Introduction: Henry V
Arguably Shakespeare’s best-known history play, Henry V is actually a highly ambivalent work. Some directors, Kenneth Branagh (1944) famously among them, have seen the play as a celebration of British patriotism, whilst others have emphasised the awful casualties of war, and Henry’s Machiavellian habit of, in Stephen Greenblatt’s words, provoking disorder only to repress it further.
Falstaff dies offstage, Pistol is humiliated and Bardolph hanged – but they make us laugh before they go, as does the French princess Catherine’s unsuspectingly bawdy English lesson, and the many accents of the British army. However, as in the three plays that precede it, the question of what it is to be a king dominates the action of the play once more. Wherever we see him, receiving the French ambassador at the English court, coldly stopping a coup at Southampton, delivering an ultimatum at Harfleur and a battle cry at Agincourt, Henry V is always in authority, even when, in a scene reminiscent of his youthful antics, he wanders disguised amongst his soldiers, asking himself afterwards “what have kings, that privates have not too / Save ceremony, save general ceremony?” These lines reveal the tensions of kingship as both a construction and an ideal, a tension that finds an echo in the structure of a play whose chorus endlessly iterates the need for the audience to believe in that other constructed illusion, the spectacle of the actors on a stage, tasked to “cram / Within this wooden O the very casques / That did affright the air at Agincourt”.
Contributed by James Harriman-Smith