Shakespeare never claimed to be a historian, but he certainly relied on them to write ten historical plays about English monarchs. Both Henry IV Part One and Henry IV Part Two (written 1596–97) were hugely popular with audiences and financially successful for the playwright. In fact, Shakespeare promised audiences that he would follow up with another historical play, to feature Sir John Falstaff. He completed Henry V in 1599, in time for the opening of the newly built Globe Theater.
David Bevington, one of America’s finest Shakespearean scholars, has described the character of Henry (formerly the Duke of Monmouth) as “a perfect model of conduct according to Renaissance notions of statecraft and military leadership” and as “an epic hero defined in terms of mythic allusions and abstractions”( Introduction to Henry V, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, p.872). Shakespeare described his protagonist as “the mirror of all Christian kings.” His tribute to King Henry V was grounded in fact, and embellished for theatricality. Two of the most notable historical references in the play concern the Battle of Agincourt and the French Salique Laws, with which Elizabethan audiences were well-acquainted.
The most profitable battle Henry V waged was probably fought in France on the field near Agincourt, on Friday, 25 October 1415. The battle was notable for two facts: the use of the English longbow, which Henry used in large numbers; and the outcome of the battle. While it may be hard to believe that an army of fewer than 6000 longbow-wielding English commoners defeated an army of over 20,000 French noblemen, it becomes incomprehensible when considering that the English, in fact, had marched 260 miles in less than three weeks with little food. Furthermore, they were dehydrated from rampant dysentery. Shakespeare highlights these facts in Henry V, as the young king meanders in cognito among his suffering troops, listening to their murmured complaints throughout the night. The following morning, the king rouses his soldiers with the famous “Crispian speech” that leads the English to victory (4.3). The spoils of war appear in the form of French lands, a beautiful princess bride, and large sums of money for the English monarchy.
From the fifth century down to Charlemagne, the French employed a code of Teutonic laws that prohibited a female from inheriting land. “But of Salic land no portion of the inheritance shall come to a woman: but the whole inheritance of the land shall come to the male sex” (Halsall, Paul, “Medieval Sourcebook: The Law of the Salian Franks” [http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/sbook.html] 1996). Shakespeare’s young King Henry V treads lightly on foreign issues, as he negotiates with the King of France for the return of French lands and monies owed to the English crown. King Henry asks the Archbishop of Canterbury to “unfold/ why the law Salique, that they have in France/ Or should, or should not, bar us in our claim;/ . . . speak, my lord;/ For we will hear, note, and believe in heart/ That what you speak is in your conscience/ . . . May I with right and conscience make this claim?” (1.2.11–12, 29–31, 96). The young king is loath to shed English blood if his claim to French lands is unfounded. The greedy archbishop assures the king that his claim is lawful.
In the two Henry IV plays Shakespeare introduces audiences to Prince Hal, an irresponsible knave, whose father dares not entrust with court secrets or duties. The crown prince of England cavorts with a den of drunken, lecherous thieves—Falstaff, Bardolph, Pistol, Nym—who treat the prince as one of their own. Eventually Hal does the unthinkable: he grows up and reforms. In the first play (Henry IV Part One), Harry begins the process of redeeming himself by promising his father, King Henry IV, that “in the closing of some glorious day/ [I will] be bold to tell you that I am your son . . ./ And I will die a hundred thousand deaths/ Ere break the smallest parcel of this vow.” (3.2.3–4, 158–159). Harry fights to preserve the crown, killing his father’s nemesis, Hotspur, and saving the king’s life. By the end of the second play, Prince Hal has gone from boy to man, from errant knave to a goodly king, proclaiming to his hedonistic cohorts that he is no longer “the thing I was/ For God doth know, so shall the world perceive/ that I have turned away my former self” (5.5.56–58). He establishes his rule by weeding out “the misrule in his kingdom” and establishing that he “no longer has friends, but only subjects” (Earley, Michael, and Philippa Keil, Soliloquy!, Introduction & Commentaries [Applause Publishing] 1988).
The role of Chorus in ancient theater consisted of a group of actors, who spoke with the voice of reason and warning, articulating the societal mores of the day. In Elizabethan theatre, however, the Chorus often was played by a single actor, for the purpose of setting the stage in a prologue, or to tie up loose ends in an epilogue. In Henry V, Shakespeare employed the Chorus as an equivocator, offering apologies for the limitations of the simple “wooden O” (Prologue.13) that was the newly-constructed Globe Theater. The Chorus repeatedly entreats the audience to use their imaginations to visualize the fields of France (“can this cockpit hold he vasty fields of France?” [Prologue.11–12]) and the massive battles that were to take place upon the stage. The Chorus in Henry V implores the audience to exercise patience and forebearance (“your humble patience pray/ Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play” [Prologue.33.34). Indeed, Shakespeare’s Chorus serves as an advocate for Henry’s hawkish rhetoric, but Elizabethan audiences allowed Henry “a special kind of morality pertaining to kingship” (Bevington, p. 872).
Sir John Falstaff represents for Elizabethan audiences an entertaining, if knavish, everyman, a veteran soldier turned opportunist. Shakespeare introduces his audiences to the character of Falstaff in Henry IV Part One, and provids reprisals of the character in Henry IV Part Two, Henry V, and finally inThe Merry Wives of Windsor, where Falstaff is a missing presence—talked of but not seen. Falstaff represents the ignoble Elizabethan, diminished by his inability to conquer his cowardice and vices. By contrast, Prince Hal evolves into the heroic Elizabethan who harnesses his fears and follies to fulfill his honorable calling as heir to the throne. As king of England, Henry is obligated to hold himself up as a paragon of heroic virtue and courage. Nowhere is this more apparent and eloquent than in Henry’s “Crispian Speech”:
This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he'll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
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 accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day (4.3.40–67).