Henry V – William Shakespeare
There can be little doubt that Shakespeare intended to present his protagonist in “Henry V” as the popular hero-king. His efforts are mainly concentrated on the portraiture of this “star of England”, King Henry, whom he deliberately chose out of the page of history as the finest representative of the best distinctive type of English character. He wanted his play to lead triumphantly to an English victory against overwhelming odds at Agincourt. What is not agreed among the critics is whether Shakespeare succeeded in his purpose or whether in fact he had a deeper intention more ambiguous or complex. Shakespeare’s depiction of Henry will form the backbone of this essay – is Henry to be seen as a genuinely good man or is there hypocrisy in his character? Is he indeed Shakespeare’s favourite hero, full of kingly virtue, or is he dominated by aggression, self-centeredness and lust for personal glory? The reader will be left to draw his own conclusions. One extra problem we are faced with in an examination of this play is that we need to make reference to the plays that immediately precede this drama, namely “Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.” We cannot assess Henry without linking him to his father, and we cannot judge him without examining his relationship with, and his treatment of, the infamous Falstaff. “Henry V” was almost certainly written in the spring or summer of 1599. It was first printed in 1600 but without the authority of Shakespeare’s theatre company. The first authoritative edition was that of 1623. Since eight of the nine histories written by Shakespeare in the 1590’s are devoted to the hundred years leading up to the Battle of Bosworth and the establishment of the Tudors on the English throne, the first Tudor being Henry VII, they represent an extended study of the origins of the political situation in which their Elizabethan spectators found themselves. Henry V is the new national king, the herald of the Tudor monarchy, which is no longer a monarchy of the old, feudal type. We do indeed see the England of Shakespeare’s own time coming to life before our eyes. Shakespeare made use of the history of Henry’s reign as given by Holinshed in his “Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland”(1587) and by Hall in an earlier account(1548). Hall’s history deals with the events of English history during eight reigns, concluding with that of Henry VIII, father of Queen Elizabeth I. He begins with the deposition and murder of the last Plantagenet king, Richard II, by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke, afterwards Henry IV, who rules by power and not by right. Hall goes on to cover such major periods as the troublesome period of Henry VI, the civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York, and the re-establishment of the rule of law and the unity of the country by the defeat of Richard III and the crowning of Henry VII, grandfather of Queen Elizabeth. “Henry V” has been performed successfully throughout the centuries and its value to England at times of conflict should be noted. When the play was performed in Manchester in 1804, threats of invasion from France were being met with defiance. For the speech before Agincourt when Henry addresses the soldiers, the local Henry changed “Cry God for Harry, England and St George” to “Cry God for Harry, England and King George!” And Henry’s defiant “Bid them achieve me and then sell my bones” will always remind us of Churchill’s “We shall never surrender.” However, most actors have felt that on the role of Henry subtlety of interpretation was not required since Henry was not seen as an intellectual character. Mansfield refers to the usual conception of Henry as a part requiring strong lungs rather than intelligence. Kenny said that “ “Henry V” is the representation not of great passions but of great events, and it naturally fails to attain the highest dramatic vitality and movement.” Character development has no place in the play; Henry’s character is fully...
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