Henry V Summary

William Shakespeare

Henry V

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Henry V Summary

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Henry V is a history play by British playwright William Shakespeare, believed to have premiered in 1599. It is part of Shakespeare’s First Folio. It focuses on King Henry V of England, specifically centering around the events leading up to and immediately after the Battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War. The play is the final part of a tetralogy, preceded by Richard II, Henry VI, Part 1, and Henry IV, Part Two. The title character was introduced in the latter play as “Prince Harry,”a reckless youth, long before he was king. Henry V follows him as a man as he embarks on a successful mission to conquer France. The play, based on actual events, explores themes of warfare and military valor, as well as the mental toll that being king takes on a person and the moral compromises they must make. While Shakespeare’s histories are not read as widely as his comedies and tragedies, Henry V is still widely read by scholars and historians, and continues to be performed regularly in London. It has been revived several times on Broadway, and was adapted into film three times, starring Laurence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, and Tom Hiddleston in the title role. It has also inspired several works of classical music.

Henry V begins with the chorus, a single speaker, addressing the audience. As the Elizabethan stage lacked scenery and props, the chorus apologizes for these limitations and states that the story told here is far larger than the stage can convey. The chorus describes how an actor will assume the role of Henry V, just as Henry V himself took on the role of the God of War, Mars, in this period of his life. The prologue serves as an apology for the limitations of the stage, but also as an acknowledgement that the world itself is a sort of stage with its own limitations. Thus, the chorus encourages the audience to remove these imperfections with their imaginations. The early scenes of the play focus on Henry’s fleet embarking for France, and detail a real-life incident where the Earl of Cambridge and two co-conspirators plot to assassinate Henry at Southampton. The scene where Henry discovers the plotters and ruthlessly deals with them illustrates how his character has changed since his appearances as a young man in earlier plays. The chorus reappears, and describes how the country is dedicated to the war effort, selling their land to buy horses. The story then shifts to France, as Henry’s forces cross the English Channel.

The chorus appears again, rallying the audience to support the English navy, and describes the way the ambassador from the French King attempts to end the war by offering Henry the King’s daughter. However, Henry is unmoved, and at the siege of Harfleur, Henry rallies his troops with one of Shakespeare’s most iconic speeches, opening with the line “Once more unto the breach, dear friends.”Although England’s forces are strong, in the lead-up to the Battle of Agincourt, no one is sure what the outcome will be. The young king’s heroic character is clearly seen as he decides to take on a disguise and roam the English military camp at night, comforting his soldiers and seeing if they respect him. He feels the moral burden of being king more strongly than ever, reminded that a king is only a man. This scene also features some comic scenes involving the various soldiers of Henry’s army, from various regions including Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. Resuming his usual attire, he addresses his troops with the famous St. Crispin’s Day Speech, opening with “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”In the end, the British win at Agincourt, routing the French. Henry attempts to bring peace by wooing the French princess, Catherine of Valois. Although there is a language barrier, their awkward courtship results in them becoming fast friends and eventually falling in love. The French king blesses their union, and Henry becomes the heir to the French throne. The French queen prays that both sides receive each other as allies and that God blesses the union. The play ends with the chorus appearing one final time to tell the audience about how Henry’s heirs, particularly Henry VI, lost France and brought chaos to his house, a tale that Shakespeare expands upon in the three-part Henry VI series.

William Shakespeare is arguably the most famous English author and the most famous playwright of all time. He is often called England’s national poet, and many of his works are considered among the greatest classics of English literature. He was the author of eleven tragedies, seventeen comedies, ten histories, and a wide selection of poems and sonnets, the majority of which are still widely read, taught, and performed today. His works have been adapted hundreds of times into movies, stage productions, operas, and retellings in countless settings and genres. His impact on English-language literature is among the greatest of any author, and he is widely honored today in his homeland and around the world.