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Henry V | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Henry V | Context


The Hundred Years' War

The events of Henry V are set during the Hundred Years' War. This was a long, drawn-out conflict between France and England as English kings sought to keep and expand their hold on French lands. Edward III, king of England from 1327 to 1377, began this war. He claimed rights to the French throne due to his descent from the French king, Charles IV, who died in 1328. Edward III's eldest son—Edward, Prince of Wales—came to be known as "The Black Prince." He fought alongside his father in the Battle of Crécy (1346). In this battle English soldiers fought against a larger French force yet achieved victory. Another son of Edward III, John of Gaunt, became the father of Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV). So Henry V is able to trace his claim to France down his family line, from his father, Henry IV, to his great-grandfather, Edward III. The Battle of Agincourt, a pivotal event in Henry V, took place in October 1415, about 69 years after the Battle of Crécy.

The Henriad

The three plays that come before Henry V in the Henriad are Richard II, Henry IV, Part 1, and Henry IV, Part 2. In Richard II the king banishes Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray. This is an impulsive and drastic maneuver. When Henry Bolingbroke's father, John of Gaunt, dies, Richard II takes his land and money, because Henry is still banished. The king uses this wealth to fund war in Ireland. Richard's rash behavior concerns some of the nobles, who rally to Bolingbroke's side in his attempt to depose the king and take the crown. They are successful. Henry Bolingbroke becomes Henry IV. Bolingbroke and the other rebellious nobles had good cause for removing Richard II—he was a weak and incompetent king. However, the belief at the time was that God himself gave certain men the right to be kings of England, therefore mere men should not be able to take it away.

The uncertainty created by this situation dominates the political landscape of both Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2. Henry IV is a demanding and authoritarian king, causing his nobles to chafe under his rule. Some question the legitimacy of his reign, thinking that Mortimer, Richard II's heir, should truly be king. Henry IV has his own doubts. In Henry IV, Part 2 he admits his uneasiness to Prince Hal, his son: "By what bypaths and indirect crook'd ways/I met this crown," he admits, "and I myself know well/How troublesome it sat upon my head" (Act 4, Scene 3). Yet, he says, the sin of how he obtained the crown will go with him to the grave, leaving Hal (soon to be Henry V) free of it. He says, "For what in me was purchased/Falls upon thee in a more fairer sort./So thou the garland wear'st successively." Just before he dies Henry IV instructs his son on what he should do when he becomes king, to ease the discord that has been so damaging to the country. He says, "Therefore, my Harry,/Be it thy course to busy giddy minds/With foreign quarrels." He goes on to ask God's forgiveness for how he came to wear the crown, and to ask that God will allow the crown to be worn by his son in peace.

Young Henry V is left with two burdens as his father breathes his last breath—to pursue foreign conflicts to stop the civil unrest and to achieve God's favor. Before the death of his father, as "Prince Hal," he spent his time carousing, hanging around with fat, jolly Sir John Falstaff and his friends, who are disreputable, petty thieves. But once Prince Hal becomes Henry V, he radically changes his behavior to align with that of a proper monarch. It is these two goals that influence the newly crowned king's decision to coldly cut ties with Falstaff and all of his other tavern friends. And it is these goals that the young king has in mind as Henry V begins and the potential of "quarreling" with France is presented to him.

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