The Shakespeare Series: Henry V Review

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!

My love for the history play Henry V knows no bounds, and with an opening like that it is easy to see why I am not alone in my sentiments. In Henry V we continue on from the Henry IV plays: Prince Hal is taking his place on the throne and dealing with one of England’s most irksome foes – France.

Henry V is known as ‘The Star of England’, a famous warrior king that died all too young and embodied the highest ideals of kingship, chivalry and nobility. How different the line of monarchy might have been had he lived much longer. The play focuses on his situation in France, particularly the Battle of Agincourt. However, the play also focuses on other sides of the story. The everymen are represented by Pistol, Bardolph and Nym. On the French side we are shown Princess Katherine learning English. For me, the story of the everymen resonates long. Through Henry we see the best of the English, an almost mythical like take on national pride, honesty and goodness. Pistol and the gang are no such holy figures. Nym and Pistol quarrel bitterly and Pistol makes fun of Fluellen, a noble Welshman serving Henry. War makes dim figures of the ordinary.

From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

However, this famous speech reminds us of how Henry brings together all these different men from different walks of life. It’s a great rally cry, a great demonstration of unity and how the former ‘Prince Hal’ has and is attempting to atone for the mistakes of his father. His earlier riotous life with the London lowlifes has given him a greater perspective a value of the opinions of all.

There is a famous scene during which he goes under the guise of a commoner to hear the opinions of his men. What he consequently learns is not extremely flattering, and in this respect he dispels the notion that kings are gods, infallible in their ways. He is only a man and he understands the nature of mistakes more than most.

The setting of the Battle of Agincourt also enables Shakespeare to explore the nature of war on a much deeper level, providing us with different moral perspectives. What is moral and immoral on the field of battle, how much responsibility do the commanders have to their men? Most significantly: is war good or bad, even in the right circumstances? Many introductions to Henry V ponders Shakespeare’s stance on war, debating what position or message he is trying to give to the audience. I would argue that he is not advocating one position, instead providing us with fertile ground in the play to consider all the implications and decide for ourselves.

Henry, meanwhile, is portrayed as the warrior king legend would describe him as. He learns along the way, debates right from wrong, makes an effort to woo the lady and blesses the English monarchy with a son, no less. His army itself is also diverse nationality wise, there are Scots, Irishmen and Welshmen, foreshadowing the many attempts of English monarchs to bring these regions under their control. However in the play they are brought together by Henry, not unmercifully subjugated by him.

So well written is the play that it is almost like a fairytale: the hero does get the girl, the English win against the odds (they are greatly outnumbered) and a great potential legacy is set up for the English people. I hope you read this play and at the very least are given valuable food for thought. At the most, I hope it inspires you and helps stoke love for Shakespeare’s plays. Aside from seeing it in the theatre I have attached two of my personal favourite cinematic portrayals below, with Lawrence Olivier (1994), Kenneth Branagh (1989) and Tom Hiddleston (2012) taking turns in the star role. The greatest King portrayed by some of our greatest actors.


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