Teachers can use this film in many different ways. Since it is about two and a half hours long, viewing the whole program in one class period is not possible. However, perhaps you could schedule a special in-school viewing period in collaboration with other teachers.
Teachers could also assign students to watch the program at home. One particularly effective method is to assign students to watch the film at home and then watch it again in class over several class periods. Or teachers can show short segments in class to highlight different points for discussion. To do this, set up the video before class to begin at a certain speech or scene, read the text in class, and then discuss the interpretation of the text by the actors.
The Student Guide below helps ground students in the basic story line and themes so they will be less likely to feel intimidated by the language of the film. The post-viewing activities and discussion questions reinforce what students remember, give you an opportunity to sort out any confusion, and lead students to the overall meaning of the film.
This film is an adaptation of William Shakespeare's play written in 1599. Because the actors are English and the language is old fashioned, it takes a few minutes to become attuned to the dialogue. Students shouldn't worry about understanding every word. Visual images are also important. If the dialogue is confusing, remind them to pay attention to the body language and acting. If they're getting lost in the words, tell them to focus instead on the sound, the rhythm, and the way the words make them feel. The plot synopsis below will help students follow the action of the film.
The film is introduced by the Chorus, a character who appears from time to time throughout the film to tell the audience how to picture each scene. In the first scene, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Ely plot to convince King Henry to go to war with France. They have interpreted the Galic law-an ancient law that dictates who can and cannot inherit the throne-to justify Henry's claim to the French crown and to rouse a war that will benefit the Church and themselves financially.
In the throne room, the ambassador from France (named Montjoy) tells Henry that his claims to the French throne have been rejected. Montjoy brings him an insulting gift of tennis balls from the Dauphin (the heir to the French throne). The tennis balls are a reference to Henry's frivolous youth. This insult is all Henry needs to strengthen his resolve to go to war.
The scene changes to the Boar's Head Tavern, where Bardolph tries to prevent a fight between Nym and Pistol. The three men are old friends of Henry's, all of whom used to drink and carouse together before he was king. Upstairs, Sir John Falstaff is dying. The scene fades into a flashback (a golden, smoky scene) showing Falstaff drinking in the tavern and Henry entering and embracing him. It then moves forward in time to when Henry becomes King and rejects Falstaff. According to Mistress Quickly, Henry's rejection breaks Falstaff's heart and kills him.
The Chorus reappears and introduces three knights -- Cambridge, Scroop, and Grey -- who have conspired with the French to assassinate Henry. Henry discovers their treason, orders their execution, and then sails for France. Back at the tavern, Falstaff has died. His cronies and the Boy leave to join Henry's army.
In the first major battle, Henry attacks the French town of Harfleur and demands its surrender. When the governor yields, Henry orders Exeter to treat the town with mercy, and Henry and his army begin the march on to Calais. Meanwhile, at the French court, the King's daughter Katherine begins English lessons, knowing she will be married to Henry if he is victorious.
Henry's weary army approaches Agincourt. Despite Henry's orders against looting, his old friend Bardolph has stolen a small, silver plate from a church. In a flashback, Henry sees Falstaff and Bardolph in a drinking contest where their conversation foreshadows Bardolph's death. Henry orders his execution. Montjoy appears before the weary band and asks Henry to give himself up for ransom but Henry refuses.
The night before the battle, the French Dauphin and his knights eagerly await the morning. In the English camp, Henry disguises himself in a cloak and wanders among the battle-weary troops. He prays for courage for his soldiers and for forgiveness for his father's sin of taking the throne by force. The sun rises on the field of Agincourt. What happens next is up to you to find out!
The Themes of Henry V
A number themes are central to this film. Listed below are some of the most important, which can serve as focal points for discussion or writing assignments.
King Henry's moral and emotional growth
Henry goes through subtle changes during the course of the film, as he comes of age, turns his back on his wild ways, and: assumes the responsibilities of leadership. The film focuses on his internal struggles when, for example, he must banish Falstaff or execute Bardolph.
The burden of leadership
Henry must face up to the isolation of kingship and the weighty demands of his subjects: "Let us our lives, our souls /Our debts, our careful wives,/Our children, and our sins, lay on the King! We must bear all" (n.I.223-226) He must assume responsibility for the death and sacrifice of war, and bear the guilt of knowing his father usurped the crown from Richard II.
The nature of power
The film explores power and who wields it. It portrays Henry as both a powerful king and a pawn in the power struggle between church and state. It examines how Henry learns to wield his power and his insights about governing, "for when lenity-and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner" (rIl.6.II2-lI3); the power of his common touch with the soldiers; the power of his simple charm with Katherine; and the remarkable power of his oratory.
This film features the stirring speeches of a valiant warrior king. It portrays the struggle and victory of order over the chaos of rebellion. When Shakespeare wrote the play, it was not only to glorify Henry V but also to glorify Elizabeth I and England's greatness during her reign.
This film raises questions about the price and nature of war. It explores whether or not Henry uses war to establish his own strength. The issues it presents are not only relevant to 15th-century Agincourt, but also to the 20th century, the wars in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, and the turf battles in our cities.
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The Literary Context of Henry V | A Word from Kenneth Branagh
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