Co-Founder and actor, Matt Pinches, considers the popularity of Shakespeare’s Henry V and its celebration of the resilience of the human spirit
Henry V is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, containing some of his most well-known lines and speeches: ‘O for a Muse of fire’, ‘Once more unto the breach’, ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers’, ‘The game’s afoot!’ and the curiously modern ‘Tennis balls, my liege”. Is he the most popular of Shakespeare’s kings? Is Richard III not more exciting as we eagerly watch him devour the stage and all before him as he lusts for the throne? A different ‘popular’ perhaps.
Written in 1599, Shakespeare may have known he was already onto a winner. Whilst still under thirty years old Henry twice raised the largest and best-equipped expeditionary force England had ever seen, took them to France and against the most incredible odds defeated a fresh French army on home soil. Though accounts of the Battle of Agincourt (15 October 1415) vary wildly it is roughly assumed that Henry’s dishevelled, and homesick force were outnumbered 6 to 1 (Shakespeare quotes 5 to 1).
The battle secured the throne of France for England, and the victory became an instant legend. 100 years later, Henry VIII, whose father Henry VII brought the Wars of the Roses to a close and promoted a peaceful foreign policy, never gave up trying to emulate the triumphs of this Plantagenet hero. The fact that Elizabeth herself in effect owed her crown to Henry V would not have gone unnoticed – it was Henry’s wife’s second marriage to the Welshman Owen Tudor following Henry’s death in 1422 that brought the Tudor name to the throne of England.
But Shakespeare’s play takes Henry’s celebratory status even higher. At the hands of the playwright, Henry V’s heroic status is immortalised in some of the most memorable and rousing speeches written in the English language. So much so that over the years they have been used to instil pride and passion whether they are on a battlefield or at a sports match: TV stations regularly use the speeches for introductions to their sports’ coverage; management courses examine the rousing speeches for promoting good leadership; Peter Holland (former Director of the Shakespeare Institute) noted in the programme of the National Theatre’s 2003 production that the Crispin’s Day speech was used by the US Congress as ‘the way for the chief prosecutor in the impeachment of President Bill Clinton to thank his co-workers… while General Schwarzkopf was shown giving his troops his own version’ during Desert Storm in 1991.
There is something undoubtedly stirring in the speeches and set pieces, and when I have been at the theatre watching a production I genuinely feel like I want to get up there and join in with Henry. When I’ve done workshops the common reaction from participants is how emotional they feel afterwards.
Henry’s Speeches are a tremendous piece of writing: selective use of personal pronouns in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd person, majestic plural, rhetoric, homely imagery to savage brutality. The speeches play on the present – ‘For he today that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother’ – but also in the same speech he looks on the glories to come ‘He that outlives this day and comes safe home/Will stand a tiptoe when this day is named’.
There are dark parts in this play, and indeed some controversial moments such as Henry’s decision to kill the French prisoners and the hanging of his old drinking chum Bardolph, but Shakespeare also gives this king a wonderful touch of humanity (including a sense of humour). This is a king who questions his own exalted position:
“…What infinite heart’s-ease
Must kings neglect, that private men enjoy?”
For an Elizabethan audience used to seeing kings as tyrants, misguided or self-obsessed individuals, here Shakespeare gives us a young man who, as Prince Hal, we have journeyed with through the taverns of Eastcheap and his raucous days with Falstaff in Henry IV parts I and 2, and whose father wished him to be more like the impetuous Harry Hotspur, Hal’s nemesis in part 1. This is Shakespeare’s culmination of his second history cycle, joining up the three parts of Henry VI and Richard III which he had completed 7 years before. He would not write another history play for 14 years (Henry VIII in 1613). So in some ways one could consider this also his swansong to the historical epic that had made his name when he first came to London.
Another key aspect of this play, like its protagonist, is its refreshing honesty. “Can this cockpit hold/The vasty fields of France?” asks the Chorus at the beginning. In no other play does Shakespeare make the same use of a Chorus to such a dramatic effect. Through this character we are invited to see both the imperfections and limitations of theatrical presentation but also celebrate the brilliance of those limitations. We are instructed to “piece out [the actors’] imperfections with [our] minds”.
Through the Chorus we are pulled into the story; made complicit in Henry’s fears; recruited as part of the army; a fly on the wall in the French camp and, perhaps most importantly, recognised as team in our own right. For without us the play cannot happen. Like the soldiers at Agincourt we are all in this together, and only by working together can our dreams come to life.
Which brings us to our current production. We have all been through an unprecedented twelve months, where the odds have been unequivocally against us… but, as has been said so many times by working together we are coming out of the other side of this terrible pandemic, something that seemed impossible even a few months ago. We have all been called on to find an inner resilience either for our family, friends or work colleagues, just like Henry and his ‘followers’.
…and like the Chorus’ honest admission that the Wooden O of the Globe Theatre cannot hope to replicate the melee of Agincourt, so we as theatre makers have had to adapt to a new way of presenting these stories using a digital medium. 12 months ago the concept of staging live theatre online with entire casts isolated different parts of the country seemed impossible, but by calling on our audiences to still use their ‘imaginary forces’ we have been able to make the impossible possible.
Could the reason for the popularity of Shakespeare’s Henry V then lie in a combination of a number of factors: the inclusivity of the theatrical experience, stirring symphonic writing, and testament to the strength of the human spirit that binds us altogether
This is an updated version of an original essay that featured in the programme for the 2014 GSC production of Henry V.