This month on What Happens in Shakespeare, it’s Henry V. It’s gruesome. It won’t make you like Prince Hal any better. In a mock trial in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court debated whether Henry V was justified in his slaughter of French prisoners of war. So you know going into it that the sort-of happy ending comes with a serious body count.
The Reduced Shakespeare Company tweeted: “A king’s gotta do what a king’s gotta do. MORAL: England good, France bad.”
What happens in Henry V
(King of England from 1413-1422)
Prince Hal (you remember him from Henry IV) is now King Henry V.
The Dolphin (you remember him from King John; actually now it’s 200 years later, so this is a different Dolphin, but he’s still the heir to the French throne) gives Henry a chest full of tennis balls. Henry is insulted because the Dolphin clearly thinks he is still the game-playing young idiot he was when he was Prince Hal. He decides to invade France. Yes, tennis is that old.
We learn that Falstaff has died, apparently of a broken heart after Henry rejected him. This is the very last nail in the coffin of the young idiot Prince Hal we knew in Henry IV. It’s all serious King Henry V stuff from now on.
Henry invades France. In the town of Harfleur he gives his troops the famous pep talk every shift manager has given before the Black Friday sales, “Once more unto the breech, dear friends, once more.” The English occupy the town. Henry demands the local government surrender, making a less famous speech where he warns the French in excruciating detail exactly how the English forces will rape the women and murder the children.
At the French court, French people make fun of English people, but the audience is in on the joke because these French are so very weak and effeminate. Princess Catherine of France has an English lesson so she’s ready in case the English win the war. It’s funny but creepy. Shakespeare makes Catherine unknowingly say a lot of dirty words, which gets a cheap laugh. But on another level, Catherine (symbolizing France) is being set up as an active participant in her own conquest (sexual and political). You could see that as not creepy, considering the historical Catherine and Henry had actually been engaged all their lives, and she was a princess and therefore bound to marry somebody or other for political reasons. But the English occupation of France has been described in the language of rape for pages now. Gets uglier the more you think about it.
There is a diverting little subplot with a Welshman, an Irishman, and a Scotsman, but as much fun as it would be to walk into a bar, where we could drown the taste of that horrifying 2nd Harfleur speech, we don’t have time for subplots here on the Shakespeare TLDR.
There is a big battle at Agincourt. This time in Henry’s pep talk to the troops he famously says, “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”
The English win.
Henry and Catherine seal the new peace accord by getting married.
The Chorus informs us that Henry and Catherine will have a son, who will grow up to be the Henry VI we’ll meet next.
I love the 1989 movie version of Henry V for Ian Holm’s portrayal of Fluellen, the Welsh soldier. He shows you how a great actor can bring dimension to a small role that looks pretty fluffy (sorry) on the page.