Let’s start by pointing out that Henry V is the last play in Shakespeare’s second Henriad, the tetralogy of plays dealing with four monarch – Richard II, Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, and Richard III. The second Henriad, which includes Richard II, Henry IV part 1 and 2, and Henry V, begins with the King Richard II’s being deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, who will become Henry IV, and is Henry V’s father. Now, Henry IV’s reign is marked by civil war. (Dethroning a sitting monarch does tend to have consequences.)
Hal, as Henry V is called before becoming king, first appears in the plays as a careless, reckless miscreant. He spends his time in taverns, befriending criminals and drunkards, the most famous of which is Sir John Falstaff. Known for his being enormously fat and quick-witted, Falstaff is the comic relief of the plays, always tempting Hal. Because of his adventures with Falstaff, Hal had gained a poor reputation. His misspent youth Henry V mentions in his response to the French ambassador:
And we understand him well,
How he comes o’er us with our wilder days,
Not measuring what use we made of them. (I.ii.416-18)
Eventually, Hal reconciles with his father, apologizing for days neglecting his duties as prince, and helps him to quell the rebellions throughout England. On April 9th, 1413, Hal ascends the throne as King Henry V. Much of the second Henriad, covering 1397-1422, has to deal with national unity. All of this is the history that leads up to the opening of Henry V.
“Turning th’ accomplishment of many years/Into an hourglass”
Shakespeare’s play takes as its subject matter Henry V’s campaign in north France in 1415, ending in 1420 with his marriage and the Treaty of Troyes and foreshadowing his death in 1422 at the age of 35 .
The play opens with the Chorus explaining what Shakespeare and his fellow actors are attempting to do – retelling this history through a play. However, the Chorus points out how unfit the theater is for such a monumental task
But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: (Prologue, 9-12)
To help them bring Henry V back to life on their stage, the Chorus asks the audience to cloth them with their imaginations:
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth; (Prologue, 16-28)
You have to understand that the Renaissance stage was bare-bones – not much in the way of scenery. Shakespeare’s language had to paint the scene in his audience’s mind.
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”
What audiences almost always remember about Henry V are his two monologues urging his troops on into battle. The first of these happens at the beginning of Act III at the besiege of Harfleur. His troops, having been beaten back, Henry rallies to charge again:
On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders, 1
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonour not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you call’d fathers did beget you.(III.i.17-23)
And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;(III.i.25-28)
Notice how he seeks to inspire his troops, by appealing to their sense of national identity, their English-ness.
Again, Henry takes a similar tactic in his monologue in Act IV, famously known as his St. Crispin’s Day speech (IV.iii.18-67), on the eve of the Battle of Agincourt. To set the context for this speech, the English vastly outnumbered by the French, starving, sickness-ridden, and in despair. Even Henry’s commanders see no hope and wishing for those men in England who did not come on the campaign.
In response to his troops loss of heart is to argue that the fewer here will be even more remember for this battle. That all of these men, nobles and commons from all throughout the English kingdom (England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland) , will be united by their part in this battle. That through their shared experience, they will become brothers with each other
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.()
So, Shakespeare’s distinguishes Henry V’s leadership/ bond with his troops in two ways – through his appeal to their shared identity as Englishmen and through their experience as soldiers, which overcomes all divides. (Take note to how Shakespeare introduces characters who are ruffians, who are Welsh, Scottish, and Irish.)
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that Shakespeare’s portrayal of Henry V is one-dimensional, or unequivocal. Throughout the play, Henry threatens or commits acts that are morally questionable at best. Consider his deceiving the traitors (Scroop, Cambridge and Grey) into their death; the hanging of Bardolph, a friend from his youth; his threats to the mayor of Harfleur; his speech absolving himself of his soldiers’ death in battle; and his having his soldiers slay their prisoners. Shakespeare’s nuanced depiction of Henry V is what elevates the play beyond jingoism.