Henry V | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry V | Act 1, Prologue | Summary

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Summary

The chorus (played by one actor) enters and calls upon a "muse of fire" to assist in telling the story of "warlike Harry"—Henry V. The chorus apologizes because the stage is so bare and uninteresting, and asks the audience members to use their imaginations to create the settings and events of the play. The chorus explains that he will be helping to tell the story, and politely asks the audience to judge the play kindly.

Analysis

An examination of Shakespeare's plays shows that only a few start or end with an introductory prologue, chorus, or even a character (noteworthy is Richard III in which Richard himself tells the audience what he's going to do to become king and how he's going to do it). The purpose of the prologue here is twofold: it celebrates King Henry V, and it prescribes a role for the audience: to use their imaginations extensively to create the time and place of the action. The prologue acknowledges the limitations of the stage for recreating battles, countries, and sea voyages—a limitation the audience's imagination does not have. Here, the chorus asks the audience to participate in the play by imagining the setting and events as realistically as possible, using sensory imagery so that when actors "talk of horses" the audience will "see them/Printing their proud hoofs i' th' receiving earth."

The chorus addresses the audience directly, a technique known as "breaking the fourth wall." In theater the stage area has three physical walls, and a fourth, unseen wall between the actors and the audience, who imagine it together. Addressing or acknowledging the audience "breaks" this fourth wall, bringing the audience into the drama. Plays of this time often invited the audience into the argument of the play, a device common in the morality plays of the Renaissance. Villains were booed and heroes cheered. No one sat or stood as a groundling in these theaters, politely clapping at the end of a scene. They were more likely to throw rotten fruit and yell.

The prologue is a classical device used extensively in the epic poems of ancient Greece and Rome, and Shakespeare's sense of drama derives from a thorough schooling in Latin and Roman literature. However, Shakespeare transforms the classical chorus into a single actor because his purpose differs from the classical tradition. Shakespeare's use of this device indicates he wants the audience to think of the story as an epic and Henry V as an epic hero. This praise of Henry V's character and actions as king, though, sometimes fails to match the behavior he demonstrates during the play, causing friction between the fiction and reality of his kingship.

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