Notes on Shakespeare's Henry V

(This page is part of a unit in Linguistics 114, A World of Words,
a freshman etymology course at The University of Michigan)

History background for the play           Text of the play           Shakespeare on the Web

The play was first performed in 1599 at the Globe Theatre ("this wooden O", Prologue). He had already written Henry VI (in three parts, 1590-91), Richard II (1593), Richard III (1594), and Henry IV (in two parts, 1597-98). Henry V completes the saga of the Lancastrian Rebellion, the Hundred Years' War, and the Wars of the Roses, a series of plays that cover events in English political history from 1398 to 1485.

These events comprise the principal historical background for the political realities of Shakespeare's time. The Wars of the Roses had been resolved by the accession of the House of Tudor, the family of Queen Elizabeth, who had reigned almost 50 years when the play was written.

By 1599 Shakespeare had a secure position in the Lord Chamberlain's Company, and a financial share in the Globe Theatre. He was an established playwright, with a name of sufficient renown for a dishonest publisher to appropriate it for the title page of a book he was issuing.

Shakespeare shows in the play his highly politic (in 1599) admiration for Henry V, whose character is almost unrelievedly noble and romantic. Henry leaps from victory to victory, with virtually no missteps, no falls from grace, no failures to overcome. His generalship is unexcelled, his statesmanship the very model of kingliness, his courtship straightforward and appealing. It would all be a completely wonderful story, if it weren't for the fact (which the audience knew too well in 1599, and which Shakespeare found necessary to mention in the Epilogue), that Henry V died young, only two years after marrying his Kate, leaving Henry VI an infant monarch at the tender mercies of his noble guardians. It was this poor hapless child in whose name Joan of Arc was burned, and who thus bears public blame for the loss of English possessions in France. Henry V, on the other hand, was an image to reckon with in the Elizabethan Age, the era in which England sought to break the power of Spain in the New World.

Shakespeare was never above taking liberties with history in the service of a good story. In this story he takes serious liberties with a number of historical facts. For instance, the Battle of Agincourt, like the Battle of Crécy, 80 years before, was won by the English for two reasons:

  1. the English were armed with the longbow,
  2. the French generals were incredibly stupid.

The longbow is a weapon that, in skilled hands, can put a steel-tipped arrow completely through an armored man (or horse) at 500 yards, with a rate of fire comparable to a modern bolt-action rifle. The Black Prince at Crécy used massed archers against armored cavalry. The French chivalry charged in a body and were mowed down at a distance, again and again, until between 5,000 and 10,000 men-at-arms were killed, with only a few hundred English casualties. The French refused to learn their lesson, however, and repeated their mistakes at Agincourt, resulting in a virtual repetition of Crécy for Henry V. These were great victories for the English yeomanry, who manned the longbows. Shakespeare, however, barely mentions the bowmen, and concentrates on hand-to-hand combat of knights and nobles, of which there was very little at Agincourt. This suits his dramatic purposes, which concentrate on the nobles.

Another liberty Shakespeare takes is in the way he collapses the aftermath of Agincourt in 1415 with the Treaty of Troyes, 5 years later in 1420, where Henry wins the hand of Catherine of France. The courtship scene in Act V, Scene II in which Catherine can speak but broken English (set up by Act III, Scene IV, which takes place between Catherine and her maid, entirely in French) and Henry purports not to speak French, is surely stretching the point. It is quite probable that Catherine had learned the language of the enemy, and it is utterly certain that Henry learned French at his mother's knee. It was the language of his family and their court, a fact which was neither well known nor politic to deal with in the England of 1599.

Henry's political task was to make a nation of a congeries of tribes; the English, of several varieties, the Welsh, the Scots, and the Irish all were his subjects. And Shakespeare's linguistic genius was to show the languages of all of them, tossed into the melting pot of English. Watch for Gower the Englishman, Fluellen the Welshman, Jamy the Scot, and Macmorris the Irishman, talking (and quarrelling) in their respective dialects - and all working together - for Henry at Harfleur in Act III, Scene 2. And watch for Pistol's humbling at Fluellen's hands in Act V, Scene 1 for making sport of the Welsh plant badge, the humble leek. Two films have been made of Shakespeare's play; of these, the WWII-vintage Olivier version makes it very clear who's who and who's speaking how. By contrast, Branagh's post-Vietnam-era version leaves out the bonding scenes, and omits both of these.

A different linguistic contrast is provided by the difference between the language of the nobles and that of Falstaff's entourage: Pistol, Bardolph, Nym, The Boy, and Mistress Quickly, who are characters left over from the comedic parts of Henry IV. They are lower-class ruffians who come to no good end, and their talk is very different from that of their betters, just the way Henry Higgins shows it to be much later in Shaw's Pygmalion.

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Last change 8/31/2015 John Lawler