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Theatre / Henry V

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As the play is Older Than Steam and based on historical events, and as most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.
"This star of England..."

"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge,
Cry 'God for Harry, England, and Saint George!'"
King Henry V , Henry V III.i

Henry V (or to give its full original title, The Chronicle Historie of Henry the fift: with his battel fought at Agin Court in France. Togither with Auncient Pistoll.) is a play by William Shakespeare, in which Henry V (the former Prince Hal from Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2) goes and beats the French in one of the most spectacular military victories in English history. And then marries Catherine of Valois to boot, uniting England and France under one heir and setting the stage for Henry VI (already published by Shakespeare).

Expect that speech to be quoted by someone when England has a major sporting match. Well, one of two:

  • There's "Once More Unto the Breach" (III.i), as quoted at the top of the page, in which Henry encourages his troops to make one more great effort to overwhelm the defences of Harfleur.
  • Then there's "Saint Crispin's Day" (IV.iii), Henry's big speech before the climactic Battle of Agincourt, at which he draws a Line in the Sand and calls his soldiers a Band of Brothers.

Expect varying interpretations when this play is performed — it's debated whether it's pro- or anti-war...or a character study.

Henry V has been adapted twice in film: the first in 1944 by Laurence Olivier, the second in 1989 by Kenneth Branagh (featuring BRIAN BLESSED, Emma Thompson as Katherine, and a very very young Christian Bale as Falstaff's page). There are several television versions, including a 1979 presentation that was part of BBC Television Shakespeare which was directed by David Giles, and starred David Gwillim as Henry. There is also the 1989 television version with Michael Pennington (best known as Moff Jerjerrod in Return of the Jedi) as Henry, which is part of a live taping of War Of The Roses, a series of plays by the English Shakespeare Company, directed by Michael Bogdanov. More recently, there is also the 2012 BBC version with Tom Hiddleston as Henry as part of The Hollow Crown series, as well as Kit Harington in the 2022 Donmar Warehouse production.

The plot structure is the template for just about every war movie ever made.

The play contains examples of:

  • Adaptational Attractiveness: The real life Henry V had a disfiguring scar on his face, gained at the Battle of Shrewsbury, which is why Real Life portraits of him are in profile. It's only mentioned in the text when Henry is wooing Katherine, and actors playing Henry are usually moderately attractive. Justified as Beauty Equals Goodness. Compare to Richard III's Evil Makes You Ugly. (David Gwillim in the 1979 television version was one of the few actors to include the scar in his make-up.)
  • All for Nothing: The final lines remind us that Henry VI would undo all his father's accomplishments in gaining rule over France, however impressive they were.
  • Anachronism Stew:
    • The military ranks - Lieutenant Bardolph, Ancient (a form/corruption of Ensign) Pistol, Corporal Nim - all much later designated ranks (the 15th century had the Ventenar who commanded 20 men, and the Centenar who commanded 100 men i.e. 5 Ventenars). Totally in character for Shakespeare, who was fond of this throughout his work.
    • Pistol and his "puissant pike". Doubly anachronistic, as the English army was primarily armed with longbows for the lower orders or Men At Arms with poleaxes or lances. Pikes were issued in the 16th century and the infantry in Shakespeare's day were armed in part with pikes. But as Pistol is an ensign, he wouldn't have carried a pike and would instead have carried his Captain's flag.
  • The Atoner: Henry before Agincourt, over his father usurping the crown in Richard II.
  • Back for the Dead: The play kills off all the low-life characters from Henry IV except Poins (who does not appear) and Pistol (the Sole Survivor). Falstaff's Page is implied to have become a victim of the baggage train massacre, and though most productions play that way, in a few recent ones he does survive. In the Hollow Crown version, it is implied that the Chorus is the Page grown up.
  • Badass Army: The English at Agincourt for fighting sixty thousand men. Exaggerated for effect, as modern estimates place the French army at 20,000 strong against 6,000 English, but Shakespeare puts the English numbers at 12,000 ("'Tis five to one, and they are all fresh") so it's not as bad as it could have been.
  • Badass Boast: "Tell the Constable we are but warriors for the working day. Our gayness and gilt are besmirched by painful march in the muddy field. But by the mass our hearts are in the trim! And my poor soldiers tell me ere the knight is done they'll pluck the gay coats o'er the French soldiers heads and tirn them into service"
  • Band of Brothers: The Trope Namer. In his Rousing Speech before the Battle of Agincourt, Henry declares that he will forever consider any Englishmen who stand and fight with him to be his brothers and equal in nobility regardless of their actual station.
  • Bilingual Bonus: The French princess and her nurse have a lengthy conversation in untranslated French in which the princess tries to find out the English words for different parts of the body. The sole point of this is to set up two extremely dirty puns: the resemblance in pronunciation of "foot" to "foutre" ("fuck" in French) and "gown" to "con" (French for "cunt").
  • Bittersweet Ending: Henry has a glorious victory at Agincourt and it appears his marriage to Princess Katherine will be a happy one; yet two of the comic relief characters are dead and the remaining one has lost his wife, forcing him to become a pimp and thief. And then the chorus reminds us that in only a few short years after the play's conclusion, Henry would be dead and all his accomplishments would be undone: the Hundred Years' War would continue with his son losing the claim to France, and the civil war that marred Henry IV's reign would return as the Wars of the Roses.
  • Breather Episode: In a way. Richard II and the two Henry IVs are full of internal strife and civil war. The three Henry VIs and Richard III are about internal strife and civil war. In between them is Henry V's triumphant romp in France with his "band of brothers."
  • Britain Is Only London: Averted — significantly in that, historically, it was an English army that marched to Agincourt; Shakespeare ignores this to throw in the Scots, Welsh, and Irish contingents. The Welsh are at least somewhat accurate—by Henry V's time, Wales was already joined to England at the hip, and Welshmen fought in nearly all the same battles the English did—but the time, Scotland was actually allied with France, and even more extremely, Ireland was in the middle of a very nasty rebellion, effectively making Macmorris a Token Enemy Minority.
    • Although it should be noted that many Irish and Scotsmen were mercenaries, so their inclusion, whilst historically inaccurate, is not historically implausible.
    • And also that the strength of the Welsh bowman is famously given as part of the reason for the victory at Agincourt.
  • Call That a Formation?: Invoked by one of the French leaders during the battle of Agincourt, who points out that while their ranks are in disarray, they still have enough men to outnumber and defeat the English if any order were to be established. He's ignored and instead the French nobles charge back into the fray, seeking death before dishonour.
  • The Chains of Commanding: Henry feels the weight of his responsibility, particularly after going King Incognito and hearing what his soldiers really think about his French campaign.
  • Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys: Justified at the Siege of Harfleur, as the French had endured weeks of being beseiged, and only surrendered when the Dirty Coward Dauphin refused to come to their aid.
  • Christianity is Catholic: Justified as it's set Pre-Reformation in Western Europe, although Shakespeare has willingly used Anachronism Stew before in his works.
  • Cool and Unusual Punishment: Fluellen's response to getting dissed is to smack Pistol around, and then make him eat a leek. Some performances have him smacked around with said leek.
    • To explain: earlier in the play, Fluellen wears a leek in his hat in observance of St. Davy's Day, apparently a Welsh tradition at the time. Pistol had - along with other insults - suggested that Fluellen eat his leek. Later, when St. Davy's Day is past, it's Pistol who ends up eating the leek.
  • Crouching Moron, Hidden Badass: "Though it appear a little out of fashion, there is much care and valour in this Welshman."
  • Curb-Stomp Battle: After the battle of Agincourt, the losses are tallied. 10,000 men were killed on the French side, plus 1,500 taken prisoner (not counting commoners), while the English just lost twenty-nine. According to Shakespeare, of course.
  • Da Chief: Henry of course.
  • Darker and Edgier: A whole bunch of comic characters from the previous two plays are brought in and killed off.
  • Darwinist Desire: Hal tells Katherine "thou must therefore needs prove a good soldier breeder."
  • Determinator: "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!"
  • Dig Attack: One scene focuses on miners, who dig tunnels under the walls of the cities they're attacking.
  • Dirty Coward: Pistol, Nym and Bardolph.
  • Disorganized Outline Speech: Just how is Henry entitled to the French throne, again?
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Henry using the French prince's mocking gift of tennis balls as an excuse to declare war can be seen as this. On the other hand,he already had given some reasons (one of them being an extremely convoluted explanation as to why he's the rightful heir to the French throne) and was considering doing it; the tennis might have been just the straw that broke the camel's back.
  • Dork Knight: Depending on how the actor plays it, Henry becomes this when wooing Katherine. Especially when he tries to speak French.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him:
    • Falstaff.
    • Falstaff's page offhandedly mentions that Nym has been hanged for theft sometime before Agincourt.
    • Mistress Quickly and Bardolph also die offstage.
  • Ensign Newbie: Totally lampshaded with Auncient Pistol (Auncient, or Ancient, being another word for Ensign).
  • Everyone Has Standards: Fluellen, the Violent Glaswegian of the English army, is constantly getting into scraps and looking for a fight with anyone he sees. But even he finds the French army killing the unarmed Boy, who was only guarding the luggage of the camp, a disgusting act that violates martial law.
  • Everyone Looks Sexier if French: Katherine of Valois was actually rather attractive in real life.
  • Every Scar Has a Story: Invoked by Henry in the St Crispin's Day speech:
    He that shall live this day, and see old age,
    Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
    And say 'To-morrow is Saint Crispian.'
    Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
    And say 'These wounds I had on Crispian's day.'
  • Exact Words: During the King Incognito scene, Harry never lies to anyone he meets—he simply uses very precise wording to answer all of their questions. He claims to be "a gentleman of the company", says that he is a Welshman (after all, his title was the Prince of Wales), and gives his name as Harry Le Roy—that is, Harry the King.
  • A Father to His Men: Though Henry is specifically and significantly a brother rather than a father.
  • French Jerk: The Dauphin, quite possibly the Ur Example. Some productions, particularly modern ones wishing to undermine the play's jingoism, work against this characterization.
  • Funny Foreigner: The Irish, Scottish, and Welsh soldiers in the English forces, who also form a Five-Token Band.
  • The Ghost: For a character who dies without ever appearing onstage, Falstaff comes up quite often. This is largely because he was a major reason for the popularity of the Henry IV plays; the epilogue to 2 Henry IV even promises he'll appear in the sequel.
  • Greek Chorus: The aptly named Chorus, whose function is to explain background historical context and plead for appropriate Willing Suspension of Disbelief. Notably, he references the Globe Theatre itself (and its round shape) in the opening Prologue.
    Or may we cram within this wooden O the very casques that did affright the air at Agincourt?
  • Historical Beauty Update: Henry apologizes to Katherine for his looks. Yet he's generally depicted as good-looking (if perhaps dressed more plainly than the French). In real life, he did have facial scars from the battle of Shrewsbury, where he (not even joking) took an arrow to the face. It's the reason his royal portrait is one of the few (or possibly only) in profile.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: We are expected to root for the English over the French, despite the fact that the English had a very flimsy justification for going to war and the play even admits this. So to make sure the audience doesn’t go Rooting for the Empire, Shakespeare has the French soldiers, when they realize they're going to lose, massacre the teenage boys who carry the English army's supplies, one of the highest war crimes possible in those days.
  • I Kiss Your Hand: After working quite hard to woo the non-English-speaking Katherine, Henry finally seems to get some agreement out of her upon which he tries to kiss her hand and actually says "I kiss your hand." When she doesn't let him do that, he lets loose another volley of charm that does the trick: she lets him kiss her lips.
  • Informed Deformity: Henry goes out of his way to apologize to Katherine for his looks, as if he's some sort of gargoyle. Yet he's generally depicted as good-looking (if perhaps dressed more plainly than the French).
  • King Incognito: Henry disguises himself as a common soldier.
  • Know When to Fold 'Em: After the Battle of Harfleur, the governor of the town realizes that the reinforcements he desperately needs from the Dauphin aren't coming. He reluctantly surrenders to Henry and requests mercy for himself and his people, which the king grants.
  • Lady Luck: Fluellen and Pistol discuss Lady Fortune and her "furious fickle wheel."
  • Large Ham: King Henry.
  • Line in the Sand: Albeit rhetoric rather than a genuine offer: Henry offers any of his soldiers who are afraid safe conduct home and back pay; he would not wish to die in the company of cowards. Then he winds up for "Saint Crispin's Day" and nobody moves.
  • The Load: The Dauphin to France as a whole.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Possibly Harry.
  • Moment Killer: The re-entrance of the French king is often played as this at the end of the wooing scene.
  • Mood Whiplash:
    • After the battle at Harfleur and Henry's savage threat, which gets the governor to surrender, the audience is treated to the French princess Katherine in her dressing room happily chatting with her lady-in-waiting about the English language since she will probably be married to the English king. She learns super important vocabulary like "elbow" and ultimately, the entire sequence is a set up for a dirty pun.
    • The happy scene of Henry and Katherine's betrothal is followed by the Chorus' reminder that Henry would die young, and his son would lose France and "make his England bleed."
    • Captain Fluellen and Gower return to find the baggage train raided and all the boys in the camp slaughtered. They talk about how horrible this is for about half a minute, then launch into a debate about whether Henry is like Alexander the Great. Also about how he turned Falstaff away. Then Henry comes in with his 'I was not angry since I came to France until this instant'.
  • Numbered Sequels: To Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2
  • Oh, Crap!: Williams when he realizes who he challenged to fight. Luckily the king appreciated his true opinions, and gives him gold for his troubles
  • Oireland: With Macmorris, perhaps the Ur-Example.
  • Original Position Fallacy: In Act II, three noblemen conspire against Henry. In Scene 2, Henry mentions he plans to pardon a man who was arrested for speaking against him, attributing it to drink; the trio of traitors advise him against showing mercy. Henry then reveals he knows about their plot. They beg for mercy, and Henry says they will receive the mercy they advised for the drunk: he sentences them all to death on the spot.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Henry as common soldier again.
  • Prequel: Shakespeare wrote this one after his plays about Henry VI. The final monologue from the Chorus is basically saying "And you've already seen where things go from here."
  • Quote-to-Quote Combat: A scene before Agincourt has some French soldiers bickering in proverbs.
  • Rape, Pillage, and Burn: What Henry threatens Harfleur with if the First citizen does not surrender.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Falstaff's off-screen death was probably caused by actor Will Kemp leaving the company after a dispute.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure:
    • The Constable of France can come across as this, especially compared to The Dauphin.
    • Henry himself, with his egalitarian nature, his punishment of criminals and his making peace in Act 5.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something. Henry again. Compare to the feeble King of France and the useless Dauphin.
  • Rousing Speech: "Once more into the breach" and "St. Crispin's Day". Boy, did Shakespeare deliver.
  • Rule of Funny: Downplayed: In Real Life Henry probably would have been able to speak that era's version of French, since the French language was still a fairly important part of the king's rule (and had been since the Norman conquest), but it's much funnier to watch him attempt to court Katherine in the broken forms of both their languages. That said, his father Henry IV historically changed English to the official court language after his coup against Richard II, so it's quite possible that, unlike previous Plantagenet monarchs, Henry V in fact wasn't brought up speaking it as his primary language.
  • Secret Test of Character: While traveling the camp as a King Incognito, Henry gets into an argument with Michael Williams, a commoner with a lot to say about the monarch. The two men agree to wear each other's gloves in their caps and have a duel if they ever meet again. Later, after Agincourt, Henry has Fluellen wear Williams's glove, and true to his word, Williams smacks the Welshman in the face. When Henry appears and reveals the truth, Williams, though frightened, defends himself and asks forgiveness. Henry is so pleased with the soldier for keeping his vow and having the gumption to stand up to him that he not only pardons the offense, but fills the offending glove with gold coins and hands it back, declaring that Williams has earned it.
  • Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness: The Archbishop of Canterbury, when explaining the validity of Henry's claim to the French throne. It's often played solely for comedy, but Shakespeare was also reminding his audience that Henry's claim to the English throne was almost as weak (Henry's father had been a usurper). It is entirely possible that Shakespeare took Henry’s claim absolutely seriously; after all, Elizabeth still quartered the arms of France on the royal escutcheon.
  • Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Scholars have speculated this is why Falstaff dies offstage, lest he steal the show as he did in Henry IV.
  • Sudden Sequel Death Syndrome: Falstaff again.
  • Suedonym: While Henry's going King Incognito:
    Pistol: What is thy name?
    Henry: Harry Le Roy.
  • Suspiciously Small Army: Lampshaded in The Prologue to Shakespeare's Henry V in the trope pages title quote.
  • Take Our Word for It: The Chorus in the prologue asks the audience to imagine The Lord of the Rings style battles when they only see two dudes duking it out on stage.
  • That Makes Me Feel Angry: "I was not angry since I came to France/Until this instant" from King Henry, after he sees English horsemen hanging back from the battle at Agincourt. Note that Shakespeare was notorious for this; he had to make it obvious so the audience would know what was going on, thanks to the theatrical style of the day.
  • This Is Unforgivable!: Everyone in the English army has this reaction to the death of the Boy, Falstaff's former page (and, by extension, the other teenagers among the troops). Not only was the Boy tasked with simply guarding the English's possessions, he wasn't armed at all. It's a violation of the martial laws that existed at the time, and the sight of the dead child deeply affects the entire group.
  • Those Two Guys: Fluellen and Gower.
  • Tranquil Fury: Henry's reaction to receiving the tennis balls.
  • Unaccustomed as I Am to Public Speaking...: Henry plays this rhetorical card while wooing Katherine. Though he does have a point — he is (in this play anyway) more soldier than diplomat and the Rousing Speech is an entirely different rhetorical animal than wooing a lady. If done well, Henry's awkward in such a cute way.
  • Underestimating Badassery: The French reckon England to be 'idly kinged' because of Henry V's exploits while he was prince of Wales, and perhaps because of his young age when ascending the throne (though 26 is a fairly ripe old age by the standards of that time). That proves to be a false assessment.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Everything the chorus says until Act 4 is exaggerated a little or a downright lie.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: The scene between Katherine and her maid, where the dialogue is entirely in French. No important information is conveyed in the scene, at least, but many unilingual audience-members won't know that.
  • Warrior Prince: Henry himself, of course.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Williams points out the king's responsibility for the horrors of war; when Henry confronts him later and threatens to punish his sedition, Williams points out that he shouldn't have been wandering around in disguise if he didn't want to hear the truth from his soldiers.
  • Wham Line: In Act Two Scene Two, the tavern gang of Henry's youth enters, and Pistol is the one to announce "For Falstaff...he is dead." The loss of such a joyful character (especially one who was an audience favorite in Shakespeare's time) is a sign of the serious nature of the play.
  • Worthy Opponent: The English, at least to The Constable of France.

Adaptations add examples of:

  • Adaptational Wimp: The First Citizen of Harfleur is presented as a bit of a wuss, especially in the Kenneth Branagh film. The real life Commander of Harfleur was all round Badass Raoul de Gaucourt, a highly intelligent, chivalrous commander who held up Henry's way superior army with 200 professional soldiers and 1,000 citizens with crossbows. Only when the Dirty Coward Dauphin refused to aid him did he finally surrender.
  • Hollywood Darkness: How the King Incognito scenes are usually shot, with varying believability.
  • Hollywood Tactics: In the actual battle, the English uniformly fought dismounted, galling the French with arrows at long range until they provoked a charge. The French then found themselves outflanked by archers, their horses shot from under them, and unable to retreat because their own succeeding waves of troops actually pushed them onto the English spears. This would be realistic to show, but not very glamorous. In any case, Henry and his nobles certainly did not charge against the French chivalry and cross swords in the mud.
  • Insignia Rip-Off Ritual: In the Kenneth Branagh film, the Duke of Exeter strips the livery collars from Cambridge, Scrope, and Grey while formally arresting them for treason.
  • War Is Hell: Depending on the interpretation — modern adaptations tend to go with this one.


Video Example(s):


Once More Unto The Breach

Hundred years war. Siege of Hafleur becomes a scene for one of the most known speeches written by William Shakespeare.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (4 votes)

Example of:

Main / RousingSpeech

Media sources: