Following in a parent's footsteps in never an easy thing, especially if your parent was both hailed and reviled at the same time. Whether a legend in school sports, a big person on campus, a famous politician, or larger than life celebrity, few kids can fill a parent's place and even distinguish themselves in their own right. Such is the task set forward for the former Prince Hal, now Henry V of England. Loved by those who saw his father Henry IV as a champion of England and reviled by those who think of him only as the spoiled sidekick of a drunk, thieving rogue, Henry walks a fine line to satisfy all camps and himself. In the final play of Shakespeare's major history cycle or tetraology, Shakespeare examined through his reformed jokester and playboy, what it meant to be a just ruler, to recognize the richness of the commoner life, and to see the fellowship, necessity and horror of war. Introduced in grand fashion by the play's chorus person, from the start the audience knows that the show will be an epic trip from the shores of England through the French countryside and into the lives of people who have taken on almost mythic proporation.
The play's title page from the 1623 First Folio
Sometime after King Henry's coronation, the leading church officials fear their new king and loosing of their possessions and power. In order to give the young idle king something to occupy his time they convince him through an obscure and centuries old law that he is the rightful heir. Though Henry is reluctant to pursue on such a flimsy premise, he in inflamed with anger when the prince of France, the Dauphin, presents a gift of Tennis balls in response to his royal overture. The Dauphin, thinking the young king an effiminate courtier indicates he should spend his time with what was considered an effiminate pastime. Henry declares war on France. In the lower ranks, at the Boar's Head tavern, the inn is a shadow of its former self as Falstaff, the king's old but turn away companion, is dying. Attending his bed side is his sometime squeeze, the former Mistress Quickly, who has recently married Falstaff's cronie Pistol. Surrounded by his only friends, the fat knight breathes apparently set on by Henry refusing him. Pistol attempts to rouse his old campanions by forgetting the past and moving on, with their new task invading France, though want to remember the Fat Knight all the more.
Soon the scene shifts to the battlefields of France where one after another the British army reigns victorious. The dismayed French king and lords are at odds with the swiftness of their victories, meanwhile the French Princess Katherine, prepares for an encounter with what she supposes will be her future husband. In a scene done entirely in French, an unfamiliar audience looses no meaning in the witty and perverse exchange between the innocent Katherine and her lady-in-waiting. As Henry draws near the decisive battle at Agincourt with the bulk of the French troops, he is stifled by a decision he never thought he would have to make, sentencing to death an old friend. Bardolph, a sidekick of Falstaff's and a fixture of his carefree youth steals money from out of a French church contrary to his orders. Though a little amount of money and against the pleading of his other friend Pistol, he must make an example of Bardolph and has his old friend hung. The episode leaves the king racked with guilt, wondering if he did the right thing in coming to France, if he is fit to rule and longing for his old life. Regardless and against overwhelming odds, Henry presses on fighting the good fight and taking the lessons that the life with Falstaff taught him and that all of his soldiers are his "band of brothers". The British emerge victorious and while some wish to claim it as divine providence, Henry silences that sentiment and says that all the dead should be honored equally. Henry's last task is set the peace and marry Katherine.
A quarto version of the play.
Written in 1599 and based on Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles of England, Ireland and Scotland and The Union of the Two Noble and Illustre Famalies of Lancaster and York by Edward Hall, Henry V was the climax of Shakespeare's second and major history cycle, which began in Richard II. Also, it was the center piece of the newly constructed Globe Theater, which opened in 1599. The Globe was a reconstructed building called, The Theatre which had originally stood in North London and transported across the Thames after the theater company had lost their lease. The opening lines of the chorus echoes the newness of the building by asking the audience to forgive the staging of such epic battles in "This Wooden O". Also, the play contains one of the few clear topical references in all of Shakespeare, a prophecy that the Earl of Essex along with Shakespeare's friend the Earl of Southampton would be successful in putting down an Irish rebellion. Unfortunately, they weren't and ironically circumstances would later lead to the pair to use one of Shakespeare's plays, Richard II, as propaganda to overthrow the Queen Elizabeth I.
Outside of the real life political rumblings, Shakespeare continued his story of his young king finding his own footing and style as he learned the ropes of politics. Though he had refused Falstaff on his way to the throne, he had not forgotten the experience of being at his side with the common man for it was his humility that gave Henry strength to rise and become England's national hero. A far cry from Richard II, who was seen as a spoiled child disconnected with England. The play has proved extremely popular since its opening and was first printed in a pirated text in 1600, which did not include any of the chorus passages. The play is a mainstay of many theatrical companies and is the second most popular of the histories next to Richard III. Immortalized on film as well, two popular takes on the play show the versatility of the play's themes. Lawrence Olivier in his 1944 The Chronicle History Or King Henry the Fift with His Battell Fought at Agincourt in France showed a Henry for his time, a nationalistic moral booster in dark days of World War II. Counterbalanced with Kenneth Branagh's 1989 offering of Henry V, showed an equally committed king but highlighted the horror and loss of war. The essence of Shakespeare's piece is that both interpretations are true, but cannot stand by themselves. As King Henry had to be all things to all men so does the play.
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