Henry's Wars and Shakespeare's Laws: Perspectives on the Law of War in the Later Middle Ages

By Theodor Meron | Go to book overview

1
Introduction

William Shakespeare( 1564-1616) wrote during the Elizabethan Renaissance, a period of revived and intense interest in history.1 The Life of Henry the Fifth, written in 1599,2one of Shakespeare's histories, is a patriotic, epic portrayal of a phase in the bloody Hundred Years War ( 1337-1453) between England and France. In contrast to some of his other histories, internal power struggle is not a central theme in Henry V, which concerns a conflict with an enemy from without.3It describes a medieval campaign led by a chivalrous and virtuous king, who could perhaps do wrong but not a great deal of wrong, and in which the few acting in a just cause defeat the many. In this play, Shakespeare relives past glories.

King Henry V ( 1387-1422) succeeded to the throne of Henry IV in 1413 and two years later invaded France. The play telescopes the phase of the Hundred Years War that started in 1415, with the landing of Henry's army near Harfleur and its victory at

____________________
1
Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's 'Histories': Mirrors of Elizabethan Policy ( 1947), 18-20.
2
William Shakespeare, The Complete Works, ed. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (Compact Edn., 1988), 567. Unless otherwise indicated, all plays of Shakespeare will be cited from this edition (hereafter CW). The editors drew on the 1600 quarto text of Henry V rather than on the text printed from Shakespeare's papers in the 1623 folio, 'in the attempt to represent the play as acted by Shakespeare's company'. Gary Taylor, ibid. 567. They believe that the theatrical versions of Shakespeare's plays come closest to their 'final' versions. Editors' General Introduction at p. xxxvi. Wells and Taylor regard the differences between the quarto and folio texts of Henry V as minimal. For a more extreme statement of the differences which still remain open, see Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, ( 1989), 71-92. Among the explanations offered by her for these differences appears the conflict between Elizabeth and the earl of Essex. Ibid. 81-7.
3
Jan Kott, Shakespeare Our Contemporary, trans. Boleslaw Taborski( 1974), 8. It has been suggested that in Henry V's treatment of the French side Shakespeare showed a strong patriotic bias. Beverley E. Warner, English History in Shakespeare's Plays ( 1894), 158. Gary Taylor writes that the play has 'aroused accusations of jingoism, but the horrors of war are vividly depicted', CW 567.

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