The Life of King Henry the Fifth chronicles Henry's campaign to regain England's French territories lost between the reign of his great-grandfather, Edward III, and that of his father's cousin and rival, Richard II. The play begins in the London palace where Henry V and his advisors affirm his claim to the French throne. As Henry declares war against France, an insulting gift of tennis balls is delivered to him from the French Dauphin, who ridicules Henry and mocks his threat of invasion. This incident further inflames Henry's determination to assert his claim in France. As war preparations are made, Henry orders the execution of three treasonous English noblemen who threaten his life and throne. In France, Henry captures the city of Harfleur. He then proceeds toward Agincourt where his army confronts French forces which outnumber his ten to one. The night before this battle Henry disguises himself as a commoner and visits his troops. He grapples with tough ethical issues, including the morality of the war and the lives for which he is responsible. On St. Crispin's Day the English achieve a miraculous victory at Agincourt. As a result of this battle, Henry is awarded the French crown and marries Katherine, the French princess. Through his marriage, Henry attempts to permanently unite England and France. However, as the play's epilogue suggests, this peace is short-lived. The rule of their son, Henry VI, ends disastrously in civil strife, usurpation, and the loss of France.
For a contemporary audience versed in politically correct anti-warism, Shakespeare's glorification of war in Henry V might seem distasteful. However, history implies that for every horrific image of war there is an inverse image of glory to be found.
Henry V, known as Prince Hal in his youth, inherited the throne of England through his Lancaster father, Henry Bolingbroke, who reigned as Henry IV. Bolingbroke usurped the throne from his York cousin, Richard II, violating the English law of inheritance which stipulated the eldest son as rightful heir. Though Bolingbroke was a much more effective ruler than Richard, his reign was threatened by warring factions until the time of his death. As king of a nation filled with internal strife, Bolingbroke desperately sought to prepare his first-born son to be an effective leader. It was at Bolingbroke's deathbed that Hal received the crown and was miraculously converted from a rambunctious playboy to a pious and godly ruler. It was also there that Shakespeare's Hal, now King Henry V, received the wise counsel of his father to avoid civil strife by "warring abroad." Acting upon this advice, Shakespeare's Henry V began his reign.
SHAKESPEARE vs. HISTORY Henry V may be viewed as a glorification of Shakespeare's patron, Queen Elizabeth. The subject of Henry's military achievements would certainly have been of interest to her. The historical Henry's marriage to Katherine, and her subsequent marriage to Owen Tudor, established the Tudor line of Elizabeth I. As Shakespeare glorified Henry V, the ideal god-king, he affirmed Elizabeth, the ideal god-queen. Shakespeare's editing of the less honorable episodes of the historical French campaign enhances Henry's achievements. For example, Shakespeare describes the initial battle against the French at Harfleur as a brilliant military success, led by an inexhaustible Henry who rallies his army with charismatic discourse. He suggests that the battle was brief, and that it marked for the English a strong beginning to a tireless military campaign. In truth, the siege of Harfleur was a catastrophe. Harfleur was the principle gateway to Paris. A port town famous for ship-building, weaving and dying, and notorious for smuggling and piracy, it was heavily fortified. Astride the river Lezarde, Harfleur was built on a marsh and encircled by a wall and a deep moat two-and-a-half miles around. There were three gates into the city, each protected by a drawbridge. The gates were protected by ironbound timbers, and the moat was sunk with stakes and tree trunks to destroy boat bottoms and skewer men. There were also several towers and embrasures along the length of the wall for missile discharge. The English arrived at Harfleur in mid-August 1415. It was hot and humid. The marshes where the English were forced to camp were not only insect-infested but full of sewage. Henry planned to breach the town wall with great guns and explosives planted in tunnels underneath the wall. He confidently asserted that the city would be taken within eight days, but Harfleur was so well-fortified, and her citizens so prepared, that any breach achieved by the English was patched within a matter of hours. When the English attempted to scale the walls, they were baptized in hot sulphur or boiling fat. By the end of eight days, the wall was merely weakened, not penetrated. Disaster struck when a severe epidemic of dysentery infected the English camp. By the fourteenth day of the siege, hundreds of English soldiers had died. Among them was the Earl of Suffolk, portrayed by Shakespeare as dying gloriously in battle at Agincourt. It was not until September 22, thirty days after the siege began, that Harfleur finally fell. By the end of the battle two thousand English had been lost, most of them to dysentery, some to battle. One thousand sick soldiers were sent back to England. This left Henry with an army of nine hundred men to complete the French campaign. It also set the march to Agincourt in early winter rains. Historically, Henry's treatment of the conquered Harfleur's citizens was not, as Shakespeare suggests, merciful. Rather, members of Harfleur's aristocracy were forced to wear hair shirts of penitence and felons' halters, and to kneel before a silent Henry, who kept them under his tyrannous gaze. The King also ordered all of the crippled, elderly, and sick to leave the city which he planned to rebuild as a utopian English stronghold. Two thousand citizens were forced to leave their homes. As the English marched from Harfleur to Agincourt, they met with continued resistance from the French. Although Shakespeare alluded to the weariness of the English troops, he did not mention the bitter cold and rain endured by the English for three weeks without shoes, shelter or food. The historical battle of Agincourt was similar to Shakespeare's account in several ways. The French did outnumber the English ten to one. The French leadership was very disorganized and internal factions were their undoing. Henry did order the murder of all French prisoners. The English losses were very light compared to the slaughter of French and Henry did attribute the victory to God. Unlike Shakespeare's account of the battle, there is no historical record that the baggage boys were murdered by the French or that the French prisoners were killed in retaliation for that slaughter. Rather, the French prisoners were killed because of the threat they posed in the face of French reinforcements arriving late in the battle. Henry's order enraged his own troops who relied on prisoner ransoms for personal profit. It nearly resulted in an English uprising. In order to avoid anarchy Henry threatened to hang any man who disobeyed this order. His men complied. CSF's production of Henry V juxtaposes the horror and the glory of war, the ineffectiveness and the power of kings, and the weariness of aged experience with the vigor of youthful vitality. It is a production which embraces the antitheses of Henry V to challenge political dogma and stimulate ethical sensibilities. Melody Thomas, Dramaturg, Henry V
Bloom, Harold, ed. William Shakespeare's Henry V: Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. Jarman, Rosemary Hawley. Crispin's Day: The Glory of Agincourt. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1979. Quinn, Michael, ed. Shakespeare: Henry V: A Casebook. London, Macmillan and Company, Ltd., 1969.