18. Henry V
Henry V holds a special place in my heart, as the first play I ever directed professionally. That was seven years ago, and I still absolutely love this play. It is one that I could just come back to again and again and keep finding new and exciting angles to play on it.
First off, it is structurally one of the tightest Shakespeare plays. It tells a very clear story, that actually follows more or less the typical ‘Three Act Structure’ used by most modern screenwriters. You have a clear set-up: Henry V is newly on the throne and has impressed his subjects thus far, he is exploring the possibility of lawfully pressing a claim on the Kingdom of France, and by the end of the first act he is actively pursuing this policy. Rising action: things are going well for Henry as he prepares for war, he catches some traitors before heading out and the French are disorganised and underestimate him. Mid-point: the dramatic and successful capture of Harfleur. Falling action: Henry’s armies are struggling with disease and are exhausted, the French are mustering a large army, Henry’s boyhood companions are executed for stealing. Climax: the miraculous victory of the English forces at Agincourt. Aftermath: Henry woes and marries Princess Katherine, peace is restored. As a director who is a big fan of clean and clear dramatic structure, it is no surprise this is one of my favourite plays!
Furthermore, Shakespeare gives us a way into the story through the use of a Chorus. The Chorus introduces each act, actively encouraging the audience to use their imaginations and helping them set the scene. The Chorus is brilliantly written and incredibly engaging. At times, I feel the Chorus needs slightly re-ordering – for example, the Chorus leading into Act 2 is all about moving the action to Southampton, only for the next scene to be at East Cheap in London – but this is very easily sorted.
What is so clever about this play is that it is very far from a flag-waving piece of patriotism (though you could perform it as such if you chose to). Instead, I find it an incredibly subtle and nuanced commentary on the morality and responsibility of war. Henry is constantly looking at ways of absolving himself of responsibility for any atrocities that occur – first he uses Canterbury to make sure his claim is holy and just, then he places the blame for the deaths of the French on the Dauphin, then he argues to the governor of Harfleur that any acts of violence by English shoulders would be the governor’s fault if he does not surrender, then he debates with ordinary soldiers that their souls are their own responsibilities. Henry’s determination to shift the blame is a reflection of his terror and horror at being held to account. This is a complex and fascinating look at where responsibility lies when it comes to acts of war.
The play also manages to balance the concerns of high politics with those of the ordinary soldier. Not only do we have the return of some of Henry’s companions from his young days (as seen in Henry IV) but we also have a very poignant scene where Henry disguises himself as an ordinary man and talks to his men the night before the Battle of Agincourt. It really brings home the fear and loneliness of that night, plus the uncertainty around why they’re even there – their distance from the powers that be. I’m not sure personally about the references back to Henry IV – they only make sense to people who know those plays – but the execution of Bardolph and Nym is certainly impactful if you are familiar with the earlier plays.
I really do love this play and would happy direct it again and again. Any play that contains the number of phenomenal speeches that this play contains is a winner. You need a very strong Henry to hold the piece together but, having said that, Shakespeare’s words have definitely done a lot of the hard work for you.