Henry V is a war play, so when we ask about its tone (the play or author's attitude toward its subject matter), what we're really asking is this: What's the play's attitude toward war? Specifically, what's the play's attitude toward Henry's decision to invade France?
The answers aren't cut and dried in this play because the tone shifts between patriotic fervor for Henry's campaign against the French and it's recognition of the horrors of warfare. On the one hand, the play celebrates Henry's triumph over the France, which seems miraculous given that the English troops were exhausted, sick, and seriously outnumbered at Agincourt. The play is also chock-full of patriotic speeches that suggest warfare is patriotic and ennobling. (The clearest example of this is Henry's famous St. Crispin's Day speech, where he insists that the men who fight alongside him will become his "band of brothers.")
On the other hand, Shakespeare goes out of his way to show us the horrors of warfare, which involve brutal hand to hand combat, raping, pillaging, and endless suffering. As Exeter points out, neither side can escape "the widows' tears, the orphans' cries, / The dead men's blood, the pining maidens' groans, / For husbands, fathers, and betrothèd lovers" (2.4.113-116).
We talk about this at length in "Quotes: Warfare," so check it out if you want to think about this some more.
Literary critics refer to Henry V as a "history play," a genre that portrays English historical events (well, history according to Shakespeare) that resonate with current political issues, including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion. Yep, that's a mouthful all right. Let's break it down and talk specifics.
Portraying English historical events: Check. Henry V covers historical events immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt (1415), a major turning point in the Hundred Years War, which was waged between the French and English over the French crown.
Historical events resonate with current political issues, including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion: Check. (When we say "current" political issues, we mean around the 1590s, when the Henry plays were written.) As Shakespeare was writing about Henry's miraculous victory at the Battle of Agincourt, England was facing some problems in the foreign affairs department – namely, a long, drawn-out war with Spain and the Earl of Tyrone's Rebellion in Ireland. We also want to say that Shakespeare's portrayal of the problem of kingly succession (in both France and England) echoes a major concern in Elizabethan England. At the time the play was written, Queen Elizabeth I was in her 60s and had no heir to inherit the English throne. As Shakespeare's original audience watched events unfold in the play, Henry V's struggles with the French would have resonated with the problems Queen Elizabeth faced.
Spicing up history with some fiction: Check. Like we've said elsewhere, the Henry plays aren't just all about history. Shakespeare also dreams up a few rowdy fictional characters (like Pistol, Nim, Bardolph, and Mistress Quickly) in order to inject some comic relief into an otherwise serious play.
Yep, you guessed it. Henry V is all about the famous English monarch... King Henry V.
Brain Snack: The first time the play was printed (in the first quarto of 1600), the publishers got fancy and gave it a really long title:
The chronicle history of Henry the fifth,
with his battle fought at Agincourt in
France. Together with Ancient
Pistol. As it hath been sundry times played by the Right Honorable
the Lord Chamberlain his servants.
Later, when the play was published in the first folio edition (1623), the publishers decided to keep it simple and called the play The Life of Henry V. Check it out for yourself.
By the end of the play, King Henry has pretty much checked off everything on his short "To Do" list. Recall that his "To Do" list looked something like this:
1. Demolish the French army: Check. Henry kicks serious butt at the Battle of Agincourt (4.3-4.7), which is nothing short of a miracle because Henry's army was totally outnumbered but somehow managed to pummel the French anyway.
2. Become the King of France: Check – sort of. Henry doesn't get to rule France right away. Still, he forces King Charles VI to name the "heir apparent" (next guy in line after Charles dies) to the French throne. As a bonus, Charles also throws in his daughter, Catherine, so the couple can get hitched and have a son that will also rule France one day.
Wow. That's pretty impressive, don't you think? At the play's end, though, Shakespeare doesn't exactly roll out a banner that says "Mission Accomplished." Instead, he sends out the Chorus to deliver one seriously depressing Epilogue reminding us that, after all the bloodshed and struggle, things don't actually work out very well for Henry and his family. Check it out:
Small time, but in that small most greatly lived
This star of England. Fortune made his sword,
By which the world's best garden be achieved
And of it left his son imperial lord.
Henry the Sixth, in infant bands crowned King
Of France and England, did this king succeed
Whose state so many had the managing
That they lost France and made his England bleed,
Which oft our stage hath shown. And for their sake,
In your fair minds let this acceptance take. (5.Epilogue.5-14)
Translation: "We've just showed you (the audience) what an awesome warrior King Henry V was, but we should probably remind you that our portrayal of Henry's success at Agincourt is just a brief, flashing glimpse ('small time') into Henry's life. Catherine and Henry V will go on to have a son, but Henry VI will eventually screw things up big time by losing France. Psst. Shakespeare wrote all about this in Henry VI, Part 1 and Henry VI Part 2 so you should totally go and see those plays if you haven't already."
Brain Snack: The historical Henry V ended up dying of dysentery (basically a really bad case of diarrhea) in 1422 after going back to France for yet another military campaign.
The play begins in England, but shifts to France in Act 2, Scene 4, where the rest of the play takes place. Much of the diplomatic action occurs in the English and French palaces, where kings and their political advisors make decisions about foreign policy, military campaigns, and peace treaties. The Henry plays are also famous for the tavern scenes, where seedy characters like Bardolph, Pistol, Nim, and Mistress Quickly get rowdy. These kinds of scenes are limited in Henry V because everyone goes off to war, where the most important action goes down. The battle scenes occur in Harfleur, France (where Henry's troops capture the town) and on the fields of Agincourt, France.
As the Chorus frequently reminds us, Shakespeare's staging options are pretty limited – since it's impossible to cram thousands of troops and horses onto a small stage, we're often asked to use our imaginations. In the Prologue, the Chorus asks
[...] can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? Or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
The answer is no. The theater can't contain the fields of France so the audience has got its work cut out for it. Lucky for us, there have been some pretty nifty technological advances since Shakespeare wrote Henry V. When adapted into film, the play's setting can be pretty incredible.
The play was written around 1599, but it portrays events that occurred immediately before and after the Battle of Agincourt (October 25, 1415), which just so happened to occur on St. Crispin's Day, the feast day of the martyred twins, Saints Crispin and Crispinian. Like we've said elsewhere, the events in the play speak to some contemporary (Elizabethan) issues. As Shakespeare's original audiences watched Henry wage a war with France, they would have been reminded of their own long-standing problems with Spain and a recent uprising in Ireland, the Earl of Tyrone's Rebellion (1594-1603). We also want to note that the tavern scenes involving Pistol, Mistress Quickly, and Bardolph look and sound a lot like what have gone down in any Elizabethan tavern, not a medieval inn.
If you're reading this, then you've probably already made it past the first three plays in the tetralogy: Richard II, Henry IV Part 1, and Henry IV Part 2. (Nice job, Shmoopster.) Here's some good news to keep you motivated as you head down the homestretch: Henry V is the easiest play in the history cycle. Why? Because 1) the plot is straightforward and easy to follow and 2) most readers have already got the hang of reading Shakespeare's Elizabethan English. (Yeah, yeah. We know that Henry V contains a fair amount of French, but Shakespeare translates most of it for us. Plus, any decent edition of the play will offer translations where Shakespeare doesn't.)
That said, you might want to take a quick peek at this map, especially if you need to brush up on European geography. We'd feel pretty terrible if you got lost crossing the English Channel as you follow Henry V's forces into France.
Like most of Shakespeare's plays. Henry V is written in a combination of verse (poetry) and prose (how we talk every day). For kicks, Shakespeare also writes some of the scenes in French. (Don't worry – he translates most of it for us.)
The Chorus and the nobility tend to speak in unrhymed iambic pentameter" (also called blank verse), which is a formal way to talk. Don't let the fancy names intimidate you – it's really pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Let's start with a definition of iambic pentameter:
An "iamb" is an unaccented syllable followed by an accented one. "Penta" means "five," and "meter" refers to a regular rhythmic pattern. So "iambic pentameter" is a kind of rhythmic pattern that consist of five iambs per line. It's the most common rhythm in English poetry and sounds like five heartbeats:
da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM, da DUM.
Let's try it out on this line from Henry's famous battle cry:
once MORE unTO the BREACH dear FRIENDS, once MORE.
or CLOSE up THE wall WITH our ENGlish DEAD.
Every second syllable is accented (stressed) so this is classic iambic pentameter. Since the lines have no regular rhyme scheme we call it unrhymed iambic pentameter, a.k.a. blank verse.
Of course, not everyone speaks poetry in the play. A lot of the low-brow characters (like Mistress Quickly and Nim) talk in regular old prose. Check out this passage, where Mistress Quickly describes her last conversation with a dying Falstaff:
'How now, sir John?'
quoth I 'what, man! be o' good cheer.' So he cried
out 'God, God, God!' three or four times. Now I, to
comfort him, bid him a' should not think of God; I
hoped there was no need to trouble himself with
any such thoughts yet.
Like we said, Shakespeare writes a few scenes in French. (In Act 3, Scene 4, Catherine gets an English language tutorial. In part of Act 5, Scene 2, Henry tries to woo Catherine while her lady-in-waiting translates.) These scenes tend to be pretty hilarious because of the language barrier between the French and English characters. For example, when Alice teaches Catherine the words for various body parts: "la main" (hand), "les doigts" (fingers), "les ongles" (nails), "le bras" (arms), "le coude" (elbow). "le col" (neck), "le menton" (chin), "le pied" (foot), and "de cown" (gown), Catherine protests that "foot" and "gown" sound like the vulgar French words "foutre" and "con." Shakespeare gets a big kick out of making the French princess talk dirty so he has her repeat the naughty sounding words several times.
When the Dauphin of France wants to let Henry V know that he's got zero respect for him and his recent demands for some French dukedoms, he sends the English king a giant chest full of tennis balls (1.2). As you've probably guessed, this isn't exactly a friendly invite for Henry to come over to the French palace to practice his backhand stroke. It's a major, major insult that's right up there with "thumb-biting" in Romeo and Juliet.
By sending a gigantic chest of tennis balls, the Dauphin is basically telling everyone that he thinks Henry is immature and would be better off playing a meaningless game than getting involved in messy foreign affairs. The insulting gift also gestures at the fact that Henry spent the "wilder days" of his youth running amok through England instead of paying attention to politics (1.2.279). (Remember all of the ridiculous pranks Prince Hal played back in Henry IV Part 1?)
Henry recognizes the insult immediately and, using the language of tennis, declares that his army is going to destroy all the royal "courts" of France during their deadly "match."
When we have marched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God's grace, play a set
Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a
That all the courts of France will be disturbed
With chases. (1.2.272-278)
Yikes! Henry makes tennis and warfare sound pretty scary, don't you think? Note to self: Never give this guy sporting equipment for his birthday.
The sun has always been a common symbol for kings and queens who liked to give themselves props for their stunning powers. (Ever heard of Louis XIV of France, a.k.a. the "Sun King"? Enough said.)
Throughout this play, Shakespeare aligns King Henry V with the sun. As it turns out, Shakespeare's been developing this idea since Henry IV Part 1, when Henry (a.k.a. Hal) uses the sun as a metaphor for his promised transformation from a wild young prince into a majestic monarch:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wondered at
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapors that did seem to strangle him. (Henry IV, Part 1, 1.2.204-210)
Here, Hal (who's been acting like a total punk lately) promises that he's going to throw off his bad behavior like the sun breaks through the "foul and ugly mists." The idea is that we'll all be dazzled by his glorious transformation into a capable monarch.
Even though Henry later makes good on his promise, the Dauphin of France refuses to recognize his transformation (which is why he sends him a chest full of tennis balls to play with). Henry's response to the insulting gift follows:
But I will rise there with so full a glory
That I will dazzle all the eyes of France,
Yea, strike the Dauphin blind to look on us. (Henry V, 1.2.290-292)
Later on, the Chorus uses the same metaphor to describe Henry's warmth and strength as a leader. As Henry moves through the English camp cheering up his frightened troops, the Chorus compares him to a sun that "thaws" his men's "cold fear":
With cheerful semblance and sweet majesty,
That every wretch, pining and pale before,
Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.
A largess universal, like the sun,
His liberal eye doth give to everyone,
Thawing cold fear, that mean and gentle all (Henry V, Act 4.Chorus.41-46)
So, basically, King Henry is kind of like an emotional microwave that's set on "defrost" mode.
P.S. We triple dog dare you to trace Shakespeare's use of "sun" imagery through the whole tetralogy, from Richard II through Henry V.
Let's face it. Shakespeare rarely passes up an opportunity to make a joke about bestiality. (Just ask Titania, who falls in love with an "ass" in A Midsummer Night's Dream.) So, we're not really surprised when we meet Bourbon, a French nobleman who loves two things: warfare and his horse.
In fact, Bourbon is so crazy about his horse that he can't stop talking about him:
I once writ
a sonnet in his praise and began thus: 'Wonder of
I have heard a sonnet begin so to one's
Then did they imitate that which I composed
to my courser, for my horse is my mistress.
Your mistress bears well. (3.7.40-47)
Say what?! Dauphin's horse is his "mistress" (a.k.a. girlfriend)? This is kind of weird, don't you think? What's going on here? Well, aside from poking fun at the Frenchman, Shakespeare is also making a reference to a character from an earlier play: Hotspur (from Henry IV Part 1). Remember him? He's the guy who used to get all hot and bothered just thinking about going into battle. So hot and bothered, in fact, that he liked hopping on his horse and going off to war better than sleeping with his wife (Henry IV Part 1, 2.3). Because of his love of battle, Hotspur was considered the epitome of chivalry (a word that comes from the French word for horse, "cheval"). When Dauphin implies here that he prefers his horse to women, Shakespeare basically turns Dauphin into an exaggerated version of Hotspur. In the process, he makes fun of traditional ideas about "chivalry" and cracks a dirty joke in the process.
At the beginning of the play, there's a whole lot of talk about Salic Law. It seems like it's always "Salic Law this" and "Salic Law that." We have to admit that all this Salic Law talk can be pretty confusing. The first time it comes up, Canterbury says that the French have been using it as an excuse to prevent English kings from inheriting the French crown (1.2). Okay. Fine.
What exactly is the Salic Law and what the heck does it have to do with whether or not Henry has a right to rule France? Well, Salic Law is just the name of a French rule that prevented men from inheriting the crown through a female line. In other words, if a king had a daughter, she couldn't inherit the throne and her sons and grandsons couldn't inherit it either. Sounds simple enough, right?
Why does Canterbury take this very basic concept and twist it into a messy, complicated explanation (over 60 lines long!) about why Henry should get to rule France in Act 1, Scene 2? Don't worry, Shmoopsters, we've taken a look at Canterbury's lengthy speech and broken it down.
According to Canterbury, the Salic Law doesn't actually hold any water because a boatload of French kings have inherited the crown through their mothers. Plus, says Canterbury, the original authors of the Salic Law said that it should only apply to Germany, not France. Therefore, Canterbury argues, King Henry V has a legal right to rule France because his great-great-grandmother (Isabel) was the daughter of the French King Phillip IV. (Isabel married Edward II of England and had a son, Edward III, who also tried to lay claim to the French crown.)
If you're baffled by this lengthy justification, then you're not alone. Canterbury's tedious explanation isn't necessarily a good enough reason for Henry to claim the French throne, which is probably why he makes the argument sound more complicated than it is. Shakespeare's point? Henry's motives for invading a foreign country are pretty suspect.
It just so happens that the Battle of Agincourt (1415) was fought on October 25, which was St. Crispin's Day (the feast for the sainted twin brothers, Crispin and Crispinian). In case we forgot, Henry beats us over the head with this bit of trivia over and over and over again in his famous speech to his troops. We talk about the speech at length in our "Characters: Henry V," which is where you should go if you want to know more...
If we trace Henry V's trajectory over the course of all three Henry plays, then we can see how his is a classic "Rebirth" story.
Booker says that, in the "falling stage," the hero is "underdeveloped" and in the shadow of something "dark" that may "spring entirely from within the hero's own personality." In other words, Hal behaves like a hoodlum because he wants to, not simply because he's been spending a lot of time with Falstaff.
In this stage, the "dark" power seems to have receded. Henry has shrugged off the wild days of his youth and begins to act more like a responsible monarch.
Just when Henry was beginning to feel like a grown-up, the Dauphin sends him an insulting gift (a chest of tennis balls) and suggests that he hasn't changed at all and is still the same old reckless boy.
On the eve of the battle, the French troops outnumber the English and Henry's army seems to have given up all hope. Henry feels as isolated as ever and delivers a lengthy speech about the difficulties of kingship.
Booker says that in this stage, the protagonist is saved by a child or a woman. After defeating the French, Henry is named heir apparent of France and is wed to Catherine. Does she save Henry, though? Maybe. We could argue that the union restores Henry's sense of honor and fulfills Henry's desire to unite both realms.
Now that Henry V has settled in as the King of England, he needs some excitement in his life. Plus, he's always wanted a vacation house in France...
Unfortunately for Henry, the French want nothing to with him. When the Dauphin sends Henry a chest of tennis balls (a major dis), Henry is furious.
It doesn't take much for the Archbishop of Canterbury to convince Henry to invade France. Since his great-great-grandmother was the daughter of the French King Phillip IV, Henry thinks he's the legitimate heir to the French throne. (Why not? Two crowns are always better than one.) Things seem to be going well when Henry sacks the town of Harfleur, but then his soldiers begin to get sick and complain of exhaustion.
Before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry delivers a famous inspirational speech to convince his troops that they should fight with him, even though they'll probably die in the process.
Miraculously, the English troops pummel the French. Still, will France say "uncle"? After some negotiating, Montjoy declares that Henry's army has won the day.
At the French palace, Henry puts the moves on King Charles' VI's daughter, Catherine. Henry says he loves her but we also know that a marriage would unite England and France.
Henry signs a peace treaty with Catherine's dad, which stipulates that Henry gets to marry Catherine. Time for wedding cake!
Henry decides to invade France.
Henry's troops face a likely defeat at Agincourt.
Against all odds, Henry's army is victorious at Agincourt. Henry forces the King of France to name his as his heir and marry him to his daughter.