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‘Henry V’, by William Shakespeare

Posted in Actors, Famous battles, History, Literature, Shakespeare, Theatre on Thursday, 28 April 2011

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Henry V is a history play almost certainly written early in 1599, and closes the tetralogy which began with Richard II. It was published in a Bad Quarto in 1600, and reprinted with no corrections, so that it was not until the First Folio that a far superior text was first made available.

Agincourt, picture, image, illustration

English bowmen at Agincourt, with King Henry V riding into battle

The play focuses on key events leading up to the momentous and unlikely English victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, and the political settlement with the French thereafter. Its sources are those of Holinshed’s Chronicles and probably Samuel Daniel’s poem on the civil wars. There are, of course, famous speeches in many of Shakespeare’s plays, but in Henry V two in particular have captured the imaginations and hearts of Englishmen everywhere, and both are both spoken by the king: the first, at the siege of Harfleur, opens with the rousing “Once more unto the breach, dear friends”; the second is the so-called St Crispin’s day speech, which Henry delivers not just with the solemnity and martial grandeur of a king, but also with the care and affection of a man for his fellow soldiers, and deep love of his country:

For he to-day that sheds his blood with me

Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,

This day shall gentle his condition:

And gentlemen in England now a-bed

Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,

And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks

That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

The famous film of the play starring Laurence Olivier as Henry V was considered a brilliant piece of propaganda by Winston Churchill, made as it was, during one of the most difficult years in the Second World War. It remains one of the greatest films in British cinema history, helped in no small part by the superb film-score composed by William Walton.

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