Henry Vth was first performed in 1598 0r 1599. It is the fourth play in the Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV Part I and Henry IV Part II, and Henry Vth). A major theme of all four plays is authority. In Richard II the king has the right to be king through inheritance, but is overthrown by the might of Henry Bolingbroke (and others) because he ignores the reality of the power of the nobles which underlies his own power. In Henry IV Part I and II, Henry IV (Bolingbroke in Richard II) struggles to assert his authority as king over the nobles who made him king. He also struggles with Falstaff for the authority of a father over Prince Hal (later Henry V). The chronicle of Henry V shows the unruly prince of Henry IV turning into the good king of Henry V, but before the battle of Agincourt, much of the debate between him and his soldiers is over whether he has the authority to send them, potentially to their deaths, in battle. Falstaff (along with Williams) would answer no.
Henry V would stir the heart of any patriotic Englishman in an Elizabethan audience, replaying the events leading up to the Battle of Agincourt, around 200 years earlier than the play, but a famous victory against the French. Perhaps a contemporary audience would respond similarly to plays about the Napoleonic wars or the Second World War. But for Elizabethans, it would also have contemporary reference to the war against Ireland. In March 1599, the Earl of Essex was appointed Lieutenant and governor-general of Ireland, and soon after left for Ireland to suppress the rebellion of Hugh O’Neill, second Earl of Tyrone. Many think there is a reference to him in the Chorus to Act 5.
The plot is rather disjointed, particularly when compared with Richard II and Henry IV Part I and II. Many of the characters who play a major role in one part of the play do not appear elsewhere (e.g. Canterbury and Ely in Act I; Katherine – the heroine! – only in A3S4 and A5S2; Williams only in A4.
The key to understanding the plot is to think of it as a chronicle of the hero king, Henry V. He appears in all these disparate scenes, and often they show how he has changed from the unruly prince of Henry IV Part I and II. The major dramatic conflict is the conflict between the French (particularly the Dauphin) and the English.
Producing Henry Vth in the 21st Century:
With our society’s modern attitudes to war, and the distance in time between Henry V and the modern age, it is difficult to imagine the play working today as the chronicle of the hero-king. Perhaps a better approach is to build on the debate about the leader’s authority to take the nation to war in Act IV to give the play an anti-war focus, or at least an ambivalent feel about war. Of course, should the country be seriously threatened again, it is likely that the popularity of the play would increase significantly, as it did before and after the Second World War.