Henry V

is one of Shakespeare’s two three-part historical cycles of plays and follows on closely from Henry IV, parts I and II. Prince Hal, the Prince of Wales, son of King Henry IV, and youthful hero of the former plays, reappears as the newly crowned King Henry V. Several other characters from the earlier plays, those grouped around Sir John Falstaff and the Eastcheap tavern mob, also reappear or merit a mention in Henry V, probably due to popularity with the audience of the time. Their part in the play is necessarily minor, however, showing the distance between the Hal and Henry elements of the king’s character. The play celebrates one of the most famous victories in English history: that achieved by Henry against the French at the battle of Agincourt in 1415. With its strongly patriotic theme it has proved popular at times of national crisis. Laurence Olivier produced a well-loved film version in 1944; more recently, Kenneth Branagh produced a film seeking to reclaim the play "from jingoism and its World War Two associations". The jingoistic element, i.e. the anti-French fervour, is certainly present in what was a perennially popular production for its contemporary, patriotic audience. In recent years the play has been seen as a more ambiguous and ironic depiction of the motivation and conduct of war, conveniently for a politically correct half century. Critics have suggested that Shakespeare intended to convey one treatment of the rousing subject matter to the groundlings, or common people, in the audience, and a different, more satirical questioning of patriotism and the brutality of conflict to the more judicious spectator and posterity. There is some mileage in this theory but we must remember that at heart Shakespeare was a populist writer and that Henry V if anything showed him that it is inconvenient to portray national heroes because it is harder to show their faults diplomatically. This is perhaps why Henry is less interesting as a character than Shakespeare’s ‘faulty’ kings: Lear, Richard II, Richard III, Claudius in Hamlet and so on.

It is easy to get carried away looking for ambiguities that may be present, but do not manage to detract from the simpler aims of the play. It is therefore better to view the patriotic treatment of the historical subject matter as one that appealed to the showman in the dramatist, while at the same time a Shakespeare approaching full maturity as a playwright could not produce an entirely one-dimensional or simplistic evocation of the subject matter. All historical treatments depend on which elements of history you choose to focus on, and Shakespeare is notorious for his inconsistencies and telescoping of events for the sake of artistic effect. Henry V draws as its sources principally upon the historical chronicles of Hall and Holinshed, which Shakespeare dips into and reshapes with his usual verve for connection of details. The play is unusual for its use of a Chorus between acts which serves to unify disparate elements in the narrative flow and notify the audience of rapid shifts of setting and time. It is a device that he would use in his later Romances such as The Winter’s Tale and aids with disparities of time. The Chorus also does much to contribute to the patriotic tenor of the play with its rousing addresses to the audience, but it is rightly the King’s famous rallying cry "Follow your spirit, and upon this charge/ Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!" that sets the tone of the spectacle.

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