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Henry V

Creation of the play

Shakespeare probably created Henry V in 1599. At the end of Henry IV, Part 2, created in about 1597, he mentioned a new play which would take the story into the next reign. The speech by the Chorus at the beginning of act 5 of Henry V (in the folio text but omitted from the quartos) refers to the ‘General of our gracious Empress’ who is ‘from Ireland coming, / Bringing rebellion broached on his sword’. It is generally agreed that the allusion is to the Earl of Essex, sent to Ireland in March 1599 to subdue the rebellion led by Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone. In September 1599, against the orders of the Queen, Essex concluded a truce with Tyrone and immediately returned to London without permission. Henry V must have been performed in London while Essex was in Ireland.

King Henry V. John Stow, The Chronicles of England
King Henry V. John Stow, The Chronicles of England, [1580]. British Library, 807.c.30, p. 582. Larger image

Early performances

The title-page of the first quarto of Henry V states that the play ‘hath bene sundry times playd by the Right Honorable the Lord Chamberlaine his seruants’. The first performances of Henry V, during 1599, may have been at the Curtain. This was the year that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men opened their new theatre the Globe, and the play would also have been performed there. Henry V was played at court by the King’s Men on 7 January 1605. The title-role was probably first taken by Richard Burbage. The role of Fluellen was probably created for Robert Armin.

Publication in quarto and folio

Henry V appeared in five editions before 1642.

  • First quarto, 1600. A ‘bad’ quarto, which may be a memorial reconstruction from performances of a shortened version of the play. It has been suggested that the actor who played Gower helped to provide the text. The text in the first quarto is only half the length of that in the first folio.
  • Second quarto, 1602. Printed from the first quarto. (Copy from the Folger Shakespeare Library.)
  • Third quarto, dated 1608 on the title-page but published in 1619. Printed from the first quarto, apparently with some editorial amendments.
  • First folio, 1623. It is generally agreed that this was printed from Shakespeare’s foul papers. The text is twice the length of that in the first quarto. It adds a prologue, four speeches (at the beginning of acts 2 to 5), and an epilogue, all spoken by the Chorus. An opening scene is added. Other significant additions include King Henry’s speech before Harfleur (beginning of act 3), and much of the dialogue in the scene of Henry’s wooing of the French Princess (act 5).
  • Second folio, 1632. Printed from the first folio.

The first quarto of Henry V appeared in 1600, printed by Thomas Creede for Thomas Millington and John Busby. It must have been published before 14 August 1600, when the play was among those transferred in the Stationers’ Register to Thomas Pavier. The play is also listed in the Stationers’ Register with others ‘to be staied’. This entry has not been conclusively explained, one theory being that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were laying claim to payment if the play should be printed.

The second quarto was printed by Thomas Creede for Pavier and appeared in 1602. The third quarto appeared with the imprint ‘printed for T.P.’ dated 1608. It was, in fact, one of a group of ten plays printed by William Jaggard for Thomas Pavier in 1619. These were apparently intended to form a collection of plays attributed to Shakespeare. The King’s Men may have protested against Pavier’s intentions, for the Lord Chamberlain subsequently wrote to the Stationers’ Company demanding that no more plays belonging to them should be printed except with their consent.

British Library copies of Henry V contains detailed bibliographic descriptions of all the quarto copies of the play.

Shakespeare’s sources

Two sources were particularly important for the creation of Henry V.

  • Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles (1587). Shakespeare used Holinshed for all of the historical action in Henry V.

    The Speech of Henry V before Agincourt. Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles
  • The Speech of Henry V before Agincourt. Raphael Holinshed, The Third Volume of Chronicles, [1587]. British Library, L.R.400.b.23, p. 553. Larger image

  • The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth (1598). Despite its publication date, this anonymous play was probably performed from the late 1580s. Shakespeare drew on the second part of the play for several scenes, speeches, and incidents, including the Dauphin’s gift of tennis-balls.

Story of the play

Note: the links below will take you to the page in the quarto where each act begins, according to standard modern editions. (The quartos themselves have no act divisions.) The quarto shown for each play is always the earliest in the Library's collection - unless it is a 'bad' quarto in which case it is the earliest 'good' quarto.

Henry V is set in England and France around the time of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.

(Prologue) The Chorus introduces the play and asks the audience to imagine that the theatre can truly present the heroic actions of King Henry V.

(Act 1) King Henry disputes the Salic law and asserts his right to the French crown. The French ambassador arrives with a gift of tennis-balls from the French Dauphin, intended to taunt the English king. Henry declares his intention of invading France to enforce his claim to the throne.

(Act 2) The Chorus describes the preparations for war in England and in France. Pistol, a comrade from King Henry’s youth, joins the army bound for France. King Henry condemns to death three lords who have conspired against him. The tavern Hostess (Mistress Quickly, now Pistol’s wife) reports the death of Falstaff. The English ambassador presents the French with King Henry’s claim to the French crown and his declaration of war.

(Act 3) The Chorus describes the embarkation of the English army for France. The English attack Harfleur and take the town. The French Princess Katherine receives an English lesson from her Gentlewoman. The French prepare for battle with the English. In the English camp, Pistol ridicules the Welsh captain Fluellen. King Henry receives an embassy from the French warning him they will fight. The French anticipate their forthcoming victory over the invaders.

Lewis Waller as Henry V, 'Once more unto the breach'
Listen  Henry V, Act 3, scene 1. British Library Sound Archive, 1911

(Act 4) The Chorus describes the French and English preparations before the battle of Agincourt. During the night, King Henry walks unrecognised among his troops. He meets Pistol and Fluellen in turn. He talks to other soldiers in his army and, alone, voices his doubts and cares. Before battle is joined, King Henry exhorts his army to fight to win. They are victorious in the Battle of Agincourt, inflicting very heavy casualties on the French.

John Gielgud as Henry V, 'What's he that wishes so?'
Listen  Henry V, Act 4, scene 3. British Library Sound Archive, 1931

(Act 5) The Chorus describes King Henry’s triumphant return to London. Fluellen takes his revenge on Pistol by making him eat a leek. King Henry meets the French King to agree articles of peace. He woos Princess Katherine, while the French King considers the peace proposals. The French King agrees to the marriage of Henry and Katherine and makes Henry his heir.

(Epilogue) The Chorus reminds the audience that Henry V died young and was succeeded by an infant, King Henry VI, whose reign was marred by civil war and the loss of France.


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