Run Time: Closed October 12
The spoils of war
A gifted young English king makes a rash decision to go to war. Against overwhelming odds, Henry V achieves heroic stature, leading his country to victory, conquering France and winning its princess. But the king’s hands are dirty. There’s a terrible cost in human life and ruthless acts of moral ambiguity. In a propulsive, provocative production with contemporary resonances, Shakespeare’s rousing history crowns Henry’s complicated three-play journey from disaffected prince to legendary king.
King Henry begins his reign desiring to go to war in France. In the preceding play, Henry IV, Part Two, Henry’s father had advised him to distract his warring nobles with outside conflicts. Henry is also influenced by church leaders, who want him to engage in war to distract him from a bill being considered by Parliament that would strip away half their lands. But most of all, Henry appears to want to recover his ancestral birthright in France and at the same time continue to redeem his old dissolute reputation.
Henry’s justification for war rests on one obscure point of Salic law: whether the throne can be inherited through the female line. This legal point is interpreted by the bishops in the king’s favor. Henry’s resolve is further strengthened after he receives the Dauphin’s mocking gift of tennis balls and insults.
The country rouses quickly and prepares for war, but the French bribe three of Henry’s former friends—Scroop, Grey and Cambridge—to attempt to assassinate him. Warned of their treachery, the king presents them with their “commissions” (actually arrest warrants). As for Henry’s old Eastcheap friends, Mistress Quickly has jilted Nym for Pistol, and Falstaff dies offstage.
In France, the war begins with the siege of Harfleur. Since the Dauphin has declined to come to Harfleur’s aid, the governor of the city surrenders under Henry’s threats. However, dysentery (“the bloody flux”) has taken a huge toll on the English army during the siege. The French, having previously offered Henry the hand of Princess Katharine and some French lands if he will forgo his attack, send their herald, Montjoy, to declare their defiance and offer Henry terms for his ransom. Montjoy’s ransom terms are rebuked, and King Henry marches his men onward to meet the French.
On the eve of the battle, Henry borrows a cloak and wanders among his soldiers, disguised as one of them. He debates with a soldier named Williams about the responsibility a king owes to his soldiers in bringing them into a war. As their argument heats up, they exchange gloves to recognize each other and finish the fight when they next meet. Morning comes, and the armies engage. While far outnumbered, the English quickly gain the advantage over the French. But when they learn that the French have regrouped, Henry orders that all of his soldiers kill their French prisoners. The French attack the luggage train, killing the unarmed boys there, but ultimately are defeated. The English lose 29 men, the French 10,000. Montjoy comes to ask permission to clear the French dead from the field, granting the day’s victory to the English forces. The Battle of Agincourt is done.
After returning to England, Henry comes back to France to negotiate the peace. He woos Katharine while the rest of the nobles finalize the terms. The play ends with a treaty and wedding preparations, but in the Epilogue, the Chorus reminds the audience that Henry’s son will lose all of his father’s gains in France and lead his country into bloody civil war as well.