Part 1: The Story
As told by Kenneth Branagh, Shakespeare's Henry V is a coming-of-age story, set firmly in the fifteenth century, when times are hard, men are rough, and being a young king is no afternoon of tennis, love. When we first see Henry, he's about to take a meeting. His gracious Lord of Canterbury, armed with the mighty sums the spirituality can command, urges the young king to make war based upon a claim that France is really his. When Henry asks, "May I with right and conscience make this claim?" he's cuts to the heart of the matter. Branagh makes it clear from the start that Henry's going to ask the tough questions, honestly, even as he feels his way towards filling that awfully big throne.
It hasn't been easy. Henry's had to give up the partying life ("his hours filled with riots, banquets, sports") and cast off his drinking buddies from the Boar's Head Tavern. Sir John Falstaff (Robbie Coltrane), the merry figurehead of Henry's youth ("banish plump Jack and banish all the world'), and his crew must be denied. This isn't the worst of it for knob-nosed Bardolph, who later must be hanged on the King's order for stealing from a church during the English war campaign through the French countryside.
And not every Englishman is on Henry's side. Three corrupted men--Richard Earl of Cambridge, Henry Lord Scroop of Masham, and Sir Thomas Grey, knight of Northumberland, have for the gilt of France ("o guilt indeed") conspired with the French to kill Henry. They are discovered by the king who "knows their worthiness" in a scene where he toys with them before arresting them as paid traitors. But the treachery of young Scroop, a confidante and close friend to Henry, especially stabs at Henry's soul. He tells Scroop, before sending the three men to their deaths: "I will weep for thee. For this revolt of thine is like another fall of man." Then, instead of curling up and having a good cry for the afternoon, he prepares for war. ("Cheerly to sea, the signs of war advance. No king of England, if not king of France.")
Tell that to the French King (Paul Scofield), who presides over an impressive and confident French court--including the Constable (Richard Easton) who's weary of the overconfident pip-squeak Prince Dauphin (Michael Maloney). The Dauphin makes an enemy out of Henry when he mocks the new English king by sending him a "tun of treasure"--a box of tennis balls. But the more experienced French nobles and their wise king know better than to shrug off the English challenge completely, as it comes from a stem of that victorious stalk: Edward, Black Prince of Wales. As if to bear out their caution, Henry's Uncle Exeter (Brian Blessed) shows up to give them a piece of King Henry's mind, looking like he could fight the whole fancy French court himself.
Exeter and the ennobled English "set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide" at the battle of Harfleur, a French town which submits to Henry and his forces after a fierce fight. No mere practice maneuver, it's here that Henry delivers a speech of passionate persuasion to spur his troops into assailing the protective wall of the city once again ("Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close the wall up with our English dead!"). When it looks like they might lose, King Henry unleashes an angry and terrifying ultimatum to the town governor, asking for surrender before his troops get ugly. ("What say you? Will you yield, and this avoid? Or guilty in defense, be thus destroyed?!") Harfleur wisely surrenders, and Henry tells Exeter to hold the town while the rest of the army marches on to Calais, two hundred miles away.
In stark contrast to the trenches of war is the caged-bird existence of Princess Katherine (Emma Thompson) of France. She and her gentlewoman (Geraldine McEwan) flit about translating French words into English--making "nails" into the two-syllabled "nay-ells" and "neck" into "nick." But inside the French King's Council Chamber, things aren't so merry. The French King has a big headache, and has no choice but to order war. ("And quickly bring us word of England's fall.")
Marching through the rainy countryside is hard work, but physical challenges may be the least of Henry's problems. As if to test the King's mettle, and his resolve and fitness to lead this royal army, fate presents him with the guilty Bardolph, waggish thief and one-time companion. Henry flashes back to the Boar's Head, in his wilder days. But any sentiment or favoritism will show weakness, and he cannot risk that; he must make an example of his unfortunate friend. Tears in his eyes, Henry does not speak, but nods his assent to the execution. When it's over he explains the sentence, briefly, before the French Herald Montjoy (Christopher Ravenscroft) rides up with news that the English King has a real fight on his hands. ("Now we speak and our voice is imperial.")
Darkness falls, and as Chorus (Sir Derek Jacobi) tells us, the French are gambling and the English are worrying. The King makes the rounds through his camp, cloaking himself and sounding out his troops as Harry le Roy--the royal. Nobody suspects it's the king, and he takes time to talk about the true meaning of dying in service to the crown. Then, alone, he ruminates over the downsides of being king. It's all just "idol ceremony"; empty trappings which keep him up nights ("Thou proud dream, that play'st so subtly with a king's repose"). He finds no rest, unlike the common man, "who with a body filled and vacant mind gets him to rest" and "sleeps in Elysium." Finally he calls for help from above ("O God of battles! Steel my soldiers' hearts") and asks that their reasonable fears be taken from them ("Not today, O God, O not today!"). The long night ends, with Henry resigned to whatever fate belongs to him, and to England ("The day, my friends, and all things stay for me.")
Morning finds the French army chomping at the bit ("Hark how our steeds for present service neigh!") and outnumbering Henry's poor and starved band by five to one. They wish they had some of those couch potatoes back in England, "that do no work today." In one of the most well-known speeches in all of Shakespeare, Henry gently rebukes his men for wishing to even up the numbers ("The fewer men the greater share of honor. God's will! I pray thee wish not one man more . . . "). Every year, on Saint Crispin's Day, all of England will remember with advantages what feats they did that day. They'll be famous, on a par with the King himself as his brother in the field ("we few, we happy few, we band of brothers") and anyone not here to face the French has really missed out.
It works. The French Herald arrives, asking again what Henry's going to pay up in damages after the French defeat his doomed island carrion. Henry gets ticked off ("Why should they mock poor fellows thus?!") and impatiently sends the French messenger packing ("I pray thee, bear my former answer back") resolving never to be ransomed ("They shall have none I swear, but these my joints!")
Battle ensues. Men die, including brave York, who carries the English colours. War is a personal hell, fought one man, one slow-motion minute at a time. We cannot tell who's winning until we see the French Constable, wounded. With all their superior forces, they've lost ("Shame and eternal shame, nothing but shame.") While Henry fights the Dauphin, he hears an alarm--screams from children who have been murdered by the French. Every English boy left in the camp has been killed. Henry explodes in a howl of rage: "I was not angry since I came to France until this instant!" When the French Herald rides up, Henry tackles him from the horse in a bloody rage. But Montjoy has not come for ransom, he's come for a time-out: to find the bodies of the French nobles and take stock of who's died in the killing fields. Ten thousand French have lost their lives.
At a loss for any perspective in the field, Henry must ask the Herald whether England is the victor ("I tell thee truly herald, I know not if the day be ours or no.") When he learns of their miraculous victory ("The day . . . is yours"), Henry praises God, and not the strength of his army. Only a handful of English have given up their lives. For the dead, Henry orders that all holy rites be observed. A single voice from the devastated makeshift English camp begins to sing, and others join as we view the extent of the killing. To the swelling orchestral and choral sounds of "Non Nobis," Henry moves across the bloody battlefield of Agincourt, carrying a slain boy as the symbol of the horrible cost of war.
To seal the peace, a marriage is needed. And "fair Katherine, and most fair" of France is the capital demand of England's victorious King. She "cannot speak his "England" and he cannot move her in French unless it be to laugh at him. But underneath the comedic lines and awkwardness of the moment, they must come to an understanding. The nobles of both courts--and her father--wait outside.
Henry wants to woo her honestly, or as honestly as he can, since realistically she will have little choice in the matter. When she asks if it's possible for her to love the enemy of France, Henry tells her, "No. It is not possible for you to love the enemy of France, Kate. But in loving me, you should love the friend of France, for I love France so well that I will not part with a village of it." After trying a French translation of "When France is mine and I am yours, then yours is France and you are mine", Henry gives up, and puts the question to her in a way that no woman in her right mind would refuse: "Canst thou love me?"
Princess Katherine finally gives her consent, but when Henry wants to kiss her hand, she pulls away. It's not the fashion for the maids of France to kiss before they're married. But Henry's masterful retorts ("O Kate! Nice customs curtsey to great kings" and "We are the makers of manners, Kate") soften her to butter. The match is made.
Representatives of both courts file back in, and the French King urges the couple to have children right away, as that will make a more lasting peace. Henry declares Katherine his queen, and asks God to combine their hearts in one, their realms in one. Peace has come this hour.
Chorus rejoins us and concludes by observing that during this small time in history, Henry V, "this star of England" most greatly lived. His kingdom flourishes, until his death. When his infant son becomes king, France will be lost, and the peace so dearly won by Henry V will be swept away with the tides of history.
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Part 2: Behind the Scenes--Making Henry V
Part 3: The Director--From Front Room to Screening Room
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For the Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Text of Henry V, try The Life of King Henry V.