Henry V

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Henry V
by William Shakespeare

I’ve loved Shakespeare’s work for a long time, but I’ve always struggled with his Histories. I enjoy seeing them performed live, but when I read them it’s easy for me to get lost in a sea of soldiers and forget who is who. This play is preceded by Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, and the last two feature our illustrious title character, Henry V.

This particular play rises above the other histories in my opinion because it’s more about the transformation of one man than about war. Obviously there is war and a bloody one at that, but it’s also about Henry (Prince Harry) coming to terms with his responsibility and leadership. He must grow up and leave the boy from the Henry IV plays behind. The lives of so many men are in his hands and without his leadership all will be lost.

This is fully realized in one of the most famous monologues in the English canon. We’ve heard the “band of brothers” line thrown around for years, but when you hear the full speech, on the cusp of battle, it’s incredibly moving and powerful. Here’s one small bit…  

“This story shall the good man teach his son;
    And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
    From this day to the ending of the world,
    But we in it shall be remembered-
    We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
    For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
    Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
    This day shall gentle his condition;
    And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
    Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
    And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
    That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.”

Think about what he is actually saying there. This huge moment in history, the Battle of Agincourt, is so important that the men who weren’t here will wish they were. They won’t consider themselves real men because they were unable to fight in this battle. What an incredible thing to say to your men before rushing in to battle!

I also really love the scene with the French princess, Katharine, and Henry at the end of the play. It’s one of the only moments in a very serious story that is a bit light and witty.

BOTTOM LINE: It is a classic for good reason. While I struggle with Shakespearean histories, others love them. I don’t think it’s the best place to start with his work, but it’s certainly an essential piece. I think I will probably enjoy it more with each re-read as the language and action becomes even clearer.

**Also, I would highly recommend the 1989 film version starring and directed by Kenneth Branagh. I watched it after finishing the book and it was really excellent. I have always been impressed with Branagh’s Shakespearean films. I particularly love his version of Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing.

I read this as part of the Let’s Read Plays yearlong event hosted by Fanda. From November 2012 to October 2013 participants will read 12 classics plays throughout the year, at least one each month.


Nikki Steele said...

I have the same problem reading his histories, but seeming them live always give me the tingles for just how great the language is. Looking forward to reading some more Shakespeare for some of the challenges I'm in and may see if I can make my way through this one.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Nikki - Yes, they are so much better live!

Fanda Classiclit said...

Unfortunately, I failed to read Shakepeare's history last month, but I'll certainly read Richard III during Let's Read Plays. Thanks for your review, Melissa, I like war stories, so Henry V might be my next choice for history.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

Richard III is a great one! He's such a devious character.