A much stronger, more focused, more cohesive work than the “Henry IV” plays, “Henry V” is both a rousing war story of triumph against the odds, and a restrained character study of a king so successful in the short term yet ineffective in the long.
With “Henry V”, Shakespeare utilises the legacy of the preceding plays (”Richard II”, “Henry IV, Part 1”, “Henry IV, Part 2”, and even “Edward III” to an extent) much more extensively, and to greater effect, than he did with the “Henry IV” plays. His father’s unlawful theft of the throne weighs heavily on Henry V, the fate of Henry V’s friends from the Boar’s Head Inn is a big story point, and the psychology and character development of the titular king is mostly left unsaid directly, leaving it to the audience to read between the lines and infer how his development from the earlier plays has made him into the man he is here. He now lacks all his father figures, having subsumed them all through their deaths – the ambition and Machiavellian nature of Henry IV, the rhetorical skill and charisma of Falstaff. Beyond father figures, Henry seems to cannibalise and absorb aspects of those whose deaths are tied to him one way or another, as he displays martial skill and murky “warrior-honour” recalling Hotspur, and the appreciation and understanding of ceremony and religion that Richard II did. Henry V is the composite king, a man so keenly aware of the power of empathy and shifting roles depending on one’s audience, that he crafts his own identity from the blood of those whose deaths benefited him.
It’s curious that Henry V seems to sincerely believe in his dubious claim to France, a claim born of very strict observance and accordance to the law, when his entire claim to the throne doesn’t stand up to any legal scrutiny, as his father unlawfully stole it from Richard II. Is it merely an odd case of kingly doublethink, or is Henry V’s insistence on his French claim some sort of projection, personal displacement of his concerns over his own legitimacy? He certainly projects and displaces elsewhere in the play, his stubborn refusal to ever take responsibility for his actions becoming a frustrating motif, as any dramatic action of his is assigned the responsibility of God, the French, etc. Henry V’s rhetorical skill (his “the fewer men, the greater share of honour” speech is stunningly brilliant and effective) and detached nature that allows him to empathise and blend in with the many diverse peoples that made up the country of the time is admirable, but his brutality and dogged dodging of responsibility are worthy of scorn.
What initially appears to be a jingoistic tale of England’s triumph-against-the-odds over France subtly morphs into something more self-aware, cynical, and ironic as the complicated figure of Henry V is explored through the play, and his success in his own life compared to his success through history is finally explicitly questioned by the chorus at the end of the play. This is a nuanced tale of a man’s complicated relationship with responsibility, and of the power of language to unify, divide, and directly affect reality just as much as martial combat can. While there’s nothing as outright meta as the letter-writing scene of “Edward III” here, “Henry V” does feel to me in part a musing over the power language and fictions hold over people – the play does open with the chorus empowering the audience to share in the mental construction of colossal spectacle through the words of the play, Henry V uses language to make the impossible possible, and in the end it’s only through words that Henry V’s short-lived successes still find life. I give the play five drums of war, and a band of brothers.