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: Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard IIRichard II by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a dramatization of the last couple years of the deposed King’s life. It is written entirely in verse, which is not the norm for Shakespeare (only a couple other histories are purely verse, most mix prose and poetry.)

The story opens with two gentlemen petitioning Richard II about their dispute. One of the men, Henry Bolingbroke, has accused the other, Thomas Mowbray, of both misappropriating funds and being involved in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (a relative of Bolingbroke’s.) Mowbray denies these claims. First, Richard attempts to mollify the men and bring about a peaceful settlement. When this fails. Richard agrees to allow the two men to undertake “trial by combat” – i.e. dueling to the death. While this seems to provide a solution, as combat is about to take place, Richard changes his mind and calls off the match. Instead, the King banishes both men into exile – Mowbray permanently and Bolingbroke for ten years [adjusted to six years.]

As in Hamlet, indecisiveness is the root of tragedy in this play. Had Richard let the two men duel it out as planned, he likely would have died as King instead of being deposed. If Mowbray had won, then Bolingbroke would not have been around to later usurp the crown. If Bolingbroke had won, he would have automatically received his inheritance upon the death of John of Gaunt (Bolingbroke’s father and Richard’s uncle) and – therefore – Richard wouldn’t have confiscated John’s holdings to fund a war in Ireland. Either way, Richard would have been better off had he let the duel happen. But, because he didn’t, and then took possession of Bolingbroke’s inheritance, he triggered a chain of events that would involve Bolingbroke invading England against minimal resistance [and increasing support] as Richard was off fighting in Ireland.

While this play is generally classified as “a history,” it has been known to be called a tragedy, and the ending certainly fits that genre. In the last act a conspiracy to unseat the newly coronated king, Henry IV [Bolingbroke,] is revealed when the Duke of York discovers that his son, Aumerle, is involved in the conspiracy. Aumerle races to King Henry and gets him to grant him leave without knowing what treachery was in the works. Henry agrees, but then the Duke of York shows up asking the King to punish his son for his involvement in the conspiracy. It looks like York is about to have his way when the Duchess (York’s wife and Aumerle’s mother) enters and implores the new king to spare her boy – which Henry does (though he has the conspiracy brutally crushed with most of the conspirators killed and those who weren’t killed being captured.)

Also in the last act, one of Henry’s loyalists overhears an off-the-cuff remark that Henry makes about wishing Richard dead. The henchman decides to go to the prison and take matters into his own hands. The play ends with a mortified Henry rebuking the murderer and announcing that he, himself, will go to the holy land in an attempt to make amends for the suggestion that triggered Richard’s murder.

I found this to be an engaging tragedy. The histories aren’t often as intriguing as the tragedies, but this play features and intense – if straightforward – narrative arc. If you’re interested in reading Shakespeare’s histories, this is definitely one you’ll want to check out. It also sets up what is sometimes called “the Henriad,” [a tetralogy of plays] which includes “Henry IV, Part I,” “Henry IV, Part 2,” and “Henry V.” That makes “Richard II” a logical starting point to take on the four-play epic.

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