Shakespeare’s retelling of the Battle of Agincourt of 1415 is the final part in his second tetralogy of history plays. The series begins with Henry IV usurping Richard II’s throne, and then follows his son Hal’s transformation from a “wild” young man into the noble king we see in this play. Now that Henry V is ruling England, he decides to invade France and claim the crown there. The English army is outnumbered, but a rousing speech urges them on to achieve an extraordinary victory. First, however, Shakespeare offers a nuanced discussion of the morality of warfare. Are the glory and honour worth the deaths of ordinary people? And is King Henry responsible for the lives lost in his pursuit of power?
“The widows’ tears, the orphans’ cries, / The dead men’s blood, the pining maidens’ groans, / For husbands, fathers, and betrothed lovers.” The soldiers in Henry V are highly critical of the nobles who discuss the “art” of warfare without ever risking their lives. Can it ever be justified?
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In Richard II, Henry’s father deposes the current king. That act still hangs over his son’s head as he tries to prove his right to rule not just England, but France too. And when he dresses as a commoner to talk to his men, he is confronted with the awkward fact that his men may not be as loyal as he thinks.
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The play includes characters representing all four countries of Great Britain — but it is a thoroughly English play, and one of the most patriotic ever written. It includes iconic speeches which helped to create the myth of the exceptional English underdog, an idea that is still potent today.
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There is only one woman in Henry V: Catherine, the French princess whom Henry marries as part of his peace treaty with France. Instead, the play is focused on the “band of brothers” — the male relationships forged on the battlefield. Is this a healthy example of manhood?
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As in all of Shakespeare’s history plays, fact and fiction blend together to create a mythical version of historical events that will last for centuries. The Battle of Agincourt was relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of history — but here it is presented as one of England’s finest moments.
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