Henry V, Act 5


The Chorus to Act 5 seems even more like an epic narrator taking over for a dramatist who has too many events to dramatize “in their huge and proper life.” His speech put me in mind of the late-17th-century genre of “instruction to a painter” poems. This is more of an instruction to a spectator, “prompting” him to see a series of scenes: Calais, the Channel crossing, the English beach, Blackheath, outside London walls, now in London, and then a return to France. (It is not the demands of drama that send Harry back to England, and then back again to France, but the demands of the historical story).

I wonder why we need 5.1, when Fluellen makes Pistol eat his leek. I suppose it’s designed as punishment for Pistol and an affirmation that the somewhat comic and eccentric Fluellen is one of Henry’s important supporters. But do we really care?

In the long 5.2, which runs 370 lines, Shakespeare wraps things up with a political marriage between England and France, but recasts it as a love match, and shifts the generic mode from history play to romantic comedy. But it’s a curious kind of Shakespearean romantic comedy, hardly a match of witty equals of the sort we see in Much Ado About Nothing or Merchant of Venice. At the beginning of their conversation Henry and Katherine swap lines, but starting with line 123 Henry gets long speeches and Katherine only gets one-liners — and they’re not zingers. After line 259, when she says Henry cannot kiss her, she does not speak again for the rest of the scene (more than 100 lines). It’s really Henry’s scene. And he kisses her at the end of it. Burgundy has arranged the meeting, and welcomes peace as if he is officiating at a wedding (which he is), asking if there be any “impediment” (to the return of peace). He has also presumably approved the negotiations for the articles of peace, so sending the parties to an off- stage “council” to discuss them is just a device on his part, and Shakespeare’s part, to get almost everybody off stage so that Henry can woo Katherine. Henry insists he is just a “plain soldier” with a “good heart,” but we already know, from the earlier parts of the play (where he is a master of rhetoric) and from the Henry IV plays, that he is a good deal more. Maybe he’s being disingenuous. But I think it’s more likely that he is quite deliberately playing the part of bluff soldier/lover. Here his task is not to rouse his men to battle but to persuade Katherine to love him. I think his pretense not to understand French may also be a ploy: it emerges that he seems to understand it pretty well.

The political negotiations are not examined too closely. It appears that Henry has agreed, in advance, to abandon his claim to certain French villages, and he also agreed not to demand the title of “king of France.” Instead, he regards the villages as part of Katherine’s dowry, and he accepts the title of “Héritier” [Heir]. It’s perhaps notable that the French term is not translated, so the English audience might not fully realize that Henry has deferred a key part of his original claim.

The epilogue, from the Chorus, takes the form of a sonnet, playing with the idea that a huge epic story of “mighty men” has been compressed into the “little room” of a five-act play. Did Donne, when he wrote “We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms” (“The Canonization”) have Shakespeare in mind, or was it common at the time to think of the sonnet as a little “room” (or stanza)? It’s not a summary of the action of the play so much as a look at what comes next in Henry’s story. Shakespeare in this play has only taken events “Thus far.” And it’s a bit odd that, at the end of a play about the greatest English victory in history, it is France which is described as “the world’s best garden.” What about “this other Eden”? And odd that the Chorus, looking ahead, reminds us that Harry would only rule for “Small time,” and that what Henry won his son and heir (or the regents) will lose, as the audience knows, since it has already seen the three Henry VI plays. It’s a bit of a downer for the Plantagenets, whose dynasty would end just 14 years after the death of Henry VI, but a compliment to the Tudors, who would take over with Henry VII. And of course it’s a compliment to the dramatist who has told their stories.


After all the battle scenes, I guess the idea is for the play to end on a comic note, both comic in the sense of funny and comic in the generic sense as in a marriage. Fluellen and Pistol supply the former, though Pistol tells us that his Nell, the hostess, is dead, so he’ll turn bawd and take up, or return to, stealing. To our relief, he exits. The chorus has told us that after his triumphant return to London, Harry has gone back to France and the next scene is the second of his “back-return[s] again” to France. A part of the chorus’ role seems to be to keep track of the actual history. In the first part of the scene, the French court, king, queen, and Burgundy have no trouble speaking English, and everybody has cheered up after Agincourt. Burgundy details the need for peace to restore French agriculture and viticulture. Harry seems inclined to grant that, and the royal party will go off to work it out, leaving Harry and Catherine and the gentlewoman for the wooing scene.

Turns out Catherine understands some English, and Harry some French. So after the initial back and forth, Harry’s long denigration of his ability to woo cleverly and his own lack of physical attraction, Catherine simply points out that he has made war on France. What follows seems cleverly designed to be understood by the Globe audience, even if Catherine does not. When he advances a bit of conventional wooing, she protests his “faux” French, and he protests his conception was marred by his father’s political thoughts and that she should simply take him and assume he’ll improve with time. When pressed, she simply replies the obvious reality, it’s all up to her royal father, and he responds with equal realism, it will please him. So it will cutely end in kisses, first to the hand, then to the lips, even though this results in cross-cultural misunderstanding, but misunderstanding that supports the English perspective. So what seems to be negotiated in the rather cute wooing scene is the gap between the necessary political marriage and the sense that some emotional value must be present. Well, good luck with that, as the political personages return and ask how the wooing has gone. The joking between Burgundy and Harry doesn’t really answer that, and the reality of the ownership of French cities draws out the French king, who will give his daughter along with the cities. Harry is assured that this has all been worked out, that he’ll get the princess along with the cities.

The one issue is that Harry is to be named “heritier” or “haeres” of France. It seems this favors the English claim and the French have objected, though it’s not made crystal clear. But Harry says it should stand, and Charles should give Harry his daughter. So it’s all settled, and Harry can kiss her again as his “sovereign Queen,” and the trumpets can sound. It’s left to the French queen to reconcile the emotional and political dimensions of the marriage, and Harry can insist that the marriage day will coincide with the French magnates taking their oaths of allegiance, presumably to the royal marriage and to England. He’ll swear to Kate and they to him, and if all the oaths are kept, all will be well. Even with the cute wooing scene, it’s a political event. But then the epilogue suggests the ultimate ending will not be so glorious. Harry achieved “the worlds best garden” in France, but it all came apart when the feuding over the management of their infant son caused them to lose France and suffer civil war — again! So we’re back where we started with the Henry VI plays, Richard III, and the Tudor dynasty. What we’ve called the
subversive strain of the play seems to gain a foothold at the very end. Was Harry’s French war worth it? Was Williams right after all? Then there’s the current war in Ireland and Essex’s efforts on behalf of their “empress.”


As I read the ending, Henry succeeds in kissing Katherine’s hand at line 250, but she pulls back. He then says he will kiss her lips, but the response from her and from Alice suggests to me that they are firmly saying no, and that Henry’s further reply (“Dear Kate, you and I cannot be confined . . .”) indicates that he does not press the matter at this point. Which allows the scene to continue to build until he finally does kiss her at line 354. As for what Henry has won (apart from a wife), does being named “Héritier de France” represent some kind of compromise, or it is everything that Henry went to war about? He is distinctly not
named “Roi de France”: the present King continues on his throne. It would be interesting to find out more about what contemporary audiences thought and said about the epilogue and its suggestion that all of this blood was spilt for a mere nine years of peace. I think modern productions probably omit the epilogue. Maybe Shakespeare found that the model of “history play” that he had developed just didn’t work for presenting “the life of Henry 5” — or rather, his life as king. He apparently did not want to end the play with the victory at Agincourt, which would have meant an action that moves from war prep through war to victory and peace. Or maybe he thought that an important part of the peace was the political marriage. But that could have been presented differently, as a purely political marriage. For some
reason Shakespeare, as I see it, wanted to introduce some quasi-romantic-comedy elements.

You seem to emphasize the “political” side of the marriage and downplay the “romantic” side. If you were directing the play, I can imagine how you might do this, but isn’t there an awful lot of “cute” back and forth between Henry and Katherine that you would have to have them play with a certain cool detachment? I don’t remember the ending of the Olivier movie, but I’m pretty sure it emphasized “cute.”


I think the “cute” side of the final act and the wooing scenes are probably necessary on stage, and I think they have been emphasized in any performances I’ve seen. But I was struck by the way the political is still present toward the end of the scene and act. Since it’s mainly in the language and perhaps most evident in the text, it doesn’t have the emphasis of the “cute” or romantic elements. But it’s interesting that it’s still there, maybe part of that back-and-forth we’ve seen in what we’ve called the “subversive” moments in the play.

I’m not clear what Harry’s being named “heritier” rather than roi means exactly. Does it suggest that his son would inherit the title of king; if so, where does that leave the son of Charles? Or is it just a convenient fiction? In terms of the way things worked out, probably the latter. How long did the monarchs of England retain the title king or queen of France in their official style? (I just looked that up — wonderful what Google can do for instant “research” — and found it was George III, who dropped the title in 1800; it was eliminated officially in 1802. So it was just a legal fiction for almost 400 years.) So Queen Elizabeth was officially Queen of France, but I think we can assume that none of Shakespeare’s contemporaries were expecting to sail across the Channel make good on that. Did they then see the consequence of Agincourt, though glorious, was ultimately futile?

Dusty Griffin & Michael O'Connell