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Title: Henry V
Author: William Shakespeare
Rating: 4 of 5 Stars
The Elizabethan stage lacked scenery. It begins with a Prologue, in which the Chorus (a lone speaker addressing the audience) apologizes for the limitations of the theatre, wishing for “a Muse of fire”, with real princes and a kingdom for a stage, to do justice to King Henry’s story. Then, says the Chorus, King Henry would “[a]ssume the port [bearing] of Mars”. The Chorus encourages the audience to use their “imaginary forces” to overcome the limitations of the stage: “Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts … turning the accomplishment of many years / Into an hour-glass”.
Shakespeare’s plays are in five acts. In Henry V, the first act deals largely with the king and his decision to invade France, persuaded that through ancestry, he is the rightful heir to the French throne. The French Dauphin, son of King Charles VI, answers Henry’s claims with a condescending and insulting gift of tennis balls, “as matching to his youth and vanity.”
The Chorus reappears at the beginning of each act to advance the story. At the beginning of Act II, he describes the country’s dedication to the war effort: “Now all the youth of England are on fire… They sell the pasture now to buy the horse, / Following the mirror of all Christian kings ….” Act II includes a plot by the Earl of Cambridge and two comrades to assassinate Henry at Southampton. Henry’s clever uncovering of the plot and his ruthless treatment of the conspirators show that he has changed from the earlier plays in which he appeared.
In Act III Henry and his troops siege the French port of Harfleur after crossing the English Channel. The Chorus appears again: “Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy/And leave your England, as dead midnight still”. The French king, says the Chorus, “doth offer him / Catharine his daughter, and with her, to dowry, / Some petty and unprofitable dukedoms.” Henry is not satisfied.
At the siege of Harfleur, the English are beaten back at first, but Henry urges them on with one of Shakespeare’s best-known speeches. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; / Or close the wall up with our English dead….” After a bloody siege, the English take Harfleur, but Henry’s forces are so depleted that he decides not to go on to Paris. Instead, he decides to move up the coast to Calais. The French assemble a powerful army and pursue him.
They surround him near the small town of Agincourt, and in Act IV, the night before the battle, knowing he is outnumbered, Henry wanders around the English camp in disguise, trying to comfort his soldiers and determine what they really think of him. He agonizes about the moral burden of being king, asking God to “steel my soldiers’ hearts”. Daylight comes, and Henry rallies his nobles with the famous St Crispin’s Day Speech (Act IV Scene iii 18–67): “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”. The French herald Montjoy returns to ask if Henry will surrender and avoid certain defeat, and ransom his men’s survival; Henry bids him “bear my former answer back,” saying the French will get no ransom from him “but these my joints.”
Shakespeare does not describe the battle in the play. Though the French in one scene complain that ‘Tout est perdu’, the outcome is not clear to Henry, until the French Herald Montjoy tells him the ‘day is yours’. The battle turns out to be a lop-sided victory: the French suffered 10,000 casualties; the English, fewer than 30. “O God, thy arm was here,” says Henry.
Act V comes several years later, as the English and French negotiate the Treaty of Troyes, and Henry tries to woo the French princess, Catherine of Valois. Neither speaks the other’s language well, but the humour of their mistakes actually helps achieve his aim. The scene ends with the French king adopting Henry as heir to the French throne, and the prayer of the French queen “that English may as French, French Englishmen, receive each other, God speak this Amen.”
The play concludes with a final appearance of the Chorus who foreshadows the tumultuous reign of Henry’s son Henry VI of England, “whose state so many had the managing, that they lost France, and made his England bleed, which oft our stage hath shown”. Shakespeare had previously brought this tale to the stage in a trilogy of plays: Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, and Henry VI Part 3.
As in many of Shakespeare’s history and tragedy plays, a number of minor comic characters appear, contrasting with and sometimes commenting on the main plot. In this case, they are mostly common soldiers in Henry’s army, and they include Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph from the Henry IV plays. The army also includes a Scot, an Irishman, and an Englishman, and Fluellen, a comically stereotyped Welsh soldier. The play also deals briefly with the death of Sir John Falstaff, Henry’s estranged friend from the Henry IV plays, whom Henry had rejected at the end of Henry IV, Part 2.
Back in May of ’21, I decided to Take A Break from Shakespeare. I was just burned out and even Henry V, the play I am most familiar with and enjoy, was not working for me. I had thought about taking an entire year off (you know you are getting older when planning your reading schedule now encompasses years instead of weeks or even months) but was a bit afraid that if I stopped that long that I might not get back on the horse. So here we are.
In highschool I had watched the Kenneth Branaugh production of Henry V. It really hit home to my teenage self and ended up occupying a place in my mind where I judged all other Shakespeare films to it. I still do in fact. So while I was reading this I had scenes from the movie interjecting themselves into my brain. I also had the Musical Score running through my head. Man, that is some good music!
All of that is to highlight just how biased I am in this play’s favor. I enjoyed reading this. It was interesting and having the “histories” lining up chronologically allowed me to have a fuller grasp of Henry as a character, as well as a few of his “old crew” who got themselves into various sorts of trouble.
It was encouraging and refreshing to enjoy Shakespeare again. While I have had, and will continue to have, issues with the Bard, they aren’t big enough to stop me from reading him. At least as long as I’m not approaching burn out. I’m going to try reading him until the end of ’23 and see if two years is a good period or not. Three years was definitely much too much.