By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions
Henry V is Shakespeare’s most famous “war play,” perhaps because it represents war in such a variety of ways and thereby tests whatever understanding of war we may bring to it. Some of the play glorifies war, especially the play’s Choruses and Henry’s speeches urging his troops into battle: “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, / Or close the wall up with our English dead!” During this first engagement between the invading English army and the French at Harfleur, Henry tells his men that they can never be more truly and gloriously the sons of their fathers than in making war. The play’s Chorus urges us to join the invasion by grappling our imaginations to the sterns of Henry’s ships as they set sail for France, and then to join with the Chorus in praise of Henry on the eve of his greatest battle, Agincourt: “Praise and glory on his head!” Repeatedly the Chorus glorifies the warlike king, calling him “the mirror,” or paragon, “of all Christian kings” and “this star of England.”
But when the Chorus is offstage we hear other voices of war that are far less alluring. We hear bishops conniving for war so that they can postpone a bill in Parliament that would heavily tax the Church’s wealth. Then we hear soldiers in a tavern enthusiastic for war, not in the hope of winning glory, but in the expectation of reaping profits (“To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck”). Even in the impressive speeches of Henry and his nobles threatening the French, there are many chilling references to the human cost of war, to “the widows’ tears, the orphans’ cries, / . . . the privèd maidens’ groans” for dead combatants, as well as to the horrors awaiting the non-combatants: “the filthy and contagious clouds / Of heady murder, spoil,” rape, and infanticide.
After you read this range of different voices that make up the text of Henry V, we invite you to turn to “Henry V: A Modern Perspective,” written by Professor Michael Neill of the University of Auckland.