Henry the Fifth was first performed in March 1599, immediately after the theaters reopened after being closed for Lent. Hence, it is the first of the plays that James Shapiro examines in its historical context in his book A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (P.S.). I’ve often read that HV is one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays. It’s been more popular with modern audiences than at any other time since it was first produced—most likely because of the film version with Laurence Olivier, made at the express request of the British government to instill patriotism in the breasts of the movie-going public, and the film version with Kenneth Branagh, made during the British Falklands War. It’s always been a favorite of mine since it was the first Shakespeare play I ever saw—my father took me to the Olivier film when I was about 11 or 12—and I was thoroughly swept away by Olivier as HV. I’ve always been a bit baffled by the critics’s dismissal of HV, but Shapiro does a masterful job of showing it to be not only a capstone of the history plays, but as a catalyst in redirecting Shakespeare’s career as playwright, poet, and shaper of English culture and consciousness.
Kemp/Falstaff, the Globe, end of the War of the Roses Cycle
Shapiro says that as far back 1596, Shakespeare was trying to finish Henry the Fifth, which he had been thinking about for several years.
The scars of revision that Henry the Fifth bear—inconsistencies, locales that are specified then altered, characters that are introduced and then mysteriously disappear, repetitions that seem to be ghostly remnants of earlier drafts—testify to the extent to which Shakespeare’s conception of the play kept changing…As Shakespeare’s melancholy epilogue to Henry the Fifth acknowledges—with its backward glance at a decade’s worth of history plays with which he had entertained Shoreditch audiences—Henry the Fifth marked the end of one stage of his career and the unchartered beginning of another. (p. 20)
When the Chamberlain’s Men performed HIV, p2 at the Curtain, the play closes with an epilogue spoken by Will Kemp, that transitioned neatly into and referenced the bawdy jig that typically closed all Elizabethean plays, comedies as well as tragedies. In the original epilogue, “our humble author” promises to “continue the story.” According to Shapiro, this is the only time that Shakespeare ever shares with his audience what he planned to write next. However, when the Chamberlain’s Men were invited to perform that play at court, Shakespeare revised the epilogue because plays at court could not end with ribald jigs. In the revised epilogue, Shakepeare delivered his own words and in them makes no mention of what his next play will be about and no promise that Kemp will return as Falstaff. Most importantly, he suggests that “playwright and playgoers are bound in a partnership, sharers in a venture.” At this point, Shakespeare and most of the Chamberlain’s Men were building a new theatre of their own, the Globe, and his next play, the one he was currently working on when he wrote and delivered the revised epilogue, was Henry the Fifth, which does not include Falstaff directly (i.e., his death scene is described), Will Kemp in another role, or the typical closing bawdy jig. Shapiro suggests that Shakespeare in this revised epilogue to HIV,p2 prepares his audience for the new course that Henry the Fifth will set him and them (i.e., the playgoing public) on.
As an aside, HIV,p2 was published in 1601, two years after it was first performed, and this publication contains both epilogues. However, the printer left a bit of space between the court (aka Whitehall revised version) and the original Curtain version, indicating that he was aware that there were two separate epilogues. The 1623 folio also includes both versions but without the space between, melding them into a single epilogue. According to Shapiro, “modern-day editors, who ought to know better, have followed suit, leaving the confusion intact and obscuring why and how Shakespeare redirects his art at this time.” (p.36)
“Since at least the eighteenth century, critics have struggled to make sense of Shakespeare’s change of heart about Falstaff. Why would he abandon one of his great creations—especially after promising that we’d see Falstaff again?” Shapiro answers this by saying that
Shakespeare’s decision had nothing to do with character or plot but rather with Kemp and clowning. The parting of the ways between Shakespeare and Kemp—ironically if unintentionally mirrored in Hal’s icy repudiation of Falstaff—was a rejection not only of a certain kind of comedy but also a declaration that from here on in, it was going to be a playwright’s and not an actor’s theater, no matter how popular the actor. (p.37)
Given Shakespeare’s finely tuned poetic and ironic sensibilities, I can’t imagine that Hal’s rejection of Falstaff mirroring his own rejection of Kemp was lost on him. In fact, his rejection of Kemp might have inspired him to develop the rejection theme in HV, though in HIV,p2 (2.1.208-17), Prince Hal does tell the audience of his masterplan to come out and shine…does this mean that Shakespeare planned this breaking with Kemp as long ago as the writing of HIV,p2?
Ireland, the Death of Edmund Spenser, and the Earl of Essex
In 1598, Elizabeth sent a force to Ireland to subdue the latest uprising. B ecause she was tight with money and relied on conscripted forces instead of a regular (aka paid) army or mercenaries. The English were soundly beaten at the Battle of Blackwater, and the Earl of Essex (a young, brash, handsome, arrogant favorite/lover of the queen) was raising troops to return for vengeance. Shakespeare’s Henry the Fifth reflects many of the issues surrounding this proposed Irish expedition, including the morality of invading another country, the injustices and corruption associated with conscripting an army (also shown in HIV, p2), and the dangers of a military man being so successful that his ambitions are fueled to the point of insurrection, a theme that Shakespeare would fully explore in his next play, Julius Caesar.
Edmund Spenser was a marked contrast to Shakespeare—he totally embraced the role of poet to a patron, and was rewarded with lands in Ireland, which he lost during the 1598 uprising by the Irish against their English overlords. Shakespeare, while he allowed some patronage, pursued his own path as playwright within a group of players, rising to an ownership position of the troupe as well as the theater itself (i.e., the Globe that was currently under construction)—with his proceeds, he bought lands and a house in his hometown in the very English Stratford-upon-Avon. Spenser died unexpectedly in January, 1599 at the age of 46, and was interred at Westminster Abbey. Poets carried his hearse, and poems, instead of flowers, were tossed into his grave. According to Shapiro, “It’s unlikely that many of London’s writers would have missed the occasion…” to pen a poem in praise of Spenser but he asserts that Shakespeare probably did as he “had a strong aversion to heaping praise on the work of the living or the dead.” P. 70 Shapiro imagines that Shakespeare, who probably would have attended the funeral, might have wandered into the Chantry Chapel where HV and the remains of his wife, Queen Katherine, are buried, which is near where Spenser was being interred. Given that he is currently completing his play on HV, this seems more than likely. “Like Spenser, Henry V, who died at age thirty-five—Shakespeare’s current age—had not lived to fulfill his great promise.” In HVI, p1, written about ten years earlier, Shakespeare had staged HV’s funeral, in which mourners compare him to Julius Caesar. Now that Shakespeare was finally finishing HV itself, it seems more than coincidence that he produced JC next and that the two became even more an artistic extension of each other.
On February 20, Shakespeare and the rest of the Chamberlain’s Men performed in Richmond, and Shapiro speculates that Shakespeare most likely would have stayed in Richmond to hear a sermon ushering in Lent that was delivered by Lancelot Andrewes, “arguably England’s greatest preacher in an age notable for its oratory. For Shakespeare that morning in court would offer a chance to hear and study a remarkable performer.” (p.77) The title of Andrewes’s sermon was Preached before Queen Elizabeth at Richmond, On the 21st of February, A.D. 1599, being Ash Wednesday, at What Time the Earl of Essex was Going Forth, upon the Expedition for Ireland.
When scholars talk about the sources of Shakespeare’s plays, they almost always mean printed books like Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles…But Shakespeare’s was an aural culture…Lost to us are the unrecorded sounds reverberating around him—street cries of vendors, church bells, regional and foreign accents, scraps of overheard conversations, and countless bits of speech and noise…Some of these made their way into Shakespeare’s writing…Only a tiny percentage of Elizabethan sermons were committed to print, so it’s a stroke of luck that Andrewes’s war sermon was one of them, for the evidence suggests that elements of it inspired (or uncannily paralleled) the play that Shakespeare was now completing. (p. 81)
It’s worth reading Shapiro’s analysis of the speech alongside HV’s St. Crispian’s Day speech in both style—the “thumping reiteration of ‘this time’ and ‘this day’”—and in the arguments that justify an “aggressive offensive war.” According to Shapiro, Ireland “haunts Shakespeare’s play….” and “seeps into the play at the most unexpected and even unintended moments.” (p. 88)
In fact, in the final act, Shakespeare speaks overtly and not in illusion to the imminent Irish campaign. Interestingly, this speech (Chorus, 5.0.22-35) also includes a reference to Caesar. “As we shift perspective from Henry’s triumphant return to Julius Caesar’s to Essex’s, then back to Henry’s, much gets blurred…” and is disquieting. (p. 89)
Back to the critics’ dismissal of HV as an important play. According to Shapiro, “Those seeking to pinpoint Shakespeare’s political views in Henry the Fifth will always be disappointed…” (p. 91) because “what they overlook is that all the debate about the war is the real story.” (p. 92) “Conquest, national identity, and mixed origins—the obsessive concerns of Elizabethan Irish policy—run deep through Henry the Fifth and sharply distinguish it from previous English accounts of Henry’s reign.” (p. 98)
Perhaps this is what I personally love about HV, now that I’ve read about it in context, it demonstrates in microcosm the genius of Shakespeare in taking a schoolboy’s story and adding depth and breadth and relevance to it both for his own contemporary audience and for those that followed. For that, I can forgive lapses in continuity.