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The Literary Context of Henry V

Three plays precede Henry V in Shakespeare's historical tetralogy: Richard II, Henry Part I, and Henry IV Part II. As many of the seeds of Henry V's story are sown in these earlier plays, the following plot synopses will help viewers more fully understand the film.

Richard II (who reigned from I377 to I399) was the last in the Plantagenet line and an unfit king. At the beginning of Richard II, Richard settles a dispute between two of his lords, Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray, by banishing both of them. Later when Bolingbroke's father dies, Richard seizes Bolingbroke's wealth and land, and then heads for Ireland to quell the rebellious Irish. The nobles remaining in England, worried that Richard's seizure of Bolingbroke's wealth may be a precursor of similar acts by the king, offer support to the exiled Bolingbroke. When he returns, Bolingbroke forms a rebel army with these nobles, and they force Richard to abdicate. Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford of the House of Lancaster, is crowned King Henry IV, and Richard II is murdered during his imprisonment.

Richard II deals with the ascension of the Lancastrian line, with rebellion, and with the sacred right of kings. It also deals with the burden of kingship and the awesome responsibility of sound and moral leadership. Bolingbroke and his nobles stole the sacred crown, but Richard II did not deserve to wear it.

The story continues in Henry lV, Part I, in which Henry IV (who reigned from 1399 to 14I3) faces continued internal and external unrest. The Welsh, the Irish, and the Scots present a constant threat of revolt, and the English lords who had helped Henry ascend the throne now feel threatened by him. The Percys of Northumberland -- Hotspur, Worcester, and Northumberland himself -- are particularly chafed by Henry's demand for complete obedience. They decide that Mortimer, Richard's designated heir, would be a better king than Henry and they organize a rebellion.

The main action of the play deals with the full-scale development of this rebellion and the parts the different characters play in it. Three important characters are Prince Hal, Hotspur, and Falstaff. Hal, or Harry, the Prince of Wales and son of Henry IV (and the future Henry V) is the hero of this play. He is an irresponsible playboy until events demand that he be otherwise. Then his charm humor, and courage win the audience's heart. When Henry IV, depressed by the rebellion in his kingdom and his son Hal's behavior, suggests that Hotspur (the son of his enemy and rival for the throne) would be a better king than Hal, Hal is crushed. He vows to redeem himself in battle and to call Hotspur to task.

Hotspur is the impetuous son of Northumberland, leader of the rebel forces against Henry IV. Hotspur is a brave, honorable, and hotheaded warrior. He is the same age as Hal, and both men grudgingly admire the other's prowess and bravery. As the conflict escalates into open rebellion, Hotspur vows to kill Hal in battle. But when they meet in combat during the battle at Shrewsbury, Hal slays Hotspur and saves his father's life.

Sir John Falstaff has little to do with the actual rebellion. Although Falstaff is much older than Prince Hal, he is Hal's drinking buddy and boon companion. He is the antithesis of a role model for the heir apparent -- lazy, dishonest, gluttonous, drunken, and cowardly. But he loves the Prince and is so charming that almost all his faults are forgiven. Hal's scenes with Falstaff and his cronies provide a comic subplot within the play, and they will play an important role in revealing Hal's character in Henry V. The play ends with the main threat of the rebellion crushed, and Henry IV and his sons Prince John and Prince Hal departing to hunt down and eliminate the rest of the rebels.

In Henry IV Part II, Hal has not completely abandoned his ways, but his proven bravery in battle and his loyalty to his father now make his reckless behavior less distressing. However, the King is still worried about the fate of England when Hal becomes king. As the old King nears death, Hal assures his father of his love for him and his resolve to be a good king. King Henry then confesses to his son that he won his crown through treachery, and he prays for forgiveness for deposing Richard II, the anointed king. He gives Hal two final pieces of advice: to listen to trusted advisers and to unify the English lords with a foreign war. England at this time was in the midst of the Hundred Years' War, an ongoing but intermittent war with France. The foreign war that Henry IV suggests is an English offensive against France. Henry IV then dies and Prince Hal is crowned Henry V (14I3-1422).

When Falstaff, who had been banished by the Chief Justice, learns that Hal has become king, he returns to London confident that Hal will welcome and reward him at court. Hal, however, surprises Falstaff with a chilling speech and warns him to mend his ways and stay away from him. The advisers surrounding the young king take heart as they witness his integrity and resolve. The play ends with the nobles united behind Henry and ready for war. Internal rebellion has been quelled.

In Henry V, the young king faces the awesome responsibility of the throne. We will see him struggle to become a strong, moral king, to heal the scars left over from the rebellion, and to expand his empire into France. His two mentors, his father, the good but besmirched King Henry IV, and his old friend Falstaff, the teacher of his reckless youth, are dead. He must go forward alone.

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