Henry V: Notes

Henry V: Notes

Henry V: Notes

Henry V: Notes


As indicated at the close of Henry IV, Part II, King Henry V is planning on entering into a war with France over some disputed lands and titles. He has instructed the Archbishop to be sure that his claims are valid. When the play opens, the Archbishop explains to his Bishop how he plans to convince the king to enter into a war with France, thus protecting the church’s property, which might otherwise be placed in the hands of the state rather than left in the church’s control.

After the king is convinced of the validity of his claims, an ambassador from France arrives with a rejection of the claims; he also delivers an insulting barrel of tennis balls from the French Dauphin, who still considers King Henry to be the silly and rowdy Prince Hal.

As they are on the verge of leaving for France, King Henry is tending to some business--releasing a prisoner for a minor offense--and then he turns to three of his trusted advisors and has them executed for conspiring with the French to assassinate him. Meanwhile, in the French court, no one seems to take Henry seriously. The entire court is contemptuous of his claims and of his abilities. They are so overconfident that they do not send help to the town of Harfleur, which Henry easily conquers. After this victory, Henry gives strict instructions that all the citizens are to be treated with mercy and that his soldiers are not to loot, rob, or insult the native population. However, a companion from Hal’s youth, Bardolph, an inveterate thief, steals a small communion plate, and, as a result, he is executed.

In spite of the English victory, the French still do not express concern, even though the Princess Katharine is involved; if Henry is victorious, she will become Queen of England; as a result, she feels the necessity to learn the English language, and so she begins taking instructions in that language. Meanwhile, the reports that the English are sick and tattered allow the French to prepare for the battle with complete confidence, especially since they outnumber the English 60,000 to 12,000 troops.

Just before the crucial Battle of Agincourt, an emissary once again approaches King Henry with demands that he immediately surrender his person. His demands are rejected, and King Henry, in a patriotic speech, urges his troops to fight for "Harry, England, and St. George." By miraculous means, the English are victorious and the French are shamed into submission. At the end of the play, King Henry’s demands are granted, and he is seen wooing and winning Princess Katharine as his future queen.


Since Henry V is the last play of Shakespeare’s tetralogy, the earlier three plays shed some light upon the present play. The Elizabethan audiences which Shakespeare was writing for would have known these earlier plays and, of course, they would have been familiar with many of the characters in this play. Therefore, since Henry V is the play which shows King Henry V as the ideal Christian monarch, the earlier plays leading up to this figure of perfection are enlightening. For example, when Henry prays just before the Battle of Agincourt, he says:

Not to-day, O Lord,
O, not to-day, think not upon the fault
My father made in compassing the crown.

He is referring to the manner in which his father, Henry IV, became king. The fault referred to is the deposition and murder of Richard II, a theme which runs throughout all of the plays in this tetralogy. Henry V, therefore, is the Christian king who wears a crown gotten by questionable means. Furthermore, characters like Bardolph and Pistol and Hostess Quickly had appeared in some of these earlier plays, and there are many references to the famous Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s greatest comic creations. Therefore, a brief knowledge of the earlier plays will clearly enhance the reading, enjoyment, and understanding of Henry V.

RICHARD II (Synopsis)

The play opens with a dispute between Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford, and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Bolingbroke has accused Mowbray of treason, and the two of them exchange insults in the presence of King Richard. After attempts to reconcile them fail, Richard orders them to take part in a traditional chivalric trial by combat. On the field of combat, the king changes his mind and banishes the two men--Bolingbroke for ten years (commuted to six) and Mowbray for life. Then the king makes plans to leave for the wars in Ireland.

Before departing, Richard visits the ailing father of Bolingbroke, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster. Gaunt warns Richard with his dying words that he is flirting with danger and doing great harm to the country by allowing himself to be influenced by his sycophantic courtiers. When the old man dies, Richard takes possession of all of Gaunt’s wealth and sets out for Ireland.

Unhappy with Richard’s incompetence as a ruler and worried by his seizure of the Duke of Lancaster’s wealth, a number of nobles rally support for Henry Bolingbroke. When Bolingbroke and his army decide to return from exile in France, the rebel forces prepare to confront Richard on his return from Ireland.

The rebel noblemen force the king to abdicate, and Bolingbroke is crowned as Henry IV. Richard is imprisoned in Pomfret Castle, where he faces his death alone, philosophically contemplating the meaning of his fall from grandeur. Sir Pierce of Exton decides solely on his own to execute the deposed king; as a result, he is banished by King Henry. The play ends with Henry IV planning a penitential pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

HENRY IV, PART I (Synopsis)

When the play opens, King Henry has called the Percies--Northumberland, Worcester, and Hotspur--to the palace. He demands to know why the ranking Scottish prisoners taken by Hotspur have not been turned over to him. The Percies are furious with Henry’s seeming arrogance; they deeply resent the fact that this man whom they helped to the throne should demand absolute obedience from them. Thus, they . . .

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