Meet the Final Four: Henry V

When I complain about the History plays getting short shrift in performance and education, I hold up King Henry V as my primary example of a character who audiences young and old can learn from and admire. He’s gotten a greater share of attention since Kenneth Branaugh’s Oscar-winning 1989 film adaptation, but the play Henry V focuses only on Henry as king and conqueror, acknowledging but barely exploring his younger, formative years at the knee of a great fat knight who gave into every base urge he ever had in his life. After the break, I’ll explain why Henry V is unquestionably my favorite of the remaining Shakespeare Madness characters and why I argue he deserves your vote for a place in the Final.

Richard II

Prince Hal’s name doesn’t even merit a mention when we first hear of him, at the end of Richard II. Having returned from exile, taken the crown, and imprisoned the former king in the Tower, Henry Bolingbroke, now King Henry IV, finds time in V, iii to inquire after his son:

“Can no man tell me of my unthrifty son?
‘Tis full three months since I did see him last;
If any plague hang over us, ’tis he.”

His fatherly devotion and regard are obvious. We’re told this “wanton and effeminate” son spends all his time in bars, robbing passersby and beating up policemen, yet the new king sees promise in the boy:

“As dissolute as desperate; yet through both
I see some sparks of better hope, which elder years
May happily bring forth.”

1-2 Henry IV

Over the next two plays we see that better hope come to fruition, and the young prince finally gets a name: Henry, Hal or Harry to his friends. And what friends they are. The prince’s primary companion is Sir John Falstaff: a glutton, coward, whoremonger, thief, liar, and the life of every party.  It’s easy (particularly for me) to get sidetracked talking about Falstaff, so to the point: the fat old knight is a terrible influence on the boy, but the young prince proves himself more clever and just than his companions at every turn. Prince Hal knows he’ll have great responsibilities thrust on him one day, and intends to use his wild youth to manage expectations explained in I,ii:

“Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him…
So, when this loose behavior I throw off…
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.”

Hal gets his opportunity to prove his worth when a rebellion breaks out in the North and his father, King Henry IV, requests his son’s help to put it down. In one of Shakespeare’s greatest and most poignant scenes, II,iv, Hal and Falstaff rehearse the Prince’s conversation with the King, which comes to a finish Falstaff does not expect, as in this excerpt from Orson Welles’ Falstaff opus, The Chimes at Midnight.

Valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant,
being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him
thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s
company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

I do, I will.

2 Henry IV is more Falstaff’s play, being the more popular character at the time, but alongside Jack’s misadventures we see Hal grow into an upstanding man, ready to be crowned when his royal father dies. Naturally, Falstaff assumes this means power and influence for himself, but Hal, now King Henry V, takes just six immortal words (“I know thee not, old man.”) to make it clear that “I have turned away my former self; so will I those that kept me company.” I’ve never seen this scene more dramatically, heartbreakingly performed than in the 1979 BBC version, starring Anthony Quayle and David Gwillim.

Henry V

Finally our boy comes into his own! I’ll let the verse speak for itself…King Henry is taunted by the Dolphin of France, being presented with a batch of tennis balls to play with in his wild youth. The war-like Harry responds:

“When we have march’d our rackets to these balls,
We will, in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard…”

The two battle speeches in H5 are legendary. Lacking space to print them in their entirety, I must lean on performance once again, either the technically perfect Olivier or the explosive (literally), empassioned Branaugh for “Once more unto the breach, dear friends,” and four versions of St Crispin’s Day consecutively, of which we all have our favorites, but who can forget Sgt Benitez from Renaissance Man? Henry wins the war, gets the kingdom, and marries the princess. He’s the man.

“Thus far, with rough and all-unable pen,” I’ve tried to give some glimpse of why Henry V is such an epic character and why he deserves ALL THE VOTES in the Shakespeare Madness tournament, but I know I’m not equal to the task. Instead, I prefer to let 1 Henry VI, which opens on Henry V’s funeral, speak for me, in which Shakespeare’s own characters tell what they thought of Henry V:

Hung be the heavens with black, yield day to night!
Comets, importing change of times and states,
Brandish your crystal tresses in the sky,
And with them scourge the bad revolting stars
That have consented unto Henry’s death!
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:
His brandish’d sword did blind men with his beams:
His arms spread wider than a dragon’s wings;
His sparking eyes, replete with wrathful fire,
More dazzled and drove back his enemies
Than mid-day sun fierce bent against their faces.
What should I say? his deeds exceed all speech:
He ne’er lift up his hand but conquered.


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