chronicle play

Henry V is a history play by William Shakespeare, believed to be written in 1599. It is based on the life of King Henry V of England, and focuses on events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years' War.

The play is the final part of a tetralogy, preceded by Richard II, Henry IV, part 1 and Henry IV, part 2. The original audiences would thus have already been familiar with the title character, who was depicted in the Henry IV plays as a wild, undisciplined lad known as "Prince Hal." In Henry V, the young prince has become a mature man and embarks on an attempted conquest of France.


Shakespeare's primary source for Henry V, as for most of his chronicle histories, was Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles; the publication of the second edition in 1587 provides a terminus ad quem for the play. Edward Hall's The Union of the Two Illustrious Families of Lancaster and York appears also to have been consulted, and scholars have supposed Shakespeare familiar with Samuel Daniel's poem on the civil wars.

Date and text

On the basis of an apparent allusion to Essex's failed mission to quell Tyrone's Rebellion, the play is thought to date from early 1599.The Chronicle History of Henry the fifth was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on August 14, 1600 by the bookseller Thomas Pavier; the first quarto was published before the end of the year—though by Thomas Millington and John Busby rather than Pavier. (Thomas Creede did the printing.)

Q1 of Henry V is a "bad quarto," a shortened version of the play that might be a pirated copy or reported text. A second quarto, a reprint of Q1, was published in 1602 by Pavier; another reprint was issued as Q3 in 1619, with a false date of 1608—part of William Jaggard's False Folio. The superior text first saw print in the First Folio in 1623.

Performance history

A tradition, impossible to verify, holds that Henry V was the first play performed at the new Globe Theatre in the spring of 1599; the Globe would have been the "wooden O" mentioned in the Prologue. In 1600 the first printed text states that the play had been played "sundry times." The earliest performance known for certain, however, occurred on January 7, 1605, at Court.

Samuel Pepys saw a Henry V in 1664—but it was written by Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, not by Shakespeare. Shakespeare's play returned to the stage in 1723, in an adaptation by Aaron Hill.

Today, Henry V is frequently staged and many of its speeches have passed into popular culture. A stirring example is Henry's: Eve of Saint Crispin's Day speech:

Henry V:-

"This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian:'
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say 'These wounds I had on Crispin's day.'
Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember with advantages
What feats he did that day: then shall our names.
Familiar in his mouth as household words
Harry the king, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
Be in their flowing cups freshly remember'd.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remember'd;
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 accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day"

The longest running production of the play in Broadway history was the staging starring Richard Mansfield in 1900 which ran for 54 performances. Other notable stage performances of Henry V include Charles Kean (1859), Charles Calvert (1872), Walter Hampden (1928), and Laurence Olivier at the Old Vic Theatre (1937).

Dramatis personae


Elizabethan stages did not use scenery. Acknowledging the difficulty of conveying great battles and shifts of location on a bare stage, Shakespeare uses as narrator a Chorus (a reference to the Greek chorus but played by a single actor), who explains the story to the audience and encourages them to use their imaginations. The chorus calls for a "Muse of fire" so that the actor playing King Henry can "Assume the port of Mars." He asks, "Can this cockpit [i.e. the theatre] hold / The vasty fields of France?" and encourages the audience to use their imaginations to overcome the stage's limitations: "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts."

The early scenes deal with the embarkation of Henry's fleet for France, and include a real-life incident in which the Earl of Cambridge and two others plotted to assassinate Henry at Southampton. Henry's clever uncovering of the plot and ruthless treatment of the plotters is one indication that he has changed from the earlier plays in which he appeared.

When the Chorus reappears, he describes the country's dedication to the war effort - "They sell the pasture now to buy the horse" - and tells the audience "We'll not offend one stomach with our play."

As with all of Shakespeare's serious plays, there are also a number of minor comic characters whose activities contrast with and sometimes comment 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, an Englishman and Fluellen, a comically stereotyped Welsh soldier, whose name is an attempt at a phonetic rendition of "Llywelyn". The play also deals briefly with the death of Falstaff, Henry's one time friend (although their relationship is fraught) from the Henry IV plays.

The Chorus appears again, seeking support for the English navy: "Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy" he says, notes that "the ambassador from the French comes back;/ Tells Harry that the king doth offer him / Katharine his daughter."

At the siege of Harfleur, Henry utters one of Shakespeare's best-known speeches, beginning "Once more unto the breach, dear friends...”

Before the Battle of Agincourt, victory looks uncertain, and the young king's heroic character is shown by his decision to wander around the English camp at night, in disguise, so as to comfort his soldiers and find out what they really think of him. Before the battle begins, Henry rallies his troops with the famous speech:

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 accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

Following the victory at Agincourt, Henry attempts to woo the French princess, Catherine of Valois. The action ends with the French king adopting Henry as his 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."

But before the curtain descends, the Chorus re-appears one more time and ruefully notes that Henry's own heir's "state, so many had the managing, that they both lost France, and made his England bleed" - a reminder of the tumultuous reign of Henry VI of England, which Shakespeare had previously brought to the stage.

Views on warfare

Readers and audiences have interpreted the play’s attitude to warfare in several different ways. On the one hand, it seems to celebrate Henry's invasion of France and valorises military might. Alternatively, it can be read as an anti-war allegory.

Some critics connect the glorification of nationalistic pride and conquest with contemporary English military ventures in Spain and Ireland. The Chorus directly refers to the military triumphs of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, in the fifth act. Henry V himself is sometimes seen as an ambivalent representation of the stage machiavel, combining apparent sincerity with a willingness to use deceit and force to attain his ends.

Other commentators see the play as looking critically at the motivation for Henry's violent cause. The noble words of the Chorus and Henry are consistently undermined by the actions of Pistol, Bardolph and Nym. Pistol talks in a bombastic blank verse that seems to parody Henry's own style of speech. Pistol and his friends thus show up the actions of their rulers. Indeed the presence of the Eastcheap characters from Henry IV has been said to underscore the element of adventurer in Henry's character as monarch.

The American critic Norman Rabkin described the play as a picture with two simultaneous meanings. Rabkin argues that the play never settles on one viewpoint towards warfare, Henry himself switching his style of speech constantly, talking of "rape and pillage" during Harfleur but of patriotic glory in his St. Crispin's Day speech.

The play's ambiguity has led to diverse interpretations in performance. Laurence Olivier's 1944 film, made during the Second World War, emphasises the patriotic side, while Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film stresses the horrors of war. A 2003 Royal National Theatre production featured Henry as a modern war general, ridiculing the Iraq invasion.

Adaptations and cultural references

Film adaptations

There have been two major film adaptations. The first, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier in 1944, is a colourful and highly stylised version which begins in the Globe Theatre and then gradually shifts to a realistic evocation of the Battle of Agincourt. Olivier's film was made during the Second World War and was intended as a patriotic rallying cry at the time of the invasion of Normandy.

The second major film, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh in 1989, attempts to give a more realistic evocation of the period and lays more emphasis on the horrors of war. It features a mud-spattered and gruesome Battle of Agincourt.

Cultural references

  • French novelist Stendhal dedicated his 1839 masterpiece The Charterhouse of Parma to the happy few, a phrase (in English) that is taken from the St. Crispin's Day Speech in the play.
  • In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 3.10, "The Defector", Data and Captain Jean-Luc Picard are rehearsing the play in the holodeck at the beginning of the episode.
  • In both popular culture and real life, a stirring and dramatic speech that serves as a rallying cry to war is often called a "St. Crispin's Day Speech", after the most famous passage from this play. Examples include the speech that Bill Pullman delivers at the end of Independence Day. Giles and Spike do a slight variation in "The Gift" in the fifth-season finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Two other good examples include the speeches Théoden and Aragorn give in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Admiral Adama paraphrases the speech in an episode "Exodus: Part One" of the new Battlestar Galactica series. A part of the speech can also be heard during a scene in the 1993 western Tombstone.
  • Stephen Ambrose's historical account of a company of soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division during the late stages of World War II is titled Band of Brothers, as is the subsequent HBO miniseries adaptation of Ambrose's book. The speech is also recited during an interview with Carwood Lipton, and a surrendering German commander alludes to it.
  • In his director's commentary, Mel Gibson notes that Randall Wallace based William Wallace's pre-battle speech in Braveheart on Henry V's speech before the Battle of Agincourt.
  • The St. Crispin's Day speech is quoted in the 1994 film Renaissance Man. One of Danny DeVito's students quotes it to Gregory Hines. Additionally, Danny DeVito takes his Army pupils on a visit to Canada to watch a production of Henry V.
  • The BBC show The Black Adder includes numerous Shakespeare references and parodies. In the first episode, the line "Once more unto the breach, my friends, once more," is said by King Richard III. The St. Crispin's Day speech is parodied in the final episode with the lines, "We few, we happy few, we band of ruthless bastards!"
  • In the book The Battle of Mogadishu, Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann states that General William Garrison ended a speech with the line "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers."
  • In 1991, Jay Tarses received an Emmy nomination for 'Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series' for an episode of 'The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd' entitled "Here's A Little Touch Of Harry In The Night", a reference to the Prologue in Act IV.
  • Footage from the Olivier film adaptation is incorporated into the 2004 A&E television film Ike: Countdown to D-Day, which dramatizes the decisions faced by Dwight Eisenhower (Tom Selleck) in the period leading up to the Normandy invasion. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley (James Remar) watch Olivier deliver the St. Crispin's Day speech (although in reality, the Olivier film was not released in the U.K. until well after the invasion). They note that Europeans have been waging war for a very long time and that Shakespeare was writing long after the battle was over.
  • A June 2008 PlayStation 3 commercial features a modified version of the Saint Crispin's Day Speech, accompanying footage of several PS3 games.


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