Written around 1599, Henry V is the final play in William Shakespeare' second tetralogy, a group of history plays that includes Richard II, Henry Part 1, and Henry IV Part 2. In the earlier works, Shakespeare portrays Henry's days as a wild and reckless teenager. In Henry V, "Wild Prince Hal" has long since grown up into a capable king who is determined to invade France and lay claim to the French throne.
Henry V portrays events immediately before and after Henry's miraculous victory at the Battle of Agincourt (1415), a major turning point in the Hundred Years' War (when the English and the French squabbled over who had rights to the French crown).
Though written about the early 1400s, for hundreds of years audiences have found this piece of historical fiction relevant to their wars. When the play was first performed in 1599, the portrayal of Henry V's military campaign would have made Shakespeare's original Elizabethan audience to think about their own unstable political situation. England had long been at war with Spain and, when Shakespeare was writing Henry V, England was gearing up for a messy war with the Irish. In Ireland, the Earl of Tyrone had recently started a rebellion (1594-1603) and Queen Elizabeth I has recently sent her favorite go-to guy, the Earl of Essex, to squash the uprising (which didn't exactly work out as planned).
Over the years, Henry's motivational St. Crispin's Day speech to his troops ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers"), written by Shakespeare, has become one of the most famous speeches of all time. During World War II, Laurence Olivier's dramatic reading of it was broadcast over the radio and, according to scholar Marjorie Garber, it soon "became a patriotic call to arms for embattled Britain" (Shakespeare After All). In other words, Shakespeare's words helped to pump up the British to fight against Hitler, which is pretty impressive, wouldn't you say? Two years after his radio broadcast, Olivier directed and starred in a film adaptation that adopted the same patriotic tone. The passage has also been quoted in countless political speeches, films, and literary works. (It even inspired the name of Stephen Ambrose's book Band of Brothers, which was later turned into a TV miniseries about WWII soldiers).
It's not just the St. Crispin's Day speech that audiences remember. As a whole, Shakespeare's play has given rise to endless debates about the parallels between Henry V's military campaign and modern warfare. In 1989, Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Henry V underscored the horrific realties of war and called into question Henry's justification for invading a foreign country. In more recent years, Henry's decision to invade France has been compared to George W. Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Why Should I Care?
If we were to ask Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom why we should care about Henry V, he'd probably tell us that we should care because this is the play where Shakespeare kills off his greatest character of all time – Falstaff. Okay, we love Falstaff just as much as anyone else and we're seriously bummed that Shakespeare does him in (with some kind of horrible STD) in this play, but we've got to be honest, Shmoopsters – we think you should care about Henry V for a different reason.
When it comes down to it, Henry V is the ultimate (maybe even the original) underdog war story. If you ask us, that makes this play the great-great-great-grandfather of blockbuster movies like 300 (2006), Braveheart (1995) and even Saving Private Ryan (1998). Not too shabby for a play about a battle that went down on the fields of France about 600 years ago.
Think about it. Moments before the historic Battle of Agincourt begins, Henry's ragtag troops are exhausted, sickly, hungry, terrified of being killed (and/or losing a couple of important body parts), and they know that they are seriously outnumbered. (Kind of like the 300 Spartan soldiers going up against over a million Persian soldiers in the 2006 flick 300.) Not only that, but they're completely surrounded by the French army. In other words, the English soldiers don't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning this battle and it's highly unlikely that they'll make it home to their families.
Then King Henry V steps up and delivers one of the most astonishing (and famous) "let's get pumped up for battle" speeches of all time and convinces his troops to stay and fight alongside him like a "band of brothers" who will share the glory when all is said and done. (We talk about this speech in "Symbolism," but you can catch a clip of Kenneth Branagh's performance here. Instead of running away with their tails between their legs, Henry's troops are inspired to stay and fight and, then, against all odds, they actually win the battle. Just don't ask us how. Shakespeare leaves this part a big mystery.