Shakespeare and the Legacy of Henry V

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Henry V is pretty awesome and it’s Shakespeare’s birthday this year so I’m going to kill two birds with one stone by writing about the role of Shakespeare’s history plays in the legacy of the great King.

Henry V was one of the most successful English monarchs of the Middle Ages. Well regarded by historians and the public alike. His exploits have been magnified and solidified in popular consciousness thanks to the efforts of Shakespeare and his history plays. But how much of this legacy is down to the efforts of Henry V the man and how much does he owe to the bard?

On the one hand Shakespeare’s plays – both parts of Henry IV and Henry V – have given Henry V as a character an arc about growing up and fathers and sons that is universally relatable and very well done. Seeing this sequence of plays on the stage and screen in many different incarnations and played by several great actors has surely done a lot for the real Henry V’s legacy. I’m sure that there are many people who having watched or read the play for school or leisure have been compelled to research the real historical events behind the play.

Another point about the play that is worth mentioning is the depiction of the Battle of Agincourt and the famous St Crispin’s Day speech. Performing the role of Henry V and delivering this speech in particular is a constituent part of any professional theatre actors career and this highlights importance of Henry V in our national history. The speech and the various portrayals of the battle give a sense of national pride but also can be interpreted as condemning the horrors of war. This ties the historical figure of Henry with English national pride and this has surely made the historical Henry patriotic figure despite the fact that notions of 15th century Englishness were much less defined than they are today.

Alternatively there is a case to be had that the historical Henry more of an impact on his legacy than Shakespeare. It should be noted that his father Henry IV has Shakespeare plays written about him and yet he is still one of the oft forgotten monarchs in English history, at least among the general populace. This could lead to us to the conclusion that it was his political and military prowess and leadership qualities that made Henry V stand out so well among a myriad of interchangeable – at least to non historians – English kings. These personal qualities would have still been known if Shakespeare had never written his history plays and Agincourt would still be widely remembered.

There is also the fact – often pointed out by historians – that It is possible for a Medieval English monarch to live to long, this is almost certainly the case with Edward III. There are many counter factual ideas running around about how Henry may have fared had he outlived the French King and claimed the throne of France. Although the truth of the matter is we will never know it is very possible that he would have mucked everything up. Dying in 1422 as he did Henry didn’t have time to make any serious mistakes and had already secured his legacy as one of the greats. It also didn’t hurt Shakespeare as the tragic early death of the King provides a bittersweet ending for his play. So by dying at a poetic moment Henry gave his life and legacy an almost storybook quality that surely helped his standing amongst contemporaries and the public today.

So is Shakespeare the creator of the modern interpretation of Henry V that people think envisage when they think of the English King or is Henry the author of his own legacy through his deeds and achievements in his own time. I think the answer – predictably – lies somewhere in between. Shakespeare modernised Henry V for his audience in the 1590s just as his plays are constantly being edited and updated for a 21st century audience today. However I think it is also true that Henry provided the bard with truly great source material through his skill as a leader and warrior King and of course the poetic tragedy of his early death and what it meant for the English claim to France. Next time you think of Henry V ask yourself if you are thinking of the historical figure or the Shakespearean construct or a hybrid of the two.

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