Elizabethan stages did not use scenery. Acknowledging the difficulty of conveying great battles and shifts of location on a bare stage, the Chorus (a single actor) calls for a "Muse of fire" so that the actor playing King Henry can "[a]ssume the port [bearing] of Mars". He asks, "Can this cockpit [i.e. the theatre] hold / The vasty fields of France?" and encourages the audience to use their "imaginary forces" (imaginations) to overcome the stage's limitations: "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts."
The early scenes deal with the embarkation of Henry's fleet for France, and include a real-life incident in which the Earl of Cambridge and two others plotted to assassinate Henry at Southampton. (Henry's clever uncovering of the plot and his ruthless treatment of the plotters show that he has changed from the earlier plays in which he appeared.)
When the Chorus reappears, he describes the country's dedication to the war effort – "They sell the pasture now to buy the horse." The chorus tells the audience, "We'll not offend one stomach with our play", a humorous reference to the fact that the scene of the play crosses the English Channel.
The Chorus appears again, seeking support for the English navy: "Grapple your minds to sternage of this navy", he says, and notes that "the ambassador from the French comes back / Tells Harry that the king doth offer him / Katharine his daughter."
At the siege of Harfleur, Henry utters one of Shakespeare's best-known speeches, beginning "Once more unto the breach, dear friends..."
Before the Battle of Agincourt, victory looks uncertain, and the young king's heroic character emerges in his decision to wander around the English camp at night, in disguise, so as to comfort his soldiers and determine what they really think of him. He agonizes about the moral burden of being king, noting that a king is only a man. Before the battle, Henry rallies his troops with the famous St Crispin's Day Speech (Act IV Scene iii 18-67), referring to "we few, we happy few, we band of brothers".
Following the victory at Agincourt, Henry attempts to woo the French princess, Catherine of Valois. This is difficult because neither speaks the other's language well, but the humour of their mistakes actually helps achieve his aim. The action ends with the French king adopting Henry as his heir to the French throne and the prayer of the French queen, "that English may as French, French Englishmen, receive each other, God speak this Amen."
Before the play concludes, however, the Chorus reappears and ruefully notes, of Henry's own heir's "state, so many had the managing, that they lost France, and made his England bleed, which oft our stage hath shown" – a reminder of the tumultuous reign of Henry VI of England, which Shakespeare had previously brought to the stage in a trilogy of plays: Henry VI Part 1, Henry VI Part 2, and Henry VI Part 3.
As with all of Shakespeare's serious plays, also a number of minor comic characters appear whose activities contrast with and sometimes comment on the main plot. In this case, they are mostly common soldiers in Henry's army, and they include Pistol, Nym, and Bardolph from the Henry IV plays. The army also includes a Scot, an Irishman, and an Englishman, and Fluellen, a comically stereotyped Welsh soldier, whose name is an attempt at a phonetic rendition of "Llywelyn". The play also deals briefly with the death of Falstaff, Henry's estranged friend from the Henry IV plays, whom Henry had rejected at the end of Henry IV, Part 2.
On the basis of an apparent allusion to Essex's mission to quell Tyrone's Rebellion, the play is thought to date from early 1599. The Chronicle History of Henry the fifth was entered into the Register of the Stationers Company on 14 August 1600 by the bookseller Thomas Pavier; the first quarto was published before the end of the year—though by Thomas Millington and John Busby rather than Pavier. (Thomas Creede did the printing.)
Q1 of Henry V is a "bad quarto", a shortened version of the play that might be an infringing copy or reported text. A second quarto, a reprint of Q1, was published in 1602 by Pavier; another reprint was issued as Q3 in 1619, with a false date of 1608—part of William Jaggard's False Folio. The superior text first was printed in the First Folio in 1623.
Readers and audiences have interpreted the play’s attitude to warfare in several different ways. On the one hand, it seems to celebrate Henry's invasion of France and valorises military might. Alternatively, it can be read as an antiwar portrayal. However, the play likely will remain beyond the dichotomy of pro- and antiwar, as it presents a fuller picture of the subject than either of these perspectives quite allows. Shakespeare makes apparent the misery and corruption of war alongside the glory and high emotion which makes it such a complex theme for art.
Some critics connect the glorification of nationalistic pride and conquest with contemporary English military ventures in Spain and Ireland. The Chorus directly refers to the looked-for military triumphs of Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, in the fifth act. Henry V himself is sometimes seen as an ambivalent representation of the stage machiavel, combining apparent sincerity with a willingness to use deceit and force to attain his ends.
Other commentators see the play as looking critically at the reason for Henry's violent cause. The noble words of the Chorus and Henry are consistently undermined by the actions of Pistol, Bardolph, and Nym. Pistol talks in a bombastic blank verse that seems to parody Henry's own style of speech. Pistol and his friends, thus, show up the actions of their rulers. Indeed, the presence of the Eastcheap characters from Henry IV has been said to emphasise the element of adventurer in Henry's character as monarch.
The American critic Norman Rabkin described the play as a picture with two simultaneous meanings. Rabkin argues that the play never settles on one viewpoint towards warfare, Henry himself switching his style of speech constantly, talking of "rape and pillage" during Harfleur, but of patriotic glory in his St Crispin's Day Speech.
The play's ambiguity has led to diverse interpretations in performance. Laurence Olivier's 1944 film, made during the Second World War, emphasises the patriotic side, ignoring the fact that the enemy of the play, the French, were in fact allies in that conflict, while Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film stresses the horrors of war. A 2003 Royal National Theatre production featured Henry as a modern war general, ridiculing the Iraq invasion.
A mock trial of Henry V for the crimes associated with the legality of the invasion and the slaughter of prisoners was held in Washington, DC in March 2010, drawing from both historical record and Shakespeare's play. Titled "The Supreme Court of the Amalgamated Kingdom of England and France", participating judges were Justices Samuel Alito and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The outcome was originally to be determined by an audience vote, but due to a draw, it came down to a judges' decision. The court was divided on Henry’s justification for war, but unanimously found him guilty on the killing of the prisoners after applying “the evolving standards of the maturing society”. Previously, the fictional "Global War Crimes Tribunal" ruled that Henry’s war was legal, no noncombatant was killed unlawfully, and Henry bore no criminal responsibility for the death of the POWs. The fictional "French Civil Liberties Union", who had instigated the tribunal, then attempted to sue in civil court. The judge concluded that he was bound by the GWCT’s conclusions of law and also ruled in favour of the English. The Court of Appeals affirmed without opinion, thus leaving the matter for the Supreme Court’s determination.
A tradition, impossible to verify, holds that Henry V was the first play performed at the new Globe Theatre in the spring of 1599—the Globe would have been the "wooden O" mentioned in the Prologue—but Shapiro argues that the Chamberlain's Men were still at The Curtain when the work was first performed, and that Shakespeare himself probably acted the Chorus. In 1600, the first printed text states that the play had been played "sundry times". The earliest performance for which an exact date is known, however, occurred on 7 January 1605, at Court.
Samuel Pepys saw a Henry V in 1664, but it was written by Roger Boyle, 1st Earl of Orrery, not by Shakespeare. Shakespeare's play returned to the stage in 1723, in an adaptation by Aaron Hill.
The longest-running production of the play in Broadway history was the staging starring Richard Mansfield in 1900 which ran for 54 performances. Other notable stage performances of Henry V include Charles Kean (1859), Charles Alexander Calvert (1872), and Walter Hampden (1928).
Major revivals in London during the 20th and 21st centuries include:1900 Lyceum Theatre, Lewis Waller as Henry
1914 Shaftesbury Theatre, F.R. Benson as Henry
1916 His Majesty's Theatre, Martin Harvey as Henry
1920 Strand Theatre, Murray Carrington as Henry
1926 Old Vic Theatre, Baliol Holloway as Henry
1928 Lyric, Hammersmith, Lewis Casson as Henry (Old Vic Company)
1931 Old Vic Theatre, Ralph Richardson as Henry
1934 Alhambra Theatre, Godfrey Tearle as Henry
1936 Ring, Blackfriars, Hubert Gregg as Henry
1937 Old Vic Theatre, Laurence Olivier as Henry
1938 Drury Lane Theatre, Ivor Novello as Henry
1951 Old Vic Theatre, Alec Clunes as Henry
1955 Old Vic Theatre, Richard Burton as Henry
1960 Mermaid Theatre, William Peacock as Henry
1960 Old Vic Theatre, Donald Houston as Henry
1965 Aldwych Theatre, Ian Holm as Henry (Royal Shakespeare Company)
1972 Aldwych Theatre, Timothy Dalton as Henry (Prospect Theatre Company), also in 1974 in Roundhouse Theatre
1976 Aldwych Theatre, Alan Howard as Henry (Royal Shakespeare Company)
1985 Barbican Theatre, Kenneth Branagh as Henry (Royal Shakespeare Company)
2003 National Theatre, Adrian Lester as Henry
2013 Noël Coward Theatre, Jude Law as Henry V (Michael Grandage Company)
2015 RSC and The Barbican, Alex Hassell as Henry V
In the Shakespeare's Globe's 2012 Globe to Globe festival, Henry V was the UK entry, one of 37 and the only one performed in spoken English. Jamie Parker performed the role of Henry.
On British television, the play has been performed as:1951 Clement McCallin as Henry, Marius Goring as Chorus, Willoughby Gray as Pistol
1953 Colin George as Henry, Toby Robertson as Chorus, Frank Windsor as Pistol
1957 John Neville as Henry, Bernard Hepton as Chorus, Geoffrey Bayldon as Pistol
1960 Robert Hardy as Henry, William Squire as Chorus, George A. Cooper as Pistol
1979 David Gwillim as Henry, Alec McCowen as Chorus, Bryan Pringle as Pistol
2012 Tom Hiddleston as Henry, John Hurt as Chorus, Paul Ritter as Pistol
Three major film adaptations have been made. The first, directed by and starring Laurence Olivier in 1944, is a colourful and highly stylised version which begins in the Globe Theatre and then gradually shifts to a realistic evocation of the Battle of Agincourt. Olivier's film was made during the Second World War and was intended as a patriotic rallying cry at the time of the invasion of Normandy.
The second major film, directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh in 1989, attempts to give a more realistic evocation of the period and lays more emphasis on the horrors of war. It features a mud-spattered and gruesome Battle of Agincourt. Where Olivier staged the comic scenes as comedy, Branagh played them as serious drama.
The third major film, starring Tom Hiddleston, was made by the BBC in 2012 as part of The Hollow Crown series.
In 2004, post-modern choreographer David Gordon created a dance-theatre version of the play called Dancing Henry Five, which mixed William Walton's music written for the Olivier film, recorded speeches from the film itself and by Christopher Plummer, and commentary written by Gordon. The piece premiered at Danspace Project in New York, where it was compared favorably to a production of Henry IV (parts 1 and 2) at Lincoln Center. It has been revived three times – in 2005, 2007, and 2011 – playing cities across the United States, and received a National Endowment for the Arts American Masterpieces in Dance Award.
Suite from Henry V is a 1963 orchestral arrangement of music that composer William Walton wrote for the 1944 Olivier film. The arrangement is by Muir Mathieson, and is in five movements.
Henry V - A Shakespeare Scenario is a 50-minute work for narrator, SATB chorus, boys' choir (optional), and full orchestra. The musical content is taken from Walton's score for the Olivier film, edited by David Lloyd-Jones and arranged by Christopher Palmer. It was first performed at the Royal Festival Hall in London, in May 1990. Performers for this premiere were Christopher Plummer (narrator), the Academy Chorus, Choristers of Westminster Cathedral, and Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields. The conductor was Sir Neville Marriner. A CD of the work with these performers was released by Chandos in 1990.
O For a Muse of Fire is a symphonic overture for full orchestra and vocal soloist, written by Darryl Kubian. The work is 12 minutes long, and was premiered by the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in March, 2015. The work is scored for full orchestra, with vocal soloist. The vocal part incorporates selected lines from the text, and the vocal range is adaptable to different voice types. The soloist for the premiere performances with the New Jersey Symphony was former October Project lead singer (and former Sony Classical artist) Mary Fahl.
Recent criticism of the play has been offered in Rabbits, Ducks and Henry V by Norman Rabkin, Ireland and Islam: Henry the V and the "War on Terror" by David Coleman, and Wars of Memory in Henry V by Jonathan Baldo.