BOOK REVIEW: Henry V by William Shakespeare

Henry VHenry V by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this, the final play of the Henriad, the new King Henry V is advised that France should be his to control. He’s not entirely sold, that is until the French King’s son — the Dauphin of France — sends King Henry a trunk of tennis balls as a poke at the King’s youth and past reputation for frivolity. This is a sore spot for Henry. The Dauphin’s complete contempt for Henry puts control of France at risk, much to the chagrin of the French King who urges the Dauphin to have some respect.

The confrontation comes to a head at Agincourt, a battle that is known as one of the great upsets in the history of warfare. English forces routed the French with a fraction of the troops, not to mention while lacking the home field advantage. In reality, the Agincourt victory was largely attributable to savvy positioning – i.e. a strategic chokepoint that didn’t allow the French to fully exploit their numeric superiority — plus the English longbow, which proved to be a devastating weapon for the battle at hand. In Shakespeare’s play, the victory is attributable to what is probably the best “rally the troops” address in the history of literature, the St. Crispin’s Day Speech.

Acts III and IV are where the real action take place, and – of the two – I’m partial to Act III. In the third act, Henry dons the cloak of a common man, and makes the rounds of the troops in disguise. [It’s reminiscent of the way the Duke in “Measure for Measure” disguises himself as a friar to get a feel for what’s really going in his dominion, but – in this case — it’s only for a short time. While morale is surprisingly good, given the degree to which the English are outnumbered, the disguised King does get in an argument with a skeptical soldier about whether the King would really not ransom himself. This will lead to a later comedic scene in which Henry collects on the bet, using a soldier to pretend to be his disguised alter ego, only revealing that it was – in fact – he, the King, after he’d had his fun. [And it was all in good fun, no “off with the head” moment transpired.] It’s at the end of Act III that Henry gives the rousing St. Crispin’s Day Speech.

Act IV is largely concerned with the battle and its aftermath, including the aforementioned collection of the bet. In Act V, Henry attempts to woo the French Princess Catharine. Henry is smitten by her, and their marriage is a good way to cement a bilateral relationship that can have some staying power – rather than falling back into an immediate war for the crown. The challenge is that Catharine speaks no English, and Henry speaks only a smattering of French. If I knew French, this act might have been hilarious, but – as I don’t – the gag goes on a little long. But eventually, they are promised to each other, and all is well.

This is probably my favorite Shakespearean History. The battle fought by a scrappy underdog force and the effective leadership of Henry make for an exciting tale of warfare. If you’re only going to read one of the histories, this wouldn’t be a bad one to pick up. I’d highly recommend this work.


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