Henry V is often conflated with Henry V-and understandably so. Henry is one of the larger parts in Shakespeare, and his acquisition of the French throne by "inheritance" provides the play's unifying action. Like Hamlet, he dominates the scene. Yet, to carry the analogy further, if Hamlet is not only a revenge tragedy but a meditation on that dramatic genre, the same could be said of Henry V as a history play. The characters surrounding Henry express divergent attitudes towards his actions, and the dynamic variation between scenes reminds us that we, like the characters, are constantly involved in appraising and interpreting the meaning of his history. Performance choices thus involve both the question of how to play Henry and the question of how to frame him. It is in the relationship of this character to his complex dramatic and historical contexts that a wide array of possibilities emerges.
As a result, few plays have prompted such drastically different interpretations in performance as Henry V. It has been produced in times of war to boost British morale (from the anti-Jacobite Drury Lane production of 1746 through John Philip Kemble during the Napoleonic wars, to F.R. Benson in 1914 and on to Laurence Olivier during World War II); yet the play has also been a vehicle of anti-war protest (Michael Kahn's 1969 anti-Vietnam and, at least for some viewers, Adrian Noble's 1984 RSC and Michael Bogdanov's 1986 ESC post-Falklands productions). The French nobility sometimes appear as deranged, effete fools doomed to fail, while in other versions they seem haunted, cultured victims of time and barbarity (cf. Paul Scofield's weary King in Kenneth Branagh's film, and the magnificent French cavalry charge at Agincourt in Ron Daniels's 1995 American Repertory Theater production). The women's scenes have been presented as a series of comic interludes, or conversely as a pathetic reminder of the costs of male conquests. And the Chorus who frames the story (at least in the Folio text) has ranged from an eloquent, knowing intercessor to a blustering, jingoistic propagandist. In watching and performing Henry V, one consequently discovers as much (or more) about contemporary attitudes towards nationhood, war, and history as one does about Shakespeare's self-qualifying and hence elusive views.
Beyond the simple cutting of lines, Henry V's representation of history has been radically reshaped in modern performance by the enactment of narrated events onstage, the reordering of scenes, the inclusion of actresses playing the female and sometimes male parts, and the omission of entire roles and episodes. In so doing, modern performers replicate Shakespeare's own process of creative adaptation. He condensed and altered passages from the historical chronicles of Raphael Holinshed (1587, 2nd edition) and Edward Hall (1548) and from an earlier Elizabethan play The Famous Victories of Henry V (and possibly other Henry plays subsequently lost) to suit his own purposes. As an early modern writer filtering feudal history through the lens of an emergent nation-state, Shakespeare emphasized both the mythic dimensions of the lost chivalric past and the familiar political struggles and rhetorical manipulations which contribute to creating such a myth. His Henry is simultaneously Christian warrior and cautious politician; his countrymen are a "band of brothers" who nevertheless quarrel about honor, responsibility, and nationhood, and who recognize the shakiness of the ground upon and for which they fight. Writing about a king whose claim to monarchic power over England, much less France, was in dispute because of corruption and ruptures in the line of succession, Shakespeare nevertheless creates a formal comedy in which, ironically, the desired legitimacy appears to be earned through deeds and divine aid rather than inheritance per se: that is, a new code of honor and nobility is invoked to substantiate the claims of an older order. The gaps of time and place between Henry's early fifteenth-century world and that of the late sixteenth-century play, acknowledged by the Chorus's opening lines, establish two different perspectives on the French campaign. Though the audience cannot see "the warlike Harry, like himself" at Agincourt, it will know of his victory in advance; thus what (the fictionalized) Henry cannot see, the audience can. As the play proceeds, vaulting rhetoric and comedy move us nearer to Henry's perspective and that of his compatriots, at least periodically; when watching skilled actors enact the siege of Harfleur or worry before the battle of Agincourt, we may actually feel as if we are witnessing Henry and his men alive and imperiled in France once more. At some level, of course, we never fully lose our consciousness that we are watching actors rather than the historical participants, nor that the actions being represented are long since past. The double distancing generated by history and theatrical impersonation persists.
That distancing is compounded in modern performance, which adds a third temporal layer to the mix. Since the early modern rivalry between England and France no longer conjures fear nor justifies violence, theatre artists must now historicize the conflict, evoke analogous enmities of epic scale, or emphasize another dimension of the playtext to engage audiences. At the same time, from the nineteenth century onwards productions have tried to overcome the very performative distance Chorus announces. In the pageants of Charles Kean (1859) and Charles Calvert (1872, 1874-5, and 1879), fifteenth-century chronicle accounts of Henry's triumphant return to London after Agincourt (only narrated in Act 5's chorus) were replicated in sumptuous detail, including the crowds, dancers, horses and costumes. Such spectacle was the culmination of a half century of scenic elaboration based on historical study, including William Macready's 1839 diorama of the English fleet and full-scale siege of Harfleur. In the twentieth-century films of Olivier (1944) and Branagh (1989), Chorus's unrepresentable field of Agincourt is represented-in sunlight or mud, with arrows hailing down and horses charging. As their mainstream movie success makes them by far the most widely seen, and hence influential, modern performances, theatrical productions must now confront their technological as well as temporal difference when retelling Henry's story.
The battle of Agincourt serves not only as the crux for Henry's conquest but also epitomizes the contrary pulls and possibilities of Henry V as a performance text. Three acts build toward the encounter, and the combination of "a little touch of Harry in the night" (4.0.4) plus the spectacle of battle makes act four the rousing climax of both film versions. But how does it work onstage? If the text is followed, what we actually see of the battle is surely a "brawl ridiculous" (4.0.51)-due not so much to the smaller scale of battle onstage as to the playwright's choice of which participants to show. While the play recounts the poeticized deaths of York and Suffolk, the only "battle" scene staged is Pistol's capture of Monsieur Le Fer-the conquest of France writ small indeed. Contrasted with the showdown between Hal and Hotspur at Shrewsbury in Henry IV, Part One, the absence of any encounter between Henry and his French foes becomes all the more telling. But what it tells remains debatable. Viewed positively, it may signify that Agincourt truly is the fated collective victory of a "band of brothers" (4.3.60) for whom "God fought" (4.121), rather than merely being Henry's personal quarrel-the latter being a possibility raised by his soldiers the night before, to the disguised King's annoyance. On the other hand, to see an ignorant Englishman relying on a clever boy in order to line his pockets with French coin certainly diminishes the proceedings, especially as this parody is all we see of the battle.
The killing of the French prisoners can add to our uneasiness at this representation of Agincourt. While expedient for survival given the French reinforcements (Henry's stated motivation), and retrospectively justified--at least emotionally--by Gower as fit response to the French atrocity of killing the boys and the luggage, it nevertheless undermines his calling Henry "gallant" (4.7.10). The irony is compounded by Fluellen's unexpected recollection of Falstaff as the king's victim just afterwards. (Though the Welshman denies any exact analogy with Alexander "the Pig"'s murder of his friend, Mistress Quickly had told us even before Falstaff's death that "the King has killed his heart" [2.1.88].) Prince Hal's transformation into the King of England and heir to France exacts a high price. Several recent productions have called special attention to the cost of Henry's victory, and to the fact that both sides commit atrocities during battle, by showing the deaths of both Le Fer and The Boy. In Michael Langham's 1966 Henry, The Boy was killed, Pistol cut Le Fer's throat, and Williams entered limping and bloody after the battle. Under Matthew Warchus's direction (RSC, 1994), Pistol was made physically sick by the requirement that he "Coup' la gorge" of Le Fer at the end of 4.6 (see Taylor 243); mercenary-minded audience members may also remember that Pistol thereby loses the crowns he desired in the service of that other crown, worn by the "bawcock and a heart of gold" (4.1.44) whom he loves. Increasing the number of dead onstage in such productions undermines the sacralized presentation of Henry and English righteousness.
For those who view the Henriad as a sequence of plays culminating in a mirror of the ideal Christian prince and patriotic pageantry, these performance choices are anathema. The nineteenth-century tradition that saw the play as a simple celebration still has many advocates, for whom the combination of artful comedy and Henry's rousing speeches provides sufficient explanation of the play's stageworthiness. Tellingly, such productions (from Charles Kean to Olivier) often cut Pistol's encounter with Le Fer. While mid-nineteenth-century reviewers focused primarily on the visual splendor of the battle scenes and added pageants, they were followed by decades of appraisal based on the rhetorical abilities of the actor playing Henry, focusing especially on the "Once more unto the breach" speech at Harfleur, the meditation on ceremony and the "God of battles" plea before Agincourt, and of course the well-nigh indestructible Crispin's day speech (4.3.18ff). This mode of evaluation shaped theatrical criticism well into the middle of the twentieth century. Even reviewers too young to have seen him would hearken back nostalgically to the orator par excellence Lewis Waller, who played Henry at the Lyceum in 1900 and toured the United States in subsequent years. When Paul Scofield (RSC 1946) and Richard Burton (RSC 1951) brought quieter moods to their characterizations, the response was mixed; Burton's delivery was compared unfavorably to that of Alec Clune in the more conventional Old Vic production of the same year.
During the early 1960s, performance choices and reviewer responses underwent a paradigm shift, as the spectacle-and-oratory tradition still evident in Olivier's film gave way to a more ambivalent representation, a shift epitomized in the difference between Michael Langham's romantic Henry V starring Christopher Plummer (1956) and his anti-romantic version ten years later starring Douglas Rain (both at Stratford, Ontario). The Peter Hall and John Barton "War of the Roses" cycle (RSC Stratford 1964, later modified by Barton and Trevor Nunn in London) was among the most influential productions in the newer mode: starring Ian Holm as a calculating politician and workaday soldier, this Henry confronted the squalor and filth of war. Nevertheless, most productions still accentuate the positive when staging Henry V, as attested to by the BBC/Time-Life 1979 video starring David Gwillim, the New York Shakespeare Festival production of 1984 starring Kevin Kline, and the 1981 Stratford Connecticut Henry V with Christopher Plummer returning as both Chorus and Henry.
Certainly the added representations of and emphasis on violence reflect later twentieth-century doubts about war's efficacy and cost. In some cases, however, even when more deaths are shown, they are presented as a necessary action, not a personal stain on Henry's character. Indeed, by presenting the King himself as aware of and disturbed by the violence-during his opening scene contemplating the war, after his threats at Harfleur, and again at Agincourt-productions such as Branagh's strive to update Henry as the model of a modern military leader. The same dynamic holds true for the earlier hanging of Bardolph: it is presented as painful but required for the good of the whole. Although Shakespeare's text has Fluellen report the death as a fait accompli, Alan Howard's Henry gave the nod commanding it (RSC 1975, dir. Terry Hands); the dead body was brought back onstage in the 1966 Langham production; and when Adrian Noble directed (1984), Bardolph was actually garroted onstage. In Branagh's film, the action is again represented, but more sentimentally: as the King consents to the hanging, a flashback carries us back to his wilder days, making the tear he then sheds a sign of personal loss. The same technique later subordinates Burgundy's description of France's devastation to Henry's memory of his own lamented dead. This focus on Henry's internal feelings matches late twentieth-century preoccupations, helping explain why many now find Branagh's film preferable to Olivier's more visually inventive version. Seeing his work as a contribution to the war effort, Olivier muted Henry's personal conflict as well as the threats to unity among the English.
Other theatrical productions have been thoroughly cynical about war and critical of Henry, in great part creating this impression by downplaying the comic potential of the English soldiers. Whereas Olivier presented the debate between Fluellen and Captain Macmorris as exaggerated "type" comedy, recent Henrys have emphasized the barely contained enmity among the representatives of different regions within the British isles, inviting those aware of England's forcible suppression of the Celtic fringe to consider its early modern origins. Rather than present a "stage Welshman," the 1964 Hall/Barton Henry V worked against type by presenting a more studious, myopic Fluellen (Clive Swift). A few critics have found Fluellen downright annoying, but most would agree with the dominant tradition that regards the excitable, loyal advocate of military discipline with "amused affection" (Gary Taylor 69). He remains, after all, second only to Henry (and Chorus) among the play's forty-two parts, so to remove his charm will assuredly alienate an audience from much of the action. On the other hand, this is precisely what some productions want to do, in order to criticize militarism and expose the war effort as sordid. In such cases, even the act 2, scene 1 conflict between Nym and Pistol over Mistress Quickly, rather than being mere low-life comic fun, can serve as a domestic parody of the main action, setting the way for the political treachery of Scroop, Cambridge, and Grey in the following scene and for the subsequent battling over France. And the self-serving churchmen who initiate the play and prefer war to impoverishment can establish a sinister instead of comic tone from the start (contrast Branagh's dimly lit version in which they resemble conspirators with Olivier's stage farce in which Robert Helpmann's half-drunk Ely loses focus and later bumbles about dropping papers).
The treatment of the soldier Williams provides a related interpretive crux. Assumptions about social hierarchy obviously have changed since Shakespeare's time, when a king's disguised visit among commoners was a standard bit of stage humor; the playwright might question or tweak that familiar comic trope, but he could still count on a fairly light-hearted audience response to such encounters. Today, the blunt, commonsensical replies of the common man would seem to enlist greater sympathy: democratic thinking works against the merry monarch. This is especially true during the post-Agincourt coda to their quarrel, when Williams, who (like Fluellen) is being toyed with by a practical joker who has the power to take away his life, still speaks forthrightly in his own defense. Branagh and Olivier both cut this latter episode, which can distance us from Henry. Virtually all productions retain the remarkable campfire scene before the battle, though the credence given to the commoners' challenge and to the King's own argumentation varies. Henry's analogy between his soldiers going to battle and the merchant's son going to sea evades the crucial difference: his obviously violent intention in waging war. Causing deaths is not incidental but the essence of the project; the only question is how many and on which side. The answer to that question is Agincourt-a miracle for the English, who in battle lose only four "of name, and of all other men/ But five-and-twenty" (4.8.106-7). Once it is over, Agincourt has the theatrical effect of a trial by combat legitimating Henry, ethically as well as politically.
The King's private rumination upon ceremony (4.1.226ff.) after encountering his various soldiers calls further attention to the question of rank and monarchic responsibility. Played sympathetically, it is Henry's long-awaited moment of intimacy with the audience, in which we feel for his isolation and difficulty in bearing the heavy yet hollow crown; in other hands, it (like Hamlet's speech to the players) may sound arrogant and self-indulgent, patronizing the "slaves" who labor as if they had no minds or cares beyond bodily needs. The prayer before Agincourt has been read skeptically by some scholars as a desperate act of deal-making with the Lord, but for Alan Howard it was his tearful moment of confrontation, a scene in Gethsemene after his bitter railing about ceremony (see Beauman 52-61). In Warchus's production, Iain Glenn played Henry as a passionately religious man throughout, and so this last plea to God served as the fitting culmination to his concerns since act one. By contrast, and as a reminder of how the unanticipated can shape performance, one may read of the unfortunate incident that befell George Rignold, a matinee idol Henry who gained great success and fame in Calvert's production but was deemed by the Brooklyn Eagle "probably the very worst Shakespearean actor [of] whom stage annals make mention" (Dec. 21 1875). As he paused dramatically after "God of battles, steel my soldiers' hearts!" a cast member in full armor fell clattering down a backstage staircase.
Counterpoised with the King's self-presentation and the scenes among the English soldiers, the appearances of the French nobility also play an important role in shaping how an audience views Henry's project. If they are effete idiots early on, the Dauphin a fool and his father a madman (historically grounded though that may be), then Henry's success may appear almost guaranteed. Whether this is a militarily logical assumption is beside the point: especially onstage, where it is harder to give an impression of disproportionate army size than it is on film, the theatrical effect relies on the enemy's quality rather than quantity. Thus productions often move lines among the French nobles, in order to focus on at least one worthy adversary: in some versions, the emphasis shifts to the Constable, in some to Montjoy. Such shifting may have begun even in Shakespeare's own time, if the multiple versions of his text attest to changes made in performance: the Dauphin appears at Agincourt only in the Folio, whereas Bourbon gets more attention in the Quarto. Langham's two Canadian productions of Henry shared one bold choice that gave contemporary weight and resonance to the antagonism between nations: he had French Canadian actors play the French in a style distinct from that of the English Canadian cast, and stressed the ending as reconciliatory. By contrast, the inaugural London Globe production directed by Richard Olivier (1997) played the French primarily for laughs, as pantomime villains to be booed at; if this audience response expressed undercurrents of Anglo-French strain regarding trucking strikes and the EU, they were not being evoked by subtle topicality onstage.
Whereas the pre-Shakespearean stage plays about Henry had the French King or the Dauphin kneel before the English conqueror at their jingoistic conclusions, Henry V instead stresses negotiation as part of its formal comedy. In giving a new character, Burgundy, a long speech in the fifth act, Shakespeare chose to emphasize the need for peace rather than chauvinism-and risked anticlimax to do so. Act five also balances and brings to closure the question of inheritance through the female line, raised initially within the Archbishop of Canterbury's lengthy speech about the Salic Law (often played for laughs). However, Shakespeare had to finesse a major historical problem in order to create this happy ending: Henry's reliance on an unreliable French mother, Queen Isabel, who makes her first appearance here as well. It was because the French queen was willing to discredit and disinherit her own son, the Dauphin Charles, that Henry finally achieved the treaty conditions making him heir to the French throne: Isabel in fact proclaimed the Dauphin her bastard, not King Charles's son at all. Thus, the very action enabling Henry to reach his goal raised questions about maternal reliability and the problem of trusting the female to identify legitimacy. These paradoxes would seem partial motivation for Shakespeare's choice to introduce the new character of Isabel so late in the play and to make her an active, but far more benign, collaborator in making peace than was her historical source.
It is nevertheless a dangerous game, and the part of Isabel (if not entirely cut, as it often is) has the potential to undermine the comic tone usually achieved through Henry's wooing of Katherine. The Queen's first speech (5.2.12-20) reminds Henry of his "basilisk" look which has devastated her land, a theme Burgundy will elaborate upon without so directly attributing responsibility to the King. And her second (5.2.353-62), although a prayer for peace that can be read as celebratory and hopeful (Branagh gave the lines to himself), mentions the perils of divorce, analogous to those conflicts that will tear the two kingdoms apart soon after-as the Epilogue also reminds us. In the Company of Women's 1994 production, the Queen stood for the conquered and colonized, sacrificing her daughter in the desperate hope of a more equitable future than she had any reason to expect. The effect was increased by creative doubling: whereas many productions now have one actress play Mistress Quickly and the Queen, this Henry had Diane Beckett doubling Pistol and Isabel--two isolated, suffering survivors.
Other productions have found other ways to counter the perception of triumphalism in the play post-Agincourt. Although the Dauphin does not appear in Shakespeare's act 5 (and was absent from the meeting it represents), in Bogdanov's Henry he was an angry presence: Andrew Jarvis stalked offstage in anger at two key moments when peace was being sealed at the price of his disinheritance. This choice upstaged Shakespeare's delicate balancing act, but helped clarify the drastic consequences of the offstage maneuvering which might otherwise be lost on modern audiences. The BBC-TV episode broadcast as part of "An Age of Kings" (1960) moved from Robert Hardy's delighted wooing of Judi Dench to a ceremonial ending in which they knelt, backs to the camera, before the Queen; but after Chorus had supplanted this image in a close-up headshot, the camera panned out to reveal that he stood over Henry's casket, the joy cut short. The Company of Women, directed by Maureen Shea, went so far as to make the wooing scene itself-a guaranteed crowd-pleaser-into an unpleasant act of conquest, a threatening near-rape, in which Henry kissed the Princess's waiting woman, Alice, and then threw her to the ground as a cautionary example showing Katherine his power. This last choice, playing directly against the text's energies by refusing to allow either the fully educated and battle-tested prince his fairy-tale princess or the audience its romantic comedy pleasures, nevertheless derived its logic from the play's constant association of France with feminization and England with masculine power.
The Henriad's meager representation of women (pace Mistress Quickly) has always caused trouble. Aaron Hill's 1723 Drury Lane adaptation created a major role for a scorned beloved, Harriet, who as Scroop's niece also led the act 2 conspiracy; she followed her betrayer to France where (still smitten) she ultimately revealed the plot and stabbed herself. Preferring sentiment and melodrama, Hill found Shakespeare's wooing scene (5.2.98ff.) the "grossest mixture of insult and rusticity," and cleaned it up (Williamson and Person 178). A hundred years later, James Boaden explained Kemble's motivation for cutting Princess Katherine's English lesson: "we cannot wonder at the coldness of our fair countrywomen to these fighting plays. Fair Catharine of France, and her broken English, or equally indifferent French, is not likely to attract the polished females of modern times" (Life of Kemble, 1825). The language lesson, with its lewd puns inappropriate for a Victorian lady's tongue, was cut in many nineteenth-century performances. The Calvert/Ringold production did keep part, but moved it to the beginning of the fifth act. Lost thereby was the scenic juxtaposition that twentieth-century directors have made much of: we meet the Princess Katherine directly after Harfleur.
Terry Hands (1975) had the severely raked stage of the siege descend to reveal the Princess: she is the prize behind the walls, now visually as well as verbally associated with the potential victims of Henry's threats to the Governor. Like her mother's actions later, Katherine's willingness to cooperate by learning the conqueror's language becomes the necessary alternative to being victimized as one of the "shrill-shrieking daughters" (3.3.35). Ron Daniels (1995) used modern media to make the connection between the scenes directly causal: after his Henry (Bill Camp) addressed the Governor using a microphone, the scene opened back to reveal Katherine in a room that receded back to a single-point perspective, watching Henry on black-and-white television as the walls literally closed in around her. Such links between the women's scenes and the main action are reinforced at the play's end in versions that do not cut Henry's locker-room banter with Burgundy about winking maidens and French cities besieged. Thus scenes that are often played as lyrical alternatives to war become involved with it. Other versions allow gentler associations: Branagh's film presents both of Emma Thompson's scenes as comic interludes, but they are cut short. After her English lesson, she is made sadly aware of her gaiety's inappropriateness when she opens the door to discover her suffering father, passing on his way to council. In harsher renditions, both scenes signal the enforced submission of others-the weaker sex, the weaker nation-to Henry's imperial aspirations.
Of course, most productions do not strive for ideological consistency above all, nor does Henry V's variety of perspectives encourage a flat, univocal reading. Daniels's production, which presented Henry's threats at Harfleur without sympathy (appalling even his own troops), chose to present the early tavern scenes as postmodern farce, complete with an obviously cross-dressed Quickly and garishly clad gangsters in a neon set temporally at odds with the rest of the show. In the new Globe theatre's inaugural Henry which advertised its Elizabethan authenticity by having period costumes and an all-male cast, Mistress Quickly was a man played in drag for laughs whereas the wooing of Katherine was played "straight," and to similar effect as in productions employing actresses. Branagh cut Pistol's leek-eating and cudgeling at the hands of Fluellen, whereas Olivier emphasized it; but both omitted Henry's extended practical joke leading Fluellen to attack Williams. Given the range of moods and the number of exquisite theatrical moments-from Henry's mocking reply to the tennis-balls jest and Mistress Quickly's description of the death of Falstaff right through to the parting words of that lone low-life survivor Pistol and the witty prose of the wooing scene-Henry V as a dramatic performance tends to overwhelm any single attitude or through-line.
It also exceeds, and perhaps qualifies, the perspective of the play's own commentator, the Chorus. The relationship between Chorus's introductory speeches and the scenes then represented remains a thorny question. From the first act, in which Chorus's desire for a muse of fire gives way directly to the self-protective scheming of churchmen, the movement between rhetorical elevation of Henry and representation of interested politics can startle. Is it deflation, "preflation," or simply the nature of chronicle history? And who is Chorus anyway? Kemble's Henry, subtitled The Conquest of France, was so patriotic throughout (playing the popular march "Britons strike home" as the curtain fell on act 3, and adding lines about English fighting spirit) that it hardly needed Chorus to elevate the proceedings: so despite its having been the part preferred by David Garrick himself, Kemble cut it. Macready restored the part but re-named it Time, implying a disinterested, fated perspective rather than a partisan or explicitly patriotic one. Charles Kean, wishing his wife to play a part in his final production as actor-manager, changed the sex to make Chorus into Clio, the Muse of History. His precedent was followed by Calvert, whose wife however appeared as Rumor-a less reliable spokesperson derived from the prologue to Henry IV, Part Two, which hinted at the prospect of viewing Chorus as one among several possible human perspectives on the action. The use of women in the role (and for Boy as well) was obviously motivated by casting, but had an ideological impact: it muted the association of femininity with France, and of England with an all-male army. The tradition continued well into the 1930s, when Sybil Thorndike made a particularly sprightly Chorus, and it persists as a side-effect in some contemporary productions that divide the role among many actors (as did the 1996 New York Shakespeare Festival's Henry V).
Like the doubling of characters, the fragmentation of Chorus can create fresh associations. Each speech in the 1997 Globe production went to a different character who played an important part in the following Act; consequently, the voice of Chorus moved progressively away from Henry and down the ladder of power: from Henry, to Exeter, to Fluellen, to Williams, to Pistol, with the Epilogue going to the defeated King of France. Hands (1975) kept Chorus separated for most of the performance, remaining in modern garb even as the cast gradually assumed period clothing-but then had him step into the action as Burgundy. And Warchus stressed the historical distance between Chorus and the action (as have others) by presenting him as an old soldier, moving through a war museum setting to comment on a long-past battleground. Acknowledging the gap reminds the audience of our own distance, and the difficulty and heroic activity not only of past historical figures but also of the performative actions taking place before us: raising the dead back to life and making us care.
If there is any consensus to be reached about Henry V, it resides not within the historical representation nor in attitudes towards it but rather in the general recognition of the play's theatricality and success as performance. As pageant or protest, the rich history of Henry V continues, a theatrical rite of passage. It has frequently served as a ceremonial event to mark the closing and opening of theatres and careers: Branagh and Olivier chose it to launch their careers as filmmakers, Kean and Macready to end their tenure as actor-managers. It was the counter-intuitive choice for the Company of Women's inaugural production, and more recently and predictably opened the reconstructed Globe as well (and, just possibly, its original centuries before). For all its self-qualification and generic mix, its outdated investment in early modern social hierarchies, and its refusal to make history easy, Henry V has proven to be an exceptionally flexible, adaptable, and enjoyable script for performance. And whether or not productions address the more serious questions its playtext provokes, this show will assuredly go on.
All Henry V textual citations refer to Craik's Arden 3 edition.
Beauman, Sally, ed. The Royal Shakespeare Company's Production of "Henry V" for the Centenary Season at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Pergamon Press, 1976.
Taylor, Gary, ed. Henry V. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.
Williamson, Sandra L. and James E. Person, Jr. Shakespearean Criticism: Excerpts from the Criticism of William Shakespeare's Plays and Poetry, from the First Published Appraisals to Current Evaluations. Vol. 14. London: Gale Research Inc., 1991.
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