Background to Henry V

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It is believed that HENRY V  was written 1598-1599.  HENRY V  concludes Shakespeare’s second tetralogy written between 1596 and 1599.   (The word tetralogy  comes from Greek and means, four writings.)  This tetralogy deals with events in English history from about 1390 to 1420 and begins with the play RICHARD II, followed by HENRY IV,Parts 1, 2 and then HENRY V.  (Shakespeare’s first tetralogy was written between 1589 and 1592.  These four plays, the three parts of HENRY VI  and RICHARD III , deal with the Wars of the Roses, 1454-1485.)

There appear to have been two major sources for HENRY V .  Both are 16th Century history books:  Holinshed’s Chronicles (1578) and Hall’s The Union of the Noble and Illustre Famelies of Lancastre and York (1542).  It is also thought that there were other minor sources that may have influenced Shakespeare in the writing of HENRY V;  a biography written about thirty years after the death of Henry V, Vita et Gesta Henrici Quinti, author unknown; and a play, The Famous Victories of Henry V (c.1594).  LikeHENRY V,  this play has a scene in which the King courts the French Princess, Katherine.

Under the  reign of the powerful King Henry V (1413-1422), England was temporarily unified.  This unification ended with his death in 1422.  During the intervening years, before the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), England was rent by disruptive civil wars such as:
* the Wars of the Roses [the struggle for the English throne between the House of York, allied to the descendants of Richard II and the House of Lancaster, allied to descendants of Henry IV (father of Henry V)]
* and the Reformation [the breaking away of the English church from the authority of the Pope in Rome, this led to conflict between the Protestants (reformers, under King Edward, 1547-1553) and the Catholics (traditionalists, under Queen Mary, 1553-1558)].

At the time HENRY V  was written England was experiencing a period of internal peace, national unity and world predominance under the reign of the Tudor queen, Elizabeth I. Elizabeth I was a popular and strong monarch.  Shakespeare, and indeed many Elizabethans, believed that effective, absolute monarchs like Henry V and Elizabeth I were necessary to maintain peace within the nation.  The society created under their rule was stratified, every person knew and accepted their place.  Subjects were unquestioningly loyal to their sovereign, while the sovereign was responsible to God.

The character Henry V possesses many characteristics attributed to the Tudor monarchy.  He is a powerful, warrior-king able to achieve and maintain stability in England as well as winning national glory with his success against the French at Agincourt.  (An event paralleled in Elizabethan times with the defeat, against all odds, of the Spanish Armada by the British fleet in 1588.)  It is thought that by writing a play about Henry V’s achievements as a monarch Shakespeare was offering the play as a patriotic celebration of the achievements of the Tudor monarchs.

Since HENRY V  is one of Shakespeare’s history plays, it is concerned with events rather than in-depth character development.  Because of this some commentators argue that it is an epic rather than a dramatic piece.  Although Shakespeare based his play on the history of Henry V’s life he selected and shaped the historical material to suit the purpose of his drama.  He compressed time, for example. The time taken for the peace negotiations was far greater (approximately 12 months) than the final scene in the play would indicate.  Furthermore, Shakespeare used the events of Henry V’s life to create characters and themes that reinforced his, and the Elizabethan, ideals of patriotism, nationalism and effective leadership.

Opinions vary as to Shakespeare’s real purpose in writing HENRY V.   Some commentators say that HENRY V  is a play about a great, Christian warrior-king and hence a play written to arouse feelings of patriotism on the part of the audience watching it.  Others say that the play is in fact a satire on war and imperialism and monarchy.  For although the play seems to glorify war at times this glory is set against a background of political treachery and hollow victories.  The audience is reminded that although kings and their advisors make wars, it is the ordinary person who suffers their consequence.  Finally, other commentators remind us, that whatever we may think is the meaning of HENRY V today, it is important to be able to transcend our contemporary notions and appreciate the play for the insights it gives into Shakespeare’s 16th Century, Elizabethan world.

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