Historical Comments on Shakespeare's Henry V

Political Correctness

To the English, Henry is a major heroic figure.  This is true today, and it was even truer in Shakespeare's day.  In writing plays about English royalty, Shakespeare is treading on dangerous ground.  He obviously wanted to give as true a picture of Henry as he could, but he couldn't stray too far from what “everybody knows”.  In particular, he had to avoid anything that might reflect poorly on the current royalty, such as the madness of the French King.

Interestingly enough, modern producers seem to be more squeamish than Shakespeare about Henry's greatest crime, ordering the murder of the prisoners (Act 4, Scene 6).  Both the Oliviet and Branagh productions leave this out.  Unfortunately, they also have to leave out the hilarious scene with Pistol and the French soldier (Act 4, Scene 4).  This scene doesn't make sense without the massacre later on.

Tennis Balls

In Act 1, Scene 2, the French Dauphin taunts Henry for his youth by sending a gift of tennis balls.  Historically, this is ridiculous.  Henry already had experience on several campaigns, and France had been weakened by internal power struggles.  The French were very worried about Henry's possible ambitions in France.  A studied insult (like Shakespeare's tennis balls) would have been out of the question.

Yes, the Dauphin could have sent tennis balls.  The game goes that far back.

King Charles VI of France

Charles was insane.  Shakespeare does not play on this at all.  I suspect some political correctness here, as Charles's blood (and tendancy toward insanity) was part of the British royal line at the time of Shakespeare.  Queen Elizabeth was Charles's great- great- great- granddaughter.

The Branagh production of Henry V shows this.  At the signing of the Treaty of Troyes (Act 5, Scene 2) Charles is totally out of it.  Historically, he had no idea what was going on, and his aides had to guide his hand to sign the treaty.

Robbing a Church

In the play, Bardolph is hanged for robbing a church, and Henry makes a pious little speech about not molesting French villagers.  (Act 3, Scene 6) The rules are historical, and there are reports of a soldier being hanged in full view of the army for stealing from a church.  I have no idea how strictly these rules were enforced overall, however.

Modern English for “chevauchée” is “strategic bombing”.
One of the main activities of the English in France throughout the Hundred Years War was the chevauchée.  This was an expedition through the French countryside with the explicit aim of destroying as much as possible.  Churches were special targets.  Remember that one of the main incentives to join the Army was to share in the plunder.  Henry's orders not to molest churches, or clerics, or women, were not popular.

Henry's trip from Harfleur to Calais was technically a chevauchée, done against the explicit and unanimous advice of his advisors.  If the French had continued with their harassing tactics, or had waited for a more advantageous battlefield than Agincourt, or had done essentially anything other than what they actually did, it would have been a major disaster for the English.

“Tell Thy King I Do Not Seek Him Now”

In Act 3, Scene 6, Henry admits to Montjoy, the French herald, that his army is feeble and sick, and that if the French army allows him to continue on to Calais, he will not seek battle.  All very noble.  Historically, Henry was prepared to offer far more than just avoiding battle; he offered to give back Harfleur and pay a large indemnity.  The French, however, wanted a battle, and Shakespeare didn't want to show his hero trying to buy his way out of trouble.


One of the most amazing facts about the battle was the extraordinary lopsidedness of the casualties.  Shakespeare tells of ten thousand French dead versus 29 English dead (Act 4, Scene 8).  More modern estimates put the number of French dead at between 4000 and 11000, with best estimates about 7000 (including the murdered prisoners), plus another 2000 prisoners.  Estimates of English dead range from Shakespeare's 29 to a high of 1600.  (The high number probably represents all deaths for the entire chevauchée, including deaths from dysentary.)  The best estimate is about 400.

“Your Majesty Shall Mock Me”

One of Shakespeare's greatest love scenes is in Act 5, Scene 2.  Unfortunately, it couldn't have happened that way.  First, although English had replaced French as the official court language, Henry spoke fluent French.  Second, one did not “woo” a noble lady in those times.  One figured out how to arrange a marriage.  While Catherine, historically, seemed rather pleased by her marriage to Henry, she had no say in the matter.

So What's Right?

Practically everything.  Despite the problems with “political correctness”, Shakespeare shows us a lot of Henry's personality:


There are two major movie versions of Henry V; the Sir Lawrence Olivier version (1944) and the Kenneth Branagh version (1989).  The Olivier version was made to cheer up the Britons who had suffered through the bombings of WW II.  It was designed to show the English winning big at something, and as such, it downplays all of Henry's rough edges.

The Branagh version of 1989 has a lot more grit.  As noted above, the only really major omission was the murder of the prisoners.  It also has a number of other interesting historical features:

As a minor point, the Duke of York (portrayed in both movies as a young and handsome knight) was in fact fat and middle-aged.  He drowned after falling off of his horse into the mud.

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