Other titles I considered for this post:
- Henry V: How many Henrys does it take to rule England?
- Henry V: I’m really only here for Tom Hiddleston.
I am very glad to say that I have finished reading through “The Henriad,” one of Shakespeare’s two historical tetralogies. I decided to read the plays in the order of the action, not the order in which Shakespeare wrote them. After muddling through Richard II, 1 Henry IV, and 2 Henry IV, I’ve finally finished off the whole set with Henry V.
One of my favorite things about Shakespeare is that he’s able to take genres that can be tired or boring and turn them into something unique. All four of the plays in the Henriad are history plays, so you might think they’d all play out exactly the same. Not true! Each of the plays is stylistically different, which keeps things interesting. Shakespeare does this in Henry V by including a chorus–a person who speaks directly to the audience at the beginning of each act. This person reminds the audience to use their imagination, and he sets the stage for the new act. Some scholars think that when Henry V was performed for the first time, Shakespeare himself played the chorus.
I’ll be honest, I was dragging my feet about reading this play. The others were sort of slow, and I wasn’t super excited about Henry V. After finishing it, though, I think this play is my favorite of the four. It’s a great use of the history genre on Shakespeare’s part, and it’s easy to follow–it follows the plot structure of any good war movie (good guys outnumbered by bad guys, a rousing speech, victory against all odds). This play is also pretty self-contained. It’s helpful to have read the other three, but you don’t necessarily have to read the other three to enjoy this one.
As with any Shakespearean play, this one also has some amazing speeches:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention;
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
“Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,
Or close the wall up with our English dead!”
And, quite possibly, the most famous line from a history play, Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day Speech:
“From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered–
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother…”
I’m glad to be finished with this first set of history plays. I’m sure I’ll read the others next year sometime, but I’m glad to end 2015 on a good historical note. Henry V is probably the most optimistic of the plays–it ends with a marriage, things are looking up for England, and Prince Hal seems to finally have overcome his youthful problems. Next on the list is to watch The Hollow Crown’s adaptation and see how Tom Hiddleston does as a mature leader.