The Life of Henry the Fifth primarily details Henry’s preparation for the Battle of Agincourt and the French’s refusal to take him seriously during the Hundred Years’ War, which brought a brief period of unity between England and France.
The Life of Henry the Fifth is the last play of Shakespeare’s Lancastrian Tetralogy, so audiences would already have been familiar with many of the events and characters presented in the play.
The play describes Henry’s preparation to go to war with France in order to stake his claim as king of both countries. Many still thought of Henry as little Prince Harry, although he had been king for two years at this point in the play, so the claims were made in part to legitimize his rule. He sends a message to the Dauphin, or prince of France, outlining his claims via the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely. The Dauphin sends a response in the form of a basket of tennis balls, underlining that he does not take Henry seriously as a king, nor his claims in French territory. This solidifies Henry’s decision to invade France.
As Henry prepares for war, his former friends Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym prepare to fight for him. They are common thieves and swindlers, and they represent the kinds of people Henry associated with in earlier plays about his father, Henry IV. They are later executed after they are discovered looting from the French. Before Henry V sets sail for France with his relatively small invading forces, a French assassination plot involving Lords Scroop, Grey, and Cambridge is foiled. Henry has them executed publicly, and then invades Harfleur, which he takes relatively easily. Winter sets in, but Henry remains resolute.
The night before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry walks through the camp in disguise, talking to soldiers and getting their thoughts on the upcoming battle. All are resolved to defeat the French army the next day. Henry knows his army is heavily outnumbered (five to one), but he also knows that his army has spirit and passion. It is St. Crispin’s Day, October 25th, and Henry delivers a speech which rallies his troops. Aided especially by his loyal lords, the Dukes of Clarence, Bedford, and Gloucester, Henry’s army miraculously defeats the French army, leading the French to surrender.
Princess Katherine, daughter of King Charles VI and Queen Isabel, is the only person in France seeming to take Henry seriously. She realizes that because she might become his queen—and therefore, the Queen of England—she should take some English lessons. Henry’s faltering French and Katherine’s faltering English allows the two to show their humility and grace. In the end, Katherine is wooed by King Henry. The Treaty of Troyes, signed after the French’s humiliating defeat at the Battle of Agincourt, outlines that Henry and Katherine will be married, and Henry will become Charles’ heir to the French throne, thus uniting both England and France under one king.
Date Published: 1599
Major Themes: Leadership, social classes, war
Famous Quote: “But we in it shall be remember'd; we few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he to-day that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”