Henry V

No role call this week because knowing who’s who isn’t that big a deal. Really, you just need to know Henry.

The Play’s the ThingThe play opens with a Chorus apologizing to the audience that such a great story that really covers a lot of time and country has to be shrunk down to fit into a limited time and the limits of a theatre. The play proper opens with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely discussing that while Henry was super dissipated in his youth, now that he’s ascended to the throne he’s become a model king who’s totally awesome at everything. Henry meets with the Archbishop and Bishop to discuss the legitimacy of his claim to the throne of France which they say is a fair one. Henry then meets with the French ambassador whose been sent from the Dauphin to basically insult Henry and tell him that someone with a past like his doesn’t have a chance of being King in France. Henry tells the ambassador that the Dauphin’s going to regret his message and then makes plans to take troops to France. The Chorus show up to let us know that Henry has assembled an army but that France has managed to pay off three lords to try and kill Henry before he even gets to France. Also, they let us know that any time the King’s on stage, the setting is Southampton and that the rest of the time the setting is still London.

In London, we get treated to a scene of Bardolph, Nym, Pistol, and Hostess Quickly, which you’ll remember as cronies of Falstaff. We learn Pistol has married the Hostess and that somewhere off stage, Falstaff is ill in her tavern. Meanwhile, Henry is meeting with the three men who are plotting to kill him. He considers the case of a plebe that insulted Henry while the plebe was drunk. The three conspirators all want Henry to take the hard line approach. When Henry reveals that he knows about their plans to kill him, they ask for mercy, and he turns their position around on them, takes the hard line, and sends them off to be executed. Back in London, we learn that Falstaff has died. Over in France, the King and the Dauphin are discussing Henry’s approaching army. While the Dauphin is convinced France can beat him back, the King is more cautious and reminds the Dauphin of the success Edward the Black Prince had when he attacked France for England. The ambassador for Henry then shows up and tells the King to hand over the throne to Henry or suffer the consequences. The Dauphin swears he’ll make Henry rue the day but the King defers a response for a day. The Chorus then shows up to give us a verbal montage of Henry sailing over to France and marching his army to attack the town of Harfleur. We also learn that the King of France offered Henry his daughter Katharine, a substantial dowry, and some lesser dukedoms to get Henry to back off, but he refused.

King Henry and his troops attack Harfleur. Then there’s some scenes with lesser soldiers, which don’t add much except making fun of the Welsh and Irish. Henry then meets with the Governor of Harfleur and after making a speech where he threatens all of the citizenry, the Governor surrenders to Henry. Elsewhere in France, we get a scene (in French) of Katharine having her maid, Alice, teach her some English. Meanwhile, the King of France is still trying to defeat Henry and is convinced he can do so. Henry meets the ambassador from the King of France who threatens him. Henry tells him that the English army is suffering from mass illness and they just want to march to Calais but they’ll turn and fight if they have to. The French troops are prepping for battle near Agincourt and the Dauphin is eager to get out so he can defeat Henry as the French have a superior number of troops. The Chorus then come out to set the stage for both sides prepping for battle in the dark of night and hinting that while the French are in better shape, things aren’t going to go very well for them.

In prepping for battle, Henry decides to disguise himself as a plebe and go out among the troops to get their temperature. They’re not thrilled at the idea of dying but they’re pretty loyal to Henry. Over in the French camp, the Dauphin and company are mounting their horses and prepping to attack. On the English side, some of Henry’s lords are worrying about their odds and wishing they had more men with them. However, Henry is satisfied with their numbers as it will prove a more heroic story if they win. The ambassador from France shows up and tells Henry that if he’ll pay a ransom for himself, the King will let him leave the country safely but Henry turns him down. There’s then several scenes of battle at the end of which we learn that the English have kicked some serious ass and wiped the floor with the French while losing very few men themselves. Henry, as a good king, gives the credit for the victory to God. We then  have the Chorus once more, who tell us all about Henry’s triumphant return to England, the arrival of an ambassador from France to set up peace terms, and Henry’s return to France to settle them.

We get a scene between some soldiers that’s pretty useless as it’s just one forcing the other to eat some leeks. We then get one of most impressive courtship scenes I’ve come across yet in Shakespeare where Henry tries to convince Katharine to marry him while dealing with the language barrier. Let’s just say, he’s thoroughly charming and could charm the pants off any girl. Katharine finally agrees, the King of France and Henry ratify their peace agreement, and Henry and Katharine head off to prep for the wedding. We get one final appearance from the Chorus who talk briefly about the general awesomeness of Henry V and then give us a teaser for the next set of plays by mentioning Henry VI.

Speech to Know: Henry has many rockin’ speeches in this play, and I’m particularly fond of his courtship speeches in the final act. However, his speeches during the battle scenes are ones that are far more familiar.

“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead!
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood.
Disguise  fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let it pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swill’d with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide;
Hold hard the breath, and bend up every spirit
To his full height! – On, on, you noble English,
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof! –
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought,
And sheath’d their swords for lack of argument: –
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those who you call’d fathers did beget you!
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war! – And you, good yeomen,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding: which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble lustre in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit; and upon this charge
Cry – God for Harry! England! and Saint George!” (III.i)

Honourable mention to the following sentence:

“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother” (IV.iii)

View from the Pit: I’m pretty fond of the character of Henry V so having an entire play dedicated to him made me pretty happy. And I was not disappointed. Henry gets plenty of stage time and is awesome in every second. Whether he’s being an impressive politician, a kick-ass military leader, or a man courting a wife, he does it all with flair. While the play itself comes across as a bit episodic, the Chorus help smooth out with their verbal equivalent to montages. I also have to admit I was just a tiny bit happy when Falstaff bit it, especially because I never once had to read any dialogue from him. Also, it’s a nice change to have one of the history plays not end with the death of the eponymous character, but instead with the promise of nuptials. Only so many funeral marches you can take in a row.

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2 thoughts on “Henry V

  1. Argenplath says:

    I like that we only care about Henry – so much easier to keep track of what’s going down.

  2. […] from the Pit: Pericles, Prince of Tyre is highly episodic and a little reminiscent of Henry V (although not nearly as cool). Reading the play for the first time I was in honest suspense as to […]

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