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Henry V /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Henry V

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish) and those who are used to reading poetry will have little difficulty understanding the language of Shakespeare’s poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static” intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his immense vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are not, and, worse, some of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the sixteenth century. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When reading on one’s own, one must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a play by Shakespeare, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the opening scenes of Henry V, for example, you will find the words casques (i.e., helmets), fain (i.e., gladly), severals (i.e., details), and naught (i.e., worthless). Words of this kind will become familiar the more of Shakespeare’s plays you read.

In Henry V, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that we still use but that we use with a different meaning. In the opening scenes of Henry V, for example, the word nicely has the meaning of “subtly,” floods is used where we would say “rivers,” dishonest where we would say “unchaste,” and happy where we would say “fortunate.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In Henry V, within the larger world of early-fifteenth-century Europe that the play creates, Shakespeare uses one set of words to construct Henry V’s court (and then his royal pavilion on the battlefield); a second set to fashion the court of the King of France and the French camp; yet a third to mark King Henry’s former tavern companions who are now following him to war; and, finally, a fourth to present Henry’s captains, who are drawn from Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, as well as from England.

Henry V’s court is built through early references in the play to “chivalry,” “esquires,” “exhibitors,” “commonwealth affairs,” the “cause of policy,” “the main intendment of the Scot,” and ambassadors’ “embassies” (or messages), as well as to the earlier history of Edward III and Edward the Black Prince. The French court shares with the English court some reference to their common history of past English victories over France; but the language of the French court is richer, with names exotic to English speakers—“the Dukes of Berri and of Brittany, / Of Brabant and of Orléans”—and with an ornamental style of expression in such phrasing as “means defendant” and “our quick blood, spirited with wine,” and, especially, with its use of French words—“les dames d’honneur,” “les seigneurs de France,” and “Ô Dieu vivant.

In the tavern peopled by Bardolph, Nym, Pistol, Hostess Quickly, and the Boy, we enter yet another world; it is a place constructed of an odd medley of language: “shaked of a burning quotidian-tertian,” “thou prick-eared cur of Iceland,” “that’s the humor of it”—including even some broken French: “Couple à gorge.” Still more unusual is the language used to stage the Welsh, Scots, and Irish captains who serve under Henry V: “Kill the poys and the luggage,” “ay’ll de gud service,” “By Chrish, la, ’tish ill done.” However strange such expressions appear at first, the words and phrases that create these language worlds will become increasingly familiar to you as you read further into the play.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. In reading for yourself, do as the actor does. That is, when you become puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Look first for the placement of subject and verb. Shakespeare often places the verb before the subject (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”) or places the subject between the two parts of a verb (e.g., instead of “We will go” we find “Will we go”). In Henry V, we find an inverted subject-verb construction in the Chorus’s “should the warlike Harry . . . assume” (instead of “the warlike Harry should assume”) as well as in “Are now confined two mighty monarchies.” Canterbury’s “Then go we in to know his embassy” is another example of inverted subject and verb.

Such inversions rarely cause much confusion. More problematic is Shakespeare’s frequent placing of the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him” we might find “Him I hit”). Canterbury’s “The Gordian knot of it he will unloose” is an example of such an inversion (the normal order would be “He will unloose the Gordian knot of it”). Another example is King Henry’s “His present and your pains we thank you for,” where the normal order would be “We thank you for his present and your pains.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. (Again, this is often done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word.) Take, for example, Canterbury’s “his wildness, mortified in him, / Seemed to die too”; here the phrase “mortified in him” separates the subject (“his wildness”) from its verb (“seemed”). Or take King Henry’s lines: “or else our grave, / Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,” where the normal construction “our grave shall have a tongueless mouth” is interrupted by the phrase “like Turkish mute.” Canterbury uses a similar construction when he says “King Pepin, which deposèd Childeric, / Did, as heir general, being descended / Of Blithild, which was daughter to King Clothair, / Make claim and title to the crown of France,” where the basic sentence elements (“King Pepin did make claim and title”) are separated by several interrupting phrases. In order to create for yourself sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, you may wish to rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“his wildness seemed to die,” “our grave shall have,” “King Pepin did make claim”). You will usually find that the sentence will gain in clarity but will lose its rhythm or shift its emphasis.

Locating and rearranging words that “belong together” is especially necessary in passages that separate basic sentence elements by long delaying or expanding interruptions—a structure that is sometimes used in Henry V. When the Bishop of Canterbury is justifying his offer of so much Church wealth to King Henry, he uses such an interrupted construction:

For I have made an offer to his Majesty—

Upon our spiritual convocation

And in regard of causes now in hand,

Which I have opened to his Grace at large,

As touching France—to give a greater sum

Than ever at one time the clergy yet

Did to his predecessors part withal.


Here the basic sentence elements (“I have made an offer to his Majesty to give a greater sum”) are interrupted by several sweeping phrases that characterize the formal rhetoric of the Bishop. A similar pattern occurs in the Chorus to Act 2. There a space is opened up between subject and verb for an epic like catalog of names and titles, and then opened up a second time between the two parts of the verb for wordplay on gilt/guilt:

                                     . . . three corrupted men—

One, Richard, Earl of Cambridge, and the second,

Henry, Lord Scroop of Masham, and the third,

Sir Thomas Grey, knight, of Northumberland—

Have, for the gilt of France (O guilt indeed!),

Confirmed conspiracy with fearful France,

And by their hands this grace of kings must die.


In Henry V, as in many other of Shakespeare’s plays (Hamlet, for instance), long interrupted sentences are used frequently, sometimes to catch the audience up in the narrative and sometimes as a characterizing device.

In some of his plays (again, Hamlet is a good example), rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until subordinate material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. This kind of delaying structure is used in the public speeches of Henry V, as, for example, Exeter’s when he presents the King of France with Henry’s claim to the French throne:

                                              That you may know

’Tis no sinister nor no awkward claim

Picked from the wormholes of long-vanished days

Nor from the dust of old oblivion raked,

He sends you this most memorable line,

In every branch truly demonstrative,

Willing you overlook this pedigree,

And when you find him evenly derived

From his most famed of famous ancestors,

Edward the Third, he bids you then resign

Your crown and kingdom, indirectly held

From him, the native and true challenger.


Here the subject and verb of the first main clause are delayed for three and a half lines, and then the subject and verb of the second main clause are held back for two lines after the conjunction “And,” which marks the beginning of this second main clause. Stripped down to its basic elements, the sentence would read, in “normal” word order: “He sends you this most memorable line, and he bids you then resign your crown and kingdom.” King Henry uses a simpler version of the same word order when he is threatening Harfleur with destruction:

                                          For, as I am a soldier,

A name that in my thoughts becomes me best,

If I begin the batt’ry once again,

I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur

Till in her ashes she lie burièd.


This time, as the subject and verb are again delayed, the emphasis at the beginning of the sentence falls on Henry’s self-characterization as a soldier inclined to begin the battery again.

Finally, in many of Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because Shakespeare omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Frequent reading of Shakespeare—and of other poets—trains us to supply such missing words. In his later plays, Shakespeare uses omissions both of verbs and of nouns to great dramatic effect. In Henry V omissions are extremely rare and seem to be used to affect the tone of the speech or for the sake of speech rhythm. For example, when Ely asks Canterbury, as they are discussing how to stop Parliament from appropriating the Church’s wealth, “But what prevention?” the words “is there” are omitted from the end of his question, which thereby seems breathless and all the more anxious. Or, to take another example, in response to Henry’s question “May I with right and conscience make this claim [to the French throne]?” Canterbury appears to express utter decisiveness and great conviction with the words “The sin upon my head, dread sovereign.” This mood is established through the omission of much of the familiar saying that Canterbury is here made to employ, a saying that in fuller form would exceed iambic pentameter: “If your claim be sinful, may the sin be upon my head [i.e., may it be my responsibility], not upon yours.”

Shakespearean Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, puns and similes. A pun is a play on words that sound the same but that have different meanings, or—as is sometimes the case in Henry V—on a single word that has more than one meaning. In the Chorus to Act 2, as we have already noticed, there is an example of the first kind of pun in the line “for the gilt of France (O guilt indeed!).” Here “gilt” refers to the French gold used to bribe the conspirators to attempt Henry’s assassination, while the identical sounding “guilt” is the Chorus’s moral condemnation of their treason. The second kind of pun is used extensively by Henry himself when the French ambassador presents him with the Dauphin’s gift of a chest filled with tennis balls:

  When we have matched our rackets to these balls,

  We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set

  Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.

  Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler

  That all the courts of France will be disturbed

  With chases.


In the first lines of this excerpt, Henry is made to speak only of playing a game (or “set”) of royal tennis, a sport played inside a walled court. But as the excerpt continues, the terms used become puns in their reference both to tennis and to the war that Henry plans to make in France to win the French crown. For example, “hazard” can mean a hole in the wall of a royal tennis court through which the ball can be hit; but “hazard” can also mean the peril and jeopardy into which Henry intends to put the French crown. In further puns, “courts” are both (1) royal courts and (2) tennis courts; “chases” both (1) winning strokes in tennis and (2) routs of enemies in battles. Thus the language needs to be listened to carefully if one is to catch all its meanings.

A simile is a play on words in which one object or idea is explicitly compared to something else, something with which it shares common features. One speech in the play’s first scene is entirely devoted to a single simile comparing the growth of plants to the early life of King Henry, whose youthful “wildness” is said to be weedlike in contrast to the “wholesome”-ness of his mature “contemplation.”

The strawberry grows underneath the nettle,

And wholesome berries thrive and ripen best

Neighbored by fruit of baser quality;

And so the Prince obscured his contemplation

Under the veil of wildness, which [i.e., his contemplation], no doubt,

Grew like the summer grass, fastest by night,

Unseen yet crescive in his faculty [i.e.,growing by its own power].


This simile characterizes the Bishop of Ely by identifying him with an old-fashioned way of writing, called euphuism, named after the book Euphues, by John Lyly, published in 1579, about twenty years before Henry V was staged. As a euphuist, Ely is made to explain human behavior by reference to a little-known “fact” from natural history (or science): that summer grass grows at night through its own power, without benefit of sunlight.

The most famous simile in Henry V is the bee simile given to Canterbury in the second scene, a simile that was already famous before its appearance here. Its fame arose from its use by the Roman poet Virgil, who, in the century before the birth of Christ, wrote, among other poems, the Georgics, a poem celebrating rural life, and the Aeneid, an epic poem offering a fictional account of the founding of Rome. Although Virgil developed his discussion of bees most prominently in the Georgics, he also employed a bee simile in the first book of the Aeneid. Since Canterbury is encouraging Henry to undertake a war of conquest of the kind often celebrated in epics, this simile is appropriate to his speech. The Duke of Exeter has just explained that “government, though high and low and lower,” works all to one mutual goal. Canterbury replies:

              Therefore doth heaven divide

The state of man in divers functions,

Setting endeavor in continual motion,

To which is fixèd as an aim or butt

Obedience; for so work the honeybees,

Creatures that by a rule in nature teach

The act of order to a peopled kingdom.

They have a king and officers of sorts,

Where some like magistrates correct at home,

Others like merchants venture trade abroad,

Others like soldiers armèd in their stings

Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds,

Which pillage they with merry march bring home

To the tent royal of their emperor,

Who, busied in his majesty, surveys

The singing masons building roofs of gold,

The civil citizens kneading up the honey,

The poor mechanic porters crowding in

Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,

The sad-eyed justice with his surly hum

Delivering o’er to executors pale

The lazy yawning drone.


In Canterbury’s simile, the kingdom of the bee is a model for a human kingdom: the bees, he claims, have social ranks in which all work happily—king bees, magistrate bees, soldier bees, mason bees who sing as they build, citizen bees who knead up the honey, porter bees who carry the heavy loads, even executioner bees who slaughter the lazy drones. In Henry V, simile is most often used to lift a character’s rhetoric to a “high style,” demonstrating his linguistic powers, his control over language.

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading a Shakespeare play we should always remember that we are reading a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is suggested within the dialogue itself. We need to learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations. For example, in 2.1, where Pistol and Nym play a game in which they repeatedly challenge each other and draw and then sheathe their swords, there are almost no stage directions in the early printed text to indicate this action. Nevertheless, the dialogue often clearly indicates that swords have been drawn and then that they have been put away. Hostess Quickly’s plea to “Good Corporal Nym, show your valor, and put up your sword” announces to reader and editor alike that Nym—and, presumably, Pistol, too—has already drawn. And Pistol’s offer to shake hands with Nym—“Give me thy fist, thy forefoot to me give”—is a signal that Pistol himself, and very likely Nym as well, have put away their swords. Like other editors, we include fairly complete stage directions indicating this action, but these directions have no authority beyond our own judgment based upon our reading of the early printed text. (This is one of the reasons we always mark such additions to the text with brackets.) The precise points in the dialogue at which the drawing and sheathing of swords is to take place is at the discretion of readers, as well as directors and actors, to imagine.

Of much greater significance to readers’ imaginings of the play onstage is a recent debate about the end of 3.6. This scene begins with a stage direction calling for the entrance of King Henry with “his train, with prisoners.” The scene ends with Henry’s order “every soldier kill his prisoners. / Give the word through. Exit.” It has been argued that this combination—the stage direction announcing the entrance of prisoners and the dialogue ordering their deaths—indicates that the prisoners be killed onstage by their captors. It has also been argued that they should not be killed onstage: that the stage direction for the English to enter with French prisoners may merely signal stage action to indicate that the English are prevailing in battle, and that Henry’s order is that the command be given through the army—not that the prisoners before him be instantly slain. This debate points up for the reader a particularly bloody alternative for imagining stage action.

Henry V is unique among Shakespeare’s plays in relentlessly keeping before its readers the tasks of the imagination. Each Chorus apologizes for the inadequacy of the stage and of mere actors to represent the scope of the action that is the play’s subject; each Chorus urges upon us the imaginative effort of conjuring up from the bare stage with its clutch of actors an immense national conflict. Thereby the Chorus confronts us with the complex operation of figuring forth to ourselves the look of the play on stage and, at the same time, the horror and, for the Chorus, the glory of the war that is the play’s subject.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language so that the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action all become clear—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage one of Shakespeare’s plays in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Elizabethan poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.