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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BOOK REVIEW: Henry IV, Part 2 William Shakespeare

Henry IV, Part 2Henry IV, Part 2 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This continuation of the story of the reign of Henry IV, like the preceding part, is really the story of Prince Hal, the rapscallion who will be transformed into King Henry V. And transformation is the central theme of the play [as it often is in great stories.] In the previous part, we saw that Hal pulled it together to do what needed to be done while the rebellion raged, but here we see a bit of a relapse at the beginning as he returns to Eastcheap to hang out with friends. The Lord Chief Justice has a stern talking to Falstaff to discourage the incorrigible rascal from leading Hal down a destructive path, a talk that fails, causing a defensive Falstaff to take umbrage at the official’s words. However, by the end of the play we see how the weight of the crown forces Hal into what feels like a more permanent changing of ways. To borrow and misapply a Biblical quote: When he became a king, he put the ways of debauchery behind himself.

Prince Hal isn’t the only one who’s changing, Falstaff is also experiencing a transformation, but not so much one of growing up or growing more virtuous, but rather one of getting old. This is seen most vividly when Hal and his past conspirator, Poins, spy on Falstaff and Doll Tearsheet, a tavern girl. Hal breaks the espionage off, realizing there is no adventure to be had in the endeavor.

While Henry IV’s forces (including, prominently, Hal) won the day in the previous play, a peace settlement hasn’t been reached. With Hal out gallivanting and Henry IV having fallen ill, the task of concluding a peace agreement falls to Hal’s brother, Prince John. No-nonsense John receives the rebels’ grievances and says he will see to it that they are all rectified, and then (when their guard has fallen,) he tells them that there is still the matter of the rebellion for which they will have to be put to death. Which they are.

The play climaxes with Henry IV on his deathbed. Hal goes in to visit him, and mistakes the King’s feeble vital signs for death. Overwhelmed not only with grief, but also with an anger at the very crown for subjecting his father to more stress than the old man could bear, Hal takes the crown and walks off in dread contemplation. When the King revives and sees the crown is gone, he questions his men as to where it’s gone, and they say Hal must have it as he was sitting with Henry IV the last any of them knew. Henry IV is outraged that his son should care so much for the crown and so little for father that he’s not willing to wait until the old man’s death to abscond with the crown. When Hal is summoned, Henry IV tells his son as much via more extensive and eloquent comments. When the King completes his rebuke of Hal, Hal responds by saying that it’s not the case at all. Hal refutes that he is eager to be the King, and instead sees the crown as a kind of enemy that he is nonetheless fated to confront. The King is happy with Hal’s articulate explanation, and father and son are on good terms when Henry IV dies – this time for real.

The play reaches resolution when Henry V’s state of mind is revealed. This can be seen vis-à-vis two characters. First, the Lord Chief Justice is afraid Henry V may have an axe to grind about the senior official’s attempts, on behalf of Henry IV, to rein in Hal (including pressuring Falstaff.) Second, Falstaff takes it as a given that his position will be vastly elevated by his old drinking buddy’s rise to King. It turns out that both men are wrong in their assumptions. The newly matured Henry V is gracious to the Lord Chief Justice, and makes a show of turning Falstaff away.

This play is sometimes considered the penultimate of what has been called the Henriad, and so the story bleeds into the next, “Henry V.” It’s definitely a work that should be read by those interested in Shakespeare’s histories.


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BOOK REVIEW: Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

King Henry IV, Part 1King Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While it may be Henry the IV’s reign that is threatened during the course of this play, it’s the King’s son, Prince Hal, who plays the lead role. “Hal” goes by that name because the cast features an abundance of Henrys. Besides the King and Hal, Hal’s principal rival is also a Henry (though that one, Henry Percy, goes by “Hotspur” in the interest of avoiding Henry-based confusion. [Additionally, Hotspur’s dad is a Henry, as well.])

While one might expect that the play’s principal conflict derives from intense competition for use of the name “Henry,” readers of Richard II will note that King Richard II handed over the crown to Henry Bolingbroke (a.k.a. Henry IV) under contentious conditions. The fact that Henry Bolingbroke wasn’t the next in line of succession and that he forced his predecessor out doesn’t bode well for an undisputed claim to the throne, and Henry IV’s rule is faced with everything from passive aggressive opposition to outright armed rebellion. At the start of the play, we see an indication of this conflict in Hotspur’s unwillingness to hand over a number of prisoners that his forces had taken in battle. Hotspur’s family were allies to Henry against Richard II, and the King’s unwillingness either to meet some of the Percy family demands or to recognize their role in his current kingship has made them hostile towards Henry IV.

In the first half of the play, Prince Hal is shown to be a rascal who enjoys hanging out in the pub with the likes of Sir John Falstaff. (You may know the pudgy, cowardly, and fib-prone Falstaff from his role in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”) While Hal tends to be the voice of reason among his pub-crawling friends, Falstaff provides a low bar against which to compare one’s virtue. One event offers us great insight into Hal’s character early in the play – not to mention great amusement. When Falstaff convinces a few friends to engage in a bit of banditry, robbing a courier to get some money for mead (or ale, or whatever they drank) Hal says he has a conflict. However, Hal and his friend Poins don their own highwaymen attire and rob Falstaff’s robbers. Later, Hal and Poins are greatly amused by hearing Falstaff tell the tale of how he and his three compatriots barely got out alive against fifty enemy bandits — the Prince knowing full well that it was just two men (Poins and he) who robbed the four, and with no violence, whatsoever. Hal gives the money back, showing he is not of the same ilk as Falstaff, but it’s telling that the Prince goes to all the trouble (and risk) of a counter-robbery just as a prank.

The second half of the play centers on a rebellion that is being carried out against the King, led by Hotspur and his father. As this is going on, Hal realizes he needs to step up his game and give up his mischievous ways. When a reconciled King Henry IV and Prince Hal approach for the Battle of Shrewsbury, both the King and the Prince make offers to the enemy that are intended to prevent the carnage of all-out war. Prince Hal’s offer is that he and Hotspur (who is not present at the time) engage in single combat (a duel) to avoid the tragedy of a battle of armies. In this offer, he speaks of Hotspur very graciously, while acknowledging his own faults. Neither offer is passed on to Hotspur by his elder, though he does learn of Hal’s proposition before the two come into combat in the melee of war (a fight that Hal wins – an important victory, given that Hal is a major character in the next two Shakespearean Histories, i.e. Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V [Prince Hal will become Henry V.]) Hotspur’s father (i.e. the Earl of Northumberland and the one who met with Henry IV and Hal) didn’t pass on the offers because he was concerned that Hotspur might take the Prince up on his offer, and that the outcome would be devastating for the Percy family. This is an informative bit of duplicity that highlights Hotspur’s apparent virtue and the duplicity of his elders (i.e. the Earls of Northumberland and Worcester.)

Because Shakespeare’s Histories follow the flow of real-world events, some are more evocative as stories than others (because some of the Kings’ stories were more engaging than others.) There’s a general consensus that Henry IV, Part 1 is among the better historical plays. The arc of the story demonstrates clear character growth in Hal. In its comedic moments, the play is quite funny, but that doesn’t diminish the tension and tragedy of the story overall. It’s definitely worth a read. Even if you only plan to read a few of the historical plays, this should probably be among them.


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