Henry V. What do you think of when that name is mentioned? My first thought is a young, handsome, English king making a dynamic speech to his loyal followers. (Thank you, Mr. Shakespeare).
Who was this king? Was he really the character that Shakespeare imagined? How did the play-writer fictionalize this historic figure?
The Play (Warning: SPOILERS) The play opens with a narrator asking if a theater stage can effectively show the battlefields of France and asks the audience to use imagination. Preparations for a campaign in France are detailed and three of the king’s “friends” plot to assassinate him, but are discovered. Sir John Falstaff, an old friend, of Prince Henry, dies and other rowdy friends embark as soldiers in the campaign. Various scenes show the French court debating what to do and King Henry besieging a town. Princess Katherine of France is “taught” English to make her a more desirable queen for King Henry should he agree to accept her in exchange for peace. On the eve of battle, the French Prince expresses overconfidence while across the field King Henry wanders quietly among his soldiers, concluding his reflective evening by acknowledging he is a king, yet still only a man praying for victory. The next morning King Henry makes the famous St. Crispin Day speech and rallies his troops. The fighting is intense, the Duke of York is brutally killed, but the English win the battle. The French are forced to make peace and King Henry attempts to win Princess Katherine’s heart, though her limited knowledge of the English languages makes a humorous scene. The play concludes with the betrothal of King Henry and Princess Katherine, but the narrator reminds us the English king died and the throne went to his son.
The History The play is actually part of a series Shakespeare wrote (Richard II, Henry IV part 1 & 2, Henry V) detailing historical events of the British monarchy and the Hundred Years War. Henry V depicts that king’s campaign in France and the Battle of Agincourt (1415). The English were highly successfully at Agincourt; French casualties were between 7,000-10,000 while English casualties were less than 150. The long bows used by the skilled English archers were very effectively and when the French knights rode into a muddy field they were literally sitting targets. After the battle, King Henry had the French prisoner killed, rather than holding them for ransom. King Henry did marry Prince Katherine.
1. Carousing In this drama the main character has suddenly left his “Prince Hal” character of the previous two plays and is now a noble king. There is some historical question regarding the authenticity of Henry’s carousing years, especially considering the leadership positions in the government and military he held while still a prince. This view of Prince/King Henry appeared in an earlier drama and Shakespeare seems to have expanded it. Why? It’s dramatic to see a careless boy suddenly take responsibility and win a great national victory…still it may be unfair to the real Prince Henry.
2. Young, Handsome King Henry V was about 29 years old in 1415, not quite as young as he sometimes appears in art of the Battle of Agincourt. Every hero is supposed to be handsome, right? Um, not in this history. When I first saw a production of the play, I was confused by one of the King’s statements when he is trying to talk with Princess Katherine; he refers to his face being scarred and perhaps frightening. A little research revealed that the real King Henry had suffered a severe arrow wound in the face during a military expedition when he was younger. (We won’t go into the graphic details here, but it was a very bad wound and would have left an ugly scar). Hmm…also interesting to note that in this portrait of the king (see below) we only see the unscarred side of his face.
3. English Nationalism This is a more challenging topic to add to the fictional list. There is no question that the French lost the battle and were likely awake all the previous night “preparing” those heavy armor suits while the English were resting. But it is very evident Shakespeare was an Englishman and he certainly portrays the English in the best light. Certainly there’s prudence in what the English did – I’m not debating that. I’d just like to consider the French side of the story…sure, they were proud, but were ALL of them really as overconfident as Shakespeare imagines? It is also interesting to note that he does not acknowledge King Henry’s killing of the French prisoners…again portraying the English as good as possible.
4. The Speeches Okay, okay, I know Henry V is drama – I expect the great, dramatic addresses, but let’s remember these are the product of Shakespeare’s imagination. I greatly dislike opening a history book for young readers and having Shakespeare’s words presented as the authentic speeches of the real King Henry.
Shakespeare wrote this play to emphasis the history of England and to glorify it. He accomplished his goal. Overall, the drama is based on historical fact, but it certainly has the fictional gloss.
Unfortunately, the King Henry of the play is the only King Henry most people know about. He may have been a more responsible and trustworthy prince than Shakespeare portrays. He won a great victory at Agincourt, but the history is tarnished by the slaughter of the prisoners – an action not acceptable in medieval chivalry. Thus Henry V is a fictionalized king best known for the Speech of St. Crispin’s Day which was written by William Shakespeare.
P.S. I don’t meant to be harsh; I really enjoy the drama Henry V. Just remember the power and influence of historical fiction! What are your thoughts?
In case you’re interested here’s a link to the full text of Henry V.
And I’ve seen the 1989 adaption of Henry V with Kenneth Branagh. I enjoyed it, but be forewarned the olde English may be challenging to interpret. *There are some intense battle scenes, death scenes, and a hanging which may not be suitable to all audiences.*