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Exploring Shakespeare's Henry V

To coincide with the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt in October 2015, our Shakespeare's Treasures Exhibition has been given a King Henry V/military theme. Alongside this, volunteer Jann Tracy has taken a look at some performances, facts, and figures relating to Shakespeare's play about the famous king.

Jann Tracy

Shakespeare's play The Life of Henry the Fifth, written 1598-9, has often been used as the country’s rallying cry. From a performance at Covent Garden on 1 November 1813, when the reviewer remarks, ‘The conquest of France being all the fashion ... the Manager’s motives were ... loyal and patriotic,’ to a hastily put on performance in 1916 for the benefit of the Red Cross and St John of Jerusalem Funds.

It was put on in leading theatres in London more than a dozen times between 1902 and 1938, as well as Liverpool, Bath and Oxford. In July 1903, over 1200 people attended a matinee performance in Shrewsbury.

Henry V
Photograph of Kenneth Branagh as King Henry V — third from the left —pictured among his men, 1984.

The programme for the production at Shaftesbury Theatre, London, December 1914 to January 1915 has a patriotic foreword written by Frank Benson, and two pages of quotes, for example, King George V at the Front: "There is no reason I should not take risks, my soldiers take them" and King Henry V before battle: "I will speak my conscience of the King. I think he would not wish himself anywhere but where he is."

With a large cast (42 named characters), there is a lot of scope for actors to work their way through: from Boy to the Archbishop of Canterbury and King Charles VI of France, to Henry himself. In a settled company, it was possible for Frank Benson to play Prince Hal in Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2 plays before maturing to play the king who leads his country to war. In an 1897 production, Benson was said to have perfectly realised the portrait, ‘and his conception of the manly, earnest, soldierly king is one of the finest characters he has portrayed ... all combined to make the young warrior king a splendid and striking figure.’ In fact, a critic remarked that Benson was only possible as King Henry after his Prince Hal. In 1937, at the Old Vic, with Michael Redgrave as Chorus and Alec Guinness as the Duke of Exeter, Laurence Olivier played Henry. This no doubt informed Olivier’s performance in the famous 1944 film (watch the St Crispin’s Day speech on YouTube).

Frank Benson dressed as King Henry V, 1913.
Frank Benson dressed as King Henry V, 1913.

Nowadays we refer to the play as Henry V, but the Collected Works has it as The Life of Henry Fifth. Historically, it was always billed as Henry V or The Conquest of France. Interestingly, although now it is the sole item on the bill and can run to three-and-a-half hours in performance, it was always paired with a comedy, so they would have been using a shortened version. For example, at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, 1754, it was shown with a Ballad Farce, The Devil to Pay; in 1803, a melodrama called A Tale of Mystery; and in 1819, the popular pantomime of Mother Goose. My favourite is from 1856 at Sadlers Wells, when the programme concluded with Little Tiddlekins.

One male actor played the part of Chorus, in the guise of Time, until the retirement of Charles Kean as actor/manager in 1859 when his wife played Chorus as Clio, the muse of history. From then on Chorus could be male or female. In 1839 though, the role of Chorus was obviously felt to be somewhat static and wordy, and one Management livened its scenes to be ‘accompanied with pictorial illustrations from the pencil of Mr Stanfield.’

The Summer Festival at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, August 1914, saw a special performance put on instead of the scheduled The Merry Wives of Windsor, as this was considered ‘too frivolous a piece in view of the startling events which were then occurring in Europe.’ In fact that year the Festival had five performances of the play, with one being staged for free and the proceeds (£60) going to the War Relief Fund. The 1916 Tercentenary Festival had one matinee performance, on the Monday.

It might be thought odd that, although the play is a rousing call to arms and history by the English King, the foe is France - and the French people, who, in both World Wars, were our allies. In fact the Stratford-upon-Avon Herald of 7 August 1914 remarked on the substitution of Henry for Merry Wives: ‘whether wisely one would not want to say, as the events dramatised record the crushing defeat of the French, just now our closest ally.’

The play has given us some widely-used quotes, sometimes used to great effect on poignant occasions:

"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers" can be seen in the Battle of Britain Memorial window in the Royal Air Force Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Sometimes used more cavalierly:

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more" is the title for an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

And "the game’s afoot" sometimes used by the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes.