1. Masked as a patriotic tribute to a legendary king, Henry V is actually a subtle study of historical ambivalence and irony. Henry V is, of course, Prince Hal from the Henry IV plays, newly minted as the "mirror of all Christian kings" (2.Chorus.6). And while Shakespeare does repeat and embellish the myth of the miraculous young Hal, he also introduces shadows into the portrait, some of the Machiavellian marks of Hal's father, and colors the end of the story with foreshadowing of death and loss.

2. Falstaff, promised in the Epilogue to Henry IV, Part Two, dies offstage, victim of a broken heart, a personnel change in Shakespeare's company, or censorship. He is invoked by the survivors of his tavern world and by Fluellen, and Kenneth Branagh has Henry V think of him in flashback several times in his film. But he embodied a hearty spirit now vanished from the young king's life, and the tavern world has dramatically decayed, with Pistol the lone sorry survivor by the end of the play.

3. Shakespeare uses a Chorus to preface the five acts, giving the audience background notes, foreshadowing events, and replying to Ben Jonson's criticism of the liberties taken with time, place, and action. In Every Man in His Humour, Jonson challenges Shakespeare's fluid use of his stage:

with three rusty swords,
And help of some few foot and half-foot words,
Fight over York and Lancaster's [lo]ng jars,
And in the tyring-house bring wounds to scars.
He rather prays you will be pleas'd to see
One such to-day, as other plays should be;
Where neither chorus wafts you o'er the seas,
Nor creaking throne comes down the boys to please;
Nor nimble squib is seen to make afeard
The gentlewomen; nor roll'd bullet heard
To say, it thunders; nor tempestuous drum
Rumbles, to tell you when the storm doth come;

Shakespeare's rejoinder in his Prologue encourages the audience to use their "imaginary forces" (18); in this excerpt, Branagh pays homage to Laurence Olivier's historic 1944 film with his theatrical metaphor:


The Olivier production was perhaps the first great Shakespeare film. In this excerpt, you can see how explicitly theatrical it is, mounted in a replica of the Globe Theater (for Act 1 at least), with amusing backstage scenes. While Branagh creates suspense with shadows and whispers as the two clergymen conspire, Olivier uses more of the complicated argument about the King's claim to the French throne. His solution to the stupefyingly dull moral debate is to make it comic:


(Here is a partial list of Shakespeare films made after the silent era.)


Interpretation: performance and the text.

4. Henry V opens with two scenes that demand interpretation: Scene 1 has two churchmen planning to influence the new king as they seek to preserve Church land from a hostile piece of legislation, and the second scene shows the Archbishop of Canterbury voicing the Church's blessing of the war with France, presumably in exchange for the king's protection, and accompanied by a "mighty" campaign contribution. Branagh fills the edited first scene with suspense and danger as he sets up Henry's entrance and confrontation with the French ambassadors:


We should note several points. First, the threat to the Church is dire:

Canterbury. My lord, I'll tell you, that self bill is urged
Which in th' eleventh year of the last king's reign
Was like, and had indeed against us passed,
But that the scambling and unquiet time
Did push it out of farther question.
Ely. But how, my lord, shall we resist it now?
Canterbury. It must be thought on. If it pass against us,
We lose the better half of our possession...
Ely. This would drink deep.
Canterbury. 'Twould drink the cup and all.
Ely. But what prevention?
Canterbury. The king is full of grace and fair regard.
Ely. And a true lover of the holy Church.
Canterbury. The courses of his youth promised it not.
The breath no sooner left his father's body
But that his wildness, mortified in him,
Seemed to die too; yea, at that very moment
Consideration like an angel came
And whipped th' offending Adam out of him,
Leaving his body as a paradise
T' envelop and contain celestial spirits. (1.1.1-8,19-31)

Second, their path to success lies in playing up to the King in his new image. The quality they stress in Henry is sprezzatura, the charismatic and seemingly intuitive excellence he exhibits in all things:

Canterbury. Hear him but reason in divinity,
And all-admiring, with an inward wish
You would desire the king were made a prelate;
Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs,
You would say it hath been all in all his study;
List his discourse of war, and you shall hear
A fearful battle rend'red you in music;
Turn him to any cause of policy,
The Gordian knot of it he will unloose,
Familiar as his garter; that, when he speaks,
The air, a chartered libertine, is still,
And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears
To steal his sweet and honey'd sentences;
So that the art and practic part of life
Must be the mistress to this theoric;
Which is a wonder how his Grace should glean it,
Since his addiction was to courses vain,
His companies unlettered, rude and shallow,
His hours filled up with riots, banquets, sports;
And never noted in him any study,
Any retirement, any sequestration
From open haunts and popularity. (38-59)

This is the mythic root of Henry V, most beloved of English kings.

5. Canterbury blesses the war against France, as Henry heeds the advice his dying father had given him in the previous play to "busy giddy minds/ With foreign quarrels" (2HenryIV 4.5.213-14) and claims "certain dukedoms" as a prelude to uniting the thrones of France and England. Scene 2 ends with the insulting gift of tennis balls to Henry from the French Dauphin (his opposite number in age and station until the recent death of Henry IV) and Henry's grim threats to rain destruction of the French. Canterbury's defense of Henry's claim is a masterpiece of historical and political double-talk, which a modern production either cuts severely (Branagh) or makes comic (Olivier).

6. The tavern world makes a sad appearance with the death of Falstaff offstage. In 2.1 and 2.3. Bardolph, Pistol, Nym, and Hostess Quickly are shaken by the event, and the men are left to follow the army to survive, Falstaff's allowance from the King now gone:


Nell Quickly believes that "The King has killed his heart" (2.1.91), and after Falstaff dies we are left with the bluster and cynicism of Pistol:

Come, let's away. My love, give me thy lips.
Look to my chattels and my movables.
Let senses rule. The word is "Pitch and Pay."
Trust none;
For oaths are straws, men's faiths are wafer-cakes,
And Hold-fast is the only dog, my duck.
Therefore Caveto be thy counsellor.
Go, clear thy crystals. Yokefellows in arms,
Let us to France, like horse-leeches, my boys,
To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck! (2.3.48-57)

Not only Falstaff, but a whole world has disappeared.

7. King Harry has turned his eye elsewhere, and his agents have rooted out a nest of traitors. The King draws the net around them, condemning them with their own harsh sentences. The Chorus to Act 2 traces the historical and moral argument:


Their assassination plot having failed, the French await the invasion, mindful of their famous defeat at Crécy (and Poitiers) by Edward III and his son, Edward, the Black Prince, Henry's great-uncle:


Henry is mirrored by the Dauphin as a rival in age, like Hotspur in Henry IV, Part One. The "Dolphin's" bragging and hot-headedness prefigure a disaster as great as the battle of Shrewsbury in the earlier play.

8. At the end of the previous clip, we saw Henry at his most charismatic and inspiring: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends...Cry, 'God for Harry, England, and St. George!'" (3.1.1, 34). As the battle for Harfleur rages, however, he shows a colder side, a brutal threat, perhaps a bluff:


He needs this victory quickly, with his men ill and winter coming on, and so raises the spectre of murder, rape,and infanticide by uncontrollable soldiers if they are forced to breach the walls and enter the city. Once Harfleur yields, he can turn another side to the audience: "Use mercy to them all" (54). Shakespeare is balancing the heroic with the pragmatic in this evolving portrait of King Harry, with the greatest challenge yet to come, both for the King in battle and for the portrait-maker, Shakespeare.

9. Two moral issues stand out in the next sequences of the play. In 3.6, Pistol asks Fleullen to help save Bardolph, who is to be hanged for looting a church. Fluellen refuses, and King Henry confirms the order:

We would have all such offenders so cut off; and we give express charge that in our marches through the country there be nothing compelled from the villages, nothing taken but paid for; none of the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language; for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner.

Branagh's film concentrates the moment with a flashback to the old tavern days (Prince Hal's memory rewriting the speakers), and shows the heavy toll Bardolph's execution takes on the King:


This is a personal decision made in the pressured situation of a small army, weary and ill, about to be confronted by a superior force. Some commentators find the King emotionally cold here, which is why Branagh expands the moment to humanize the King.

10. Such a humane touch Shakespeare writes in 4.1, as the King wanders incognito among his troops the night before the battle. He debates with some soldiers the moral issue of the King's soldiers dying in the King's cause:


But the moral moment soon yields to the military one, and the King rallies his men with stirring words:


The battle begins in a hail of arrows from the English longbowmen, which many historians have called the precipitating cause of the English victory at Agincourt, outnumbered as they were.

11. Both Branagh and Olivier choose to ignore perhaps the most controversial moment in the play, King Henry's order: "Let every soldier kill his prisoners" (4.6.37). The order is given in response to a French counterattack, but is softened in two ways. First, Hal has just heard a moving account of the death of York. Second, Fluellen and Gower in 4.7 mistake the order as a response to a French atrocity, the killing of the English boys guarding the luggage train:

Fluellen. Kill the poys and the luggage? 'Tis expressly against the law of arms; 'tis as arrant a piece of knavery, mark you now, as can be offert—in your conscience, now, is it not?

Gower. 'Tis certain there's not a boy left alive, and the cowardly rascals that ran from the battle ha' done this slaughter; besides, they have burned and carried away all that was in the king's tent; wherefore the king most worthily hath caused every soldier
to cut his prisoner's throat. O, 'tis a gallant king! (1-11)

Here is the sequence in the BBC version, uncut:


Notice that the King does not know of the French atrocity when he gives his first order. When he discovers the slaughter, he resolves:

I was not angry since I came to France
Until this instant. Take a trumpet, herald,
Ride thou unto the horsemen on yond hill:
If they will fight with us, bid them come down,
Or void the field; they do offend our sight.
If they'll do neither, we will come to them,
And make them skirr away, as swift as stones
Enforcèd from the old Assyrian slings.
Besides, we'll cut the throats of those we have,
And not a man of them that we shall take
Shall taste our mercy. Go and tell them so. (57-67)

In contrast, here is the edited version from Branagh, ending in the emotional moment when the King carries the body of the boy across the battlefield to the strains of "Te Deum," a hymn of praise to God for the victory:


This next clip is from the inaugural production at the New Globe Theatre in 1996. Mark Rylance, the artistic director, plays Henry in the same theatrical space Shakespeare's audience saw in 1599, when Henry V opened the original Globe. Notice the contrast between the large space and the intimate contact between actors and audience which Rylance exploits successfully in this quiet portrayal of the King, unlike Branagh's sprawling cinematic canvas.


12. The tavern world is all but gone now, with Pistol (beaten by Fluellen) alone and unrepentant:

Doth Fortune play the huswife with me now?
News have I, that my Doll is dead i' th' spital
Of malady of France;
And there my rendezvous is quite cut off.
Old I do wax, and from my weary limbs
Honor is cudgeled. Well, bawd I'll turn,
And something lean to cutpurse of quick hand.
To England will I steal, and there I'll steal,
And patches will I get unto these cudgeled scars,
And swear I got them in the Gallia wars. (5.1.83-92)

13. There are two finishing touches left to Shakespeare: the King's wooing of Katherine of France, and the melancholy Epilogue. The first is bright and charming: the boyish Hal returns to the person of the King, professing lamely that he is no lover in a rather studied performance. But the Chorus reminds us of what we already know, that glory decays and is inevitably lost to Time:





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