SOURCE: Wright, Louis B., and Virginia A. LaMar, eds. “Mirror of Kingship.” In The Life of King Henry the Fifth, by William Shakespeare, pp. vii-xliii. New York: Washington Square Press, 1960.
[In the following excerpt, Wright and LaMar provide an overview of Henry V, including its historical background, sources, stage history, and text.]
When Shakespeare presented King Henry V to London audiences in the spring or summer of 1599 in a pageant-like play, he showed them a hero-king long established in the heroic tradition and one already popular on the stage. A shrewd appraiser of public taste, as always, Shakespeare took advantage of the swelling patriotism of the moment. When Henry V opened in London, England once more faced the prospect of war. The Irish had rebelled under Tyrone and had administered a stinging defeat to English troops. Now the Earl of Essex was ready to lead a punitive expedition against the troublesome Irish and conquer them once and for all. With a great concourse of people following and applauding him and his train, the noble Earl, a dashing character and the favorite of the Queen, marched out of London on March 27, 1599, bound for Ireland, and, as he and the populace believed, for victory and honor. That he would return defeated and disgraced in September was as yet a secret wrapped in the mists of Ireland.
No subject better than the deeds of King Henry V could have been chosen for the opening of the season in 1599, for Englishmen were enormously interested in the strength that he had brought to the Crown and the glory that he had won. By the end of the sixteenth century England was no longer the weak and puny country that it had been at the end of the Wars of the Roses, when Richard III had died at Bosworth Field and Henry Tudor had snatched his crown and made himself Henry VII. The country had grown strong under the Tudors and had taken its place as a world power under the greatest of them all, Elizabeth the Queen, Gloriana of the poets. Just eleven years before Henry V opened, England had defeated Spain, the mightiest power in the world, and had sent reeling home such galleons as survived from the vast invading Armada. Small wonder that Englishmen thrilled at the deeds of national heroes, present or past.
The reign of Elizabeth, especially the last two decades, saw an enormous interest in history and in historical plays. Felix Schelling, in his history of Elizabethan drama, has estimated that something like 220 plays during the Elizabethan period were drawn from the chronicles of British history, and that approximately half of these plays have survived. From 1588 to 1605, “more than a fifth of all contemporary plays” had for their themes some episode of British history. King John appeared in at least six plays, Henry V and Edward III in seven, Richard III in eight, and Henry VI was a character in at least ten. Of Shakespeare's plays, thirteen, or about one-third, used British history, or legend that passed for history, as their theme. The appetite for historical reading matter was enormous and the greatest poets and writers set out to satisfy this interest.
Shakespeare had already achieved success in historical drama before Henry V was written. Indeed, this play was a sequel promised the public who had taken the two parts of Henry IV to its heart. At the end of Henry IV (Part 2), Prince Hal succeeds to the throne and renounces Falstaff and his madcap cronies. The Epilogue, however, promises that the historical drama will continue with another play in which Falstaff will also appear: “If you be not too much cloyed with fat meat, our humble author will continue his story, with Sir John in it, and make you merry with fair Katherine of France; where, for anything I know, Falstaff shall die of a sweat, unless already 'a be killed with your hard opinions.” Henry V followed according to promise, but Falstaff was not in it. Shakespeare changed his plan and killed Falstaff off stage near the beginning of the play. Perhaps he felt that the fat knight would steal too many of the scenes in a play which sought to focus interest upon the King himself.
For Henry V is primarily concerned with the hero-king, with the prowess that such a king displays, with the glory that comes to England through the king's exploits, and with the problem of kingship as such. Given the spirit of the times, any drum-and-trumpet play would have attracted attention, but Shakespeare wrote something more and something deeper. His is a drama that breathes the spirit of the new nationalism that suffused England; though it is set in a previous age, it reflects with striking immediacy the attitudes and concepts of his own period. While the spectators applauded Henry V on the “vasty fields of France,” they were also conscious of their own heroic Queen and they may have remembered how, eleven years before, she had ridden her charger before the troops drawn up at Tilbury to repulse the Spanish invaders.
Henry V was a hero who appealed to the Elizabethans. In the face of heavy odds he had won a great victory against a traditional enemy. He was a strong king, who united the country behind him and showed to everyone, at home and abroad, that he would brook neither disorder within his borders nor encroachments from without. Furthermore, Shakespeare made him both God-fearing and just, qualities that the English believed their Queen possessed. She was supreme head of the church and she was the ultimate arbiter of a justice that the English had come to prize as one of their most priceless legacies. Shakespeare makes of Henry the ideal sovereign, or as the Chorus to Act II expresses it, “the mirror of all Christian kings.”
The problem of kingship and the nature of the office interested the Renaissance generally and the Elizabethans particularly. England had suffered from weak rulers during the Wars of the Roses until, in the end, the rise of the Tudors had brought stability and prosperity. Works of history, plays, and poems, as well as popular legend and story, kept alive the memory of the chaotic conditions that existed before the accession of Henry Tudor, and no Englishman wanted a return of civil strife. Strength and justice were the qualities most admired in a sovereign, and the majority of Englishmen agreed that the Tudors supplied both. Queen Elizabeth had shrewdly capitalized upon her subjects' yearning for stability, and she managed to identify herself so completely with the public weal that Englishmen could hardly think of a form of government or a sovereign more benign.
But lurking in the back of every Englishman's head was the thought of what might happen when the Queen was no more, for the succession was in doubt, and the fear of civil commotion was a ghost that could not be laid. Far more depended upon the succession than depends upon the outcome of the most critical election today. All of these facts gave special point to the histories of previous English sovereigns and are a further explanation of the popular interest in history plays. In Shakespeare's Richard II the public could see the evils that come upon the commonwealth when a king is weak and vacillating; in the three plays concerning Henry IV and Henry V they could see and appreciate the benefits of a strong dynasty. There is no question that audiences would equate...
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