of the resulting clash what we can and will." Page 283  |  Top of ArticleGoddard continues, "God does not indicate what we shall think of his world or of the men and women he has created. He puts them before us. But he does not compel us to see them as they are. Neither does Shakespeare."

S. Schoenbaum, writing in his book Shakespeare, His Life, His Language, His Theater, points to some of the criticism of this play, too. Schoenbaum, unlike some other critics, found the contradictions between the Chorus that glorified Henry and the actions of the king in the play to be inviting.

In such contraries does criticism rejoice, and by admitting subversive countercurrents, Shakespeare invites liberty of interpretation. Each reader and viewer must decide for himself [sic] whether the hero is an exemplary Christian prince or a self-righteous imperialist, or some combination of both, and his play a sublime testimonial to national purpose or an exercise in wonderfully eloquent but essentially meretricious jingoism—or any of the innumerable gradations between these polarities.

Maurice Charney, writing in his All of Shakespeare, states that "the emphasis in this final play of the Major Tetralogy is on the heroic celebration of Henry as the ideal English king." Charney found much to enjoy in this play; but one particular part was the soliloquy that Henry delivers in act 4, scene 1, on kingship. "There is no speech on kingship in Shakespeare more glorious than this one," Charney writes.


Anne Crow

In this essay, Crow examines how Shakespeare uses language to illuminate the title character in Henry V. In scenes when he is acting in an official capacity, the King uses blank verse; when talking informally to his soldiers or trying to woo Katherine, in contrast, he speaks in conventional prose. Through the alternating use of these different forms of language, the critic contends, Shakespeare offers a full-blooded portrait of a man beset by doubts but rising above them to do his duty as monarch.

Blank verse is a very versatile medium. It can sound majestic and formal, or spontaneous and colloquial. The speed can be varied by judicious choice of words and the introduction of pauses, and the basic rhythm is just asking to be tampered with to make it more interesting. Regular blank verse moves at a steady walking pace, alternating stressed and unstressed syllables. There are five iambic feet to a line, and this means it starts, usually, with an unstressed syllable:


Now all the youth of England are on fire

Because the movement of the verse is so simple and easy, Shakespeare can introduce any number of variations to suggest the state of mind of the speaker.

In [Henry V], Shakespeare uses a Chorus to introduce each act and close the play. The effect is that of a storyteller delivering an epic poem about a home-grown hero, a king who confounds early expectations to restore England's fortunes and lead a miraculous victory against the French. The style of the Chorus's poetry is elevated, as befits his lofty theme.

The Chorus actually opens the play with a lingering stress on 'O' to invoke excitement and anticipation in the audience: 'O for a muse of fire'. His lines often start with a stressed syllable as he encourages us to use our imaginations, as in the speech opening Act III where he describes the English fleet setting sail for France. Several lines start with urgent commands, 'Play', 'Hear', 'Grapple', 'Work', as he tries to compensate for the inadequacies of the theatre. The Chorus projects a heroic and majestic image of Henry at all times, comparing him with the Roman god of war, Mars, and the military hero, Caesar. Nevertheless, he sometimes refers to him as 'Harry', because an important aspect of Henry's image is that he is the people's king, loved by them for his willingness to put ceremony aside and fight alongside them, to mingle with them before the battle and to share a joke with them.

In between each Chorus, Shakespeare gives his audience glimpses of the man behind the myth, and it is significant that when Henry is cultivating his image as a soldier, one of a 'band Page 284  |  Top of Article
Patricia Routledge as Mistress Quickly in Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, 1984 Patricia Routledge as Mistress Quickly in Henry V at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, 1984 (© Donald Cooper/Photostage. Reproduced by permission) of brothers', Shakespeare makes him speak in prose, like the ordinary characters in the play. A prose style forms part of his disguise when, in disguise, he mingles with his men the night before the Battle of Agincourt, and when he chats easily to Llewellyn after the battle, setting up his practical joke with Williams's glove. He also very quickly drops into prose as he tries to woo Katherine, adopting the pose of a gauche soldier, laughing at himself, embarrassed and lost for words. It seems to be a more intimate way of speaking than the poetry which is appropriate when he is on his dignity as a king rather than a man.

His one soliloquy (IV.i.227-81) is a particularly appropriate speech to show how the structure of the poetry helps the actor to portray Henry's real fears and doubts, which he keeps masked whenever there is anyone with him, and which the Chorus never mentions. Near the beginning of this speech he asks eight questions, all beginning with 'What'. Several lines are shorter than the usual ten syllables, making the actor pause, as if to think about the answers to the questions which are all asking what advantage he has as king over his subjects, what the 'ceremony' is really worth. When he answers his long list, ten negatives help to build up the tension as he concludes that none of the symbols that represent royalty can enable the king to sleep as soundly as the most wretched of his subjects. He then summarises his argument so far with more emphatic negatives, 'No, not all these, thrice gorgeous ceremony, / Not all these…'. As he moves on from lamenting the insubstantial nature of a king's advantages to expressing envy of 'the wretched slave', his subject, Shakespeare gives Henry one long, complex sentence with no repetition, in which to describe in positive terms the apparently idyllic life of the peasant. So caught up is Henry in his self-pity that he fails to see the irony in his words at the end of the speech, describing 'what watch the king keeps to maintain the peace', when, in fact, he has led his people into war and put his army in a position where it must fight a battle heavily outnumbered, five to one.

This speech most clearly reveals the conflict in a king's role, what the Elizabethans called the king's two bodies: he is both a public figure and a private man. A good king will suppress his private feelings in front of others, acting out whatever role he needs to play. Here, however, Shakespeare shows us a man under stress, and this is very important to the way Henry is presented; the audience can see for themselves that, as he tells the soldiers, 'I think the king is but a man as I am' (IV.i.102). He chooses an interesting image to illustrate his essential humanity: 'The violet smells to him as it doth to me'. A violet is a shy, secretive flower, hiding under its leaves in dark, wooded places, not at all like the showy rose, which is the usual emblem of kings. However, it is in the prayer which follows the soliloquy that we learn how vulnerable he feels, begging God not to remember how his father usurped the throne from his cousin, Richard: 'Not today, O Lord, / O not today, think not upon the fault…'. The repetition and the multiple breaks in the line help to reveal his troubled conscience, as he lists everything he has done to try to atone for this crime and promises to do more, though a note of despair creeps in at the Page 285  |  Top of Articleend, as he acknowledges that it is too late, because the sin has been committed and all he can do is implore pardon (IV.i.286-302).

When he rejoins his army, however, all doubts and fears are masked behind the persona of a calmly confident monarch. There is no hint of the bitterness and panic of the previous night, as he evokes a golden future for the survivors of the battle, who will be honoured as heroes for the rest of their lives. In a magnanimous confidence trick, he declares:


Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host

that anyone who does not want to fight will be given more money and allowed to leave (this may sound like a generous offer, but they are in the middle of enemy territory). By placing 'Rather' at the beginning of the line so that it alters the expected stress pattern, Shakespeare subtly heightens the contrast of the confidence of Henry's gesture with the fear which prompted Westmoreland's wish for more soldiers.

In this speech Henry glosses over the brutality of war, because he does not want to frighten his men before the battle. The only mention of wounds is a brief reference to the scars on his arm that a theoretical soldier will show his friends in future years. This is in sharp contrast to the violent and bloody speech in Act III Scene iv with which he frightens the men of Harfleur into surrendering. There, because his men were tired, sick and unwilling to fight, he had to pretend that they were brutal killers. This is a carefully prepared speech, composed in regular iambic pentameters, which suggests control or even lack of emotion. Shakespeare seems to suggest that Henry is not enjoying the prospect of 'naked infants spitted upon pikes' or 'heads dashed to the walls', but nor is he disturbed by it. This impression is reinforced by the calm composure he shows as the governor submits, and the English army wins its first battle on French soil. There is no gloating, no triumph, just the realisation that 'winter is coming' and 'sickness growing upon our soldiers', and the gentle command 'use mercy to them all' in the town. Shakespeare presents Henry as a king who can be whatever is needed in any situation, threatening or merciful, whichever is appropriate.

There are times, however, when his private feelings seem to break through his composure. His answer to the Dauphin's insulting gift of tennis balls in Act I Scene ii is polite and witty. His first reaction to the 'tun of treasure' is expressed using the royal 'we'. His threat is at first disguised in an elaborate metaphor comparing the coming war with a game of tennis. Tongue firmly in cheek, he thanks the ambassador for the gift and seems to take pleasure in turning the insult back on the Dauphin, revealing a quick wit but with very sinister undertones, 'We will in France, by God's grace, play a set / Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard'. He says that he understands why the Dauphin underestimates him because of the 'wilder days' of his youth, but warns that he is 'not measuring what use we made of them'—a reminder to the audience that even while he seemed to be profligate in his youth, a soliloquy at the beginning of Henry IV, Part I reveals that he was already calculating the effect of his actions.

Shakespeare now presents Henry as beginning to lose control of his temper and show how much the Dauphin's gibe has upset him as he stops using the formal plural pronoun 'we' and lapses into the personal 'I will keep my state'. He effectively uses imagery to project a mighty show of strength, declaring that he will 'show my sail of greatness / When I do rouse in my throne of France'. The sails of his ships crossing the channel, and his army's flags and banners will announce his right to the kingdom of France, and significantly this is the first time that Henry has explicitly stated to the French that total domination of France is the aim, rather than just claiming back dukedoms that had previously belonged to England. Once again he compares himself to the sun, but, whereas in Henry IV, Part I he intended to appear brighter because of the contrast with his misspent youth (the clouds), here he turns the image into a threat: as he rises in France, the Dauphin will be struck 'blind to look on us'. He reverts to the royal 'we' as he gets his anger back under control to build up to a climactic rhyming couplet in which he warns of the consequences of 'the Dauphin's scorn'. He implies that it is the latter which has persuaded him to go to war and turns the blame for the invasion, which had in fact already been planned, onto the Dauphin: 'his soul / Shall stand sore-charged for the wasteful vengeance'. Shakespeare's choice of words allows the actor to spit out his challenge and contempt with extra stressed syllables and the plosive final consonant of the four times repeated 'mock'.

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Nevertheless, we cannot be sure that Shakespeare intended this scene to give insight into Henry's vulnerability. Since he has an audience, it may be a clever piece of play-acting. He may pretend to be hurt and offended so that he can shift the blame for his invasion of France onto the Dauphin. Because of his father's usurpation of the throne, Henry feels insecure, and so Shakespeare shows him shifting the blame from his own shoulders onto others at every opportunity.

The Chorus persuasively narrates the myth of Henry as 'the mirror of all Christian kings', the 'conquering Caesar' who modestly attributes his apparently miraculous achievement to God, the caring leader who boosted the morale of his troops with 'A little touch of Harry in the night'. However, the scenes in between the Chorus's eulogies raise doubts. Instead of spreading 'A largess universal like the sun', Shakespeare shows Henry in disguise, spying on his soldiers because he lacks confidence in their loyalty. When he abandons his former friends, breaking Falstaff's heart and sending Bardolph and Scroop to be executed, the audience is left with a feeling that, although his actions are politically expedient, a hint of private grief and remorse would have made him a more likeable hero. Shakespeare has presented us with a king who is a consummate actor and stage manager, a master of the spin doctor's art. However, as with all spin doctors, while we may admire the skill and rhetoric, we rarely sympathise with him; kingship is a lonely office.

Source: Anne Crow, "Henry V Man and Myth: Anne Crow Shows How Shakespeare's Use of Poetry in Henry V Can Illuminate Our Understanding of the Character of the King," in The English Review, Vol. 13, No. 2, November 2002, pp. 31-34.

D. A. Traversi

In the following excerpt from an essay first published in 1956, Traversi observes Henry's moral and political conflict between self-control and passion. He contends that as king, Henry must possess a complete devotion to his position and cannot allow selfishness to affect his decisions. Traversi argues that Henry V provides the link between political unity and personal order in England. He also traces Henry's struggle throughout the play with personal control and order.

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Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in a scene from the 1989 film of Henry V Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in a scene from the 1989 film of Henry V (Reproduced by permission of The Picture Desk, Inc.)

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Source: D. A. Traversi, "Henry IV—Parts I and II, and Henry V," in An Approach to Shakespeare, Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1969, pp. 191-258.

Mark Van Doren

In the following excerpt, Van Doren criticizes the lack of unity in Henry V, stating that the spectacle of the play does not compensate for the inadequate dramatic matter. He condemns Shakespeare's use of the chorus, the inflated style, the sentimental appeal to patriotism, and the weak humor in the play. Van Doren also asserts that Shakespeare fails to establish a relation between Henry's actions and his experiences.

Shakespeare in Henry IV had still been able to pour all of his thought and feeling into the heroic drama without demolishing its form. His respect for English history as a subject, his tendency to conceive kings in tragic terms, his interest in exalted dialogue as a medium through which important actions could be advanced—these, corrected by comedy which flooded the whole with the wisdom of a warm and proper light, may have reached their natural limit, but that limit was not transgressed. Henry IV, in other words, both was and is a successful play; it answers the questions it raises, it satisfies every instinct of the spectator, it is remembered as fabulously rich and at the same time simply ordered. Henry V is no such play. It has its splendors and its secondary attractions, but the forces in it are not unified. The reason probably is that for Shakespeare they had ceased to be genuine forces. He marshals for his task a host of substitute powers, but the effect is often hollow. The style strains itself to bursting, the hero is stretched until he struts on tiptoe and is still strutting at the last insignificant exit, and war is emptied of its tragic content. The form of the historical drama had been the tragic form; its dress is borrowed here, but only borrowed. The Page 293  |  Top of Articleheroic idea splinters into a thousand starry fragments, fine as fragments but lighted from no single source.

Everywhere efforts are made to be striking, and they succeed. But the success is local. Henry V does not succeed as a whole because its author lacks adequate dramatic matter; or because, veering so suddenly away from tragedy, he is unable to free himself from the accidents of its form; or because, with Julius Caesar and Hamlet on his horizon, he finds himself less interested than before in heroes who are men of action and yet is not at the moment provided with a dramatic language for saying so. Whatever the cause, we discover that we are being entertained from the top of his mind. There is much there to glitter and please us, but what pleases us has less body than what once did so and soon will do so with still greater abundance again.

The prologues are the first sign of Shakespeare's imperfect dramatic faith. Their verse is wonderful but it has to be, for it is doing the work which the play ought to be doing, it is a substitute for scene and action. "O for a Muse of fire," the poet's apology begins. The prologues are everywhere apologetic; they are saying that no stage, this one or any other, is big enough or wealthy enough to present the "huge and proper life" of Henry's wars; this cockpit cannot hold the vasty fields of France, there will be no veritable horses in any scene, the ship-boys on the masts and the camp-fires at Agincourt will simply have to be imagined. Which it is the business of the play to make them be, as Shakespeare has known and will know again. The author of Romeo and Juliet had not been sorry because his stage was a piece of London rather than the whole of Verona, and the storm in King Lear will begin without benefit of description. The description here is always very fine, as for example at the opening of the fourth act:

    Now entertain conjecture of a time
    When creeping murmur and the poring dark
    Fills the wide vessel of the universe.
    From camp to camp through the foul womb of night
    The hum of either army stilly sounds,
    That the fix'd sentinels almost receive
    The secret whispers of each other's watch;
    Fire answers fire, and through their paly flames
    Each battle sees the other's umber'd face;
    Steed threatens steed, in high and boastful neighs
    Piercing the night's dull ear; and from the tents
    The armourers, accomplishing the knights,
    With busy hammers closing rivets up,
    Give dreadful note of preparation.

But it is still description, and it is being asked to do what description can never do—turn spectacle into plot, tableau into tragedy.

The second sign of genius at loose ends is a radical and indeed an astounding inflation in the style. Passages of boasting and exhortation are in place, but even the best of them, whether from the French or from the English side, have a forced, shrill, windy sound, as if their author were pumping his muse for dear life in the hope that mere speed and plangency might take the place of matter. For a few lines like

    Familiar in his mouth as household words
    (IV, iii, 52)
    The singing masons building roofs of gold
    (I, ii, 198)
    I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
    Straining upon the start
    (III, i, 31-2)
    there are hundreds like
    The native mightiness and fate of him
    (II, iv, 64)
    With ample and brim fullness of his force
    (I, ii, 150)
    That caves and womby vaultages of France
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    Shall chide your trespass and return your mock.
    (II, iv, 124-5)

Mightiness and fate, ample and brim, caves and vaultages, trespass and mock—such couplings attest the poet's desperation, the rhetorician's extremity. They spring up everywhere, like birds from undergrowth: sweet and honey'd, open haunts and popularity, thrive and ripen, crown and seat, right and title, right and conscience, kings and monarchs, means and might, aim and butt, large and ample, taken and impounded, frank and uncurbed, success and conquest, desert and merit, weight and worthiness, duty and zeal, savage and inhuman, botch and bungle, garnish'd and deck'd, assembled and collected, sinister and awkward, culled and choice-drawn, o'erhang and jutty, waste and desolation, cool and temperate, flexure and low bending, signal and ostent, vainness and self-glorious pride. Shakespeare has perpetrated them before, as when in Henry VI he coupled ominous and fearful, trouble and disturb, substance and authority, and absurd and reasonless. But never has he perpetrated them with such thoughtless frequency. Nor has he at this point developed the compound epithet into that interesting mannerism—the only mannerism he ever submitted to—which is to be so noticeable in his next half-dozen plays, including Hamlet. The device he is to use will involve more than the pairing of adjectives or nouns; one part of speech will assume the duties of another, and a certain very sudden concentration of meaning will result. There is, to be sure, one approximation to the device in Henry V—"the quick forge and working-house of thought" (Prologue, v, 23) …

The third sign is a direct and puerile [juvenile] appeal to the patriotism of the audience, a dependence upon sentiments outside the play that can be counted on, once they are tapped, to pour in and repair the deficiencies of the action. Unable to achieve a dramatic unity out of the materials before him, Shakespeare must grow lyrical about the unity of England; politics must substitute for poetry. He cannot take England for granted as the scene of conflicts whose greatness will imply its greatness. It must be great itself, and the play says so—unconvincingly. There are no conflicts. The traitors Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey are happy to lose their heads for England (II, ii), and the battles in France, even though the enemy's host is huge and starvation takes
King Henry, Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey, Act II, scene ii King Henry, Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey, Act II, scene ii (© Shakespeare Collection, Special Collections Library, University of Michigan) its toll, are bound to be won by such fine English fellows as we have here. If the French have boasted beforehand, the irony of their doing so was obvious from the start. But it was patriotism, shared as a secret between the author and his audience, that made it obvious. It was not drama.

And a fourth sign is the note of gaiety that takes the place here of high passion. The treasure sent to Henry by the Dauphin is discovered at the end of the first act to be tennis-balls: an insult which the young king returns in a speech about matching rackets and playing sets—his idiom for bloody war. When the treachery of Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey is detected on the eve of his departure for France he stages their discomfiture somewhat as games are undertaken, and with a certain sporting relish watches their faces as they read their dooms. The conversation of the French leaders as they wait for the sun to rise Page 295  |  Top of Articleon Agincourt is nervous as thoroughbreds are nervous, or champion athletes impatient for a tournament to commerce; their camp is a locker room, littered with attitudes no less than uniforms (III, vii). The deaths of York and Suffolk the next day are images of how young knights should die. They kiss each other's gashes, wearing their red blood like roses in the field, and spending their last breath in terms so fine that Exeter, reporting to the King, is overcome by "the pretty and sweet manner of it" (IV, vi, 28). And of course there are the scenes where Katharine makes fritters of English, waiting to be wooed (III, iv) and wooed at last (V, ii) by Henry Plantagenet, "king of good fellows." "The truth is," said Dr. Johnson, "that the poet's matter failed him in the fifth act, and he was glad to fill it up with whatever he could get; and not even Shakespeare can write well without a proper subject. It is a vain endeavour for the most skilful hand to cultivate barrenness, or to paint upon vacuity." That is harsh, but its essence cannot be ignored. The high spirits in which the scenes are written have their attraction, but they are no substitute for intensity.

Nor do they give us the king we thought we had. "I speak to thee plain soldier," boasts Henry in homespun vein. "I am glad thou canst speak no better English; for, if thou couldst, thou wouldst find me such a plain king that thou wouldst think I had sold my farm to buy my crown. I know no ways to mince it in love, but directly to say, 'I love you.'… These fellows of infinite tongue, that can rhyme themselves into ladies' favours, they do always reason themselves out again … By mine honour, in true English, I love thee, Kate" (V, ii) …

Shakespeare has forgotten the glittering young god whom Vernon described in Henry IV—plumed like an estridge or like an eagle lately bathed, shining like an image in his golden coat, as full of spirit as the month of May, wanton as a youthful goat, a feathered Mercury, an angel dropped down from the clouds. The figure whom he has groomed to be the ideal English king, all plumes and smiles and decorated courage, collapses here into a mere good fellow, a hearty undergraduate with enormous initials on his chest. The reason must be that Shakespeare has little interest in the ideal English king. He has done what rhetoric could do to give us a young heart whole in honor, but his imagination has already sped forward to Brutus and Hamlet: to a kind of hero who is no less honorable than Henry but who will tread on thorns as he takes the path of duty—itself unclear, and crossed by other paths of no man's making. Henry is Shakespeare's last attempt at the great man who is also simple. Henceforth he will show greatness as either perplexing or perplexed; and Hamlet will be both.

Meanwhile his imagination undermines the very eminence on which Henry struts. For the King and his nobles the war may be a handsome game, but an undercurrent of realism reminds us of the "poor souls" for whom it is no such thing. We hear of widows' tears and orphans' cries, of dead men's blood and pining maidens' groans (II, iv, 104-7). Such horrors had been touched on in earlier Histories; now they are given a scene to themselves (IV, i). While the French leaders chaff one another through the night before Agincourt the English common soldiers have their hour. Men with names as plain as John Bates and Micheal Williams walk up and down the dark field thinking of legs and arms and heads chopped off in battle, of faint cries for surgeons, of men in misery because of their children who will be rawly left. Henry, moving among them in the disguise of clothes like theirs, asks them to remember that the King's cause is just and his quarrel honorable. "That's more than we know," comes back the disturbing cool voice of Michael Williams. Henry answers with much fair prose, and the episode ends with a wager—sportsmanship again—which in turn leads to an amusing recognition scene (IV, viii). But the honest voice of Williams still has the edge on Henry's patronizing tone:

Williams. Your Majesty came not like yourself. You appear'd to me but as a common man; witness the night, your garments, your lowliness; and what your Highness suffer'd under that shape, I beseech you take it for your own fault and not mine …

     King Henry. Here, uncle Exeter, fill this glove with crowns,
     And give it to this fellow. Keep it, fellow;
     And wear it for an honour in thy cap
     Till I do challenge it.
     (IV, viii, 53-64)

Henry has not learned that Williams knows. He is still the plumed king, prancing on oratory and waving wagers as he goes. That he finally has no place to go is the result of Shakespeare's failure to establish any relation between a hero and his experience. Henry has not absorbed the vision either of Williams or of Shakespeare. This Page 296  |  Top of Articleshrinks him in his armor, and it leaves the vision hanging.

The humor of the play, rich as it sometimes is, suffers likewise from a lack of vital function. The celebrated scene (II, iii) in which the Hostess describes Falstaff's death shuts the door forever on Henry IV and its gigantic comedy. Pistol and Bardolph continue in their respective styles, and continue cleverly; the first scene of the second act, which finds them still in London, may be indeed the best one ever written for them—and for Nym in his pompous brevity.

I cannot tell. Things must be as they may. Men may sleep, and they may have their throats about them at the time; and some say knives have edges. It must be as it may.

Pistol was never excited to funnier effect.

     O hound of Crete, think'st thou my spouse to get?
     No! to the spital go,
     And from the powdering-tub of infamy
     Fetch forth the lazar kite of Cressid's kind,
     Doll Tearsheet she by name, and her espouse.
     I have, and I will hold, the quondam Quickly
     For the only she; and—pauca, there's enough. Go to.

Yet this leads on to little in France beyond a series of rather mechanically arranged encounters in which the high talk of heroes is echoed by the rough cries of rascals. "To the breach, to the breach!" yells Bardolph after Henry, and that is parody. But Henry has already parodied himself; the device is not needed, any more than the rascals are. Shakespeare seems to admit as much when he permits lectures to be delivered against their moral characters, first by the boy who serves them (III, ii, 28-57) and next by the sober Gower (III, vi, 70-85), and when he arranges bad ends for them as thieves, cutpurses, and bawds.

There is a clearer function for Fluellen, the fussy Welsh pedant who is for fighting wars out of books. Always fretting and out of breath, he mourns "the disciplines of the wars," the pristine wars of the Romans, now in these latter days lost with all other learning. There was not this tiddle taddle and pibble pabble in Pompey's camp. The law of arms was once well known, and men—strong, silent men such as he fancies himself to be—observed it without prawls and prabbles. He has no shrewdness; he mistakes Pistol for a brave man because he talks bravely, and there is his classic comparison of Henry with Alexander because one lived in Monmouth and the other in Macedon and each city had a river and there were salmons in both. He has only his schoolmaster's eloquence; it breaks out on him like a rash, and is the one style here that surpasses the King's in fullness.

Fluellen. It is not well done, mark you now, to take the tales out of my mouth, ere it is made and finished. I speak but in the figures and comparisons of it. As Alexander kill'd his friend Cleitus, being in his ales and his cups; so also Harry Monmouth, being in his right wits and his good judgements, turn'd away the fat knight with the great belly doublet. He was full of jests, and gipes, and knaveries, and mocks; I have forgot his name.

Gower. Sir John Falstaff.

Fluellen. That is he.

(IV, vii, 43-55)

Fluellen reminds us of Falstaff. That is a function, but he has another. It is to let the war theme finally down. Agincourt is won not only by a tennis-player but by a school-teacher. Saint Crispin's day is to be remembered as much in the pibble pabble of a pedant as in the golden throatings of a hollow god. Fluellen is one of Shakespeare's most humorous men, and one of his best used.

Source: Mark Van Doren, "Henry V," in Shakespeare, Henry Holt and Company, 1939, pp. 170-79.


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Some of the top critics of the twentieth century offer their views on Shakespeare's play.

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This is the place to read about the monarchs in Europe, the power of the church, the wars, and the customs of the people during the Middle Ages.

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Have you ever wondered what life would be like in the Middle Ages? These authors have put together a glimpse into the ordinary lives of citizens of the Middle Ages.

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A concise history of the short battle that profoundly affected England and France.

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A study of the central issues of dispute and the resulting wars between France and England as the two countries fought for control of the French crown.

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The author offers a different take on the biography of Shakespeare by telling the reader what was happening around Shakespeare while he was writing some of his plays, including Henry V.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2896100018