Study Guide

Henry V Themes

  • Power

    Shakespeare's history plays are obsessed with royal power, especially the question of who has a right to rule and why. Should the throne be inherited by an eldest son? Can anyone just come along and take it by force if they feel like it? In this particular play, the English King Henry V makes a sketchy claim to the French throne and goes to war in order to secure his position as France's next king. Meanwhile, his claim to the English throne is being called into question by those who think he's doesn't have a legal claim to the crown. (After all, Henry only inherited it after his dad stole it away from Richard II.) In Henry V, Shakespeare also considers what it is that makes a good king and admits that, sometimes, being a successful monarch often involves being a not-so-nice person.

    Questions About Power

    1. Discuss Henry's motives for claiming a right to the French throne.
    2. Explain how the Salic Law factors into Henry's justification for claiming the French crown. Do you agree that he should be the King of France?
    3. Discuss King Henry's relationship with the Church in the play.
    4. What are the terms of the peace treaty Henry signs at the end of <em>Henry V</em>?
    5. What qualities make a good king? Is Henry V a good king? Are there any qualities that make someone a good ruler that might not make them a good friend?
    6. Do you think that Henry V has a solid claim to the throne of England? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Henry V's claim to the French throne is dubious at best. Henry claims that he has a right to rule France through his grandmother's family tree, but, if the exact same argument were used to decide who should rule England, Henry wouldn't be the king.

    The play suggests that being a successful king involves a willingness to be ruthless.

  • Warfare

    In Henry V, Shakespeare dramatizes England's invasion of France and King Henry's success at the Battle of Agincourt (1415). Does the play glorify war and justify Henry's actions, or does it reveal the horrific realities of medieval warfare? These are questions that often divide audiences and literary critics, but there's plenty of evidence to support both views. Shakespeare portrays a wide range of attitudes in the play – from Henry's aggressive stance that war will bring England honor and glory, to the common soldiers' skeptical obedience and desire to simply make it home safely. Regardless of whether or not we believe Shakespeare glorifies Henry's invasion of France, one thing is certain – Henry V shows us that warfare (justifiable or not) has some devastating consequences that go beyond the horrific field casualties to generations of families: "the widows' tears, the orphans' cries, / The dead men's blood, the pining maidens' groans, / For husbands, fathers, and betrothed lovers" (2.4.106-108).

    Questions About Warfare

    1. Why does Henry V go to war with France?
    2. Compare and contrast the play's various attitudes toward warfare in the play. Does Henry V glorify war? Or does it show us the horrors of warfare? (Be sure to point to specific evidence in the play.)
    3. Why does the Dauphin send Henry a chest full of tennis balls?
    4. Why does the Governor of Harfleur surrender to Henry's forces?

    Chew on This

    By delivering motivational speeches to his troops, Henry V glorifies warfare.

    Although the play glorifies warfare at times, it also goes out of its way to show the devastating consequences of war.

  • Patriotism

    <em>Henry V</em> is one of the most patriotic works of art we've ever come across. The play is chock-full of rousing speeches that have been carefully crafted to portray the English troops as underdogs that overcome overwhelming odds to achieve victory over the French. What's more, Henry maintains that God is on his side, and he insists that fighting the French is a matter of national pride and honor throughout the play. At the same time, Shakespeare also registers a lot of skepticism about Henry's decision to declare war on France and he portrays several English characters in an unflattering light.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. Do you think the play is patriotic? Why or why not?
    2. What is the relationship between patriotism, war, and religion in this play?
    3. Why do you think Shakespeare portrays four captains from the four different countries (Wales, Ireland, England, and Scotland) that make up Great Britain?
    4. How does Shakespeare portray the French characters? How are they different from the Englishmen?

    Chew on This

    <em>Henry V</em> is a patriotic play that celebrates Henry V's brilliant success at Agincourt.

    Although the play's tone is often patriotic, Shakespeare also calls into question Henry's motives and justifications for invading France.

  • Family

    This may be a big war play concerned with foreign affairs and national politics, but there's also a whole lot of family drama in <em>Henry V</em>. After all, both the English and French crowns are <em>supposed</em> to be inherited by lineal succession. (Lineal succession is a fancy way of saying that sons are supposed to inherit the throne from their dads.) It makes a lot of sense that the play is obsessed with all types of things that get passed down from fathers to sons – from entire kingdoms to character traits (like bravery and valor). In some cases, sons even inherit the burdens of their fathers' sins. Shakespeare also shows us how fragile family ties can be. During times of war, parents mourn for their lost sons, children are made into orphans, and wives are turned to grieving widows.

    Questions About Family

    1. What is the Salic Law and how does it impact the events in the play?
    2. Explain why Henry V wants to marry Catherine.
    3. What happens to families whose loved ones go off to war in the play?
    4. Discuss how the sins of Henry V's father (Henry IV) revisit his son.

    Chew on This

    Although the play portrays Henry's wooing of Catherine as a romantic occasion, the couples' marriage is nothing more than a political alliance brokered between two kings.

    <em>Henry V</em> suggests that war has long-lasting and devastating consequences for the families of soldiers.

  • Gender

    When Henry V affectionately calls his troops his "band of brothers," it's pretty clear that Shakespeare is mostly interested in male bonds – particularly the kinds of close-knit relationships that are forged among soldiers on the battlefield. Yet, despite the emphasis on male relationships, <em>Henry V</em>'s triumphant ending hinges on the fact that Henry gets hitched to the French princess, Catherine, a hook-up that's been designed to unite the kingdoms of France and England. Because it's a union that's been negotiated as part of England's peace treaty with France, the value of this male-female relationship is the fact that it forges a political alliance, not an emotional connection based on love or affection.

    Questions About Gender

    1. Discuss the play's attitude toward masculinity and warfare.
    2. How are male bonds forged in <em>Henry V</em>?
    3. What is Henry's attitude toward his marriage to Catherine? What's her attitude toward marrying him?
    4. Why do you think the play makes so many references to the relationship between rape and warfare?

    Chew on This

    Male bonds that have been forged on the battlefield are the most important relationships in the play.

    In<em> Henry V</em>, women seen as prizes to be conquered by men, just as towns are conquered by men during times of war.

  • Art and Culture

    <em>Henry V</em> is one of Shakespeare's most self-conscious plays. Each time the Chorus steps out on stage to set the scene for us, we're asked to pardon the theater's inability to accurately portray historical events (like Battle of Agincourt, the siege of Harfleur, and Henry's journey across the English Channel). After all, it's impossible for a tiny theater stage to "hold the vastly fields of France" or the thousands of troops and horses that marched across the battlefields. Time and time again, the Chorus suggests that the audience must labor alongside the actors (and soldiers). By using our imaginations, we, the audience, are responsible for bringing Shakespeare's play to life. The fact that Shakespeare sees his play as an interactive experience is pretty cool, don't you think?

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Discuss the role of the Chorus in the play. What function does it serve? How does it compare to Choruses in ancient Greek plays? How does the Chorus allow Shakespeare to comment on the nature of the theater?
    2. Why is the Chorus always apologizing to the audience for the theater's shortcomings?
    3. If you were hired to build a set for a theater production of <em>Henry V</em>, how would you do it? What are some limitations that you might face? How would you compensate?
    4. Why does the Chorus say that the audiences' imaginations are crucial to the success of the play?

    Chew on This

    By constantly referring to the theater's shortcomings, <em>Henry V</em> reminds us that what we are watching on stage (or reading) is not real, but is in fact a dramatic portrayal of history.

    The Chorus is one of the most important figures in <em>Henry V</em> because the character's function is to set the stage for the audience and to comment on the play's most important themes.

  • Society and Class

    In <em>Henry V</em>, Shakespeare knows that common soldiers experience war differently than the king and the nobility. After all, they're the ones who bear much of the burden of war and, if a battle is lost, they're likely to be killed while the king may be ransomed and his life spared. When Henry V orders his troops to invade France, his soldiers, many of whom are commoners, have no choice but to obey orders. They may not like it, and they may wish that they were back at home with their families or with friends at a favorite tavern, but their options are pretty limited. As a soldier named Williams puts it, "to disobey were against all proportion of subjection" (4.1.23).

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Discuss the relationship between the king and his subjects in this play.
    2. How does war impact the common soldiers in <em>Henry V</em>?
    3. What's the function of the "low-brow" scenes featuring the likes of Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim?
    4. Why do you think Shakespeare kills off so many of Henry's old Eastcheap pals?

    Chew on This

    <em>Henry V</em> suggests that, when a common soldier fights bravely in battle, he becomes ennobled.

    Even though Henry tells his troops that they are all his "band of brothers," we know that the common soldiers will never be on equal footing with the king – it will always be their duty to obey him, even if his orders are unjust.

  • Memory and the Past

    Because it's the final play in a four-play cycle, <em>Henry V</em> is always looking over its shoulder (into the historical past and also into the plays that have gone before it). At times, Shakespeare's characters are haunted by their pasts. (Henry must answer for his wild youth and feels compelled to beg God's forgiveness for his father's mistakes.) As Henry looks forward into his future as the King of England (and potentially the King of France), he forges ahead at the expense of leaving old friends (like Falstaff) behind in his wake. Of course, Shakespeare's preoccupation with the past also means that the play is full of shout-outs to the earlier history plays, <em>Richard II</em>,<em> Henry IV Part 1</em>, and <em>Henry IV Part 2.</em>

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why does Henry ask God to forgive him for his father's sins?
    2. What happens to Falstaff in <em>Henry V</em>? (Why doesn't he ever appear on stage?)
    3. Discuss how Shakespeare develops the "sun/king" metaphor throughout the <em>Henry</em> plays.
    4. Why doesn't the Dauphin take Henry seriously?

    Chew on This

    By refusing to pardon his old pal Bardolph for stealing, King Henry demonstrates that he really has left his wild past behind him.

    Although Henry has transformed into a capable king, his wild old ways resurface throughout the play.