He is most famous for his success at the Battle of Agincourt.
|The real Henry V|
But he is even more famous due to the three Shakespeare plays in which he appears.
Why did Shakespeare write these plays, and what was the meaning of the Henry V play?
I'm sure Shakespeare couldn't wait to create the funny corpulent coward and all too human Falstaff -- who was a tremendously popular.
But audiences couldn't get enough of the story arc of Henry, who transforms from a black sheep into a courageous soldier, earns his country one of its greatest battlefield glories, and goes on to become a strong king.
It seems that audiences couldn't get enough of these gripping stories of their distant past into which they could escape for a few hours.
According to James Shapiro, in his fascinating book A Year In The Life Of William Shakespeare - 1599, "Shakespeare was aware on some deep level, as their brothers, husbands, and sons were being shipped off to fight in Ireland, Elizabethans craved a play that reassuringly reminded them of their heroic, martial past. What better subject than the famous victories of Henry V?"
So, the war in Ireland was the topic of the day, and Shakespeare was not just entertaining his audience.
"In responding to his audience's mixed feelings, their sense that the war was both unavoidable and awful, Shakespeare fills the play with competing, critical voices: the backroom whispers of self-interested churchmen, the grumblings of low-life conscripts, the blunt criticism of worthy soldiers who knew that leaders make promises they have no intention of keeping, the confessions of so-called traitors, the growing cynicism of a young boy off to the wars, the infighting among officers, the bitter curses of a returning soldier."
In conclusion, "all the debate about the war is the real story" of the play.
So, if Shakespeare was trying to give voice to all sides of the matter, what do we make of Henry V himself. Who is he in all of this?
Shapiro makes a very convincing case that Henry was meant to remind his audience of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex.
|Essex -- Shakespeare's Henry V|
Essex was a war hero, especially distinguishing himself in the sacking of Cadiz. He was Queen Elizabeth's favorite courtier.
He was a patron of Shakespeare's. He was very popular with the general public.
The Henry in Shakespeare's play is not historically accurate. Henry was never a black sheep as Shakespeare makes him out to be. Essex was a black sheep, and he had just as many enemies as friends at court.
Essex had aspirations to become king one day. His supporters claimed that he had as much right, if not more right, to be king than Elizabeth herself.
These plays made Essex even more popular, as Shakespeare was trying to get his audience to rally around Essex, on the eve of his departure for Ireland.
Shapiro points out that references to Ireland abound in the Henry V play, and Shakespeare is trying to inspire the crowd to think about how glorious Essex's victories in Ireland will be.
Unfortunately, after having lobbied to be in command of the army, Essex faced his most terrible defeats and came home in shame.
This would have terrible consequences in the not so distant future.
Essex would go on to have an epic falling-out with the Queen, which ultimately led to his leading a failed rebellion against her in 1601, for which he was executed.
I write about the Essex Rebellion in my version of Hamlet. It was the reason Shakespeare wrote the play in 1601.
In researching my version of the play, I asked myself, if Shakespeare was writing about Essex in Henry V, was he doing it again with Hamlet?
Is Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex actually Hamlet, Prince of Denmark?
The answer is in my version of Hamlet.
The answer, the true identity of Hamlet, will surprise you.
David B. Schajer
James Shapiro at the Folger Shakespeare Library