Henry V

Content Group

Overview
Medieval Portrait: King Henry V

Because of its elements favoring English nationalism developed in the Hundred Years' War with France, this play has always had a popular following among English audiences, including the rebuilt Globe's, providing endorsement of Henry V as the ideal king. However, from World War I onwards more hostile, pacifist censures of this element have strengthened, with increasing directorial stress on the king's cynical motives in invading France and his cruelty both on and off the battlefield, including the cat-and-mouse treatment of the conspirators and the order to kill the prisoners on the battlefield at Agincourt. Critics' total polarization on these issues have led to contrasting productions: Olivier's film takes a positive view of Henry, consonant with the contemporary invasion of Vichy France by the allies in 1944, whereas more recently a contrasting view was presented in the Kenneth Branagh film. Critics oscilate uneasily between these interpretations and productions tend to favor one or the other, with the pacificist reading most current. However, these inconveniently divergent evaluations of Shakespeare's Henry V as a leader can be reconciled by my view in Shakespeare's Political Plays that he starts as a rather naïve and dangerous nationalist, covering up the sins of his father's usurpation, but is progressively tempered by the rigors of war, so that he finishes by achieving his goals less through violence than via diplomacy and marriage, almost vindicating the pacifist adage "Make love not war!" Feminist stagings tend to present the Princess as merely a victim, but the popular scene in French (3.4) makes clear that by happily learning English Catherine looks forward to the marriage (which the historical princess also did), as the French lords resentfully confirm in the very next scene (3.5.27-35). Moreover, the play's final Chorus stresses that Henry's military gains were lost by the armies of his son Henry VI after Henry V's premature death, which starts Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy. By contrast, historically, Henry V's widow Catherine married Owen Tudor, and thus this Frenchwoman became the ancestress of the Tudor dynasty, as Elizabethan audiences would surely have known, for Queen Elizabeth I was a direct descendant of these Tudors. So Catherine's role merits the climactic prominence it gives to female interest. Another of the great staging concerns of the script is that before each act its Chorus offers ruminations about the theatrical effects of the physical characteristics of the Globe Theatre on its performances, as illustrated in parts of Olivier's film.

Images
Henry V, Restored Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, 1997
Finally, a Full Globe Audience
The End of Henry V
Henry V, Shakespeare's Globe, 1997
Henry V, Shakespeare's Globe, 1997
Lewis Waller (1860-1915) as King Henry V
Henry V
John Philip Kemble as Duke Vicentio, 1794 (Anon.)
Henry V, E. M. Robson as Fluellen, 1900
Henry V, John H. Barnes as Williams, 19th Century
Henry V, Renée Asherson as Katherine, Princess of France, Two Cities Films, 1944
Henry V: Lewis Waller (1860-1915) as King Henry V
Videos
Slideshows
Commentary
Essay Title Author
"Henry V" and Lope de Vega's Principle of Audience Uncertainty Hugh Richmond
King Henry V Hugh Richmond
Bibliography

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond