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William Shakespeare

Henry V

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1599

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Henry V is a play by English playwright William Shakespeare, believed to have premiered in 1599. It is best preserved in the 1623 publication of Shakespeare’s work known as the First Folio. Shakespeare’s surviving work includes 10 history plays focusing on the history and kings of England 1399-1485 and based on actual events. Henry V is the fifth of these chronologically and focuses on King Henry V of England, specifically on the events surrounding the Battle of Agincourt (1415), a victory of the English over the French in the Hundred Years’ War and, by Shakespeare’s time, a historical moment of English national and cultural pride. The play explores themes of warfare and military valor, as well as the mental toll that kingship takes on its incumbent and the moral compromises they must make.

This guide is written using the 2010 Penguin Classics edition of the play. Citations given refer to act, scene, and line numbers in this edition.

Content Warning: The play and this guide contain references to medieval warfare, including death and injury, and violent threat (specifically of the destruction, rape, and murder of civilian communities). The play uses obscene language for comic effect and this guide uses explicit language where necessary to explain and analyze scenes.

Plot Summary

The title character of Henry V known from Shakespeare’s preceding plays, Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, when Henry (“Prince Hal”) is heir to the English throne; his father, Henry IV, is king. Prince Hal is portrayed as a reckless youth, enjoying his freedom while he waits to become King of England.

Henry V begins not long after Prince Hal has ascended to the throne as King Henry V (in 1413 at the age of 26). King Henry V is preparing his army to fight against the King of France. The play begins with the “Chorus,” represented by a single speaker, addressing the audience. The Chorus apologizes for the limitations of the bare stage and states that the story told here is far larger than any stage or theater can convey. He describes how an actor will assume the role of Henry V, just as Henry V himself assumed the role of the God of War, Mars, in this period of his life. Thus, the Chorus encourages the audience to enter imaginatively into the setting and events of the play.

The early scenes focus on Henry’s fleet embarking for France and detail a real-life incident in which the Earl of Cambridge and two co-conspirators plotted to assassinate Henry at Southampton. In the play, as in history, Henry discovers the plotters and deals with them ruthlessly according to the law, sentencing them to death even though he previously counted them among his friends. As evidenced by his swift justice, Henry has changed a great deal since the Henry IV plays, when he put friendship above duty. The Dauphin—the heir-apparent to the French throne—does not understand the change in Henry’s attitude and he mocks King Henry with a gift of tennis balls, a deliberately humiliating reminder of Henry’s misspent youth. The Chorus reappears and describes how the country is dedicated to the war effort, with people selling their land to buy horses. Henry’s forces cross the English Channel, and the setting shifts to France.

The Chorus appears again, rallying the audience to support the English navy. The Chorus describes that the King of France attempts to end the war by offering dukedoms and his daughter as a bride to Henry. Henry is unmoved by the offer and continues with his war plans. Henry and his troops move from the coast down through Northern France in their invasion. First, Henry leads his army to a victory at the town of Harfleur. During the battle siege at Harfleur, Henry encourages his troops with a famously inspiring speech, urging them to enter the breach once again and press their advantage in the battle. The troops move further south and set camp near the village of Azincourt in preparation for what will be the Battle of Agincourt.

England’s invading forces are strong, but they are heavily outnumbered by the French, who fight in their own country. There is heightened suspense and uncertainty about the likely outcome of the battle, which, it is recognized in advance, will be considered a defining event in the war. The young king’s heroic character is clearly on display when he takes on a disguise and roams his military camp during the night before the battle, comforting his soldiers and anonymously taking measure of how they feel about him, the war, and the imminent battle. He feels the moral burden of his title more strongly than ever and he is reminded that a king is only a man. This section of the play also features a number of tragi-comic scenes involving the common soldiers of Henry’s army, drawn from across the British Isles, including Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. In particular, Henry notices a Welsh officer named Fluellen.

Abandoning his disguise, Henry takes up his mantle as King. On the morning of battle, he addresses his assembled troops with another inspiring speech, assuring his soldiers that they are his equals and that they will be remembered forever as the heroic victors of a great battle. The British win at Agincourt, routing the French. A peace treaty is negotiated between Henry and the French King Charles VI, sealed by Henry’s betrothal to the Princess of France, Katherine of Valois. A comic love scene plays on the language barrier between the couple during their first meeting, showing a combination of awkwardness, desire, modesty, and, increasingly, love.

The French king blesses the union of Henry and Katherine. Henry becomes the heir to the French throne, removing the arrogant Dauphin from his position. The French Queen Isabel prays that both sides will receive each other as allies and that God will bless the union. The play ends with the Chorus appearing to tell the audience that Henry’s heirs, particularly Henry VI, lost France and brought chaos to his house. With this conclusion, Shakespeare introduces the three-part Henry VI series that follows Henry V.

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