Backstage with Henry V

King Henry V:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more…

… 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…

… The game’s afoot:

Follow your spirit, and upon this charge

Cry ‘God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

Laurence Olivier (1944)

Boy, in Henry’s army:

Would I were in an alehouse in London, I would give all my fame for a pot of ale, and safety.


The King’s a bawcock, and a heart of gold, a lad of life, an imp of fame, of parents good, of fist most valiant: I kiss his dirty shoe, and from heartstring I love the lovely bully.

In order: Sovereign, “grunt” and rowdy commoner on the eve of battle, Acts 3 and 4 of Henry the Fifth

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Coppelia Kahn, Normi Noel and Seth Powers here (44 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

Henry the Fifth remains, for many, the familiar favorite among Shakespeare plays. For Lydon kids, it began with my father’s doctrine that Laurence Olivier’s Henry V was the best movie ever made — though we all came to see the sinew-stiffening World War 2 propaganda dimension of the piece, which Winston Churchill had cleansed, for example, of the mass slaugher of French prisoners in Shakespeare’s account. Those magic lines of Henry’s — “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers” to his warriors, and his love banter with the French princess Katherine — “take a soldier; take a King” — summon the blood and melt the heart long after we realize that this warlike Harry was bluffing his way through an aggressive and unpopular war of choice, egged on by a corrupt church establishment.

Kenneth Branagh challenged the Everest of Shakespearean movie-making, and got credit for taking the peak, in 1989. Branagh’s battle scenes were hellish, and his Henry was a thug in scenes that Olivier had cut:

Kenneth Branagh (1989)

King Henry:

The gates of mercy shall be all shut up,

And the flesh’d soldier, rough and hard of heart,

In liberty of bloody hand shall range

With conscience wide as hell, mowing like grass

Your fresh-fair virgins and your flowering infants.

Henry’s ultimatum to the town fathers of Harfleur, in Act 3, Scene 1 in Henry the Fifth

Come now the merry and inventive players of the treasured Actors Shakespeare Project in Boston. Their Henry V is five actors in a garage basement, directed by Normi Noel of Shakespeare & Company in the Berkshires, raising profound old riddles anew, in a production worthy of the ASP standard we’ve celebrated before in King Lear and Titus Andronicus.

Just war? Are you kidding? Be reminded that this dramatic site of arguably the greatest, most quotable war speeches in the language is also a mine of anti-war eloquence, not least by Michael Williams, a soldier:


But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make, when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all ‘We died at such a place;’ some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeard there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of any thing, when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that led them to it; whom to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.

Soldier-talk, overheard by the king on the eve of Agincourt in Act 4, Scene 1, Henry the Fifth

We will have a conversation any day now with Coppelia Kahn, the Shakespeare scholar at Brown, and with principals in this ASP production: the actor playing Henry, Seth Powers, and the director Normi Noel, who remarked to me today: “Hamlet is a cake-walk after this guy.” In the program notes she raises a fascinating question about one of the most famous lines in the play, spoken in connection with the approaching death of Henry’s cast-off roistering mate, Falstaff: “The king has killed his heart.”

Is it Falstaff’s heart that Henry has killed in becoming a king? Or his own? Might the core of the play be, as Normi Noel suspects, about “what we do to armor the heart against feeling?”

But first I put it to the Open Source crowd: What is Shakespeare saying through Henry the Fifth about honor and heroism, about the earning of kingship and manhood, about nationhood and war, about chivalry and tragic irony? Help me out, please. Are not the questions wide open?

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  • Zeke

    Thank you for this! As with so much in Shakespeare, the questions are not “either/or” no matter how much we may wish them to be. They are, indeed, as Chris says, “wide open.”

    I am coming to this reading of Henry V by way of Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and, just before that, Richard II. As a tetralogy, the plays trace the story from the original usurpation of the crown that haunts the Kings Henry and the subsequent plays. Their arc also raise plenty of questions about Henry’s putative “growth” into the leader at Agincourt.

    Certainly, in the films referenced, or onstage as a stand alone play, Henry V has much to say about leadership, manhood, nationship, war, etc. in their own right.

    But it has even more to say when viewed in the context of these earlier plays. Was Prince Hal really a wastral or was he cannily “slumming” with Falstaff and the tavern folk? What do we make of his conversion and attempts to redeem himself and his father? Does his embrace, of the Chief Justice as a new father-figure upon becoming King, mean he is going to respect the rule of law? Or is that a manipulative ploy as well? What do we make of his spurning of Falstaff?

    Indeed, while perhaps Falstaff is only tangential to discussion of Henry V, I think it informs the play to consider where the King has come from and also how he stands in contrast to Falstaff. Why do Bloom, and others, find the various Henry’s to be “characters” on the stage while Falstaff (along with Hamlet and, depending on the critic, Cleopatra or Rosalind) is a “real” person? Especially since it seems that in our world, as in the the world of these plays, the spirit of power has crushed the spirit of play.

    There is a well known essay by Norman Rabkin called, “Rabbits, Ducks and Henry V. Depending on the way one views a silhouette, one may alternatively see a rabbit or a duck, but one can never see both simultaneously. He writes, “In Henry V Shakespeare creates a work whose ultimate power is precisely the fact that it points in two opposite directions, virtually daring us to choose one of the two opposed interpretations it requires of us.”

    Stephen Greenblatt is clear about what he sees:

    “The play deftly registers every nuance of royal hypocricy, ruthlessness and bad faith–testing in effect the proposition that successful rule depends not upon sacredness, but upon demonic violence– but it does so in the context of a celebration, a collective panegyric to ‘This Star of England’, the charismatic leader who purges the commonwealth of its incorrigibles and forges the martial national state.”

    Treating the play as the final movement in a four part symphony, I tend towards this skeptical view Henry. I view him with the kind of fear and disdain that I do the current occupant of our nation’s highest office–our own Prince Hal. However, as I said at the outset, the wonderful thing about Shakespeare is that many perspectives are all “true” (how Emersonian!) and I hope this thread will present others as well.

    Thanks again for the topic Chris.

  • I haven’t read this in 25 years. My last viewing was the Branaugh film when it was in theatre. So, my comments, imppressions are not fresh. My first response, what I’ve been left with after all these years is the cynical view: that H5 was a charismatic, naricisistic charmer who was able to call upon the honor of others to serve his own purposes. When people fear, they appreciate having someone motivate them to action -even if it is not the wisest. They give up judgment for the panacea of action.

    It would be interesting, though, for me to read it again now and see if I come away with a different perspective. Being such a different person now. I’m likely to get more nuance and be more amenable to the idea that the questions are open. I’m buried in a ceiling-high pile of reading these days – including Theodore Parker’s Sermon, with The Brother in Elysium in the queue on my bedstand – so, I don’t know if I’ll get to this in a timely manner.

    (Kind of wish we had a calendar of reading assignments! Though I like the spontaneity of readings that are responsive to a moment in time…)

    I look forward to the conversation.

  • Potter

    Zeke and Allison- very impressive posts! I stopped by to thank Chris for saving me from my obsession with the Middle East situation which seems to be warming up (Israeli-Palestinian branch) with this lure of Shakespeare. I am listening again to the ROS interview with Stephen Greenblatt who wrote “Will in the World” and I think I did read his essay in the NYRB “Shakespeare and the Uses of Power” however will review it again. But this is very interesting to me and will perhaps bring me back to my current obsession with some new perspective.

    It was so many years ago that I read the play- probably beyond simply refreshing my memory so I really should re-read it. I have the A.L. Rowse annotated version and although he has been criticized he reads pretty well. As well I dug out a video I have of the Branagh film.

    I am conflicted about which is better- to see the play or to read it. I think both are necessary.

    Chris what you are doing is very much appreciated.

  • Zeke

    Having sounded a skeptical note, I want to also add an instance of private conversation that may be more revealing than the speeches a leader makes.

    The chaplain present at Agincourt reports that a knight “expressed a desire to the king’s face” an additional 10,000 of England’s best archers who “would have been only too glad to have been there.”

    Henry’s response: “That is a foolish way to talk because, by the God in Heaven upon Whose grace I have relied and in Whom is my firm hope of victory, I would not, even if I could, have a single man more than I do. For these I have here with me are God’s people, whom He deigns to let me have at this time. Do you not believe that the Almighty, with these his humble few, is able to overcome the opposing arrogance of the French who boast of their great number and their own strength?”

    Hnery does seem to have believed in what he was doing.

    At the same time, he was undoubtedly aware of military doctrine expressed in The Book of Deeds of Arms and Chivalry that included:

    “One finds that many armies have been thrown into disarray by their own greater number rather than by enemy forces…[the ancients] knowing the perils from experience,placed a higher value on an army well taught and led than a great multitude.”

  • SamGale

    Hey, I had the fun experience of seeing this show with Chris the other day. I am shamefully Henry-V-uninitiated, having neither seen Olivier nor Branagh nor ANY other production. I’ve only read the play in my big Penguin Shakespeare compilation, and it blurred together a little in my mind with all the other non-Richard-III history plays.

    But this was a pretty great intro—not having seen a more-fleshed-out production, the five-actor-ness of the ASP version worked really well. The stage really was a “wooden 0,” for one thing, and the constant switching of roles just seemed another suspension of disbelief, which the play explicitly calls for: Can this cockpit hold the vasty fields of France? Yeah, sure! Why the heck not.

    The question of what Shakespeare is trying to say about “war and nationhood” is a tough one. For me, it seems drama as a medium might be better suited to showing the glorious parts of war than the bloody and horrible. After all, we are just seeing a few actors, a few figures. If they succeed, well great! If they die, no matter how unpleasantly, it’s easier to pass it off as a glorious end. Visually, we see Henry winning the war, sticking it to some slightly vaudevilley French baddies, and getting the girl without even speaking her language! We don’t SEE any virgins and infants getting mown. You can’t have a scene like in Gone With the Wind, with thousands of dead and wounded in a field, in a wooden 0. So it’s one more step on the suspension-of-disbelief ladder.

    On the other hand, maybe this just means you have to think harder to see the guts than the glory, which might be the point. And Michael Williams’ points still stand.

    And on a completely different note, how come we never see Falstaff in this play? I’ve been trying to figure this out.

  • Potter

    Thanks Sam- I think I have discovered a great way to do this- all I need is the time and the discipline to turn away from distractions. This is it: I have a tape of the Branagh queued up and the AL Rowse Annotated Shakespeare version open to the spot. I read the introduction. Then go to the tape and run it for awhile. Stop and go to the text and read. Repeat to end.

  • Zeke

    Sam–Welcome to the wonders of Shakespeares history plays. Don’t worry, even for veterans they can blur together! Th eyoung king’s rejection of his pal Falstaff is painfully presented in Henry IV part 2. Hal, now Henry, soon to be Harry, embraces the Lord Chief Justice as his new mentor and father figure and says to Falstaff, “I don’t know you old man.” Of course, at the start of Henry V you saw that he was no longer turning to the law for an endorsement of his invasion plans, preferring to get the blessing of the church men.

    Anway, although Shakespeare had promised to bring Falstaff back, he realized (I believe) that there was no place for him in the new order. Bu this spirit hangs over the play. As someone said in Chris’s interview, when Mistress Quickly says the king killed his heart it can refer both to Falstaff and to his own heart. In fact, if you can, go back and look closely at that speech about Falstaff’s death with a good edition of notes or, better, see if you can track down a copy at the library of a lecture about it by Peter Saccio made for The Teaching Company. It is a remarkable analysis of one speech that demonstrates the amazing richness of Shakespeare.

    I’m looking forward to seeing the play on Sunday. Is anyone else going?