Shakespeare's King Henry V:
Drama Versus History
by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor
Shakespeare Fun Fact
King Henry V was the first monarch since the Norman Conquest to use English as the language of record within government and in his personal correspondence.
Shakespeare wrote The Life of King Henry the Fifth as a culmination to his cycle of history plays. Focused on Henry's conquest of France, the play is a rousingly patriotic homage to a heroic king mingled with frank moments examining the realities of war, ranging from mundane to cruel. It's little wonder that Olivier's 1944 film adaptation famously served as a rallying cry for Great Britain as the nation and its allies prepared for the Normandy invasion. Given the circumstances, it's even less wonder that Olivier chose to mute many of the harsher undertones of the play.
Shakespeare, as usual, borrowed liberally from both historical and dramatic sources in writing his play. Holinshed provides the primary history upon which Shakespeare relied, along with the works of Edward Halle and Samuel Daniels. To this, Shakespeare adds material adapted from The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, an anonymous play predating Shakespeare's work by as much as a decade. In both plays, the newly crowned King Henry V is characterized as utterly matured from a misspent youth, with a divinely inspired claim to the French throne.
Few scholars would dispute that King Henry is much closer to a historical depiction than the roguish Price Hal of Henry IV. But can Shakespeare's King Henry the Fifth be considered historically accurate? And how does the dramatic representation compare to the reality of Henry's campaign in France? Let's take a look how Shakespeare crafted his story to determine how much of Henry V is drama as opposed to history.
Henry V begins with a conversation between two bishops, who seek to convince the king that he is rightfully the king of France. In response, the French Dauphin sends a barrel of tennis balls, mocking Henry's claim. Naturally, Henry decides to invade France to avenge the insult. As the king prepares for war at Southampton, he uncovers a plot against him led by three of his nobles; the men are arrested for treason. In France, the nobility is divided over whether or not to take the English threat seriously. Then Henry captures the town of Harfleur by exhorting his army and threatening the local governor with all manner of atrocities if he does not yield. The French mobilize a massive force against Henry.
Henry's army by now is ragged, outnumbered, and ravaged by hunger and disease. In a parlay with the French herald, Mountjoy, Henry states his intent to march to the port of Calais, but tells Mountjoy that he will neither seek nor shun a battle if the French come against him. Thus the stage is set for the climactic Battle of Agincourt. Henry ventures out incognito among his troops on the eve of the battle. The next morning—St. Crispin's Day—Henry delivers a poignant speech to inspire the English soldiers. Against the odds, the English defeat the French, largely by the expertise of their longbow archers.
The victory is marred by two events, however. When it appears that the French are regrouping, Henry gives orders to kill their prisoners. Soon afterward, Henry receives word that the French have sacked their camp and killed the boys guarding it. The French eventually arrange for a truce, and Henry has won the day at Agincourt. The play ends with a peace conference in France. Among the negotiated terms, Henry will marry Catherine, daughter of King Charles VI of France. Although the play ends on an ostensibly happy note as Henry prepares for his wedding, the epilogue spoken by the Chorus is a lament for the rule of Henry's son, Henry VI, who "lost France and made his England bleed."
It's difficult to comment on Shakespeare's portrayal of Henry as a character. According to Holinshed, the young Henry set about remaking his image following his ascension to the throne. He banished his "misruly mates of dissolute order and life" and became a pious and somewhat dour ruler. But the prince-gone-wild character of Henry IV seems more of a popular tall tale than truth, and may have more to do with political differences between the crown prince and his father. The tennis ball scene is pure invention, and Henry's war with France likely had more to do with commercial interests and conflicts than anything else.
The events from there are highly compressed, but reasonably accurate. Henry besieged Harfleur for weeks, suffering mightily for it, before the town surrendered through negotiations. The town and its inhabitants were largely spared, and those who swore allegiance to Henry were able to remain. Even the citizens who were deported were allowed to take whatever they could carry and given money by the English for their travels. This was in keeping with Henry's general policy toward the French people during the campaign; as he considered himself king of France, he regarded them as his own subjects. There is even an account of an English soldier being hanged for robbing a church, mirroring Bardolph's crime and execution in the third act of the play.
Agincourt occurred more than a month after the fall of Harfleur. While history bears out that Henry's army was indeed outnumbered and severely weakened, no one seems to be able to agree on the exact numbers of the combatants or the casualty figures. Modern historians put the English army at a strength between 6,000 and 9,000 men, facing a French army that ranges all the way from 12,000 to 36,000 troops. Casualty estimates are even more dubious, but the English certainly suffered fewer than 500 killed and wounded against thousands of French losses. And Henry did order at some point in the battle that prisoners be killed, an act that tends to besmirch his reputation regardless of the battle situation at the time. The baggage train attack occurred as well, although the slaughter of the boys may be a dramatic device used to lessen the impact of Henry's execution of the prisoners.
Agincourt crippled the French and led to the Treaty of Troyes between England and France, including the marriage of Henry and Catherine. However, the treaty was signed (and the royal couple wed) in 1420, some five years after Agincourt. Shakespeare's play presents it as more closely following the victory. Henry would die two short years later of dysentery while on campaign in 1422 once again in France—never being crowned as the French king.
It's ironic that Henry V can come off as propaganda and yet aligns so relatively well with the historical record. To be sure, Shakespeare is creating an image of a king, perhaps made easier by Henry's relatively short reign. Henry had neither the chance to turn old nor the opportunity to lose what he had gained. His victory at Agincourt assured him a place in history. His early death at the height of his power assured that he would be remembered well. Certainly more fondly than his son. On the whole, Shakespeare's Henry has to be viewed as a larger-than-life characterization solidly grounded in English history.
Complete Works of Shakespeare 5th ed. (Bevington, 2009), Essential Shakespeare Handbook (Dunton-Downer and Riding, 2004), Kings and Queens of England (Williams, 2008), NTC's Dictionary of Shakespeare (Clark, 1996), The Rough Guide to Shakespeare (Dickson, 2009)