December Books 4) Henry V

4) The History of Henry the Fifth, by William Shakespeare

This is the end of the sequence of history plays starting with Richard II and continuing through the two parts of Henry IV. Here young Henry, having inherited the throne on his father’s death at the end of the last play, leads the army to war and victory in France. The most interesting thing in the play is the role of the Chorus, which breaks the fourth wall by addressing the audience directly at the start of each act (and again at the end of the play) and points out that the whole thing is a stage representation of what had really happened, as well as offering the odd bit of political commentary.

I found Henry V actually a rather uninteresting character here, now that he has overcome his dissipated youthful habits; he is jingoistic and vicious, though with a gift for oratory. He never loses a battle or an argument; his threats to rape the women of Harfleur, and his summary execution of his French prisoners, aren’t subjected to any serious scrutiny. Agincourt is of course his moment of triumph, but I found I cared more about the soldiers’ fates than that of the King. Even then, the play doesn’t really work as a human drama of the ordinary fighting chap, and the business with the leeks and the gloves is just nasty (which is a shame because that particular scene starts very well, with Gower and Fluellen reacting to the French slaughter of the noncombatants).

I am not sure how rescuable this would be with a different cast. Jamie Glover, in the title role of the Arkangel production, is dreadful at blank verse, which certainly didn’t help. I certainly missed both Julian Glover as Henry IV and Richard Griffiths as Falstaff from the previous two plays. I saw the Kenneth Branagh version of this one when it came out almost (aargh!) twenty years ago, but very little of it has stuck in my memory.

As I’ve been reading up on my Elizabethan history, the parallels between Henry V of the play and the real-life Earl of Essex are pretty clear: playboy youths promoted to senior military command and heading overseas to fight for England. The chorus before Act IV makes this explicit (helpfully dating the play to 1599). Essex completely screwed up his Irish campaign, but I guess this was written before that had happened. It’s difficult not to see the play as an attempt to whip up (or, more generously, reflect) public support for the Irish war and the gamorous commander. I must go and read Shapiro again.

Henry VI, Part I | Henry VI, Part II | Henry VI, Part III | Richard III | Comedy of Errors | Titus Andronicus | Taming of the Shrew | Two Gentlemen of Verona | Love’s Labour’s Lost | Romeo and Juliet | Richard II | A Midsummer Night’s Dream | King John | The Merchant of Venice | Henry IV, Part I | Henry IV, Part II | Henry V | Julius Caesar | Much Ado About Nothing | As You Like It | Merry Wives of Windsor | Hamlet | Twelfth Night | Troilus and Cressida | All’s Well That Ends Well | Measure for Measure | Othello | King Lear | Macbeth | Antony and Cleopatra | Coriolanus | Timon of Athens | Pericles | Cymbeline | The Winter’s Tale | The Tempest | Henry VIII | The Two Noble Kinsmen | Edward III | Sir Thomas More (fragment)

This entry was posted in Uncategorised. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to December Books 4) Henry V

  1. nwhyte says:

    I have some sympathy with “the book is just a bit of fun so how dare you take it seriously” as a counter-criticism. However those who say this almost always reveal themselves as taking the discussion much more seriously than this argument would allow them to!

Comments are closed.