What can I say about Henry V that hasn’t already been said? There’s so much written about the historical figure, Shakespeare’s character, the play—it’s a bit overwhelming. Countless books and articles and essays. Is the play pro- or anti-war? And what about Henry himself? Good guy or bad guy? War hero or war criminal? The experts practically wage war among themselves in defense of their points of view.
I’m not pursuing that kind of agenda with this production. Certainly, as a director, I have to make a few decisions about who this guy is, and how to tell his story, but I also have to kind of follow my gut and see where it leads me.
Come to think of it, I feel a bit like Henry on the eve of Agincourt. I mean, I’m no soldier, and I’m certainly not royalty (although, true story, my brother—a genealogist—has found that Henry IV’s brother was my 17th great grandfather, or something like that!). But often as a director, I do feel like I’m leading a ragtag army into battle against a vastly superior foe—except I don’t have archers. Might be nice to have 6,000 stout English yeomen
with longbows, standing by to solve whatever problems crop up at work. Maybe I can slip that into my next contract. Henry certainly took the best advantage of such an asset.
Prince Hal in Henry IV, Part 1 is a lovable scamp, and I became very fond of him last summer. This next installment of his journey is daunting because suddenly he seems so much darker, so much more complicated: a wily strategist with morally ambiguous goals. Do we still like him? I don’t know. I'm not sure Shakespeare knew.
But this I do know. His story is a great one. His upset victory at agincourt makes every military historian’s top ten list (oh yes, they all have lists). Against all odds this young king defeats Goliath. And he does it with some of the greatest speeches ever written.
So. all we can do, my ragtag team and me, is tell his story. and let you decide what kind of man he is.
—Carolyn Howarth, director
King Henry V bears little resemblance to the wayward Prince Hal from Henry IV 1 & 2; he has grown into his crown, and now sets his sights on France, to which he lays claim through Edward III’s mother, Queen Isabella. The French think his claim laughable, and as Henry threatens war, the Dauphin sends him a gift of tennis balls, intended as an insult. Henry’s old friends gather to prepare to march, and hear of Falstaff’s death, heartsick without Henry’s friendship. Henry discovers a plot to assassinate him in Southampton and has the treasonous parties executed. In the meantime, Exeter has traveled to France and delivers Henry’s challenge of war to King Charles VI.
Henry first lays siege to Harfleur, a coastal town. The Dauphin fails to send aid, and Henry rallies his troops and defeats the poorly prepared town. Charles’ daughter, Katherine, asks her gentlewoman to teach her some English. Meanwhile the French and the English travel through the French countryside, arriving at Agincourt. Bardolph is hanged for looting, a punishment upheld by Henry, who holds his army to a high standard. The night before the battle, Henry dons a cloak to disguise himself, then walks amongst his troops. He confronts his mortality, and the privilege and weight that accompany his crown, finally begging God not to punish him now for Richard II’s deposition by his father, Henry IV. The battle commences; it seems to go in favor of the English, but then the French appear to rally, and Henry orders the slaughter of his French prisoners. The French concede the day, and Henry thanks God for the victory.
Henry returns to France months later to negotiate the peace with King Charles, including Henry’s proposed marriage to Katherine. He clumsily attempts to woo her. Her assent, and the French king’s agreement, lead to peace at last (though not forever).
—Hadley Kamminga-Peck, dramaturg
With this production of Henry V, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival completes the Henriad, begun in 2013 with Richard II. In this play, Shakespeare sets right the wrongs perpetrated by Richard and Henry IV, resolves the conflicts, and legitimates England’s right once more.
King Henry V reigned for only seven years, but his victories are some of the most celebrated in England’s history, particularly the victory at Agincourt. The English won this battle largely due to the weather—which had made the battlefield soggy—and poor preparation by the French, who relied on greater numbers and a mounted cavalry. Henry had arranged his troops on the field so that the French had to draw together as they approached; he also gave his soldiers longer pikes, which allowed them to stab the French before the French stabbed them. Even with the fortuitous circumstances and good planning, Henry thanked God for the victory—he was historically a very religious man.
The rest of Henry’s reign was marked by a balance rarely found in a monarch. He was able to inspire his men, soothe the commons and negotiate the morass of English politics with apparent ease. There were no more heroic battles or scandalous antics; instead, the kingdom simply functioned well.
Henry V has been mythologized as one of the greatest English Kings, in no small part due to Shakespeare’s dramatic portrayal. Indeed, the stories that survive from Agincourt paint Henry as a hero, an intelligent commander of his troops capable of inspiring hope where there was none. The story runs that he wore his crown into battle, surrounded by banners, as though to draw the enemy eye to him and ease the fight for his men. It is not hard to believe Shakespeare’s portrait of the king who walks amongst his men.
Despite the play’s focus on the victories at Harfleur and Agincourt, it does not end on a victorious note. The slaughter of the prisoners is unsettling, the recitation of the dead marks the price of war and the agreed-upon peace is tenuous, hinging on a marriage. The chorus cautions that it will not last. The play tells a tale of a king too brilliant to live long; his achievements could not be maintained by his son. Four centuries later, the cost of war and the fragility of peace remain all too familiar.
—Hadley Kamminga-Peck, dramaturg
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