Henry V (play)

From Academic Kids

Henry V is a play by William Shakespeare based on the life of King Henry V of England. It deals only with the events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War.

It is important to note that the play was one of a series of "histories" written by Shakespeare, and would have been performed as such. Audiences would already have been familiar with "Prince Hal" as depicted in the Henry IV plays as a wild undisciplined lad. In Henry V, the young prince has grown into a mature man and is about to embark on the attempted conquest of France.

Elizabethan stages did not use scenery. Acknowledging the difficulty of conveying great battles and shifts of location on a bare stage, Shakespeare introduces the character of the Chorus (a throwback to the chorus of Greek drama, which Shakespeare would not have been very familiar with), who acts as a kind of narrator, explaining the story to the audience and encouraging 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 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 the fleet for France, and include a dramatised version of the real-life incident in which the Duke of Cambridge and two others plotted to assassinate Henry at Southampton. Henry's clever and ruthless uncovering of the plot is one indication of how he has changed from the earlier plays in which he appears.

The chorus reappears, and announces "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 Shakespeare's serious plays, there are a number of minor characters, some definitely comic, whose activities are intended as a diversion for restless audiences. In this case, they are mostly common soldiers in Henry's army, and include Pistol, Nym, Bardolph, and Fluellen (Fluellen is a comically-stereotyped Welsh soldier, whose name is almost certainly a phonetic rendition of "Llewellyn"). The play also deals briefly with the death of Falstaff, another character from the Henry IV plays.

The Chorus appears again, seeking support for the English navy: "Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy," asking "who is he, whose chin is but enrich'd / With one appearing hair," and notes that "the ambassador from the French comes back;/ Tells Harry that the king doth offer him / Katharine his daughter."

The play includes several well-known speeches, the most quoted of which, beginning, Once more unto the breach, dear friends..., actually comes not from the Agincourt scene, but from the scene depicting the siege of Harfleur, earlier in the play. As the action unfolds and victory looks less certain, 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.

Following the victory at Agincourt, there is a charming scene in which Henry attempts to court his future wife, Catherine of Valois. This is not historically accurate, as the princess was only a child at the time of Agincourt, and their wedding did not take place for some years afterward.



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