Play with a theme from history that often holds up the past as a lesson for the present. Chronicle plays developed from medieval morality plays and flourished in times of nationalistic fervour, as in England from the 1580s to the 1630s. They included plays such as The Victories of Henry the Fifth and The True Tragedie of Richard III and reached maturity with Christopher Marlowe's Edward II and William Shakespeare's Henry VI.
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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.
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.
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:
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.