In act one, scene one of Henry VI Part 1 some of the remaining characters from Henry V stand, following the death of King Henry V, and discuss the nature of their former monarch.King Henry the Fifth, too famous to live long!England ne'er lost a king of so much worth.England ne'er had a king until his time.Virtue he had, deserving to command.
1Their memories of the young king seem to sit well with some of the opinions of characters in Henry V, "I love the lovely bully", and indeed with history itself, "a military leader with a clear idea of virtue and leadership"2. However other characters in Henry V offer us less favourable opinions, "I'll never trust his word after", "Aye he said so, to make us fight more cheerfully. But when our throats are cut he may be ransomed, and we ne'er the wiser." Audience members are showing executions, foul language and scant regard for human life, promting Gerald Gould to askIs it seriously maintained that Shakespeare means us to admire Henry here?3So what is it about both the play and the character which makes him so open to debate? Why can some people see him as "the mirror of all Christian kings", whilst others accuse him of being a "brutal opportunist", and "subtle protagonist"?Henry has himself always occupied a special place in the annals of English history. Literature, including, though not limited to, Shakespeare's play, has been a powerful help to his cause, and yet each age has viewed him in a rather different light.
Today it is difficult to strike the right balance in any verdict on Henry and his achievement. He was clearly a remarkable man, although previous generations, often unconsciously using the argument of contrast between the king and his contempories in a supposedly declining age, have sometimes tended to overestimate him.Most critics agree that Henry V offers unusually specific internal evidence about the date and circumstances of its first performances. Most notably the Chorus' reference to "this wooden O" and "unworthy scaffold", and generally the choric stress on the theatrical inadequacy of theatrical representation, "piece out our imperfections with your thoughts" and "let us on your imaginary forces work", have been widely accepted as allusions to the shortcomings of the new Globe theatre, fixing the play at the time of the Globe's opening, ie. 1599.
This places the first performance of the play slightly earlier than the ignominious conclusion of the Earl of Essex's much vaunted expedition to Ireland to quell the rebellion against English rule. It was an offensive which one historian memorably dubbed "England's Vietnam". England was in need of, what Emma Smith coined, "a feel-good play", and the English victory at Agincourt was the perfect scenario.The long military campaign in Ireland was a particularly insistent part of English metropolitan consciousness at the time of the play's first performances.The plays references to "kern of Ireland", Henry's promise to Katherine "England is thine, Ireland is thine, France is thine" and the Chorus' declamation "[He is] from Ireland coming, Bringing rebellion broached on his sword" all register this preoccupation and it is perfectly possible that the play's first intention was to be a tool of patriotic propaganda.However once the need for patriotism fell the play fell quickly out of fashion.
Audiences did not want to have to "eek out [an actor's] performance with [their] mind", but instead wanted escapism, to take them fully away from "fears of foreign invasion, high food prices, the repeated musters for soldiers for campaigns in the Low Countries". In a climate of changing theatrical conventions, particularly the opportunities for women to act, directors wanted plays less masculine in both cast content and appeal.By 1755 however, the Napoleanic wars meant that theatrical and cultural "Francophobia" was at it's height. David Garrick's Drury Lane theatre was attacked, and a salvo from an anti-Gallic faction resurrected Shakespeares ghost to advise himTo give you pardon, I encline,If you'll revive a work of mine;You need not fear it will miscarry.
What play d'ye mean, Sir? My fifth Harry.4As if in answer John Kemble, in 1789 and subsequently in 1792, directed a production of Henry V, intending to clarify Henry's heroism within the complex context of contemporary popular anti-French opinion and to "convince our Gallic neighbours that in the midst of all their triumphs they are but mortals"5 Responses to Kemble's production were varied. Critics were not overly impressed by his own portrayal of the young king, and found the play overly masculine, however they did appreciate that Kemble "had a way of placing emphasis on the nobility of dying in the King's company while at war with France, and for this he was rewarded with much applause", and his opulent production pushed the play towards the patriotism and historical spectacle which were to dominate nineteenth-century stage interpretations.After the end of the Napoloenic wars there was, again, a lack of interest in the play, prompting William Hazlitt to describe it as "on of [his] second rate plays". The following years saw revivals of Kemble's extravagant production directed by Macready and subsequently Charles Kean, who stressed the importance of lavish spectacle and historical accuracy, "Accuracy, not show, has been my object". He again exploited the topicality in the years following the Crimean War, and the siege of Harfleur "vividly embodied the carrying of the Malakoff", a Russian fortress taken by the French in 1855.
For some viewers however, such a lack of subtlety was "too close for comfort".The following years saw more opulent productions. Inkeeping with the lavish nature of realistic contemporary theatre, Henry V presented an audience with "as striking a stage figure as I think I ever saw". Stage directions were changed so that instead of Henry entering with "four officers", there were "eight officers", andWhen Crispin appeared on the scene, his tail touched the back of the stage and his forefeet were planted among the footlights. The climax was reached when King Henry, animating his dispirited troops with hot, impassioned words, waved above his head the royal standard.6Such production enforced the heroic ideal of Henry as he proudly thrust "Once more unto the breech" out the audience, and rejoiced at the mention of "the day is yours", before successfully wooing the beautiful Katherine, "Canst thou love me?".
The patriotic opulence was, however, short-lived, as Charles Calvert, in 1879, worked to combine spectacular and emotional impact, featuring s stylized representation of battle, over the over enthusiastic attempts at verisimilitude commonplace in the theatres of London and environs. He also utilized tableaux in order to emphasise certain dramatic moments. In my recent production of Henry V I also made use of this technique to draw audience attention to the brutality of Henry. The Chorus walked on after "On tomorrow bid them march away", to freeze the action just as Henry stares down at the body of Bardolph, who he just executed graphically. The tableaux allowed audiences to appreciate the horrors of war and Henry himself. Calvert himself cut about a third of the folio text, but retained episodes potentially embarrassing to Henry's reputation, such as the execution of the conspirators, Bardolph's execution and the genocide of the French soliders.
Calvert's production was arguably the first instance of what Trever Nunn would later classify a production of "an anti-war play hidden within popular heroics".Not even the most blinkered antiquarian could have been unaware of the parallels between recent events [in the Franco-Prussion War] and King Henry's expedition to France"